Schrotenboer, P.G.

Catholicity and Secession, a Dilemma?



I. Catholicity or Secession, a Dilemma?



We who have been reared in free churches are bound in our confession, as are all Christians, to express catholicity. We have also been led to believe that our forefathers did right in withdrawing from the church with which they were affiliated. For us to deny our catholicity would be contrary to our convictions and to renounce our tradition in which a secession would be most painful. Hence to give due allegiance to both secession and catholicity seems impossible. Therein lies an apparent dilemma.

The way this dilemma manifests itself in our church life goes like this: since we must be loyal to the truth of the Bible (for the church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3: 15)) we cannot have fellowship with those who deny any component or other tenet of the gospel message. This has been drilled into us in our tradition. In order to be loyal to truth, we should secede.

At the same time, since we believe and confess that there is only one church (for that too is gospel truth), we cannot simply write off those who hold different views of certain parts of Christian doctrine. We cannot, unless we are ready to state that they are utterly apostate, and that the church that tolerates them is truly a false church. Moreover, our confession of the oneness of the church, unless it is merely so many words, should express itself in a sincere effort to manifest the unity of the church in the world. That would seem to bring us unavoidably into conflict with loyalty to the truth. In short, it seems that there is no way to keep secession for truth's sake and catholicity for unity's sake in harmonious relation.

I am convinced that we in the evangelical Reformed churches have not really come to terms with our secession history as it relates to our confession of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. To say it in one word, we have upgraded secession and downgraded catholicity. In so doing we have allowed our tradition


to influence in a negative way our understanding of and our response to the confession of the oneness of the people of God. More often than not, whenever catholicity and secession appeared to be in conflict, we chose for secession. The treasure of our tradition brought the greater possession of the one holy and catholic church into partial eclipse. What we need is a new critique of secession and a new vision of catholicity.

The aim of this jointly written book is to move us to reflect upon our confession, our history and our present stance and, where that is indicated, to effect an „amendment of life”. We shall consider our confession, our history and our present posture and then suggest how these three components of our life of faith may be brought into greater conformity with the biblical revelation. It is with a view to our ministry today that we subject our history and our present stance to a critical scrutiny.

Catholicity is one of those cardinal truths which are „surely believed among us” (Lu 1: 1). It is taught in both the Old and the New Testaments, but most clearly in the New.

The Old Testament assumes the oneness of the people of God and emphasizes that the God of Israel is the God of all and therefore must be praised by all: „From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens” (Ps 113: 3, 4; Mal 1: 13).

In the age of particularism when the people of God, with some exceptions, were limited to the nation of Israel, the concern of the prophets was to keep the Israelites on the one path of the worship of Yahweh. The persistent pull of the religions of the surrounding nations led to the worship of their idols and the resulting anger of Yahweh who finally sent them into exile.

There was a kind of secession in the days of Rehoboam, the first king of the northern Ten Tribes; he sensed that he could not mold the Ten Tribes into a nation if they continued to travel to Jerusalem for worship there. He therefore established his own centers of worship at Dan and at Bethel. This secession led to even greater idolatry and brought down more of God’s displeasure.


The New Testament writings make it crystal clear that the church of God’s people is universal. They are purchased „from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5: 9). Nothing less than this could have been expected, for the one who claimed to have received all authority in heaven and on earth sent his disciples out to make disciples of every nation (Mt 28: 18). The book called Revelation speaks of the success of the mission commanded in Matthew: many nations, one People of God.

Nor should it surprise us, as we contemplate the glory of this worldwide people of God, that there would be a demonic imitation of it. The seer of Revelation foretells a demonic catholicity when he speaks of the beast that comes out of the earth to force its inhabitants to worship the beast (Rev 13: 12).

Because the unity of the church is so clearly taught in Scripture and in the confessions of the church there is no difference among Christians on this point. Our problem is not in confessing this cardinal truth but in acting on our confession.

It is our contention that although all Christians, including those of Reformed persuasion, acknowledge the catholicity or oneness of the church, this article of faith does not, generally speaking, have high priority in their lives. They stress more strongly the authority of the Scriptures than the biblical demand to manifest unity in the church.

This is seen, for example, in the prevailing evangelical attitude toward the current ecumenical movement. Conservative, evangelical churches have shied away from and openly opposed the current efforts to achieve unity, even when they have made concerted and sustained drives to face and overcome the theological and confessional differences among the churches.

The evangelical reaction to the ecumenical movement is understandable because of the latter’s tendency at times to downplay doctrinal differences and to seek for a horizontal unity, sometimes without recourse to the normative witness of the Scriptures. As a result, by way of reaction, evangelicals have failed to take due account of the intense desire, the yearning of Jesus that the oneness of the people of God be clearly manifested so that the


world may come to faith in Jesus Christ (Jn 17:21). The apostle Paul, following the example of Christ, prayed that God’s people may be united in one spirit and in one mind so that God may receive the praise (Rom 15: 7).

In a sense all Protestants in the West are secessionists, for the 16th Century Reformation was the most extensive withdrawal in the history of the Christian church. The Reformers withdrew with firm conviction that they had no choice but to withdraw if they were to be loyal to Christ and the gospel. Actually, some of them, like Martin Luther, were excommunicated. Unfortunately their withdrawal has set a pattern for the generations following, even when the issues have not been nearly so clear or so pressing.

We should not overstate the case. There are numerous instances in our churches of joint worship, local cooperation in evangelism, cooperation with other churches and with parachurch organizations. There is joint action to evangelize, to show mercy nationally and internationally and to work for justice in society. There has also been a growing interest in (if not a desire to join) the World Council of Churches. A greater interest in interchurch relations has been evident in several Reformed churches. As an example we mention that in 1987 the Christian Reformed Church in North America adopted an Ecumenical Charter which sets forth the principles for ecumenical practice.

Yet bearing all this in mind, our contention still stands: we have not really come to terms with our secessionist legacy so that we can relate it as we should with our confession of the catholicity of the church. It is for this reason that we have asked for the cooperation of several Reformed theologians from various geographical areas and ecclesiastical affiliations to provide data and insight so that we can face this urgent issue in full loyalty to the gospel and with an honest evaluation of our heritage and current position.

The relevance of our study on catholicity and secession is indicated by the fact that within the last decade there have been at least three withdrawals of evangelical Reformed people for dubious reasons: in Mexico, in South Africa and in the United States and


Canada1. When such things happen, how can we be at peace in Zion?

The aim in writing this book may be expressed as follows:
— To reexamine the evangelical Reformed heritage of the right and the necessity of secession in the light of the oneness of the people of God; and
— To spur our churches on to accept their calling to manifest clearly their membership in the one church of Christ in the unity of the true faith.

The flow of the book shows that we stand in the Calvinian tradition in which appeal should always be made to the „Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures”. We therefore begin with three chapters on the biblical teaching on unity and truth. These studies are followed by a survey of catholicity and secession in the confessions and Reformed theology.

One key issue that requires special attention is the teaching in the confessional standards on the true and the false church. An entire chapter is devoted to this issue.

The next step is to trace four secession movements in the history of Reformed churches. Here one senses how secession has in the last two centuries become an intercontinental phenomenon with results both good and bad. We asked the writers to evaluate the secession history of their churches with an appreciative/critical eye. It will appear to the reader that each one has kept this request in mind as he wrote.

A Third World perspective is found in the next to the last chapter and for this we have chosen the country of Indonesia. Because the Indonesian churches have not been burdened with a secession

1. In 1983 the Independent Presbyterian Church of Mexico split into two parts. In 1987 the Afrikaner Protestant Church was formed by members of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa in protest against the DRC’s rejection of its former defense of apartheid. In 1988 eleven Christian Reformed Congregations in Canada and the USA formed a Federation of Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches in North America. The „Declaration of Separation and Return” gave as the reason for forming the Federation the „spiritual decline” and the „Church-political corruption” in the CRCNA.


legacy, this perspective from the Third World differs considerably from prevailing ideas in the West. What we have said about the evangelical Reformed tradition in the West does not apply, at least not with nearly as great force, to the Reformed churches there. Should we perhaps take a page from their book?

The final chapter seeks to draw from the foregoing what the directives are for the church of Christ today. It focuses on the exclusiveness of Christ and the inclusiveness of his church, on our fundamental identity as a communion in Jesus Christ and our subordinate and yet necessary identity in our Reformed tradition. It endeavors to state how unity and truth can interreact in creative tension as our churches face the issue of catholicity and secession.

A word of appreciation is in order to all the other writers of this book. Without them this study could not have taken place. Their combined contributions have given to this endeavor a truly inter-national character.

A special expression of thanks is due to two of the writers, Klaas Runia and Henry Zwaanstra. They offered sound advice already in the planning stage. The chapters they wrote give theological depth to and display the practical consequences of the study. They both kindly read with a critical eye the concluding chapter on Catholicity and Secession. Whatever merit this study has is due in no small measure to their contributions.

January 1991