Towards a political ecumenism?
By Clarence Stam Reformed Perspective Feb. 1988
Towards a political ecumenism?
Various letters have been received by the Editorial Committee of Reformed Perspective as a reaction to articles published earlier on the Christian Heritage Party (CHP). One of these reactions, an article of the Rev. E. Kampen of Houston, B.C., has been taken up in this issue. We are pleased to give this opportunity to present these views, which we consider noteworthy. The readers can then judge for themselves and weigh all the arguments brought forward.
It is not our intention to allow or to promote a lengthy debate on the issue of the CHP in the columns of Reformed Perspective, but we did consider it wise and fair to make room for this article.
We do not want to get complaints that we do not give everyone "a fair hearing." But we do consider it better that the dogmatical and ecclesiastical aspects of this matter be discussed in a magazine like Clarion, a magazine for the Canadian Reformed Churches, which is, perhaps, more suited as church magazine for this topic.
For or against?
There are a few comments which must be made with respect to some of Rev. Kampen's remarks. He writes that the readers may have received the impression that "it has become the editorial policy of Reformed Perspective to officially endorse this new party. Articles in support are in plentiful supply." This allows us to speak indeed about our editorial policy in this regard.
The editors of Reformed Perspective have in the past at various meetings elaborately discussed the rise of the CHP and the position which our magazine should take in with a view to this new political movement. There was not always full agreement on this issue. We did agree that we should report on the developments and offer suitable comments as well, but that we would neither endorse nor condemn this party. We do not want to be a vehicle which promotes any specific organizations as such, but rather a magazine which deals with events, developments, and the underlying ideas or philosophies. We would, for example, prefer to analyze and scruitinize the political program of the CHP rather than deal with ethical issues surrounding membership of this party.
It is not fair to suggest that Reformed Perspective has officially endorsed the CHP and that an abundance of articles was written in this direction. In the July/August 1987 issue, John de Vos wrote an article on the CHP in which he passed on much information but was also careful in his conclusion: "a positive sound could well result." In the November 1987 issue, Mr. de Vos reacted to a letter written by Mr. D.R. Wasmuth, and also here there was no unqualified endorsement of the CHP but a clear admission that the basis of the CHP was not strong. Mr. de Vos rejected the very essence of denominationalism! Besides, Mr. de Vos was not writing so much there about the CHP, but more about the question whether Christians have the right as such to organize a political party.
In the same issue, an article was published from the hand of Mr. Ed van Woudenberg. This article, which sought to explain Mr. van Woudenberg's view on the relation between the CHP and the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), admittedly tended to be a horn-blowing session for the CHP. Not everyone within the editorial committee agreed whether the role of ARPA had thus been correctly defined. Some of us are of the opinion that in the viewpoint of van Woudenberg this role has been grossly restricted. I, for one, can agree with Rev. Kampen that "the way of ARPA is indeed an avenue that needs to be explored much more."
Other than a few "news items" on the CHP (April 1987 and December 1987), this party is not mentioned at all in our magazine. The balance is: two articles, of which one does not offer any endorsement at all, at most some critical sympathy. It is therefore incorrect and unfair to say, "Articles in support are in plentiful supply." There was no extensive coverage at all.
There are those who strongly oppose membership in the CHP. We know this and are not insensitive to their concerns. They see this party as promoting a false ecumenism, even a "political ecumenism." This term originates from Mr. Wasmuth's letter (November 1987 issue). The viewpoint here is that responsible political cooperation is possible only between those who are members of the true church. i.e. the Canadian Reformed Churches. For only then, it is stated, is there a truly Biblical and confessional basis under such a political party. Unity in the faith, and in the church at the table of the Lord, is seen as an absolute prerequisite also for political cooperation. This is not merely a matter of an ideal but a divine norm.
Those who contravene this norm are found to be guilty of causing confusion, promoting false unity ("ecumenism"), being hypocritical, compromising their confession, and endangering the Church of Christ.
There are those who do not agree with the above viewpoint. They feel that they can responsibly be members of a party like the CHP because of the CHP's clearly stated intent and program. Some will, perhaps, admit that the basic
structure of the CHP is weak, but still they are convinced that this work should be supported in the present situation as a political initiative and alternative to the existing parties. They are of the opinion that especially in this early stage, when the party is still being formed and founded, the requested input from Reformed side may not be withheld. They may even see it as a calling from the Lord to provide such input and guidance, a matter of sharing the riches received in the Reformation. Instead of compromising their confession, they feel that they are promoting it.
It is quite easy in this entire discussion to drop labels of "ecumenism" or "sectarianism." The danger is not imaginable that such a discussion quickly polarizes into a dispute over who has or has not true orthodoxy. Let us remember that debates on the issue of political cooperation are not new; they occurred in the Netherlands many times in the fifties, the seventies, and the eighties. As late as in 1982, disagreement in Holland over political cooperation between the Reformed Political Association (Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond or GPV) and other "Reformed" parties even led to the resignation of many board members in the GPV.
Kinds of political parties
While we wish to let Rev. Kampen's article speak for itself, we feel the need to ask some questions as well on the main issue for a proper balance.
We certainly do not consider the issue of church membership to be a secondary matter. But is it so that if one joins the CHP, he thereby pretends that he has "the unity of faith" with all the other members? The CHP is not a church gathering but a political party, and does membership of the CHP really entail more than sympatheticcritical acceptance of its political program? Does the acknowledging of others as partners in a political organization also mean receiving them as brothers and sisters in the church or accepting the "church" of which they happen to be members? We are not convinced yet that this is indeed the case. These matters must be clearly distinguished, or indeed confusion will result!
There may be and probably are many ecumenists and denominationalists in the CHP. However, does partaking in an organization like the CHP necessarily mean condoning denominationalism or ecumenism? Ecumenists accept and applaud the existing ecclesiastical disunity as an inevitable and positive matter. Their prevailing ideas are dominated anyway by their theories concerning the invisible church. But none of us takes in this position with respect to the church.
A political party is not a replacement for the church. Neither is it an extension of the church, even if such a party is based on the Reformed confessions. As far as the CHP is concerned, it is an organization which holds to a specific political program, and membership of this party is contingent on agreement with such a program. The many remaining differences among the members of the party will still be painfully experienced, but does this really mean "compromising" one's confession? Is anything asked of us in the
constitution or the program of the CHP which explicitly contravenes the Word of God? Has this truly been demonstrated?
In 1979, the Groen van Prinsterer Stichting, the "thinktank" of the Dutch Reformed Political Association (GPV) published a brochure titled Church and Political Party.1 It deals with "the political relevance of church membership."
In this brochure the distinction is made between a "group party" (a self-interest party), "a program party," and "a confessional party."2
A group party seeks to promote only the interests of a certain group or a segment of society. For example, a labor party which wants mainly to better the situation of the workers. Such a restricted, self-interest party is not for Christians (Philippians 2:4).
A program party seeks to gain membership on the basis of a concrete political program. The content of this program is then decided by majority vote. The danger here is that the program may be changed and that there is no clear principle line. It is also possible that through a strict selection mechanism and some basic principles a certain ideological line is maintained.
A confessional party is based on the confessions of the church and is made up (mainly) of members of the church. It is not enough to say only "the Bible is our basis," for the Bible must be understood in a Reformed manner. The confession has political significance and life is a unity before God.
It is clear that what is to be preferred most is a confessional party, which has as its basis the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions and whose members are faithful to the Lord with respect to their church membership. This is what I have always advocated in the past and would like to have seen in the present. The question is, however, whether the formation of such a party is always possible or applicable in a given situation.
Let us quote from the brochure, Church and Political Party. "It is a great privilege when there exist in a country such ecclesiastical and political circumstances allowing the formation of a party on a confessional basis. This possibility must then be fully utilized. But this does not imply that political activity for a Christian is out of the question when circumstances do not permit the formation of a party on the above-mentioned basis. On the contrary. A Christian must seize every lawful and actual opportunity to test the government's policies and to influence and bend these policies in the direction of the Biblical norms. We will always have to look for possibilities to let the light of God's Word shine in politics."'
This brochure deals with a situation which has grown historically in the Netherlands. It is important to note that the writers of this brochure recognize that the situation is not the same everywhere. The CHP is admittedly not a confessional party but a program party, with a program that many of us may consider surprisingly acceptable. This does not mean that it should not be further investigated indeed whether a confessional party is realistically possible within our "ecclesiastical and political circumstances." A comprehensive ARPA study on this matter would be most welcome, in my opinion.
For, whether one is for or against membership of the CHP in the given situation, what does remain the same is the calling to work, also politically, for the glory of God's Name.
1 Groen van Prinsterer Stichting, Kerk en Politieke Partij, De Vuurbaak, Groningen, 1979, 40 pages.
2 'In Dutch: belangenpartij, programpartij en beginselpartij, Ibid., p. 18. 'Ibid., pp. 14, 15.