Rev. Dr. Robert Godfrey of the United Reformed Churches (URC) has a dream. He has written about this dream. He first wrote about his dream in 1997 in a Reformed periodical, the Outlook, and again in 2005 when that article was republished in Modern Reformation. Now he is speaking about his dream. At the thirty-seventh meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) held in November 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Godfrey, as the invited keynote speaker, addressed the council on the topic “A Reformed Dream.” He also spoke on the subject in May 2011 at a meeting of Reformed Eccle­siastical Dialogue (RED), a group within NAPARC that was formed largely in response to Dr. Godfrey’s original article. RED also dreams Godfrey’s dream and is actively working within the boundaries of NAPARC to realize his dream.

NAPARC is a council of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations that have voluntarily joined together. “Confessing Jesus Christ as only Savior and Sovereign Lord over all of life,” NAPARC

affirm[s] the basis of the fellowship of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches to be full commitment to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without er­ror in all its parts and to its teaching as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Can­ons of Dort, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. That the adopted basis of fellowship be regarded as warrant for the establishment of a formal relationship of the na­ture of the council, that is, a fellowship that enables the constituent churches to advise, counsel, and cooperate in various matters with one another and hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.1

The member denominations read like an alphabet soup of Reformed churches in North America and include the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), the Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), the Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRCNA), the Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC), the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC), the Ortho­dox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Presbyterian Reformed Church (PresRC), the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).

The purpose of this fellowship is to:

1. Facilitate discussion and consultation between member bodies on those issues and problems which divide them as well as on those which they face in common and by the sharing of insights “communicate advantages to one another” (Institutes IV, 2, 1).

2. Promote the appointment of joint committees to study matters of common interest and concern.

3. Exercise mutual concern in the perpetuation, retention, and propagation of the Reformed faith.

4. Promote cooperation wherever possible and fea­sible on the local and denominational level in such areas as missions, relief efforts, Christian schools, and church education.2

The last synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) authorized its Contact Committee to send ob­servers to the 2011 meeting of NAPARC.

NAPARC is in the middle of a revival of discussions about its purpose to promote “organic union.” Accord­ing to a Christian Renewal report,

the emphasis of this year’s meeting was a consideration of what organic unity means and how it could be ac­complished. NAPARC’s primary goals are to facilitate cooperation and to emphasize the need for organic union. Over the life of NAPARC, much more time and emphasis have been placed on cooperation than on union, according to some veteran delegates. Two years ago NAPARC created a committee to make recom­mendations about how it could make great progress on that second goal.3

One result of this revival and emphasis was NA­PARC’s invitation to Dr. Godfrey to give his speech “A Reformed Dream.”

Intrigued by the title of his speech and of the report of “much excitement about Godfrey’s idea and also much concern about how it could be implemented,” I contacted him to inquire whether a recording of his speech was available so that I could write a report for the Standard Bearer.4 His secretary informed me that no recording was available from NAPARC or RED. I regret that there was no recording made of the speech. It would have helped to clarify certain questions. How­ever, I asked if I could have a copy of his speech, and Dr. Godfrey kindly sent me an outline of the speech he gave at the November 2011 meeting of NAPARC. The outline is helpful and shows that the original broad outline of Godfrey’s “dream” is still very much intact.

What is his dream about which many, including many at NAPARC, are excited? The dream at its most ambitious is nothing less than the formation of a general assembly or general synod composed of various Reformed and Presbyterian denominations as indepen­dent synods. In his article on the subject, Dr. Godfrey gave the shadowy outlines of his dream: “Let all of these denominations (or as many as are willing) join together under one general assembly (or general, national synod) with each former denomination becoming a particular synod under that general assembly.”5

Drawing a fuller picture he continued:

The general assembly would be composed of delega­tions from the synods according to the size of the syn­ods (in fairness to the larger synods), but the decisions of the assembly would have to be ratified by a majority of the synods (in fairness to the smaller synods.) The assembly would have the authority to remove a synod that was judged to have departed from the Reformed faith but would not have the authority to interfere with the internal operations of the synod (MR, 16–17).

“Each synod would initially continue to function exactly as it does now as a denomination. All current practices, teachings, and ministries would continue as they are.” There is also the hope that “the assembly would encourage greater cooperation and coordination among the synods, and over time some synods would probably merge, but each synod would be free to make those decisions on its own” (MR, 16–17).

According to Dr. Godfrey, his dream addresses a “weakness” among Reformed churches in expressing unity. To realize this dream requires Reformed Chris­tians to be “as bold and courageous in pursing the unity of the church as we have been in pursuing the purity of the church.” It also requires “willingness to accept some teachings and practices different from our own” (MR, 16–17).

The “dream” is an old one—a dream for unity that allows for significant differences on substantive is­sues in the name of unity. It was the “dream,” or some version of it, that Outlook editor Rev. John Vander Ploeg proposed in 1974, to which Standard Bearer editor Homer Hoeksema responded.6 A version of this “dream” resurfaced in the 1990s with the separa­tion of some discontented churches from the Christian Reformed Church and the formation of the Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC), to which Standard Bearer editor David Engelsma responded.7 It is a siren song that has been sung repeatedly in the history of the church, in its most egregious form by Jehoshaphat to Ahab; by the Roman Catholics at Regensburg; and today in Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the World Council of Churches.

Godfrey’s dream shows that the original ARC dream of a trans-denominational unification of Reformed churches is still alive. If he cannot be credited with originating the dream, he certainly has taken it to new, ambitious heights.

We should have a problem with Dr. Godfrey’s dream.

The problem is not the dream’s emphasis on unity. Although for a Reformed man to put the words “unity” and “dream” in the same sentence runs the risk of deny­ing the reality of the unity of the church in Jesus Christ. It is as absurd to speak of the dream of unity as it would be to speak of the dream of holiness or of any other perfection of the church. We believe the oneness and thus the unity of the church.

The PRC and every Reformed man and woman are never against unity. We believe the calling to keep the unity of the Spirit. This is why our local congregations are members of a denomination. This is why the Prot­estant Reformed denomination has a committee for contact with other churches, whose constitution states the committee’s calling to engage in the legitimate activ­ity of discussions with other denominations.

The problem with Godfrey’s dream is that while it speaks of the importance of the truth, the confessions, and the need for unity in the truth, it seeks to realize it illegitimately and to the detriment of the truth, the confessions, and unity in that truth.

The dream discounts the unity of the denomination as unsatisfactory, indeed even as a hindrance to the dream, because denominations “allow their individual histories (and suspicions) to block a visible expression of unity” (MR, 16–17). In the case of the PRC, the “histories” are matters of the maintenance of funda­mental, confessional points of doctrine, and there are no “suspicions” but concrete synodical decisions. Those histories are directly related to the pursuit of unity as well, a unity in the truth.

Godfrey’s minimization of denominational unity also comes out in his explanation of the advantages of realizing his dream: “[It] would show our fidelity to the Bible’s call for unity” and remedy the “weakness” of Reformed churches to pursue unity. This “weakness”’ he attributes to a denominational concern to preserve “distinctives,” such as exclusive psalmody without instrumental accompaniment that could be given up. The characterization of Reformed churches as strong on purity and weak on unity is preposterous. The very existence of a Reformed denomination, provided that it is not merely a loose collection of independent churches, or a hierarchy, is a massive testimony to the Reformed pursuit of unity, and its unity is precious. Dr. Godfrey also speaks of “distinctives,” as though they are merely parochial concerns of a denomination. But if these “distinctives” involve the doctrines of the Reformed confessions, no Reformed church has the right to give up such “distinctives” or tolerate doctrines contrary to those “distinctives,” or she loses her identity as a Reformed church (MR, 16–17).

The dream also discounts the work of the denomina­tion to manifest unity through a committee for contact with other churches. Dr. Godfrey suggests as a solu­tion to the “weakness” of failing to express unity among Reformed churches that they could “continue having interchurch relations committees talk to one another and seek organic union after working through all dif­ferences and suspicions.” He proposes his dream as “another option.” His dream would not require “local changes for any of the denominations,” if only they “accept some teachings and practices different from our own” (MR, 16–17). It is a proposed union as a general synod without working through the differenc­es—substantial difference—that presently keep these denominations apart. It skirts the calling of the church to work through differences and, if unable, to remain separate for the sake of the truth.

Furthermore, the dream is unsound church po­litically and would completely overturn the decent and orderly government of Dordt. The dream proposes a new denomination. Any new denomination would have to be church politically sound, but the denomination of Dr. Godfrey is not church politically sound.

The general synod that Dr. Godfrey proposes is no synod, at least not according to Dordt. The Reformed polity set down at Dordt knows of no assembly broader than the national (denominational) synod. His general synod is multi-denominational. In Godfrey’s dream the general synod “would encourage greater cooperation and coordination among the synods [denominations],” while in Reformed polity the synod is the expression of the cooperation and coordination between federated churches.

Further, his general synod is not Dordt’s idea of the broadest gathering of churches federated together in a denomination, but a loose collection of autonomous denominations with which the general synod could not “interfere.” This is a strange choice of words in itself, be­cause a Reformed man honors the synod and synodical authority and does not view synodical work and deci­sions as interference, but decency and order. Reformed polity knows of no synod that issues nonbinding advice for the narrower assemblies.

Reformed church polity knows of no titular body as proposed by Dr. Godfrey, because the Bible does not know of it. The Jerusalem synod issued decrees “for to keep,” that is, they were binding on the churches, a principle embodied at Dordt in Article 36 of the church order.

Furthermore, the Reformed provincial synod was not the novel entity that Dr. Godfrey envisions. His vision injects new meaning into the venerable, though largely obsolete, Reformed provincial synod of the more glorious days of Reformed orthodoxy. The provincial synod of Dordt was never meant to be an independent body equivalent to a denomination, with its own rules, doctrines, and regulations, untouchable by a trans-denominational general synod. It was a synod that was provincial and not national in constitution, and the national synod had the same jurisdiction over it that the provincial synod had over the classes that made it up—real binding authority.

Dr. Godfrey’s proposed denomination has virtually nothing in common with Dordt except some names. Evident in Godfrey’s dream is not the Reformed polity of Dordt, but the strange polity of his own URC, in which local churches are independent and only loosely connected with the denomination, even having the power to ratify—or ignore—synodical decisions, a reac­tionary polity originating from their stormy beginnings in the CRC.

The problems with Dr. Godfrey’s dream, however, run deeper. His dream is an artificial attempt to bring about a fervently desired unity by brushing aside signifi­cant differences and minimizing the deep divisions that exist in the Reformed church world over substantial issues.

About this next time.



3 Drew Gordon, “NAPARC wrestles with the question of cooperative unity,” Christian Renewal 30, no. 7 (January 18, 2012):14.

4 Ibid.

5 W. Robert Godfrey, “A Reformed Dream,” Modern Refor­mation 14, no. 5, “Shall We Still Protest” (Sept.–Oct. 2005):16–17.

6 Homer Hoeksema, “A Realistic Response to ‘A Dream,’” Standard Bearer 50, no. 17 (June 1974): 340–42; “Analysis and Response,” Standard Bearer 51, no. 1 (October 1, 1974):7–10.

7 David J. Engelsma, “Aloof from the Alliance,” Standard Bearer 69, no 17 (June 1993): 389–91.