Sad to say, there are many divisions within the church as the body of Christ. Although Christ has only one body, that body is often splintered in its earthly manifestation. Many different denominations and/or independent congregations exist in the countries and cities in which we live and in all the world. The people of God are required to maintain church unity, but so often such unity is not seen. And the cause is sin, including the sin of departure from and rejection of the truth.
All of this raises the important question of how we, as a Reformed church and as Reformed believers, should view and relate to other churches. Specifically, how should we relate (both officially and as individuals) to churches that are close to us in the faith but not one with us in that faith? Should we, because of doctrinal differences, keep them at arm’s length? Or may and ought we to seek them out and have fellowship with them?
These questions immediately bring to mind the command given in Ephesians 4:3 that we must endeavour “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
What is especially clear from this verse is that church unity is not a pipedream, but a reality. We are not commanded to establish church unity, or to create it. Rather, we are admonished “to keep the unity of the Spirit!” This means that church unity exists. It is something that Christ has given us. Having done so, Christ now gives us the calling to maintain and preserve it. We must make sure, by His grace, that it is not lost or destroyed.
The reason unity is a reality is because it is the unity “of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit creates and establishes this unity. Without the Spirit, church unity would be impossible, also within our own local church. By nature we are not united to each other, for sin causes separation (Isaiah 59:2). Sin makes us proud, independent, self-centred, and argumentative. Sin causes us to disagree and fight, and thus to separate from each other. Sin also causes us to be interested in and even to run after every wind of doctrine. But the Spirit destroys the ruling power of sin in God’s elect and unites them. Having the same Spirit, we have the same life, and faith, and Lord. Having the same Spirit, we are united in the truth. The Spirit leads the people of God to know, believe, confess and live by the same truths. We are united to others, not regardless of what we believe (as advocated by the ecumenical movement), but because of what we believe. Unity in the Spirit is unity in Christ, which is unity in the truth.
Our calling to maintain the unity of the Spirit (which is unity in the truth) must be our starting point and guiding principle in how we relate to other churches and other believers.
God has given our churches the body of truth. He has given us the precious truth of the gospel of His sovereign grace in Jesus Christ. He has revealed that truth to us in His Word. He has given it to us as it is summarized and set forth in our Reformed confessions. God has also given us in our own congregation(s) unity in that truth. That truth should be precious to us. We must guard and protect it. We must stand for the truth of God without compromise. This means we may not unite with those who oppose it, but only with those who are one with us in the truth.
The question now is, how do we carry this out? In answer to that question, it must be clear from the outset that the way in which this is carried out with those who are not one with us varies from church to church, and from situation to situation.
If there are churches who have made it clear that they are determined to oppose and reject the truth, certainly we cannot be close to them nor continue to seek unity with them. By their conscious and deliberate rejection of God’s Word, they give evidence of departure from the faith. Instead of being a church that is reforming and coming to a clearer understanding and confession of the truth, they are moving further away from the truth. This does not mean that they have immediately become a false church. But the fact is that they have shown by their wilful rejection of the truth that they are headed in that direction.
Although we cannot have close relationships with such churches and their members (for how can two walk together, except they be agreed? (Amos 3:3)), we must still love them. After all, Christ commanded that we should love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Thus, we certainly must love those who have departed or are departing from the faith.
The critical thing is how that love comes to expression. It does not manifest itself by “walking together,” but rather by seeking humbly to show such churches and members the seriousness of their departure from the truth. Love for them means we strive to draw them back to the truth. Whenever we have opportunity to communicate with them, we call and encourage them to embrace once again the precious gospel of God’s Word.
Perhaps a more common situation (as is also expressed by the title of this article) is that we come across churches and believers who, although they are not one with us in the truth, are nevertheless showing some interest in that truth. They become acquainted with our churches, and curious about our beliefs. They want to know what sets us apart from other “Reformed” churches. They would like to hear more. They might even request that we provide preaching and teaching in their church.
Obviously we must love them. But now that love comes to expression in different ways. For if someone is interested in the truth (even if that interest is only small for now), this is an indication that they are heading in the right direction. In contrast to those who have rejected the truth and are headed in the direction of departure and apostasy, these churches and believers are headed in the direction of coming closer to the truth. And that is critical – the direction a church is taking.
It is especially such churches and believers that we should reach out to and befriend. We may not cut them off and isolate ourselves from them on the basis that they do not confess (yet) what we do. If we did that, how would they ever come to know and love the truth? Instead, we ought to reach out to them and visit with them, both officially as churches as well as on a personal level. If they desire that our pastor(s) lecture or preach, then if possible we willingly grant that as a consistory/session. And if the latter does occur, then we as individuals can perhaps go along and make good use of the opportunity to get to know the other church and its members, to witness to them by our lives and words, and to encourage them in their pursuit of the truth.
We need to remember that this should always be done with a measure of care, for we must never compromise the truth, nor allow ourselves to be led astray by those who do not hold to it. Yet as those who have been personally blessed by the truth, we eagerly want others to know it and to be blessed through it. Our fellowship with these churches and believers, along with our witness to them, is motivated by our loving desire that they might have and experience what we do. We want them to embrace and be comforted by the gospel of Christ that comforts us.
This takes much wisdom. Our goal is that they embrace the truth for proper reasons. We need to be on guard that they do not embrace it (or put on an appearance of embracing it) for monetary or social or other earthly reasons. We want them to embrace it because they become personally convicted that it is indeed the truth of God’s Word.
It also takes much patience and prayer. It has been my experience that it can take many, many years of patient instruction from the Scriptures and from our Reformed confessions, along with patiently answering questions, before such churches fully understand the truth and reach the point where, by the grace and Spirit of God, they are convicted of it and come to love it. But our love for God and His truth, and our consciousness of the calling to maintain the unity of the Spirit in that truth, compels us to undertake such patient and prayerful labour.
In conclusion, we do well to ponder the Preamble of the PRCA’s Constitution of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches. It reads as follows:
The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, in obedience to Scripture as interpreted in our three forms of unity, confess that there is one holy, catholic church. They believe, further, that it is their sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of the church on earth in as far as that is possible, not only in their denominational fellowship, but also in conjunction with all churches which have obtained like precious faith with us, both domestic and foreign.
This certainly applies to the official work of a church (or churches) in reaching out to other churches who are seeking the truth. But the principles also apply to the individual believers and members. As God gives opportunity, may our churches and members be willing instruments in His hands who strive, by life and by speech, to win over and thus gain others to the precious truths of His gospel. And may God bless such efforts, carried out by weak and sinful means, in order to manifest the reality of true, blessed unity among those to whom He has entrusted His truth.
Written by: Pastor Daniel Kleyn | Issue 39