Why object to ‘pluriformity of the church’?

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Pluriformity of the church is a view of the church that has been promoted particularly by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a gifted theologian who later became prime minister of the Netherlands. He sought to justify it because of what he observed, namely, that there are “many different churches that worship God in different ways and confess their belief in him in a variety of ways” or forms. [i] Hence the term pluriformity (many forms) of the church. Whilst he acknowledged diverse degrees of faithfulness in the different Christian churches, he said that most of them nevertheless formed the universal church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he and those who shared his views spoke of an invisible church that consisted of all the elect scattered throughout these churches. But such notions about the church are unscriptural, deviate from the “Three Forms of Unity” and lead to further undermining of Scripture.

Admittedly, pluriformity of the church thinking has a lot of appeal. Instead of a black and white approach whereby a church is either a true (legitimate) church or a false church, pluriformity is far more nuanced. We’re not speaking here about a degree of pluriformity within the true church but about a much broader notion that sees the various Christian church federations as being more or less pure. This, in turn, allows Christians from different church federations to work together in various Christian organisations “against the tide of secularism” without necessarily being united in the truth. Little wonder, therefore, that Kuyper’s views on the pluriformity of the church were embraced by a pragmatic America where such pluriformity is popularised as ‘denominationalism’.

The problem is, however, that pluriformity of the church is based on observation and human reasoning instead of on God’s Word. We don’t believe that God is a triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—on the basis of what we see or experience, but on the basis of God’s Word. Likewise it is on the basis of God’s Word that we believe a holy, catholic church. Scripture reveals that wonderful promises have been given to her and a great future is promised to her. That holy catholic church is there where believers gather and submit humbly to the kingship of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, trusting in Him alone for their salvation. But a view of the church based on observation or human reasoning, as Kuyper held to and so many neo-Calvinists still do, deviates from what we confess God’s Word teaches about the church.

To be sure, Kuyper and his followers would agree with what we confess in our creeds: “I believe one holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” They would agree that this is the same church which Christ is gathering from the beginning of the world to its end in the unity of true faith, and that it is the bride of Christ which Revelation 12 shows as being under constant attack by Satan.

However, they deviate from the view of the church as we confess it in articles 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession. There we confess, in accordance with the clear teaching of God’s Word, that a religious body is either a legitimate church of the Lord, or it’s not (e.g., when the candlestick is removed: Rev. 2,3). We confess that the legitimate church of the Lord is wherever a congregation functions in faithfulness to God’s Word in preaching, use of sacraments and church discipline. “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). Christ calls every believer to join her and not to withdraw from her (Belgic Confession, Art. 28). Kuyper’s view about church pluriformity, on the other hand, does not accord with what we confess in the Three Forms of Unity, based on Scripture. Therefore, despite its practical appeal, Kuyper’s pluriformity of the church should be rejected outright.

But there’s more. Pluriformity also works to remove the mutual responsibility a bond of churches has towards another bond of churches. For example, whilst pluriformity thinking would see both Anglicans and Congregationalists as legitimate churches of the Lord, an Anglican Church would feel no obligation to correct a Congregational Church for its errors, and vice versa. Unlike in a reformed sister church relationship, there is no requirement to maintain oversight of one another.

In our reformed ecclesiology, however, each church is seen as being responsible for the others. We cannot be like Cain and say, “Am I my brother’s keeper”? Therefore in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia’s “Rules for Exercising Sister Relations” the first two rules are:
1. Sister relations shall be used to mutually assist, encourage and exhort one another to live as churches of God in this world.
2. The churches shall mutually care for each other that they do not depart from the reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline and liturgy.)

Moreover, in pluriformity of the church thinking, there is no urge to seek federative unity with other churches. Why should they? After all, they’ve already accepted one another as legitimate churches of the Lord.

That’s not so in reformed ecclesiology wherein sister-church relations are expected to be pursued with other true churches in the same country or part of the world. For example, if a local church was made aware of another faithful church in its vicinity or elsewhere in Australia (e.g. by one of its members), it would make due enquiries and, if it found that such a church indeed had the marks of the true church, it would go the ecclesiastical route so that the synod would appoint deputies to further investigate and come with recommendations, based on their investigations, to a following synod.

Naturally it would be difficult for a relatively small bond such as the FRCA to search out true churches throughout the world. Hence an earlier synod decided to limit pursuit of new sister relations to our own geographical area. However, within the same country pursuing sister relations with other faithful churches is commendable because we confess, on the basis of God’s Word, one catholic and apostolic church: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Consequently, where two federations of churches can accept one another as true churches they are obligated to manifest that unity by becoming one federation of churches in that country.

Sadly the popular Westminster Standards (WS) lend themselves to pluriformity of the church thinking. There are Presbyterian churches which interpret the WS as embracing pluriformity of the church because they speak of churches as being “more or less pure”, make a distinction between the visible and the invisible church, and say the church consists of all the elect. (We say the church is the body of believers and their seed. There are believers outside the church who need to join it and there are hypocrites within who need to get out.) It’s because of this pluriformity interpretation that the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (PCEA), for example, allowed non-PCEA (or sister church) ministers into their pulpits. It also allows non-PCEA believers to attend Lord’s Supper. So does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), according to Rev. Hofford (who left the OPC for that reason). [ii]

Christ’s church – “the pillar and ground of the truth”. Picture courtesy of Pinterest.

Pluriformity of the church also devalues the importance of remaining in Christ’s (true) church. We’ve seen members leave the FRCA as if it’s no big deal to them to do so. And it isn’t, if you embrace pluriformity of the church. After all, in embracing pluriformity of the church one sees these other churches as also being Christ’s church—the one merely somewhat purer or faithful than the other.

Moreover, pluriformity of the church diminishes the significance of church discipline. When churches apply the “rule of Matthew 18”, and the person under discipline refuses to repent, s/he is either excommunicated or, as often happens, withdraws from the church in order to avoid excommunication. Whilst Scripture and confession treat it very seriously and says such a person has no part in the kingdom of God (Lord’s Day 31), disciplined people who embrace pluriformity of the church see such discipline as no big deal. They simply move to another federation. They see themselves as stepping out of one church of the Lord into another legitimate church of the Lord, with one being a little more or less pure than the other.

One cannot help but wonder to what extent FRCA members have adopted pluriformity of the church notions when people who are disobedient to Christ’s call to join His church, or have turned their back on Christ’s church, are still welcomed in organisations that purport to promote the kingdom of God by spreading the gospel; or where disciplined or withdrawn people are welcomed and embraced at festivities of FRCA members. Many of our members fail to see the seriousness of what the withdrawn person has done. After all, in pluriformity of the church thinking “aren’t they still Christians” in one or another church?

Pluriformity of the church kills the call of BCF 28 to join the true church and leads to young people finding it quite acceptable to find a marriage partner in another church—be it evangelical, Pentecostal, Baptist, Anglican, etc. It blurs the God-ordained distinguishing marks that characterise Christ’s church.

We are so wonderfully, undeservedly privileged to belong to Christ’s (true) church, a church that seeks continually to reform itself according to God’s Word through the weekly proclamation of that Word and through teaching at catechism and school, Bible study, reformed media, mutual discipline, etc. Hereby God manifests His kingdom, as church members, nurtured by the Word and Spirit, more and more exhibit love and submission to Him in all they do.

By God’s grace in Christ, we belong to His one true church. It’s that same church which God brought out of Egypt to be His special people, cared for by Christ “the spiritual Rock that accompanied them” (1 Cor. 10:4). How glorious to belong to the church of which the Lord Himself teaches us to sing His praises in e.g. Psalm 48 and Psalm 122 and of which, while in exile, the psalmist sang “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps. 137). It is the church which the Lord calls “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the one flock of the Good Shepherd for which He gave His life and which He gathers, defends and preserves through the ages (LD 21) against the attacks of Satan (Gen. 3:15 & Rev. 12).

But pluriformity of the church devalues this and weakens Christ’s commands. It appeals to human reasoning and works to facilitate doing things together in Christian organisations, with perhaps laudable aims, but without being united in obedience to the Lord as members of Christ’s church.  Moreover, since it is a concept not based on God’s Word and the Three Forms of Unity, pluriformity undermines the Biblical requirement to join Christ’s true church and robs church discipline of its power. It is, perhaps slowly yet inevitably, ecclesiastical euthanasia.

 

[i] George Harinck et al (eds), The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, Lexham Press, 2022.
[ii] Rev B Hofford in a series of letters to his congregation in 1985, following a comparative study of the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.