Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.
Union of the URC and the CanRC
Recently, one of our readers asked me to give an update on the proposed union of the United Reformed Churches (URC) and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). Probably most of our readers are familiar at least with the fact that this is happening. Our interest in this as Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) stems from our involvement with these two denominations in the past.
Our involvement with the CanRC occurred in the 1940-50s, when the first Dutch immigrants of the Liberated churches came to North America. With them they brought their conditional covenant view, which proposes a gracious promise to all natural children of believers. With time it became clear that their conditional covenant view included the idea of a general offer of the gospel, something rejected already by the PRC in 1924. Apart from this important doctrinal difference, the CanRC seemed to line up with the PRC in many ways—conservative in worship, strong family values, even a rejection of the main teaching of common grace—though of course there were differences in church government, particularly in the interpretation of Art. 31 of the Church Order.
Our involvement with the URC as a denomination is more recent, though in many ways it does extend all the way to our origin as churches, in their mother church, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). After the formation of the URC as a denomination in the 1990s, there was discussion with the PRC, but it became clear that any really meaningful relationship between our denominations, with a view to union, was quite impossible. The differences were too great. The URC, though willing to discuss the matter of common grace with the PRC, did this only through men on a committee, who held a number of different opinions on common grace. There was no denominational position against the error of common grace. Besides this, as the 2002 Acts of the PRC indicate, the URC allowed the remarriage of divorced parties, tolerated the error of a framework theory of creation, and also tolerated the erroneous teachings of postmillennialism and theonomy. These differences made it impossible for the PRC to continue fruitful discussions with a view to ecumenical union.
Even though we have no official communications with either of these denominations, our involvement with them in the past and our familiarity with their doctrinal positions do give us an interest in their efforts toward ecclesiastical union. What about common grace, the framework hypothesis, the conditional covenant, and some other obvious issues that, one would think, need discussing if the CanRC and the URC are to come together? Are these issues being discussed? Do they matter to the denominations involved? These things become even more important in light of recent developments in Reformed denominations on the doctrine of justification, and its relationship to the doctrines of the covenant and the offer of the gospel.
So of course, we’re interested in how this relationship is developing.
The proposed union began in the 1990s, following a three-phase guideline. The first phase was the “corresponding” phase, during which the denominations got to know each other in areas of doctrine, history, liturgy, and practice.
The second phase, which is one of “ecclesiastical fellowship,” began in 2002. This phase has the intent of recognizing and accepting each other as true and faithful churches and is preparatory to eventual integrated federative union. This phase is less “denominational” and more “local” and involves such things as acceptance of membership certificates, exchange of pulpits, and mutual consultation over major decisions. Also, during this phase several joint committees of the two denominations have been working on the songbook, the church order, theological education, and the liturgical forms and confessions.
The third phase, which is still in the future, would be the actual union of the denominations. This phase was recently revised, so that it will involve two steps: first, the development of a timeline for union, and second, the actual union. The second phase and the two steps of the third phase all require ratification by local congregations.
This past summer, both the General Synod of the CanRC and the Synod of the URC met, and their mutual relationship was an important item on both agendas. If nothing else, the one thing that became clear is that this union will require a lot of work from the committees and will take some time to eventuate. Both synods focused especially on the work of their joint committees, recognizing “the difficulty of establishing a definite timeframe for federative union” (CanRC Acts).
The songbook committee faced two main issues. First, because their task is so great, they asked for the appointment of a separate committee to revise the liturgical forms and confessions. Both synods approved this. Second, there are obvious problems in coming up with a common songbook for the denominations. The CanRC wants a common songbook in place before federation, and wants this to be the exclusively used songbook in the churches of the federation, and at the same time they have a strong preference for the inclusion of the complete English version of the Genevan Psalter. The URC, on the other hand, is interested in a songbook for their own denomination at present, which takes into account, not only the CanRC interests, but also the interests of other denominations with whom they are pursuing relationships.
The church order committee also has a lot of work to do. To the synods this year they presented a chart of comparison between the URC and CanRC church orders, as well as a proposed revision of the church order that should work after federation. This will be sent to the congregations for their input, and the committee will come with a revised proposal to synod 2010.
The theological education committee has been dealing with the difference between a denominationally run and independent seminaries. The CanRC, like the PRC, at present has a denominational seminary, while the URC uses a number of independent seminaries for the training of its ministers. This issue was resolved by the synod of the CanRC, which decided that having a denominational seminary was merely a matter of “practice” and “preference” and not something that should stand in the way of unity.
It is interesting, in reading all this material from the CanRC’s Acts (www.canrc.org), from the press releases of the URC synod (www.covenant-urc.org), and from the various periodicals (Christian Renewal, The Outlook, Clarion), that there is very little discussion of doctrinal issues and doctrinal unity. Much attention is paid to practical and administrative differences, but there is little discussion on doctrine, and till now, little or no work on the liturgical forms and confessions. In fact, you have to dig to find material that deals with these matters, and, when you do, it is rather disappointing. The Acts of the CanRC Synod includes this note,
The matter of responding to questions of federal vision, justification, common grace, covenant of works, internal and external covenant, etc., is complicated by the fact that synod does not wish to make extra-confessional statements and that there is no other means to answer on behalf of the churches. Synod considers the possibility of the coordinators to request capable men to write personal articles about these topics or to organize conferences to discuss these matters.
The only matter that the CanRC seek an opinion from the URC on is the question of creation and the framework hypothesis. The URC committee has consented to provide a written response to the CanRC, and the CanRC synod is “grateful” for this commitment. Otherwise, there is little discussion on doctrinal questions, and the CanRC seem to be saying that they will not engage in such discussion on an official basis, just in case they should make “extra-confessional statements.” And, at the same time, the CanRC are willing to give up on having a denominational seminary, which trains its men specifically from the perspective of their own positions on the Reformed faith, for using one of any number of interdenominational independent seminaries, with men who hold to a variety of doctrinal positions and, in some cases, errors.
Is this a step forward? It seems not. Very little is made of the main doctrinal issues facing Reformed churches today, and there is no effort to maintain a strong doctrinal heritage by insisting on a denominational seminary. What is sure to result is the loss of an intra-denominational unity, that is, a unity within the newly formed denomination. There will be many issues that are considered non-essential, or on which the churches do not have a position, and so there will be differences between congregations and ministers, and the unity will focus, much like these discussions, not on spiritual and doctrinal unity, but administrative life and cooperation.
Six years ago, when these denominations entered into the second phase of their union, these concerns were raised, not only here in theStandard Bearer, but also by at least one minister in the URC, Rev. Christo Heiberg. His opinion at that time was that the second phase should not begin because discussion on doctrinal issues should be finished in the first phase and it was not. He wrote,
Any reformed endeavor for unity must always honor at least two simple principles: not to compromise truth and not to sacrifice the edification of God’s people in their faith and worship for the sake of such unity. If we violate these principles, then our drive for unity stems from another source than from the Word and the Spirit. Some would like to argue though, that Phase Two will sort these kinds of problems out. To be honest, I also thought so initially. But then I studied the “Guidelines.” Debate and dialogue about possible concerns or differences should have taken place under Phase One already. Phase Two is a steep slope towards “complete unity,” as CERCU’s mandate puts it. I have talked to many people and have read everything within reach, but certainly no public dialogue of any real significance has got off the ground. I don’t foresee that CERCU would start such a dialogue either, because you simply don’t start to bicker with your fiancÃ©e once you are engaged. I therefore ask: is this a case of ignorance about possible differences, a fear for addressing them or perhaps hoping that they will never surface?
These are legitimate concerns. Perhaps they are partly answered by a revision of the guidelines for union by the synod of the URC this year, the synod removing the language of commitment to federation from phase two and putting it into phase three, so that the second phase is one of recognition and interaction but not yet of commitment, but still there seems at present to be little discussion on the important doctrinal questions that bear on the crucial matter of justification and Federal Vision. And even though the URC Synod is beginning to make statements against the Federal Vision and have appointed a committee to study this, how will the CanRC respond to statements made by a Synod on a current doctrinal issue? Will they view them as extra-confessional and extra-scriptural as they have in the past?
Our prayers for the peace and unity of Zion are prayers in which we must keep our eyes open to important doctrinal issues and implications. Peace may not come at the expense of truth. Disaster and departure will come from compromise.