(In the last paragraph Kuyper has discussed the responsibility of individual members, whether ordinary members of the congregation or office bearers in the church, with respect to unfaithfulness and disobedience in the church. He has discussed what the calling of these members is and how they must begin the work of church reformation and separation from the church of which they are members. The discussion in the last paragraph had to do particularly with one’s responsibility in the local congregation. In this following paragraph Kuyper discusses the responsibility of the individual member and his calling toward the denomination as a whole.)
57. Concerning Reformation Through Separation From the Existing Denomination.
Our fathers, who undertook the reformation of the churches of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, etc., in the sixteenth century, did not seek separation from their church; i.e., from the church of their locality or even of their parish. They sought a break with theorganization of the local church. They sought a break with the church connection in which their church stood related with other churches. But they wanted their church as church to continue. It was after the Reformation the same as it was before, and church reformation did not lead to the establishment of a new church alongside of or over against the existing one. All that happened was that the existing church in profession and worship and organization was purified from errors.¹
From this it is clear that a new reformation which would be similar to the Reformation of the sixteenth century would indeed break with the organization and with the church fellowship, but would leave the body of the churches as such unharmed. Another suit of clothes, but the same body! That was the password of that time.
This shows the great importance of the second kind of reformation which we discuss in this paragraph: reformation by separation from the denomination.
The character of this kind of reformation is sharply delineated.
Just as we discussed more broadly in the second chapter concerning the formation of the church, so we must be reminded here that the church of Jesus is one in all places of the world and wherever God has His people. One is the Head of us all. Thus we are one body under Him Who has bought us with the price of His own blood. But just as the one light of the same sun streams into the different rooms of one house through different windows to be divided by the walls in the basement and attic, in the front and back rooms, in the hall and upper rooms, without being anything different from the one and same light from the same sun, so it is also with the streams of light from Jesus’ life in His churches on earth. All these churches together form one house; but in that one house there are many different rooms separated by walls; and in those separate rooms streams the light not from a source of light hidden in the middle of the room, but directly from the sun through skylights and windows. Thus there is one organized life of Christ, just as the light of the sun is one throughout the whole earth and sky. And also there is one house on earth, one church, in which the different churches form only rooms or apartments which have contact through doors. But the light which streams in comes from outside and makes each room its own room with its own light and its own life. This is the urgent reason why it must never be permitted that a local church be considered as a sub-division, a section, or compartment of a national church. This idea robs the church of her honor as church. She is sub-division, section, compartment, or, rather, to speak organically, she is member or cell of one indivisible church of Christ, and receives as such her light, her love, her life, directly from Him. The church will thus remain church even if all the other local churches with which she is connected fall away. She exists not because the national church exists, but only because the life of Christ is revealed in her. It may thus be said that she is a part of the universal, catholic, holy church on earth; but never that she is a compartment or sub-division of a group of churches on earth. Indeed, she does not come into existence because that group of churches exists, but the other way around: that group exists because the churches of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, etc., first exist independently and now enter into relations and connections with each other. Not, we must understand this well, as if this relation and connection are not necessary, and as if good churches by the very pressure of life and of love shall not come together of themselves; but in the sense that the existence of the church always precedes the existence of the federation, and the church federation is born out of the churches. The opposite is only the greatest exception.
In the meantime, this church federation, which has been established by the churches for the use and profit of the churches, can, after the passing of time and through a change of circumstances, become an inconvenience and hindrance to the spiritual blossoming of the churches and to her growth in salvation and sanctification.
Yet, if after the spiritual decline of nearly all the churches, the whole church federation has degenerated into a dry and dead federation of churches and is held together only by regulations, then it cannot be any different than that any spiritual revival and every attempt towards church renewal in one or more of the federation of churches shall be frustrated by a wrong spirit which has slipped into the church federation.
Nevertheless, such a church federation binds together. Churches living in such a federation are no longer free to act as they please. They live under communal rules and under the power of mutually agreed upon gatherings in Classis and Synod. By these communal rules the door of the one church is open for the members of the other churches. Because of the influence which they mutually exercise on each other, the manner of government of all is regulated by one communal church order, and the changing of that church order is not the right of one church, but of all the churches together.
Three conclusions follow from this.
The first is that with the spiritual decline of the churches which live in common fellowship, a lack of spirituality must necessarily and gradually slip into the church order and the rules of communal living, so that at last, the ecclesiastical rule is served instead of the Word of the Lord, and the Word itself is opposed.
Secondly, with such a spiritual decline in the churches, the natural bond of common confession is lost. To replace that lost unity the church is compelled to emphasize human authority and regulations in an attempt to preserve that unity which in fact is gone. In the measure that God’s Word is set aside, more emphasis is laid on the authority of human ordinances.
Thirdly, because a consequence of such a spiritual decline of the churches is that the rules of her fellowship are brought into conflict with God’s Word and the authority of human ordinances is considered especially holy, churches which seek reformation according to God’s Word must oppose both the regulations hostile to the Word of God in the corrupt church order and the imaginary majesty of the human authority which clings to that church order.
Progress in these cases is gradual.
If, by God’s grace, a desire and impulse arises in a certain church to live according to the Word of God, then that impulse will manifest itself first of all in a very small circle. But it will soon attempt to spread itself outside that small circle in the denomination at large. Reaching the circle of spiritual office bearers, this impulse will manifest itself in the consistory. Then the consistory finds itself confronted with this all-decisive question whether it shall reestablish the honor of God’s holy name in the congregation entrusted to it, or whether it will oppose the spiritual awakening of the church. Neutrality in this matter is impossible. Every consistory chooses either for those who are concerned for church reformation or against them. The excuse that each man for himself shall continue to proclaim the Word without supporting those who seek reformation is hollow and empty. Indeed, the Lord has not established in His church only independent preachers, but an office. This office means that all preachers stand in a mutual relation, are responsible for each other mutually, and thus shall determine for themselves their responsibility to direct the church according to God’s Word, or to cooperate together to permit their church to persist in its deviation from God’s Word. The choice might be painful, but one cannot escape it.
Now one of two things are true. If a consistory chooses against the spiritual awakening in the church and if it maintains, for the sake of the church federation, human ordinances contrary to the Word of God, then the church federation battles against that spiritually awakened part of the church and the unfaithful consistory serves the wicked church government in its opposition to those who are zealous for the Word of the Lord. If the consistory recognizes its obligation to return to obedience to the Word of God, the danger is present that it will be called to account by the hostile church federation.
These two distinct cases must therefore be kept separate.
A conflict can develop between a person and the church federation in which the consistory becomes an accomplice of the church federation. But an entirely different conflict is possible when not only an individual person, but the consistory itself comes into conflict with the church federation as it functions as the head of the congregations.
We shall discuss each of these two separately.
¹ The distinction Kuyper has in mind here is the distinction between the local congregation and the denomination. One who engages in church reformation seeks not separation from the denomination, but the renewal of the local congregation.