The Boundaries of Ecclesiastical Unity 1


The next few articles summarise a few documents dealing with ecclesiastical unity. Today’s article summarises a brochure by Rev P. van Gurp and Rev O.J. Douma published around 1980. Tomorrow’s article summarises a study by Professor H.J. Schilder on the high-priestly prayer in John 17. A subsequent article will list some scriptural references relating to this subject. 

After the Liberation of 1944

Following the Liberation of 1944, the Reformed churches have always maintained that God’s Word encourages unity between Christian churches that follow their Saviour in faithful obedience. This not only applies to the national scene, though that comes first, but also to the international scene when an opportunity presents itself.  Modern means of travel and communication have dramatically increased the contact and interaction with federations of churches in different parts of the world.

The General Synod Groningen (1978) of the GKv (Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands – our sister churches up till 2018) dealt extensively with this matter.  The issue on Synod 1978’s table was the opportunity for the GKv to become a member of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.

Synod 1978 voted against such membership and decided to give a detailed account of their position. So they appointed two deputies, the Reverends O.J. Douma and P. van Gurp, and instructed them to write a brochure in which they were to elaborate on synod’s decision. In due time they published ‘Om De Ware Oecumene’ (For the sake of True Ecumenity). This brochure was widely distributed and represented the official position of the GKv. Here follows, in brief, what they said.

The calling to give expression to ecumenical unity

The GKv has never denied the calling to give expression to ecumenical unity whenever the opportunity presents itself. Others have accused them of denying this calling because of their decision not to join organisations such as the World Council of Churches, the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, the Dutch Council of Churches and the International Council of Christian Churches.

However, whilst they decided not to join these organisations because they disagreed with their basis, they certainly had no objection to the expression of unity itself.

They knew that rejecting opportunities to interact with churches of the same faith could have negative consequences. Isolating yourself as churches means that you fail to express unity where Christ allows it and potentially miss out on the many benefits a true international unity can bring. You fail to see and acknowledge God’s worldwide church-gathering work. There is also a real danger of a bond of churches becoming self-righteous: then they think that nobody is ‘good enough’ to be part of their unique brand of truth; a type of phariseeism.

The expression of unity is not allowed to be hampered by minor cultural or historical differences. On the contrary, one must make a sincere effort to make this unity effective so that all parties can enjoy the benefits. In the past, the GKv sought this unity very conscientiously; many acts of synods reflect this.

Ecumenical unity is bound to the norm of God’s Word

God’s Word sets the boundaries of ecumenical activity. Therefore, operating within these parameters is the only safe and Scripturally legitimate way of engaging in an ecumenical relationship.

The overarching purpose of an interchurch relationship is to grow together in unity in Christ. First, this unity is a gift from our risen Lord. He works this unity by the power of His Word and Spirit. It is a spiritual unity which the one church recognises as existing in another church. Hence, pursuing unity is not a mandate or an objective; it is simply recognised when the one church sees in the other a faithful obedience to His Word. Unity is not achieved by following a specific program or course of action but is observed in the candidate partner when she displays a willingness to live not according to some but to all God’s commandments. Unity is a divine gift!

When that unity and obedience are mutually recognised, then there is the calling to exercise that unity. That mutual recognition of faithfulness in each other of two churches then turns into a mandate, a directive to be a hand and a foot to each other, “..endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Unity is not only experienced; it also needs to be maintained.

This unity has its foundation in Christ and manifests itself in a faithful confession of and living from the Word of God. Modern ecumenism puts a lot of emphasis on unity but little focus on Truth. The Bible teaches us that confessing the Truth is the prerequisite, the litmus test, for experiencing true unity.

We see this in the Lord Jesus Christ. During His ministry and discussions with the church leaders of His day, Christ nearly always focused on true doctrine. The discussions mainly revolved around what the Scriptures teach. Unity in Christ means understanding Him as He reveals Himself in His Word.  Christ’s high priestly prayer emphasises that Word: “And this is eternal life that they may KNOW You, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).  “And they have kept Your Word” (vs 6). “…keep them through Your NAME, those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (vs 11b). “Sanctify them by Your TRUTH. Your WORD is truth” (vs 17).

The focus on obedience to God’s Word is also the purpose of the letters to the seven congregations in Asia Minor as recorded in Revelation 2 and 3. These letters highlight apostasy and point out error in doctrine.

The obvious conclusion is that where the truth does not bind together, true unity is not experienced either. The apostle John concurs with this when he writes: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us, but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19). Thus, the issue at stake was that some members denied and opposed the true doctrine and then decided to leave the congregation.

Participating churches need to take the confessions seriously

In the ongoing struggle to remain faithful, churches in various countries received their confessions. These confessions were a gift from God that helped them present a concise but accurate response to current heresies. These confessions, in turn, formed a basis for unity.

It is therefore imperative that these confessions become a standard in seeking out relationships with other churches. Suppose, in the pursuit of contacts with other churches, these confessions are minimised, play a secondary role, and are somewhat negotiable. In that case, the result is that within their own church federation, the confessions are jeopardised as well and not taken as seriously as they should be. It is the inevitable result of adopting double standards. If you do not apply the confessions honestly, strictly, and universally, you have already devalued them.

So, one can only pursue ecumenical cooperation if participating churches fully recognise each other’s confessions as being true to God’s Word and strictly apply and uphold them in their contacts. This recognition does not mean that the participating churches need to adopt the confessions of other churches for themselves; however, it does mean that they could adopt them because they fully concur with the content.

When a church (federation) observes apostasy and deviation from confessions in a sister church (federation), it must immediately address the matter. When there is no change of heart, the erring church must be removed from the list of true churches. Truth and Lie may never coexist unchallengedfor what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” (2 Cor 6:14).