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Seeking the Unity of the Church (5) Making Distinctions

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This article was first published in the Standard Bearer. For the original source link click here.

Previous article in this series: March 1, 2008, p. 245.

Are they Protestant Reformed?

This question is occasionally voiced by members of the Protestant Reformed Churches who have a real interest in the work of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches. When they hear of visits made to churches in other parts of the world, this question can arise.

The question itself is open to interpretation, and the intent may be to learn whether these churches agree with the central truths that define the PRC. And yet, the question may also indicate a serious misunderstanding of the work of the Contact Committee and of what interchurch relationships involve.

The work of the Contact Committee is not to search the world over for churches that are, or with a little work could become, Protestant Reformed. There is only one body of churches that is Protestant Reformed. These churches have been molded by their heritage and history. The rejection of common grace and the well-meant offer are crucial to their existence due to the controversies that led to their birth in 1924. The doctrine of the unconditional covenant has been imbedded in her very foundation through the traumatic schism over this doctrine in 1953. Their church order is the fruit of centuries of development in the Netherlands. Their liturgical forms and liturgy obviously come from the Dutch Reformed tradition. These churches have their own catechism books and Psalter. There is no other church or group in the world that is or can be Protestant Reformed.

The task of the Contact Committee is, therefore, not to find Protestant Reformed churches in other nations.

However, the PRC, through their Contact Committee, are seeking fellowship with other churches. And we are seeking unity in the truth. Agreement in doctrine, worship, life, and church government is requisite for unity between churches.

This inevitably raises the question, How much agreement must there be for churches to have fellowship, even to establish relationships?

John Calvin, zealot for church unity, addressed this matter in his Institutes (IV.1.12). There Calvin urges individuals to seek unity in the local congregation, but the instruction is applicable to unity among churches. Calvin insists that the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments are the central matters, but even in these, he remarks, "defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion." He then makes an important distinction:

For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith.

Calvin distinguishes between "the proper essential of religion" and other matters where disagreement may be allowed. He illustrates the latter:

For why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord? The words of the Apostle are, "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you,"

Phil. 3:15.

Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians?

Calvin goes on to note that "the best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation."

He cautions, "Here, however, I have no wish to patronize even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance." But he adds, "What I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord."

Calvin's distinction between essential and nonessential matters in the local church is most applicable to relationships between various churches. The Church Order of Dordt incorporates that thought of Calvin into Article 85. "Churches whose usages differ from ours in merely nonessentials shall not be rejected."

This same principle applies to church relationships. Some doctrines (in the words of Calvin) "are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion." Some are not. How to distinguish between the two?

First, it should be evident to all that no set document can be drawn up that lists all the essential doctrines on one side, and all the nonessential on the other. Calvin gives examples, not an exhaustive list. Generally speaking, confessional doctrines are the essentials. And yet, Calvin's example of what happens to the soul immediately after death has been set down in the Heidelberg Catechism. Rather than making lists, churches seeking fellowship with other churches must face concrete differences and make a determination of whether these belong to the essentials or the nonessentials.

The Protestant Reformed Churches have done this in the past. A full sister-church relation was established with a Presbyterian congregation because she was "agreed with us in all essentials of doctrine, life, calling, and church polity" (Acts, 1985, Art. 23). That agreement included a unity in confession (recognizing the Westminster Confession as a faithful Reformed confession), as well as agreement on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, on the offer, and on the covenant. One item that (by implication) the PRC determined was not essential was that the sister church allowed women to vote in congregational meetings, which, as was pointed out to her sister, the PRC "consider ...unbiblical" (Art. 23).

Another sister church (Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland) is fully in agreement with the PRC in doctrine and life, but maintains nonessential differences in worship in the matter of instrumental accompaniment, the reading of the law, and the use of the Apostles' Creed, for example.

Still other matters were relegated to nonessentials in the sister-church relationship with the Evangelical Reformed Churches of Singapore—singing of hymns and elders preaching, to name two. The PRC may well want to reexamine one day whether such matters are in fact nonessential.


"Denominational Distinctives"


While it is obvious that each denomination is distinct, and that one can speak of denominational distinctives, the term "distinctives" can be used in different ways. There are distinctions that characterize a church that are doctrinal in nature, and there are distinctives that are, shall we say, more cultural. By doctrinal "distinctives" we mean unique insights into and developments of the truth. This could include also the application of the doctrine to walk of life. These "distinctives" are the result of serious struggles against error and/or serious searching of the Scriptures as the church seeks to live out her faith.

There are also "distinctives" that are part of the history and culture of the denomination. Each church has its own life, its own viewpoint related to its history, and even to the race and ancestry of the members. This is not unrelated to the doctrines and confessions maintained by the denomination, but these are not per seconfessional. In this category we would place such matters as the particular songbook used in worship, the particular catechism books used, the version of the Bible used, the manner of praying, the style of preaching, the form of the liturgy (within the boundaries of the regulative principles of worship), the content and character of the youth conventions, and some of the Church Order regulations. No doubt there is liberty with respect to these unique elements of a denomination. These matters are not of the essence of the church and are therefore nonessential.

However, the doctrinal development unique to a denomination is different. This is rather a matter of the truth of God. Every denomination has either developed the truth faithfully according to Scripture and the confessions, or she has begun to depart from the truth and will eventually lose it altogether. God's truth is not subject to negotiation or compromise.


This brings up the need for another necessary distinction. A clear distinction must be made between a church that has apostatized from the truth and a church that has not fully developed an aspect of the truth. In the one instance, a church had the truth, but let it fall to the ground. In the other instance, the church never had it in her history.

An illustration of the former is a church that once preached sovereign, particular grace, but then adopted the error of common grace and the well-meant offer, and so apostatized that she eventually refused to discipline those who taught that God loves everyone. Little possibility of fellowship exists with this church. She must be called to repentance, and only if she does repent is fellowship possible.

However, very different is a church that preaches sovereign grace but never faced the theory of common grace. Common grace is spoken of in her midst, for she picked up the term from various Reformed theologians. Perhaps this church has a vague notion that God is good to all men in providing food, health, and all that man enjoys. When they examine it closely, they realize that it is not really a grace at all, but a work of God's providence. Fellowship can be explored with this church.

Likewise, there are churches that once held to an unconditional covenant, but later adopted, or allowed for, a conditional covenant with every baptized child. These churches must have their apostasy pointed out to them. On the other hand, some churches relatively new to the Reformed faith have never squarely faced the issue of a conditional covenant. Perhaps the word condition is tolerated in their midst—they have read it in the works of orthodox theologians. But they never thought through the issue. Such a difference calls for a very different approach. This church must be dealt with patiently, given time to see the issue and decide on the matter. Much wisdom is required in such an approach. Obviously, the issue would have to be decided before a sister-church relationship could be established.

The matter of divorce and remarriage calls for similar careful distinctions. Some churches have for many years held strictly to the position that divorce was allowed only on the ground of adultery. Further, based on their understanding of Matthew 19:1-9, they held that the sin of adultery broke the bond for the innocent party. Thus the innocent party in such a divorce was allowed to remarry. But many of these same churches, caving in to pressure from the world, now maintain not only that divorce may be allowed for virtually any reason, but also that every divorce dissolves the marriage bond. Thus remarriage is now allowed for all divorcees. Reformed and Presbyterian churches are being destroyed by this horrible cancer. Such teaching is deadly serious—and not only because of its devastating effect on covenant families. In addition, since marriage so obviously pictures the covenant relationship between God and His people, what does rampant divorce and remarriage based on broken marriage bonds do to the picture? Churches who have thus departed must simply be called to repentance.

On the other hand, churches do exist who hold to some divorce and remarriage, but have not followed that way of departure. These churches have taken the stand of Calvin and the rest of the Reformers that adultery and desertion are grounds for divorce, and remarriage is allowed for the innocent party in those cases only. For Presbyterian churches it is established confessionally, since they have adopted the Westminster Confession. Such churches have not apostatized, but are upholding the teaching that was maintained in virtually all Reformed and Presbyterian churches since the time of the Reformation. They have not caved in to pressure to arrive at this position. They are convinced by the exegesis of John Calvin that the Bible teaches this.

Sixty years ago, the Protestant Reformed Churches took the stance that remarriage was allowed for the innocent party in a divorce grounded on adultery. The churches were following the practice adopted in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. But, through Rev. Herman Hoeksema, God led the PRC to see the inconsistencies of this position—that the bond could be broken for the one (innocent) party and not for the guilty. That the bond could be broken by divorce for adultery, but not by divorce for other reasons. That in the picture of the covenant, man could break the bond, but in the true covenant, man cannot break it. That puny man could truly break a bond that the sovereign God established. Rev. Hoeksema patiently showed the churches the inconsistencies.

He did more. Rev. Hoeksema gave us better exegesis for the pertinent passages. He showed that there were no contradictions between the various passages on marriage and divorce. He demonstrated that marriage is for life, and that only God breaks that bond through physical death.

This teaching has been a great blessing for the PRC—doctrinally and practically in our homes, schools, and churches. For the PRC to enter into a sister-church relationship that would put into jeopardy their stand on marriage would not only be foolhardy, it would be a despising of the work of the Spirit of truth who has given it to us.

Having said that, what must be the attitude of the PRC towards a church that faithfully maintains the truths of sovereign grace, that worships God reverently in spirit and in truth, and lives godly lives, but maintains the old position of the Reformation on marriage and divorce? One that is committed to the Westminster's position? A church that believes that Hoeksema stands with Calvin on the unconditional covenant governed by election, but is not convinced that Hoeksema's exegesis of the marriage passages is better than Calvin's?

The Protestant Reformed Churches must view such churches as faithful in their tradition, but as not having the benefit of the advances in doctrine that God has given us. This judgment of charity must not come with a smug air of superiority, "for who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?" (I Cor. 4:7). The PRC must recognize that there is a oneness in the truth with such a church. Because of this significant difference, a full sister-church relationship, with the accompany ing practical issue of free exchange of membership and ministers, is impossible. Yet it does not rule out a warm relationship of mutual love based on the oneness that exists in Christ in the truth.

In the areas of differences, both must view each other without suspicion. Mutual trust will grow as each witnesses the other's commitment to the Reformed faith. They must recognize that they are from two different traditions. Both must look for ways that the other tradition has advanced beyond their own.

So, the question is not, Are those churches Protestant Reformed? Rather, are they fully committed to the Reformed faith? Do they preach sovereign, particular grace enthusiastically? Do they maintain those doctrines consistently in the doctrine of God's covenant of grace, and insist that the covenant is governed by election? If so, then the question must be faced, are there practices or doctrines that would make it impossible to have a full sister relationship? The discovery of another church or denomination committed to the doctrines of sovereign grace and a covenant consistent with sovereign grace causes great excitement. Reformed believers, including Protestant Reformed believers, hope for some manifestation of unity with such a church.

... to be concluded.

Last modified on 16 October 2015
Dykstra, Russell J.

Prof. Russell Dykstra (Wife: Carol)

Ordained: September 1986

Pastorates: Doon, IA - 1986; Hope, Walker, MI - 1995; PR Seminary - 1996

Website: www.prca.org/Seminary/SeminaryMainPg.htm

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