On the Unity and Disunity of Churches


What follows is a paper Dr W G deVries presented in the Free Reformed Church building in Armadale, 5 February 2002, on behalf of the Free Reformed Study Centre.

On the unity and disunity of churches

One of today’s main questions is why the disunity among churches is so easily accepted. It is a well-known fact that a middle-size city in the Netherlands can have up to ten different churches. This situation makes no sense. As a result many people have grown indifferent to the question of church unity and disunity, and seek their answer in one of two solutions.

Two solutions

The first solution says: the truth of the Bible passes through the ‘prism’ of human understanding. The white light of this truth separates into all the colours of the rainbow. And every church represents its own ‘colour’ within that range. After all, one of the characteristics of God’s truth is that its greatness cannot be represented by the one church or group. Each different church has part of that truth. This multi-formity — or pluriformity — of the church is therefore not a disadvantage, but an advantage. This was the teaching of Dr. Abraham Kuyper. The second solution says: depending on his (her) character and conviction, every person joins the church of his (her) choice. Here the word church is written with the lowercase ‘c’. The true believers who therefore can be found throughout these many churches belong in reality to the invisible Church which rises above all the visible churches. This invisible Church is the Church with an uppercase ‘C’. It does not matter therefore which church you join. You won’t be asked that question at the ‘entrance gate to heaven’. What matters is whether your faith in Christ was genuine. Rev BJF Schoep speaks in this context about the ‘unity-of-the-body’ which cannot be affected by the choice of church a person makes. The theological construction he uses here originates from a philosophy developed by some Reformed theologians during the 1930’s. Solution two concludes that all the believers belong to ‘the mystical (invisible) body’ of Christ.

Experience or revelation?

We must reject these answers which make it easy, too easy, to accept the disunity among the churches. Both are based on experience — the first on the observation that there are so many churches, and the second on a philosophical-theological construction that leads to the invisible church. Experience, however, is not allowed to decide the issue. Only God’s revelation is. The plan of the ‘Architect’ of the church is found in the Bible, and nowhere else. And a philosophical theology is not allowed to rule the consciences. The fact that there is so little openness among the churches towards each other has something to do with the pattern of social behaviour known as a herd mentality. People are accustomed to the odour of their own ‘nest’, which frequently leads them to an emotional and unmotivated rejection of things they’re not familiar with. The Greek notion that ‘to know’ also leads to ‘to do’ is based on the thought that a discussion will lead to the discovery of the truth, which of necessity is then also put into effect. The ecclesiastical scene has, however, totally discredited that idea. The parties to the dispute may address each other with all kinds of reasoning, with scriptural proofs even, but the emotional choice of the heart often weighs the heaviest. For example, two church groups somewhere overseas had agreed to establish organisational unity. Everything had been talked out and documented. But the moment the papers were ready for signing the one party said: I don’t like you. And the unity was off.

God’s Word: only one church

If we are to be ‘honest before God’ we must be willing to have our choice of church tested by what God’s Word says about the church. Then it is as clear as daylight that the Bible knows of only one church, visible to man. Though it is made up of ‘many members’, they altogether form one body. For indeed, they were all brought into one body by baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13). Hence the believers are urged to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). This points to our responsibility in this regard. It is for that reason that we must pay attention to the scriptural marks of the church, mentioned so clearly in Article 29 of our Belgic Confession. Reading the summary line from that Article, it says: In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head. And this summary concludes: Hereby the true Church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.

Calvin, on the church

What Calvin writes in his Institutes (IV, 8, 9) is therefore completely in line with the Bible: Wherever we see the Word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail… No one has the right to separate from it, for such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion. Calvin concludes from this that withdrawal from the church is denial of God and Christ. He calls it an iniquitous dissent — a sinful rebellion. He is however not of the opinion that in this true church no ‘defects’ may creep in. All perfectionism is foreign to him, as is also evident from his struggle against the Anabaptists. We read: The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion (= misunderstanding) in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of Religion and forfeiting salvation. Some have seized upon this remark to defend a degree of doctrinal liberalism. But that conclusion is unjustified. For Calvin continues without interruption: Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance. (IV, 1, 12) We are able to conclude that according to the Bible there is only one church. This church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). To say it with Calvin, this is therefore the ‘distinctive’ mark of the church. Not the minutest heresy may be allowed. This does not mean that the true church is a perfectly pure church. The Bible frequently warns the church against all kinds of evils. Paul, for example, addresses the church at Corinth as church of God and saints by calling (1 Corinthians 1:2). He warns at the same time against divisions (1:10-17), yes, against envy and strife (3:3). So, the true church is not a perfect church. That’s why Calvin fought with all his strength against the Anabaptists who preached a perfect church with perfect believers. Though he spoke of ‘errors’ that could creep into the doctrine or sacraments, he refused to tolerate a single false doctrine. Regarding the conduct of the congregation, however, he writes: Our indulgence ought to extend much farther in tolerating imperfection in conduct. He compares the church with a threshing floor in which the collected wheat lies concealed under the chaff. (IV, 1, 13) The office-bearers are sometimes too tolerant when they should have admonished church members about all kinds of shortcomings. Regrettably, the church can be negligent in observing the commandment to lead a holy life. But Calvin does not allow those failures as grounds for immediate withdrawal even though he admits that there are other situations in which that is necessary.

Objectivism and subjectivism

We should not forget that one of the marks of the church is that the word is sincerely preached and heard. Just suppose that there is a church which has the pure preaching, but there is no response because the congregation is unwilling to accept God’s Word. The fact that the preaching is faithful does however not mean that the true church always is there and remains there. For there must also be supervision that the congregation responds to God’s Word by turning away from sin and living in obedience. That’s what church discipline is for – according to the Confession also a mark of the church. Two dangers threaten here – the one being objectivism and the other subjectivism. Both play a role in today’s discussions about the church. Concerning objectivism, the fact that the preaching is good is not sufficient. It is not the purpose of the preaching to recite truisms. The church members must also amend their personal life accordingly, both in respect of doctrine and behaviour. It is the duty of the office-bearers to oversee this. They must watch over the souls as men who have to give account.  (Hebrews 13:17). This is the basis for church discipline. A church which does not practise this kind of discipline, objectifies itself (that is: turns itself by its objectivism) into ‘sterile orthodoxy’. The danger of subjectivism is that the marks of the church are defined in terms of the piety of its members. With many of the Anabaptist movements the church becomes the sum total of religious individuals. Such movements subjectify (that is: turn themselves by their subjectivism) into a religious I-cultus. In both cases the Biblical concepts about the church suffer an injustice. Calvin writes the following against objectivism: Those who trust that churches can long stand without this bond of discipline are mistaken. For that reason he wrote in his first printing of the Institutes about the members of the church, that they confess the same God and Christ not only in their public witnessing but also through their example of conduct as well as their participation in the sacraments. We conclude that a church which does not exercise supervision over the believers’ doctrine and conduct is not the true church, not the ‘vera ecclesia’. We will underline Calvin’s remark against subjectivism: Similar, in the present day, is the conduct of the Anabaptists, who, acknowledging no assembly of Christ unless conspicuous in all respects for angelic perfection, under pretence of zeal overthrow everything which tends to edification. For the unity of the church does not come into being through the excellence of its members, but by the one Lord, Jesus Christ. Writing about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Bullinger, a supporter of Calvin, asked the question: For whom was the blood of Christ poured out if only pure and holy believers are admitted to the Table? Or was it not poured out for sins? The fact that there are churches that regard sparse attendance at their Holy Supper Table as evidence that they’re a real church shows that this Anabaptist movement is still popular. We do not say this to encourage negligence or laziness. Calvin speaks in this context of our accursed sluggishness (IV, 1, 13) which cannot be excused. He maintains however that the ‘holiness’ of the church is not perfect but needs daily attention. He does not object to the Anabaptists exercising discipline, but that they do it with unyielding severity. Here the rule of Scripture should be observed: Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted (Galatians 6:1). Let me use an example to illustrate this. The true church can be compared to a river whose water stream carries along all kinds of dirt. There is a riverbed — God’s Word – that supports the flow of water, which is not perfectly clear — there are hypocrites in the church. But the perfectionists, the Anabaptists, resemble a stagnant pool, somewhere next to the flowing river. Although the dirt sinks to the bottom and the water is clear, there is no riverbed and no flow of water. That’s true also for all kinds of sects, which sometimes take an aggressive position towards the church.

Pluriformity within the church?

This raises the question to what degree difference of opinion in the church is possible without the church splitting apart. The question is important! For it has happened more than once in the history of the church that a church schism arose out of personal hurt. Someone felt ignored, someone believed to have suffered an injustice, and suddenly there is an issue on the table concerning a matter of principle — which has more to do with the personal injury than with standing up for God’s honour and justice. Numerous examples could be mentioned here, but disagreements of this kind have nothing to do with a healthy pluriformity within the church. There is much talk today about ‘plurality’. What this means is, that those who talk about plurality demand tolerance for viewpoints that contradict the Apostolicum in every respect, such as the confession of the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, his God-head, resurrection and ascension. They are the two churches that are currently uniting under the banner of ‘Samen op weg’. It goes without saying that Calvin’s writings about upholding the pure doctrine and about faithfully exercising church discipline condemn these developments out-of-hand. I believe also that local churches, office-bearers and believers who remain in these plurality-church organisations are co-responsible for this departure from God’s Word. To them applies the exhortation: Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues. (Revelation 18:4) People have said in answer to this that there are still places in those bond of churches with a conservative church council and congregation, where church membership is quite pleasant. But the Bible says something different. When Achan stole from the treasures of Jericho all of Israel was paralysed. We read in Joshua 7:1: But the children of Israel committed a trespass regarding the accursed things. And in 1 Timothy 5:22 we read that we may not share in other people’s sins. Paul says this to Timothy in the context of ordaining office-bearers in the church: Do not lay hands on anyone hastily. Anyone belonging to a church community which allows its leaders to teach heresies shares in the responsibility. The Hervormde Kerk calls itself a Christ-confessing church.  In an official declaration just after World War 2 it states: The church rejects everything that contradicts its confession. You may as well forget it!  Nowadays it tolerates everything that contradicts its confession, and it allows Christ to be deeply offended.  I say this with great sadness.  For the destructive consequences are visible to everyone.  One of the prominent leaders of the Synodical Gereformeerde Kerken – dr G Puchinger – says that the church members are wandering around among the ruins.  Those situations have nothing to do with pluriformity.  It is nothing else than rejection of the living God. But what then is genuine pluriformity? Genuine pluriformity is that there are diversities of gifts, in ministries and activities, but everything under the same Lord (1 Corinthians 12:4, 5, 6). And at the same time that we continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42). Calvin once called these the four-marks of the church. Within that church there is pluriformity a-plenty, but not where it concerns the life-giving doctrine about which Paul writes to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:16): Take heed to the doctrine, and also commands himto charge some that they teach no other doctrine (1:3). If anyone does not bring this doctrine, we may not receive him into our house nor greet him (2 John :10). Accepting such a person as a professor at the Theological College or as a church minister is out of the question. The Bible forbids that kind of tolerance.

Diverging opinions

The situation is different where it concerns church members or office-bearers who hold diverging opinions but do not promote these. The church will have to exercise much patience, especially in a time of spiritual confusion and weakening convictions. In that situation the minister’s faithfulness to the doctrine of the church is of critical importance. They promised, at least in the Reformed churches, not to preach or teach or publish or promote any diverging opinion they may hold on any point of the doctrine, but instead go the church-orderly way. Let’s admit that the Confessions of our churches have formulated a minimum as regards the unity in the faith. The Three Forms of Unity do not deal with everything that is in the Bible. The source is more than the little stream that originates from it. But we did make promises to each other in the church regarding ‘that source’ being the Word of truth. And it is within the boundaries of that Word that there is freedom of prophecy. The Bible is and remains our only rule of life. For that reason life in the church is joyful and rich, because Christ has made known to us all the things He heard from His Father (John 15:15).

Divided as churches and united as Christians?

Now we come to the question whether we should still see something positive in the interchurch cooperation in all kinds of activities. Does this not offer hope for the unification process of churches? Let me begin by pointing out that this idea was propagated by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. In 1898 he delivered a number of speeches in America, published in his book Het Calvinisme (Calvinism). He states that Calvinism must get rid of every ecclesiastical colour. The large number of different churches is — according to Kuyper — a result of our ‘natural one-sidedness’ which will always demand ‘a multitude of organisations.’ He regards that multitude of churches even as a ‘superior form of development’. I praise the multi-formity and regard it is a higher form of development (page 178). It was pointed out in the beginning of this lecture that the Bible does not support this train of thought. The Bible says there is only one church. In line with Kuyper’s teaching, the first half of the twentieth century saw the development of a number of organisations based on the principle ‘Divided as churches but united as Christians.’ Has this development contributed in any way to greater church unity? Not at all. The disunity among churches increased. And what about today’s situation? In many churches the believers despair because of Bible criticism and denial of the Confessions. But they remain where they are. Sure, they’re alarmed. And they establish their clubs and associations of concerned members which publish magazines and organise rallys. But for the rest? They remain in their church and become partly responsible for the sins of others. Those people also establish `bible-based’ organizations which they use to condemn the things they tolerate in their churches. It’s like mopping up under a running tap! Is it not about time that we in the Netherlands turn our words into deeds and start a reformation in the church? The Hervormde Kerk continues to exist, thanks to the tolerance of hundreds of thousands of members of the Gereformeerde Bond. Is that what God wants? Professor van ‘t Spyker wrote in his magazine De Wekker: The Confession knows nothing about one, two or three true churches. It speaks of only one! But we have many. It is our confession that outside the church there is no salvation. But we have said that belonging to the church is not that important, so long as one is a living member of Christ Himself – as if that can be divorced from His body, the church. Christian organisations are expected to compensate for the discord among the churches. He concludes: This pushes the obligation to seek unity with other churches into the background. People content themselves with the contacts they maintain via the organisations. I agree fully with this criticism. Many say: But doesn’t the miserable situation of our days urge us as Christians to cooperate as much as possible? I answer that this miserable situation has been caused partly by that very attitude of: It doesn’t matter what church you’re in. The problems start when people let things go in the church and turn a blind eye to deformation. I point to the large number of congregations of conservative members that exist within the modernistic Hervormde kerk. Though they live in organisational unity with the wing of liberal believers in that church, they are satisfied that it is up to the Lord to work reformation. In the meantime we are stuck with ten times ‘reformed’ in the Netherlands. Does God’s Word allow that situation? I’m sure no one has the courage to say ‘yes’ to that question. Ephesians 4:3: one body and one Spirit leaves us in no doubt. Neither do the words: one faith, one baptism, one Lord, and one God and Father of all. But what are we doing about it? Deny our own will, and without murmuring obey God’s will which alone is good? (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 49) Or quietly sit in our ecclesiastical shelters, waiting for the last day?

The whole flock

I will finish with a nice story I read somewhere. It’s about the disunity of churches. Sometimes it happened that one of the sheep got separated from the flock and lost its way. What did the shepherd do when that bleating sheep kept wandering around outside the sheepfold? He led all his sheep outside, giving the lost sheep an opportunity to join the flock again, and so find the door to the fold. The message of the story is clear: We must do everything to bring that sheep back to the flock. Let everyone go outside under God’s open sky — meaning: let every church community apply the norm of God’s Word to see whether each sheep of Christ’s flock can join it. In other words: Do we have the courage to take that risk? It means that we ask the great Shepherd of the sheep: Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:24) Would that not also apply to our church ways? Oh, how many tensions and cooperation issues would disappear if all true Christian believers would live together in the one church. And … there would be joy in heaven.   WG de Vries