‘Reformed churches’ tend to have the Belgic Confession (BC) whereas ‘Presbyterian churches’ tend to have the Westminster Confession (WC). Some, such as the RCNZ, have both. Yet the BC speaks differently about the church (and some other matters, for example the covenant) than the WC. Hence when the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) look into possible unity with Presbyterian churches, the differences in confessions raise important questions, such as: What do you confess about the church? In the BC we confess that a church is a visible congregation of the Lord and is either true or false: either it’s the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, or it isn’t. The WC however makes a distinction between a visible and invisible church and speaks of a church as being “more or less pure”. The manner in which the WC speaks about the church easily leads to the acceptance of the idea of the ‘pluriformity of the church’ and ‘denominationalism’.
What do we mean by that?
That’s a question FRCA deputies were asked some years ago when they were mandated to look into the possibility of unity with the Presbyterian Churches of Eastern Australia (PCEA). One of the concerns the FRCA had with the PCEA was the latter’s “open pulpit” whereby they allowed ministers from non-sister churches to preach the Word in their churches. In discussions with the PCEA about this the expression “pluriformity of the church” came up on various occasions. So, the PCEA deputies asked our deputies to explain what we understood by “pluriformity”. Why did the FRCA see it as such a concern? Our deputies responded by presenting them with a “discussion paper”[i] about it.
What is “Pluriformity of the Church”?
Deputies said that, in general, the expression is understood to mean that Christ’s true church is to be found in all churches. “The one Church, which is basically seen as an invisible ideal, manifests itself in a plurality of visible forms. Seeing that the various visible churches do not reflect that invisible ideal to the same degree, they are consequently distinguished as more or less pure churches”. Notice the terminology “more or less pure” churches used here to describe pluriformity of the church is the same terminology used in the WC.
Deputies pointed to Abraham Kuyper who was a strong proponent of this theory. Kuyper explained that “God’s truth is so rich that no single church can be found which does full justice to that full truth. One church emphasises this element, another that. They complement each other.” This theory was quite popular in the years leading up to the Church Liberation of 1944.
There were others at that time who, although they lamented this pluriformity, said it was a reality they sadly had to accept as “a necessary evil, a result of sin”.
But the BC will have none of that. It does not speak of churches being “more or less pure” but of being either true or false, either church of the Lord or not. It speaks of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ as a visible congregation which is characterised by faithfulness to God’s Word in the preaching, administration of sacraments and church discipline (BC 29) and says that everyone is called to join it (BC 28).
Pluriformity = Denominationalism
Deputies said that in the English-speaking world, the doctrine of pluriformity was “more commonly known as the doctrine of denominationalism”. They illustrated this with a couple of quotes. The second of these, from Rev C Stam, summarises denominationalism as follows:
“Denominationalism is the practice of American Christians to organise 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”.[ii]
Deputies then presented the following list of objections:
Objections against ‘Pluriformity of the Church’/ ‘Denominationalism’
- It takes as starting point man’s experience instead of God’s Word.
However, we should not be guided by what we see of the church, but by what God says about the church. Facts (the existence of various different churches) should not be presented as norms. Scripture tells us, for instance, that the church has one Head (Eph. 1:22), one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), one foundation (1 Cor. 3:11), one faith and one baptism (Eph 4:5), and that it is one body (1 Cor. 12:12).
- It does not agree with our confession.
Even A Kuyper acknowledged that Scripture and the confessions do not teach a pluriformity of the church. With Art 27 of the Belgic Confession, we believe and profess one catholic or universal church, which is to be distinguished by the marks of the true Church (Art 29) and which everyone is obliged to join (Art 28).
- The theory glosses over the sin of ecclesiastical disunity and thus deprives the call for church unity of its force. If the separate church bodies are all manifestations of the one church, why should they take the trouble of trying to unite? Here the incentive to do something about the existing disunity is taken away. Scripture says that we should be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). Christ prayed for the visible unity of the Church (Jn 17).
- It weakens the call for continued reformation. It tends to relativize the truth and thus sanction heresy and deformation. We must contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Christ prayed: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is the truth.” (John 17:17). Scripture warns against false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15, cf Acts 20:29, 30; 11 Pet 2, Jude). Those who pervert the gospel of Christ, and thus come with a different gospel are to be rejected (Gal. 1:6-9). We are called to separate from the assembly of those who do not belong to Christ (Acts 2:20’ 11 Cor 6:14-18; Rev 18:4). In this we should not let ourselves be misled by impressive acts “in God’s service”. Obedience is demanded (Mt 7:21-23). Christ Himself says that the sheep will not follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (Jn 10:4, 5). Scripture calls the church a pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), which is to protect against “every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14).
- It is inaccurate to speak of a local church as a “manifestation” of the one (invisible) church of Christ. In the Scriptures the word “church” can denote the whole or a part. 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.
- Here the voluntary decision of the individual – just as when one joins an association or a society – takes the place of maintaining the unity of the church as an act of obedience of faith (Eph. 3:1-3; Art 28 BC).
- The organisation of the visible, instituted church is not just a human attempt. The church is “Christ’s workmanship” (cf Mt 16:18), the “household of God” (Eph 2:19-22) in which the divine directives are the norm and not human preferences.
Deputies concluded that “pluriformity tends to cover up a sinful reality and make it acceptable. It also tends to brush aside the Scriptural distinction between true and false. God keeps demanding from us obedience to his revealed norms”.
[i] C Bouwman et al, “Discussion paper on Pluriformity or Denominationalism”, Una Sancta, Vol. XXXX No 15, pp. 260-262.
[ii] Clarion, Vol. 27, No 5.