Mr. Wigger is an elder in the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.

Towards Greater Unity?

A number of newspapers have reported an event towards which four major denominations have been working for a long time. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America recently signed an agreement to have “full communion” together. The Greeley Tribune gave a report titled “Sharing the Word”:

With choir members providing the background music, the people who filled the pews at First Congregational Church Sunday morning broke bread together.

Then the people drank wine together.

Though the two traditions are not unusual to see in a church, Sunday’s 11 a.m. service was not of the usual kind.

Five Greeley congregations entered into “full communion” together. This means that the denominations have decided to heal their disagreements with each other, both nationally and locally, and recognize each others’ baptisms and ministries. They also will accept members of the other churches to take communion.

…The Greeley service was one of many occurring around the nation to recognize the common ground four national churches have found….

… “It was great,” Bob Bischoff said. “There was just the right humor in it (the sermon).”

Bersagel’s sermon began with some words on how the different churches gathered together for the morning. 

… “It’s so neat to get everyone together,” said Bernie Bliss, who attends First Congregational.

“We’ve let stuff on paper keep us apart when the underlying reason we are all here is to worship.”

Along the same vein, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 7, 1998, stated:

Overcoming 470 years of division, members of four Protestant denominations came together in a historic “full communion” service in Berkley yesterday but confessed that they still have a long way to go.

The service, held in the chapel at the Pacific School of Religion, was the first church-sanctioned communion service in Northern California where members of the Lutheran and Reformed churches shared in the Christian liturgy of bread and wine.

It took 35 years of ecumenical negotiations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America to make it to the altar.

While not an actual merger, the Protestant pact calls for much greater cooperation among the denominations, even allowing Lutheran clergy to pastor Presbyterian churches, and vice versa. Together, the four churches claim more than 10 million members.

Nevertheless, the Rev. Timothy Lull, president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, conceded that yesterday’s event — patterned after a larger national gathering two days earlier in Chicago — was history with a very small “h.”

…Even in the American heartland, Lull said, the Lutherans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists can no longer pretend to be the “mainline” Protestants. They are fast losing “market share,” while in the Bay area, “the tide of Christendom seems to be ebbing, and vital religion manifests itself in other traditions.”

Lull’s sermon did manage to find a few rays of light. He noted that the “formula of agreement” between the four denominations heals a wound that opened at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. That was the fateful session where Martin Luther, the German Reformer, and Ulrich Zwingli, his Swiss counterpart, could not agree on whether the bread and wine were really the body and blood of Christ. Luther favored the more traditional teachings, splintering the young Protestant movement.

… “We have sinned by claiming our differences as more important than our oneness in the Body of Christ,” said seminary student Kirk Wegter-McNelly, addressing the congregation.

“Forgive us, O God,” the congregation replied.

It is a truism that the oneness of the body of Christ is of utmost importance. Christ Himself prayed that “they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). The question remains prominently before us, “Is this beginning of unity between the denominations, the unity which reflects that between the Father and Christ?” Such unity is based on truth. The “unity” now being practiced by the aforementioned denominations can only be on the basis of the “lowest common denominator.” If “truth” is sacrificed on this altar of “unity,” then one must despair of the consequences. One will surely see this “unity” resulting further in loss of “market share.” And why? If doctrine no longer is significant, if “unity” remains the common theme, why belong to such churches? There could be perhaps a measure of excitement for a time, but when the foundations are destroyed, what else can the righteous do—but seek that which still highly values the truth of God’s Word and holds to the old creeds of His church?

501(c)3—Bane or Blessing?

Christian Renewal, Oct. 5, 1998, contains several articles treating the question of taxation of non-profit organizations, including churches, in the USA and also in Canada. Matters of some serious import are presented there. I quote just part of the article pertaining to the taxation laws of the USA:

… My focus here will be on taxation of the church, which remains tax exempt, but only it seems if it also remains largely silent on issues that the Church of Jesus Christ is obligated to address. In the U.S., we have an Internal Revenue Service code known as 501(c)3. This IRS rule (it is not Constitutional law) was introduced during the Roosevelt administration as a way to further codify the modernist interpretation of the separation between church and state. Under this law, churches or any other non-profit organization are exempt from government taxation so long as only a minimal amount of the organization’s money and/or resources are employed in political activity.

Over the years, the IRS has said these moneys and resources cannot extend beyond 5% of a church’s or non-profit organization’s budget. The IRS also has ensured this rule covers specific activities: endorsing or opposing a political candidate for office, directing funds to any one political candidate or Political Action Committee, and making a church mailing list available to one candidate but not another. Although this IRS rule has kept the church from being taxed as an organization in the U.S., it also has contributed to muzzling the church from speaking against unrighteousness in our land for fear that particular declamations against abortion, the public countenancing of homosexuality, or any other nefarious activity, such as government welfare, would place the church in a position of endorsing one political platform over another. 

As a result, the church has sheepishly fallen prey to the modernist interpretation of separation between church and state. Sermons, teaching, and Christian activity are hardly ever extended to society at large as they were during the Reformation, but only to the Christian heart that somehow must survive in a culture that has long been given away. Even Calvinistic churches, which have long stood for the Gospel’s power of cultural transformation, have receded into the woodwork, teaching holiness for holiness’ sake, and not for the glory of God as it impacts the society in which Christians live, work and have a state. 

Todd Polyniak, a Reformed churchman, CPA and partner of the firm Singer, Wolf and Mongelli, said that the IRS’s 501(c)3 effectively operates as a statist doctrine that tells churches, “We’ll leave you alone if you leave us alone.” In other words, so long as the church sticks to its knitting defined by the state, then its tax-exempt status is secure. If it ventures beyond these parameters, however, be assured that the IRS will take notice and begin to come in for a closer look. Is this any different in principle from what is occurring in China? Churches have largely played along, but some non-profit groups have not.

There’s much more, of course, in that article as well as another which examines the tax situation in Canada. That of Canada may, if possible, be even more serious than that of the IRS in the USA. One is, however, reminded of the attempt of governments to erode, little-by-little, the position of Christ’s church. Some countries have simply outlawed the church. But perhaps of greater concern is the gradual erosion of the duty and responsibility of the church by the state under the guise of “separation between church and state.” It reminds me again of the story of the frog. When thrown into hot, boiling water, it will (so I was told) immediately seek to escape. But when the frog is placed in cold water which is gradually heated, presumably it does nothing and is cooked. Is this what is now happening to the churches of our North American countries?