The Reformed faith always requires a believer to walk a narrow path between two extremes. He must eschew liberalism that seeks to draw away the church into worldly-mindedness. But he must also detest the reaction to liberalism that results in legalism, an attempt to regulate the life of the child of God by robbing him of his freedom in Christ. The Reformed church must flee from the loathsome disease of Arminianism when calling sinners to repentance and faith, but it must likewise run from the opposite extreme of hyper-Calvinism, which denies God’s serious call to all to turn from sin and believe.
This narrow road between two extremes also applies to the doctrine of the church. The Reformed system of church government, for example, repudiates hierarchy in the church, a malady of Roman Catholicism, but it also stands against the separatism of Baptist and Congregational churches. The church must guard herself carefully from the extreme found in the modern spirit of ecumenism through amalgamation. But the church must also not react to this movement by going to the opposite extreme of allowing a spirit of isolationism to prevail among her clergy and members. It is this last subject we wish to address.
Ecclesiastical Isolationism Defined
It is necessary that we have a clear understanding of what we mean by our use of the term isolationism in this article. By isolationism we do not mean, first of all, the calling of the church to be separate from the unbelieving world. It certainly is the duty of the church whose members have been called out of unbelief and into faith to be a separate people unto the Lord in this world.
In the second place, we do not mean by ecclesiastical isolationism the need for the true church to isolate itself from the false church. It is not a sin for churches to separate themselves from union with a denomination that has forsaken God’s Word and to begin the church anew on the foundation of the truth of God’s Word. In the third place, we are not referring in this article to the error of independentism or separatism. The Anabaptists and the Congregationalists, or Brownists, were known as separatists because of their independentism. Separatism teaches that to belong to a denomination of churches is unbiblical. Each congregation must remain church-politically separate from all other congregations, except for mutual, non-binding fellowship and advice. To enter into a federation of churches that share oversight of one another is automatically hierarchical and therefore wrong.
This, too, is not what we mean by ecclesiastical isolationism.
Ecclesiastical isolationism is the belief that a denomination must detach itself from the rest of the church world by keeping to herself. It is the idea that a church or denomination of churches must isolate itself by entering only warily into discourse with other denominations. At the same time, she casts up embankments and fortifies her walls, peering out from behind those walls with suspicion and fear of infiltration by the enemy. We must not mistake such isolationism for a determination strongly to defend and maintain doctrines without compromise. Surely, the church of Jesus Christ is always called to maintain its doctrinal distinctiveness. But when a denomination sets itself up as the only bastion of truth left in the world, then proceeds to stand in judgment over all else that calls itself church—that is ecclesiastical isolationism. The demeanor of such churches as a whole is that of ecclesiastical and theological pride. Her clergy and members, for the most part, unwittingly exude a condescending attitude toward others. When dealing with others, without even realizing it, they leave the impression of being exclusive and unapproachable.
Objections to our quarrel with isolationism ought not to be ignored. An objector may argue like this: You are interpreting in a negative way my deep love for and commitment to the denomination of which I am a member. I am called to defend the truth against the lie. I am not going to soft-pedal differences! If that means I am an isolationist, then so be it!
The answer to this objection can be given by asking a simple question: does devotion to one’s church and doctrines, does a strong defense of those doctrines, require a spirit of isolation? I, for one, as a member and a minister of my denomination, am committed to the doctrines of grace God has given to our churches. I am grateful for and deeply humbled by the salvation that God has freely given me by His grace. By God’s grace, I will defend those truths until my dying breath! I will never compromise them! But this does not require of me as a member, or of us as a church, to isolate ourselves from dialog with others. Loving and defending the truths I hold dear ought not to keep me personally, or us as churches officially, from conversing with members or churches in a cordial and brotherly manner. Neither does it mean that I do not love my churches or the precious truths they teach! I love my church! But this will not deter me from entering into talks with churches about the truth of Scripture, even when others do not entirely agree with me.
A second objection is: isolation is the only way that a denomination will be able to guard itself from compromise of the truth. Without an isolationist approach in our dealings with others, we will fall prey to the modern spirit of amalgamation and ecumenism that prevails in the church world today. We are opening ourselves to the temptation of being persuaded by others to forsake the truth. It is true that evangelicals are playing footsie with Roman Catholicism in an attempt to merge.
It is also true that some Reformed denominations strive to merge with other denominations at the cost of the soul-saving truth of God’s Word. The spirit of antichrist is alive and well in the ecclesiastical world of today. Churches are uniting on the basis of compromise. That is frightening! But isolationism is a fearful reaction to this spirit of amalgamation. It is going to the opposite extreme, and in doing so is falling into an equally devastating error. Isolationism is not the answer to avoiding what is happening in modern Christianity. On the contrary, it weakens the testimony of those churches who pray that the truth of God’s Word might prevail in the Christian church in these last days.
The Error of Isolationism
The error of isolationism is exposed in the simple confession of the Nicene Creed: “I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The Belgic Confession defines this confession further for us in Article 27: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal church, which is a holy congregation of true believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost.” This same article concludes: “Furthermore, this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the same power of faith, in one and the same Spirit.” The church of Jesus Christ is not limited to or focused in one local denomination. It is not bound or confined to a certain place or limited to certain persons. True believers are not found in bulk in one denomination and then just scattered here and there in the rest of the churches. The Belgic Confession confesses one universal church over against the haughty insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that there is no salvation outside the bounds of her denomination.
The faithful church institute in this world confesses that she is but a small part of the entire body of Christ. It is the height of ecclesiastical pride to contend that if another church is not in complete agreement with my church in every instance, then my church ought not to have any dealings with that church. Such an attitude reveals arrogance and haughtiness. How can the beauty of the Reformed faith be shared with others when one believes it to be the sole possession of one particular church? How is a person able to persuade others of what he believes if he approaches them with the condescending attitude that the truth stands or falls with him and his church?
John Calvin labored tirelessly under the conviction expressed in Article 27 of the Belgic Confession. He disputed hard and long with the Lutherans, writing personal letters to Melanchthon in an attempt to convince him of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. Melanchthon refused to turn the Lutheran churches from the serious error of consubstantiation. In fact, Melanchthon also revealed, by his silence, an unwillingness to stand against other doctrinal errors that had crept into the Lutheran churches after the death of Luther. Set on the unity of the church, Calvin continually fostered contact with the Lutherans and maintained a close personal relationship with Melanchthon himself. He never stopped corresponding with Melanchthon. Upon Melanchthon’s death Calvin wrote, “O Philip Melanchthon, I appeal to thee as my witness! Thou now livest with Christ in the presence of God, and waitest for us to share with thee that blessed rest. Wearied with labor, oppressed with many cares, a hundred times didst thou express thy wish to live and die with me. I too a thousand times wished that we could live together” (This Was John Calvin, by Thea Van Halsema, pp. 162, 163).
Another concrete case in the life of the Genevan reformer was his dispute with Bullinger, the leader of the Zwinglians. The Zwinglians denied any kind of a spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper—another serious error regarding this sacrament. Calvin wrote these lines to Bullinger: “I may hold that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper in a fuller way than you hold Him to be, but we will not, on that account, cease to hold the same Christ, and be one in Him” (Van Halsema, p. 170). Calvin never held to an attitude of isolation in his dealing with others. When given the opportunity to debate, to sit in council, or to correspond with others, even those who disagreed with him, Calvin was of a ready mind and spirit to do so.
Calvin believed in one, universal church. He believed this church is “not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons.” He maintained that there were believers in this world who may not agree with him entirely, even in key points of doctrine, yet “held the same Christ and were one in Him.” This attitude of the great reformer stands as a witness against the spirit of isolationism.
The Results of Separatism
Isolationism has a number of harmful results. The first of these is the loss of a witness to this world. The church is called to let her light shine so others can see it. The denomination that separates herself from the rest of the church world will lose that witness. This is true because a condescending attitude toward others always leaves one’s witness ineffective. But it is also true because other churches that might otherwise be willing to listen to her witness will no longer want to listen to her. Few will want to correspond; few “outsiders” will attend her conferences; and her literature, as good as it might be, will largely go unread.
There is another result, one that affects that denomination itself. Her members become complacent. To be complacent means that a church and her members become so self-secure that they are unaware of the danger of their own deficiencies. The members of the church lose their fervency. They float along unconcerned with the truths of God’s Word. They are satisfied that as long as they are members of this faithful church, they are automatically good Christians.
We heed the warning of Scripture: “Be not high-minded but fear! For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Rom. 11:20, 21). Every member of the church of Christ must confess, God has called “out of the whole human race a church chosen to everlasting life” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, A. 54). I pray for that church—not just as she is found in my own denomination—but as she is dispersed over the whole world. May our own denomination of churches be a living, vibrant witness to that church of Christ universal.