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A House Divided

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   September 1, 1986   |  Type: Articles

Divisions exist in the Christian Reformed Church today. Some of us read The Reformed Journal while others read The Outlook. Some of us support the Committee for Women in the Christian Reformed Church while others support the Committee of Concerned Members. Some have left the CRC for more liberal churches that ordain women; some have left for more conservative churches. At the request of The Banner, I offer the following personal reflection on why we are a “house divided.”

Divisions Have Always Existed

We have faced many difficult problems in our history. The solutions were not always easy or obvious. How does a Dutch church become American or Canadian? How does a Reformed church relate to liberal and evangelical churches in North America? How does an orthodox church face the challenge of modern thought and modern science? How does a devout church cope with the secularism and libertine spirit of contemporary culture? How do hardworking middle-class Christians relate to increasing wealth and leisure? These questions and many others have put enormous pressure on the CRC today. It is hardly surprising that many different answers are offered to such questions.

In the past most of us in the CRC have faced questions such as these by drawing on our heritage-our orthodox theology; our practical, experiential piety; our Kuyperian world-and-life view. Even then we have not always agreed. Our most difficult and bitter division came with the debates over common grace; these led to a sizable split in our church in 1924. But almost all of those historic divisions have been over how we can best be Reformed. Louis Berkhof and Herman Hoeksema, for example, debated whether it was more Reformed to affirm or reject common grace.

Are today's divisions in the CRC still about how best to be Reformed? Or are today's divisions really about whether the CRC will remain Reformed? We are even divided about how serious our divisions are! Are we divided by a relatively minor question of women as deacons or are we divided by the fundamental question of believing the Bible?

Other Paths

As I listen and talk to people in our church, I am surprised by how many people seem to assume that it is unthinkable that our church could abandon our Reformed heritage. Yet the history of churches in North America and Europe shows that many Reformed churches have ceased to be Reformed.
English immigrants to America formed militantly Calvinistic Congregational churches, most of which today are among the most liberal churches in America. Scottish immigrants to America and Canada formed Calvinistic Presbyterian churches, most of which have become liberal. Calvinistic churches in Switzerland, Scotland, and the Netherlands have abandoned the Reformed faith. Alarmingly many historically Reformed churches have abandoned their Reformed heritage-and with it often true Christianity all together. Loss of the Reformed faith has sometimes happened very quickly, even in less than a generation.

The path taken by other Reformed churches gives an urgency to concerns for our church as we live with today's pressures. In the past thirty years or so the Christian Reformed Church has begun to experience those pressures for several reasons.

First, we have lost some of our strong Reformed leaders: Louis Berkhof (d.1957), H. J. Kuiper (d. 1962), Henry Van Til (d. 1961), R. B. Kuiper (d. 1966). They have not been replaced by leaders of their talent, influence, and commitment to the Reformed faith. Calvin Theological Seminary, since the shake-up in 1952, has not provided strong, visible leadership. Various synods have made decisions that were not strongly Reformed: decisions on the love of God, scriptural interpretation, office, divorce, and women deacons.

Second, there have been great changes in the Netherlands. The Gereformeerde Kerken and the Free University of Amsterdam historically provided encouragement, examples, and education for the CRC. But in the past thirty years the solid Reformed commitments of those institutions have disappeared. That makes some of us feel isolated and out of step.

Third, we feel pressure to become worldly. We begin to desire respect and recognition by the world. Some feel that our ideas and ways of life are outmoded. Can we be right and so many others be wrong? Shouldn't we just go along with the claims of modern science about the origins and nature of man? Shouldn't we cooperate with the World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches so that we can have more influence? How can we hope to stand against the flood of immoral practices in our society? Aren't we more likely to survive if we go along? We are tempted to accommodate to modern values. This is the most pernicious kind of worldliness.

Fourth, pressure comes from the increasing desire to overcome the ethnic character of our church. Many changes are justified among us as simply getting away from Dutch traditions. I find this claim very ironic. To me, a non-Dutch American, it seems that many of the Dutch things we are changing are really biblical and Reformed, whereas I see no real change in the fact that almost all real influence in the church remains concentrated in Dutch hands. We need to see ourselves as we really are. We are not becoming significantly less Dutch. But are we becoming significantly less Reformed?

Fifth, I see many reactionary people in our church. Some are reactionaries on the right. They look only backward to an imagined golden age in our church and complain about any changes. But others are reactionaries on the left, who react to their own experiences of the inadequacies among the Reformed: arrogant professors, ineffectual ministers, indifferent people, or whatever. They have mistaken some faults in Reformed people for faults in the Reformed faith.

Sixth, I see a lot of ignorance about what it really means to be Reformed today. Too often television and the sports page have replaced the Bible and theological and devotional reading in our homes. I spoke recently with a Christian Reformed minister who rejected reprobation but could not define it.

Even so, as I look at our church, I see many good things. The CRC has many devout people and faithful congregations. Our denomination pursues many Reformed ministries.

Major Concern

I am also very concerned when I survey the current state of our church. I believe that the divisions are increasingly about whether we will continue to be a Reformed church or not. This brings us at last to the place where we must define Reformed. One could easily write a book to answer this question. For our purposes a basic and fundamental definition is sufficient, a definition on which the Reformed have always agreed.

First, to be Reformed is to believe that the Bible is true and to seek its guidance alone for our faith. But some in our church no longer seem to accept what the Bible says as true. Some deny a historic Adam, for example. Some agree that the Bible is true but adopt a mode of interpretation that makes the Bible irrelevant. Admittedly, there are difficulties, at times, in interpreting the Bible. But I fear a growing spirit in our churches that says, “I don't really care what the Bible says. I am led by the Spirit. I know what God wants of us today. The Bible spoke to situations two thousand years ago. It doesn't apply today.” To deny the truth of the Bible or to put the Bible on the shelf by appealing to the Spirit is not Reformed.

Second, to be Reformed is to hold to the historic Reformed creeds - in our case, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. These three creeds have long been called our “Three Forms of Unity” because they have been received as a biblically faithful summary of Christian truth. We are all supposed to be united about that, particularly ministers, elders, and deacons. Yet voices are being raised today to suggest we should not be bound so tightly by these creeds. Some argue that the Form of Subscription should be loosened. Yet the history of Reformed churches shows that when the forms of subscription are changed, the churches become less and less Reformed. Still others reject the teachings of our creeds. Some say that our historic doctrine of election, for example, needs to be updated and made more biblical. Yet as I examine the alternatives closely, I see only irrationalism or Arminianism. Such attacks on election also raise an ethical question. All CRC office bearers have solemnly promised before God: “We declare . . . that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod [of Dort], but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors” (Form of Subscription). How can those who have particularly promised to uphold the Canons of Dort attack them? Is there a basic problem of integrity here? Individuals who reject and attack the historic Reformed creeds violate their oath of subscription, an oath taken before God and the church, and cease to be Reformed.

Third, to be Reformed is to turn to the Bible as the source of direction for holy living. The Bible condemns drunkenness, homosexuality, and premarital sex as sinful. The Bible calls Christians to a lifelong commitment in marriage. The Bible calls Christians to pray, to worship, and to serve. Do we now excuse what the Bible condemns? With all the changes we have made in our church, have we become more holy, more faithful, more committed than earlier generations? Abundant evidence shows that our life-style is also less Reformed.

A Divided Church

Some divisions are continuations of debates about how best to be Reformed. But I am very concerned that more and more often our divisions and debates are really about whether we will remain Reformed. Many churches in North America are liberal or evangelical. Very few churches are Reformed. None have combined a commitment to Reformed orthodoxy with a strong commitment to church and community in the unique way we have. We must not squander our heritage and our witness. Our church is becoming divided along Reformed and non-Reformed lines. We must remain Reformed. God calls us to study, to know, to treasure, to live, and to pass on the Reformed faith that is our strength.

First published in The Banner, September 1986.

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