Denominationalism (4)


Rev C Stam concluded his series of articles on ‘Denominationalism’ with the following article. It’s all so pertinent and fluent that, rather than summarise this segment, I’ve republished it here in its entirety.

Is the Church a ‘Human Effort’?

Denominationalism is linked to the idea of the invisible church made up of the elect from various Christian churches.

“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. Outward 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 concerning the marks of the Church. The invisible 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 scepticism, 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 anything 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 weaknesses, 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 impurities 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 shortcomings 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 ‘ongoing 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 clear, 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 reformation. Facts (the reality of 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 lampstand (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 conduct, it loses the right to the title ‘Church of Christ’. The facts [reality] 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 defending 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, ‘according 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 offering 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 according 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.

Source: Rev Cl. Stam, “Denominationalism”, Clarion, Vol 28 No 5, 10th March 1979, pp. 101, 103.