The celebration of the Protestant Reformation took an unusual turn this year in the city of windmills and tulips. Holland, Michigan, was the scene of the recent talks between the representatives of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. This significant meeting, which intends to initiate future talks and cooperation between these two major denominations, is singularly ironic because the meetings which caused the split in the “Dutch Reformed Church” and led to the development of these denominations were also held in the same general vicinity 115 years ago.
The Grand Rapids Press included several informative articles concerning these talks which will serve as the basis for the information and comments of this article.
October 31, November 1, and 2, were days when the delegates of the RCA and the CRC gathered in the Ninth Street Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan. The one hundred or more delegates included such eminent men as Dr. John H. Kromminga, president of Calvin Theological Seminar, the breeding place of ministers for the Christian Reformed Churches, Rev. C. Boomsma, minister of the Calvin Christian Reformed Church, Rev. Jacob Eppinga, pastor of the LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and Dr. Herman (Bud) Ridder, a conference organizer and pastor of the Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.
Bruce Buursma, reporter for the Press writes:
“Wednesday, November 1, the representatives of those Dutch-Calvinist churches gathered … to discuss their differences and similarities, something they have not done since the Christian Reformed group split from the RCA 115 years ago.”
Dr. John II. Kromminga described the relationship between the two denominations in the following sample phrases:
“The relationship between the two denominations has been at least peculiar if not unique ….
“One struggles to find images to illumine it. Perhaps the most useful image is that of a divorced couple who keep seeing each other. No matter how many people are in the crowd, the estranged mate is the first person they recognize.
“In a sense we have studiously avoided each other. The Christian Reformed Church has ecumenical relations of one sort or another with churches in Europe, South Africa, South America and even North America, but not with the Reformed Church in America.
“This posture is a sham. Whether one judges by the criterion of geographical location or by that of theological interest, it remains true that we live together separately.”
Dr. Kromminga is reported by Bruce Buursma as making a twenty-five minute presentation which included his interpretation of the split in 1857. He claimed the major factor was and to a certain extent still is the fact that “the RCA has lived closer to its American ecclesiastical counterparts and the CRC has been in closer touch with ecclesiastical and theological developments in the Netherlands.” Kromminga concluded:
“The character and expression of both (our) differences and similarities have changed. Also, I would hope, has our maturity in evaluating them. We must be asking ourselves, ‘Are these (differences) any greater than the differences within our respective denominations? Is our unity so much greater than our differences as to make the latter ridiculous? “And, in short, where and how do we proceed from here to serve our Lord Jesus Christ as the one people which — whether we like it or not — we really are?”
The questions which were hashed out in the late Wednesday afternoon caucuses of the denominational delegations were intended to evaluate the feelings of the group toward each other and to make recommendations on possible denominational unity. The positive proposals unofficially released on November 1 which would be considered at the complete session were as follows:
“The CRC contingent said because of the confessional and cultural similarities between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, we should seek closer denominational unity, and our respective Inter-Church Relations Committees should be instructed to continue discussions toward that goal.”
“The RCA caucus produced more specific goals: Explore the possibility of such common works as federated churches, united campus ministries, church teacher training, educational materials, women’s work, combined church festivals, and others.”
Rev. William Brink, stated clerk of the CRC, said,
“Every effort has been made here to understand and love each other. God help us to walk hand in hand with Christ.”
Henry Ten Clay, an RCA delegate from Milwaukee, told the conference that the gathering changed his entire view of the CRC people. “I have always held at an arm’s length my Christian Reformed neighbor. Now, after these three days, I feel that I can take them to my bosom.”
Common statements of admiration were uttered and made official because of a unanimous adoption of a set of recommendations to each congregation of the RCA and the CRC. The preamble of this set of recommendations said:
“We, the delegates of the CRC and RCA thank God for the unity He gave us during our deliberations. Our prayer is that all members of our two denominations may experience like unity, and to that end we heartily endorse these recommendations and covenant together to implement them.”
The recommendations were to set up joint commissions in nearly all phases of church work and to hold special worship services in each church on or about April 8, 1973, for “the promotion of fellowship and denominational unity’.”
Unity not union was that toward which delegates were clearly working said Buursma.
Delegates were surprised by the similar characteristics between the two denominations but noticed several “sticky” differences. The most obvious difference centers around the membership of the RCA in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. The CRC has not joined these organizations and has only allied itself with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. A second obstacle to merger is the power structure of the denominations. The RCA allows the local church a great deal of autonomy while the CRC is a corporation with a strictly developed hierarchy of priorities in a federated system.
Delegates determined to work together, however, to produce church educational materials, teacher training, family festivals, youth organizations, evangelism and women’s work.
We stand amazed at what mature men who are charged with the responsibility of fulfilling a God-ordained calling in the church will do, and at the same time we are not at all surprised. It has been difficult to discern any real difference between the RCA and the CRC.
Merger talks and merger proposals of the kind that have come from the conference in Holland, Michigan, are understandable too when one considers the commitment of the churches in the two denominations. Arminianism is an incipient and prevalent error in both denominations. Even though both denominations nominally cling to the Reformed Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism. the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort, there are many obvious departures from these confessions.
The head of the Camel is in the tent when churches begin to work together in the areas which the conference has covenanted to do: United campus ministries (this has already happened at Grand Valley State College to the chagrin of conservative and Reformed men within the Christian Reformed Church), church teacher training, educational materials, women’s work, and combined church festivals. When men and women begin to work so closely together, the actual merger cannot be far away.
It is remarkable and sad that all of these cooperative efforts are of the social kind. All this lends credence to the charge that these churches are becoming more and more concerned with the social functions of the church and becoming less and less concerned with doctrinal purity and doctrinal distinctiveness. The leaders of these churches obviously did not spend time discussing the doctrinal implications of such cooperative activities. Purity of doctrine, proper administration of the sacraments and Christian discipline were obviously not the concern of this conference.
That to which Reformed office bearers commit themselves when they sign the formula of subscription in their individual denominations was not uppermost in their minds.
The paucity of concern for doctrinal purity and no mention of further work in explicating the doctrinal distinctiveness for which the churches must work is sadly lacking in the proposal of the conference.
The fact that two churches will agree to work together and ignore the historic reasons for their separateness indicates that they are not distinctive. It is tragic when leaders of the CRC can disregard the ecumenical movements such as the WCC and the NCC which are thoroughly Modernistic. They are organizations which tend
to make a least common denominator religion of all religious groups. This is contrary to all the principles of Reformed denominational unity and contrary to the Formula of Subscription signed by each minister in the Reformed community.
In 1561 Guido de Bres suffered for the faith. His definition of ecclesiastical purity and distinctiveness is still regulative:
We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of Church …. The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin: . . . Confession of Faith, Article XXIX.
God forbid that such ecumenicism as was propounded and followed by the conference will ever happen to the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Thanks be to God for ministers and elders who are concerned with unity which is based upon the confessional purity of the church.
We pray for young people who will do this too.