Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Possible Church Mergers


The Christian Renewal, November 26, 2001, reports on several synodical meetings of the smaller Reformed denominations. These involved discussions concerning possible mergers between the denominations. One of these possible mergers is that of the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches (OCRC) with the United Reformed Churches (URC). The URC had invited the smaller OCRC (ten churches) to become part of their denomination. The proposal seemed reasonable, especially because both of these denominations came out of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). One would think that, since both have the same creeds, both have their traditions from the CRC, both left the CRC because of the liberal tendencies in the CRC (especially women serving in the offices), there would be no reason for them to remain distinct and separate denominations. Still, the OCRC synod expressed some grave reservations about unity under current circumstances. Much of the concerns centered in the issue of the creation week. The OCRC has taken a strong stand in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 and a creation week consisting of regular, 24-hour days. The URC, however, seems to be “straddling the fence” on this issue. The OCRC first issued a vote of “non-confidence in relation to Westminster Theological Seminary in California” on this matter. The Christian Renewal report states:

At its synod held in Everson, Washington, November 1 and 2, delegates voted unanimously to remove Westminster (West) from the federation’s list of recommended seminaries, a decision that parallels a decision of the synod of the Reformed Church in the United States done in 1999. Both denominations officially hold expressly to a strict interpretation of the creation account as occurring in six, 24 hour days.

The sticking point for the church which proposed the overture and the other nine churches represented at synod is the allowance of what is called the “framework interpretation” of the creation account, a theory that the

Genesis 1-2

account was written as a literary framework for teaching certain principles about God, but it was not intended to serve as a literal account of the manner or amount of time God used to create. The interpretation was popularized by now retired Westminster professor Dr. Meredith Kline, and has been embraced by other professors at the seminary.

As justification for the overture written by the Nobleton OCRC in southern Ontario, the grounds state:

1.Professors at Westminister (West) Theological Seminary hold to the “Framework Hypothesis” interpretation of Genesis, which allows for evolutionary views of creation;

2.To continue recommending Westminster (West) Theological Seminary is not consistent with the decision of Synod in October 1999, where our federation expressed our concern about the “Framework Hypothesis” and other such views, and thus did not join with the URCNA.

Responding to the OCRC synod’s decision president of Westminster, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, expressed his disappointment. “We regret the decision of the OCRC synod because we are very eager as a seminary to be of service to all confessionally Reformed churches.” In response to the first ground adopted by the OCRC, Godfrey challenged its validity. “We also regret the continuing misrepresentation of the Framework Interpretation as stated in the first ground of the synod’s decision. The Framework Interpretation does not allow evolutionary views of creation. All the faculty members here who hold to the Framework Interpretation also clearly teach that Adam was not the product of an evolutionary process, but was made directly by God from the dust of the earth.”

In response to Dr. Godfrey’s remarks, Rev. Maurice Luimes, pastor of the Nobleton OCRC, referred to an article written by Dr. Meredith Kline in 1996 (“Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony”) in which Kline, in a footnote at the end of the article, states that the framework interpretation allows for an evolutionary view of origins. Writes Kline:

“In this article I have advocated an interpretation of biblical cosmogony according to which Scripture is open to the current scientific view of a very old universe and, in that respect, does not discountenance the theory of the evolutionary origin of man. (Emphasis added.) But while I regard the widespread insistence on a young earth to be a deplorable disservice to the cause of biblical truth, I at the same time deem commitment to the authority of scriptural teaching to involve the acceptance of Adam as an historical individual, the covenantal head and ancestral fount of the rest of mankind, and the recognition that it was the one and same divine act that constituted him the first man, Adam the son of God

Luke 3:38,

that also imparted to him life.

Gen. 2:7

According to Luimes, Kline’s statement leaves the door wide open, despite Godfrey’s comments to the contrary. “On the one hand he (Kline) admits his exegesis does open up Scripture to the idea of the theory of evolution,” said Luimes. “Yet he makes a caveat statement that the creation of Adam was a divine act.” Luimes said that Kline’s statement “does not go far enough to distance himself from (French theologian) Henri Bloche,” for example, who is sympathetic to the framework hypothesis and who holds to a pre-Adamic form of man, as well as death before the Fall of man. Luimes said that although none of the Westminster professors may hold to the position Bloche advocates, the framework interpretation by its nature, does allow for such views. “The framework hypothesis allows for an evolutionary view, but it doesn’t require it. That’s all we’re saying in our overture. To say that this is a misrepresentation verges on silliness.”

The issue of the creation week also entered into the decision by the OCRC to recognize that “a significant roadblock to a merger was the OCRC’s position on six-day creation and the URC’s lack of a unified voice and formal position on the issue. The OCRCs requested clarity on the subject.”

The Christian Renewal report continues:

At the URC synod of 2001 held in Escondido, California delegates addressed the matter. Instead of taking a definitive stand in line with that taken by the OCRCs, the synod responded by affirming what the confessions teach concerning creation, and reiterating its commitment to discipline those who teach contrary to the confessions. Arguably the most significant statement the synod made touching the creation days was the following: “God created all things good in six days defined as evenings and mornings

Genesis 1

and 2 and

Exodus 20:11.

This means that we reject any evolutionary teaching, including theistic evolution, concerning the origin of the earth and all creatures (L.D. IX).”

This constituted the URC’s answer to the OCRCs. The question for delegates to the OCRCs was whether ecumenical relations could advance based on this response.

Nobleton’s answer was the one the synod chose. The consistory wrote: “That the statement…made at the URCNA 2001 Synod fails to address the Framework Hypothesis as publicly expressed by certain members of the URCNA.” Secondly, it added, “In view of our expressed desire and goal of federative unity the URCNA, and OCR Churches need an explicit statement from the URCNA of affirmation of six consecutive literal days of creation and rejection of the Framework Hypothesis.”

To facilitate further discussion of the matter, the OCRC synod did vote to move into “Corresponding Relations,” with the URCs, and also with the Reformed Churches in the United States, and with the Free Reformed Churches. It requested the Nobleton consistory to form a committee of Ecumenical Relations to pursue this course with these denominations.

The same issue of the Christian Renewal contains interesting views on the URC’s entering “Phase Two” of a move towards union of the URC and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). “Phase One” represented the actions of the churches in both denominations to get to know each other better. “Phase Two” represents the “engagement” of the denominations, which presumably would be followed by denominational unity. Rev. Christo Heiberg, a pastor in the URC, expresses some of his concerns:

Regarding the issue of whether or not to enter into “Phase Two” of the Guidelines for Ecumenicity and Church Unity with the Canadian and American Reformed Churches, I want to argue for a careful “Not Yet.”

I know full well that I am a bit late on the scene, after arriving in North America only seven months ago, but since I have one advantage above most of my fellow colleagues in the URCNA, namely of knowing both the churches of the Liberation of 1944 and the URCNA from the “outside” and the “inside,” I regard it as my sacred duty to voice some concerns. 

The basic problem is about the interpretation and application of

John 17.

We heard strong pleas at Synod Escondido that we (the URCNA) ought to move forward towards federative unity with the CanRC in order to give concrete expression to our obedience of

John 17.

Although some would like to argue that such a structural unity isn’t really the aim of our Lord’s prayer, I would concede that it must at least be an eventual goal between like-minded believers in the same geographical sphere, sharing the same language….

…Any reformed endeavor for unity must always honour at least two simple principles: not to compromise truth and not to sacrifice the edification of God’s people in their faith and worship for the sake of such unity. If we violate these principles, then our drive for unity stems from another source than from the Word and the Spirit.

Some would like to argue though, that Phase Two will sort these kinds of problems out. To be honest, I also thought so initially. But then I studied the “Guidelines.” Debate and dialogue about possible concerns or differences should have taken place under Phase One already. Phase Two is a steep slope towards “complete unity,” as CERCU’s mandate puts it. I have talked to many people and have read everything within reach, but certainly no public dialogue of any real significance has got off the ground. I don’t foresee that CERCU would start such a dialogue either, because you simply don’t start to bicker with your fiancée once you are engaged. I therefore ask: is this a case of ignorance about possible differences, a fear for addressing them or perhaps hoping that they will never surface? Can we then still claim to be busy with obeying

John 17?

Where is the openness that should be the hallmark of Christians dealing with one another? Trying to forge structural unity without the necessary basis of spiritual unity will prove to be disastrous. Church history should teach us that….

The writer makes a very interesting point. If these two denominations become “engaged,” how will they deal with clear differences in doctrinal positions? Or do individual churches hold to whatever doctrine best suits them?

There are obvious differences between the denominations—or have they already been resolved? There is the question of the literal creation account in Genesis. Is there agreement? Agreement, too, that there is room for a “Framework Hypothesis”? Are they agreed on the issue of “common grace”? The Liberated at one time generally rejected this, while the URC carry on the tradition of the CRC (with possible exceptions within their midst). Then, of course, there is the issue of the covenant. There is, one would think, deep differences within the denominations concerning the proper understanding of this important issue.

It will prove interesting to see how these questions are resolved (or ignored?). One can indeed pray for the unity of John 17—also organic unity—but this ought not be done by compromising one’s convictions concerning the truths of God’s Word.