How to Move Forward with International Inter-Church Relations
After giving an overview of attempts and problems with past inter-ecclesiastical relations, this issue will focus on how best to move forward. Before doing so, one correction should be made. The previous article indicated that the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) had withdrawn from the International Council of Reformed Churches (ICRC). This was not true. What happened was that the Australian churches never joined this organization. They attended and spoke up at the first number of meetings as "observers". When the ICRC started to speak about "membership" and those churches attending were offered such membership, it was decided not to join. As mentioned in the previous article, it had caused too much unrest among the Australian churches for the reasons that were indicated. The question now is: how then should we proceed?
Having read the last number of articles, it should surprise no-one that my advice is that all the true churches world-wide should be encouraged to adopt the Three Forms of Unity as a true summary of God's Word acknowledging that what is confessed in them is what God's Word really says. If there is any true church that has a problem with any point in these Three Forms of Unity let them come forward and prove from Scripture the perceived error. If no evidence of error can be found, then what is the problem in accepting and adopting these confessions? If churches do that, and practise God's Word as summarized in these confessions, would we not embrace them with much thankfulness? Sure, there may be some differences in practices regarding church polity, but would that really matter? In fact, have we not already accepted what is suggested here via Article 46 of the Church Order?
One can anticipate various immediate responses to this advice. People may argue, for example, that other churches may have other faithful confessions; churches in other places of the world may have had to deal with other matters than those in Europe (or in particular in the Netherlands); different people have different traditions and cultures. Well, let us consider these points.
Possible other True Confessions
It is fair enough to suggest that other churches may have other confessions, but if they are true confessions let them bring those confessions to the fore. Should we not be more than happy and willing to test those confessions on the basis of God's Word? If they are true, why should we have a problem accepting those confessions along with the ones we have already? In fact, should we not rejoice when hearing how others in various ways have been strengthened and have been diligent to avert other heresies?
But let us be realistic. It is true that when the apostles were first sent out to proclaim the gospel everywhere throughout the world they did not reach every area. They did not go to North or South American or the Southern reaches of Africa. It is also unlikely that they went into what is now know as China, Korea, Japan and the eastern coastal areas of Russia. However, there are indications that the Apostle Thomas has been in India and we know for sure that the Apostle Paul has been in Rome. There is also every indication that there were very early churches in North Africa and some of the earlier editions of the Apostles' Creed have been found in Spain. Were not some of the early ecumenical councils held in Constantinople which is in modern day Turkey? Indeed, a church schism took place near the end of the first and beginning of the second century after Christ. This was the result of differences between the eastern and western Churches. Till today the eastern churches refuse to accept that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (see John 15:26 and the introduction of the Nicene Creed). Our fore-fathers in the faith had understood this to be an essential doctrinal difference, a difference that remains till today. It is not a difference that simply disappeared and became non-essential with time. Along with the mission work of the eastern Churches, this essential doctrinal error was propagated.
Moreover, with time and through various church struggles, further schisms have taken place. The reformation from churches that had become Romanized in the 1500s to 1600s took place around the same time as increased trade with eastern countries, think of the spice and silk trade as well as the discoveries of the two Americas and a bit later Australia. This coincided with mission work being done not only by those who had remained true to God's Word but also by those who continued to hold to the false Roman teaching as well as those who during that time embraced the false doctrine of Anabaptists and Arminians. In other words, the spread of the gospel throughout the world took place in a historic context that cannot be simply ignored. Already for many years faithful missionaries could not simply ignore how false teachers and missionaries spread the eastern heresy concerning the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Nor could they ignore the Roman Catholic heresy denying salvation by Christ's blood alone. And the same must be said for the Anabaptist heresy concerning the covenant and re-baptising. And ditto the Arminian heresy concerning eternal election, as well as the heretical beliefs of the Quakers, and of Joseph Smith and the Mormons.
Hopefully the picture becomes clear that various theological statements and Confessions have been made in the context of the ongoing battles and struggles for the churches to remain faithful. From this very brief overview it should be clear that the history of church struggles, generally speaking, did not take place in isolated corners of the world but have had immediate world-wide impact and effect. It was therefore very unrealistic for those who promoted a re-uniting of all the churches world-wide into a World Council of Churches to ignore all these past church struggles and schisms, as if they never happened. It may have sounded very good to suggest going back to just the Apostles' Creed as basis for church unity but that is impossible when considering how in many ways what is confessed in this beautiful creed has been neglected and undermined. As has been previously pointed out, the Heidelberg Catechism is, in large part, a defense of this creed.
Well, back to other possible true confessions. The reality is that other confessions have grown and come forth within the context of this world-wide ongoing ecclesiastical warfare. Therefore, again: other true confessions? Yes, we should and ought to be prepared and thankful when someone comes to us with such a confession, but do we not already have a fair idea of what such a confession is about when they arise from say, a historic Anabaptist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Arminian or whatever other background? Perhaps some, by studying Gold's Word, have rediscovered what the Lord really says. Thus we might hear people speak about Reformed Baptists or Calvinistic Baptists. But does it not remain sad, as indicated by these expressions, that many, while wanting to embrace much of what Scripture really says, want to hold onto some of the Baptists' heretical distinctives? Is the problem not too often that we are afraid to speak in a direct and clear way because we fear being accused of showing a lack of human empathy? This brings us to the question of varying traditions and cultures.
Differences in Traditions and Cultures
First of all it should always be kept in mind that traditions and cultures are not neutral. All aspects of life are to be subject to the Lord and directed according to His Word. In a very clear way Dr K. Schilder has shown that all of culture is a matter of applying God's Word in our daily walk of life. We can speak about traditions in a similar way. Scripture warns us against holding onto the traditions of men (see Matt. 15:1ff; Col 2:8) while at the same time we are directed to hold onto the traditions we have been taught by the Lord (Gal 1:14, 2 Thess. 2:15). Having said that, the churches of the New Testament age never had a problem with how some might eat different things and in differing ways. In that regard we hold onto what we are taught in, for example, Colossian 2:11-15 where the Lord teaches us to let no one judge you in food or drink ... etc. Instead, we are speaking about how the Lord does teach us to be stewards in this creation and how He directs us to follow the tradition of the faithful in studying God's Word and calling on His Name. It would include: holding on to what He teaches about marriage, parents' tasks, children's obligations, the task of office-bearers, and how to live in this world in a holy way. One could write books about these matters including how we express our trust in the Lord through art, music, fashions, etc.; but that is way beyond the purpose of this article.
After what was already mentioned about what is written in the letter to the Colossians attention could also be given to other letters of the New Testament to show how the Lord directed Jews and Gentiles to be united together in the true faith. Speaking about differing cultural and traditional backgrounds, well there you have it! To sum up in a very brief way, in the context of these New Testament letters the Jews are directed to acknowledge and confess the Lord's progress in His work of redemption that had recently taken place so that the ceremonies of the law have become superfluous and Israel according to the flesh and as a nation is no longer the church. The gentiles are to embrace the blessing that they are now children of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but according to faith, and to trust God that He has now grafted them in among His own people (see Romans 11). The people and the gathering of the kingdom is now the church. The church embraces the past history of Israel as part of the history it has now inherited. Much more detail can be given here but the point for now is that this is where we are traditionally and culturally.
There may be believers in the world that have grown up in a different country and with a different language, etc., but as believers they have been grafted into the ecclesiastical culture and tradition of the Lord gathering His people from the children of Abraham and then, after Christ completed His work, from Jerusalem, Samaria and from throughout the world (Acts 1:8). Just as in the past the Jericho prostitute Rahab became part of the Israel that had been delivered from Egypt and to whom the Lord had spoken at Mount Sinai, so are we today part of Christ's church. And just like the eunuch we read of in Acts 8 heard the Lord speaking to him through Isaiah so the Lord continues to speak to us, His people, through this same Prophet today. In His day Isaiah was a prophet sent to God's own people, Israel. Today, by being grafted among God's people, this prophet is part of our heritage. It is not culture or traditions which may keep churches apart. In fact, through Christ, we are together put into the context of the same culture and tradition. When turning to the Lord the heathen forsakes his tradition to live as one of the Lord's children so that the heathen history of his forefathers according to the flesh is disowned and traded-in for the history of whom he has now become, the history of God's work shown to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Does this not apply in the same way should someone rightly abandon the history of the Roman Catholic heresy ... or the history of the Anabaptist or Arminian heresy? It cannot be any other way, can it?
Coming much closer to home, it has been argued that the Westminster Standards come from a different background, culturally, historically and politically but could therefore be just as valid as the Three Forms of Unity. True enough, they could be, but the question is: are they? In the past, our sister-churches in the Netherlands and in Canada, like we in Australia, have studied these confessions, but, as already mentioned in the previous article, have never come to a clear conclusion. Indeed, there are some points in these confessions about which we have shown some serious reservations. In fact, to be honest, is that not exactly why there has been stress and lot of time spent on inter-church relations among these churches?
It will be worth examining this whole matter further in a following article. But the point for now is that the problem cannot and may not be cultural or traditional. Hopefully, in the mean time, it has become clear that there is really only one solid foundation for international ecclesiastical unity; that is, one based on the churches together deciding to adopt the true Confessions of God's Word. That is really the only way to move forward in international ecclesiastical relations. This may never be dismissed with the claim that it sounds too arrogant. Confessing the truth is never arrogance. Confessing is always humbly accepting everything the Lord says in His Word.