As most readers know, the Committee for Contact with Other Churches is one of the permanent committees of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The PRC has long recognized the importance of seeking church unity. God commands all believers to be active in this, “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The PRC, confessing the reality of the “one, holy, catholic church,” pursue unity with other churches and denominations. For this work, the churches commission the Contact Committee (CC), which committee follows the mandates of synod in her yearly activity.
Concerning the work of the CC, significant misinformation has been circulated among members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. In order that the churches may know the truth, we take this opportunity to give the full, undistorted reality of the CC’s work in two areas in particular.
The United Reformed Churches (URC)
The CC’s dealings with the URC go back to 1998 when the Synod instructed the CC to hold a conference with the URC “to determine the issues that separate us. These issues would include, but not be limited to, common grace and the doctrine of the covenant” (PRC Acts, 1998, Art. 60). That conference was held in April of 1999. An extensive report of this appears in the 1999 Acts (pp. 127-131). The report indicates that the doctrines of common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel were discussed, and the URC committee expressed substantial agreement with the PRC on these doctrines. The issue of the hierarchical action of the CRC (unjustly deposing ministers and consistories) was also discussed, and the URC men made clear their belief that their separation from the CRC and their existence 75 years after the event meant that the responsibility was not to be attributed to the URC. The PRC men expressed the opposite view but could not convince the URC committee of that.
Subsequently, the CC went on to discuss with the URC men the doctrine of the covenant, the one doctrine that more than anything else, captures the heart of Protestant Reformed teaching. There the disagreement between the two denominations was obvious, and it could not be resolved. Most of the URC committee wanted a covenant theology that was conditional and with every baptized child. The URC synod, meanwhile, did not accept their committee’s agreement with the PRC on common grace and the well-meant offer. In addition, the URC was on the way to union with the Canadian Reformed Churches. In light of all this, meetings to discuss differences were ended.
It should be noted that the CC did, in fact, address with the URC committee the CRC’s unjust depositions of PRC ministers and consistories. Perhaps some are of the opinion that this is all that the CC should ever discuss in a meeting with the URC committee. The CC, with synod’s approval through the years, has focused on doctrinal discussions, though not leaving out, with the CRC in 2002 and the URC, the issue of the unjust deposition of H. Hoeksema, G. Ophoff, and H. Danhof and their consistories.
No longer are any meetings held with the URC in order to explore differences and seek a possible relationship. Nonetheless, the men of the URC were willing to discuss their churches’ position on Federal Vision and the matter of finances on the mission field. Both of these discussions were at our request. First, we wanted to be clear on the URC’s position on Federal Vision as we prepare to bring this matter up at NAPARC (see below). Second, money on the mission field or with sister churches is a knotty issue, and we believe it is wise to learn how other Reformed churches deal with finances.
There are also distortions about the CC’s intentions concerning the organization called the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). For many years the PRC synod has approved the CC sending observers to the annual meeting of NAPARC. Every year the CC gives reasons for doing so. Yet, the CC became increasingly uncomfortable about sending visitors year after year with no clear objective or ground. The Constitution of the CC says nothing about such gatherings. The CC took no little encouragement from the fact that Herman Hoeksema had advocated accepting an invitation extended to the PRC in 1950 by the Reformed Ecumenical Council. At that time, the members of the REC included both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, churches with which the PRC had significant differences, not only, but one of which had cast out the men who would found the PRC. Yet, Hoeksema did not want the PRC to be so isolationistic that they would not even attend the REC. With his support, the Synod of 1952 accepted the invitation. As it turned out, the PRC never did attend, due to the disruption of the split in 1953. Yet the Synod of 1964 adopted the following: “As a historically Reformed denomination, we stand ready to send observers to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod in the future” (PRC Acts, p. 92).1
NAPARC is comprised of what is left of the historic, confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, with varying degrees of confessional faithfulness. In the nature of the case, the PRC has differences with all of these churches. Attending as observers does not commit the PRC to any of the decisions of NAPARC or the positions of any member churches. The observers have opportunity to address the assembly and to inform them of the distinctive doctrines and practices of the PRC. In the past our delegates have set forth our position on common grace, the well-meant offer of the gospel, divorce and remarriage, the covenant of grace, our system of catechetical instruction, and Christian schools, to name a few.
In 2016, the CC came with an extended report on this matter, as mandated by a previous synod. The report gave grounds that could be used to join a suitable Reformed ecumenical group. It also gave grounds for sending observers to such a group. In its report, the CC recommended that the PRC not seek admission to NAPARC. However, the CC recommended that observers could yet give a good witness concerning the distinctive truths and practices of the PRC. Synod agreed. But the CC has never suggested that the PRC join NAPARC.
Now addressing the distortion. It is said that “many people in the PRC want to join NAPARC.” But no member of the PRC has sent a letter, approached a member of the CC, or written a blog, pressing for membership in NAPARC. And while implications have been left that the CC is considering this possibility, a simple reading of the Acts of Synod 2020 indicate that it is far from the truth. Among other things the CC reports:
The CC continues to see value in sending observers to these meetings, especially that we may give witness to the distinctive Reformed truths that have been graciously given to us and to testify against fundamental doctrinal and practical errors that threaten Reformed and Presbyterian churches today. At the same time, we may be nearing a crossroad. Many of the member churches of NAPARC have adopted statements condemning the Federal Vision, but NAPARC has not officially spoken to the matter or acted regarding member churches who we believe have exonerated those who embrace the teaching of the Federal Vision (Acts 2020, p. 235).
The 2020 Synod approved sending observers, and included in the decision the mandate recommended by the CC, namely, that the PRC delegation to NAPARC give a “presentation regarding our view of the Federal Vision movement that also seeks to determine whether the body has any desire to deal with this serious threat to the Reformed truth” (Acts, Art. 36).
In conclusion, it is difficult for the CC to point out every omission and misinformation circulated in the churches. Readers can easily confirm what is written here by reading the Acts of Synod, and can stay informed by reading and checking the Acts year by year.
We do ask for your continued prayers for the work of the CC. The preamble of the CC’s Constitution remains our commitment, and we trust, the commitment of every member of the Protestant Reformed churches.
The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, in obedience to Scripture as interpreted in our three forms of unity, confess that there is one holy, catholic church. They believe, further, that it is their sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of the church on earth in as far as that is possible, not only in their denominational fellowship but also in conjunction with all churches which have obtained like precious faith with us, both domestic and foreign.
1 A few years later, the PRC declined sending observers, having discovered that the observers were required to subscribe to the “Basis” of RES, and the PRC had legitimate objections to some teachings found there.