It’s amazing really: every Sunday we hear and confess the Apostles’ Creed and say in our hearts that we believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—even though we’ve never seen God. That’s faith: “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). In our confessions, too, we speak about our triune God’s attributes on the basis of what the Bible tells us, not on the basis of experience. But when it comes to confessing, in that same creed, the ‘the holy catholic church’ as the ‘communion of saints’, and confessing it in more detail in our confessions, then suddenly it’s no longer what we confess that so often determines how we speak about the church but rather human experience.
At least, that seems to be so for many. They experience sincere Christians outside “our” church, or they experience other churches, and then they draw conclusions that are at odds with what we confess. Whilst it’s admitted that these Christians and churches may not hold exactly what we confess, we experience how they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and speak of the forgiveness of sins, and how they dare to show that they are Christians. Moreover, some of us in our travels have attended church services in various denominations and “experienced good sermons”. Others observe with approval how these independent churches—with their varying degrees of faithfulness—combine to engage in mission, evangelism, political and social action. Notice how they’re all doing something, without (like us) commenting about one another’s doctrine and practices or feeling the need to spend all that time establishing church unity!
So you see that although our confession, echoing Scripture, speaks clear language about the church and its attributes or marks, in practice there is this inclination to go by subjective experiences. In effect it leads to embracing denominationalism—the widely held idea that all (or at least most) Christian churches are denominations: legitimate churches of Christ and part of His universal (catholic) church. But that view, whilst increasingly gaining acceptance in practice, is unscriptural and if you hold to it you can kiss goodbye what Scripture and the Belgic Confession say about Christ’s (true) church and every believer’s obligation to join it. Therefore it’s good to have another look at denominationalism and confront it with the truth.
Fortunately the late Rev Cl. Stam has made it easy for us. Back in 1978/9 he published a series of three important articles[i] on denominationalism. Therein he showed that this dangerous view of the church originated in America and became the norm in other immigrant countries such as Canada and Australia. Later it also gained a foothold in Europe and [already then, some 40 years ago] appeared to be gaining inroads into our churches and sister churches. Prophetic words, as subsequent events show! In what follows, I have summarised, spiced with direct quotes, Rev Stam’s articles. Notes in square brackets are mine.
“THE AMERICAN VIEW ON THE CHURCH”
When we have contact with other churches on this continent, we find that we don’t understand one another well because we have a different understanding of what the Bible teaches about the church. “In accordance with our Confession, we tend to speak in terms of ‘true’ and ‘false’ Churches, but North Americans (and, increasingly, Europeans also) are not wont to do so.” Consequently, in our talks about unity with those whom we might recognise as true churches, we seek a real unity through a sister-relationship.
“The thinking is: all true Churches must be one in faith and action, for is not the Church ‘communion of saints‘? Yet, Americans who do not think in such clearly defined terms of true and false, favour looser associations in fear of being dominated and losing one’s own denominational freedom and independence.
While we refuse or break off contacts with those churches which we have discovered to be false, Americans generally tend to maintain varying kinds of bonds and degrees of fellowship with them.”
[Note: We can see how this denominationalism has influenced the RCNZ’s view of the church. They broke the sister relationship with the CRCA because of the CRCA’s unfaithfulness but maintain a relationship of ‘ecumenical fellowship’; they preach in one another’s pulpits, call one another’s ministers, recommend that the ICRC accept the CRCA as a faithful church federation, share theological training and engage in various activities together. In effect the RCNZ say to the CRCA: you are unfaithful and therefore can’t be our sister churches any longer, but we still acknowledge you as legitimate churches of the Lord and will therefore continue to express our fellowship with one another in various ways. JN]
The trouble is that this denominationalist thinking is making inroads into our own federation of Churches. We no longer think alike in these matters and start accusing one another of either sectarianism or liberalism.
“A simple, recent example will suffice. When one of our ministers writes that we should use only the gifts and talents of accredited office-bearers of our own Churches ‘for the equipping of the saints’ (in the case of evangelism, to be exact), and not to invite speakers from elsewhere, he is immediately accused of being a ‘sectarian’ who sees no good elsewhere and is forthwith reminded of the fact that Christ had great praise for outsiders, etc. But such was not the matter at stake; our minister was only speaking of the proper ecclesiastical way of doing things.
Permit another timely example. It is no secret that some members of our Churches feel free to attend worship services organized by other denominations and perhaps to attend the Lord’s Supper celebration there. The rigid scheme of ‘true and false’ is too much for them, the ecclesiastical way to unity much too cumbersome, and they can entertain fellowship with other denominations in an ecumenical spirit that is alien to the other members of our Churches. And those others, in turn, greatly frown upon such practices. Correctly so, I feel.”
This raises the question whether we still uphold and also practise what we confess about the church. Or is this typically American way of thinking influencing us so that we all form our own opinion about the church?
THE AMERICAN VIEW
Generally you won’t hear American ministers telling their listeners “to be living members of the true Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and to have a good regard for the ‘marks’ of this Church”. They tend to stress ‘personal salvation’ and see membership of the church to be a voluntary choice of secondary importance.
Understanding this denominationalist view of the church and testing it based on Scripture and confession can help us to appreciate more what we, “by the grace of God, have come to confess concerning Christ’s gathering of His Church”.
There’s a huge variety of ‘denominations’ which, despite their differences, recognise one another as churches of the Lord and cooperate in projects to further the “Kingdom of God” in America. It’s this explicit recognition of one another as a legitimate church or denomination which Americans themselves term “denominationalism”.
It’s all built on the American spirit of tolerance. Anyone has the right to go to the Church of their choice, but not the right to judge (or discriminate against) others in their personal choice. After all, what you feel in your heart is more important than the outward institution of religion! John Wesley[ii] was quick to say, “Dost thou love and fear God? It is enough, I give thee the right hand of fellowship!”
“Whether the love to God drives one to choose a faithful Church seems beyond the horizon. And so the various denominations live on in peaceful coexistence, somewhat ‘sectarian’, since each preserves its own independence, yet also deeply ‘ecumenical’, since each shows little hesitance in giving the other recognition and cooperation.”
Denominationalism means that the churches accept one another as having the right to exist as church of the Lord and are willing to cooperate together without necessarily being one in the truth: a sort of unity in disunity.
DENOMINATIONALISM AT WORK
“A typical example of denominationalism-in-action is the peculiar behaviour of the member Churches of the NAPARC, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Recently the Synods of five Churches of Reformed and Presbyterian persuasion convened simultaneously on the campus of Calvin College to discuss their own affairs in separate assemblies, but also to engage in some mutual activities. The delegates indiscriminately shared meals and dormitories, and were united in an ecumenical prayer meeting, yet none of the five Assemblies or Synods dealt with a proposal to realize ecclesiastical unity. The OPC Assembly was addressed by a delegate from the modernistic Reformed Church of America (RCA), while, in turn, Prof. C. van Til (OPC) was warmly welcomed at the Christian Reformed Synod and received with grand applause.
The Christian Reformed magazine, The Banner, welcomed the many delegates of the various denominations with the heading, “You are the branches!” In this way an attempt was made to put the whole affair into a Scriptural perspective. The unity was apparent at the common service and at the tables, but the disunity of the “branches” was painfully evident at the separate assemblies. Yet no one really seemed to mind: denominationalism at work! And the question arises again: Is this an acceptable situation or a sad attempt to cover up a distressing dividedness?”
[Canadian Reformed Churches are today members of NAPARC and the ICRC. Both are organisations which, in effect, practise denominationalism. NAPARC has as one of its purposes to “promote cooperation wherever possible and feasible on the local and denominational level in such areas as missions, relief efforts, Christian schools, and church education” without the need to first establish sister relations. The ICRC similarly seeks “to encourage cooperation among the member churches in the fulfillment of the missionary and other mandates” and to “present a Reformed testimony to the world” without first establishing ecclesiastical unity. JN]
To be continued…
[i] Published in Clarion, Sept. 9 1978, Sept. 23 1978 and March 10 1979.
[ii] John Wesley was the founder of Methodism.