“Church” or “Churches”?

In “Voices” (The Banner, December 28, 1987) there appears an exchange between the Rev. Rein Leestma, a Christian Reformed minister in Lynwood, Illinois, and Dr. Richard R. De Ridder, of Calvin Seminary. It concerns the old questions in the area of Reformed church government, whether the Christian Reformed denomination is a federation of churches (as Leestma maintains) or constitutes one church (as De Ridder maintains, and as the singular name of the denomination, Christian Reformed Church, would seem to indicate).

It is not my intention to enter into the dispute between Leestma and De Ridder, except to make two remarks: 1) It seems to me that Dr. De Ridder falsely accuses the Rev. Leestma of independentism, when he writes: “The Christian Reformed Church is not a federation of churches. What Rev. Leestma is pleading for is a form of congregationalism that affirms that every local congregation is a law to itself and has the right to act independently.” I can find no evidence of this in Leestma’s letter. Further, among Reformed people a careful distinction has always been made between independentism, which indeed means that every congregation is a law unto itself and that decisions of broader assemblies are merely declaratory, and not binding, and what is usually referred to as the principle of the autonomy of the local church. 2) It is difficult to understand what Dr. De Ridder, in seemingly contradictory fashion, means when he writes: “A congregation is a fully constituted church of Christ. But this does not mean that it is the church.” Yet in the course of history, it seems to me, the Christian Reformed Church has increasingly assumed the stance, from a church political point of view, which Dr. De Ridder assumes, the so-called hierarchical or collegialistic stance. The tendency has been to view the denomination as the church and the individual congregations as so many branches of that one large church. And this is certainly wrong, both historically and principally.

I do not purpose to comment directly on the De Ridder-Leestma disagreement more than this. I do, however, wish to make a few remarks with regard to our own churches in this connection, without transgressing the domain of the department editor ofDecency And Order.

1. This exchange reminds me of the “es” battle which went on in the era when the late Rev. Hoeksema was our editor and when the late Rev. H.J. Kuiper was editor of The Banner. Almost as often as Kuiper would write about the Christian Reformed Church (singular), Hoeksema, if he quoted Kuiper, would add in parentheses the words: “should be Churches, HH”

2. This was historically connected, of course, with the origin of our Protestant Reformed Churches. Usually when we think of our origin we think immediately of the common grace controversy; and this is correct and also fundamental. Often it is forgotten, however, that there was a fundamental issue of church government involved also. In the years between 1924 and 1926 Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis Grand Rapids West took the stand that a classis has the right and the power to suspend and depose officebearers; and this was confirmed by the Christian Reformed Synod of 1926.

3. The name of our denomination is Protestant Reformed Churches (emphasis added) in America. The plural of our name denotes precisely the fact that our denomination is a federation of autonomous churches who operate under the so-called presbyterian-synodical form of government. We should not call our denomination “Protestant Reformed Church” nor allow others to call it that. We are the Protestant Reformed Churches. This is not a quibbling about words or letters.

4. At stake is the principle of the autonomy of the local church. The authority and power to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise discipline reside strictly in the local congregation (consistory).

5. Classis and synod have only derivative authority, that is, those rights, powers, and duties which the federated churches have agreed to give them and which are spelled out in our Church Order. Further, every classis or synod is strictly temporary; it goes out of existence when it adjourns. This is not true of a consistory.

6. The decisions of classis/synod are indeed binding within the church-federation, unless they be proved to conflict with the Word of God and the Church Order. But a local congregation/consistory which refuses to abide by decisions of the broader (not higher) assemblies cannot be disciplined by classis/synod; it can only be set outside the church federation.

More, much more, could be written about this. For over the centuries these matters have been the subject of much study and much controversy in Reformed churches. Both the so-called Liberated and the Synodicals made history in this regard in the 1940s for example. But the history of this question goes way back to the beginnings of the Reformed churches in Europe. Presbyterianism has also made history in this regard and has followed another track.

But let this suffice.

—HCH