“Churches whose usages differ from ours merely in nonessentials shall not be rejected.”
—Article 85, D.K.O.
The above article of the Church Order expresses a rather general principle concerning which much is left to be desired in the way of explicitly defining the proper relation and attitude of one church toward another. The form of the article is negative. Suppose that we would revise this and put the idea into a positive form. Would we then adopt and maintain this rule as part of our ecclesiastical system? And would we then be hilling to observe this principle, not simply as a rule of the church, but particularly as it affects our individual conduct and attitude toward other churches. The rule would then read something like this: “Churches that differ from ours essentially shall be rejected.” Or perhaps it could be stated in this form: “Churches whose usages differ from ours merely in nonessentials shall be accepted.”
The first question that must be answered in this connection is whether this rule applies to churches within the denomination or to churches other than those of our denomination? Both of these are possible, although the intent, of the Church Order is definitely the latter. The matter we are dealing with here concerns the fraternal relationship of church denominations, which is often referred to as sister-church relationships. It is conceivable, however; that the principle of this article might apply also within the denomination. A church that agrees with us doctrinally and church politically might seek admission to the denomination. But due to different background and history this church might have, several, customs and usages that are foreign to those found in our churches generally. If the church is one with us in faith and polity, it must not be rejected because of these non-essential differences. Each local church must be free to adopt usages that are most conducive to the spiritual edification of that particular church. That liberty must not be denied.
However, Article 85 is really concerned with the matter of interdenominational relationships. Authorities are of the opinion that historically this article goes back to the Wezelian Convention of 1586 and the Synod of Emden in 1571. But then it must be noted that the articles of these meetings speak only of non-essential or indifferent usages practiced by the various particular churches that then met in either convention or synod. They said nothing about other denominations or Reformed Churches. Article 85, however, does. The original reading of this article, adopted by the Synod of Dordt in 1578, spoke simply of “other churches.” Three years later the Synod of Middelburg changed, this to read “foreign churches” and it was also this reading that was adopted by the Synod of 1618-’19 and is retained in the Netherlands to this day. That article read: “In nonesseritial things, the foreign churches, which maintain other usages than we do, shall not be rejected.” In the Christian Reformed Church here the word “foreign” was dropped in the revision of 1914 and so we have the present reading: It appears then that the idea of this article is that churches maintaining this Church Order shall seek to establish as much as possible fraternal relationships with other Reformed Churches that differ only in non-essential things.
That this meaning was accepted by the committee for Church Order revision in the Christian Reformed Church is evident from their proposed revision. They propose that Article 85 be made to read as follows:
“The Christian Reformed Church shall enter into fellowship with other Reformed denominations which maintain the Reformed creeds and form of church government, to give expression to the unity and ecumenicity of the church of Christ and to enable the churches to enjoy the mutual help and advice which such fellowship affords.”
Then to make this meaning even more explicit it is proposed that this article be followed by another which reads:
“The fellowship referred to in the foregoing article shall be exercised specifically through the sending of delegates to the meetings of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, with the understanding that decisions reached at these synods shall be binding upon the Christian Reformed Church only when ratified by its general synods.”
Whether these articles have ever been adopted by the synod we do not know; but if they have, it could not have been done seriously and in sincerity. That the Christian Reformed Church is very ecumenically minded today is evident; but the sending of delegates to Ecumenical Synods does not abrogate the duty “to enter into fellowship with other Reformed denominations which maintain the Reformed creeds and form of church government.” To our knowledge the Christian Reformed Church has never sought such fellowship with the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, which geographically are close to them and concerning whom it has never been denied that they maintain the Reformed creeds and form of church government.” Why is this? The answer we believe is found in Monsma and Van Dellen’s Church Order Commentary in the form of a self-indictment. We quote:
Under present-day circumstances full fledged acknowledgment is not even accorded to all Reformed and Presbyterian Churches inasmuch as some of these bodies have neglected the exercise of discipline and have tolerated false doctrine. In theory, according to their official standards and creeds they are Reformed, but in practice they are not. The only churches with which we maintain full and unconditional correspondence are the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands and the Reformed Churches of South Africa.”
The Christian Reformed Church has since 1924 tolerated the false doctrine of common grace and the well-meant offer of salvation. In 1924 they trampled under foot the basic principles of Reformed Church government. That discipline is neglected is evident from their tolerance of union members, lodge members, divorced persons, etc. In name Reformed, but not in practice. Are not these the causes that fellowship with denominations that maintain the Reformed creeds and church government is not and cannot be sought? The differences here are not concerning certain ‘non-essential’ usages.
What then are the “non-essentials” of which Article 85 speaks? The Latin term used to express this is the word “adiophora” which means “indifferent things.” The Dutch speaks of “middehnatige dingen.” The fathers used these terms to indicate those practices and customs of the church for which there is no expressed prescription in Holy Writ. In other words they are things which the Scriptures do not definitely require or forbid. As an example of some of these things might be cited the following: The practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper four times a year, the matter of standing or sitting during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the question whether there should be one or three sprinklings in baptism and the matter of mentioning the first, last, or both names of the baptized. It appears that historically the reference in, this article was directed primarily to these things associated with the sacraments. However, there are also other matters of “adiophora.” For example, mention might be made of different arrangements in the order of worship, the matter of whether the second service should be in the afternoon or evening, the question of whether the consistory should sit in the back or front of the church, and the day of the week on which the catechism classes shall bi: conducted. Concerning all these things Scripture gives no directive; and, therefore, they are things that must be determined by the local church; and whether or not there is uniformity on these matters is not important. No church shall be rejected because of them.
It is interesting to note that many church authorities agree that, strictly speaking, things we call “adiophora” do not exist. We quote Rev. Ophoff on this matter: “Really there are no indifferent things in any sphere or domain. No word of ours, no thought or deed of ours is without meaning. Customs, usages in whatever domain are without exception rooted in principles. It is not a matter of indifference whether baptism is administered by two or three sprinklings; whether the Lord’s Supper is eaten three times in the year or more, whether communicants in eating the Lord’s Supper stand or sit; whether a local church begins its services at nine o’clock in the morning or at ten or eleven; whether the consistory meets once a week or twice or three times in the month; whether there be two services on the Sabbath or three. God’s will regarding these things is not known, it is true, by the Scriptures, but by providence, definitely by the needs of the congregation, and by circumstances and conditions peculiar to each local church. For needs, circumstances, and conditions are creations of God. In them all He is revealed and through them He speaks. But because the needs, circumstances and conditions of the local congregations differ, these so-called indifferent things must be left for each congregation to determine.”
Churches differing in these things are not to be rejected. This expression does not have a church-political implication but simply means that such churches are not to be excluded from the fellowship of the Reformed denomination. The converse of this is that churches that differ as to essential things, such as the faith, doctrine, and polity of the church shall be excluded. This raises the practical question as to whether it is wrong to attend services in a church whose doctrines are opposed to ours? In answer to this question Rev. Ophoff writes: “Our Reformed fathers, being men of principle, took the stand that this is forbidden. Their stand was that attending divine services of such churches is equivalent to pronouncing doctrinal differences ‘adiophora,’ and is thus to weaken one’s own position. This was the stand of the Reformed fathers, a stand they took in the very article with which we are here occupied.
In conclusion then we observe three things with respect to Article 85 of the church order:
1. Its basis is to be found in the fact that there is a bond of unity between all churches of Reformed persuasion that have not corrupted the Reformed confessions, though there may be differences of non-essential usages in these churches. This bond must be maintained and strengthened. History shows that the Reformed Churches of the 16th century wanted and sought this unity. In this effort the church must continually press forward.
2. The basis for fraternal fellowship between different churches must be based upon agreement of confession and church government. These are essential. Other differences may not interfere with this unity; and if there is no agreement on these essential matters, an official correspondence relationship is not only impossible; but also forbidden. For the implication of Article 85 is clearly that churches differing on essential matters are to be rejected.
3. The church must carefully guard against the danger of making the “adiophora” essential, and essential things “adiophora.” It is only on the basis of a proper distinction between these two that a true determination of existing differences can be made.