In Chatham, ON, there are several “Dutch Reformed” churches. Two of them are the Canadian Reformed Church, called “Eben-Ezer”, and the Free Reformed Church, “Living Hope”. These churches are similar in many respects, but the contact between them is very limited. In my mind, this is a sad state of affairs. I believe that we should pursue a closer relationship, more fellowship, and more collaboration.
I will make a case for this increased unity in a series of five articles. First, I will discuss why church unity is so important. The next two articles will focus on the background of the Canadian and Free Reformed churches in the Netherlands, and their history in North America. The fourth article focuses on some theological questions. In the last article, I will address some practical aspects of church unity.
Our goal is not creating unity between our churches, but finding existing unity and doing justice to it. As churches faithful to Jesus Christ, we already have a profound unity. We have one Lord and one faith; and therefore we are essentially one.
We must realize that the Lord Jesus has only one church. It may be true that there are multiple “churches”, congregations that meet together in different places; but they are all part of the church. This one church of Jesus Christ is described in the Belgic Confession, art. 27:
We believe and profess one catholic or universal church,
which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers,
who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ,
are washed by his blood,
and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons,
but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.
Yet, it is joined and united with heart and will,
in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.
To avoid misunderstanding: I am not speaking about the “invisible church”, consisting of all God’s elect, past, present, and future in an abstract way. What the Belgic Confession describes here is the concrete, historical church on earth. Even though it consists of many congregations, in many different places, it is still the one church of Jesus. That the one, universal church of Jesus is very concrete and visible is clear from Art. 28, which talks about our duty to join this church, submit to church discipline, and serve our fellow believers.
But there is also a “false church”, which is really not the church at all. There are congregations of worshippers, who claim to be the church of Jesus, but are unfaithful to him. The Belgic Confession points this out in Art. 29. It also helps us to recognize which congregations are part of Jesus’ true church:
It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.
In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God,
rejecting all things contrary to it
and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
If the Eben-Ezer church in Chatham governs itself according to God’s Word alone and regards Jesus Christ as her only Head, then she is part of the one, true church. If the Living Hope church governs itself according to God’s Word alone and regards Jesus Christ as her only Head, she, too, is part of the one, true church. And if both of these are true, as I believe it is, then both congregations are part of the same universal, apostolic church of Jesus.
If we are both faithful congregations of Jesus, we are already one. This does not depend on any formal relationships we may or may not have. Our consistories, classes, and synods do not forge this unity. We are one, whether we have practical fellowship with each other or not. Our unity is essentially spiritual, the sharing of the same Lord and the same confession. Our core identity is Jesus Christ as our Lord; therefore we are united in a most profound way.
When I say that we should pursue unity, it is not about creating a new relationship. Rather, we must simply recognize the unity we already have, and acknowledge it in word and deed.
Mistaken sense of identity
This is important, and something we have to learn together. In the past, Canadian and Free Reformed Churches have often focused on another kind of identity and unity.
For instance, we can become distracted by the structure of our federation. Eben-Ezer church has close formal relationships with about 60 other “Canadian Reformed” churches in Canada; Living Hope has similar ties with about 30 other “Free Reformed” churches. It is a real temptation to think of our own federation as the true church, or at least a much “truer” group of churches; but when we think this, we have forgotten that faith in Jesus Christ, rather than our sister-church relationships, defines our unity.
Or we may recognize that we have particular ideas, customs, and emphases that are typically for our specific tradition. We are used to doing things a certain way; and often these customs have much good in them. But if we start thinking of this “culture” as essential for our identity as church, then we misunderstand what the church really is. If we will not recognize our unity with other Christian unless they embrace our customs, we are no longer faithful to Jesus Christ as our only Head; in our view of the church we have added to the pure Word of God. I have heard people worry that we may lose our “Canadian Reformed” identity. But the bold answer should be: never mind that Canadian Reformed identity; what about our identity as the true church of Jesus? In the end, we should care about only one tradition, and that is the apostolic tradition of faith found in the Bible.
Our struggle with this is not a modern problem. In 1 Corinthians 1:12, Paul describes a church with multiple factions: “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” “I follow Christ.” We may think this is silly. But it may well be that the Paul group, the Apollos group, and the Cephas group had greater differences among themselves than those between the Canadian and Free Reformed Churches. The Corinthians might well wonder why we are so attached to a particular style of preaching or singing! Paul’s answer to the division is sharp: Is Christ divided? No, Jesus Christ is one and his church is one. And if our practices and preferences become obstacles to do justice to that unity, we must check our attitudes and put them in their proper perspective; so that we see only Jesus Christ as the Head of all the congregations that make up his one church.
Doing justice to unity
How do we do justice to the essential unity of the true church? First of all, we should acknowledge that unity openly. Eben-Ezer church should state clearly: the people who worship at Living Hope, two miles down the road, are our brothers and sisters; we are one with them in faith. (In a way, we have already done so in the NAPARC agreement our churches signed. However, at least in the mind of many Canadian Reformed people, this does not seem to mean much. I hope that we can be much more generous and explicit in our recognition of each other as neighbours in Chatham.)
Second, we should put into practice the unity that we have. Wherever the church is, is the community of the saints. The Heidelberg Catechism, art. 55, spells it out:
… that everyone is duty-bound
to use his gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the benefit and well-being
of the other members.
It would be a mistake to limit this to the local congregation. Earlier in this answer, the catechism spoke of “believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ”. Again, what binds us together is not membership in a particular congregation, but our faith, which makes us members of Christ. The communion of the saints expresses the unity of the one, worldwide church.
We see the members of our own congregation more often, and we know them better. It is natural to be closer to them. But in principle, we owe the same kindness, love, and serving attitude to all Christian believers, especially those who live so nearby. Whether our church is called “Canadian Reformed” or “Free Reformed” does not matter.
What does this look like in practice? I will explore that further in the last article in this series. For now, I simply conclude that we should grow together toward practical, concrete unity. We have made a beginning in Chatham. Some of our members maintain a school together. We have had combined Reformation Day lectures. The ministers of the churches know each other well. It is a good start. But there is much more to share.
Two churches in one town, both eager to serve Jesus Christ as their only Master. Separate congregations, but essentially one. Or perhaps you are not sure that we are united in our faith. Haven’t there been disagreements that kept us apart? If so, this must be explored so that we can face each other confidently, rather than with distrust or apprehension. I hope to cover some of the possible misgivings in the next few articles.
But if indeed we share the same faith in Jesus Christ, then our churches are already one. We simply have to work out what that means. There will be work to do. But it will be an exciting task, because it will show us the glory of Jesus Christ and the great beauty of his one church.