Previous article in this series: January 15, 2014, p. 178.
In our first article on this subject we defined what church extension and church reformation were. We concluded that article with the thought that many in our churches believe that church extension (or domestic missions) may be accomplished only by means of church reformation. The result has been that in the past we have, for the most part, limited our domestic mission work to church reformation. We are going to pursue this more in coming articles. But there is one more matter in our definition of terms that needs addressing. This has to do with refining the idea of church reformation. This will also lead us into an examination of what our Form for the Ordination of Missionaries designates as preaching the gospel to the dispersed.
In the strictest sense church reformation deals with the task of re-forming a church that is apostatizing. It is working with an existing congregation in an attempt to turn it from error and into the way of truth again. Such work is generally initiated by the officebearers of that church. Either the officebearers themselves perform the work of reformation or these officebearers request assistance from a faithful denomination of churches to perform the work. In our last article we mentioned that the Protestant Reformed Churches and Rev. Herman Hoeksema engaged in this type of work in the early years of our denomination. We also have followed this method with several of our mission fields in the past. We worked with a local church or churches until such time that we could organize them into a congregation in our denomination. This is church reformation in the narrow sense.
But from the outset our churches also have worked with small groups of believers that, on account of apostasy, decided it was time to leave their church(es), and after some searching asked us to work with them towards organizing them into a Protestant Reformed congregation. Historically, we have viewed this work as church reformation as well. And rightfully so. Abraham Kuyper viewed such small groups seeking to institute a church in their locale as the work of reformation. In his Pamphlet on the Reformation of the Church, Kuyper addresses the subject, “Concerning Reformation by Means of a Break with the Existing Congregation.” In this section he writes,
Now, however, we will let the question rest for a bit and proceed in this paragraph on the assumption that a child of God is a member of a church which actually has become a false church. Our purpose is to investigate further how such a child of God must then participate in the work of reformation [italics mine—WGB].
We purposely write how he must engage in the work of reformation and not how he must walk out of the church. That last is an unspiritual conception of the matter.
Kuyper offers his advice to these saints engaged in such work of reformation a little later in that same section of his pamphlet. He suggests two possibilities:
[Either] you find in your locale another church which does not imitate the marks of the true church, but shows them in her life…. [Or] you do not find such a church in your locale. Then you would be obliged, along with those that are equally convinced as you are, to institute the church of God in your locale on the basis of your common confession.
Such groups, involved in what Kuyper calls “the work of reformation,” have frequently contacted our Domestic
Mission Committee in the past in order that we might assist them in organizing as a congregation in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Working with such groups, then, is church reformation in a broader sense.
That our churches have always considered their working with groups of believers to be church reformation is evident from the constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee. According to the constitution there are only three categories of people with whom we do domestic mission work: the unchurched, the heathen, and believers who are interested in the work of church reformation.
The unchurched are (with some exceptions) those whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents at one time were faithful church attenders, but who themselves have drifted from the church and no longer see any need for belonging to a church. The vast majority of unchurched are, therefore, unbelievers who have a vague knowledge of the Christian faith because of their believing forbears but who reject that faith. In today’s society this is by far the largest category of people.
The heathen are those who, according to the Form for the Ordination of Missionaries, have never heard or received the gospel. Many such people have immigrated to our country carrying with them their pagan religion. Because they now live in a country that has been influenced by Christianity, they know of it but are content to pursue their false religion. Rev. Thomas Miersma calls attention to this category of people in a Standard Bearer article in which he reported the work that Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Houston, Texas (now closed) was performing. In the article, “Reaching the Nations with the Gospel of Grace” (SB, vol. 72, p. 426), Rev. Miersma explains:
…yet in North America there are enclaves of immigrants from heathen lands who have never known the gospel with whom we must work.
…As part of its official work of church extension as a congregation, our church in Houston has been given an opportunity to preach the gospel to the Hindu community of Sindi descent in Houston and to the Chinese immigrant community as well. While many today who have had the gospel in their generations will not hear, and will shrug off the Word in indifference, God has given Trinity an open door to speak His Word among those who have never heard the gospel in their generations.
According to the constitution of the Mission Committee, these heathen form the second category of people to whom the gospel must be preached. This too belongs to domestic mission work.
The third category is the work of church reformation. This labor is performed among believers who desire to re-form the congregation of which they are a part, or who break from their church in order to establish another congregation that is true to the Word. What distinguishes church reformation from the other categories listed in the constitution is that the objects of church reformation are those who are already believers. That is a given: a concerned church or a concerned group of people interested in church reformation do not need to be converted from unbelief. They already believe. This is why they seek reform. Even when our churches investigate an area where we have several contacts in the hopes of developing a mission work, we are eyeing people who have already shown interest in the truth and therefore are more than likely believers. Though this scenario perhaps stands on the edge between laboring with the unchurched and church reformation, for lack of a better distinction this can properly be called church reformation in the broader sense, simply because these people are believers.
But is there perhaps a fourth classification—one to which these groups of believers not affiliated with any church could belong? The original proposal for the preamble of the constitution of the Mission Committee to the synod of 1942 made mention of “the dispersed.” Notice: “although we look forward to the time the way will be opened for us to labor among the heathen, both here and abroad, and among the dispersed [italics mine—WGB], we are convinced that our present duty still lies in the field of church extension and church reformation….” It seems as though this proposal made the distinction between church reformation and laboring among the dispersed. Perhaps, then, those believers who have separated themselves from an apostatizing church and then seek affiliation with our denomination fit into a fourth category, a category we call “the dispersed. ” They are not therefore the object of church reformation, but a labor among dispersed saints.
Upon some study of this idea, however, we find that laboring among the dispersed is not a fourth classification of people alongside of the heathen, the unchurched, and those engaged in the work of church reformation but is, rather, a general term used to describe all domestic mission work.
According to the Form for the Ordination of Missionaries, the domestic missionary is one who is called to labor among the dispersed, in distinction from a foreign missionary, who is sent to labor among the heathen. It is clear from this division of labors that the term “dispersed” is used to designate in general all the labors belonging to a domestic missionary. It therefore comprehends every category of domestic mission work with the exception of preaching the gospel to the heathen. This can be a bit confusing because, whereas the Form speaks of labor among the heathen as the work of the foreign missionary, the constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee includes laboring among the heathen as the work of a home missionary.
This discrepancy can best be explained historically. The Form for the Ordination of Missionaries was written in the very early 1900s, prior to the large influx of heathen people and religions into our nation. A missionary sent to the heathen was viewed at that time as one who was sent to a foreign land where the gospel had not yet been preached. It is even conceivable that when the constitution of the Mission Committee was originally written in 1942 our fathers did not yet realize that the terminology “the heathen” would eventually refer to the heathen in our own land. When our Form for the Ordination of Missionaries assigns to the domestic missionary labor among the dispersed, the implication is that this constitutes the whole of his work. And it does, with the exception that now the domestic missionary may be called to labor among the heathen in our own land as well.
But if laboring among the dispersed was meant to embrace all of domestic mission work saving labor among the heathen, then we must prove that this includes labor among both believers and unbelievers. It must be shown that laboring among the dispersed includes church reformation and work among the unchurched.
Laboring among the dispersed includes, first of all, the work of church reformation in the narrower sense. The word “dispersed” comes from a Greek term meaning “scattered.” In a few instances, for example inand , the term “scattered” refers to the Jewish people who had been scattered throughout the nations because of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. As a result of this Dispersion there were Jewish communities spread throughout the then-known world. These communities had established their own assemblies or churches that met for worship in synagogues. When the apostle Paul preached in the various cities of his mission journeys, he used a particular method: he went to the Jews first, in an attempt to reform these Old Testament churches into Christian churches. Paul was thus involved in church reformation in the narrow sense. He was merely following in his work the method Jesus had established for His disciples. When Jesus sent His disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, it was for the purpose of calling the scattered people of the Old Testament church to faith and repentance. In we read of Jesus looking upon these lost sheep of Israel and being “moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” The point is: laboring among the dispersed encompasses church reformation in the narrow sense.
In the second place, this term “dispersed” also refers to church reformation in a broader sense. Prof. Ronald Cammenga, in his commentary on the Church Order, Volume 70 of the Standard Bearer, page 163, demonstrates this in his explanation of Article 39, which reads, “Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory.” He writes:
Already the Synod of Emden, 1571, concerned itself with the gathering of scattered groups of Reformed believers. The Synod urged classes and consistories to labor in nearby cities and villages where congregations had not yet been established. Special attention was to be paid to dispersed believers, those who had fled their localities because of persecution. Consistories should do everything in their power to assist these dispersed in the establishment of congregations in their new places of residence.
Prof. Cammenga points out that at times it is not feasible for a group of believers to be immediately organized into a congregation. One reason is the size of the group. It may be too small. Another is that the people of the group may not be “sufficiently grounded in the Reformed faith or informed in the Christian life.” The question then arises, “What is to be done in the meantime?” The first possibility Prof. Cammenga presents is: “It is possible that the locale where the group is meeting be declared a denominational mission field.” This is church reformation in the broader sense. It too is preaching the gospel to the dispersed.
But, in the third place, so is laboring among the unchurched. It is true that the unchurched are generally (not exclusively) unbelievers who have forsaken the church and rejected the gospel of grace. But this does not number them among the heathen. The ancestors of the unchurched were a part of the church. The unchurched, therefore, belong to the generations of those who had the gospel but who now “shrug it off in indifference.” Some are indifferent because of their own rebellion and hardness of heart. But many are unchurched because the churches to which their forbears belonged were unfaithful and, as Israel of old, turned from the ways of God following in the ways of heresy and sin. When such churches forsake the truth of God’s Word, preaching and teaching the lie, the inevitable result is that they scatter the sheep. The Form for the Ordination of Missionaries targets the unchurched in its lengthy quotation from Ezekiel 34. Certainly, among the unchurched we find the scattered, broken, sick, lost sheep of God. In missions the church preaches the gospel to the unchurched indiscriminately in order that through this powerful work God “will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick” ().
This article is a bit of a digression from the intent of the articles we are writing. Yet, it is an important tangent since we need to define carefully the terminology used in our churches in our evangelism and mission work in order to come to a unified understanding of it. The question still remains: Is there a present need to labor as Evangelism Committees and a Domestic Mission Committee beyond that of church reformation? Perhaps the vastly different environment in which the church finds herself in today’s society requires a reevaluation of the emphasis prescribed by the constitution adopted in 1942. Are we to emphasize laboring primarily with those who are already believers, or must we busy ourselves primarily in preaching the gospel to the unchurched and unbelieving of our society? This will require a reevaluation of our methods in order that our witness includes but is also broader than those of Reformed persuasion. We return to these questions in our next article.