As reported in our December 15, 1969 issue, there is considerable discussion of closer relations between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. Supposedly, the ideal realization of such closer relations would be a United Reformed Church, as The Banner’s Editor Vander Ploeg suggested.
There are, of course, many questions involved in this discussion. It seems to me that the most basic question, one which underlies or ought to underly all thinking on this question, is the question which is the crucial one in every ecumenical effort, namely: what is the character and worth of that which is to be united, and what, therefore, will be the product of the union? Here the question is concretely: is the RCA a Reformed church? And is the CRC a Reformed church? And will the result of a union of the two, therefore, be a Reformed church? Certainly, if one is Reformed and the other is not Reformed, the result cannot be a Reformed church. And if neither the one nor the other is Reformed, the result might conceivably be a United Church, but could not possibly be a United Reformed Church. Any discussion of this matter, therefore, if it is to be truly fruitful for the cause of the church of Jesus Christ in the world, must face this most basic question, first of all. And thus far, apart from a little skirmishing in Torch and Trumpet, I have not seen much inclination to face this basic question in the various journals which have expressed themselves about the subject of RCA-CRC union.
But there are other questions involved. Some of these questions are very closely related to the fundamental question stated above. Others have to do with the historical background of this whole question, and thus also with the history of the two denominations involved. One such question,—a question which surely must be faced,—is this: what is the aim of these discussions, reunion or merger? It seems to this writer that there is at this point no great degree of clarity on this question. Some have spoken only of reunion. Others have spoken of reunion simply in terms of union. Others, among them Torch and Trumpet, almost seem to confuse reunion and merger, using the terms apparently interchangeably.
Thus, Dr. Harry Boer, who, I believe, was the first to write about the whole subject, in The Reformed Journal, appears definitely to have in mind reunion. Writes he (and I quote him from the article by Dr. L.H. Benes which was reprinted in The Banner, Aug. 29, 1969):
We were organically one for some years more than a century ago. One wonders how much each Church has lost in the losing of the other. The Ninth Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, stands as an abiding symbol both of a unity that has been broken and of a unity that ought to be restored. We are brothers—brothers as sharing a common Reformed tradition, brothers as sharing a common Dutch ancestry, and brothers as sharing a common Dutch-American history. Brothers, too, in so many localities in terms of close geographic proximity.
This already suggests the idea of reunion, that is, of a return of the CRC to the RCA. For re-union can be accomplished only where there once has been organic unity.
Besides, Dr. Boer suggests that the CRC has broadened its outlook, so that it has become like the RCA, and therefore is in a position to be one with the RCA again. I quote:
When the Reformed Church observer of the Christian Reformed Church scene pays more attention to fundamental ecclesiastical decisions than to the debates that precede them, he cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that there is developing in the Christian Reformed Church an openness to other than traditional viewpoints which augurs well for fruitful dialogue and fellowship, first between the two churches and later hopefully within the united Church.
In other words, while the CRC can have some apparently fierce debates about doctrinal issues, the outcome of those debates (as in the Dekker Case, for example) is that the heterodox views are not condemned. The CRC has become doctrinally broadminded, liberal; and it can therefore just as well be reunited with the RCA, which preceded the CRC in broadmindedness and lack of doctrinal discipline.
But Dr. Boer literally speaks of reunion (not merger) also, in the following question:
Can we not with good reason, and should we not under the pressure of scriptural and historical urgency, entertain the hope that what was severed in 1857 will be reunited well before the second century of separation shall have run its course?
In the case of Dr. Boer, therefore, the aim is definitely reunion, it would appear. And the reunion, it also appears, has become possible and advisable not because the RCA has improved since 1857, but because the CRC has moved in the direction of the RCA, so that reasons for a separate existence—if they ever existed, in Boer’s opinion—are now non-existent to any significant degree.
Dr. Benes is not as clear on this point as Boer appears to be. Occasionally in his article he speaks merely of “union,” although this might be understood simply as a neutral term which does not necessarily exclude the possibility that this “union” should take place by way of reunion, a return of the CRC to and a being received into the RCA. At the same time there are indications that Benes also thinks in terms of reunion. For he emphasizes that “If we are to move in the direction of union with other denominations, we should certainly, it seems to us, give serious consideration to beginning at the place where past division has taken place” (emphasis added). He refers to the CRC as “the one church with which we are in a clearly ruptured relationship.” And again, he writes that “The Christian Reformed Church is the only other denomination with which we were once one, and there is surely a primary biblical sanction resting upon us to do what we can to heal this breach.” And once more, he writes:
If we as a Reformed Church are really concerned about unity in the body of Christ, is not the first biblical, natural, and logical step an approach to the Christian Reformed Church? It is an interesting and also a very disturbing fact, however, that we have initiated efforts toward merger with a number of other denominations in the course of our history, but never with this denomination with whom we were once one. However we may rationalize and excuse this avoidance, we must confess before God that we have not so much as made any real efforts to enter into serious conversations with this sister denomination, and thus to heal the one breach that is the most obvious denial of the unity which should be evident in the body of Christ.
Dr. Benes also recognizes that there are differences in viewpoint and in practice between the two denominations, and that these need to be talked about honestly and openly. At the same time, he also suggests that “the events of history are taking care of” some of these differences. And he urges that the two churches should look at each other again “in the light of the oneness we already have, not as we were a hundred or even fifty years ago, but as we are today.” All this, paired with the fact that he quotes Boer extensively, appears to suggest that he, like Boer, thinks that the CRC has changed and has moved in the direction of the RCA, so that reunion, or at least serious discussion of reunion, is a viable option.
The Rev. Arnold Brink does not express himself very clearly in his brief article, “The Lord Has Watched Between Us,” although he does speak of the possibility that the RCA and the CRC “reunite into one denomination.” And Editor Vander Ploeg also does not make it clear whether he has reunion or merger in view; at least, he does not choose between the two. For while he mentions both past and present differences between the two denominations, he concludes with the sentence, “Only then dare we believe that union or reunion will be the leading of the Lord” (emphasis added).
As I already mentioned, Torch and Trumpet does not choose its language very carefully, although my general impression from the three articles in that magazine is that they think more about merger. Yet, while in the title of their symposium they ask, “What About CRC-RCA Merger?” in the introductory paragraph to this symposium they speak about reunion.
Now it ought to be evident that there is a great difference between reunion and merger. Reunion presupposes past union; merger does not. Reunion presupposes estrangement; merger does not. Reunion implies a return to a previous relationship, which in this case would mean that the CRC, which left the RCA in the mid-1800’s, would now cease to be a separate denomination, but be again a part of the RCA. Merger implies that two movements or groups come together upon a commonly agreed basis, whether new or old, and form a united group, a new group, usually with a new name also,—perhaps in this case with the suggested name of United Reformed Church.
And this difference between reunion and merger also implies differences in approach to the whole question of closer relationships between the two denominations. In the case of reunion, examination would surely have to be made as to the nature of the former union, the reasons for the breaking of that organic unity, and the question whether those differences are still present, whether they are still important, and whether they can be resolved if they are still present. And it seems to me that some of those who are suggesting reunion are also assuming that those past differences are now non-existent for the most part, and that therefore formal reunion can be accomplished with little difficulty. Not only is this a begging of the question, but it also ignores another possibility, namely, that in the interim since estrangement new differences may have arisen which might make reunion both impossible and inadvisable. Merger, on the other hand, can really ignore the past. It can say, “We will be neither RCA nor CRC, but something new.” It can examine the question whether at present there are sufficient similarities in doctrine, polity, and practice between the two denominations to make such merger possible. It can examine the question whether or not there are at present any significant obstacles in the path of such merger. It can examine the question whether the two groups have enough common interests to make merger beneficial. And it can examine the question whether there are any practical benefits to be derived from such an organic union as might be formed by the coming together of the two groups. And then if the two favor such a union, they can agree on a new and acceptable basis of unity and a new name and new ecclesiastical machinery. And the question of merger involves both parties necessarily in the ethics of ignoring the past in the case of the two denominations which were formerly one. In other words, if in the past there were differences serious enough to produce separation, would it be right before the face of God to ignore that past and to arrive at some kind of union today which simply acts as though the past has not happened? It is a question, indeed, whether such ignoring of the past could ever successfully be accomplished. But the main question is whether it is right before the face of God. For if today such merger should be possible, then it follows that in the past one or both of the two groups erred grievously; and the blessing of God could not rest on a merger premised on unconfessed sin.
All of this does not mean that reunion is necessarily right, however. That question must be decided on its own merits. Nor does reunion in this case by any means guarantee a Reformed product. That is a far more basic question, and one which surely would have to be discussed in the light of the first two items which I mentioned in the December 15 issue.