Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies,
Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
Extra-Scriptural Binding—A New Danger is the title of a recently published translation of Dr. Klaas Schilder’s answer to our Brief Declaration of Principles, as a series of articles in The Reformation, a magazine of which he had long been the editor. The title speaks for itself. Schilder maintained not only that the content of the Declaration was outside the bond of Scripture, but that its “binding” nature was unusual and constituted a serious new danger.
This is surprising, inasmuch as few could be expected to be more conscious of Article 31 of the Church Order of Dordrecht than the churches to which he belonged, their official name being, Reformed Churches (according to Article 31); and it is this article which stipulates that “whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote (of a broader ecclesiastical body—BW) shall be considered settled and binding unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order.” In other words, the binding nature of the Declaration was not unusual at all, for all decisions of the broader assembly in Reformed churches are just that, without any suggestion that this might be dangerous. Still, it is well that we should understand what the implications of this article are.
To begin with, there is no suggestion here that ecclesiastical assemblies have some kind of an unction from God granting them a special authority over the people of God. This, after all, is not even so of those offices which are instituted in Scripture, as was evident already with Peter, who at one moment was declared by Jesus to be the recipient of infallibly inspired truth with an apostolic position in the foundation of the church (Matt. 16:17), and yet immediately thereafter, when he thought to rely on his own discernment, was rebuked for serving Satan (Matt. 16:23). No one, not even an apostle, can claim authority such as that, and much less those who follow him in lesser positions. And, if so, certainly neither can our ecclesiastical assemblies, which have no distinct institution in Scripture. There are those, of course, who claim they do, insisting that the counsel or convent in Jerusalem described in Acts 15 was actually a first synod; but this is hardly valid, as Herman Hoeksema explained at the first synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches:
This gathering, which was held about the year AD 50, has sometimes been called the first synod. But this is hardly correct. For, first of all, we may remark that there can hardly have been room for a synodical gathering as long as the apostles still lived. They were directly guided by the Spirit. They had authority over all the churches. And the apostolic authority was final. As long as the apostles lived, therefore, there was neither need of, nor occasion for, a synod. Nor was the constituency of this gathering such that it could be called a synod. The latter is always a representative gathering. Its members are delegated by and receive their commission from the churches that delegate them. But the meeting at Jerusalem was constituted of the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem, together with Paul and Barnabas, who had been sent by the church of Antioch and who represented more particularly the churches among the Gentiles. Hence, we may more properly characterize this gathering as a convent under the direct guidance of the apostles.
In the early church there was no need for, nor is there any record of, the kind of broader assemblies which we now hold. These were the creation of a later age; and although we may certainly believe they came to be through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and out of a perfectly sound biblical principle, they certainly have no special innate authority in themselves. In the end, God has left us with one authoritative standard of truth, the divinely inspired Scriptures; and conformity to it provides the only final authority as to what is to be believed and done. And yet our church order does stipulate that decisions of our assemblies are to “be considered settled and binding.” On what is that based?
Within the historical record of the New Testament, we are told of the institution of the Christian church with its instituted offices (pastors, elders, and deacons), men ordained of God for the guidance and rule of His church; but their authority is not within themselves, or in the rights of the offices they bear. It is only in their knowledge and application of the teachings of Scripture that they can claim the right to be heard; and it is to that which they must be committed. But the fulfillment of this is not easy. We are all weak and sinful, and prone to misuse God’s Word. So it is that Paul often instructed those who work within the church not to work alone, but in unity with each other, as in Ephesians 4:1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And again in Philippians 2:1, 2: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” While behind this was always that foundational prayer of Jesus, John 17:21: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” It is within the communion of the saints that the Holy Spirit works and grants to the church to rise above the weaknesses of one or a very few. It is on and within the unity of the church that we must live.
Ideally, of course, such unity would include the whole body of Christianity in a united institution; but God has not seen well to provide the degree of sanctification which this needs. Rather, as time has passed, the institute of the church has become increasingly fragmented on every side. Still, the need for unity is there, if not with all, at least among those by whom a common conviction is shared. Nowhere was the sense of this more evident than in the great Reformation. Repeatedly the Reformers searched the Scriptures in an effort to demonstrate to those who rejected them that their positions were of God and should be accepted by all. And then, when it became evident that this was not to be, they took these formulations and used them as common confessions through which they might be joined together in the Word, guided in their quest for an ever deeper understanding of what God has made known, and protected from falling back into those ancient errors which have always tended to reappear. So denominations were formed.
Basically, therefore, a denomination is a group of congregations united under a common faith into a single administrative unit. In its own way it is a kind of natural spiritual response to a common belief. When believers hold the same faith, there is a natural affinity which draws them together for fellowship, worship, and mutual assistance in the needs of life. Because of weaknesses and frailties, Christians often struggle with problems bigger than they; and the churches need advice and assistance from those who believe as do they, particularly when it comes to matters of correction and discipline of those members in a congregation with whom they are too personally involved to make objective judgment on their own. And besides that, there are also matters which are too great for individual congregations to care for by themselves, matters regarding such things as missions and the preparation of young men for the ministry. For all of these, denominational union is needed.
For such a union to work, however, there must necessarily be a moral commitment to respect and honor those decisions which are mutually made; and it is for this that the Church Order of Dordt was devised, with its heart in Articles 30 and 31. In this church order it is agreed that all the congregations which are so joined together, as represented by their ordained consistorial officebearers, will be divided into various geographical groupings, classes, (particular synods, when warranted), and general synods, all of which are temporary gatherings which exist only while they are in session, and by which only ecclesiastical matters are to be considered in the ecclesiastical way stipulated by the church order. These matters are of two kinds. First, there are those which arise out of the local congregations after it has become apparent that the local consistory is unable to handle them by itself. In such instances they are to be brought to the classis to which that congregation belongs for consideration and advice, and, if they cannot be settled there, passed on to the next meeting of synod for final advice. And, secondly, there are matters which concern the churches as a whole, matters of missions, training for the ministry, and mutual assistance of those churches where special need is found. It is simply a matter of all things being “done decently and in order” (1Cor. 14:40).
In all of this, however, most crucial of all is the good faith of all participants which alone can establish trust. There must be a common commitment by those who participate, individually or through their representatives, to respect that which is done by the whole. In fact, the heart of the Reformed church relationship is that they “bind” themselves to such a mutual commitment in Article 31. It is not a matter of special ability or right on the part of those who gather and take part in these assemblies, but a common pledge which these believers make to each other when they join themselves in this denominational relationship. They commit themselves, first of all, to the three forms of unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of the Synod of Dordt) under which they as churches of the Reformation worship; and then, in the second place, to the church order, which binds them together in functioning as the body of Christ. In good faith to each other, they promise never to militate against this union either in its creeds or in its common functions, and to accept the decisions which are made. It is not a matter of binding the conscience. Even regarding the creeds it is recognized that there may be things which an individual does not see to be in harmony with Scripture as he understands it; and in such a case it is to the Scriptures that he must submit his faith. But at the same time he is also free to show to the churches where his problem is, and to seek to prove it is so. But when this is done, and if he has failed to prove his point, he must accept the decision given as that which will be maintained in the church, or leave for one more in agreement with what he believes.
And so it was with the Declaration of Principles.
One must understand that at its beginning the Protestant Reformed Churches were founded on the conviction that the theory of common grace, adopted and forced upon the churches by the Christian Reformed synod and classis in 1924, was contrary to the Word of God as set forth in the Reformed confessions. If it were not so, it would have been unethical for them to refuse to submit to what was decided, even if they disagreed. But, by the same measure, this also meant that the rejection of this common grace became a commonplace of the Protestant Reformed Churches, an agreed starting point about which they were formed. For anyone then to join these churches while refusing to accept this as that which would be taught among them would have been highly unethical and contrary to the principle of Article 31. It was a matter “settled and binding” from the start.
With the Liberated Churches in 1944, however, it was different. Within the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken) in the Netherlands it had been decided from their beginning, and confirmed by synodical decision in 1905, that two different views of the covenant were to be acceptable among them, including the conditional view held by Schilder and his followers with its implicit element of common grace. Thus when the synod of 1944 simply threw them out because of their covenant view, without reconsidering and rescinding its 1905 decision, it was in direct violation of its own church order. Among our people this aroused a great deal of sympathy for Schilder and his followers, even while we realized that doctrinally their views were quite different from ours, particularly regarding their view of the covenant. From the beginning Rev. Hoeksema pointed this out, and sought to discuss it, but with little response. And then suddenly it was learned that Dr. Schilder had spoken out in repudiation of common grace to the confusion of everyone. The result was that Rev. Hoeksema invited Dr. Schilder to come here so that they could discuss the matter together and see if common ground might be found doctrinally as well.
As it turned out, however, although Schilder came, this discussion did not take place—primarily due to the fact that Rev. Hoeksema had fallen ill. And, after touring all our churches, Schilder announced that essentially he agreed with our covenant view as well; and he was convinced that we could and should work toward a sister-church relationship, so that when their members would immigrate to this country they could become members of our churches. For us there continued to be a problem because of our doctrinal differences, however; and when these people began to arrive, we warned them that there would be no common grace, directly or implied in our doctrine of the covenant, taught in our churches. And then it was learned that Schilder’s men were instructing these same people privately to spread propaganda concerning their view of the covenant, with its implicit common grace, in our churches, a clear violation of Article 31.
That was why our Brief Declaration of Principles was set forth, a reminder of what had been settled and binding since our origin as churches. And the greatest disappointment was that, after all those years, Dr. Schilder had failed to recognize this fact, and instead gave forth with the indignant cry found in this book. At the same time, it brings out how essentially different we were—as we hope to see.