Schrotenboer, P.G.

Catholicity and Secession



XII. Catholicity and Secession


There was an understanding among the writers of this book that the editor would write the last chapter after the other writers had submitted their contributions so that he could profit from their insights. His task was to draw the consequences for the churches’ ecumenical ministry from their research. This closing chapter will therefore seek to demonstrate how unity and truth can interact in creative tension as our churches face the choices in catholicity and secession.


Preliminary comments

One fact stands out in our overview of the evangelical Reformed churches in their attitude to the unity of the church: they have a confession of catholicity and a history of secession. Not only do we adhere to the ecumenical creeds with their affirmation of the catholicity of the Church but also to the specific Reformed confessions which emphasize the oneness of the Church. The Body of Christ, the people of God, spans every age and the whole earth. Given this explicit expression of faith, the question is: How can we remove the obvious discrepancy between our confession and our actions?

The answer to this question is not to move away from the confession but rather to search out the reasons for the inadequate response to it and then make the necessary changes. The problem lies not in the church standards but in ourselves.

The answer does not lie on the surface. The Reformed churches as a whole have not been slack in their efforts to mount campaigns, unite churches and participate in the ecumenical movement. They have also sought to express the unity of their own family; in fact, the Reformed churches were one of the very first to establish a Christian world communion, in 1875. But even in that endeavor the way was not smooth. Precisely in the efforts to


manifest the unity of the Reformed churches division arose and now there are three separate international organizations of churches adhering to the Reformed tradition.1

Secession is primarily a Western phenomenon, but unfortunately it is not limited to the West. Western divisions have often been transplanted along with the gospel. Moreover, churches in Africa have come forward with their own brand of separation in the independentist movement. Fortunately it is also true that churches in the Third World have often not followed the lead of their parent churches in the West but have sought diligently to retain the oneness of God’s people, sometimes to the displeasure of churches in Europe and the United States. The chapter by Prof. S. Widyapranawa (pp. 162 ff.) deals with the efforts of the Indonesian churches to be true to the fundamentals of the faith and maintain the unity of the church. Widyapranawa points out that the Indonesian churches are not burdened by the secession legacy of the West. Churches in the West could well learn from the Indonesian experience.

It should be clear to all that catholicity and secession are not equal entities. For catholicity is one of the indispensable characteristics of the church and secession is at best a means to attain that characteristic. The catholicity of the Church is a divine given; it is also the norm and the goal of all efforts to manifest the unity of the church in the world. In contrast, secession cannot be made a legitimate principle or even a policy but is a measure of last resort. When it is resorted to, it is at best a protest against a kind of catholicity that is not according to the truth of the gospel.

Catholicity concerns what God has in mind for his people; secession calls for reflection on how churches have responded to what God intended. This means that the catholicity of the church is beyond our critique, but acts of secession cry out to be evaluated.

As I was preparing this concluding chapter I perused carefully the contributions received, and I reread from the writings of John Calvin his tract on „The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (1544), his reply to the charges of Cardinal Sadoleto (1539) and chapters 1 and 2 of book IV of his Institutes. I also reread Herman Bavinck’s tract on The Catholicity of Christianity and Church. The


rereading of these writings convinced me that both Calvin and Bavinck held forth an ideal for the church that we have not been altogether successful in maintaining.

What stands out in Calvin’s writings is his understanding of the Body of Christ as comprehending all believers, his great zeal for the unity of the church and his claim that the only bond of unity is the Word of God. In his reply to Sadoleto, Calvin described the Church as „the society of all the saints, a society which, spread over the whole world, and existing in all ages, yet bound together by the one doctrine, and the one Spirit of Christ, cultivates and observes unity of faith and brotherly concord” (Calvin 1844:37). Moreover, he did not play unity against the truth: „My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of thy Church provided thy truth were made the bond of concord” (Calvin 1844:37).

As I compare Calvin’s words with the Calvinian legacy, as reflected on the preceding pages of this book, I am impressed how strongly the evangelical churches, especially in the West, have stressed sound doctrine and how reluctant they have been to follow Calvin in his zeal for the unity of the Church universal. There is clearly an imbalance in our legacy that we should openly recognize and carefully reassess.

If we are to advance in our understanding, we shall have to be more critical of ourselves and more open to the insights of the others, including the churches that are active in the ecumenical movement. We shall have to highlight certain crucial aspects of our tradition, such as the need for a continuing reformation of both doctrine and life and the comprehensive scope of the people of God. We shall have to give more careful attention to a number of unresolved issues on which there is a lack of clarity among us.

We realize that we cannot return to the one undivided church of the first Century. Nor can we go back to the 16th Century Reformation and begin anew. Even for some of our churches to return to the church communion from which they recently withdrew is highly problematic. We must face all the issues of a divided church in our present broken situation.


The path ahead should be a communal search by all who share common faith and are willing to join the party. And as we engage in the search we should proceed with the conviction that we shall surely find if we search with all our hearts. As we chart our way, we should do so with the conviction that the Scriptures provide the abiding norms both for the goal we seek and for the perspective we should employ to attain that goal.

At the same time, as we seek to understand and observe these norms, we should recognize that the New Testament does not directly address the question of a multiplicity of denominations nor of a variety of ecumenical organizations. These were simply unknown to the biblical writers and therefore received no attention. There is therefore no easy one-to-one connection between the NT message and our present deplorable division into tens of thousands of denominations2 and several competing ecumenical organizations. Yet the norms are there, embedded in the biblical revelation, and from them we should formulate the necessary guidelines for our ecumenical activity today.

The two chief norms are:
1. The catholicity of the church is both a gift from God and a mandate for his people to fulfil (Eph 4: 3-16).
2. There is no true oneness or catholicity except it is in the unity of the true faith. The One Church, which is drawn from every kindred, nation, tongue and tribe, is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3: 15). Calvin makes the comment that the Apostle uses these words to describe the church because God wanted it to keep the truth from being lost in the world. He also states that there cannot be the Church where delusion and falsehood have usurped the dominion (Institutes IV, 2, i).

On the basis of these basic norms we derive certain working guidelines:
1. God’s gift of unity should spur us on to overcome our divisions and, accepting the task that comes with the gift, manifest openly the oneness of God’s people in church and society.
2. The truth of the Scriptures is apprehended in the threefold way of Word, Spirit and the community of believers.
3. The distinction between Bible Truth and our understanding of


it must function as a constant reminder of the need of ongoing reformation.
4. Discernment is needed to distinguish between intolerable teaching and opinions which are less than central to the gospel and may not endanger the unity. Here we face the issue of the limits of plurality in theology and in confession.


The Ecumenical Setting

The appropriateness of looking at the ecumenical setting in our discussion of catholicity and secession derives from the guideline mentioned above, namely that the path we should take is found in the threefold way of 1) listening to the Word of God, 2) heeding the prompting of the Spirit and 3) doing it all in the community of believers. If we were to attend to the Word and listen to the Spirit all by ourselves and thus ignore the rest of the church, except to declare how far it has departed from its moorings, we would thereby betray a proud separatist mentality and would in effect block the way to real progress. The problem of secession, its necessity, its useful and harmful by-products, and its questionable value as a means to maintain the purity of the church, like any other issue facing the people of God, should be done by the whole church with the entire church in mind. The path toward the understanding of the issue is „with all the saints” (Eph 3: 18). We should learn to read Scripture in the koinonia.

The most compelling motivation for engaging in a communal search with the entire church in mind — and as much as possible with the entire church — is the biblical teaching that the people of God are one body, all of whose members are interdependent (Romans 12; I Cor 12). (See also Chapter III for a careful exposition of the idea of the „One Body”). Yet, while the instruction is clear the task is formidable.

It will be obvious to any student of the current unity movement that secession is not one of its main themes. Actually, secession gets virtually no attention, except as a way to deplore the „scandal of our divisions”. There has been no extensive analysis in the church unity movement of the causes for these divisions. And since the opinion has been widely held that stress on doctrine has


a dividing effect, the efforts to preserve the purity of the church by way of secession have been seen to be counter-productive in the church unity movement.3

The failure of the unity movement to consider adequately the alleged need of secession as well as the emphasis that evangelical Reformed churches have placed upon it only indicate the largely disparate frameworks of discourse in which the two groups function. What has priority with evangelicals, namely a common understanding of the essentials of the biblical message as a prerequisite for unity, has been considered by adherents of the quest for unity as a negligible or unattainable goal or as really not necessary. Fortunately the previous skittishness of debating doctrinal differences has in recent years been replaced with eagerness to engage in theological dialogue.

Theological dialogue in the ecumenical movement

In a very brief survey we shall look at the recent spate of theological dialogues and single out two of them that illustrate guidelines listed above.

During the last decades a number of world confessional bodies, commonly called Christian World Communions, have appeared on the scene, some of them long prior to the founding of the World Council of Churches. They have arisen from the need felt by churches that are spread over a number of continents to consult together and seek for greater coordination in their ministry. One effect of the rise of these confessional families has been a heightened sense of identity and of the doctrinal emphases which one world communion has in distinction from the others. This in turn has led to the theological dialogue. Most of these dialogues have taken place between the Christian World Communions but one notable exception is the Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM), arranged by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

Church dialogue in the churches, both bilateral (between two partners) and multilateral (among more than two), constitutes an essential expression of the ecumenical movement. It is here where some of the most serious obstacles that prevent unity are faced and where more measurable progress has been made than in any


other part of the church unity movement. The spate of recent dialogues indicates the growing yearning on the part of the churches to present a unified witness to the world and to find a structure that will support this witness.4

The most widely acclaimed dialogue, the one that has evoked the greatest responses and has marked the greatest progress, is that of the 1982 Lima conference that produced the BEM document. Its sponsor, the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, has published no less than six volumes of responses from churches and church organizations.

The evangelical Reformed community, including its theological seminaries, where it might be expected that attention would be given to these current happenings, has largely been silent on this significant development. This inattention is unexpected, for the bilaterals, and in particular the BEM Document, do precisely what we have claimed should be done and have derided others for not doing, namely face the divisive doctrinal issues. As it is, no churches should applaud the work done in the theological dialogue more than those who claim that their church standards are „forms of unity”.

Among the most recent to respond to BEM has been the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship which entered the discussion so that Faith and Order might also consider this evangelical voice. It has special relevance to our study in that it highlights the distinction between Bible truth and the response of the churches to the biblical message.5

In its response to BEM, the WEF called attention to the first question which all the respondents were asked by Faith and Order to consider: What is the extent to which your church can recognize in this (BEM) text the faith of the Church through the ages? The WEF observed that the Commission proceeds on the valid assumption that churches which seek a visible unity should be in doctrinal agreement with one another. Concerning this question the WEF asks whether the wording of the question itself as posed by BEM focuses the attention on what is secondary, namely the faith of the church through the ages rather than on what is primary, that is, the normative witness given in the books


of the Old and New Testaments on which the faith of the churches is based.

The question as posed by BEM asks that the churches reply to what is itself a response of the Church through the ages. Only those who claim that there is an infallibility in the Church, either in its common confession in the general councils or in certain declarations made by the Bishop of Rome, will be satisfied with not pressing beyond the testimony of the Church through the ages to that normative testimony in the canonical writings.

From among the many other responses to BEM we would single out the one done jointly by the Netherlands Reformed Church and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Thurian Vol IV 1987:100-109). These two churches (which are now in a process of church union called „Together on the Way” and thereby are seeking to reverse the secession movements of the previous century which separated them) have found both commendable and unacceptable elements in the BEM Document.

Their response expresses regret that more attention has not been given in BEM to the Old Testament and therefore questions whether justice has been done to the unity of Scripture. The Dutch churches wish that the section on Baptism had found in the idea of the covenant a basis for baptism and that the OT offices of prophet, priest and king had been investigated when the Document considered the structure of the church’s ministry. In other words, justice was not done to the full biblical message.

These two responses indicate that effective testimony can be made to the fundamental source of the faith of the church in such a global discussion. Such testimony likely could not be made in any other forum. The Dutch churches and WEF say in effect that Faith and Order should go back to the drawing board.6


Critical Self-appraisal

The process of engaging in criticism of self is bound to be unsettling. It is, that is, if it is done with an open mind concerning where we may have failed to attain to the high calling of God in


Christ Jesus. There is need to sift and weigh what we have done, to ascertain what we may safely change and what we must at all costs retain. Yet it is as necessary as it is unsettling.

The time has come to take a good hard look at our tradition of secession to see where we may have erred. As we do so, we would not want to leave the impression that all the secessions were wholly unwarranted. A good case could be made, for instance, that the secession of 1834 in the Netherlands was simply a highly regrettable but necessary effort to reform the church (see Chapter VI).

We in looking back would express regret, however, that none of the leaders of that secession made an appeal to synod, the broadest assembly of the state church. Gerrit J. ten Zythoff has documented this failure in Sources of Secession (Ten Zythoff 1987). Granting that the state’s control of church affairs made it extremely difficult for the church government to function as it should, the failure of the seceders to appeal to the general synod means that the state church as a whole did not issue a verdict on the seceders’ complaint.

Nor should we overlook the fact that some of the secessions were necessitated, not by the desire to depart, but by the expulsion of their leaders from the church, and that not for disobedience to the gospel but for refusal to follow ecclesiastical directives which those who finally left considered to be in conflict with faithful Christian ministry. Of this the Orthodox Presbyterian Church offers an example (see Chapter IX).

From the stance, then, of appreciation and thankfulness for the faith and the courage of the secession fathers as well as of the awareness that they and their followers have not found the royal road to the preservation of the faith and church unity, we offer a number of observations as to where we appear to have strayed.

1. In displaying a secession mentality

Among the undesirable effects of the secession movements has been the development of a secession mentality. Herman Bavinck described this mentality as it expressed itself in his day with the words: „That separation from the church is sin is recognized by


almost no one. They leave the church as easily as they join it. If one thing or other does not please them they seek another without any compunction of conscience" (Bavinck 1968:36).

This mentality elevates secession to a mindset rather than a measure of last resort. It has displayed itself in the tendency to isolate, to withdraw, to refuse to participate with other churches even with those which are only slightly different, and, as a result, to become inward looking. It is expressed in a tendency to prize the purity and achievements of one’s own church and to emphasize the impurity of the others.

One manifestation of the secession mentality is that its adherents place more emphasis on the circumference of the church than on its center, that is, more upon the question who belong to the church and who do not, and where the line must be drawn between the true and the false church than upon the Great Shepherd who calls all his sheep by name. The first generation of Reformers pointed to a better way in their emphasis on the One Shepherd and the One Flock. Christ is the center that should hold our attention and our love and he alone can keep us together.

In this connection Calvin’s reply to Sadoleto (written as a prayer to God) is to the point: „Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity. Mine, however, was a unity of the Church, which should begin with thee and end in thee. For as oft as thou didst recommend to us peace and concord, thou at the same time, didst show that thou wert the only bond for preserving it” (Calvin 1539:59).

An example of the secession mentality is that of the American pastor who explained why he had joined a secession church with the comment that he could not remain in a church that only permitted a pastor to preach the gospel. He could remain only if it required that he preach the gospel.

The secession mentality derives from what may be called an ecclesiastical perfectionism. Well known are the claims of the Orthodox churches that when the church speaks in a general council it is infallible. Also, the Roman Catholic Church has an infallible pope. And numerous are the sects that claim that their


view of the truth is fully correct. In all these examples the church absolutizes its official teaching.

Carl E. Braaten tells us that already in the early church the idea was widespread that „All important events in God’s history with the world have already occurred. The Church has only to sit on its past and raise up leaders to function as guardians of the treasury of salvation stored in the documents of Christian antiquity” (Braaten 1977:50).

G.C. Berkouwer has pointed out that in the early years of the Reformation the conviction prevailed among the Reformers that the confessions bore an absolute and exclusive character. The church that the Reformers established was seen to be the legal continuation of the church of the Apostles and even as the truth is absolute, so it had to come to expression in a oneness of form and content (Berkouwer 1970:67).

In the American Reformed thinking of the 17th century this tendency to absolutize included, at least in one instance, church polity as well as church doctrine. As Talbot Chalmers expressed it. „Deep down in the heart of the church lies the conviction that our missionaries, who carry to the heathen the doctrine of Christ as we have received it, must also carry the order of Christ as we have received it — The substantive elements of our polity must be reproduced in the mission churches” (Hutchinson 1987:97).

Surely, every tendency to absolutize does not lead to a secession but the secession mentality, we suggest, is not free from this tendency. The myopic secession outlook is like an illness. From it people have to be cured. It should be replaced with a vision of catholicity.

2. In the misuse of the idea of the true and false church

The distinction between the true and false church came into the theological discussion at the time of the Reformation. The Apostles Creed and the Nicean creeds speak of the holy church but not of the true. The true and false church distinction was occasioned by the apostasy that had entered the Western church in the late Middle Ages which the Reformers sought to reform, and from


which, like Martin Luther, some were excommunicated. Those who withdrew left the church only when, because of the intransigence of Rome, reform proved to be impossible to achieve. Calvin in his Institutes explained their departure as follows: „In withdrawing ourselves, therefore, from the pernicious participation of so many enormities, there is no danger of separating ourselves from the Church of Christ. The communion of the Church was not instituted as a bond to confine us in idolatry, impiety, ignorance of God, and other evils; but rather as a means to preserve us in the fear of God, and obedience to the truth” (Institutes IV, 2, ii).

We shall not enter into the merits of using the true/false distinction with reference to the 16th Century (see Weijland, Chapter VII). We would, however, question its use in reference to other Protestant denominations today, especially those in the same confessional family. Henk Weijland makes the wry remark that in the Netherlands people have used the distinction as often in reference to other Reformed churches as to the Roman Catholic Church (p 110).

The first objection to this current misuse is that the distinction was intended to function in relation to the Church of Rome which in the Reformers’ estimation „would not submit itself to the yoke of Christ”. The Reformers did not have in mind a church that still preached the gospel but failed at some points to maintain the confessions. They saw the Church of Rome as fundamentally deformed. They left, if they still had the choice, because they desired to be faithful to the gospel.

A second objection is that the distinction leads almost invariably to a lack of evenhandedness. Those who use the distinction feel moved to charge that a church that does not measure up on all the counts of the true church (faithful preaching of the Word, faithful administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of church discipline) is not a true but a false or apostate church. However there is no similar use of the marks of the false church; namely, to conclude that if a church does not display all the marks of the false church it must be true.

The difficulty in applying the marks of the false church today


derives from the essential difference between these marks and those of the true church. The latter are essentially the tasks which the Lord gave his church. They are marks in the sense that they test faithfulness in the performance of those tasks. The marks of the false church, in contrast, are indications of a fundamental disposition that opposes God. Such a church would usurp his rule, refuse to perform his will and persecute those who live according to the Word of God (cf. Belgic Confession Art. 29).

A third difficulty in applying the true/false distinction is that in the full and complete sense neither the true nor the false church exists on earth. Every church is imperfect in its execution of the tasks God has given it, and even the most apostate church, until it truly becomes a synagogue of satan, has remnants of the church. A group of people which warrants being labeled a false church because it has all the necessary marks cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called the Body of Christ.

It is significant that Calvin found in the Roman Catholic Church vestiges of the church and recognized its baptism as valid. He did this in spite of the high degree of departure by the Church of Rome in the 16th century from the tasks God gave the church. Yet that church has since changed in the direction of conforming to a surprising degree to the marks as Calvin described them.7

The same may be said of the state church in the Netherlands from which the seceders withdrew in the previous century. It has shown a remarkable ability during the last hundred years to retain at least some of the marks. It has in its midst fellowships of churches, the Gereformeerde Bond (Reformed Alliance) and the Confessionele Vereniging (Confessional Association), which are loyal to the faith of the fathers.

We should therefore recognize that there is an essential difference between a true church that is very faulty and a false church „that ascribes more power and authority to itself than to the Word of God”. More important, we should recognize that we ourselves have fallen short of the high calling of the marks of the true church. It is highly desirable that we avoid the use of the terms true and false church in speaking of other denominations but


refer to such churches, when the occasion warrants it, as being more or less pure.

3. In holding the thesis that withdrawal is the only (or the best) means of preserving the purity of the church

No one should underestimate the love that seceders have had for the gospel and the people of God. The price they paid was often high, a price that was sometimes forced from them, as when they were driven out. Calvin referred to the prediction of Christ that his disciples would be cast out of the synagogues for his sake (Jn 16: 2) and then added, with reference to his own situation, „we have been cast out” (Institutes IV 2 6). But at times withdrawal can be the easier way of escape. This is especially true in circumstances where there is no longer interference from the civil authorities in church affairs, as was sometimes the case in the previous century in countries with established churches. Withdrawal is made all the more easy in affluent societies where a small group of local churches is able to provide for its basic institutional needs and can carry on a global ministry without the help of the wider circle of churches.

But to abandon to its own devices the church that is considered impure means also to withdraw from the scene where one can still exert a significant impact upon that church communion. Once the tie is broken, on the basis of the charge that the church is unfaithful, the path of reforming it has in effect been abandoned.

People who tend to think that withdrawal in the best or only way to preserve the faith that was once delivered to the people of God (Jude 3) should take note of what has happened, for instance, in many mainline churches in the USA. Ronald Nash has given a survey of evangelical renewal movements in several of these churches in a recent publication. He states in the Introduction that one of the more surprising phenomena of American religion in the late 20th Century is the resurgence of evangelical presence in the large mainline denominations that were once thought lost to evangelicalism (Nash 1987: ix).

God has done the unexpected. It gives pause to those who hold that withdrawal is the only way to uphold the purity of the church.


The possibility of renewal does not mean that the time never comes when there should be withdrawal, but it does strengthen the position that withdrawal is a recourse that is made use of only if one is prevented from proclaiming the gospel. For as long as this freedom remains, the hope of renewal remains also.

Calvin put the issue sharply when he said that it was necessary to withdraw from the „Romanists” in order to approach to Christ (Institutes IV 2 6). He firmly held to the idea of the exclusiveness of Christ, the only Great Shepherd, and the inclusiveness of his people. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that the communion of the saints „is to be extended unto all those, who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (26 2).

4. By placing undue emphasis on the denomination

The fellowship of churches to which local churches belong is commonly called a denomination. In such usage a church is like a piece of legal tender which is of a particular „denomination”, say $5. Like one of the many denominations of paper money in current use, my church is one of many. The church denomination often functions as a primary means to identify Christians.

To say that my denominational affiliation adequately indicates my relation to the Church of Jesus Christ is highly misleading for it draws the attention away from where it should be concentrated, namely on the One Church which Christ bought with his precious blood (Acts 20: 20).

The Christian Reformed Church in North America declared in 1944 that there is something in denominational structures that is anti-normative (see p 120). With this we may likely all agree. Yet some of our actions show that for all intents and purposes the denomination is much more important, and more restrictive, than the Body of Christ. Let me give a number of examples.

In 1986 the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa declared in its general synod that the only condition for membership in the church of Jesus Christ is faith in the Triune God and in his revelation in Scripture (Church and Society par 62). But then one of the officers of the general synod stated that this condition referred to membership in the holy catholic Church, not the


Dutch Reformed Church. In his view there are other conditions than faith in Christ that could determine membership in the denomination. At the present time that church is as yet unwilling officially to commit itself to establishing one multiracial church of all people in the area who hold to the same faith as expressed in the commonly held church standards. The valid affirmation at this point became inoperative.

In the Christian Reformed Church in North America there was a debate a few decades ago concerning quality membership. Some were of the opinion that the church should not allow everyone who claims to be a Christian to become a member, but should limit membership to those who can agree with the full teaching of the church. Applicants should be able to answer in the affirmative the question: „Do you believe the doctrines — taught in this Christian church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?” The denomination, if it admits only people who give a credible answer to this question, could become like an exclusive club.

There are other examples. One church takes the position that no person who belongs to a secret oath-bound society may be admitted to membership even if he/she considers membership in the society to be merely social in nature. There are churches which hold to exclusive psalmody in its worship, and that all singing must be without instrumental accompaniment. In their outreach they require that their missionaries establish churches holding to these same „distinctives”. These examples show how the denomination can exalt itself at a certain point above the Church of Jesus Christ, of which it is only a part. Like the moon that comes in the way of our vision of the sun, the denomination tends to obscure the one holy catholic and apostolic church. Because of the obstruction of the lesser body we cannot see clearly the worldwide People of God.

5. In limiting catholicity to the invisible church

There has been a strain in the Calvinist tradition that has tended to limit catholicity to the so-called invisible church. Henk Weij-land has documented how the idea of the invisible church has come to expression in the confessions that originated in Great Britain (Scots Confession, Irish Articles and the Westminster


Confession of Faith (see p 107/108). He demonstrates that when the church holds that catholicity is made to be a mark of the invisible church, when the visible church is seen to be comprised of churches which are more or less pure, and when purity is seen as a goal to be reached, not just as an assessment of the state of affairs, then it is a relatively minor matter that churches proliferate and that members leave one church to go to another.

The idea of the invisible church has played a role not only in the Reformed confessions but also in its theology. As Klaas Runia has pointed out, this is true both of Charles Hodge and Abraham Kuyper (see p 69/70). Once one takes the position that the attribute of catholicity belongs to the invisible church, the divisions of Christendom become less problematic.

6. In defending denominationalism with the „pluriformity of the church”

If the idea of the invisible church was found primarily among Presbyterians, that of the pluriformity of the church originated among the continental Reformed; its chief proponent was Abraham Kuyper.

Kuyper stressed in his voluminous writings the organic nature and development of things. In applying this idea to the church he reached the conclusion, not from a study of the bibical data but from the multiplicity of forms in the creation (see p 70).

Again, to the extent that this idea finds support and in particular when it is advanced by an influential theologian, it easily leads to a minimizing of the need to seek to manifest in a concrete and visible way the unity of the Church of God on earth. The „invisible church” becomes a retreat in which the task of maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4: 3) is lost to view.

One fact stands out in the analysis of the Reformed churches as this has been done in the chapters of this book; namely, that the clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions on the unity of the church has not had a great impact on these churches. What has often been in the foreground of their attention is a strong conviction of the truth of the gospel as they have understood it and a


strong loyalty to their denomination, sometimes to the disregard of the Una Sancta.

As we deplore this imbalance we should recognize both the value and the shortcoming of our tradition. Our attitude toward it must therefore be ambivalent: we should be both loyal and open; we should cherish our heritage and seek to improve on it, testing all things and retaining what is good.

Here we may take our cue from what to some may be a most unexpected source, a Roman Catholic theologian. Professor Mark D. Lowery, has written how Roman Catholics should view their tradition in relation to the current church unity movement: „We have two values, then, that stand in tension with each other. Our process of ecumenical conversion must take place in two directions simultaneously: on the one hand, a change of heart must take place through which we become genuinely more open to other traditions, with a willingness to allow our own tradition to be transformed. But on the other hand, in loyalty to our own cherished historical identity as Roman Catholics, we want to be sure to preserve our rich heritage” (Lowery 1985:9).


Unresolved issues

The process of engaging in criticism of self leads quite naturally to the consideration of a number of unresolved issues which require careful attention. Since the Reformed tradition is both precious and imperfect, the path ahead may neither lead to a rejection of the past nor simply be an extension of the former ways. It is to a number of these issues that we now turn.

1. How relate our tradition and our denomination to the Body of Christ?

The concern here is to place in right relation the fundamental identity that we have in Christ (whether we live or die we are the Lord’s) with our secondary identity that derives from our tradition and our belonging to a church that is denominated this or that. This problem is perhaps nowhere as acute as in those church communions which have withdrawn from other church bodies and now lead a life of their own. In them the tendency is to justify


the existence of the new church and this leads, understandably, to an emphasis on the „distinctives” of that church. For unless these distinctives warrant the separate existence, the members cannot make a case for their denomination and then their identity is in jeopardy.

It may appear at first glance that the examples given above (p 189) of undue stress on denominational loyalty should be branded as in conflict with the confession of one holy catholic church. But to deal with all distinctives that have developed is not so simple as that. We may agree that we should not deliberately seek to establish a unique identity by forming a new denomination but should rather emphasize that we belong to the one People of God by remaining where we are as long as possible. We may agree in theory that the emphasis should not be on the distinctives of the tradition and the denomination but on the universality of the church. But we must deal with the issue from our present denominational situation.

One of the unfinished tasks is to find a way to share with the rest of Christendom the valuable insights and emphases which we have acquired. As John Mackay said, there are insights in our heritage of faith and attitudes in our tradition of life which the Church Universal needs (Lowery 1985:110). For this the theological dialogue provides an open door.

Some helpful observations on this issue have also been made by John T. Ford, Professor of the Catholic University of America, on the relative value and use of denominational horizons. By horizon he means a range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point (JES Summer 1986:519). For many people, the denomination to which they belong provides such a horizon and as a result they tend to equate their church horizon with the whole Christian tradition. Ford describes the effect of denominationalism on ecumenical relations with the generalization that the deeper the person’s satisfaction with his/her denominational horizon, the less use he/she has for an ecumenical outlook. What develops then is a kind of ecclesiastical provincialism, an ecumenical reductionism.

Ford recognizes that people who love their denomination have a


point: they fear that their traditions may be sacrificed in favor of some least-common-denominator Christianity. This is a legitimate fear that must be considered.

The way to avoid reductionism without falling prey to a vague consensus is by broadening the horizon to include the global church without rejecting the, admittedly limited, perspective that the denomination provides. The path of open dialogue with other churches that leads from the restrictive horizon to the broadened perspective will be difficult but may well be worth the effort. The issue of what to retain and what to relinquish may still be unresolved, but the path is hereby indicated on which we can do justice both to our fundamental identity and our secondary yet valuable loyalty.

2. Where are the parameters of allowable differences?

From the days of the first century the church has been faced with the question concerning how much difference can and should be tolerated in the church (see Van Dyk, Chapter V). Let us agree that we should honor the basic distinction made in the church of the Apostles between conflicting faiths and worldviews on the one hand and tolerable differences on the other; but the question remains as to just where we should draw the line.

Calvin’s comment on essential and non-essential doctrines was that „all the articles of true doctrines are not of the same description. Some are so necessary to be known, that they ought to be universally received as fixed and indubitable principles, as the peculiar maxims of religion; such as, that there is one God; that Christ is God and the Son of God; that our salvation depends on the mercy of God; and the like. There are others which are controverted among the churches, yet without destroying the unity of the faith” (Institutes IV, 1, xii). Calvin adds that „we ought not, on account of every trivial difference of sentiment, to abandon the Church, which retains the saving and pure doctrine that insures the preservation of piety, and supports the use of the sacraments instituted by our Lord” (Institutes IV, 1, xii).

Herman Bavinck speaks of differences in confession in relation to catholicity. He observes that „Even as the one universal Christian church comes to manifestation more or less purely in the


various churches, so also the one general Christian truth finds more or less pure expression in the different confessions of faith” (Bavinck 1968:40).

In reflecting on this matter as it surfaced in the time of the Reformation, Bavinck asked: „How far can the impurity of the church go and still remain a true church of Christ? How is it possible to preserve the catholicity of the church and at the same time maintain the complete character of truth? To give an absolute answer was impossible from the Protestant position” (Bavinck 1968:25). Yet he was also of the opinion that catholicity should guard the church both from error and from schism.

The answer to the question of how much may be tolerated should be sought in understanding the true nature of catholicity. It is a oneness in our confession and teaching as well as in the image we project by our organization and our structural programs. In the nature of the case there can be no conflict between catholicity and sound doctrine. Cyril of Jerusalem understood this well when he said that the Church is catholic „because it never stops teaching in all its fullness every doctrine that men ought to be brought to know” (see p 21). Yet this does not settle the matter.

It should be emphasized that the toleration of views that are seen to be out of accord with the gospel does not mean to condone such views. In such cases, as Calvin says, we must seek to correct what we cannot approve. This means that catholicity is not at odds with church discipline but rather obligates the church to exercise it faithfully. For true discipline, like authority, is not for tearing down but for building up (2 Cor 13: 10).

Too often the choice seems to be between quietly tolerating doctrinal error or leaving the church. But the third alternative is that of launching a protest action, according to established procedure, against deviations from the accepted gospel truth. Only after it appears that there is no affirmative response to such protests should one even consider leaving the church. As we have stated earlier, secession must be a last resort.

In determining the limits of permissible differences, it is imperative that we hold in view the basic requirement for membership in


the Church, namely a credible confession that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord (I Cor 1: 2; Rom 10: 13). For the rest, diverging views should be assessed as to whether they support or detract from this basic requirement.

It should be clear that we are speaking in this section of church membership, not of qualifications for office in the church. In the church of the Apostles a higher standard was set for office bearers (1 Tim 3) than for members and the same distinction should be observed today. We are seeking for standards by which, in line with our discussion, a person, whether an office bearer or a church member, can decide whether he/she is justified in withdrawing.

It is well to remind ourselves of the time-honored distinction between the fides qua, the faith by which we believe, and the fides quae, the content of that faith. In terms of drawing the line we may do no better than to hold that only the former is seen to be at stake in admission to membership. Else we may shut out those whom Christ has accepted. As for the latter, the understanding of the content of faith, the need remains to endeavor to correct those whose views are not in conformity with the faith of the church.

The distinction between the act of faith and the content of what is believed, while it does give perspective, does not, we admit, afford an easy solution. For the denial of a cardinal truth, such as that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, may indicate that the person who denies this event lacks the essential trust in the person of the living Lord. The Apostle Paul said that if God did not raise Christ from the dead, our preaching is useless and so is our faith (1 Cor 15: 14). Where denials of the resurrection prevail, protest is unavoidable and withdrawal may eventually be indicated.

The consideration of the parameters of tolerable differences leads to the conclusion that we should stay in the church where we are so long as we possibly can. Before we depart we should ask questions such as these: Can I freely bear testimony to the gospel? Is it necessary to leave the church where I am in order to be with Christ? Is the church so clearly a false church that it cannot be called a defective yet true church? Is it beyond the point of renewal and reform? If the answer to these questions is in the


affirmative, one has no choice but to withdraw. Lacking such assurance, one should think twice before announcing his/her departure.

3. Concentric Circles of Dialogue or both?

It is common among evangelical Reformed churches to speak of the relation of their church to other communions in terms of concentric circles. The picture they draw is one in which their church is put at the center and the other churches are arranged in smaller or wider surrounding circles, depending on the measure of agreement in doctrine and practice.

As an example we refer to the Christian Reformed Church in North America which took this position both in the statement it made in 1944 and in its Ecumenical Charter of 1987 (see Chapter VIII). The idea is also known in the wider circle of churches. The Orthodox churches, for instance, operate with the same model. This became apparent some years ago when they responded to the proposal made in Uppsala by the World Council of Churches in 1968 that a general council of all churches be arranged. The Orthodox response was that they could not reply to the proposal until they first held a pan-Orthodox council to determine their position, and the date for that has not yet been set.

Another example of the concentric circles model is found in the way some evangelical Reformed churches express their unity ecumenically. These churches affiliate first with those churches which share the same confession and history (e.g., Reformed Ecumenical Council). They take a second step and affiliate with a Reformed organization in which the confession and the tradition, although not absent, is not prominent (e.g., World Alliance of Reformed Churches). They take a third step and affiliate with a fellowship of churches that has as its basis the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior according to the Scriptures (e.g., World Council of Churches).8

The Orthodox churches claim that when the church speaks in a general council they speak infallibly. They also hold that their churches represent the undivided church prior to the break with the West in 1054. One can sense the feeling of superiority in this


position. The Orthodox speak from the conviction that they are in possession of the truth.

The Reformed Ecumenical Synod in the past has taken a somewhat similar position, claiming that its member churches have maintained the Reformed faith and should bear testimony to the churches „that have departed from the truth of God’s holy Word”. However the Reformed Ecumenical Council (as it is now called) makes no such claim. Its Constitution adopted in 1988 states that maintaining the Reformed faith is a goal to achieve, not a position that its churches have reached. Here another problem surfaces.

The idea of concentric circles seems to imply a sense of superiority. It sounds as if the churches who advocate this model say that the other churches should come to those who are at the center, else they will remain off center. Is this mere appearance or reality?

We are faced with a dilemma here: On the one hand we seem to have no choice but to place ourselves at the center, for we are bound by the very constitution of things to maintain our own perspective. We cannot adopt the views of others unless we first take them as our own and then we still see them from the vantage point of where we ourselves stand.

On the other hand, if we say that the other churches have equal right to their views as we do and then consider all convictions as on a par, we land in a kind of relativism, a midnight in which all cats are grey. The very claim that all views are relative assumes absolute validity for itself and is self-destructive.

It would appear that an acceptable construction can nevertheless be put on the idea of concentric circles. It recognizes the necessity of considering ourselves right unless and until we are proved wrong on the basis of a transcendent standard that holds for all. The problem arises not from the model itself but from the misplaced attitude of superiority of those who espouse it.

However, even if we openly disavow superiority and yet maintain our position as correct, can we persuade our partners in dialogue


that we are truly open to consider seriously any other views than our own? The only way to assure them of our openness is to recognize that we see only in part, even when we think that we are right. In this the New Testament can show the way.

There are two assessments in the NT of our knowledge as believers which stand in apparent mutual tension: we know only in part (I Cor 13: 12) and, since we have an anointing from the Holy One, we all know the truth (1 Jn 2: 20, 21). Rather than choosing for the one to the exclusion of the other, we hold that only by maintaining the paradox can we avoid the pitfalls of the pride of possession and the unease of uncertainty. Rather than conclude that both assessments given in the apostolic witness cannot be right, we should seek to understand that both are valid. We do have knowledge through God’s anointing grace and our acceptance of God’s revelation, and at the same time our knowledge is incomplete and not free from error.

If we stress only the incompleteness of our knowledge we may veer in the direction of making all our confessions but feeble tentative efforts to express what is beyond human understanding and accurate formulation. If we emphasize solely the certainty of our knowledge and apply this idea to our entire church standards, our church order and even our generally accepted theology, but do not see that this knowledge is centered in and grounded on the truth in Jesus Christ, we may think that we are the blessed possessors. In fact, we can do no more than touch the hem of the garment of truth. Yet even the touch of the garment of truth can save.

Taken in this sense, dialogue and concentric circles are fully compatible but dialogue should then be seen as a common search for the meaning of God’s revelation. The truth, like catholicity, is both a gift and a task. Like the Kingdom, it is already and not yet. We shall have to take seriously the promise that God will continue to lead his people into the truth as they engage in a communal searching enterprise. To enable the People of God to do this, God has constituted them „one body” in Christ.

4. How relates the oneness of the Church to Catholicity in Society?

Willie Jonker in his discussion on „Catholicity, Unity and


Truth” (Chapter II) refers to the catholicity of the Christian life. Drawing on the insights of Herman Bavinck, he finds that catholicity is an attribute of the Christian religion that aims at nothing less then the „sanctification of the whole earthly reality” (Bavinck 1968:21ff 30ff). Jonker finds support for this wider-than-church view of catholicity in the confession of the church that Jesus is Lord. „The lordship of Christ is of a total character, and He claims not only the totality of the earth and all the nations as his dominion, but also the totality of the life of all those who follow him” (p 25). Again, „Christianity and the church are catholic because they recognize, proclaim and obey him in every sphere of life” (p 26).

Klaas Runia in his survey of Reformed theology refers with approval to the idea of Hendrikus Berkhof on the biblical idea of the fullness of Jesus Christ. This fullness is the domain over which Christ rules (p 74).

John Van Dyk has observed in Chapter IV that the early apostolic church was not one institution among many but was a society-wide community of God’s redeemed people. The church that Jesus built, besides being a worshipping fellowship, was also a political community, an economic society and a legal community (p 46). Today this idea of the universal societal scope of the church as the people of God seems to be irretrievably lost to the vast majority of Christians.

There is, of course, a vast difference between the structure of society in the time of the early church and that of society today. Then it was largely undifferentiated; religion and civil rule were centered in the emperor. Industry was largely an extension of the home. There was no church „sphere”. Today we daily experience the influence of various distinct societal zones, of which the church is one.

Unfortunately, in modern society the idea of the Christian religion as a decisive force in all human experience has been largely abandoned and religion has become a matter largely for church and private devotions. Society as a whole, including many of God’s people, has fallen prey to a dualism that divides all human experience into the sacred and the secular. Moreover, these are


not two static areas, as if there were an unmovable barrier between them; rather, the dividing lines are in flux. There is a process underway which continuously moves the wall of partition in one particular direction so that as the sacred recedes the secular advances.

Os Guinness in The Gravedigger File describes three social developments which erode the Christian faith: secularization, privatization and pluralization. He finds that contemporary Christianity is „privately engaging but socially irrelevant” (Guinness 1983, 26).

It was not always thus. There have been times in our tradition when the vision of the universal scope of the community of God's people has reappeared. This was true at the time of the Reformation.9 Another instance, as other writers in this volume have mentioned, was in 1888 when Herman Bavinck presented his address on The Catholicity ofChristianity and Church. It stands out as a monument in our tradition and, although written more than a century ago, is relevant for our study today.

What stands out in Bavinck’s tract is that the Christian religion, not just the church, is catholic. The Christian religion, he says, spans the ages and the globe and the full extent of human society. Already in the OT revelation of the origin of the world he finds an „inner catholicity”, a religion that comprehends the entire person (mens) in the entirety of his life (Bavinck 1968:4).

As he turns to the NT, Bavinck stresses the love that God has for the world, the cosmos, which he made and for whose redemption he sent his Son. The biblical idea of unity „flows directly from the oneness of God, from the oneness of the Mediator between God and people, from the oneness of the Spirit, from the oneness of the truth, from the oneness of the covenant and from the oneness of salvation” (10).

Bavinck states that the free Reformed churches have the obligation to promote the catholicity of the faith as well as of the church. The churches have also the promise of the future. They do, that is, on condition that they preserve the catholicity of both the Christian faith and the Christian church (39). But if they are to


achieve this they will have to break free from their schismatic tendency. To advance catholicity we shall also have to take leave of a nature/grace scheme (14).

With his vision of catholicity Bavinck did little more than point to the need to make the Body of Christ a society-wide fellowship of followers of Christ. He left no blueprint but made an appeal to express the catholicity of faith that is bound to no place or land or people. „It [faith] can enter in all situations, can join with all forms of natural life and is fit for all ages, is profitable for all things and applies in all circumstances; it is free and independent because it resists nothing but sin and there is purification from all sin in the blood of the cross” (38).


The world and the Lordship of Christ

Bavinck broached a topic that has been much in discussion in ecumenical circles, namely that of church and society (world). This discussion has not always been particularly fruitful for a number of reasons. One such reason is the one-sided attention that has been given to the biblical teaching on the world, the cosmos that God made and loves but that fell under the power of the Prince of the world. Another reason is that less than justice has been done to the generally accepted confession of the lordship of Christ. We shall therefore have to look, at least briefly, at these two biblical ideas.

The ecumenical literature puts much stress on God’s love for the world and pays little attention to the biblical teaching of the enmity between the world and Christ, or the warning that the world hates Jesus’ disciples because they an not of the world (John 17: 14).

A clear distinction should be made between the world of humanity and nature that needs the redemption of Christ (the cosmos that God loves, John 3: 16) and the ruling forces in the world that have largely given form to the structures of society and obstruct the proclamation of the gospel and the coming of the Kingdom.

The idea that best catches the true Christian attitude to the world,


whereby God’s people refuse and flight from it and refrain from uncritically affirming it, is the idea of the pilgrim people of God. Although God has given the earth to man (Ps 115: 16) and has enabled him once again to be the agent of reconciliation (2 Cor 5: 19, 20) and the trustee of creation, just as God intended it at the beginning (Ps 8), nevertheless, the people of God remain pilgrims and as such have no abiding place in this world. Because of the organized opposition they should be a fellowship of pilgrims, a true pilgrim people.

The ecumenical literature on human society has not been as fruitful as it might have been, we would suggest, because it has attempted to construct a triangle with only two sides, namely church and society. The missing side in the discussion has been the biblical idea of the lordship of Christ as it relates to the full scope of human experience. In Christian perspective church and society cannot be considered in their inter-relatedness just by themselves but must be seen in their connection with the lordship that includes both.

When the disciples of Jesus formed a new community of believers, they were all united in a very short and simple confession of faith: Jesus is Lord. That is, he is God himself and he is the one who tells us what to do. By redeeming his people from the Evil One, by overcoming the world, Jesus established his kingdom and was given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore in all things he must have the preeminence (Col 1:1 8). God’s purpose is „to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1: 10).

The people of God, the full company of the redeemed, are the agents by which God’s Kingdom comes when they do his will (however slowly and imperfectly) in the world. These pilgrim people, the agents of the Kingdom, have many ministries, one of which (a central and decisive one) is their ministry of worship in church. The weekly periods of public worship are for administer-ing the Word of God to them, to equip them for service, to nurture, inspire and charge them to recognize Christ’s Lordship everywhere and always.

This central and decisive task of administering the Word by the


church underscores the need for church unity. If there is to be unity anywhere, then it should surely be here, just because of the proclaiming-teaching function which the church has assumed. If the people of God cannot be of one mind and say the same thing when they gather in God’s presence to worship in altar and table fellowship, then we can hardly expect them to be united in any area of life. To be of one mind and to say the same thing means as a minimum to have a confessional unity concerning the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ and our social responsibility.

The fact that the ministry of the church is only one of many ministries in the service of God means that unity for the people of God cannot be limited to what goes on in the church building nor can we spend all our time trying to put together the broken pieces of the ecclesiastical structures. The reason is that the church institution cannot stand all by itself, apart from the functioning of the people of God throughout the full extent of society. Not, that is, if they are to be that New Society that God's people were in the day of the Apostles, nor if they are to be a sign of the restored humanity in the new creation. How can they be the light of the world, to show the world the way, if they are not united as a community of people in service to society? The church that should unitedly proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom needs those other manifestations of God’s united people to display how God’s will is to be done in the non-church areas.

Perhaps we could say that the catholicity of Christianity is like a wheel that needs a hub, spokes and a rim to make it complete. The hub is the people of God and the rim is their multi-faceted performance of labor for the Lord in the world. The church institution is one of the spokes of the wheel. Other spokes would be institutions of Christian education and agencies for justice in society functioning according to biblical norms. We realize that the imagery is not adequate for it suggests that all spokes are alike and that the church is equal in importance with the home and school and industry. Yet the figure does illustrate that the church must contribute its ministry to the coming of the one great Kingdom of God which is as wide as society. This will happen only when men and women learn to obey the Lord as well „where cross the crowded ways of life” as in the sanctuary of communion where Christians lift paeans of praise to God.


The teaching of the lordship of Christ highlights another aspect of the struggle for unity and adds another characteristic to the nature of the unity we seek. This is the confrontation of the people of God with a common foe. It is necessitated by the world out there that is anti God. This struggle calls for a unity in conflict. Those who must stand in one mind and one spirit should strive together (struggle as a team of athletes) for the faith of the gospel (Phil 1: 27). And they must do this all along the line.

We should not think that we have the luxury of thinking that as long as our backs are not against the wall, we can safely continue on our own separate ways, each one doing his/her own thing with little concern for what others perform. The fragmentation of the people of God in their societal tasks is as regrettable as their division in the church institution. The world is too strong for a fragmented church and for a divided Christianity.



We have said that the secession mentality should be replaced with a vision of Catholicity, both of Christianity and of the church. That vision was expressed well by Herman Bavinck: „The person who feels what a powerful strengthening of faith, what a marvelous comfort in suffering it is to know that we are one with the entire struggling church from the beginning to the end of the world — such a one cannot be narrow in heart and remain constricted in his bowels” (Bavinck 1968:11).

The secession mentality, we have observed, is like an illness for which there must come a cure. That cure should begin with the recognition of our complicity in the brokenness of the church institution and the manifestation of the Body of Christ in the world.

In the recognition of complicity, the Christian Reformed Church in North America has given us an example when in its Contemporary Testimony (Our World Belongs to God, 1983) it stated:

The Church as a gathering of forgiven sinners, is holy, dedicated to service. Knowing our weakness and past failure, we may bring


good news to all sinners with understanding of their condition, but with hope in the grace of God.

We grieve that the church which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope, and spans all time, race, and language has bickered and fought and become a broken communion in a broken world. We marvel that the Lord gathers the pieces to do his work, and that he blesses us with joy, new members, and surprising evidence of unity. We commit ourselves to seeking and expressing the unity of all who follow Jesus (Pars 46, 47).

The healing of the secession mindset and its replacement with the catholic vision needs more than a recognition of past failures. It must also be accompanied by an inner persistent yearning for unity. This yearning must follow the example of our Lord who expressed his intense desire in prayer just before he was led to the cross (John 17). It found expression also in the words of the Apostle Paul who prayed that God would give his people a spirit of unity among themselves as they follow Jesus Christ so that with one heart and mouth they may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 15: 5, 6).

If we are to be true followers of Christ and his Apostle, we shall have to make our confession of one holy catholic and apostolic church a control belief in our lives, one that not only moves our lips to confess but drives us to action.

In the past the truth motif has functioned as a control belief but it did so in such a way that for the sake of maintaining the truth we failed to do justice to the unity of God’s people. To make catholicity now a control belief does not mean to put it in the place of the truth motif but it means that both must be kept in creative tension as co-directives for our lives. True catholicity, as well of doctrine, of membership and of life, can brook no division between truth and unity.

The confession of catholicity should move us to action both in church and in society. Ours must be a catholicity of Christianity and church. There is as great a need to manifest the unity of God’s people from one life zone to another as to display the unity in the area of the church. To do less is to fail to see the universalism of the Kingdom of God.


No blueprint, then, but a vision. A vision not just for a single-minded church that would be of the same faith, say the same thing and work unitedly in its service of worship and evangelization, but a vision for the unity of Christian believers in all life zones and in all life’s pursuits. Nothing less can do justice to the cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ and His reconciliation of the whole world, or our ministry of reconciliation. From pursuing this vision no discharge may be expected and there may be no withdrawal.



1. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1875), the Reformed Ecumenical Council (1946) and the International Conference of Reformed Churches (1985).
2. In The World in Figures, 1989, David B. Barrett and Frank Kaleb Jansen list 22,300 denominations. They estimate that by the year 2000 there will be 32,000 denominations.
3. In Growth in Agreement, 1984, Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer present the texts of 25 reports and agreed statements of ecumenical conversations on a world level. In addition there may be as many on the national or regional level. Meyer and Vischer observe that the ecumenical movement of this century has not been guided primarily by the concept of dialogue but by the concept of bringing the churches together into a preliminary communion and then to advance together toward the goal of full unity. It was only in the 60s that the emphasis on dialogue gained a good head of steam and the inter-church discussions now have proliferated to such an extent that it has become very difficult to keep track of developments and the results of all of them (2).
4. Meyer and Vischer stress that the dialogues are official and that they concern doctrine. The fact that they are official helps in reaching results which carry authority in the churches. The fact that they concentrate mostly on faith and order reflects the conviction that the theological difference rooted in the historical heritage of the churches are still operative today. „They cannot, therefore, be ignored, but must be taken up and worked through if a strong and lasting fellowship is to be established” (Growth in Agreement 1984:4).
5. The WEF response will be published in 1992.
6. The current activity of Faith and Order is concentrating on the larger project, of which the BEM Document was a part, namely, Toward a Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith. Here the ecumenical movement is directing its attention toward the hearthstone of its faith.
7. In view of developments in the Roman Catholic Church as indicated in the documents of Vatican II, on must ask: To what extent are the charges brought by the Reformers valid today? For a current evangelical view of the state of Roman Catholicism, see Roman Catholicism, a Contemporary Evangelical Perspective, Paul G. Schrotenboer editor, Baker, 1987.


8. This is not to defend membership in any of these organizations but only to state the fact that membership in all three illustrates the model of concentric circles.
9. In an article „The Reformation and Natural Law” in Calvin and the Reformation (1909), August Lang gives this vivid picture of the exciting period called the Protestant Reformation:
„The Reformation at its very beginning found itself in the presence of problems and exigencies of indefinite range, first of all, conflicts of purely religious and theological character-doctrinal, liturgical and constitutional conflicts. What an amount of spiritual strength was consumed even by these conflicts! How much there was that went wrong! What unrest, what losses these conflicts produced! And yet the problems which then appeared could be settled by reference to the fundamental religious principle of Protestantism, and on the whole were in fact settled in a truly Protestant way. Much more difficult and dangerous, however, was a second adjustment, which lay more on the periphery of religious truth and yet was no less necessary — namely the adjustment to the general ethical, political and social problems, to science and art. This adjustment, I say, was unavoidable, for if Protestantism, over against the medieval-Catholic world, involves a new world view, then there must necessarily be a Protestant science of politics, a Protestant philosophy and science, a Protestant art . . . For such an adjustment, however, in the very nature of things, time is required; it cannot be accomplished by one man or one generation . . . But now the tasks and problems of culture came upon the young evangelical Church in a storm [and] what was needed was . . . firm principles about the relation of the Reformation to the forces of culture — to the state, science and art — was lacking, and how could it be attained all at one in the midst of all the unrest of the time?” (94-96).



Calvin, John Institutes 1559; „The Necessity of Reforming the Church” in Tracts and Treatises, 1544; „Reply to Sadoleto” in Tracts and Treatises 1539.
Barrett D. and Jansen, K. The World in Figures 1989.
Belgic Confession of Faith, English translation, 1985.
Berkouwer, G.C. De Kerk II 1970.
Baptism Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper 111 1983.
Bavinck, H. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church, 1888, 1968.
Braaten, C.G. History and Hermeneutics, 1966.
Church and Society, Document of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, 1987.
Contemporary Testimony, Document of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1989.
Ford, J.T. „Bilateral Conversations and Denominational Horizons” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 1986.
Hutchison, W. Errand to the World 1987.
Lang, A. „The Reformation and Natural Law” in Calvin and the Reformation 1909.
Lowrey, M.D. Ecumenism. Striving for Unity amid Diversity 1985.


Meyer, H. and Vischer, L. Growth in Agreement 1984.
Nash, R.H. Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches 1987.
Reformed Ecumenical Synod, Acts 1968; Acts 1988.
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