by Theodore Plantinga
John Calvin believed in church unity and even said he was willing to cross as many as seven seas to help bring it about. That was an important and heart-warming sentiment when you consider that it came from a Reformation leader, for the Reformation, in the eyes of its critics, had shattered the unity of the church. Its proponents, of course, maintain that reformation was needed in order to make possible a proper kind of unity among God's people, a unity grounded in the truth of the Word of God, which had been lost from view. But the sad reality is that the fragmentation of those who worship Christ has grown considerably since Calvin's day: the Protestants wound up in hosts of separate organizations, and we now number denominations in the thousands.
Many Christians simply make their peace with the fragmentation of the body of Christ, but there are also some, in Calvin's own tradition, who actively combat the fragmentation and make it clear that disunity among Christ's followers is not something about which we should shrug our shoulders, like bad weather in winter. Among those who actively insisted on -- and even acted on -- the ideal of the unity of the church was Klaas Schilder (1890-1952), who served as a minister and professor in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Some of his critics would say that Schilder brought disunity -- rather than unity -- to the church scene, but it is clear from a careful study that the ideal of the unity of the church, especially as expressed in Christ's prayer in John 17, was much in the hearts and on the lips of Schilder and his followers. On his matter, see Rudolf Van Reest's book Schilder's Struggle for the Unity of the Church (Inheritance Publications, 1990).
Some of Schilder's followers had interesting ways of expressing their commitment to church unity. One idea they defended was that because the church is one, there cannot be more than one church (understood now as the local congregation) in one place at one time. Rev. Douwe van Dijk, one of Schilder's close associates, brought this idea to striking expression in a sermon preached on January 8, 1937, in Groningen, a large city in the northern part of the Netherlands, where Van Dijk was then serving as a pastor. In this sermon, which stirred up a lot of controversy and served as one of the events on the road to the bitter church struggle of the 1940s, he maintained that if the apostle Paul were minded to write a letter to the church in Groningen, he would have to know how to address it and where to send it. And the only possible address was: Clerk of the Reformed Church in Groningen. Van Dijk tells this story in his memoirs, entitled My Path to Liberation (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 2004, pp. 219ff).
Opponents of such thinking in Van Dijk's own church fellowship protested in the name of the doctrine of the pluriformity of the church, which is usually associated with Abraham Kuyper (1833-1920). Part of what they meant by this doctrine is that the church of our Lord is not uniform throughout the earth but takes on the color of local cultures and peoples. Thus Swedes might be expected to worship in a different manner than people who live along the Equator in Africa. We need to bear such cultural and racial differences in mind when we ponder why there are different "denominations." When we do so, we conclude that the existence of a variety of denominations with unique practices and emphases is not quite as regrettable as many people would have you believe: if Swedes and Africans should come to live in the same city, they might well choose to worship in their own distinctive styles in separate congregations, which might also form part of separate denominations. And just as there is something wonderful about the diversity of plants and animals, of flowers and trees and fish in the seas, so there is something beautiful about the racial and cultural diversity to be found within humankind. The all-inclusive church of Christ is made up of people of all tribes and tongues: it is pluriform in nature.
Because we are committed to "pluriformity," it was argued, we should avoid all talk that contains traces of denominational exclusiveness. Hence there should be no suggestion that one's own church is the only one worthy of the name "church." Therefore Van Dijk needed to be chastised for his comments about how the apostle Paul would go about the task of writing a letter to the church in Groningen. Van Dijk was suggesting that if he undertook to do such a thing, he would first have to decide which of the many churches in Groningen (many denominations) he wished to address.
The proponents of the unity of the church, who rejected the "pluriformity" emphasis, could argue that if Christ is one and cannot be divided, the same must be true of his bride, the church. And so, from an abstract point of view, one might combine this emphasis on oneness with an emphasis on territoriality and insist that there can only be one church -- one legitimate church -- in a certain place at a certain time.
Could this claim turn out to be a trivial thesis? If one is willing to take the term "place" in a very restricted sense, it might look like the claim that you can't fit two churches onto one piece of property, and so whatever church stands on a given piece of land, it is the church of Christ in that place.
But this trivial thesis will not stand up to close examination, for it sometimes happens that two churches or congregations share one building, perhaps even as co-owners of the building. I know of a case where a Christian church and a Jewish synagogue were joint owners of a building which the two groups used for worship on separate days of the week. Moreover, the fact that two or three churches are sometimes found standing right next to each other or across the street from one another or on opposite corners indicates that one would not get out of the bind quite so easily. It would not suffice to declare that each church is Christ's one and only church in a local sense: the locality might turn out to be tiny indeed. The issue of exclusiveness must be faced once Van Dijk's idea is pondered carefully.
When such debates take place, one of the phrases often used to name the "exclusivist" standpoint is "the doctrine of the true church." The notion that we should think in terms of one church being "the true church" is often associated with Van Dijk's ecclesiastical tradition, which has come to be called the "liberated" Reformed Churches. Since names often give rise to arguments about these matters, a word of explanation is in order.
During the 1940s, roughly ten percent of the people, elders, deacons, and ministers in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, which is the group that was formed out of the church union of 1892 (a combination of Secession and Doleantie), were expelled from, and/or withdrew from, the big denomination and continued their church life under the very same name, claiming to be the legitimate continuation of the church or denomination that had been formed in 1892. Of course there was confusion, for now there were two denominations operating under the same name. To help deal with the confusion -- if only to make life a little easier for the post office -- the smaller group, with which Van Dijk and Schilder were associated, began using the unofficial appellation "liberated." Sad to say, the split was transplanted to North America, where the "liberated" churches (sister churches of Van Dijk's group in the Netherlands) are called Canadian Reformed (if located in Canada) and American Reformed (if located in the USA). And they are widely thought to hold to a "true church" theology.
The "true church" emphasis is much misunderstood, and so it must be noted that this theology is not of their own devising. When Schilder and other Dutch church leaders emphasized this concept, they were appealing to Articles 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession. Article 28 talks about everyone's duty to join "the church" (one gets the impression that there can only be one church). And in Article 29 we are told about the marks of the "true church" and of the "false church."
Do these articles reflect a Reformation-era situation, when it was a matter of calling believers out of Roman Catholicism and helping them to see that the local Protestant church (Reformed, in the case of the Netherlands) was the "true church"? In that case, the Roman Catholic Church would have to be identified as "false": we would be obliged to stay away from it. How -- and to what extent -- do these articles apply to the twentieth-century situation in which Protestantism is broken up into many different groups or "denominations"? Is Article 29 really about the way to distinguish the one "true church" from the many "false churches"? If so, it would make sense that if the apostle Paul -- or even the Lord Jesus Christ himself -- wished to write to the Christians in a good-sized city like Groningen, a single letter would do the trick, since they all worship in one church -- the "true church."
The business about Paul or Jesus writing a letter might seem a bit odd, but there is precedent for it in Scripture. Paul wrote quite a number of letters to churches. Consider also the "seven churches" mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 as recipients of letters from our Lord ("To the angel of the church in Ephesus write ....").
The line of thought that emerges, then, is that we as Christians should not accept the fragmentation of the church. In our own church life, we should act as though the church (Christ's bride) is no more divided than is Christ himself. There is one church, and it is not hard to find.
Many people in the "liberated" churches (here I am basing my knowledge of the situation mainly on my North American experience) do not like the term "denomination." Many tend to avoid it, sensing that there is an element of relativism within it. To speak of "denominations," thereby admitting that our own group is one of many, might leave us inclined to say that Christ has many churches -- in Groningen and elsewhere -- and that all of them have their good points.
One way to avoid legitimizing the notion of denominations is to refuse to use any such label in application to one's own fellowship. This is indeed what some Canadian Reformed people do: their fellowship is a "church federation." And usually they admit that there are other church federations, such as the United Reformed Churches, with which they are currently seeking full church union, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which exists mainly in the USA, with which the Canadian Reformed Churches have had a long and interesting conversation about points of difference and areas of agreement.
The determination to avoid the term "denomination" has implications for life in the local church. One implication is that the denominational label should be avoided in referring to the local church. The local church does not have a brand name, and so one speaks simply of "the church" in such-and-such a place. Officially and legally speaking, the church in question is the "Canadian Reformed" church, but adding these two words to the name promotes the dreaded relativism in the term "denomination." One would not wish to wind up placing one's own local church in the town of Podunk, let's say, on the same level as the Podunk Presbyterian Church or the Podunk Baptist Church, even though the people in the town think its name is "Podunk Canadian Reformed Church." No, it is referred to simply as "the church of Podunk." If Paul were writing a letter to the believers in Podunk, that's where the letter would need to wind up, even if the local mailman might need more explicit instructions.
Critics of the Canadian Reformed people and churches sometimes point to this thinking and complain that it is narrow-minded and insensitive. They argue that it suggests a kind of arrogance and exclusivism. It may be that in a very tiny place there is only one church of any description, but in any good-sized place there will be a number of congregations of varying stripes. Don't all of those churches deserve a minimal level of respect?
Now, Groningen was a good-sized city in Van Dijk's day, and it was a Reformed stronghold. Wouldn't there be a number of Reformed churches in such a city, and wouldn't their sheer number also undermine the point being made about the unity of the church? Wouldn't the apostle Paul or the Lord Jesus Christ therefore have to write to all the Reformed churches in Groningen?
Not so, for here another oddity enters the picture -- at least, it's an oddity in North American terms. The Reformed Church in Groningen numbered some 15,000 members at that time. But this did not mean that 15,000 people gathered for worship in one massive assembly hall on Sunday morning. No, the local church was served by a whole roster of ministers and owned a number of buildings around the city where services were conducted simultaneously. The people were assigned to this or that district on the basis of where they lived, although they did sometimes attend a service in another building and district, perhaps to hear a certain minister preach. But they were really supposed to be in the building and service to which they were assigned: Van Dijk makes a point of this in his book.
So how could all of this church activity at various locations around town count as one church? Why not say there were several Reformed churches, and big ones at that? The answer lies in church governance: there was a single consistory (council of elders and ministers) in which all the main business of the church (apart from finances and diaconal issues) was transacted. The consistory was made up of more than a hundred elders, and also all the ministers.
Any Reformed person who moved to Groningen from elsewhere would join this one large entity and then be assigned, on the basis of geography, to attend services in the such-and-such church building, where Rev. So-and-so would be his district minister. He would also find himself assigned to a certain elder for purposes of spiritual care.
It almost sounds as though the church in Groningen was a mini-denomination -- something between a local congregation in the North American sense (all of the people meeting together for worship each Sunday in one building) and a national denomination. But if denominations can be international (think of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, which takes in two countries), can they not also be provincial? Could there not be a Presbyterian Church (denomination) of Nova Scotia, made up of twenty-five congregations? Could a denomination limit its territorial extent to a county or two?
If one wished to live by the one church and true church emphasis articulated by some of the leaders of the "liberated" Reformed churches, it would probably turn out in practice that one would need to be intensely loyal to one's own denomination or "church federation," as the Canadian Reformed people prefer to say. The term "denomination" might be studiously avoided as relativistic, but one would still be practicing what most informed observers would call "denominational loyalty." Yet I have also known Reformed people who wished to take the true church notion in a slightly different direction, applying it mainly to life in their own town, their locality. By "true" they meant purest -- purest in doctrine as reflected in preaching and teaching, and perhaps also in the administration of church discipline. In this way of thinking, it is presupposed that not all congregations that are members of one and the same denomination are alike. Thus denomination X may be sound on the whole, but its congregation in one's own town might leave a great deal to be desired. The thing to do, we are told, is to gather knowledge about all the local Reformed congregations, regardless of denominational affiliation, and then join the one that is "purest," even if that congregation is part of a denomination about which one could raise a question or two.
It sounds good, and I was drawn to such thinking at an earlier stage in my life. But I never followed such a route myself, partly because I sensed that if implemented consistently, this approach to church membership could lead to a fickle attitude. How long would one's chosen congregation remain the best one in town? How much monitoring of other congregations would one have to do in order to be certain that one's chosen church was still the best? And how, exactly, was such information to be assembled on a continuing basis?
There's quite a problem here. Perhaps a comparison with sports teams can help us understand why the danger of acting fickle is not to be taken lightly.
Some sports fans stick with their team through thick and thin -- good seasons and disappointing ones. Others hop from team to team and always want to be cheering for a team with prospects, a team that looks at though it might win the championship this year. I suppose that in principle there is nothing wrong with switching loyalties in the world of professional sports. Merchants tell us that the customer is king, and it is largely the fans' money that makes professional sports possible.
Still, switching loyalties is not something that comes easily to me. My favorite Canadian Football League team is still Winnipeg, for no other reason, I suspect, than that I grew up in Winnipeg and was a fan of its team in its glory days during my youth, when it dominated the league and won many championships.
So how about church life? Should we find out what is the "winningest" church in town and transfer our membership there, and then pat ourselves on the back for living by the doctrine of the "true church"? Or do we have a continuing obligation to the church in which we have been worshipping for a long time? Are we supposed to stick around and try to make things better locally if the church hits a dry spell? Sometimes the problem is an inadequate minister, or one who is lacking in dynamism, or one whose preaching is just plain dull. Should one hop out of his hearing and find another, perhaps in a different denomination? Should one yearn for a minister who is more lively and (we assure ourselves) more orthodox? Should we be consumers in our church life and remind one another that the customer is king? Is that what our Lord would have us do? I don't think so.
Similar arguments can be made on the level of denominational loyalty, of course; yet I would not maintain that one should stick with one's original denomination forever, regardless of what distressing changes may have come about. Still, I do believe that a person's church membership is essentially in the local church.
When it comes to the "true church" doctrine, I am struck especially by what the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches says: "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture [impurities] and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan." [Chapter 25, Section 5] It appears, then, that there is no perfect church. One's own church and denomination will inevitably have flaws.
Does this mean that we should throw up our hands and say that the doctrine of the unity of the church, which underlies the "true church" emphasis, is an ideal that can be realized only in the life to come? Is it then of no relevance for our church life here below? Are we doomed to swallow the disunity of Christ's church, even while confessing that the church is one? Are we then like the believing Jews who end their Passover celebration with the words "Next year in Jerusalem," whereas they have no intention whatsoever of moving to Jerusalem because they much prefer life in North America, where you are not in danger of being blown up by a suicide bomber?
To all of these questions I say no. I do believe one can make the doctrine of the unity of the church a reality in one's personal life. But to explain how to go about such a thing, I must first make a detour into two other issues in the Christian life.
Church life is about faithfulness and unity (and some other things as well, of course). The same could be said about marriage. Husband and wife must be one. Their union is lifelong. When a married couple split up, it's a dreadful thing -- something to be regretted by all of us, just as a church split is a very sad event.
But marriages do break up. Couples are separated. Some couples divorce. Are we then to "accept" divorce? The answer, it seems to me, is both yes and no. On the one hand, we should affirm that marriage is lifelong: promises to that effect are included in the vows made by bride and groom in any proper Christian wedding ceremony. On the other hand, not all couples are able to keep those vows. Some have deep difficulties but manage to stay together. Others wind up living apart.
The problem is not new. The Bible speaks of it, and so our Lord was also asked about it. We can read what he had to say in Mark 10 and Matthew 19. In Mark we read:
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away." But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." [Verses 3-9]And in Matthew it is all summed up in a single telling sentence: "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." [Verse 8]
Here is a situation in which our Lord says: one the one hand, but then, on the other hand .... On the one hand, marriage is lifelong and indissoluble, but on the other hand, Moses did institute divorce procedures in the Old Testament. The emphasis needs to fall on the idea: in the beginning it was not so. Our Lord is saying, in effect: Let's never lose sight of that. Divorce was not part of the original plan. Therefore it remains regrettable, however many divorces there may be, and it may never be accepted as part of the normal course of things.
Do we "accept" divorce, then? Virtually all Christian churches do, in some fashion or other. Many permit divorced persons to remarry under church auspices. But none ought to celebrate divorce as a manifestation of our "unbounded freedom" as human beings, for unbounded freedom is a Humanistic illusion. We all must live within certain limits and constraints.
The question of divorce is a very personal one for me. I have never been divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. When I became a widower and thought about remarrying, I had to consider the question whether to seek the company of divorced women. Of course I was free to say no; I could have restricted my interest to widows and women who had never married. But I decided that I accepted divorce -- reluctantly. And I fell in love with a wonderful divorced woman and married her.
Neither she nor I celebrate divorce. But it is a reality in our lives. And what makes things still more difficult for me is the realization that I am, in some substantial sense, a beneficiary of divorce: although I had nothing to do with my second wife's marriage break-up and did not know her at the time, I did reap a wonderful benefit from it. And so I accept divorce -- there's no denying it. Therefore I need to remind myself: in the beginning it was not so. If it were not for the fall into sin, there would be no divorce and therefore no opportunity to marry a divorced woman.
There is another area of life in which an argument about how it was "in the beginning" can be made: the food we eat. In the very first chapter of the Bible we read:
And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. [Verses 29-30]Does this mean that we may not eat meat? I ate meat for most of my life. From time to time I was challenged on this point. My standard response was to cite Genesis 9:
The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. [Verses 2-4]In effect we have the same idea here: go ahead and eat meat, if you must, but remember that in the beginning it was not so. And if you must eat a living thing, be merciful. Make sure you don't start eating it while it is still alive. In the kosher provisions still observed by believing Jews to this day, efforts are made to minimize the pain that is done to animals when they are killed in order to be eaten.
Some Jewish authorities believe that the kosher system, which is hard to implement in practice, is really a nudge toward vegetarianism. And many Jews practice vegetarianism as a way to keep their compliance with kosher regulations simple. Some declare themselves vegetarian when they visit in non-Jewish settings: if they restrict themselves to vegetarian foods while visiting, they will have violated no Jewish laws.
I made the switch to vegetarianism a number of years ago, and I have never looked back. My first wife led the way, and I followed. (My second wife is not a vegetarian.) I like to kid friends and students about their meat-eating, well aware that they can appeal to Genesis 9, just as I used to do. On the other hand, I do believe that if one can live by the diet of Genesis 1, it is better to do so, for when it comes to the eating of meat, we must recognize that in the beginning it was not so.
My reason for discussing divorce and vegetarianism in this essay is to make a point about church unity, which I will now redefine slightly as religious unity. Many Calvinists maintain that what we call "the church" goes right back to the beginning of our race (see Lord's Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism). I agree with this notion. Thus, although in a sense the church began in the New Testament era with the work of the apostles, in a more ultimate sense the church is the body of believers stretching right back to the beginning of the Old Testament.
The human race was religiously unified at the outset: there was a fellowship of faith, although it was not yet expressed culturally in complex worship patterns and traditions. And that unity of faith was shattered -- not simply by the fact of the fall into sin but also by how people responded to the reality of sin. Some responded in faith, trusting in the promise of a redeemer, while others turned away from God. As humankind broke up into two groups or two lines, something was lost that we have never gotten back. There should be a worldwide unity of faith that contributes to an atmosphere of peace and love and harmony throughout the entire human family, but there is not.
What we call the church is the recovery of that original religious unity of humankind -- in principle, at least. All the believers should be united in their faith and worship -- but not in the sense of attending the same worship service in the same place each Sunday morning. We are far too numerous to come together each Sunday. Yet we should certainly be one in the sense of recognizing one another as followers of Christ, cooperating wherever we can, and so forth. Such recognition and cooperation could be taking place through the institution we call the church, and to some degree it is. All churches need to be one, or yearn to be one, or think of themselves as one, and all should work toward becoming one, even while recognizing that progress in these things is largely a matter of degree. Thus we should neither despair nor congratulate ourselves prematurely.
What can be done to realize this ideal of unity in one's everyday life as a church member? Roughly speaking, one is forced to choose between two directions. Some people (including certain members of Canadian Reformed Churches) wind up recognizing only their own fellowship as church in the full sense. They then extend recognition and cooperation to all the churches so defined (including sister churches in other countries). But they largely ignore the churches which fall outside their "sister-church" designation. In doing so, I believe they run the risk of sectarianism.
Moreover, they find that it is well nigh impossible to practice such a stand consistently. Consider the matter of baptism. In the Reformed tradition, there are only two sacraments. Therefore baptism is very central to the life of the church. It is a condition for membership. An adult who comes to faith makes public profession of his faith in the process of becoming a member of the church. He also needs to be baptized, even though he is no longer an infant. But what if he was baptized in infancy even though he was not a believer as he was growing up? What if he was baptized in a church which the Reformed confessions do not approve of, such as the Roman Catholic communion? Is that prior baptism then brushed aside as invalid, and is a new baptism performed? By no means. In the refusal to rebaptize in such a situation, Canadian Reformed churches and others that are of such a mind demonstrate that they do recognize and practice a form of the unity of the church that extends to baptism. They are admitting that what goes on in baptism is not simply human work: it is something that Christ does -- also in churches of which they do not approve. Therefore it may not be spurned. Rebaptisms are not performed, for we are not ana-baptists.
The other direction open to someone who wishes to put the unity of the church into practice is to be loyal and respectful toward one's own local church and denomination, while insisting on respecting other churches as well. A further step might be to seek regular contact with other denominations, thereby refusing to accept any restriction of Christ's flock to a particular, limited group.
This is the path I have followed throughout my adult life. When I had children in the home, my wife and I remained faithful to the denomination in which we had both grown up, and we took our children with us to its services every Sunday. But we also made a point of taking them to services in other denominations every now and then, especially during vacations. And when given the opportunity to participate in communion in those other denominations, we generally did so. Thereby we were trying to demonstrate something of the unity of Christ's worldwide church. We wanted to make sure that our children did not get the impression that the church of Christ was limited to our particular fellowship.
I am now at a different stage of life. My children are grown up and all live far away. I have recently remarried. My wife and I belong to different denominations, and we are both loyal to our churches. And so we have adopted the practice of attending services in both churches. In my own case, the Sunday morning service is at 8:30; in hers it is at 11 o'clock. I am in my own church every Sunday unless I am ill or out of town, and my wife tries to do the same with her church, where she has been a member for more than twenty years. She very often comes with me to my service, and I frequently attend hers. Moreover, we support both churches financially, we both participate in the work and life of both churches, and we attend congregational events together as our schedules permit. Some of the people in my wife's church think I am a member there, and they even see my name listed in the church directory alongside hers. When asked about this, I always respond, quietly but firmly, that I am not a member: my own denominational allegiance is part of my religious self-identity, and I do insist on it. Likewise, my wife is enough of a presence in my church for many of the people to take her to be a member there.
There are also two other denominations whose services I attend from time to time. I enjoy fellowship with the people there and appreciate the worship services. And so I try to keep my foot in four denominations to some extent.
Now, I grant that attending a number of different churches on a regular basis is not the way to raise children. Neither do I recommend this as a general pattern for people to follow in church life in their later years. But it is my way of protesting the fragmentation of Christ's church into separate denominations and fellowships. I must accept the reality of those separations, just as I accept the reality of divorce and the reality of meat-eating. But I make a point of reminding myself and others that in the beginning it was not so. [END]
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