Federation of Confessionally United Churches - Rev. J. D. Wielenga
Last Updated: December 2, 2008
Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 42, No. 10 (1993)
April 3, 1993
"Scripture, Confession, History and the urgency of our own day and age require confessionally united churches to federate." Address this in 20 minutes. A tall order, and little time. We must not waste it. Yet I must begin with expressing appreciation for the initiative of the Independent Reformed Churches to bring ús together today to address this issue, and appreciation for formulating it in such a positive way: "Scripture, Confession, History and our time require federation." May this first province wide contact be the first hesitant step to lead to confederation, for I am convinced, to turn to the topic, that Scripture does require it.
To get the church into focus, do not look at people, but look at God. The church is: God at work. See, visualize, the Son of God gathering a people, from the beginning of the world, today, and on until the end. God at work on earth, gathering a people, one people, one church, and this church is one. John 10: one Shepherd gathering one flock; Eph.2: building a temple, one; Rev. 7: one multitude that no one can count, from all tribes and peoples and languages and nations, gathered out of the great tribulation by the Lamb before the throne of God; 1 Peter 2: a holy nation, one, among the many nations of this world, in which all take along their ethnic, cultural and historical distinctives; Eph. 2:14, 15: concerning the most distinct groups there were, Jews and Gentiles: God broke down the dividing wall between,them to create them "into one new man." You hear that? The church: one man, or with Rev. 12: one woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, God's new humanity, or with Gal. 6:16: the Israel of God, one people, like Rom. 11 :17 speaks of the church of O.T. and N.T. as the one olive tree, to which all believers in Jesus Christ of all times belong, that one great multitude, together Christ's body, Eph. 1:22,23: the church which is His body. One body.
The church, that is: God at work in Jesus Christ, creating into one, uniting, reconciling that which got separated by sin and devil. When God created mankind on earth, Genesis 5:1 says this: "male and female created He them, and He named them (plural, two) Man (singular, one)." Man, a two-oneness, for God is one, a threeoneness. God is love, oneness, unity, reconciliation of broken oneness. (1)
A second aspect: how does this church, this one man, one flock, one multitude, one Israel of God, appear concretely in the visible reality of history. Well, that one multitude of Rev. 7 appears in Rev. 1 as seven independent individual lampstands, bound together by Christ walking in the midst of them, and as seven independent individual stars in His right hand (good exegesis identifies the 7 stars also as the seven churches of Asia Minor. (2) Note the togetherness of those local churches: a cluster of stars. Not seven hands of Christ with in each hand a star, but seven stars together in one hand. The one hand binds them together, like one foundation binds them together, Eph. 2:20: the foundation of the apostles and their word. Thousand local churches, all built on one and the same foundation, the apostolic doctrine, as such bound together by that foundation. Indeed, "confessionally united!"
Each local church is a complete church, a star, a lampstand, the body of Christ, but it is not the whole church, not the total body. Each local church is a complete church, by virtue of its relationship to Christ, the only Bishop, and by virtue of its relationship to the apostles and their teachings, the Word of Christ. But precisely this direct relationship to Christ and His apostles makes each complete local church one with other local churches, all over the world; together stars in one hand, together in one circle of lampstands, together on one and the same foundation. In other words: God gathers His one church, His one flock, as local churches, organized under the presbyterium, the council, the assembly of the elders. In those individual local churches He gathers His one flock. The oneness of the flock is not broken or diminished when it is gathered in local independent churches. Therefore, these local churches will honour the oneness of the universal flock by acknowledging their bond together, their unity. Local churches are not called to create unity among themselves, but to express and manifest their given unity, created by Christ. Christ bound them together by His right hand, on His one apostolic foundation. It is an essential part of the apostles' teaching that churches, given to one another by Christ, must receive one another. Finding one another in the same one circle of lampstands, on the same one foundation, they must shake the hand of communion (koinonia), thus acknowledging the oneness of the one flock, and they must join hands to cooperate together (and that is to federate) to help one another that all remain under the Word of Christ, that none slip from the one foundation, or disappear from the circle of lampstands, and support one another, for instance in financial needs, and in order to maintain unity in doctrine and in liturgy, all to preserve the unity of the one church of God, and to promote it. They were made to understand that what was true in the local body also applied to the total body of Christ, namely that the hand cannot say to the foot: I do not need you, and that the love of God in Christ which obligated them to use in selfdenying and sacrificial love their gift for the upbuilding of the local body, obligated them to the same for the total body.
The N.T. shows that the local churches did recognize their common bond and unity in Christ. They joined the hand of communion and cooperation, cf. 1 Cor. 16.1; Rom. 15,26; Gal. 2,9.10; 2 Cor. 8,4. (3) There was even regionally defined cooperation between them (Rom. 15,26), and they appointed together deputies for certain church-work which they had in common (2 Cor. 8,19,23). We must not say: we do not have to federate as confessionally united churches, for there is not a trace of federation in the N.T. with classes and synods and all; we may be free to do it, but it is not a divine ordinance. But this reasoning is more biblicistic than biblical. It ignores that the N.T. shows us the local churches in communion and cooperation, all over their world, as a federation. No, you don't read the term, and you don't see our form, but you do read the reality. It was federation "avant la lettre" (Kamphuis) (4). When after the apostolic era, in the second century, when the apostles had gone, and in response to the circumstances of the time, the need arose for a more structured organization of the communion and cooperation of all the churches, the churches did not something new, but they simply continued in the line in which the apostles themselves had guided them. And the Lord has blessed that very much (Nicea, Chalcedon), although the way the churches went about it we call from our vantage point flawed, too hierarchical, too much clergy-dominated.
Some say: confessionally united churches are free to federate, the Bible does not forbid it, and therefore they are also free to de-federate again if they so choose. The truth in this statement is that no church can ever be compelled to federate, it always is voluntary. But it is voluntary because it is a matter of love, not because it is not an obligation. Love is choosing in freedom, but love does obligate. The church exists by the love of God and consists of people who operate by the love of God poured out into them by the Spirit, love with its functions of faithfulness and self-denial and sacrifice. The church, that is: God at work, love at work, uniting and reconciling what got separated. No wonder there is no trace in the Bible of denominationalism, of churches picking and choosing with which churches to have communion and to cooperate for which purposes and for which not, along lines of particular distinctives. No trace of a federation for circumcising Jewish churches, next to a federation of noncircumcising Gentile churches, next to a federation of Apollosminded churches, next to Peter-minded churches, with possible cross-denominational fellowships, shaking hands across the fence, but not working together in the same yard, for we are too different: better good neighbours than fighting brothers, more peace, more harmony, more ease. The tendencies of course were there, but they were vehemently opposed, Acts 15; 1 Cor. 11,19. Of course opposed, for denominationalism is obstruction of God's church-gathering work, characterized by abolishing walls of separation, gathering separated people into one new man. Denominationalism is erecting walls of separation. It is turning the church into a zoo where high fences keep natural enemies apart and maintain peace for all. Fences between churches allow us to speak civilly to one another over the fence, and occasionally work with them in some limited ways (John M. Frame) (5). Better good neighbours across the fence, cross-denominational fellowship, than fighting family-members in the same yard.
To see the church, you have to focus on God, not on people. The church is God at work, love at work, working faith that works through love. The church, that is God turning the old zoo of separated wild animals into a fold of one united flock of sheep, His one new man, the new humanity. That is His might. That is His glory. Must we not seek His glory?
But, someone says, what is the gain for God if some of our churches and a segment of our membership refuse to unite? Then we create only one more split, one more denomination! They must learn from 1 Cor. 11 :19, and understand that preserving unity with obstructionists of God's work cannot have priority over manifesting unity with promotors of God's work.
We must be honest, before God, and before one another. If confessionally united churches cannot manifest and organize their unity by federating, they must not say: there is no scriptural obligation, we are free to do it and free not to do it, and if we do it we are free again to undo it. They must say instead: there is a scriptural obligation, for there is the obligation of love. But we lack the love, we lack the faith that works through love. We cannot do it because we cannot deny ourselves and bring sacrifices. But if that is what we have to say, then the Bible says what Christ said to that one star in His hand: repent, you have abandoned the love you had at first, and you are in danger of loosing your place among the other lampstands.
What does love require? It requires that confessionally united churches welcome one another with their nonconfessional distinctives and idiosyncrasies and do not bind one another to them, although they will become subject of ongoing discussion, for we want to learn from one another and to be corrected by one another. They will understand that issues which do not scripturally warrant to break with a church or a federation, can never be lawful obstacles to unite with a church or a federation. (6)
Secondly, the common Reformed Confession requires federation. Briefly, Canons of Dort ch. 44, par. 9: ". . . in due time the elect will be gathered into one, and there will always be a church of believers founded on the blood of Christ." There you have it: God at work, His sacrificial love in Christ gathering people into one, His Church, the House of love, on whose source (the blood of Christ) that house is founded.
Lord's Day 21 calls this same church the communion of saints in which believers all and every one are duty-bound (obligated by love) to use his gifts readily and cheerfully (voluntarily, not forced) for the benefit and wellbeing of the other members. Denominationalism and congregationalism obstruct this duty. I cannot help my brother in another denomination if injustice is done to him. In the federation I can, via the major assemblies and church-visitors, for instance.
Art. 27,28 B.C. with the confessed ordinance of God that the individual believer must maintain the unity of the one church of God by joining the local church. He must not remain on his own. If it is an ordinance of God for the individual believer to maintain the unity of the church by not remaining on his own, it is of course also an ordinance for all believers together to maintain the unity of the church, through their local churches which then must not remain on their own. And that is how it was understood by the churches.
Art. 31 B.C. assumes the federation when it states that ministers of the Word in whatever place they are have equal power and authority for they are all servants of Christ the only universal Bishop and Head of the Church. The possibility for lording it over one another only occurs within a federation union.
Art. 32 gives principles for establishing a certain order to maintain the body of the Church, the local body and the total body. A church-order, to promote and preserve unity and harmony and to keep all in obedience to God. The article warns not to order and regulate too much, like it is good not to confess too much, in order not to put undue stress on the unity of the church by binding the consciences where Scripture does not bind. (7)
Historically, churches which adopted this or similar Confessions, naturally developed Church Orders for living together in a federation, Church Orders which reflected what they confessed about the church. Every church order is a reflection of someone's ecclesiology. Church Order is confessed ecclesiology translated into rules of law. (8) A Reformed Church Order therefore will always be anti-hierarchic, for we confess the independence of the local church as a complete church under Christ and the council of elders. And it is anti -independentistic, for we confess in the local churches the oneness of the one Church of God. A Reformed Church Order then will recognize the necessity of major assemblies in which the churches help one another and cooperate to maintain good order in the body of the church, the local and the total body, in the sense as confessed in Art. 32 B.C. No wonder the Armenians fought tooth and nail to prevent the convening of a synod which they rightly feared would drive out their heresy for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the apostolic doctrine, the one foundation on which alone the church is one and united.
In 1558 the leaders of the unfederated Reformed churches in France met together and expressed their conviction that the greatest problems would arise, dividedness in doctrine as well as in discipline, if the churches would not be bound together under a common order and church-polity. The next year, 1559 they federated on the same Confession under a common Church Order. (9)
Even Congregationalists with their emphasis on the independence of the local congregation, acknowledged in New England, in 1648, in their Cambridge Platform, that all churches ought to have fellowship with one another and that synods are necessary whose decisions the churches are duty-bound to accept as binding if they were "consonant to the Word of God." It is regrettable that they failed to stipulate the annual or biennial regularity of synods. Their leading men, Thomas Hooker, John Eliot, warned their churches saying: "we must settle the consociation of churches or else we are undone and utterly lost." (10) In vain. No regular synods were held and the congregational churches slid into dominocracy, every local minister like the minister of the local church at Rome, a pope. We must learn from history, positively and negatively.
As to the fourth aspect, the urgency of our day and age to federate, this urgency is not different from the urgency the church felt after the apostolic era to organize their existing bond into a stronger structured federation, in order to manifest itself among the many nations as God's holy nation, to be able to effectively preserve the unity and the holiness of the body of the church against divisive power-struggles and against rising heresies. We may frown on the form of their "consociation," but surely, apart from it the church would have become "utterly undone," as all know who know the history.
A special feature of our day and age is that the world looks more and more like what it is by nature: a zoo of wild animals, natural enemies. All and everybody insist on their distinctives and thus their incompatibility to live together in peace and harmony: tribal wars, ethnic cleansings, language barriers, multiculturalism (the undoing of Canada), marriage and family breakdowns, feminism and male-chauvinism, you name it. The churches loose credibility and come across as hypocritical if they loudly lament and publicly prophesy against the world, while they themselves consociate only with churches of common distinctives, and feel incompatible to federate with churches of different distinctives. The urgency of our day and age require federation of confessionally united churches for the sake of the credibility of the gospel of the Kingdom, that this world may know (John 17, 21,23) that the Father sent the Son and set to work to gather into one, into one new man, the different and distinct warring tribes and peoples and languages. Federation is required that the world may know the power and the glory of the love of God in Jesus Christ, at work in the world.
Confessionally united churches are called to federate. They need not first negotiate their non-confessional distinctives and differences to see if they are compatible to live together in one federation, but the only thing left for them to do is to negotiate a mutually agreeable Church Order, based on their common confession about the church. They should not fear that in their united church the differences and distinctives are bound to threaten and disturb the harmony and unity, for they have in their Church Order the means in place to deal with them. That is what the fathers of Secession and Doleantie said to those who, before union, first wanted to deal with certain Kuyperian distinctives which they did not like. And the obedience of the fathers who united in 1892 was blessed by the Lord with the Synod of 1905 where the differences were resolved, at the proper place: in the church; by the proper means: the assemblies.
Churches considering federation must not ask: do we like one another, are we alike one another, compatible enough? They must ask, instead: do we have the faith that works through love, faithful, self-denying, sacrificial love, which is directly from God, and available through His Spirit whom He promised.
Seven stars in the right hand of Christ: they joined the hand of communion and cooperation, not because they liked one another and were so much alike one another (in sin, most were), but they joined because they were bound together by the one hand of the Master: confessionally united. They only had to let be what was.
(1) Dr. J. van Bruggen, Emancipatie en Bijbel, pp. 54, 55.
(2) Dr. J. van Bruggen, Ambten in de Apostolische Kerk, pp. 105,106.6
(3) Convincingly shown from these and other texts by J. Kamphuis in his excellent essay "Roeping en Recht tot Oefening van Kerkverband," in Verkenningen III, pp. 59130, especially 102-126. Published by Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes.
(4) Kamphuis, Verkenningen, p. 69.
(5) John M. Frame, Evangelical Reunion, Baker Bookhouse, 1991, p. 58.
(6) Dr. M. te Velde, article in De Reformatie, Vol. 68:3, October 17, 1992.
(7) Rev. R. ter Beek gives a fine characterization of the Liberation of 1944, in De Reformatie, March 1992 (transl.): "The issue in the 'Liberation' was to be Reformed, to live and to teach according to the Three Forms of Unity. The Synod forced you to conform to a teaching which was not with so many words to be found back in the Confession itself. You had to subscribe to a controversial interpretation of the Confession. The liberation from this extra binding was experienced as a liberation. We returned to the breadth of the Reformed Confession. That is a roomy and light house. There was at that time also an ecumenical outreach (April 1946, "to all Reformed confessors. . ."). Throughout subsequent history there were also warnings against new narrowness and new bindings."
(8) Dr. G.D.J. Dingemans, "Kerkorde als ecclesiologische vormgeving," in Inleideing tot de studie van het Kerkrecht, Kok, Kampen, p. 207.
(9) Dr. W. van 't Spijker, ". . . den hals buigende onder het jock Jesu Christi. . .," in Bezield Verband, Van den Berg, Kampen, 1984, p. 219.
(10) Dr. D. Deddens, "Synoden bij Robert Parker en in de congregationalistische Kerkorden van 1648 en 1658," in Bezield Verband, Van den Berg, Kampen, 1984, p.56.