THESES CONCERNING THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH as Confessed by the Canadian Reformed Churches in Articles 27-32 of the Belgic Confession
A Unity Committee Report
with permission from the Clarion Volume 48, No. 16, Aug. 6, 1999
These theses should not be seen as a supplement to what the churches confess in Articles 27 to 32 of the Belgic Confession. Neither should they be seen as a commentary on the text of this part of the confession. They are drafted with the specific purpose of providing further elucidation of the confession in the context of discussions on ecclesiastical unity. Hence aspects and features of the confession are highlighted with this specific concern in mind.
1. While this confession is made at a certain point in history, it views the church from the perspective of its ultimate completion in Jesus Christ. However, it takes this view without discounting the real historical moments of the church's existence every step along the way.
2. This article confesses a definite historical continuity of the church, which enjoins all believers to consciously articulate their faith in the historical continuity of the church as they as experience it in their past and also perceive it unfold in their present. Christ is an eternal king who in never without subjects, and therefore at any given point in history the church must be seen as a living reality.
3. While the church is not limited to particular places and certain persons it is distinctly made up of "certain persons" in "particular places". For our confession stresses not the invisibility of the church, but the universality of the church. Therefore we cannot lose sight of its concreteness in terms of real bodies in specific locations (local churches).
4. The two lines of Article 27 reappear in the first words of Article 28. The eschatological motif is represented in the phrase "holy assembly and congregation" since this views the church from the aspect of its completion. However, it is called an "assembly", which reintroduces the notion of distinct gatherings at any given point on the historical continuum. Here "redeemed" does not mean that each person in the assembly is de facto elect, but that believers with their seed are in the company of the faithful, always however maintaining the provision of the gospel, namely, that all are called to repent and believe.
5. The duty of true believers is two fold: to join with the church and to unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church. This incorporates the notions of repentance and public confession of faith, as well as merger on the national level, and cooperation and support on the international level.
6. The duty to separate from those who do not belong to the church and to gather with those who belong to it is confessed as an ordinance of God. Such an ordinance can be clearly found in Ephesians 4: 1-16 where believers are called to maintain the unity of the church, and called to join together in one body.
7. The confession exhibits an increasing movement from the notion of the church universal to the church local. By the time the marks are introduced in Article 29, we are thinking of specific local churches. The confession makes clear that the church is viewed as a concrete and visible reality. For it speaks distinctly about the "body and the communion" of the church. Believers themselves may be more pure and less pure (referring to stages of sanctification) but the church should scarcely be addressed this way since it has a clearly definable and discernable "body and communion." There cannot be more or less pure "bodies and communions", although one can have more or less pure fellowships in the one body and communion of the true church. Therefore we need to avoid adopting a specific theory either defending or promoting the pluriformity of the church. One body and communion means one divinely enjoined "form".
8. The confession concerning the marks of Christians is a further elaboration of what constitutes the marks of the true church. For the phrase "those who are of the church " (Art 29 parag. 3) refers back to those who, in distinction from the hypocrites are a "part of the church" (Art. 29 parag 1). So we are speaking of Christians who are in the true church, and maintain its unity. There is no credal reference to believers who are outside the true church, since these believers "act contrary to the ordinance of God."
9. The two churches, true and false are easily distinguished from each other. The original Dutch term here is "lichtelijk", which literally means: `being light', i.e. not heavy or not difficult. The point however, is not that one can make a hasty or ready-made decision. Rather, we confess here that God has revealed enough in his word to have the two churches carefully distinguished one from the other. Jesus said, "You will recognize them by their fruit," Matt 7:16,20 NIV.
10. The movement to the local church comes to full turn at this point in the confession. This means that the confession expresses the autonomy of the local church, and indicates that the essential right of government is entrusted to the elders and deacons as council of the church. Here deacons are seen as helpers in broader aspects of church government, adding to the weight of the elders with their own input, and so together forming a governing `senate'. Specific pastoral and disciplinary concerns fall in the province of the ministers and elders.
11. Although the essential task of the officers of the church is limited to the members of the congregation, the confession should not be read in a exclusive way. In other words, the work of the officers also impacts upon the surrounding community, and the role of all the officers for the surrounding community is implicitly included in the language of Article 30.
12. The confession clearly intimates that the offices are restricted to faithful men in the congregation. There is freedom in the way they are chosen. However, following the rule that "Paul gave to Timothy" would require that all choosing does include the approbation of the congregation, (1 Tim 3:1-13).
13. The offices should also be seen and confessed as connected with local churches. While there can be exceptions to the rule, the picture given in the confession is that ministers as well as elders and deacons are specifically bound to local churches.
14. The confession especially takes pains to underscore the equality of the ministers of the word in whatever place they are, accenting the fact that although they may have varying tasks or commissions, there is no sense of ranking (ordo) among them.
15. What explicitly applies to the ministers applies implicitly to all officers of the local churches. There can be no lording of any one officer over another in the presbyterial system.
16. We believe and confess that there is a divine ordinance with regard to the government of the church, and that all aspects of church government may not be transferred to the realm of human regulations or "indifferent matters". In the view of the confession, the things that Christ our Master has commanded are also exactly those commands specifically enjoined by the apostle Paul (1 Tim 3:15).
17. While there is also a human element in the drafting of church law and church ordinances, this human component may never bind the conscience. In a Reformed church there is never any institutional instance that can stand between the believer and his Creator and Redeemer.
18. The confession surmises that human regulations should be kept to a minimum, serve to promote harmony and concord, and should have as their essential focus the discipline and supervision of the lives of the believers. The equitable regulation of church discipline remains the primary object of all church ordinances.
For the Committee for the Promotion of Ecclesiastical Unity of the CanRC,
Dr. J. De Jong professor at the Theological College and convener of the Committee.