Previous article in this series: March 15, 2008, p. 269.
Every faithful Reformed or Presbyterian church must seek to manifest the unity of Christ’s church by pursuing contacts and when possible establishing relationships with other churches of like faith. God’s church is one, and God demands that believers strive to maintain this unity (Eph. 4:3-7). Surely God delights in the manifestation of that oneness.
God commands this also for the good of His church on earth. That is to say, a church or denomination enjoys tangible benefits when she seeks the unity of the church in a responsible and proper way. This concluding article on church unity will draw attention to some of these blessings.
One obvious benefit to the church is the enjoyment of strength in unity. This strength is not political, a unity that gives recognition and clout, so that a church in association with others can exert more influence in the world. On the contrary, the strength of the church is spiritual. Nonetheless there is strength in unity. Every believer recognizes that one Christian standing alone in the world is very vulnerable to temptation and spiritual attack. United to fellow believers in the body of the church, the same believer is much stronger spiritually.
The same is true of the faithful church of Jesus Christ. When one church or small denomination stands alone, she is vulnerable. The world despises and persecutes her with the taunt, “Where is your God?” The false or apostatizing churches join in, demanding, “How can your doctrine be right since you are alone in what you teach? No other church in the world teaches this. Give up your stand.”
Then the little church begins to look about. And she discovers other churches teaching the same doctrines of sovereign grace. What an encouragement! It is encouraging for Reformed believers to read Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, and other faithful theologians of the past and realize—we are standing in the same line as they. We teach the same truths. However, those departed faithful theologians did not face all the same issues that the church faces today. Thus we do not get explicit support from those theologians in all areas. For that reason, finding a true sister church that loves the faith of the Reformation is a joy! A church that rejects the lie in its present-day forms; that stands against the attacks on sovereign grace; that has endured ridicule and persecution for the sake of the truth. Such a discovery is an inestimable blessing from God upon a faithful Presbyterian or Reformed church. It gives unspeakable encouragement, especially in the last days of great and widespread apostasy.
In contacts with other faithful churches, a church can seek, ought to look for, self-improvement. Consider a few examples of this from everyday life. Every wise carpenter is interested in seeing how another builder constructs a house. Every good teacher likes to know how another teacher presents his or her material. Mothers compare notes on how best to handle problems in raising children. Why? Because they know that they might learn something beneficial for their own work. They may discover a better product, learn a better method, or find a solution to a knotty problem.
The same is true for the church. As she looks over the “spiritual house” that a faithful sister church is building in her land and culture, she desires to learn. She is vitally interested in the truth of God and in good order in the church. Perhaps the definitions of some of the doctrines in the sister church are more precise and biblical. How has this or that doctrine developed in the sister church? How has their history and how have the battles they fought directed and molded their teaching? Can we learn from the manner in which they treat material in their ecclesiastical assemblies? As to their church order, instruction of youth, mid-week church meetings, their Psalm book, and so much more—what can we learn from them that will improve us as churches?
To return to our illustration for a moment—some carpenters are foolish and proud. They go through a new house merely in order to find fault with the construction. Their assumption is that everything they do is better than what this other fellow does. They expect to find nothing that they can use in their work. And lo and behold, they discover nothing profitable.
Churches can be like that too. Such churches assume that they are the purest manifestation of the church of Christ on the face of the whole earth. Other churches, they are certain, can learn from them. But they should not expect to learn from others. Any flow of benefits will be one way.
This is ecclesiastical pride. All pride is offensive to the Holy God. Such a church must hear the inspired irony of Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians: “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” (I Cor. 14:36).
To be clear on this, it is true that each believer must be convinced that his church is the purest manifestation of the church in his area or country. Indeed, if a believer is not convinced of that, but rather becomes convinced that another church more clearly manifests the marks of the true church, he must do something about that. He is bound by love to seek to instruct his own church and turn her to the right way. And if he cannot convince her, he has an obligation to join the church that is more faithful.
However, that is not the same as assuming that one’s church is clearer and better in every respect than every other church in the world. Or having the attitude that other churches in the world can gain from us, but we can gain little or nothing from others. Recall John Calvin’s observation that “there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance.” Surely that can be said of every church as well, since every church is comprised of sinful people. Until the Lord returns, the church must constantly be seeking clearer understanding, deeper insights, and greater faithfulness to the Lord in worship and doctrine.
We believe that, for the most part, this spirit prevails in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Her ministers do not read only the Standard Bearer, Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics, and other RFPA books. (At least, they had better not!) They have been instructed in seminary to read widely—to read many magazines and books, also those with which they disagree. Protestant Reformed ministers also attend conferences put on by other churches. Why do all this? Because they are wise builders. They want to learn. Thus they compare. They may discover that they prefer the way that the PRC “does it.” They may disagree with both what and how another church teaches. Sometimes comparisons result only in a deeper conviction concerning the truth as maintained in the PRC. They are not looking for change for its own sake. They do not seek to be “novel.” They are grounded in the Reformed faith. They stand squarely on the confessions.
However, often, by their reading and listening to others, ministers learn. They are enriched theologically and grow spiritually through books and conferences. They are encouraged in their ministry.
So it can be with the Protestant Reformed Churches. We seek contacts in North America and in distant lands. Sometimes the result is that we recognize that the other church is too far away doctrinally for it to be wise to pursue further contact with them. Sometimes the other church is moving away from the truth. But we continue to search for new contacts, believing that we can learn from the strengths of another church, that is, a faithful, Scripture-believing, creed-maintaining, God-honoring church. Seeking the unity of the church becomes a blessing to us.
Sister-church relationships can give the blessing of profiting from the wisdom of others. This wisdom is of two kinds.
The first might be described as the culminated wisdom of the tradition. Churches in every tradition have worked through problems and have left a record of how they dealt with them. When a Protestant Reformed church has a problem, the officebearers research past decisions—of the congregation, of the classis, of the synod, and even of the mother church. They look at other Reformed denominations as well. That is wise. If the PRC has relationships with other denominations, she can also inquire whether the other churches have dealt with particular issues in their history. Perhaps they have a different perspective, perhaps a valuable precedent to offer.
Churches can also seek wisdom from the current officebearers of a church in ecclesiastical fellowship. In a multitude of counselors there is safety (Prov. 11:14). A tangible benefit of having a sister church is that a church can benefit from the sister’s judgment. In some situations, it is good to seek the advice of a sister church. If churches regularly send wise and knowledgeable delegates to attend the sister’s gatherings, these ecclesiastical assemblies enjoy this benefit year by year.
Iron sharpens iron. Churches that seek unity with other faithful churches will, through their contact, be better equipped to defend the truth against the lie, and be better equipped to promote the truth, to preach the gospel, especially in different lands and cultures.
Why is this? Consider how a missionary becomes better equipped. As a missionary works with people in a foreign land, he learns much about how best to proclaim the one gospel of salvation by grace. Paul demonstrates this. He approached the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17) very differently than he did the Jews in Antioch (Acts 13).
Contact with a faithful church, particularly one in a foreign land, forces a church to evaluate herself as to how she presents the message of the gospel. She wants to convey clearly and precisely the doctrines she maintains to the potential sister church. If the other church does not see a particular point, does not understand, what is the cause? Is cultural difference part of the problem? Is the presentation unclear? An excellent opportunity presents itself to evaluate how we present the truth! Here are people who are friendly to the gospel of sovereign grace. What are we saying, or how are we saying it, that it is not clear to them?
The result should be that a church learns how to present the gospel in another culture more clearly and precisely. In that connection, seeking the unity of the church gives opportunities to share with other churches the blessed truth that a church has received from God.
We cannot elaborate on all the ways that sister churches can benefit each other. Consider these advantages listed by just one member of the Contact Committee:
Supporting and encouraging each other in doctrine and life.
Watching each other as regards faithfulness—mutual accountability.
Defending each other from attacks from others.
Working together to develop the truth.
Learning to overlook and put aside minor differences and focus on what really matters.
Ministers on loan.
Assistance in mission endeavors.
Those are tangible benefits. Another Contact Committee member pointed out the spiritual benefits to the individual who visits another faithful church. This includes the blessing of meeting God’s people in a faraway land and culture and experiencing unity in the faith. It certainly gives a new, experiential appreciation for the confession “I believe an holy catholic church” and “the communion of saints.” And then there are those who find a spouse in a faithful church, and the blessings grow and multiply.
The list of benefits could be longer. The time fails to tell them all.
However, the most significant incentive must still be mentioned. To seek church unity is to seek God’s glory. For church unity manifests the power of God’s grace, and thus gives glory to God.
Consider the glorious work that is the church of God. This church is chosen in eternity; born in time in every nation, tribe, culture, and race. One church is gathered, defended, and preserved by the Son through His Spirit and Word out of all the world. Every member has a place in the local church, and in the glorious body. But this powerful work of God is so marred by our sins that often it is difficult to behold the glory of the work of building the church. Division obscures the glory of the one work, when, “the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding.”
On the other hand, when the church is unified in the truth, the power of God is on display. When faithful churches do settle differences and find agreement in the one truth, surmount divisions caused by national boundaries, distance, race, culture, and language, and manifest the unity of the body of Christ—to what is this astounding feat to be ascribed? Simply to the grace of God and the power of the Spirit. It is all of God. And in that unity, the catholicity of the one church manifests itself. And the powerful work of God shines forth. A glorious work.
Let us also, therefore, manifest the willingness of Calvin to cross ten seas to seek the unity of the church.