Unity and Discipline in Christ's Church
The rhetoric on the state of the Christian Reformed Church is heating up and becoming rather extreme at points. On one side is the contention that the unity of the church requires that we never contemplate leaving the CRC, almost as if the CRC were the seamless robe of Christ. On the other side is the claim that the CRC is a false church and must be abandoned immediately, as if the synod had definitively condemned orthodoxy.
In this highly charged atmosphere how should we think about the unity of the church and of our obligation to be members of a true church? How is the biblical call to Christian love and unity to be related to the biblical call to Christian truth and discipline?
Dimensions of Unity
We often assume that unity is a simple concept when applied to the church. But in reality unity is not a simple concept at all. In fact the Bible's teaching on unity contains rich diversity.
Unity of the Spirit
In the first place the Bible speaks about what we may call the unity of the Spirit. This unity is created by the Spirit among all those whom He enlivens and unites in the body of Christ. When Paul writes that there is "one body" (Ephesians 4:4), he teaches that as Christ is a single head, so there is and can be only one single body of Christ. "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body..." (1 Corinthians 12:13).
This unity between Christ and the members of His body is sometimes called the invisible church because its membership is not always immediately obvious to human eyes. (See Belgic Confession, article 27 and Westminster Confession, chapter 25.) Some today refuse to talk of unity in relation to the invisible church insisting that biblical unity must be visible. But there are and have always been visible dimensions of the unity of the invisible church. All Christians have experienced to one degree or another in various settings a sense of spiritual kinship with fellow Christians from very diverse churches and denominations, a recognition that "the walls that divide us do not reach to heaven." In the history of the church even those most insistent that there was no salvation outside the one true visible church have in fact recognized this. Cyprian in the third century spoke of Tertullian (who died a "schismatic" among the Montanists) as the master when it came to theological questions. Augustine sensed real Christian love among the "schismatic" Donatists.
Today the cooperation of Christians and churches in various organizations (e.g., Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, World Evangelical Fellowship) and associations (e.g., Reformed Ecumenical Council, National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, National Association of Evangelicals) manifests a unity that is more fundamental than our denominational divisions. The unity of the Spirit is a real and vital dimension of Christian unity.
Unity of Love
The unity of the Spirit does not by any means exhaust the Bible's teaching on unity. There is also a unity of love. Repeatedly Christians are warned against bickering and petty divisions. The love of Christ for His people must be reflected in the love of Christians for one another. The specific focus of this call to love is the local congregation in the New Testament. (See, for example 1 Corinthians 1 and 12.) But the application of this recurring call is certainly to all Christians. The Belgic Confession in article 29 relates the marks of the true church to the marks of true Christians which include that they "love the true God and their neighbor." The Westminster Confession (ch. 26) speaks of the communion of the saints as "being united to one another in love." In the history of the church schism was often defined as the sin against love, the sin of breaking fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. This unity of love needs to be visibly expressed in the respect and care that Christians show for one another even where organizational unity is absent.
Unity of Truth
Yet another form of unity required in the Bible is unity in the truth. This unity is too frequently overlooked or obscured in current ecumenical discussions.1But the apostles were adamant that the Christian community must be united in the truth. Truth is not set over against unity in the Bible, but is a vital element of unity. Biblical texts on this point could easily be multiplied at great length, but a few texts can point us to the importance of unity in the truth.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Matthew 28:19,20(Jesus in the Great Commission insists that His new disciples be taught all the truth that He has commanded.)
Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.2 Timothy 1:13(Paul points to a standard of truth that must be maintained.)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught... 2 Thessalonians 2:15(Paul requires that Christians continue in the apostolic truth they have learned.)
...I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. Jude 3(Jude makes clear that the faith has been definitively given by the apostles and must be maintained.)
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them.1 Corinthians 11:2(Corinthian faithfulness is marked by holding to the truth.)
...we have renounced the hidden things because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. 2 Corinthians 4:2(Paul shows that even apostles must faithfully keep and transmit the Word of God.)
Other biblical texts speak just as clearly about the real danger that churches will lose the truth.
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons...1 Timothy 4:1(Members of the church will be lead astray, abandoning the truth for lies.)
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:29, 30(Paul warns that even elders in the church will abandon the truth and seek to deceive the church.)
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. Romans 16:17(Paul shows that those who cause troubles and divisions in the church are those who oppose the apostolic teaching, not those who defend it.)
Many of the words of the risen Christ to the seven churches in the Book of the Revelation show how the unity of truth must be maintained. Christ rejects false teaching and false teachers (Revelation 2:14, 15, 20). The words to the churches of Thyatira (Revelation 2:18 -29) and Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) are particularly significant because they distinguish between a sinful and a faithful element in each church. The sinful are called to repentance and the faithful are called to perseverance. If the sinful do not repent and the Lord visits judgment upon them, there must be a separation of the sinful from the faithful.
This biblical stress on the unity of truth is emphasized in our Reformed confessional standards. The Belgic Confession (art. 29) says that one of the marks of the true church is that "pure doctrine" is preached. The Westminster Confession (ch. 31) stresses that the decisions of synods and councils must be according to the truth of the Scriptures.
The history of the Reformed churches shows that we celebrate those who in the name of truth separate from gross distortions of the Gospel. The Reformation marked the separation from the legalistic and Pelagianizing distortions of the Roman Catholic Church. The Afscheiding of 1834 and the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936 marked separation from rank liberalism. Maintaining unity with Christ and His truth sometimes requires separation, even from Christians who have seriously compromised the truth. Unity of truth is required as much as any other form of unity.
Unity of Practice
A further form of unity required in the church is unity of practice. Christians and churches are not free to live and act just as they choose. Biblical standards of living and behavior are normative for individuals and congregations. For congregations unity of practice is particularly important in areas of worship, government, discipline, ethics and outreach.
Unity of practice is extolled in many places in Scripture. The Great Commission could be quoted here again. Paul in settling the confusion of practice at Corinth writes,
If any one thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment. But if any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized... But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.1 Corinthians 14:37-40
Also Jude writes, "But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, 'In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.' These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, awaiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life."Jude 17-21
The Reformed confessions call for unity of practice in several areas. Worship and government are especially prominent because of their inherent importance and because of the historical situation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where disagreements with Rome and other Protestants often focused on these issues. The Belgic Confession speaks of the "spiritual polity" for the government of the church taught in the Bible (art. 30) and of the need to follow only the Bible in worship (art. 32). The Westminster Confession makes similar points (chs. 21 and 31). The unity of practice taught in Scripture and the Reformed confessions is not an absolute identity of practice on every issue in every place, but it is a recognition that we must follow in unity all that the Bible teaches us in the area of practice.
Worship has perhaps received the most attention in the history of the Reformed churches in the area of practice. The fundamental conviction that God should be worshiped only as He desires and as He has commanded has led to careful examination of the Bible to find its teaching on worship. The formation of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857 occurred in part because the founders of the CRC differed from the RCA on the importance and centrality of the Psalms in the worship of God. The Bible calls for appropriate unity of practice as an element of true unity in the church.
Unity and Schism
In the history of the church frequently divisions of many sorts have been called schisms. Many use that term too loosely. We need to understand what schism is.
In the period of the ancient church the charge of schism was a very serious one. Schismatics were those who separated from brothers for insufficient reasons. As heresy was the sin against the truth, so schism was the sin against love. It was generally believed that schismatics could not be saved since they were outside the one, true church.
Rome charged Protestants at the time of the Reformation with creating a schism as well as being heretics. Protestants rejected the charge insisting that apostolic unity was not found in claims of the apostolic succession of bishops, but in maintaining apostolic doctrine and truth as found in the Scripture.
Protestants have always held that there are times when separation from a particular church is biblically necessary and therefore is not schism. To call all separation schismatic would require a return to Rome. Only by examining the causes for and the character of a given separation can we decide if it is a schism or a legitimate and necessary division.
Unity as An Obligation
The unity of love, truth, and practice are obligations laid upon the Christian community and have never been perfectly attained. The New Testament gives ample evidence that unity in these areas remains a goal as well as an obligation. Unity is not static or settled. Like the sanctification of the Christian individual, the unity of the church is a growing, developing reality with both progress and failures. Our goal must be perfection in every dimension of unity. As B.B. Warfield put it:
The only organization which the whole Church should adopt is the perfect one, the only worship which all should use is the perfect one, the only creed which is fitted to be the form of sound words in which all God's people express their faith is the perfect one - inclusive of all truth, exclusive of all error.2
The unity of the church in its various dimensions grows by the power of the Spirit. As Christians grow in the appreciation and practice of the unity of the church, they should also grow in the appreciation and practice of the unity of the church. The unity of the church cannot be coerced or imposed as was done by the inquisition and the sword in the Middle Ages. It must grow from the hearts of the people of God by spiritual means.
The spiritual means of growth includes, of course, church discipline. The Apostle Paul was quite prepared to use spiritual discipline to build unity in its dimensions of love, truth and practice. So must we. But how do we use discipline to serve unity?
Denominations and Unity
Indeed by this point the reader may be asking why we are talking about unity at all when Christianity seems so hopelessly divided into seemingly endless numbers of denominations. How can the concept and practice of discipline be helpful in the face of so many divisions? But before we can begin to consider that question, we must first look at the phenomenon of denominations. What are denominations and where do they originate? How can we relate denominations to our discussion of the unity of the church?
Denominations are a phenomenon of the modern church. In the last 400 years we have gradually become accustomed to thinking of a denomination as a group of churches with distinctive characteristics and organization which exists more or less adequately as a true church. So Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations may recognize one another as true churches, yet also recognize important differences between one another. This modern, denominational way of thinking - seeing the true church expressed more or less well in a variety of organizations - developed only after the Reformation.
Throughout the history of the church down through the Reformation, Christians did not think in terms of denominations. They thought only of true churches and false churches. All true churches were thought of as united with one another. In the ancient period of the church there were many sects and cults that competed with the church and called themselves the church. But in the ancient church any group that broke the unity of the church over truth or practice was labeled a false church.
The importance of the distinction between the true church and the false church for the Reformation is found in the Belgic Confession (1561) in article 29 where the marks of the true church and the false church are laid out. In the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), chapter 25, we see what might be the beginnings of denominational thinking in the observation that there are more pure and less pure true churches. Certainly in the modern period where the state has ceased to maintain by law a single church there has been a proliferation of denominations.
Attitudes to the phenomenon of denominations have varied greatly. Some like B.B. Warfield and Abraham Kuyper think they are good expressions of the inevitable and even valuable diversity within the Christian community.3Even Oscar Cullmann, a firm advocate of ecumenical union, sees value to historic diversity: "...every Christian confession has a permanent spiritual gift, a charisma, which it should preserve, nurture, purify, and deepen, and which should not be given up for the sake of homogenization." 4Others like John Frame find denominations utterly intolerable: "...the birth of a denomination is always attended by sin." 5Are denominations good or sinful?
Neither absolute approval nor absolute rejection of denominations is satisfactory. Frame is surely right that ideally there should be no denominations. We should all enjoy unity in every sense. The divisions in the church reflected in denominations is not good. But denominations do serve a necessary function in the life of the church at the present time. Denominations need to be seen as penultimate acts of discipline by one group of churches in relation to another. In the formation of a denomination, one group of churches says in effect to another that while we do not anathematize you as a false church, we do see such serious errors and sins in you that we cannot simply continue to live together. A denomination exercises the discipline of suspended relations with other denominations. It is perhaps analogous to a married couple with such serious problems that they decide to separate, but not divorce.6Penultimate discipline is a serious form of church discipline, but falls short of the ultimate discipline of excommunication or deciding that another church is a false church.
Is the idea of penultimate discipline a helpful way of understanding the reality of modern denominationalism? Although there are no denominations in the Bible, is the notion of penultimate discipline biblical?
In fact the Bible seems to abound with discipline that is serious, but short of the declaration that individuals or groups are false brothers (Galatians 2:4) and should be handed over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5). The Bible teaches degrees of discipline. Paul writes for example,
And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of the man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 15(Here Paul calls for a measure of shunning to be exercised against a brother as an admonition.)
John writes, "I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church."3 John 9,10(John, in spite of the serious sins of Diotrephes, initially plans to deal with him as a brother by rebuking him.)
Many other texts say similar things: "Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning."1 Timothy 5:20(Here again Paul's response to sin - even continued sin - is initially rebuke rather than some ultimate sanction.)
For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain ... For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith... Titus 1:10-13(Despite very serious sin, Paul again calls for strong admonition.)
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it - for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while - I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance...2 Corinthians 7:8, 9(Paul uses the penultimate discipline of strong rebuke to work repentance.)
While the idea of penultimate discipline is biblical, the Bible does not seem to teach that penultimate discipline can continue forever. Ordinarily penultimate discipline of individuals or groups would lead either to repentance or to excommunication. The fact that penultimate discipline between denominations has lasted in some cases for centuries is probably a sign of our sinful complacency about Christian disunity.
Unity is a goal for which we must strive. Paul writes about attaining "the unity of faith" and how "we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:13-15). We must all be growing into greater unity. Calvin comments on these verses:
But ought not the unity of the faith to reign among us from the very commencement? It does reign, I acknowledge, among the sons of God, but not so perfectly as to make them come together. Such is the weakness of our nature, that it is enough if every day brings some nearer to others, and all approach together to Christ ... He thus sets an intervening period between childhood and maturity. Those are children who have not yet taken a step in the way of the Lord, but still hesitate, who have not yet determined what road they ought to choose, but move sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another, always doubtful, always wavering. But those are thoroughly founded in the doctrine of Christ who, although not yet perfect, have so much wisdom and vigor as to choose what is best, and proceed steadily in the right course. Thus the life of believers, longing constantly for their appointed state, is like adolescence. So when I said that in this life we are never men, this ought not to be pressed to the other extreme, as they say, as if there were no progress beyond childhood. After being born in Christ, we ought to grow, so as not to be children in understanding.7
The penultimate discipline of denominations seems to be an expression of our adolescence.
Such discipline is in many ways tragic. All discipline is painful, but is hopefully also remedial.
In our present situation each denomination should take this reality of discipline very seriously. Each denomination is not only disciplining, but is also disciplined. Continuing self-examination and fraternal conversation with other denominations is required to discover the sin that has lead to division. This conversation is particularly imperative for denominations that are members of the same families of churches.
Discipline and Unity
Proper church discipline must never be capricious or arbitrary. Clear principles and procedures must govern the exercise of responsible discipline. What guidelines are there for the discipline of a denomination?
1. Under the Word.
All discipline must be under the teaching of the Bible. Discipline must be conducted in obedience to the teaching of the Bible and to uphold the truth and teaching of God's Word. The infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible was the universal Christian conviction until the rise of Protestant liberalism in the last two hundred years. The infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible are the clear teaching of the Reformed confessions (see Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 21, Belgic Confession, arts. 3-7, Westminster Confession, ch. 1.) Failure to submit to the Word or to stand in judgment of it is itself grounds for discipline. Klaas Runia - at an earlier and more conservative point in his thinking - wrote, "When the church refuses to listen to our protest in the name of the Gospel and declines to submit itself to the clear Word of God, then, I believe, we must separate ourselves from our church." 8Hebrews calls us to obedience to our leaders, "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account" (Hebrews 13:17). But the leaders we are to obey are those who teach us the Word: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the outcome of their way of life, imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7).
2. Through Elders.
To try to avoid inappropriate individualism and subjectivism, discipline should be conducted by the elders of Christ's church. This guideline obviously does not insure agreement since elders are often divided on the issues in a dispute. Neither elders nor councils nor synods are infallible. The history of the church is full of experiments to find an infallible source of unity and truth in addition to the Bible. Some have argued that bishops together in council, or popes, or the traditions of the church guarantee infallible judgments. But since the days of the apostles there is no institution that guarantees truth and unity in the church. Part of the process by which the church must move from adolescence to maturity is by studying the infallible Word under the discipline of elders to seek the truth. Any church division should be led by elders working as much as possible through the existing institutions of the church (e.g., consistories or classes).
3. Only for Very Serious Problems.
Clearly separation is required from a false church, the marks of which are laid out in the Belgic Confession, art.29. But the formation of denominations often occurs for reasons short of accusing the original denomination of having become a false church. Separation as an act of penultimate discipline must not occur for light or trivial reasons. It must not occur over peripheral matters. Denominations must be founded on issues that are central and vital to the life of the church.
This general principle is clear and easy to articulate, but it is not always easy to see how to apply it. What is a serious problem? What is central and what is peripheral? What issues can justify division? Herman Bavinck no doubt spoke for many when he wrote, "But Protestantism can at best give some general rules and must leave the application of those rules in each concrete case to the conscience of believers." 9
Klaas Runia is one Reformed theologian who did try to give some more specific criteria to determine which problems are serious enough to justify separation. First he says that separation "is the very last thing we should ever do." 10
By this he means that we must exhaust all avenues to correct the problem in our present denomination before we decide to separate. Second he says that we can identify a serious problem when:
"The church itself in its official doctrinal statements opposes the Gospel"; or
"The church compels the believer to accept or to do things which are clearly contrary to the Word of God"; or
"The church no longer gives the freedom to believe or do what is clearly demanded by the Word of God"; or
"The church in its official capacity ... refuses to deal with notorious heretics, in spite of protests or charges." 11.
Another approach to the issue of criteria might be put this way: We can use the penultimate discipline of denominational separation only for issues that we would and will discipline office bearers in the church for committing. It is clearly wrong to leave one denomination for offenses that will be tolerated in the new denomination. John Frame wrote: "It is often said that there are greater divisions within denominations today than there are between denominations." 12
To the extent that this is true, the existence of denominations cannot be defended. If there is no discipline on an issue within a denomination, there ought to be no discipline on that issue between denominations.
4. With a Continuing Commitment to Unity.
Whenever denominational discipline takes place there must be continuing commitment and effort for the unity of the church. Especially within families of denominations, such as the Reformed family, there must be efforts to overcome divisions and to achieve visible unity. Denominations with common confessional standards and a common commitment to maintain those standards should unite and should agree to tolerate differences among them not specified in the standards. Where a new separation occurs, the commitment to unity implies that those separating first seek to join an existing denomination and form a new denomination only as a last resort.
5. With Love and Patience for Others who do Not Agree.
The decision that a denomination ought to be disciplined will not be agreed to by everyone at the same time. Many reasons may influence a decision not to separate. Some will feel that the situation is not really that bad or that there is still hope for improvement. Some pastors will feel that they cannot leave their sheep without a shepherd. Some will maintain that denominational problems will not affect the local work of the church and can be ignored. Others will feel that there is no attractive alternative denomination. Those separating must try to respect the consciences of those not separating and create an environment that will welcome those who do separate later. (The PCA is an example where a welcoming attitude to those who wished to join later was very effectively maintained.)
These guidelines for the exercise of penultimate discipline should impress us with the seriousness of this matter and lead us to great caution and care. They also underscore a basic Protestant conviction: separation is sometimes necessary.
To be loyal to the Lord and to His Word we need a Reformed church. If it was ever right to be a Reformed church, it is still right to be a Reformed church today. We must labor while there is hope to restore the CRC and be willing to exercise church discipline, when necessary, especially for the sake of unity in the truth.
As we labor, our conclusions and actions must be determined biblically and theologically. They must not be guided by sentimentality. They must not be decided in terms of family or ethnic ties. This is not a time for nostalgia. The best thing that we can do for the unity and spiritual health of our families is to have them in vital Reformed churches.
The Christian Reformed Church today is one denomination among many. It already participates in the "penultimate discipline" of denominations. Reformed people in the CRC are confronted today with the difficult problem of how to pursue disciplined unity. Is it by further labor in the CRC or is it by secession? Ultimately as Bavinck said, it is up to the "consciences of believers" as they study the Word of their Lord. Let us be patient with one another as we seek to serve the Lord in His church. But let us also have zeal according to knowledge in building up the church according to Scriptures.