Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

The Protestant Reformed Churches in America are distinct from other Christian churches, even other Reformed churches. This is well known to many scholars and leaders, not to mention lay people, in the church community at large.

This distinctiveness is comprehensive in scope. We are distinctive in doctrine—holding to the truths of the sovereign grace of God (often referred to as the five points of Calvinism), believing that the grace of God is particular and not common, that the covenant of God with man is unilaterally and sovereignly (rather than bilaterally and conditionally) established. We are distinctive in worship—not singing hymns but Psalms, emphasizing the importance and centrality of the preaching of the gospel in worship, not permitting choirs and special numbers to replace the active involvement of the whole congregation in worship. We are distinctive in areas of practice—not permitting divorce except for reason of adultery, and then not permitting the remarriage of divorced persons while their spouse is still alive; not permitting our members to labor in secular vocations on the Lord’s Day except in occupations of necessity and mercy; not allowing our members to be members of labor unions or secret organizations; speaking out against fornication, immoderate use of alcohol, and other sins against the law of God; and impressing on our members the need to live differently than the world of ungodly unbelievers.

This distinctiveness brings upon us the respect of many outside the PRC, and of other saints and churches who believe that which we believe. By asking us for help in the form of missionaries, subscribing to our periodicals, listening to our radio programs, reading our literature, and supporting our causes, they show appreciation for our distinctiveness, and they encourage us to continue to be distinctive.

At the same time, this distinctiveness comes with a price. One of the costs is that of the scorn and reproach of others. There are those who cannot speak a kind and civil word to or about us, who level false accusations against us, who think that we have an inflated view of ourselves, considering ourselves to be “holier than thou,” believing that we have a corner on the truth, thinking that we will be the only ones in heaven, and the like. Others accuse us of twisting and violating the Word of God, and failing to be Christ-like in our intolerance of certain teachings and actions. Another price is that of the loss of members, financial resources, and property. The split which decimated us in the 1950s, resulting in the loss of two-thirds of our membership, was part of the price we paid for being distinctive. Even today, many will not join the PRC because of our view of divorce and remarriage, or because of some other teaching of ours; and today some still resign their membership in the PRC because they are not willing to be so distinctive. Another aspect of the cost of distinctiveness is the family disunity that arises when one commits himself to upholding these distinctives,while a relative attacks him or her with equal or greater determination. Such disunity many of our families do experience.

Well might we ask the question, in light of the high cost, why are we distinctive?

Not because we are traditionalists. Of course, with regard to many of our distinctives, we labor to show that the faithful church of Jesus Christ in the past has also been distinctive in these areas. And we are concerned to “hold the traditions” and “walk in the old paths.” In this way we manifest the true apostolicity of the church. But this is different from sentimental traditionalism, an attempt to keep things the way they have been and do them the old way.

Neither because of any practical reason. Some consider our distinctiveness (even our existence as churches) to be justified because we still fill a niche in the market of religious church-goers. This was once suggested to me by a pastor of another Reformed denomination. The niche we supposedly fill is that of catering to the desires of those who still like to hear the doctrines of total depravity, and sovereign grace; who still like to sing the Psalms instead of man-made hymns, and want to be very conservative and traditional in their worship. Pity those people for their ignorance, for not being enlightened with the “new” understanding of Scripture, and not going along with the modern liberalism which infiltrates other Reformed denominations today; but at least the PRC exists to satisfy their religious needs. Such would be a practical reason—but it is no reason at all, as far as we are concerned!

Nor because we like to think of ourselves as the only ones who possess the truth, as is charged. We frankly acknowledge that we are not the only ones to whom the truth has been given. The church of Jesus Christ in the New Testament has had the truth ever since the time of the apostles; all Christian denominations today have historically known the truth; but many have rejected that truth. That we have not done so is not due to our power, but to the grace of God.

Why, then, are we distinctive?

Essentially for one reason, and for that reason alone: faithfulness to God demands it! In obedience and gratitude to Him, we will be distinctive.

We can explain this reason from three different viewpoints.

The first viewpoint is that of the role Scripture plays in our life.

We believe Scripture to be the inspired, inerrant, complete Word of God, profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness (II Tim. 3:16). It is sufficient unto salvation (II Tim. 3:14). It is our only authority for faith and life, because the Word of God is truth (John 17:17) and is life (John 6:63). It can be all this because it contains no word of mere man. In fact, Scripture warns man against adding to or taking from the word which God has given (Rev. 22:18ff.).

What Scripture teaches as truth we must believe. What Scripture calls the lie we must denounce. What Scripture commands us to do we must do. What Scripture forbids us to do we must refrain from doing.

Our distinctiveness is not due so much to our knowing Scripture better than others, as it is to the grace of God enabling us to believe and obey Scripture more faithfully and consistently than others. The reason for debate and difference of opinion with regard to many doctrines and practices which are debated today (the origin of the world, women in office, e.g.) is not really the interpretation of Scripture, as many would have us believe; Scripture is clear, and has only one interpretation. Rather, it is a matter of bowing, or failing to bow, to Scripture’s authority.

In the areas in which we are distinctive, then, we labor to show that our view is scriptural. We are not willing to hold to or to reject a position on the basis of popular opinion, or with a desire to win over a certain group or segment of society; we desire to bow to the Word of God in all that we teach.

This makes us distinctive. Today many follow the advice of Bible scholars that we must use a new hermeneutic, a new way of understanding and explaining the Bible. Consequently, many cardinal doctrines of Scripture are redefined and explained differently than the true church has always understood and taught them. This is apostasy, falling away from the truth. We deplore this apostasy and fight against it by maintaining the clear meaning of Scripture as the church has always understood it. This we do in faithfulness to God and His Word.

The second viewpoint is that of the covenant.

It is true that the doctrine of the covenant is one doctrine in which our distinctiveness is manifest; but my point for now is that a true understanding of the doctrine of the covenant explains why we are distinctive.The covenant is the bond of friendship and fellowship which God establishes with His people in Jesus Christ, whereby He is our God and we are His people (cf. Gen. 17:7Jer. 31:31ff.). Not by nature do we enjoy this covenant friendship, for we are sinners, but by grace, on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross, whereby He atoned for our sins and merited for us the right to this covenant fellowship. By His Spirit’s work in our hearts, we actually possess the new, covenant life of the resurrected Christ, and can manifest this covenant friendship in all that we do—particularly in the way of prayer, studying His Word, and obedience to Him. This covenant fellowship which we enjoy with God is the very essence of salvation.

But it is possible that the enjoyment of this covenant fellowship can be interrupted. By our disobedience; by our refusal to teach as truth that which God reveals; by our seeking to do anything our way instead of God’s—by all these the enjoyment of covenant fellowship is interrupted. The child of God who lives close to God knows this from experience, just as the child knows that in the way of disobedience to his parents, though the parents will still love him, the enjoyment of fellowship will be interrupted for a time.

That God has established such a covenant with us is a motivation to us to be distinctive. Because He has brought us into friendship with Him in Christ, we want to show ourselves to be His friend. We want to love, serve, and worship Him in obedience to His command to do so, and in the way He has commanded. We want to believe to be truth that which He says is truth. And only when we do these things can we enjoy friendship with Him. One who twists the words of his friend, or does not trust his friend to tell the truth, cannot really enjoy the friendship they share.

The third viewpoint is that of the antithesis.

This is really the negative implication of the second, that of the covenant. While the covenant is the bond of friendship between God and His people in Christ, the antithesis is the separation between God and the world of ungodly unbelievers, and therefore between His people and those unbelievers. When God established His covenant with Adam and Eve after the fall, He also placed this antithesis between Eve’s seed and that of the serpent. The antithesis is the relationship, not of friendship and unity, but of enmity and disunity between two people or parties. Scripture speaks of this disunity in other places, too—cf. II Corinthians 6:14ff., e.g.

It is impossible for this disunity which God has created not to be manifest in the lives of God’s friends. To live as God’s friend means to live as enemy of God’s enemy. In using the term enemy, I do not mean that we ought to harbor a personal hatred for the ungodly as a neighbor; this would be contrary to the second table of the law. We must seek the neighbor’s earthly good, and even spiritual good by seeking his salvation. But when he makes clear by his speech and actions that he hates the truth of God’s Word, we must have no friendship with him.

Churches must also manifest this antithesis in the way of fighting for the truth which others deny, and for the law which others violate. To do this is a matter of faithfulness to God! How different from the common idea that we are all one, and must live as one, work to be one, strive for unity, and denounce all separation of churches! In fact, we are not all one in Christ, and must not pretend to be.

So the doctrine of the antithesis explains why we are distinctive, and especially why this distinctiveness takes the unpopular form of pointing out the error in the thinking and practice of other churches. It is a matter of clearly identifying right and wrong, truth and lie, so that we might ally ourselves with the right, and keep ourselves from the wrong. And in this way we show covenant fellowship with God consistently, by keeping ourselves from those who deny His Word.

Whether one appeals to the Word of God, or to the doctrine of the covenant, or to the existence of the antithesis, it all comes back to this: we are distinctive in order to show our faithfulness to God.

Because our distinctiveness is a matter of faithfulness to God, we are willing to pay the price. May we always be willing! Our resolve is to continue being distinctive. By God’s grace we will carry out this resolve, in the confidence that He is pleased with us, and that in the way of perseverance in defending the truth and godliness we shall receive the reward of grace.