Denominationalism[1] - Rev. C. Stam

Published in Three separate issues of the "Clarion", Sept. 9/78, Sept. 23/78, and March 10/79.


In our present contacts with various denominations on this vast continent, and in our conversations with many North American Christians, we are experiencing some difficulty in under- standing one another. While we do find points of common belief, there are also some areas in which we seem to differ greatly.

A main area of difference is clearly the understanding of what the Scriptures teach us about the Church of Christ. While others suspect us of taking in too "rigid" (even sectarian) a viewpoint, we counteract by speaking of liberal or even UN-Scriptural doc trines of the Church.

In accordance with our Confession, we tend to speak in terms of "true" and "false" Churches, but North Americans (and, increasingly, Europeans also) are not wont to do so. Such a distinction apparently does not really function elsewhere beyond our own "circles." I can prove this with a simple quote from Sidney E. Mead (Professor Emeritus in the School of Religion and the Department of History, University of Iowa) who has written, "The 'true church type' could find no exact parallel in the pluralistic American society."

In keeping with this distinction, our Churches pursue a real unity or "sister-relationship" with those Churches which we have come to recognize as true Churches. The thinking is: all true Churches must be one in faith and action, for is not the Church "communion of saints'? Yet, Americans who do not think in such clearly de fined terms of true and false, favour looser associations in fear of being dominated and losing one's own denominational freedom and independence. Apparently, in this respect we do not have a common practice.

While we refuse or break off contacts with those churches which we have discovered to be false, Americans generally tend to maintain varying kinds of bonds and degrees of fellowship with them. Again, no common practice here.


Now we can live with these differences with others, if need be, but it seems that such divergences also crop up within our own federation of Churches. In our intra-denominational contacts we find that we do not all think alike in these matters, and all too readily accuse one another either of sectarianism or liberalism.

A simple, recent example will suffice. When one of our ministers writes that we should use only the gifts and talents of accredited office-bearers of our own Churches "for the equipping of the saints" (in the case of evangelism, to be exact), and not to invite speakers from elsewhere, he is immediately accused of being a "sectarian" who sees no good elsewhere and is forthwith reminded of the fact that Christ had great praise for outsiders, etc. But such was not the matter at stake; our minister was only speaking of the proper ecclesiastical way of doing things. Many, however, missed that very valid point.

Permit another timely example. It is no secret that some members of our Churches feel free to attend worship services organized by other denominations and perhaps to attend the Lord's Supper celebration there. The rigid scheme of "true and false" is too much for them, the ecclesiastical way to unity much too cumbersome, and they can entertain fellowship with other denominations in an ecumenical spirit that is alien to the other members of our Churches. And those others, in turn, greatly frown upon such practices. Correctly so, I feel.

Of course, I do not suggest that we must come to a minutely detailed agreement on all these issues. The late Prof. S. Greijdanus once made a plea for correct pluriformity within the Church. But our confession is clear on the Church, and must be upheld fully by all members. And that is the question underlying these articles: Do we all still subscribe to and also practice what the Reformed Confession teaches us about the Church of Christ? Or do we all form our own opinions as to what and where the Church of Christ is? Is perhaps some typically "American" thinking pervading our ranks? In a re action to a sermon, a brother once invited me not to speak of "true" and "false" churches, for such language was quite offensive and disturbing. And I answered that according to our Confession I must uphold such a distinction. I wonder now, does that make me an ugly sectarian?


At first I thought that "American" theology had not developed a specific understanding or a clear doctrine of what the Church of Christ really is. A well-defined Church-concept (or "locus de ecclesia") seemed to be a typically "European" idea which had not really caught flame on the "new" continent. You will generally not hear preachers exhorting their listeners to be living members of the true Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and to have a good regard for the "marks" of this Church. Such preaching is restricted mostly to our pulpits. American theology rather stresses "personal salvation" and considers the matter of the Church to be a voluntary choice of secondary importance.

This view point, vague as it may seem, however, in itself already constitutes a specific approach to the mystery of "the Church" and therefore merits further scrutiny. And, after having read the book Denominationalism (Edited by Russel E. Richey, published 1977 by Abingdon, Nashville), I come to the conclusion that American "Protestant" theology indeed has a staunch ly defended viewpoint on "the Church," a viewpoint which we should know and test in the light of the Scriptures and our Confession. This knowledge, in turn, should afford us greater understanding and appreciation of what we ourselves, by the grace of God, have come to confess concerning Christ's gathering of His Church.


When one takes a close look at the North American ecclesiastical scene, one quickly notices a huge and colourful multitude of denominations, each separately and exquisitely organized, and yet . . . each recognizing the others as Churches of the Lord and en gaging in many communal projects, all cooperating together to further the "Kingdom of God" in America. Revivalist movements easily flare up, uniting people from all denominations in a remarkable evangelical zeal, but mean while the denominations themselves remain intact and unscathed. And it is this practice of organizing oneself in a denomination, yet with the explicit recognition of other denominations, which Americans themselves term "denominationalism".

Underlying this idea of the de nominations is the American spirit of tolerance, aptly formulated by John Locke, "The Church is a free and voluntary society." One has the right to organize oneself as one wishes ("go to the Church of your choice"), but not the right to judge (or discriminate) others in their personal preferences and/or traditional upbringing. After all, is the disposition of the heart not more important than the outward institution of religion? John Wesley was quick to speak in such terms, "Dost thou love and fear God? It is enough, I give thee the right hand of fellowship!" Whether the love to God drives one to choose a faithful Church seems beyond the horizon.

And so the various denominations live on in peaceful coexistence, some what "sectarian," since each preserves its own independence, yet also deeply "ecumenical," since each shows little hesitance in giving the other recognition and cooperation.

American scholars themselves have differing opinions on this denominationalist practice. Richard Niebuhr has called denominationalism "the moral failure of Christianity" and, with others, feels that in this way the proper ecclesiastical unity and brotherhood is negated. Such scholars like to emphasize the sectarian quality of denominationalism. But others are convinced that denominationalism is really the solution to many a past problem and strife, stressing that denominationalism is the basis for a new ecumenicity. Winthrop S. Hudson, for example, has argued that "denominationalism is the opposite of sectarianism." The interesting thing is that both Niebuhr and Hudson are making worthwhile observations, and I would almost propose the impossible term "sectarian ecumenicity" to describe denominational ism; unity in disunity.


A typical example of denominationalism-in-action is the peculiar behaviour of the member Churches of the NAPARC, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Recently the Synods of five Churches of Re formed and Presbyterian persuasion convened simultaneously on the campus of Calvin College to discuss their own affairs in separate assemblies, but also to engage in some mutual activities. The delegates indiscriminately shared meals and dormitories, and were united in an ecumenical prayer meeting, yet none of the five Assemblies or Synods dealt with a proposal to realize ecclesiastical unity. The OPC Assembly was addressed by a delegate from the modernistic Reformed Church of America (RCA), while, in turn, Prof. C. van Ti! (OPC) was warmly welcomed at the Christian Reformed Syn od and received with grand applause.

The Christian Reformed magazine, The Banner, welcomed the many delegates of the various denominations with the heading, "You are the branches!" In this way an attempt was made to put the whole affair into a Scriptural perspective. The unity was apparent at the common service and at the tables, but the disunity of the "branches" was painfully evident at the separate assemblies. Yet no one really seemed to mind: denominationalism at work! And the question arises again: Is this an acceptable situation or a sad attempt to cover up a distressing dividedness?


There is another important aspect to be noted when speaking about denominationalism. Russel E. Richey has formulated it as follows: "Never adequately articulated, but implicit in. the self-understanding 6f the denominations was the recognition that there was a unity of the church which transcended the observable unity" (italics mine, CI.S.). In other words, each de nomination is a segment or a particular manifestation bf the one grand invisible Church, and basically, although each denomination remains on its own, all the churches in principle are one.

Winthrop Hudson said it as fol lows, "The basic contention of the denominationalist theory of the Church is that the Church is not to be identified in any exclusive sense with any particular institution." Each denomination may freely emphasize its own viewpoints, but may not deem its own doctrine to be fully the whole truth.

Hudson gives some further characteristics of denominationalism which are worthy of listing. Outward forms of worship are at best only differing at tempts to give visible expression to the life of the Church. No denomination claims to represent the whole Church of Christ. No denomination claims that all other Churches are false churches.

No denomination claims that all members of society should be incorporated within its own membership, or should submit to its ecclesiastical regulations. And all recognize their responsibility for the whole of society and expect to co operate in freedom and mutual respect with other denominations in discharging that responsibility.


And, of course, whenever opposite opinions are expressed, these are immediately termed as being "sectarian." It would be sectarian of any de nomination to state that its form of worship and confession is fully Scriptural and that others are obliged to follow the good example. It would be sectarian to assume that locally, e.g., the Canadian Reformed Church is the true Church of Christ, for this implicitly contains condemnation of others in the same vicinity. It would be sectarian to call others in the Name of Christ to join you in worship, for you must call people to Christ and not to a specific institution. It would be sectarian not to cooperate with Christians of differing signature in all kinds of worthwhile public activities and organizations. I hate to say it, but, in view of all this, I guess I'm somewhat of a "sectarian" indeed.

It boils down to this: all denominations have the right to exist and are significant for the whole, since pluralism and pluriformity are important characteristics of the one invisible Church. No Church may claim purity in doctrine, liturgy, and polity, although the one may be somewhat "purer" than the other. Each makes his own attempt at serving God in the best way possible, and all are assured of their own in the great invisible Church of Christ. There may be a healthy spirit of "competition" between the churches, yet each must ultimately seek what unites and not what separates, agreeing on the most fundamental issues of faith.

I hope to return to some aspects of Hudson's list in the course of this series. But first some other remarks. In view of all this, American Christians might easily regard our Belgic Confession as a "sectarian" Creed, since it contains a call to actual unity (Article 28) and diligently lists the (exclusive) marks by which a true Church can be known (Article 29). Again, such distinctions simply do not function on this continent, and in this respect also our Confession could be seen as a truly "foreign" implant on the fertile ecumenical soil of America.


The Westminster Confession, which came into being at a much later date than the Belgic Confession, might be used by some to defend denominationalism or promoted as fitting quite snugly into the American denominationalist pattern. In Article 25 of this Confession, we can read that the Catholic (or universal) Church is invisible, consisting of the whole number of the elect, whereas the visible Church consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion together with their children. I realize fully that any formulation can be easily misconstrued, but the terminology here does give occasion to misconceptions.

In his explanation of the Westminster Confession, G. l. Williamson makes statements similar to those of Hudson (above), "The Church of Christ is never perfectly manifested (italics mine, Cl. S.) in any denomination or organization." We realize that "perfection" will not be attained in anything on this earth (and we confess in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession that in the members of the Church there remain "great infirmities"), but does a statement like this not tend to relativate the importance of the ecclesiastical institution? However, Williamson does list the marks of the Church, and thus brings the matter into clearer focus, "Where there is fidelity in Word, sacraments and discipline, there is the true visible Church."

The Westminster Confession also contains the notion of purity. "And particular churches, which are members of the visible catholic church, are more or less pure . . . whereas the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error." The important question, "When does a church be come so impure that it ceases to be a true church?" is not answered in this confession, and Williamson feels that the Belgic Confession is of "some assistance." He states, "And we believe that the precise point of no return comes when such a church imposes on its members the unavoidable necessity of participation in sin." Yet he also believes that it is proper "to leave a true church that is much less pure to join a true church that is much more pure, provided the motive is the glory of God, the welfare of one's spiritual concerns (and that of his children) and a testimony against error."

This last statement is, in my understanding, evidence of denominationalism, supported by the terminology of the Westminster Confession. One can be a member of a much purer church, yet recognizing others (which are considerably less pure) as true churches. In the end the matter is not so much decided on the clear existence of the marks, but on varying degrees of purity, and such must be left up to one's own individual insights and motives. The Westminster Confession gives no clear directive in this respect.


In order to come to some distinct and usable line of demarcation as to where the Church of Christ really is, some American protestants like to distinguish between "evangelicals" and "non-evangelicals." This is done ac cording to the scheme set up by Robert Baird (1798-1863) who in his mammoth work, Religion in America, tried to give Europeans insight into the ecclesiastical structure of the "new" world. "Evangelicals," then, are those who profess basic points such as the Trinity, the depravity of man, the atonement by Christ, regeneration and faith, and final judgment. Baird also distinguished between Calvinists and Arminians (Presbyterians and Reformed vs. Methodists and Baptists), and set up a scale based on Church polity: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist. But the main distinction remained the one of "evangelicals" over against "non-evangelicals," the evangelicals being those groups which accepted "the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible." Creeds were of some importance, according to Baird, but not decisive, since the basic necessity was faithfully to exhibit the fundamental and saving truths of the Gospel!

Perhaps today, since Baird's time, the meaning of "evangelical" has received a somewhat different meaning, denoting especially those who preach spiritual rebirth through revivalism, but nevertheless the distinction still receives general usage.

From our point of view, Baird's construction is quite simplistic and can not serve as a legitimate demarcation line. Baird's zeal for classification brought him to use common denominators lower than the demand of Scripture. Arminians cannot be classified as being "evangelical," i.e., holding on to the fundamentals of the Gospel, while revivalism, though perhaps impressive in its outward forms, as Sidney Mead also writes, goes into an outright Pelagian direction "with the implicit suggestion that man saves himself through choice."


If we attempt to summarize the above, we can come to the following conclusion. The (Protestant) "American" view on the Church is guided by the fundamental belief that the Church of Christ is basically invisible and manifests itself in various denominations or throughout denominations, also in varying degrees of purity, while all "evangelical" Christians profess the Holy Scriptures to be fully the Word of God.. All visible Churches are at best "mere attempts" to give adequate, concrete form to the worship of God, and none may claim to have received the "true form of religion." While organization in different denominations is possible, perhaps even desirable, interdenominational cooperation and mutual effort is mandatory.

The rather rigid scheme of the Be!gic Confession with its defined marks does not find general acceptance. Of all denominations in America, the Re formed and Presbyterian Churches have the most strongly defended traditional standards of doctrine and polity, suffering ridicule for this. stance. There is little stress on knowledge of the Confessions and on the nurture of faith by catechetical instruction and Christian education. Preaching tends to be simplistic, quite methodistic in promoting various "steps" to salvation. Arminianism and Pelagianism prevail in recurring revivals and national campaigns.

In other words, unity in disunity.

Sectarian ecumenicity. We can agree with Niebuhr that denominationalism reveals the "moral failure of Christian ity" in America. Christ's prayer (John 17) for the unity of the Church as a unity in the Truth, a unity in word and deed, in love and responsibility, finds little application in the maze of American churches and sects. Does the reason lie here for the fact that American Christianity has so little impact on life in general? At close scrutiny, the grandeur fades and the poverty be comes increasingly apparent.

Our own Belgic Confession speaks much more Scripturally and simply on "the Church," as do other Reformed Confessions like, e.g., the Scottish Confession of 1560. And we hope to make a few more remarks about this D.V. next time.
(To be continued.)


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As we could see last time, the main idea underlying the "American" thinking about the Church is the "invisible Church" concept. All denomina tions, purer or less pure, together make up the one Church of Christ. Another word comes into view here: the unity of the (invisible) Church is sought in the pluriformity of the (visible) Churches. Each denomination may show its own particular emphasis and style, yet all are united in the acceptance of the one Word of God. While some lament the apparent disunity among the de nominations, optimists find this to be a correct and logical situation: no de nomination can expect to be perfectly and exclusively "the Church of Christ." Every striving to come to an instituted organization is but a mere "attempt" and should only be presented as such.


Some scholars (like Hudson) are in the habit of claiming John Calvin as who clearly formulated a similar viewpoint concerning "the invisible Church." We even read that "the denominationalist theory of the Church was implicit in the thinking of the Protestant Reformers" (Hudson, Denominationalism, page 22). The Reformers are said to have recognized as true Churches "all churches which possessed an essentially common faith, Luther an, Reformed, and Anglican."

Calvin, however, has been annexed more often to promote view points which basically were not his at all. The same happens with other gifted "leaders" throughout history. Dr. K. Schilder was involved in quite a debate with Dr. V. Hepp on this very same point and proved that Hepp wrongly interpreted Calvin as promoting "the pluriformity of the Church" and working from a "visible-invisible" construction (K. Schilder, De Kerk, I, page 314ff.).

Calvin's teaching on the Church is essentially quite simple and wholly balanced. He recognizes the important fact that "to God alone must be left the knowledge of His Church, of which His secret election forms the foundation"
We can appreciate this fact: only God one knows and sees the full and ultimate form of His Church as it is gathered from the beginning to the end of the world. But this cannot be misconstrued as a clear doctrine concerning the "Church invisible," for Calvin then immediately speaks of the Church as "the communion of saints" and adds that all the blessings which God bestows on the believers are "mutually communicated to one another." Calvin actually spends very little time and space on what could be termed "the invisible Church," but speaks at length about the judgment which ought to be formed concerning the visible Church, giving the marks of the Church as they al so are found in the Belgic Confession.

K. Schilder has written of Calvin that he stressed unity in worship and polity, and in order to find this unity, Calvin argues, God gave the marks of the Church. Recognizing that God alone knows the final number of His children, Calvin is speaking of the Church as it presents itself visibly and concretely ("de Kerk zoals zij optreedt in het concrete leven"). So it would appear to be quite false to rank Calvin among those who defend denominationalism.


When Calvin does speak of the "invisible Church" he means either the totality of all God's children throughout all time, or the totality of all believers on earth at a given time, the exact number of which in both cases is known only to God. This totality is not "visible" to us, but only to God. But then the word rather denotes the fact that to us this Church is unoverseeable. Calvin certainly does not use the term "invisible" to relativate the importance of the "visible Church" or to create some huge invisible superstructure of which each and every religious institution is automatically an integral segment.

The Belgic Confession speaks about the Church in this exact same way. This Church is being gathered from the beginnng to the end of the world (Article 27) therefore essentially unoverseeable to us, limited hu mans also spread over the whole world - therefore, again, to us unoverseeable - yet always visible, even "though sometimes for a while it ap pears very small."

This Church is visible as a "communion of saints" (Article 28), in which all are called to participate fully, and it is known by clear marks (Article 29), so that it can be easily distinguished from "all sects which assume to themselves the name of the Church." It may be clear that our Confession nowhere speaks of an "invisible Church," but of the Church which God visibly gathers from out of all times and places, ac cording to His divine pleasure and council, and which is found according to the marks set in His revelation. To partake in this catholic gathering of believers, one must be enjoined to that Church which unequivocally displays the marks.

The late Rev. I. de Wolff has argued correctly that it belongs to the beauty of our confession that it does not speak in systematic terms of the Church as "visible-invisible," "institution-organism," or "general-local," but in a simple, Biblical fashion. In the Scriptures, the word "church" can de note the whole or a part. It is therefore quite inaccurate and dangerous to speak of a local church as a "manifestation" of the one (invisible) Church of Christ. The Church which locally displays the marks is fully the Church of Christ, as is the Church of all ages, and not just the manifestation of something invisible. If we speak of the Church in terms of "manifestation," we give opening to the theory of pluriformity.


All this determines the correct attitude towards the Church of Christ. It is not my task to determine how great and how small the Church ultimately is - the Lord knows the number! - But it is my calling to seek out the Church according to the Scriptures locally in my time and place and to be united with this Church in true fellowship as a living member. I shall not be guided by what I see of the Church, but by what God says of the Church. His is the commandment; ours must be the obedience.


The question may arise: Is it easy or even possible today to make a clear distinction between the true and the false Church? In Article 29 of the Belgic Confession we read, "These two Churches (i.e., the true and the false) are easily known and distinguished from each other." But that was written in 1561, and since that time many denominations have come into being. Surely Guido de Bres in his time meant the Roman Catholic Church over against the Reformed Churches, but is it still that simple today?

In other words, may we always think in a "black-white" scheme, or is there perhaps a "grey area"? May we perhaps apply the notion of "purer" or "less pure" here? To use an example, may we say that the Christian Reformed Church is a false Church, or an organization which, at most, is becoming somewhat false? I know that such questions at times are the topic of discussion among our members.

Here, too, we should not make things more complicated than our confession puts them. We should not for get, on the one hand, that "deformation" is a process which takes place through the years and is not generally completed overnight. The one denomination may give more evidence of de formation than the other. After first leaving the Truth, a Church finally persecutes those in its midst who are of the Truth, and then the process is completed. So the situation is not every where the same, and in our approach to others we must take this into ac count.

But, on the other hand, the marks of the Church are clear. If any of these marks is not present, then indeed the qualification "false" is applicable, and we should not hesitate, when necessary, to accept the consequences of our Confession, otherwise we practically deny what we confess. And the qualification "false" simply means that such a Church is not faithful to the Word of Christ and therefore leads the sheep astray. This matter is no less clear today than it was during the days of Guido de Bres.

However, be aware of one thing. We are presently speaking of instituted Churches, of their official doctrine and polity, and not of individual members of those churches. Was it not John Cal vin who already said that "there is a slight difference in the mode of judging of individuals and churches"? Any church, which presents itself as such, must (according to Calvin) be "brought to that test (of the marks) as to a Lydi an stone." While we are not called to judge the hearts of those living in other denominations - the Lord knows His own! - and may safely assume that there are children of the Lord also else where, we are nevertheless bound to seek the true Church of Christ and to maintain active unity with His obedient people. Such is the language of our Confession.


So the Reformed Churches cannot justly be accused of thinking that only (Canadian) Reformed people will, as it were, "enter heaven," and of teaching a haughty exclusivism as the sole churches of the Lord. On the contrary, whenever our churches have found believers who share the same basic confession, a plea was made for unity in the Truth. Even where there were differences of important historical and contemporary significance, our Churches have appealed for the same unity, seeking to remove the divergences by means of well-organized contact and discussion. But neither have our Churches covered up the issues at stake in order to achieve a quick and superficial fellowship which already bears in itself the seeds of discord. We have sought unity in the Truth, but also truth in unity. And it needs no proof that in this striving we have made mistakes and shown shortcomings, but the striving is unmistakably there.

It cannot be that in one place various "true" Churches permanently exist alongside one another, without being one in faith and fellowship. Since, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, there is one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, all must be eager "to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Due to historical or particular circumstances, such Churches may continue separate for a time, but unity must be sought and will be realized if the members diligently follow this apostolic command. The problem, very often, is that these local churches each, in turn, are part of a denomination, and do not wish to leave such a federation. And so the matter of ecclesiastical unity is often found at Synods and Assemblies.

Then it must be a unity which results from full mutual recognition of the Truth of God's Word for doctrine, polity, and worship. If agreement and common understanding can be reached in these matters, then the Churches can come together on the basis of a common accord and work out further fellowship at local levels. Was such not the case in 1892 when the Churches of the first and second Secession came together to form the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands?

In the case of foreign churches, the same basic principle applies: full unity, even with exercising of corporate responsibility. While not binding one another in intermediate affairs (al though these may certainly be discussed!), the Churches should see to each other and assist one another in every way possible so that the Church is and becomes more and more "the communion of saints." Therefore we persist in rejecting all kinds of "loose" associations since these do not meet the Scriptural requirements concerning the unity of the Church. And, similarly, we cannot make honest use of each other's services (either worship services or office-bearers) until such agreement and unity has been achieved. Otherwise the matter be comes quite confusing and disorderly, and the Truth is at stake. Let us come to agreement on these matters.

Next time, D.V., a few more aspects of this American theory of denominationalism.


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Is the Church a "Human Effort'?

Some time ago, I started a series of articles on "Denominationalism," and this time I may attempt to fulfill the promise of a third and final article on this topic.

In order to get back into the material, I may summarize the preceding as follows: Denominationalism is the practice of American Christians to organize into various "denominations" of purer or less pure stature, whereby mutual recognition as Church of Christ and a fitting cooperation is mandatory. Every visible and instituted church is merely a "manifestation" of the great invisible Church of Christ, and since the visible church is quite pluriform it does not really matter so much of which church one is a member. Out ward forms of worship are, at best, only "attempts," and one may seek that form with which he/she is most comfortable. For many Christians, the issue is not at all one of church membership but of personal salvation.

In the previous articles on this topic, I have tried to show that the Scriptures and our Three Forms of Unity do not in any way speak about the Church in this fashion, but on the contrary give clear instruction concern mg the marks of the Church. The in visible Church concept and the accompanying theory of pluriformity only cause heresies to be permitted and deformation to be sanctioned, thus impeding the true unity of Christians. And there are, as yet, some points on which I would like to make a few remarks.

The Church: An Attempt?

Very central in the theory of denominationalism is the idea that every visible institution of the Church is a "mere attempt," which may at times perhaps come close to the real thing, but is nonetheless simply an attempt. Similarly, outward forms of worship (and do these not differ greatly among the denominations?), forms of doctrine, liturgy, and order (Church government) are also "mere attempts." One may entertain certain convictions and preferences in these things, but may not elevate these forms above others or esteem them too highly, for such forms always remain human attempts, nothing more.

Besides the fact that we find here an ungodly skepticism, which also includes an implicit denial of the perspicuity (clarity) of the Scriptures in matters of worship, here also the basic error of denominationalism is painfully evident. The organization of the visible, instituted church is regarded to be nothing more than a human effort and since mankind is subject to sin and imperfection, the Church cannot be any thing more than "an attempt."

Now this may seem to be a very humble position, but is essentially a very haughty and arrogant presumption. It is true that because of our weak nesses, the Church knows of many impurities and imperfections. But the point is: the gathering of the Church (which includes also its Organization) is not merely a human work, but fully the glorious effort of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ Himself! Christ Himself has said that on the solid rock of the true, apostolic confession, He will build His Church (Matthew 16:18). And when the Apostle Paul, for example, writes to the saints at Ephesus, the visible, instituted church with its office- bearers, he calls them "Christ's workmanship," the "household of God," "a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." Therefore the Church is called "the body of Christ," of which He alone is the Head and the Foundation.

Since Christ is concerned with and responsible for the growth and development of His Church, He has given clear directives for its organization, worship, confession, and government. And nowhere in the ministry of Christ (before or after His resurrection) can we find any indication that the organization of the Church is merely human and thus of secondary importance. On the contrary, the Apostles took great care to establish and promote a sound Scriptural order for and in the organization and life of Christ's Church.

So, perhaps, here lies the main difference between Scriptural teaching and American Denominationalism. Denominationalists view the church as a human organization; the Reformed Confessions speak of the Church as a divine institution.

And, because in the institution of the Church we are not dealing with human preferences but with divine directives, we put so much emphasis on creeds, liturgy and church order. Do we not confess in Lord's Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism that "the Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Word and Spirit, in the unity of true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life... "? For this reason also, in the Belgic Confession (Articles 30-32) the Reformed Churches have included Biblical directives for the organization, the order and the government of the Church. All this depends not on our "tastes" but is founded on Christ's own Word. It is His Church; He sets it up as He wills by His Word and Spirit. Soli Deo Gloria.

Not Perfect!

If the Church is a divine organization, and not a mere human attempt or institution, why then do we often find so many impurities within it and among the members? Certainly, one thing is clear: we cannot ascribe these impuri ties to Christ, or suggest that His Work and Word are inadequate! The organization and worship of the Church never suffers from Christ's failures, for He does not fail, but simply from the short comings and weaknesses of its members, who do not attain perfection in this life.

By reason of sin, there is always the danger of deformation (= moving away from the "form" given by Christ) and therefore always the need for reformation (= back to the "form" given by Christ) is present. In the Reformed Churches we sometimes speak of "on going or continuing reformation," and we mean that the Word of God must not simply remain our foundation and strength but must also more and more influence every area of our lives. The Word of God must dwell richly with us (Colossians 3:16), and who will deny that there is always need and room for improvement?

The necessary admission of our own weaknesses and sins, however, may not lead us to downplay the Scriptural institution and organization of the Church (nor to find relief in an "invisible Church") but must bring us to strive all the more towards perfect obedience. For Christ's directives in this respect are quite cleat, and the organization of the Church is not a puzzle for those who adhere to the Scriptures. Christ does not permit deformation (thus recognizing and implicitly accepting that inevitably churches are "more or less pure," as the Westminster Confession does), but Christ demands re formation. Facts (the existence of more or less pure churches) should not be presented as norms (for the Church is to be pure, period). That is, in part, my difficulty with Article 25 of the Westminster Confession.

In Christ's letters to the seven Churches in Asia, we read of many impurities that are found in those Churches. But we also find many strong admonitions, "Repent then. If not, I will come to you and war against them with the sword of my mouth" (Revelation 2:16). The Churches are faced with the fact that failure to repent will cause removal of the lamp-stand (2:5) and that means: no longer recognized as the true Church of Christ. Constantly throughout these letters we hear the echoing refrain, "He who has an ear to hear, let him here what the Spirit says to the Churches." Therefore it is clear, I would say, that if a church permits impurities in doctrine, worship, or con duct, it loses the right to the title "Church of Christ." The facts should not become norms, but the norms should alter the facts! And as always, it is not the sin itself which causes divine judgment, but the hardening in sin, the refusal to reform.

The "True and Complete Doctrine"

In view of all this, it becomes understandable why in the Reformed Churches the Creeds and the Forms are considered extremely important. Members confess the doctrine of the Church not to be a "mere attempt," but "the true and complete doctrine of salvation." The liturgy of the Church is not patterned after traditional preferences, but solidly based on the teaching of Scripture. The order of the Church is not of human invention, but of Scriptural design. And we dare to present all this as a binding example also to others.

Denominationalists will, undoubtedly, condemn this stand as being quite pretentious. But we are not de fending ourselves; we are simply maintaining what has been given to us by Christ. Underlying our stance is the simple, yet Scriptural, confession that Christ gathers His Church according to the clear norms of His Word: in Him lies the origin, the continuation, and the perfection of the Church. And it is a great comfort that the true Church on earth is not dependent on the insights and failures of men, but truly Christ's own possession, not a human attempt but "the pillar and bulwark of the Truth," where people "behave" not according to their own standards, but in keeping with Christ's expressly given ordinances (I Timothy 3:14, 15).

We readily do admit that Creeds and Forms are not infallible or perfect. And the Reformed Churches have adopted procedures that these be changed or amended if the need arises and Scriptural proof is supplied. We also admit that not all outward forms have the same weight and importance. In various Articles of the Church Order e.g., you can find the expression, "ac cording to local regulations," and these local regulations can differ somewhat from place to place. Whether the Lord's Supper is celebrated every two or three months, or whether the Sunday offer ing takes place before or after the sermon, to name a few things, is left to the wisdom and the freedom of the Churches, simply because here the Bible leaves room. And we must, as we confess, take care that in all our regulations we do not "depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted" (Article 32, Belgic Confession). Christ gives the norms, and to these norms alone we are bound.

Over against Denominationalism, therefore, we make this claim: the Church of Christ, always visible accord mg to the marks, finds unity in the one confession of the true and complete doctrine of salvation, experiences fellowship in one worship according to the Scriptures, and diligently maintains the God-given organization and order. This is not an impossible calling, for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (I Corinthians 14:33).

Let us never exchange the peace and the order of the Gospel for the confusion of Denominationalism.


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By Wilbur E. Horlings:

Rev. Stam is the son of dutch emigrants who settled in B.C., Canada. He studied theology in Kampen, The Netherlands He was minister in Langeslag (The Netherlands) for 2 years and around 1976 he became minister of Burlington West (Ontario).

From there he became minister of Smithville Ont. (7 years), Fergus, Ont. and now [1999] is in Hamilton Ont.
He was editor of "Reformed Perspective" when it was started. He is the author of several books: None like Thee (about Micah),
Everything in Christ (about the Belgic Confession), Living In The Joy of Faith (52 sermons on the H.C.). His latest book was
just published a few month ago: Celebrating Salvation (subtitle: about the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus
Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit)