By government decree, the first Monday of September annually is a legal holiday in the United States. The holiday is Labor Day. It dates from 1894. In that year, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. 1894 was also the year of the notorious, violent Pullman strike in Chicago.
The intention of Labor Day is to honor the workingman. Labor unions have hijacked the holiday, so that many suppose that the idea of the holiday is honoring labor unions.
The Protestant Reformed Churches “honor” the laborer. Most of the members of these Churches are laborers. The majority of the members of the church throughout the ages have been men who got their daily bread from God by the sweat of their brow with the help of their wife laboring in the home.
The Protestant Reformed Churches do not honor the labor unions. In the light of Scripture, the unions are not honorable.
During my fourteen-year pastorate of a congregation in the Chicagoland area, I came to know firsthand the violence, threats, intimidation, beatings, maimings, murders, mayhem, ruthlessness, contempt for law, and corruption of the labor unions. I remember distinctly the murder of a trucker on I-80/94 east of South Holland, Illinois during a Teamsters Union strike. Sons of Belial, enforcing the strike, dropped large chunks of concrete from an overpass on the unsuspecting driver.
The stand against labor union membership by the Christian defended in this and following editorials is principled. It is a stand based on Scripture’s condemnation of unionism’s constitutional nature. It is also a stand that is well aware of the actual spiritual condition and conduct—the ungodliness—of the unions, which every member willingly joins and for whose constitution, condition, and conduct every member makes himself responsible before God the Judge.
The “Infallible Rule”
Neither the well-nigh universal acceptance of labor union membership by Western society nor the nearly unanimous approval of labor union membership by the churches settles the issue of membership in a union for the Christian workingman. The practice of the world is certainly not the standard of the life of the Christian. But neither is the example of the majority of churches the standard, especially not when it is evident that their approval of labor union membership is not obedience to the Word of God, but mere conformity to the world.
Scripture is the standard of the life of the Christian workingman. Scripture alone is the standard. We Reformed people confess that “Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God.” The “whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large.” This “worship” includes the service of all aspects of our daily life. “Therefore, we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule” (Belgic Confession, Art. 7).
This is the basis of the examination of labor union membership that follows, as the title of the editorial indicates: ” Labor Union Membership in the Light of Scripture.”
The issue is not labor union membership in the light of strong pressures to join unions in Chicago or some other big city; labor union membership in the light of the well-nigh universal tolerance of labor union membership by the churches, particularly the Reformed churches; or even, labor union membership in light of the fact that refusing to join a labor union may mean the loss of a good job, indeed any job at all, and therefore starvation and death.
What does Scripture teach?
Scripture, we Reformed Christians confess, is our only rule for faith and life. Life includes work. The decisive question for the Christian workingman in Chicago or Edmonton at the beginning of the twenty-first century AD, as it was the decisive question in Ephesus, or Colosse, or the regions in the Middle East where the scattered saints lived to whom James wrote in the first century AD, is, “What does God say?”
The question is, “What pleasesGod in the realm of labor?” Pleasing God is far more precious to the Christian workingman than job, job-security, good wages, comfortable working conditions, and big pensions. Pleasing God is far more precious to the faithful church than the approval of men.
If Scripture is our basis in the matter of union membership, the issue is clear and conclusive. Scripture condemns labor union membership as revolution against the authority of the sovereign God. Scripture forbids the disciple of Christ to join a union and requires him to renounce membership, if he is presently a member.
These editorials will demonstrate, first, that Scripture addresses the issue of membership in the union and, second, that Scripture forbids membership, especially because labor union membership is revolution against God-ordained authority.
The Stand of the Protestant Reformed Churches
The condemnation of membership in labor unions is not a personal stand of the editor on the basis of his private interpretation of Scripture. Rather, it is the official stand of a Reformed denomination of churches, the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. The Protestant Reformed Churches have condemned labor union membership throughout their history, from the very beginning of their existence in the 1920s to the present day.
Already in 1927, a mere year or two after the formation of the denomination, the classis (there was no synod as yet) took a decision condemning labor union membership. Classis declared that “a member of the Protestant Reformed Churches cannot be a member of the labor union.” The decision of the classis was in response to an overture from the consistory of the South Holland, Illinois church. South Holland gave the following grounds for its overture that classis condemn membership in labor unions:
1.Being a member of a worldly union is definitely inconsistent with membership in the body of Christ. a. There is no communion between Christ and Belial. We cannot serve God and mammon. Children of God may not sit in the seat of mockers. b. It is abundantly proven that the use of force is the chief and most desired means used to attain their goal. c. The unions undermine the God-given authority of the employer.
2.The consistory regards this as a proper time to take a definite stand against unionism before this evil takes root in our churches.
3.The affiliation with a worldly union can only be condoned on the basis of the error of common grace. With all might and main we must show with our deeds that we are willing to fight for our King against Satan and the evil world (citation of the minutes of Classis, June 1927 by Cornelius Hanko, “The Antithesis and Unionism,” the Standard Bearer, vol. 62, no. 5, Dec. 1, 1985, pp. 115-117).
South Holland has the credit for the stand against labor union membership by the Protestant Reformed Churches. This is significant. The significance is that opposition to the unions by the Protestant Reformed Churches was born in that church which was located where unionism was the strongest and where the members could expect to suffer the most from the right stand on unionism.
This was the very opposite of developments in other Reformed denominations. In other denominations, it was the Chicago churches that pressured the denominations to cave in to unionism.
In late 1940 or early 1941, the consistory of First Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, mother church of the Protestant Reformed denomination, issued a “Testimony” concerning union membership to its large, five hundred-family congregation. The “Testimony” observed that “it is still the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches that membership of … a union is incompatible with membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.” The consistory of First Church informed the congregation that this position was the conviction of the consistory.
The consistory gave four reasons for its conviction that labor union membership is incompatible with membership in the church. First, membership in a union (as in a corporation or association) necessarily involves responsibility for the principles and acts of the union. Second, the pledge or oath taken upon joining binds the member to abide by all the acts of the union. Third, the union stands for the principle of force and coercion, as is evident “especially from its constant attempt everywhere to introduce the closed shop.” Fourth, the union is pledged to violence if it cannot gain its objectives in a peaceful way. Illustrating this violence, the “Testimony” devoted several pages to a vivid description of the violence of strikes in Detroit in 1936 and 1937. The violence of one of these strikes ruined a Fisher Body auto plant and injured many people (the “Testimony” was distributed in the form of a brochure; it was published in full as an editorial under the title, “Our Churches and the Unions,” the Standard Bearer, vol. 17, no. 9, Feb. 1, 1941, pp. 196-198).
Petitions and Discipline
Such has been the intensity of the opposition on the part of the Protestant Reformed Churches to labor union membership that at least twice the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches has officially sent a letter to the President of the United States concerning this matter. Protestant Reformed synods are very chary of addressing the civil government.
The first address was in May 1941 to President Roosevelt, known as an ardent supporter of the unions. The synodical letter petitioned President Roosevelt “to cease condoning and supporting the closed shop” and thus “to protect us and so rule,” as he was “duty bound” to do, so that our men have “an opportunity to earn a livelihood.” The letter stated that “unionism [is a] great evil in the sight of God.” The grounds for this condemnation of unions were the following:
We refuse to become members of the Union because we condemn the principles of utter materialism of the Union; because the Union demands in the required oath or pledge loyalty to itself even though this loyalty to the Union would bring us into conflict with the interests of the Church of Jesus Christ our Lord; and because the Union seeks to gain its ends by force, strikes and boycotts, all of which militates against the Word of God which we hold dear and which is the first and last criterion for our conduct on earth (“Acts of the Synod 1941 of the Protestant Reformed Churches,” pp. 75-77; synod adopted the letter and decided to send it to the president in Art. 83; in the following article, synod decided to send a copy “to every member of Congress and to every member of the President’s Cabinet”).
A second official address of the president by synod was in June 1946. On this occasion, synod sent a letter to President Truman, another strong supporter of the unions. Synod appealed to the “Head of the government” to protect Protestant Reformed workingmen “in the exercise of our liberties” under the Constitution. The synodical letter expressed the reasons for the Protestant Reformed conscientious objection to the labor unions.
We, the Protestant Reformed Churches, are opposed to membership in the existing unions: because we believe that the principles of the class-struggle, dividing society into the two opposing camps of capital and labor, are contrary to Holy Writ and to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; because we cannot agree with the materialistic motives and purposes that so manifestly actuate the unions, but believe that we should first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness; because we believe that unionism in often defying authority and taking the law in its own hands, is in conflict with the Word of God which enjoins us to honor those that are in authority over us; because the union seeks its own end through the employment of force and coercion, which militates against the principles and spirit of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, in short, because we refuse to affiliate ourselves with any organization whose principles and practices are so plainly in conflict with the teaching of Holy Writ (“Acts of Synod 1946 of the Protestant Reformed Churches,” pp. 28, 29; in the decision of Article 20, synod had the letter sent “not only to the President but also to all members of both houses of Congress, the President’s Cabinet and to the members of the Supreme Court”).
In keeping with this official stand by the denomination, Protestant Reformed consistories have repeatedly disciplined men for joining a labor union. One example was South Holland’s decision in 1969 to erase a baptized member on the ground of his impenitent membership in a labor union. “Erasure” is the form that Christian discipline takes in the case of a member by baptism who has not confessed his faith. South Holland asked for the advice of Classis West regarding this discipline. South Holland described the man and his sin this way: “[a member] who persistently refuses to heed the admonitions of the Word of God to terminate his membership in a godless Union.” Classis West approved the discipline “on the ground of his continued refusal to repent of the sin of having membership in an anti-christian labor union” (minutes of Classis West of the Protestant Reformed Churches, March 1970).
From the very beginning of their existence, the Protestant Reformed Churches have condemned labor union membership.
They have done so on biblical grounds.
They have bowed to the Word of God.
(to be continued)