Rev Stam, we saw, links denominationalism to the idea of the invisible church[i] made up of all the elect from different types of churches. Consequently it doesn’t matter so much to which church you belong as long as you are one of the elect, and that’s best achieved by a personal relationship with the Lord. Moreover, each church denomination is seen as part of, or a particular manifestation of, the one grand invisible Church. Although all the separate visible churches are independent, in principle they combine to form the whole church.
This also leads, as we saw, to churches showing a lot of tolerance of one another. Whilst Reformed church polity holds that sister churches need to watch over one another so that they don’t depart from the truth, denominationalism on the other hand sees the various Christian churches as more or less pure, and that no denomination can claim to have pure doctrine, polity and worship. As long as churches hold to such essentials as original sin, forgiveness of sins through Christ, belief in the Trinity and eternal life, they are left free. The focus is on what unites, not what divides, and those who hold to denominationalism would call what we confess about the church, and our emphasis on the Truth, to be sectarian.
It’s been said that the Westminster Confession lends itself to the idea of denominationalism when it declares that “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”. It leaves one wondering: When does a church become so impure that it ceases to be a true church? To answer this, and say that evangelicals are the ones that hold to the ‘essentials’ of the gospel. But this also poses problems because some evangelicals are clearly Arminian.
What follows further summarises, with sizable quotes, Rev Stam’s explanation of denominationalism:
THE “AMERICAN” VIEW ON THE CHURCH
“As we could see last time, the main idea underlying the ‘American’ thinking about the Church is the ‘invisible Church’ concept. All denominations, 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 denominations, optimists find this to be a correct and logical situation: no denomination 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.”
CALVIN AND THE CHURCH
Now some scholars claim John Calvin supported the notion of “the invisible Church”. But the idea that Calvin promoted “the pluriformity of the Church” has been disproven, for example, by K Schilder.
To be sure, Calvin states the obvious truth that only God knows all the elect throughout history. But that doesn’t mean that Calvin believes in the invisible church, since Calvin “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’.” One can’t do that in an invisible church. Moreover, he speaks at length about the need to identify the visible church and gives “the marks of the Church as they also are found in the Belgic Confession”.
It is therefore false to include Calvin amongst those who defend denominationalism.
When Calvin does speak of the ‘invisible Church’ he uses the term to denote that the Church is unoverseeable. “Calvin certainly does not use the term ‘invisible’ to relativise 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.”
In our Belgic Confession (Article 27) we confess the same. We say the Church is being gathered from the beginning of the world to the end and throughout the world. That means parts of it may seem invisible, or rather unoverseeable to us at a given time and place. Yet it’s always visible as a gathering of true believers even ‘though sometimes for a while it appears 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, according 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 denote 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.”
It’s not for us to determine how great or small the church of Christ is; that must be left to the Lord who alone knows the number. We are called to seek out the Church on the basis of Scripture, to join it and to be a living member of it. It’s not for us to be guided by what we experience or feel about the Church but by what God says of the Church. “His is the commandment; ours must be the obedience.”
AN EASY TASK?
One might ask whether it’s possible today to distinguish easily between the true and false church. Article 29 BCF says it is, but that was written in 1561 and today we have a lot more denominations. Instead of being so ‘black and white’ could we perhaps have a ‘grey area’ and introduce the notion of ‘purer or less-pure’? The answer is no.
To be sure, a church that goes astray doesn’t necessarily become false overnight. There’s usually a process of deformation which takes place through the years. After first leaving the Truth a church will, in one way or another, persecute those within it who uphold the Truth, thus completing the process of moving from True church to false church.
However, 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.”
Remember that we’re speaking of the church, not of its members. There could be faithful believers who, though they are in false churches, may yet be saved.
APPEAL TO UNITY
“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 (although 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 becomes quite confusing and disorderly, and the Truth is at stake. Let us come to agreement on these matters.”
(A concluding article next time, DV.)