One way to sacrifice our unique identity as churches of our Lord Jesus Christ is to build sandcastles of illusory unity with those who profess to be Christians but whom the churches have not recognised as being united with us in the true faith.
We’re seeing more of this lately as church members promote participation in broadly “Christian” organisations and we need to ask ourselves whether this blurring of the boundaries doesn’t work to smother the antithesis placed by God (Gen. 3:15), whether we are not confusing our younger members about what it means to belong to Christ’s true church, and whether we are not offending the Spirit of Truth by declaring, through our actions, that we have a unity with those who profess to be Christians without any evidence being submitted to justify that unity. In short, whether such unity in what we profess to be a Christian purpose is in accordance with Scripture and confession.
It’s hardly in accordance with Scripture and confession when unity of purpose in broad Christian organisations is supported by such pragmatic arguments as: it’s for a good cause; at least this way we’re doing something; doctrine divides but action unites; the Lord is blessing it (progress is presumably evidence of the Lord’s blessings and ‘demonstrates’ that it is pleasing to Him). Moreover, whilst we confess that the Father governs all through Christ as head of the church (LD19) and that everyone is duty-bound to join it (BCF 28), in practice unity in such Christian organisations makes church membership a secondary matter and in effect implies that the communion of saints extends to Christian organisations where we experience this ‘communion’ with other ‘saints’.
Yet this sort of unity is promoted even by leading figures in the church. Take, for example, the young lasses who decided to leave the church services and communion for some months to go to Thailand to work in an orphanage. Helping people with particular needs, such as displaced children in an orphanage, is a noble undertaking and one can appreciate young people wanting to “be active and do something”, but the fact that it’s presented as a Christian orphanage in which people from various religious bodies work together to provide Christian guidance and care does not necessarily make such an undertaking right in the eyes of the Lord. Yet support for this is expressed in pastoral columns of church bulletins. No Scriptural justification given, no public testing of whether it’s according to God’s Word, no account of whether there is true unity of faith; all seems hunky dory.
If we teach the young people of our churches that they can serve the Lord together with ‘outside’ Christians in broadly ‘Christian’ organisations, why should our young folks remain members of the FRCA? If we please the Lord by serving Him in Christian organisations together with those with whom we are not shown to be one in the faith surely it follows that we will please the Lord by worshipping Him together with these same Christians in their churches. And on that basis, why can’t we serve the Lord together in a marriage relationship? It should not surprise us, then, that young people seek to marry ‘outside’ Christians and join other churches, as we have seen happening. And so we create more work at ‘home’ as we try to ‘evangelise’ these young people, teaching them again what it means to belong to Christ and his church.
Think also of the recent promotion of the Crossroad Bible Institute (CBI). More and more church members are stimulated to get involved and were recently encouraged to gather at the Christian Reformed Church in Gosnells. There, with Christians with whom we do not sit together at the table of the Lord, we seek unity in serving the Lord together to teach the Gospel to prisoners. In this way someone can turn his back on Christ’s true church, reject unity in the Spirit where the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, yet be accepted as having at least a semblance of unity with us in the service to the Lord in broad Christian organisations. Bringing the Gospel to prisoners who are genuinely interested is praiseworthy, but surely we can find ways of doing this without blurring the boundaries by an implicit “Christian unity” with outsiders and without facing the dilemma of which church potential converts should eventually join.
Not that blurring the boundaries would bother CBI. It has already embraced the unscriptural invisible-church idea. Schuringa, president of CBI and past minister of the Christian Reformed Church, said in his Presidents Report 2011:
“At CBI, we find not a little corner of the church but the whole church. Instructors, students and supporters from every denomination are working together, harmoniously and for the same cause” (p.3) … “CBI follows God’s kingdom agenda, bringing together instructors representing diverse denominations…” (p. 6).
Notice “the whole church” made up of “supporters from every denomination”. We escaped this pernicious pluriformity of the church teaching when the Lord liberated us in 1944 but here we find it back again. Moreover, to claim that “CBI follows God’s kingdom agenda” by enlisting people from “diverse denominations” is an audacious claim. We confess in LD 31 that there is a close connection between Christ’s church and God’s kingdom, and it is as Head of His church that Christ carries out His kingdom ‘agenda’ (LD19:50).
Another example: Recently some church members received a circular letter to join in a Christian prayer meeting. ‘Australian Christians WA’ was holding a day of prayer and fasting centred at Parliament House in Perth in order to “unite in prayer over our city, state and country for the glory of God”. Is it because we are unable to pray in church that we are asked to unite with people from different religious bodies in order to petition the Lord? Is God more likely to hear such a prayer because of the number and variety of beliefs; more likely to heed the prayers when unity in the Truth is sacrificed on the altar of numerical unity? God’s Word teaches repeatedly that He does not need numerical strength. The Spirit does great things through a single individual or a small number, as His work through Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and the prophets shows. And a single short prayer from a lonely faithful prophet, Elijah, was enough to bring down a lightning display of God’s majestic power.
Moreover, we have learnt that when we pray we do so “in the Spirit” (Eph.6:18). The same Holy Spirit who unites us in the church in the unity of true faith pleads on our behalf. Do we not offend the Spirit of truth then when we pray in a large gathering with those with whom we are not one in the true faith? If Roman Catholics, for example, engage in idolatry by denying the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ (LD30:80) and praying to saints (LD34:94), how can we be united with them in the Spirit through prayer? The same applies to the host of Arminian and semi-Pelagian ‘Christians’ who rob Christ of His glory by ‘contributing’ something towards their salvation and denying their total depravity. It’s not enough to say that one believes (even demons believe, says Jesus); what’s important is what one believes (LD 7:22). Let’s not compromise our confession to get results. Better to be small and faithful, trusting in the Lord and His blessing, as we did when we started our first school, than to offend the Spirit of truth and compromise our confession to get results.
Judah’s king Jehoshaphat learned that the hard way when he joined forces with Israel’s unfaithful king Ahab. He could have argued that the unity of purpose was for a common cause, to fight a common enemy of God’s people. He could have said that he wasn’t declaring a complete unity in the faith with Ahab and that, anyway, it was for a limited and clearly defined purpose. Yet their armies were routed and the Lord admonished him through a prophet (2 Chron. 19:2). Later, when Ahab’s son asked something similar, Jehoshaphat declined (1 Kings 22:49). He’d learnt his lesson.
Some centuries later, Samaritans, who’d been taught to serve Israel’s God but also retained their former religious ways, wanted to help build the temple, saying, “Let us build with you; for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” The Israelites responded: “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel…” (Ezra 4). The returned exiles showed they had likewise learnt their lesson. It’s written for our instruction!
Let’s also learn from what’s happened in our own church history. Prior to the Church Liberation of 1944 there was much participation in broad “Christian” organisations. This broad ecumenical cooperation was considered possible on the basis of Kuyper’s theories of “pluriformity of the church” and “common grace”. When Schilder and others exposed the errors in these theories those who wanted unity in Christian organisations across church boundaries turned against Schilder. This formed the background to the Liberation. The first few decades after the Liberation our churches established, under the blessing of the Lord and despite their relatively small numbers, social, political and educational organisations tied to the church. But after a few decades our Dutch sister churches started doing things together with other Christians. The results? Their Free Reformed social and political organisations lost their distinctive reformed character and their schools are currently heading in the same direction. And if we don’t put the brakes on co-operation with other Christians in various organisations what is to stop us losing our distinctive reformed identity as Christ’s true church and going the same way?
Church history shows that the Scriptural confession about the church seems to be constantly under attack. And no wonder; if Satan can get us to compromise here we’ll soon deviate elsewhere, like two railway tracks which at the station run parallel but soon head off in different directions. Let’s treasure our confession of the church because Scripture says beautiful things about her. She is the bride of Christ, who bestows heavenly gifts upon her. Christ lay down His life for the church; He gives her salvation. She is pillar and ground of the truth. She is the mother of believers who bears children for Christ. She is Christ’s body; Christ is her head and rules all of creation as Head of His church. To her has been entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven. She is joined with Christ in the unity of the true faith. But Scripture and confessions do not speak of that unity extending beyond the Christ’s church.
Those who argue that cooperation in broadly Christian organisations is not an expression of such a unity risk confusing especially our young members. Our youth have learnt that a Christian is someone who is “a member of Christ by faith” and shares in Christ’s anointing (LD12:32), that Christians belong in Christ’s true church (BCF28, 29) where they have communion with Christ and the fellow saints (LD 21:55) having been brought together in the unity of faith through the Spirit of Truth. Let’s not pretend that somehow that Christian unity in the true faith extends across the boundaries Christ established when he made us his holy possession. Let us confess and serve Him zealously wherever he has placed us (LD12 & 32) and, where we have the opportunity, establish organisations in which we as brothers and sisters of the household of faith can serve the Lord together in true unity of faith.