The decision of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) to suspend membership of the RCN (GKv) has been big news on some Christian websites lately. It follows the RCN’s decision to allow women in office, and seems laudable. What no one seems to be questioning, however, is whether the ICRC itself has a right of existence.
The idea for an ICRC came from the Australian churches (FRCA) back in 1977 with the aim of meeting together as sister churches. Ironically the now suspended Dutch sister churches (RCN) took up the idea but changed the membership to include churches with whom “temporary ecclesiastical contact” had been established. This resulted in the FRCA finding themselves meeting with representatives of churches with whom we had no ecclesiastical contact.
The ICRC now has almost 30 church federations as members. The first preliminary meeting was held in 1982 in the Netherlands and since then it has been held in different parts of the world every four years. The FRCA withdrew their membership in 1996.
The purposes of the conference are:
- to express and promote the unity of faith that the member churches have in Christ;
- to encourage the fullest ecclesiastical fellowship among the member churches;
- to encourage cooperation among the member churches in the fulfillment of the missionary and other mandates;
- to study the common problems and issues that confront the member churches and to aim for recommendations with respect to these matters;
- to present a Reformed testimony to the world.
The trouble is that the ICRC presents itself as being united in the faith, and being in a position to achieve these purposes, when it ought first to demonstrate its true unity through sister relations. That is, these 5 purposes should not be implemented until sister-church relations have been established. Only purpose 2—discussing differences with a view to sister-church relations—might arguably be a legitimate purpose for such a conference. But there’s little evidence that sister-church relations have resulted from discussing differences. Indeed, a proposal by the FRCA to insert into the constitution that members will “show willingness to strive for unity with member churches of the Conference in their own country”[i] was not adopted by the ICRC. Instead what we’re getting is a declaration of unity of faith simply on the basis of being a member of the ICRC.
Do the participating churches really have unity of faith? Consider, for example, the PCEA. The FRCA sought sister relations with them but a sister relationship could not be established because they had an open Holy Supper table, admitting people to the celebration of Holy Supper on the basis of self-testimony and without confessional (PCEA or sister church) membership. They also allowed ministers from other religious bodies (non-sister churches) to preach in their worship services and tolerated the teachings of a prominent minister (their spokesman at the latest ICRC) who promoted the framework theory of creation. Is it honest, then, to declare that there is a unity in the (true) faith among the member ICRC churches?
Or take the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. For years they refused to accept the legitimacy of the Reformed Churches (Liberated 1944). They joined the ICCC, held to pluriformity of the church ideas, joined the RES till it became untenable and sympathised with the ‘Buitenverbanders’. They tolerated the Scripture criticism of their Prof Dr B J Oosterhoff and Prof Dr J P Versteeg, who interpreted the historical events of Genesis 2 & 3 symbolically. Yet the churches of the ICRC express the “unity of faith that the member churches have in Christ”.
Then there are the Heritage Reformed Congregations (Nth America). According to one website, “the baptized children have many of the outward benefits of the children of God. Until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, however, they remain outside of the saving benefits of covenant of grace.” Several of their websites reinforce this. Are the ICRC really united in this belief? Hardly.
In view of the disparity in what is believed or tolerated one is left wondering how the churches will cooperate in Purpose 3: cooperation in the fulfillment of the missionary and other mandates. Surely this can only be done by churches who have established a sister-church relationship, who thereby demonstrate unity in the faith and who can hold one another accountable. Indeed, the FRCA once declared about the ICRC: “On reaching sister-Church relations (my italics, JN), inter-church cooperation in mission and other matters is possible”.[ii] Fulfilling the mission mandate (Mt. 28:19,20) and other mandates given to the church can only be justified when the marks of the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ are established.
The same applies to Purpose 4: “to study the common problems and issues that confront the member churches and to aim for recommendations with respect to these matters”. Surely this too is to be done once a sister church relationship has been established, once there is recognition of the marks of Christ’s true church being evident. To quote again from the FRCA Acts of Synod 1985: “Within sister church-church relations (my italics, JN) the study and resolution of common problems and issues also is possible”.[iii]
And as for Purpose 5—presenting a reformed testimony to the world—I haven’t seen too much of this happening. At least, not as ICRC—which is the intent. But nor can I see how it can happen when all the member churches are accepted as reformed (i.e. faithfully submitting to God’s Word and the reformed confessions) while there is disparity in doctrine, in deviations tolerated by member churches, and in ecclesiastical practices. Moreover, it is highly questionable whether such a task belongs to a gathering of non-sister-churches. As FRCA Synod 1985 said: “Sister-Churches have a duty to encourage each other to present a Reformed testimony to the world”. It is a task for each individual congregation of the Lord to be manifested in the daily life of its members (LD 12 & 32).
What we confess about Christ’s church in our Belgic Confession is continually under threat of being devalued. One of the ways this happens is by declaring a unity in the true faith, such as the ICRC does, when such unity in the true faith, expressed in obedience to God’s Word, has not been established through the recognition of one another as sister churches in the truth. Before the purposes 1, 3, 4, and 5 can be exercised there must first be a sister-church relationship based on what we confess in article 29 of the Belgic Confession, a unity in doctrine and application of the truth of God’s Word. As we confess: the true church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head”. In effect, the ICRC, in its claims and purposes, promotes the concept of denominationalism and the notion of the pluriformity of the church by presenting and exercising ecclesiastical unity and activity outside the bounds of the (true) church. As such it has no Scriptural legitimacy.
[i] Acts of FRCA Synod 1983, Article 84; 1987, Article 110.
[ii] Acts of FRCA Synod 1985, Article 79, Ground 9.
[iii] Ibid, Ground 10.