The RES and the WCC—Unresolved

Recently there was sent to me for review a copy of the “Report to RES Chicago 1984 on Ecumenical Relations.” A title imposing enough to scare a person! Actually the report deals with a perplexing problem which the RES (Reformed Ecumenical Synod) has faced repeatedly over many years, but never solved. The problem is that of dual membership in the RES and the World Council of Churches. More concretely, it concerns such dual membership on the part of the GKN (Reformed Churches in the Netherlands) and the Indonesian churches which belong to the RES. Further, it is accurate to say that the greatest concern is with such dual membership on the part of the GKN, the largest member church of the RES, ever since 1969. 

This is not to say that the RES has not dealt with the subject of membership in the WCC nor taken decisions on the matter. The record will show that ever since 1949 the matter of the World Council has been on the agenda of the RES repeatedly, and that in 1968 especially there was a lengthy report on this subject—and, on the whole, a fairly good report, too—just one year before the Dutch churches decided to apply for membership in the WCC. The record will also show that repeatedly the RES has taken decisions frowning upon and advising against membership in the WCC on the part of member churches of the RES. But the record will also show that none of these decisions has had any “teeth” in it, so that the GKN was compelled to choose between the RES and the WCC. 

And even as this matter has been brewing in the RES for many years, so it was inevitable that some of the more conservative member churches began to insist that there had to be a showdown on the issue. All this apparently came to a head at the RES Nimes (France) 1980. Churches began to withdraw or to threaten to withdraw from the RES if such membership in the WCC continued to be permitted. The result was that RES Nimes attempted to initiate action which would result in a definitive decision by the 1984 RES concerning WCC membership. Part of this decision reaffirmed the “advice given by every meeting of the RES from 1953 onwards to member churches not to join the WCC.” A significant point of this decision was the following: “8. That the Synod determine that a final decision whether or not member churches of the RES may also be members of the WCC, must be made by the RES 1984 and not delayed beyond that meeting.” 

And part of the decision at Nimes was to appoint the Study Committee which produced the report now under discussion. This Study Committee was “to make a comprehensive study, from Scripture and our confessions, of the Reformed concept of the church and its implications for current and future ecumenical relationships.” The committee was also instructed “to include in its study the question of the membership of RES Churches in the WCC.” It should be added that this report was to be prepared and distributed well in advance of RES 1984, so that the member churches would be able to consider it and to send their reactions and recommendations to the RES Secretariat by April, 1984. 

And so this 60-page report has been prepared and distributed. 

I will not trouble the reader with a detailed review of the contents of this booklet. Most of the report is a repetition of the report of 1968. There is nothing substantially new in it. Besides, there is a lengthy review of all the anti-WCC decisions of the RES over the years, a report of responses from member churches and from regional conferences during 1982. And then follows a section of Observations” and a section of “Recommendations” by the Study Committee. 

Among these “Observations” the following appear to be crucial in their influence upon the “Recommendations:”

7. The crisis in the RES centers mainly on the WCC membership of the GKN, applied for in 1969, shortly after the important decisions of the 1968 RES in connection with the first major study report on the WCC, and is increasingly complicated by the doctrinal and ethical developments and decisions in the GKN concerning H. Kuitert, H. Wiersinga, homosexuality, Biblical authority, etc. 

9. The RES has lived with the Indonesian WCC membership for two to three decades and with the GKN WCC membership for more than a decade. 

10. Four of the five Regional Conferences of the RES in the spring of 1982 appear to have favored toleration of dual membership and no one of these conferences recommended termination of RES membership for a church also holding WCC membership, on that ground alone, although that position was strongly held by some members of some of the regional conferences. (Note. On this statement we make the following remarks: 1) The suggestion of termination is indeed made or implied in two of the eleven suggestions made in various Regional Conferences. Cf. p. 54 of the Report. 2) It must be kept in mind that the other evils of the GKN, mentioned in “7” above, were not within the mandate of this committee. This is the implication of the words “on that ground alone” in this* observation. In other words, termination on the ground of WCC membership plus other grounds may well have been favored. HCH) 

11. The critical nature of the decision facing RES 1984 is evident from the withdrawal of five churches from RES membership and the threatened withdrawal of others. On the other hand, the forced withdrawal or termination of one or more RES churches which hold membership in the WCC may well lead to a significant reduction in RES membership. In fact, either way, there appears to be a serious, long term loss for the RES—perhaps a threat to its very existence!

When I look at these observations, it appears to me that Number 11 gives expression to the suggestion that the Study Committee found itself and the RES between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” Either way, the RES is threatened with such a significant loss of membership that the very existence of the RES may be threatened. At the same time, it may very well be that all the other problems with the GKN may very well tip the balance in favor of terminating its membership in the RES. The latter would be a severe blow to the existence of the RES indeed! 

The “Recommendations” of the Report we will quote in full:

1. That the RES reaffirm its previous decisions on the World Council of Churches (e.g., ACTS 1968, Art. 95 and 105 with grounds). 

2. That in the light of the Scriptural and Reformed doctrine of the church and its implications for ecumenical relations, the Reformed churches maintaining their Reformed confessions should give priority to the RES in fulfilling their ecumenical responsibilities internationally (Constitution III, 1). 

3. That in addition to a Reformed church’s ecumenical responsibility to other Reformed churches within the RES (III, 1), RES churches have an ecumenical responsibility to all other churches according to the RES Constitution (III, 2), that is, “to give united testimony to the Reformed faith in the midst of the world living in error and groping in darkness, and to the churches which have departed from the truth of God’s Holy Word.” 

4. That the ecumenical methodology or strategy by which a Reformed church and/or the RES carries out wider ecumenical responsibility (Constitution III, 2) is of great significance since membership in organizations involves co-responsibility while witness and contact do not necessarily do so. 

5. That the RES has therefore correctly advised against membership of RES churches in the WCC and wisely warned against the possible negative influence of such membership. 

6. That the RES, while advising against WCC membership, has up to now not given adequate attention to how the RES Constitution III, 2 is to be carried out by member churches and/or by the RES itself. 

7. That the RES Interim Committee be instructed to propose ways by which RES ecumenical responsibility to the WCC and its member churches may be carried out in more significant ways than is possible through the Interim Committee alone. 

8. That the fact that some RES member churches in their particular situation have joined the WCC is perhaps understandable historically, although in regard to the advice of several RES synods, and proper ecumenical strategy or methodoltigy, such membership is regrettable. 

9. That the RES, while reaffirming its advice against WCC membership, decides not to terminate the RES membership of those churches now holding WCC membership on that ground alone. 

10. That the RES once again call upon the RES churches holding membership in the WCC to reconsider that membership in the light of the above recommendations and the entire report of the Study Committee, and whatever their action be on that question, urge them to clearly give evidence that they are authentically Reformed both in faith and practice (Constitution III, 1 & V, 2).

A reading of these ten points should make it plain to any reader that if these recommendations are adopted, the RES is not one whit farther with the whole question of WCC membership than in 1968. Repeatedly the RES has advised against WCC membership, and repeatedly the RES has advised RES churches holding membership in the WCC to reconsider that membership. What progress is represented here? None! And if you add to this the fact that now a recommendation is made “not to terminate the RES membership of those churches now holding WCC membership on that ground alone,” there is, in fact, retrogression here. This certainly implies that churches are guaranteed safety in spite of the fact that they hold WCC membership. 

But this brings up another question. What about Point 8 of the RES Nimes decision? That point was: “That the Synod determine that a final decision whether or not member churches of the RES may also be members of the WCC, must be made by the RES 1984 and not delayed beyond that meeting.” It seems to me to be plain: 

1) That the Study Committee studiously avoids recommending any kind of “may” or “may not” decision. 

2) That these recommendations do not provide any guidelines for a “final” decision. Why should these recommendations, if adopted, be any more—or less—final that all the previous decisions of the RES, decisions which were essentially the same? 

3) That if these are indeed intended to constitute a “final” decision at RES 1984, this can only mean that the RES would take a “final” decision to leave the matter unresolved, so that from now on the question,though unresolved, will not be discussed.

Put in other words, the RES would then decide that though WCC membership is wrong, ill-advised, warned against, nevertheless the RES will do nothing against it, but will tolerate it.

4) That the churches which have complained against WCC membership and have already threatened withdrawal—if they have the courage of their convictions—cannot tolerate such a “final” decision to leave the matter unresolved. And I certainly hope they have such courage of their convictions!

I also hope that the RES will not doge this issue by expelling the GKN on other grounds.