Zwaanstra, H.

The Christian Reformed Church



VIII. The Christian Reformed Church

Catholicity and Secession


The history of catholicity and secession in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) may conveniently be divided into four periods. The first three are each of approximately 40 years length; the last just began with the adoption of the new Ecumenical Charter in 1987. The first period, Secessionist Beginnings, began with the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands and more particularly in America in the Secession of 1857. During this period a decidedly secessionist mentality dominated the life and thought of the church. The second period, Catholicity Affirmed, commenced in 1898 and continued until 1944. During this period a catholic Christian consciousness asserted itself within the church. The ecumenical activities of the church in this period were, however, strictly limited to official correspondence with other foreign and American Reformed churches, primarily for the purpose of maintaining purity in Reformed doctrine and practice. A third period, Catholicity and Separation, began in 1944.1 In this period the catholic consciousness and ecumenical vision of the church broadened and expanded to embrace all Christian churches. In its ecumenical activities, however, the CRC continued to restrict itself to full participation only within the narrow boundaries of Reformed confessional orthodoxy. A fourth period, Catholicity with Truth through Dialogue, may have begun with the adoption of a new Ecumenical Charter in 1987. Without detracting from the importance of truth, the charter endorses CRC membership in ecumenical organizations that are not strictly confessionally Reformed. Dialogue, as a legitimate means to engage churches in ecumenical conversation, is a new feature of the charter. Whether the adoption of the new charter will produce a new era of catholicity in the CRC, remains to be seen.

* I dealt more extensively with this theme in my recent publication Catholicity and Secession. A study of Ecumenicity in the CRC. Grand Rapids 1991.


Secessionist Beginnings

The CRC was born of two nineteenth-century secessions occurring in the short space of 23 years (1834 and 1857). From these secessions the CRC acquired a separate ecclesiastical identity and its most distinctive characteristics. The first secession was from the Netherlands Reformed (Hervormde) Church, the state church, in 1834. The Christian secessionists in the Netherlands were evangelicals who vigorously protested the rationalism and liberalism of the state church.

In 1840 the secessionists organized a church on the historic foundations of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands: The Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of the Synod of Dort 1618-19 and the Church Order adopted at Dort. The secessionists believed that these confessional standards and this church order fully agreed with God’s Word. In fact, the seceders considered the articles of faith expressed in these standards and the polity of this church order virtually synonymous with the teaching of Scripture. From the Secession of 1834 the CRC inherited an evangelical commitment and a dislike for liberalism. From the same source it received its confessional Reformed orthodoxy and pattern of Reformed government.

The second secession, preceded by a union in 1850 of Dutch immigrant churches with the Reformed Church in America (RCA),2 occurred in 1857. In both the union and the separation fundamental issues regarding catholicity and secession inevitably surfaced and were debated. Advocates of the union appealed to the unity of Christ’s church; secessionists defended the right of separation. The secessionists especially criticized the practices of the RCA. The fact that the RCA fraternized with other American churches holding doctrinal teachings in conflict with those of the Reformed fathers, troubled the seceders. They came to doubt that the RCA was still the true church of Jesus Christ. The letters of secession submitted to Classis Holland clearly state that the seceding congregations were separating from the RCA and all other Protestant denominations in America. The separating churches also informed the classis that they were returning to their former ecclesiastical standpoint and uniting with the secession churches in the Netherlands.3 By their former standpoint the secessionists meant God’s Word, according to the Reformed


confessional standards and the Church Order of Dort. Where these standards and this order were present and practiced the secessionists were confident the church of Christ was present. Where they were not present and applied, they tended to doubt the real presence of Christ’s church. In the thinking of the secessionists the true church therefore was narrowly circumscribed and was virtually synonymous with the historic Reformed church in the Netherlands.

The secessions of 1834 and 1857 — especially the latter — had a profound formative influence on the CRC. They contributed to a sharply delimited confessional Reformed consciousness. They stimulated interest in the study of Reformed doctrine and engendered intense denominational loyalty. There were, however, less favorable consequences. The secessions produced a conservative and unimaginative mentality. Separation and the defense of it nurtured parochialism, elitism and social cohesiveness. An attitude of superiority came to characterize the secessionists and their descendants in matters pertaining to the church and theology. Social and ecclesiastical isolation, buttressed by ethnicity, produced an exclusivistic mentality and a negatively critical attitude, often tinged with suspicion, toward the American churches. Catholicity — the unity of all believers in Christ — and the importance of bringing that unity to visible expression eluded the secessionists.

During the decade of the 1890s, the CRC engaged in church union conversations with three groups: the True Reformed Dutch Church, the United Presbyterian Church and the Dutch-speaking branch of the RCA. The True Reformed Dutch Church seceded from the RCA in 1822. The 10 congregations of this denomination joined the CRC as an English-speaking classis, Classis Hackensack, in 1890. This merger is the only instance of organic union with another denomination in the history of the CRC. Unfortunately it was not mutually satisfying and happy. Linguistic and ethnic differences, compounded by different liturgical traditions and practices in church discipline — some of the churches in Classis Hackensack allowed members of secret, oath-bound societies to be members of the church — led all except three of the congregations of the True Church to dissolve the union in 1908.


Similarities in the history, doctrine and life of the CRC and the United Presbyterian Church4 made closer relations between the denominations seem attractive. The CRC desired a cooperative union in which both churches would retain their separate identities and organizational structures. When it became apparent that the United Presbyterians would settle for nothing less than organic union, the CRC lost interest. The CRC assumed that it would simply be absorbed into the much larger Presbyterian body. The loss of its distinctive Dutch Reformed confessional and ecclesiastical heritage, probably also its name, was a price the CRC was unwilling either to pay or to wager for the cause of church union. The union of the churches of the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie (a secession movement from the Netherlands Reformed Church under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper in 1886) inspired hopes for church union among Dutch immigrant churches in America.5 Unofficial committees were formed, programs for union and cooperation were drawn up and a public meeting was scheduled in Holland, Michigan, to discuss the proposed plans. When it became apparent to the representatives of the RCA that the CRC was interested in union only with the Western or Dutch-speaking branch of the RCA, they withdrew their program and participation.


Catholicity Affirmed

In 1898 the CRC's catholic sensitivities were aroused. The synod that year said that now, in agreement with the New Testament vision of the world church, the old doctrine of the catholicity of the church is beginning to live again.6 The specific application of the church's catholic consciousness was, however, limited to confessional Reformed churches that maintained strict standards of church discipline. The synod introduced a program of official correspondence with Reformed sister churches that called for mutual admonition, consultation and advice. For the present the synod decided to establish correspondence with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Old Reformed Church in Germany, the Reformed Church in South Africa, the United Presbyterian Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America — particularly its Dutch branch. Two years later, the synod extended the privilege of correspondence to the Reformed


Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters), the General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Presbyterian Church. The synod decided not to enter a relationship of correspondence with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church because these churches, although sound in doctrine, had not yet taken a stand against oath-bound societies. Since elements of the newer theology had crept into and were tolerated in the Free Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the synod decided not to correspond with them, but „to watch them”.

Official correspondence never attained the goals for ecclesiastical fellowship originally envisioned. With the exception of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) and the Reformed Church in South Africa (GKSA), correspondence with other Reformed churches during the Great Depression fell into general disuse. In 1940 the synod decided not to resume correspondence with churches with which correspondence had lapsed nor to admit any churches to that official status until the basis and standards for correspondence were carefully defined. The committee on Church Correspondence was asked: 1) to make a careful study of the basis, the aim, the scope and the norms for church correspondence, 2) to make a study of the creedal position, conditions for membership and practice of church discipline of the historic Reformed churches and 3) to propose a revised list of churches with which the CRC should stand in a relationship of official correspondence.

The CRC became a member of the Federal Council of Christian Churches (FCCC) in 1918. The decision did not arise out of a deepening ecumenical consciousness nor a clearer understanding of the implications of the catholicity of the church. The church wanted chaplains to minister to its men in military service. Members of the Federal Council could more easily place chaplains than non-member churches. After the war, the synod was confronted with requests to terminate membership. Strenuous objection was voiced to the fact that membership in the FCCC was not restricted to orthodox churches. Alliances of any kind between orthodox and liberals, some argued, were contrary to the Word of God.


The synod in 1924 decided to sever all connections with the FCCC. The alleged liberalism of the council was the overriding concern and the reason for the synod’s action.

In 1930 the CRC was invited to participate with five other Presbyterian and Reformed churches7 in conversations aiming at organic union. The CRC had little difficulty declining the invitation. It could not consider organic union with churches in which there was indifference toward the great essentials of the Reformed faith. In the judgment of the CRC at least one of the cooperating churches (the reference is probably to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.) had made serious concessions to modernism. Neither could the CRC consider organic union with churches that did not maintain church discipline in doctrine and Christian living. In some of the five cooperating churches, the synod said, church discipline had practically fallen into disuse. By 1930 the CRC had come to regard orthodoxy as virtually synonymous with opposition to liberalism. Although present from the beginning, antipathy to liberalism had now become a pronounced element and an essential ingredient in the CRC's identity and self-consciousness.

In keeping with its newly aroused sense of catholicity, the Synod of 1898 also expressed a wish that before long a general synod or council of Reformed churches worldwide could assemble. For many years the vision and wish lay dormant. In 1920 Henry Beets of the CRC proposed to the general synod of the GKN, the formation of a general council of Reformed churches of Dutch origin. In 1924 H.H. Kuyper from the GKN presented the substance of Beets’ proposal to the GKSA in a somewhat broader and yet more specific form. Kuyper eliminated the reference to Dutch origin; he also stated that the ideal should be a Reformed ecumenical synod of all churches still holding firmly to the Reformed confessions, not one including churches that were just historically and officially Reformed. Beets’ and Kuyper’s proposal did not bear immediate fruit.

The pace of correspondence between the GKN, GKSA and CRC regarding a Reformed ecumenical synod picked up during the decade of the 1930s. First the Great Depression and then World War II intervened so as to preclude the convening of an international Reformed synod. During the war, the synod of the CRC


authorized a committee for a Reformed ecumenical synod, in consultation with the GKSA, to do the preliminary planning. In 1946 the synod of the CRC approved the committee's work, calling for an ecumenical synod to convene in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Participation in this „Preparatory Ecumenical Synod” was limited to delegations from the GKN, GKSA and the CRC. In August 1946, the first Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES) — a new undertaking in Reformed catholicity on a strict confessional basis — met as proposed.


Catholicity and Separation: 1944-1966

The committee mandated in 1940 to make a thorough study of the CRC’s program of church correspondence reported in 1944. Because of the breadth of its assignment, the committee had not yet been able to study the creedal position and practice of discipline of the many churches that might be considered for official correspondence. In the committee's judgment the first matter to be settled, basic to all the rest, was the basis, aim, scope and norms for the practice of correspondence with other churches.

The 1944 report clearly and forcefully affirmed the catholicity of the church of Jesus Christ. It criticized the Synod of 1898 for mistakenly limiting the scope of correspondence to what were called „sister churches” as if other churches were not included in the sisterhood. All churches of Christ, the committee emphatically stated, are related to one another and therefore, sisters. The CRC could not, as it had in the past, continue to neglect or ignore the other churches of Christ regardless of how deformed and defective they may be. Whether organized well or not, a company of believers is still in essence the body of Christ and therefore must be considered a church. Without regard to the measure of their perfection, the CRC had an inescapable obligation and responsibility to all Christ’s churches.

The committee did not undertake an exegetical study of Scripture, formulate scriptural principles on the basis of that study, and then apply them to interchurch relations. It rather proceeded on the basis of two fundamental ideas: the one derived from Scripture, thus genuinely representing a scriptural principle, the other


merely an assumption representing the committee’s opinion. The first was that a plurality of churches in an institutional sense is scripturally improper. Christian churches were now institutionally separated because of differences in doctrine, worship and polity. The Word of God, however, does not warrant the varieties present in the world today. Because Scripture is clear on the fundamentals of church doctrine, polity and worship, the report, for reasons of principle, vigorously opposed the pluriformity of the church. The second fundamental idea was that the CRC was of all the churches of Christ the closest approximation of the ecclesiastical ideal presented in Scripture. This assumption the committee, without adducing evidence or proof, humbly yet frequently stated.

On the basis of these ideas the committee formulated a program for interchurch relations. Beginning with the CRC at the center of the ecclesiastical circle, churches were classified by moving outward to the circumference. The first category were those churches which were historically and officially Reformed but which in the actualities of their life are no longer in fact Reformed. The non-Reformed Protestant churches formed the second group. The Roman Catholic and Oriental churches belonged to a third category.

According to the 1944 report, interchurch relations or church correspondence had but one purpose or goal: organic union of the churches of Christ. All truly Reformed churches on the North American continent, as a matter of scriptural, divine requirement, must be confederated and structurally united as soon as possible. The church's approach to nominally Reformed and non-Reformed churches, however, had to be different. The committee very specifically described the CRC’s task and aims with these churches when it said: „If we believe that all Christians should be Reformed — and this we profess to believe — then we should try, ecclesiastically as well as otherwise, to win them for the Reformed faith, and so pave the way for eventual union with them, please God”.8 The purpose of church correspondence was simply, by reproof and correction, to assist other churches in purging themselves of their unscriptural elements and thus to win them to the Reformed faith and eventual union.


The report of 1944 said virtually nothing about methodology in interchurch relations except for a passing reference to the „mistaken methodology of modern ecumenicalism”. The committee did recognize that implementing its vision would not be easy. Just how to approach other churches would require special attention and further study. For the present the committee was content merely „to get the right slant on this so-called business of correspondence”. The task itself had to be clearly and correctly discerned before the appropriate methodology could be devised. The synod uncritically adopted the report, judging that it presented the biblical principles for church correspondence.

The committee that produced the report in 1944 experienced difficulty in arriving at a procedure to be followed in restoring delinquent Reformed churches and in winning non-Reformed churches to the Reformed faith.

Whether an historically and officially Reformed church was actually Reformed in practice the committee also found difficult to determine. Official church actions could not answer this question. In order to move forward the committee asked the synod to address a letter to a select group9 of churches inviting them to correspondence with the CRC. Acceptance of the invitation, the committee said, would imply official correspondence based on definite scriptural principles. The procedure proposed and approved by the synod shifted the burden of responsibility for judging whether a church was actually Reformed and could in good conscience enter into fellowship with the CRC on a scriptural basis away from the CRC and placed it on the list of invited churches — a practice regularly followed by other churches and ecumenical organizations. The Letter of Invitation was modest and cordial. The terms of correspondence were general; almost any Christian church could agree with them.

In 1943 the CRC became a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The NAE’s evangelical commitment and opposition to liberalism were attractive to the CRC. The ecumenical spirit of the age also influenced the decision to join. Subsequent synods, without interruption and with increasing firmness on the part of opponents, were asked to sever the relationship. Initially the opposition focused on the Arminian gospel preaching


sponsored by the NAE and the impropriety of churches with radically different theological positions joining together in cooperative activities. Later, critics argued that membership confused the CRC’s Reformed witness and promoted the growth of Fundamentalism in the CRC.

In 1951 the synod decided to terminate affiliation with the Association. No reasons were given. The synod did, however, send a letter to the officers of the NAE informing them of the decision. To silence critics, the Synod of 1954 printed the letter. The letter accented the differences in style between the CRC and the NAE. The CRC was more exclusive and „close-knit”; the NAE more inclusive and „loosely-organized”.

The CRC entered church union conversations with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1956. In these conversations the CRC met other confessional Reformed churches that were narrower in their standards of orthodoxy, more confident of their Reformed credentials and more ready to reprove and to correct than was the CRC. The conversations with the Covenanters lasted 5 years. The insurmountable obstacles to eventual union were the covenanters’ practice of singing only psalms without the accompaniment of musical instruments and their refusal to allow church members to vote or hold public office. For the CRC these were merely matters of practice and custom; for the Covenanters they were matters of scriptural principle.

The conversations with the OPC, extending over a period of 16 years, began cautiously, proceeded deliberately and deteriorated inexorably. Differences between the Presbyterian and Reformed systems of church government soon surfaced and were considered the greatest obstacles to a union of the two denominations. A joint-committee made good progress in solving this problem and in resolving other differences between the churches. Eventually the committee was authorized to work toward the definite goal of organic union.

The following year, however, the merger effort took a turn for the worse and from that point steadily declined. The OPC retired its representatives on the joint-committee and appointed new


members giving them the mandate to investigate trends toward liberalism in the CRC. Investigating liberalism in the CRC became the committee's primary agenda rather than eventual union. Representatives of the CRC serving on the joint-committee thought they had been „unequally yoked” as a result of the general assembly’s decisions. They were also forced into a defensive posture, having to answer allegations not based on official synodical decisions and often merely semantic in nature. The joint-committee’s difficulties did not, however, arise exclusively from the side of the OPC. Increasingly it became apparent that intense interest in uniting with the OPC simply did not exist in the CRC. The synod and general assembly therefore mutually agreed to terminate the negotiations. The CRC’s only serious attempt to implement the scriptural principle stated in the 1944 report that all churches Reformed in doctrine, government and practice living in the same country must unite, ended in failure.

During the ecumenical age of the 1950s and 60s, the committee on Ecumenicity and Church Correspondence committed itself to an ambitious program of investigating ecumenical organizations for the purpose of determining whether the CRC should become a member of one of them. The committee reported that it was gathering materials on the World Presbyterian Alliance, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Christian Churches, the American Council of Christian Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The investigation into the World Presbyterian Alliance disclosed that the organization was not distinctively Reformed but a theologically diverse and mixed company. Given the variety of contemporary theologies, the committee judged that the Alliance’s Constitution was too „dogmatically indistinct” and therefore advised against membership. The synod accepted the committee’s advice but did not endorse its rationale. It simply stated that membership in the Alliance had far-reaching implications which had not yet been sufficiently explored to take final action.

The committee also reported on the National Association of Evangelicals. It did not subject the Association to critical inquiry, but rather approached the subject from the vantage point of the CRC’s former membership in it and argued for reaffiliation. The


synod decided not to reaffiliate. One reason was given for the decision: The National Association was not an exclusively ecclesiastical organization. The committee never reported the results of its study and review of the other ecumenical organizations.


Catholicity with Separation: 1966-1987

The question of membership in the World Council of Churches (WCC)10 was thrust upon the CRC from outside. After many years of studying pluriformity and ecumenicity, the GKN adopted a resolution stating that it had no objections on the basis of principle to membership in the WCC. The GKN did not immediately apply for membership but decided to give the member churches of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES) an opportunity to express their judgment on the matter. The synod of the CRC appointed a study committee in 1966 to advise the synod on membership in the WCC and to prepare a response to the GKN’s resolution.

The study committee had to work under severe time limitations to produce a report for the synod of 1967. The one pressing and unavoidable question was whether or not membership in the WCC was permissible for a confessional Reformed church. On this question the committee divided, splitting into majority and minority groups.

The majority took their point of departure from within the CRC’s separatist tradition and evaluated the World Council from the vantage point of the CRC's confessional standards for ecclesiastical discipline in doctrine and in life. They presented two fundamental criticisms of the council. The first was that the WCC was an inclusive organization, consisting of all types and kinds of churches. It embraced in its membership churches whose official doctrinal position was heretical, even including some to which the name „modernist” was fully or partially applicable.

The second fundamental criticism was directed at the council’s claim to be a „Council of Churches”, a „fellowship of churches” and a „provisional manifestation of the unity given in Christ”. The majority seriously doubted and disputed these claims. A


Reformed church, they said, had to judge whether it could in truth acknowledge that all member churches of the council individually were in fact churches of Christ. If this could not be said of every member church, it could not be said of the council as a whole. Moreover by becoming a member of the World Council per se, a church implicitly affirmed that all other members were churches of Christ. No Reformed church could make such a declaration regarding liberal or modernist churches. For these and other reasons such as the inadequacy of the basis and unsatisfactory maintenance of the basis, the majority concluded that membership in the WCC could not be considered a permissible course of action for a Reformed church. The majority much preferred the „approach” presented in the report of 1944 which, they said, offered a clear alternative to membership in the World Council.

The minority took their point of departure in the inescapable ecumenical calling and responsibility given the church by Christ. They appealed to the catholic and ecumenical vision expressed in the report of 1944 and allowed the WCC to speak for itself, virtually without comment, through its official documents. In striking contrast to the majority, the minority concluded that membership in the World Council did not constitute a denial of the Christian faith, nor involve a failure in obedience to the Word or disloyalty to the Reformed confessions. Membership therefore was permissible for a Reformed church. The minority did not, however, think it was advisable for the CRC to become a member. Due to lingering difficulties and uncertainties regarding the specific nature of the council itself, the present lack of information on crucial matters and the CRC's lack of ecumenical experience, the minority judged that the church was not ready to enter the ecumenical arena of the WCC.

The Synod of 1967 adopted a series of recommendations on membership in the WCC that in substance represented the position of the majority report. In response to the GKN’s resolution, the synod judged that in view of the grave implications of membership, to state that there was „no decisive impediment” to it was not sufficient. Membership required a convincing demonstration from Scripture. Finally, the synod reminded the GKN that joining the WCC meant giving recognition to churches with


radically different interpretations of the gospel. After the RES Amsterdam 1968, the GKN became members of the WCC.

At the meeting of the RES Amsterdam 1968, it became apparent that strict confessional Reformed ecumenicity had entered troubled waters. The internal tensions have now reached crisis proportions. Developments within the GKN (the second largest member church) and race relations in South Africa and among the South African churches occasioned and have sustained the crisis.

The GKN’s membership in the WCC, its tolerant attitude toward the use of the new hermeneutic in biblical interpretation, and its statement of pastoral advice on homosexual relationships, allowing practicing homosexuals full participation in the life of the church, have led member churches to ask for the termination of the GKN’s membership. The RES had issued warnings specifically directed at the GKN regarding the importance of maintaining the biblical and confessional purity and integrity of the church. Nine churches have resigned their membership allegedly because of the continued presence of the GKN in the fellowship. General synods of the GKN have regularly had on their agenda the question whether or not to remain a member of the RES. The most recent synod decided by a majority of one vote to remain members of the REC.11

Although less threatening to the existence of the RES, the racial tensions in South Africa have contributed to the mounting crisis. The RES has adopted and revised race resolutions many times. It spoke most emphatically on apartheid in Chicago 1984. Soon after the Chicago meeting, the Executive Committee of the white Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South Africa (the largest member church) suspended the church's membership because, in the committee’s judgment, the synod’s utterances on apartheid were contrary to the stipulations of the Constitution. The general synod of the DRC in 1986 lifted the suspension. The decision was not by a clear majority vote. The motion to terminate the church's membership simply did not receive the required two-thirds majority.

During these years of crisis, CRC synods and delegates to Reformed


ecumenical synods have made diligent efforts, within the legitimate boundaries of the church's Reformed faith and con-science, to preserve the RES and to enhance its effectiveness. The RES is the only international ecumenical organization with which the church is affiliated, and it does not want the council either to disintegrate or be reduced to insignificance.12

The CRC was one of the original partners in the formation of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC)13 in 1974. The new council’s Statement of Basis affirms a commitment to Jesus Christ as only Savior and Sovereign Lord over all of life. It further states that the fellowship of the participating churches is based on a full commitment both to the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God and to their teachings as set forth in the Reformed confessional standards. A common commitment to Scripture and the Reformed standards serves as a warrant for advising, counseling and cooperating with one another. It also provides a basis for holding out before the member churches the desirability and need for organic union.

NAPARC has become the principal ecumenical instrument through which the CRC meets its ecumenical calling and ex-presses its unity with other North American confessional Reformed churches. Cooperation rather than organic union has been the main focus of the council’s program and activities. The goal of church union has not been entirely lost. The Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) has now entered the fellowship of the Presbyterian Church in America. The CRC has neither invited, nor been invited by other NAPARC churches to discuss organic union.

Developments in the GKN stemming from the use of the new hermeneutic set in motion a process that has resulted in reducing the degree of intimacy between the CRC and its oldest and closest sister. Because of the perceived doctrinal deviations and the GKN’s failure to apply discipline in the manner thought necessary, some CRC congregations requested that the sister church relationship be terminated. Rather than to comply with these requests the Interchurch Relations Committee14 and the synod devised a new system of classifying churches.


In 1974 the synod replaced the old twofold classification of sister churches and churches in correspondence with a single category: „Churches in Ecclesiastical Fellowship”.15 The new classification is both broader and less intimate than the older sister church relationship. While the essential elements of the former classification remain unchanged, the new system is more flexible and allows the CRC to encourage and admonish other churches without burdening the CRC's conscience on account of their deviations in doctrine and practice.

Two actions of the general synod of Delft 1979/80 heightened concern in the CRC regarding the GKN’s purity in doctrine and life. The first was the statement of pastoral advice: „Homophilical Members of the Congregation”; the second was the endorsement of the report on the nature of biblical authority: „God With Us” as a „confessionally responsible” statement. The former statement, allowing practising homosexuals to hold office in the church, especially disturbed the CRC. Synods of the CRC declared the GKN’s position clearly contrary to the Word of God, and extremely controversial and regrettable. They also repeatedly, but to no avail, requested the GKN to reconsider its statement in the light of Scripture. In 1983 the CRC unilaterally decided to redefine the terms of ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN by withholding pulpit and table fellowship, except at the discretion of local consistories.

Since 1980 the CRC’s relationship with another old sister, the RCSA,16 has come under ever increasing scrutiny. The relationship is now in serious jeopardy. The South African church’s official position on race, its practice in racial matters, and its failure vigorously to speak out against apartheid and the evils resulting from it, are the source of the difficulty.

Since 1984 committees of the CRC have been engaged in intensive dialogue with its South African counterpart. In 1985 the synod decided that the dialogue should not continue indefinitely and that the relationship between the two churches be reevaluated in 1989. Frustrated by the slow pace of the discussions, synods in 1986 and 1987 reiterated the judgment that apartheid is a gross violation of biblical principles and a repudiation of Christian ethical imperatives. The synods also expressed their grief that,


without substantial and meaningful change, ecclesiastical fellowship after 1989 would be impossible.

The Synod of 1989 stopped short of terminating ecclesiastical fellowship with the RCSA. Instead, the synod decided to suspend fellowship with the white South African church until 1992. Very specific conditions were stated for lifting the suspension. The RCSA must (1) declare that apartheid is a sin and its theological defense is heretical, (2) give evidence of its repentance for its complicity in the support of apartheid in South Africa and the evils apartheid has created and (3) publicly express its opposition to the system of apartheid and affirm its support of racial equality and justice for all peoples. Meanwhile, the Interchurch Relations Committee is to continue the dialogue with the RCSA and to submit to the Synod of 1992 recommendations for either the restoration or termination of ecclesiastical fellowship with the RCSA.

While the CRC’s relationship to its two oldest sisters has been subjected to considerable stress and strain, its relationship to the church from which it originally seceded has followed a more positive course. Contacts between the churches have been intermittent rather than sustained and have lacked intimacy and depth of commitment. Local, congregational, or „grass-roots” engagement and interdenominational unity and cooperation have characterized this experiment in ecumenicity rather than denominational level discussions specifically intended to explore the possibility of organic union.

In 1976 the RCA and the CRC officially entered a fraternal relationship which in essence corresponds to the CRC’s designation: „Churches in Ecclesiastical Fellowship”. A joint-contact committee, consisting of representatives of the two denominations, meets regularly to monitor cooperation at the denominational and grass-roots levels and to discuss matters of mutual interest and concern.


Catholicity with Truth through Dialogue

In 1987 the synod of the CRC adopted a new Ecumenical Charter. The charter is a well-ordered and structured document moving


from biblical principles to the specific responsibilities of the Interchurch Relations Committee.

The charter forthrightly affirms catholicity. As a matter of biblical principle, the church is one in Christ spiritually and still must become one in Christ visibly. It is called to a unity in time and space as one worldwide church united with Christ its Head and with one another in its members. A new feature, gained from experience and not present in the report of 1944, is an acknowledgment of diversity within unity. The charter, without attempting to delimit boundaries, allows for diversity in worship, confessional formulas and church order. While still maintaining that unity must come to visible expression, the charter humbly recognizes that the ideal form of such unity is not yet known.

For reasons of biblical principle, the charter asserts that the unity of Christ’s church is a unity in truth. Here again the charter introduces a new feature with far-reaching implications. In striking contrast to the report of 1944 which assumed that the CRC was in doctrine the closest approximation of the scriptural norm for truth, the charter humbly recognizes that churches have different perceptions of biblical truth. These different perceptions must be overcome on the way to achieving unity. The manner in which this is to be done is through ecumenical dialogue: a form of conversation through which it may be assumed God will teach all churches and, perhaps, unite them through a deeper grasp of the truth. The fact that churches have different and limited perceptions of the truth and can arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth should not detract from the certainty of truth already revealed and grasped. The charter explicitly states that as the CRC struggles for unity in truth through dialogue, it does so fully committed to the Reformed faith and the confessions of the Reformed churches.

The charter presents principles for two kinds of ecumenical practice: principles for interchurch relations or the relation of one church denomination to another and principles for ecumenical organizations. With regard to the former, the charter says that the unity of Christ's body calls the church, again through dialogue, to seek the reunion of churches. Like the report of 1944, the charter classifies the churches of Christ in three groups representing


ever-widening circles: Reformed churches, non-Reformed Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Reformed churches are further divided into those that are only historically Reformed and those that are Reformed both historically and in actual practice. Somewhat less emphatically than the earlier report, the charter says that churches which are Reformed in confession and practice should unite as soon as possible. Recognizing the tenacity of denominational identities and loyalties, the charter realistically speaks of interim aims of rapprochement that include the resolution of doctrinal differences, joint action, and a common witness to the world. In seeking rapprochement with other churches, the charter contends, the CRC should make use of organizations that enable it more efficiently to carry out its ecumenical task.

The Interchurch Relations Committee placed on the agenda of the Synod of 1988 two recommendations regarding ecumenical involvement: one to reaffiliate with the NAE and another to accept an invitation extended by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) to become a member of that organization. According to the committee, membership in the NAE offered the CRC an opportunity to fulfill its ecumenical calling, at least partially, within the broad spectrum of American evangelical Christianity. It also provided the church an arena in which to witness to its Reformed faith and view of life and the world. Nothing in the NAE’s Statement of Faith, the committee thought, would infringe upon the CRC’s Reformed doctrinal integrity, nor would the NAE’s program and practices compromise the Church’s Reformed character. The synod unanimously voted to reaffiliate with the NAE. By joining, the CRC for the first time in almost 40 years stepped out of its isolation and narrowly circumscribed ecumenical involvement exclusively with confessional Reformed churches.

Since 1966 the CRC has regularly sent observer delegates to meetings of WARC’s general council, area council and Theological Committee meetings. In support of the recommendation to become a member of WARC, the Interchurch Relations Committee appealed to the ecumenical vision presented in the report of 1944 and in the Ecumenical Charter. Both of these documents clearly affirm an ecumenical calling to the historically Reformed


churches that are now defective in doctrine and delinquent in the practice of church discipline. The interchurch committee did not defend the Reformed faith and practice of all WARC’s member churches. Some of the member churches it admitted were only broadly and generally Reformed and really quite internally defective. The committee rather approached the question of membership on the basis of the CRC’s ecumenical calling and responsibility.

In distinction from the RES and NAP ARC, which are „circle 1” ecumenical organizations, the committee classified and characterized WARC as a „circle 2” ecumenical endeavor. As a circle 2 organization, the committee said, WARC does not require of its member churches the same measure of fidelity to the Reformed confessions or the same degree of corporate responsibility for assisting one another in maintaining their confessional integrity as do circle 1 ecumenical organizations. On the basis of this distinction the Interchurch Relations Committee concluded that WARC’s Statement of Basis was adequate for circle 2 ecumenical fellowship and that CRC membership in WARC did not render the church responsible for defects in the doctrine and life of the other member churches. Nor did membership compromise the CRC’s Reformed witness and integrity. In the committee’s judgment, membership in WARC is the only feasible means for the CRC to meet its ecumenical calling to historically but now defective Reformed churches.

Opposition to membership in WARC focused on the fact that WARC embraced in its membership several churches which were liberal in their theological stance. The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the United Church of Christ, the United Church of Canada and the Remonstrant Brotherhood in the Netherlands were specifically mentioned as churches with which the CRC could not enter an alliance, on an equal basis, without compromising its Reformed character and obedience to the Word of God. By a vote of 90 to 82, the synod defeated the motion to accept the invitation to become a member of WARC.



The CRC is biblically and confessionally obligated to confess the


one holy catholic church of its Lord Jesus Christ. In its actual historical life, however, the church has not been able to establish and maintain relations with Christian churches other than confessional Reformed ones. The difficulty is in no small measure due to the fact that in the past it was unable to develop an ecumenical approach and methodology compatible with its ecumenical calling. The committee that wrote the report of 1944 affirming a catholic calling and responsibility itself failed to produce an ecumenical methodology commensurate with its vision. When pressed to submit recommendations for implementing its program, the committee resorted to procedures commonly used by other churches and ecumenical bodies. When initiating conversations with the OPC, the synod did the same. Those conversations broke down when the agenda was altered and the parties to the dialogue became „unequally yoked”. While severely critical of the methodology of the WCC, the majority of the study committee on membership in the council did little more than state that it preferred the approach of the report of 1944 without explaining what that approach was. The majority quite frankly admitted that they did not know how to approach other churches.

In the absence of a carefully worked out method to implement its catholic vision and ecumenical calling, the CRC has attempted to apply its traditional, internal standards for church fellowship to relationships with other churches and ecumenical organizations. In the past it has not recognized that there can be varying degrees of intimacy in church and interchurch fellowship and, consequently, that different standards of purity in doctrine and discipline can legitimately be accepted as conditions of ecumenical and interchurch affiliation. In other words, the CRC has not accepted as a working principle the fact that churches in a close-knit denominational fellowship and those entering an organic union must be united in doctrine and discipline in closer bonds of fellowship than is required of churches in loosely-knit more inclusive ecumenical organizations. CRC synods have never ad-dressed these issues except in the context of specific recommendations and debates regarding membership in interdenominational and ecumenical organizations. Consequently the church has simply used the standards for orthodoxy and discipline that regulate its own denominational life and applied them to other ecumenical bodies and their member churches. Understandably,


the church’s ecumenical involvement has not extended beyond the narrow limits of Reformed confessional orthodoxy.

The new Ecumenical Charter has broken some new ground that may enable the church more confidently and effectively to fulfill its ecumenical task. Perhaps most noteworthy is the recognition that churches — including the CRC — have different perceptions of biblical truth that can be shared with one another, trusting God to lead his church into a fuller understanding of it. This insight may relieve the CRC of its past sense of superiority in understanding and purity and render it teachable in the ecumenical arena. The charter’s endorsement of dialogue as a legitimate means to engage in ecumenical conversation may also provide a basis and framework for a feasible approach and working method for implementing its ecumenical calling.

Unlike the report of 1944, the charter encourages the CRC to pursue its ecumenical calling through ecumenical organizations. If the church is sincere in recommending this approach, it will no longer be able unilaterally to set the terms and conditions for all its ecumenical relationships, but will have to find ways and means, perhaps even rationales, to fit into existing organizations consistent with the demands of its own confessional integrity.

The CRC has long feared that membership in ecumenical organizations is a potential threat to its separate existence and to its distinctive confessional Reformed character. Two statements in the new charter, reflecting insights learned from modern ecumenicity, speak to these concerns and may offer some relief. The charter humbly recognizes that the precise form of the unity being sought for Christ’s church remains unknown. The charter also realistically affirms diversity within unity.

To date the new charter, with its biblical and ecumenical principles and methodology, has not penetrated the consciousness of the CRC nor significantly influenced its ecumenical outreach. The real test will come when the church acts on specific recommendations for membership in ecumenical organizations. If the church continues to apply to ecumenical organizations corporate-ly and to their member churches individually the same standards for faith and discipline that regulate its own denominational life,


the CRC’s ecumenical involvement will not extend beyond the narrowly delimited boundaries of strict confessional orthodoxy. Then also its biblically and confessionally imposed catholic Christian calling and responsibility will remain unfulfilled. For the CRC to meet its as yet unfulfilled ecumenical calling and responsibility, it will have to realistically recognize that there are different kinds of ecumenical organizations requiring different degrees of intimacy in fellowship from their member bodies.

At present the CRC is not ecumenically well situated. It remains isolated from mainline American Protestantism and from the world church. Relationships with the GKN have deteriorated; those with the GKSA are in jeopardy. The REC remains in a serious state of crisis. NAP ARC is the brightest spot on the CRC’s ecumenical horizon, but this small coterie of churches represents only an exceedingly small portion of Christ’s church. Since the Synod of 1988 decided to become a member of the NAE, it may reasonably be presumed that the NAE now meets the CRC’s standards for Christian orthodoxy and fellowship. Membership in the NAE is not a present or potential threat to the CRC's separate existence. Consistent with the ecclesiastical independentism of most American evangelicals, the NAE in its Statement of Faith obligates members to confess no more regarding the church than the spiritual unity of believers. This confession falls far short of the catholicity taught in Scripture and confessed in the ancient creeds and Reformed confessions. In the unanimous opinion of the delegates to the Synod of 1988, membership in the NAE does not pose a present threat to the CRC’s confessional Reformed character. Whether it represents a potential and longer-term danger remains to be seen. The CRC’s roots in the Dutch Reformed tradition are becoming shallower all the time. It can no longer look to the GKN for leadership and assistance in preserving and developing its distinctive Reformed tradition. Unless the CRC establishes relationships with historically Reformed bodies in America adequate to counter-balance the potentially formative influences of American evangelicalism, the church may increasingly experience difficulty in maintaining its confessional Reformed character.

During the twentieth-century ecumenical age, the CRC has remained faithful to the truth as it perceives it. The authority of


God’s Word has been respected and esteemed at a time when in many churches the Bible's authority has been undermined. Ironically the clear testimony of Scripture and the creeds to the catholicity of the church has made little impact on the CRC. The catholic vision and ecumenical calling articulated in the report of 1944 and the Ecumenical Charter of 1987 have not yet permeated the heart and mind of the church. Its catholic Christian consciousness and sense of identity remain immature and underdeveloped. Scripture alone has not yet aroused the church sufficiently to bring about a fundamental change. The American environment, being the most ecclesiastically pluriform of any nation in the world, also does not contribute to catholic maturity. If and when the cultural situation changes, producing sharper lines of separation between faith and unbelief and between the church and world on the one hand, and greater awareness of oneness in Christ and the need to manifest that oneness visibly on the other, there may be a resurgence of catholic Christian consciousness in the CRC.



1. For a more equal distribution of the subject matter, this period is divided into two sections of approximately 20 years, 1944-66 and 1966-87.
2. The official name of the church at the time was Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. The name was changed in 1867 to the Reformed Church in America. The primary source for the union and secession is Minutes of Classis Holland 1848-1858, Trans, by a Joint Committee of the CRC and the RCA, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1950.
3. The secessionists of 1857 were evidently serious about joining the church in the Netherlands. A letter was sent to the synod of the church there, requesting recognition as a part of the Dutch church. The letter was read at the synod, but no action was taken on the request and consequently no official recognition granted.
4. The United Presbyterian Church was formed as a result of a merger of the Associate Presbyterian Church and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church at Pittsburg in 1858. A hundred years later, in 1958, this church joined the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
5. The two groups combined to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1892.
6. The primary sources for synodical decisions are: Synodale Handelingen der Hollandsche Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Amerika, 1880-92; Acta van de Synode der Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Amerika, 1894-1926; Acta der


Synode van de Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk, 1928-30 and Acts of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1930-88.
7. The five churches were: The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the United Presbyterian Church of North America, The Reformed Church in America and the Reformed Church in the U.S. (German Reformed).
8. Acts of Synod, 1944, 349-50.
9. Letters were sent to the following American denominations: The Reformed Church in America, the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Associate Presbyterian Church, the Free Magyar Reformed Church in America (Hungarian Reformed) and the United Presbyterian Church.
Letters were also sent to the following foreign churches: The Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands (a church consisting of congregations of the Secession of 1834 that did not enter the Union of 1892), The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, the Reformed Church in Japan and the Free Presbyterian Church of Australia.
Letters were not sent to the GKN and the GKSA because correspondence with these churches had not lapsed.
10. For a more elaborate discussion of the CRC and the WCC see Klaas Runia, „The Christian Reformed Church and the World Council of Churches”, in Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church, edited by Peter De Klerk and Richard R. De Ridder, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 325-43.
11. The RES Harare 1988, changed the name of the ecumenical gathering from a synod to a council. The change does not substantially alter the Constitution or Basis of the organization. The CRC originally proposed a council rather than a synod and in recent years recommended the change.
12. For a discussion of the CRC and the RES see, Paul G. Schrotenboer, „The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Ecumenical Synod”, in Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church, edited by Peter De Klerk and Richard R. De Ridder, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 349-362.
13. The charter members were: the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Later the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Korean American Presbyterian Church became members. Presently the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is applying for membership.
14. The name of the committee on Ecumenicity and Church Correspondence was changed to the Interchurch Relations Committee in 1966.
15. At present the CRC maintains a relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with 23 churches. They are: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Christian Church of Sumba, Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria, Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Church of Christ in the Sudan among the TIV, Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (black), Dutch Reformed Church in Sri Lanka, Dutch Reformed Mission Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Reformed Church of Brazil, Korean American Presbyterian Church, Netherlands Reformed Churches, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Reformed Church in Africa, Reformed Church in America, Reformed Church in Argentina, Reformed Church in Japan, Reformed Churches in Australia, Reformed Churches in


New Zealand, Reformed Churches in South Africa, Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, and Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
16. Official correspondence with this church dates back to 1866.