We are people with a limited life span, and there are many things that are beyond our capability. That also applies to our responsibility. We can carry only a limited responsibility with regard to the developments within Christ’s church here on earth. It is not required of us to bear the burden of all centuries.
We are not accountable for the course of world history. None of us sits on the throne of this world. We may believe and confess that, for centuries already, honour is given to our Lord and Owner for his universal reign. One day the time will come that we will reign with Him over all creatures (Q&A 32 Heidelberg Catechism).
Our responsibility is limited to us, our family, the congregation we are a member of, our church federation, and our effect on the outside world. It is an enormous terrain when we view it from our own perspective. It is a very limited terrain in the context of church and world history.
Within this confined area of our primary responsibilities, we constantly run into the stubborn reality of dissension and schisms in the church and among its members. This difficult, hindering, painful and embarrassing reality accompanies us continually. To some extend we try to get a grip on this situation by, for example, studying the historical circumstances, considering the points of dispute, endeavouring to empathize with the emotional undercurrent of the differences of opinion, and searching personally and as a community for a settlement of these differences.
It turns out that the closer the two sides were originally acquainted, the more painful the effect of discord is. In specific terms we can think of the division between people who love the same Bible and confession as we do, and who want to direct their faith and life by it.
An Undreamed of Situation
In this respect we are confronted with situations in this century that our ancestors in the 16th century could not have dreamed of even in their most frightful dreams. The great variety of Reformed churches that exists today would have been incomprehensible for them. One could link a number of cultural, political and theological observations to this reality, but we will omit that at this point in time.1 The one fact that concerns us now is that we are not able to get a firm grip on the actual church situation when we attempt to classify this situation solely with the aid of the terms that Article 29 of the Belgic Confession hands to us.
Understand this: we do not want to part with the confessional terminology of “true church” and “false church.” We deem these terms indispensable in exercising our responsibility in this present day and in view of the future. However, this does not mean that Article 29 of the BC has foreseen our days and that it can provide for all the needs of our time. That has never been the pretence of any confession. The wisdom of the Holy Spirit is not available from a storeroom. It is only found in a present day relationship with God. From this knowledge we can conclude the following:
It prevents us from making the confession into a last word, as confessionalism does
It allows us to look for new words in new situations
It prevents us from storing the confession in a museum as a “declaration of emotion” and a product of its time.
One Location – How many Churches?
Previously we discussed the fact that the church of Christ not only may, but even ought to present itself as Christ’s catholic church at a specific location, since this signifies that the congregation recognizes that it is called to its weekly Sunday gatherings by none other than Christ himself. Furthermore, this conveys the message that all other children of God at this location are also called to come to this assembly.2 This is because it is and remains absurd that in one location there are two or more churches of Christ. This simply should not happen, considering that Christ’s church cannot have dissension as its mark. In her essence as church of Christ she is characterized by unity and catholicity. However, we know all too well that things that should not happen, nevertheless do happen. Not only to our grief – it is a sadness constantly endured by the Holy Spirit.
Let us assume we have two congregations, A and B, who conduct their church services across from each other. If both recognize that it is Christ who calls them to gather as a congregation, then both A and B will present themselves as Christ’s catholic church at that location. (If one of them does not recognize this, they consequently proclaim themselves to be a sect or a religious association for insiders only, or an exceptional denomination). This indicates that both churches claim the title of “catholic church of Christ.” Therefore it is inconceivable that for a long period of time A and B would not approach each other. The love of Christ and godliness ought to urge them to address each other. If we search for one another, we and others will recognize that we love God.
As long as we take our own and each other’s claims seriously, we will always have questions to ask each other and probably also a few complaints to bring before one another. However, we know that we are accountable to each other in the duty to search for healing of a relationship that is chronically ill.
With God’s blessing, dialogues of this sort will bring forth a collective knowledge of our shortcomings with regard to each other, and also a mutual prayer for
deliverance from our collective powerlessness
healing of the wounds that have been inflicted
forgiveness of the shame that we have caused our Lord Jesus Christ in our personal and public life.
For meetings of this type we do not need (red, yellow or green) labels, or name tags, that are (either directly or distantly) derived from Article 29. Our immediate source and norm we find in the first line of Article 27 of the Belgic Confession.
Do away with Article 29?
We will not do away with Article 29 as if it were an expired passport. We will gladly be addressed by others on the point of “being a true church.” We desire to hear from other children of God what they have understood of Christ’s work in this day and age. Furthermore, we also like to hear what these other persons comprehend of their confession’s language when it speaks of the “yoke of Christ” and the reality of the “falsification” of the church.
We will be sure to have some questions about the past to ask of the person with whom we are speaking. There will also be warnings with the future in mind. Different questions will be asked of different churches, and different questions will be asked of us by these churches. If we would be able to discover ways in which we can speak with each other in a good and meaningful way, then a lot of good could come from that with God’s blessing: humility, recognition and encouragement. And all this would be a little bit of collective imparting of the salvation that we have received in Christ, the Head of the Christian church.