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Previous article in this series: September 1, 2010, p. 464.

“Churches whose usages differ from ours merely in nonessentials shall not be rejected.” Church Order, Article 85.

The Same, but Different

Article 85 of the Church Order prohibits the Protestant Reformed Churches from rejecting other churches and denominations “whose usages differ from ours merely in nonessentials.” Churches that differ from us in essentials are to be rejected. But churches that differ from us only in “nonessentials” are to be received. And with such churches official relationships are to be established.

The mandate of Article 85 arises out of the marvelous truth of the catholicity of the church, a truth dear to the hearts of Reformed believers. The church of Jesus Christ is scattered throughout the whole world. According to the sovereign decree of election, God gathers His church out of every tribe, nation, and language on the earth. It is the privilege of the Protestant Reformed Churches to seek out other true churches around the globe, in order to manifest the unity and catholicity of the church of Christ.

By His Spirit and Word, Christ does indeed gather a catholic church. On the one hand, that church of Christ throughout the world is a unified church. It is one church, “an holy, catholic church.” It is a church united in the truth of her confession, a confession that is derived from sacred Scripture. She is united in the proper administration of the sacraments, as prescribed by Scripture. She is united in the faithful exercise of Christian discipline, discipline exercised according to the standard of Scripture. And she is united in the right worship of God, as the particulars of that worship are set forth in Scripture.

On the other hand, the catholicity of the church includes the truth that God establishes His church in each land in such a way that the church develops among that people and in that particular culture in its own unique way. Reformed churches have always maintained the principle of indigenous churches. “Indigenous” means “growing or living naturally in a particular region” (The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary). God in His providence establishes His church in the world. And He establishes it in diverse countries, regions, and lands, among many different peoples, cultures, and languages. In each place, the church manifests the body of Christ, but it manifests the body of Christ in that place. The church of Christ in the world is the same, but different.

Reformed churches must take the important principle of indigenous churches seriously not only when establishing churches through mission work, but also when establishing relationships with foreign churches. The principle of indigenous churches means that in establishing official ecclesiastical relationships, we do not allow nonessentials to stand in the way of full sister-church relationships. We do not suppose that churches in other lands must be exactly as we are. We must not reject churches whose usages differ from ours merely in nonessentials. That means, positively, that we must establish sister-church relationships with such churches, full sister-church relationships.

Usages That Are Nonessential

Article 85 speaks of “usages” that are nonessential. The original Latin of Article 85 referred to “ritibus,” that is, “rite.” The article concerns, therefore, rites, ceremonies, ecclesiastical customs and usages that are peculiar to a church or denomination.

Immediately this makes clear that the differences are not matters of doctrine. Our churches are united in doctrine. Together we subscribe to the Reformed Confessions (Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards) and regard them as authoritative for doctrine and life. Our differences do not at all concern doctrine. Rather, our differences concern practices and customs that are “nonessential.”

What are these “nonessentials?” These nonessentials are neither prescribed nor prohibited by the Word of God. These nonessentials are not expressly referred to in the confessions. These nonessentials would not include what the church assemblies at the broadest levels have judged to be implications of Scripture and the confessions, as for example, the Protestant Reformed commitment to the teaching that marriage is for life, that nothing but death dissolves the marriage bond, and that divorced persons may not remarry so long as their spouse is still living. The Three Forms of Unity do not expressly teach this. Nevertheless, our churches are convinced that this is the clear teaching of Scripture and the implication of the teaching of the confessions, among other things, the teaching of the confessions regarding the seventh commandment of God’s law. In light of these synodical decisions—long the consensus teaching within our churches—the Protestant Reformed Churches may not establish sister-church relationships with churches that allow the remarriage of the “innocent party.”

“Nonessential” usages would include such things as lifetime eldership or term eldership. The practice in most Presbyterian churches is lifetime eldership—once an elder, always an elder. The Protestant Reformed Churches practice term eldership. Another nonessential would be the observance of the Christian holidays. Article 67 requires our churches to observe, in addition to the weekly Sabbath, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Day of Prayer, Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day. Most Presbyterian churches do not observe the Christian holidays, but only the weekly Sabbath. Article 63 requires the administration of the Lord’s Supper at least every two or three months. There may be churches that celebrate the sacrament more frequently. Included in the nonessentials would be whether the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed are read and recited during the worship service. Our churches have officially judged that sister churches need not conform to this practice in our weekly worship services. This list of “nonessentials” could be multiplied. Such nonessentials must not stand in the way of ecclesiastical fellowship and formal ecclesiastical ties.

This matter of recognizing and receiving other Reformed churches that differed only in nonessentials was not merely an abstract matter for the Dutch Reformed churches. They were not in Article 85 dealing with a mere possibility. In fact, the great synod that drafted our Church Order did the very thing required in Article 85. The Reformed churches of the Netherlands invited the foreign Reformed churches to assist them in the great doctrinal struggle that the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, was convened to resolve. Various foreign churches responded to the invitation of the Dutch, sending delegates who took an active part in the synod’s deliberations. The Dutch Reformed recognized the Reformed churches of France, Switzerland, Hungary, Germany, and the British Isles and reached out to them for their help in the Arminian controversy. The Synod of Dordt itself stands as a great monument to Article 85 and to the blessedness for the church in the implementation of the article.

Two Types of Relationships

The Protestant Reformed Churches establish two types of ecclesiastical relationships with other Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The nature of each of these two types of relationships is outlined in the Constitution of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches, the denominational committee that is involved in ecumenical relationships. Over the years, this committee has done a great deal of work on behalf of relations with other churches. And this committee, made up of ministers, elders, and professors, continues to expend a great deal of time each year working to deepen our relationship to the churches with which we have formal ties, and working to establish ties with others.

A full sister-church relationship with other churches includes the following:

1. Mutual acknowledgment of offices, so that ministers of sister churches are allowed preaching privileges in one another’s congregations and are eligible to be called by congregations in sister churches.

2. Mutual acknowledgment of membership attests.

3. The delegation and reception of delegates to the broadest assemblies of such sister churches.

4. Taking heed to one another’s life as churches; constantly acquainting one another with decisions of their broadest assemblies; mutual decisions as to revisions of and additions to the creeds, the Church Order, and liturgical forms.

Sister-church relationships can be established, of course, only with the approval of the broadest assemblies of the churches involved—in the case of the Protestant Reformed Churches, the synod. The Protestant Reformed Churches enjoy a full sister-church relationship with the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland.

Besides a full sister-church relationship, the Protestant Reformed Churches are also open to establishing “Corresponding Relationships” with other Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This relationship may be established with churches with whom we are laboring to establish a full sister-church relationship. But this relationship may also be established with churches with whom we have fundamental agreement, and yet there are differences that make the establishment of a full sister-church relationship impossible. The provisions of this relationship are also outlined in the Constitution of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches. The PRCA Synod of 2009 revised the stipulations regarding this relationship.

C. Corresponding Relationships with Other Churches.

1. Where significant and broad agreement exists between the Protestant Reformed Churches and other churches, and yet differences are important enough to preclude a sister-church relationship, a corresponding relationship may be established.

a. These relationships may be arranged as circumstances may dictate provided:

1) That whatever relationship may be arranged, the stipulations thereof shall be clear and unambiguous.

2) That 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.

b. These relationships shall be established only with those churches that not only accept the Reformed standards, or confessions consistent with the Reformed standards, but also maintain them in their ecclesiastical life.

2. The activities of corresponding relationships shall consist of:

a. Exchange of information which shall enable the churches to become better acquainted with each other. This exchange shall be implemented in the following ways:

1) Exchange of observers at the broadest assemblies, if at all feasible.

2) Exchange of minutes of the broadest assemblies.

3) Exchange of denominational yearbooks and/or church directories.

4) Exchange of the most recently published edition of the Church Order or Constitutions.

5) Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards.

6) Exchange of songbooks used in public worship, including the forms used for various occasions in public worship.

b. Discussion by means of correspondence, committee visits, and conferences in order to confirm and strengthen our unity in Christ.

The Protestant Reformed Churches enjoy a “Corresponding Relationship” with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. Over the years this relationship has been mutually beneficial. We thank the Lord for the opportunity that our seminary has had to train ministers for the EPCA. We thank the Lord for the opportunities we have had to participate in conferences with our brothers from the EPCA, as well as to preach in their congregations. It has been of great profit for the members of our denominations to visit and to worship in one another’s congregations. And it was truly a joy to have one of the ministers of the EPCA, the Rev. Chris Connors, participate in the seminary’s Calvin Conference in the Fall of 2009.

The Protestant Reformed Churches gratefully acknowledge their ecumenical calling. They stand ready to seek out, assist, and be assisted by other Reformed churches throughout the world. We do not reject, but gladly recognize those churches “whose usages differ from ours merely in nonessentials.”