Previous article in this series: November 15, 2012, p. 77.
The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, in obedience to Scripture as interpreted in our three forms of unity, confess that there is one holy, catholic church. They believe, further, that it is their sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of the church on earth in as far as that is possible, not only in their denominational fellowship but also in conjunction with all churches which have obtained like precious faith with us, both domestic and foreign.
With a view to the achievement of this calling, the synod shall maintain a Committee for Contact with Other Churches . . . .
– (Preamble of the Constitution of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches)
No merely formal ties shall be established, but only such relationships as will serve the actual welfare of the churches involved and the manifestations of our unity in the Reformed faith.
– (Constitution, V, C, 1, a, 2/)
Christ Jesus, the king of the church, calls His saints on this earth to manifest—as far as that is possible—the unity of His church. This calling rests squarely on the truth taught in the Reformed confessions that the church of God is one. Believers are mindful of their Lord’s will expressed in His poignant prayer the night before He laid down His life for her: “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are” (v. 11)—a request the Lord uttered twice more in that brief prayer. The Lord has made it clear to the church that He intends to gather all His sheep into one fold (), to graft all the elect Gentiles into the tree of Israel ( ff.), to knit all the members into one body ( , et al.), and to build one holy temple of God ( ). And the Lord’s urgent exhortation sounds through the ages—all believers must be “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” ( ).
The preamble of the Constitution of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches (CC) has it right—the Protestant Reformed Churches have a “sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of the church on earth in as far as that is possible, not only in their denominational fellowship but also in conjunction with all churches which have obtained like precious faith with us, both domestic and foreign.”
That conviction of the PRC is manifest first in the countless hours devoted to this effort by the eight members of the CC that synod appoints to the work (three elders, three ministers, and two professors). Second, this determination is evident in the willingness of congregations to release their ministers for travel to distant lands seeking unity, to say nothing of the willingness of the elders and ministers to leave their ordinary work and families to do so. And, finally, the PRC “puts its money where its mouth is,” as the expression goes. Every year the PRC’s synod approves a budget with a sizable amount of money for the CC’s work—$76,000 approved for 2012, and $117,100 for next year.
Over the years the CC has pursued scores of contacts with Reformed and Presbyterian churches within North America and abroad. This diligent work has borne fruit. Currently the PRC have sister-church relationships with two congregations, Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland, and Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore. A lesser relationship, i.e. corresponding, is established with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. The Lord has graciously given the PRC to experience something of the oneness of the body in fruitful relationships.
More often than not, past efforts have failed to produce official relationships due to significant differences in doctrine that could not be worked out. Such irresolvable differences preclude an official relationship.
The relatively few official relationships currently maintained by the PRC contrasts with the much higher number established by many other Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The Canadian Reformed Churches maintain ecclesiastical fellowship (sister churches) with ten churches, and are seeking the same with another. The United Reformed Churches, within North America, have ecclesiastical contact with four churches, corresponding relationships with four more, and ecclesiastical fellowship with three others. They also have relationships with eleven different churches outside this continent. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has ecclesiastical fellowship with fifteen churches and contact with nine others. And the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) have thirty sister churches and relations with eighteen more.¹
Relationships of this kind and number are impossible for the PRC, not only because of the smaller size of the denomination, but also because of the requirement of the constitution that “no merely formal ties shall be established, but only such relationships as will serve . . . the manifestations of our unity in the Reformed faith” (Constitution, V, C, 1, a, 2/). This is a biblical requirement. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” the prophet asks (Amos 3:3). First and foremost we are convicted that true unity is only in Christ, who is the truth. Church relationships must manifest that unity in the Reformed faith.
The Standard Bearer has on more than one occasion set forth that position that unity is only in the truth and therefore churches who seek to manifest the unity of the body may and can do so only on the ground of a common confession of the truth. We will not take the time now to repeat that here. ²
Our interest now is on the other significant restraint to the quick and easy establishment of ecclesiastical relationships, namely, that any relationship must “serve the actual welfare of the churches involved.” The wisdom of this requirement is transparent. Relationships are a serious matter and ought not be formed casually. It might be tempting for a church to form relationships readily with any number of churches who express interest. A factor behind this may be a reluctance to offend other churches. A church might also perhaps be inclined to form relationships in order to demonstrate the desire to manifest the oneness of the church. The church may comfort herself with the thought that the sister church is an ocean away, or even on the other side of the world. Must we then be so particular about what this church preaches and how she practices her religion? What could be wrong with showing the world that we can manifest the oneness of the Christian church in this way?
The CC constitution will not allow this for the PRC—“no merely formal ties shall be established.” Rather, any relationship established must contribute spiritual benefits for both parties.
Our concern in this editorial and the next is to face the issue positively: How can a relationship between two churches or groups of churches “serve the actual welfare of the churches involved”? Discussion of this matter is pertinent to any official relationship, but we will focus primarily on the newly established sister-church relation with Covenant ERC in Singapore. This relationship between two ecclesiastical bodies a world apart geographically must not be a “merely formal tie” with no significance, no real impact for either party.
When two churches agree to form an official relationship, they take upon themselves certain obligations. Both are to be active in the relationship to the extent they are able. Obligations include, first, support for one another. This support may be financial, just as the churches of Macedonia and Greece and “Asia” (Asia Minor, present-day Turkey) took collections for the church in Jerusalem (; ; ; ). This support must be theological. That is to say, sister churches support each other in the theological positions that they share. (Their doctrines will be in harmony, since a sister-church relation is formed only between two churches that are so similar in beliefs that they would be in one denomination if they were closer.) In their preaching, teaching, writing, and contending, each supports the other, though the other sister may not even be conscious of every effort to support her. That is taken for granted with a sister church. Each will defend the other if one is attacked in the battle of faith.
Second, both are duty-bound to encourage the other in the work. This is done through communication (letters, emails, conferences through the Internet—Skype) as well as face-to-face meetings. The inspired wisdom of Solomon applies here (). “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.” Sister churches pick each other up with encouragement when there is failure or discouragement in the work. Indeed, the one can ‘warm’ the other to spiritual zeal, “but how can one be warm alone?” If a church has lost its first love and zeal for the Reformed faith, the sister can be used by God to admonish and encourage the other to return to the work with renewed spiritual enthusiasm. “And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Since this spiritual strengthening depends entirely on God’s grace, sister churches accomplish much of this by praying for each other.
Third, sisters are called to work together when and where this is feasible. The central work of the church is preaching the gospel. A mission work in a given area may call for joint labors, or for one sister to assist by taking over the work. This has happened in many ways in the past. For example, when the possibility opened for the Contact Committee to give speeches in Portugal, it made much more sense to have Revs. Stewart and McGeown travel there from Ireland and give the speeches if they were able, and maintain the contact in Portugal. They were able, and greatly assisted the PRC in that way. Likewise, in days gone by, when a work opened in Myanmar, the PRC asked the then sister denomination ERCS to take over that work. This may well be the case again, as the sister-church relationship is reestablished with CERC, and the work develops in Myanmar. Similarly, the PRC has directed contacts in Australia to the EPC. In another important church work, namely, training men for the gospel ministry, the PRC have been privileged to assist by teaching men from other denominations. What a beautiful, valuable thing to assist each other in the work!
Finally, sister churches have the calling to hold each other to the standards of truth and righteousness. Just as congregations within a denomination exercise a certain mutual oversight over one another in the love of Christ, so with sister churches. Sisters are not to lord it over one another, as is true of two congregations strengthen
in a denomination. And yet, though it be rarely done, any congregation in the PRC has the right officially to protest a decision of another congregation in the PRC. There are also certain measures taken at the classical level to ensure that the churches remain responsible to each other. Each congregation must send two delegates to each meeting of classis. They are not allowed to skip these meetings, except under the most extraordinary circumstances. All the delegates have signed the Formula of Subscription in their respective congregations, but they also sign it at the classical level the first time they are delegated to classis. All signify that they are in agreement with the Reformed truth as expressed in the Reformed confessions. This is part of mutual oversight.
In addition, the questions of the Church Order Article 41 are asked at every meeting of classis. “[T]he president [of classis] shall, among other things, put the following questions to the delegates of each church: 1. Are consistory meetings held in your church? 2. Is church discipline exercised?” etc. That is mutual oversight. There is still more. “Church visitors shall be chosen by classis and shall visit the churches annually . . .” (Rules of Order for Classis West).
What a blessing it is to have this kind of brotherly care between sister congregations. Individual consistories/sessions can become lax in dealing with issues of doctrine or walk of life. They can overstep their bounds and become hierarchical. They make mistakes. The same is true of denominations. Mutual oversight between sister churches is crucially important for keeping each other faithful in Reformed doctrine and practice.
Sister churches are obligated to support, encourage, work with, and hold each other accountable. This will ensure that the relationship is “not merely a formal tie,” but rather one that “serves the actual welfare of the churches involved.” It remains to show how this can and ought to work in a sister-church relationship.
¹ This information was taken from the official web sites of these respective denominations, and in the case of the URC, the Minutes of the 2010 Synod in London, Ontario, available on their web site.
² This was true all through the history of the PRC. Already in 1939 Herman Hoeksema wrote a paper for a joint conference with the Christian Reformed Church in which he demonstrated the need to resolve doctrinal differences. More recent editorials include six on “Seeking the Unity of the Church” (2008) and the Reformation Issue on “The Ecumenical Spirit of the Reformation” (October 15, 2010).