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By Allan Janssen
In the past few weeks, I have heard talk of a “split” in my church, the Reformed Church in America, from a number of folk, including denominational leaders. While the conversations don’t assume that a division is inevitable, they talk more and more of the possibility of schism (that’s what it is). This is disturbing for a number of reasons, and not primarily because divorce is painful.
On the one hand, consideration of dividing the church violates the declaration that ministers make upon ordination. There we promise two things of relevance here. First, we promise to seek “the things that make for unity, purity and peace.” Proposals to divide the RCA sacrifice unity for the sake of a purported “purity” and “peace.” It is more peaceful if we don’t stay together in the same house. And we can remain pure if we are no longer contaminated by those whose presence defile our standards of purity.
At ordination we also state that we “accept the Standards as historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God.” This includes adherence to the creeds of the church, the Nicene included, in which we confess that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The church is one, as well and holy, etc. Unity is not an option. The church is one or it isn’t church.
And so the other hand—and this of much deeper import—the church is one because it is one in Christ. That is an ontological reality. To consider dividing the church is to consider dividing Christ!—which is, of course, an impossibility. That, in turn, makes it a sin to divide the church. Consideration of the possibility of division means making plans to sin. It’s that simple and it’s that profound.
Which doesn’t mean that we haven’t done it. We have. We have committed what Barth called the “impossible possibility.” We continue to live in sin.
That, of course, gives me pause, because we Reformed have a habit of dividing. Many readers of this blog are deeply connected with either the Reformed Church in America or the Christian Reformed Church in North America. We are the products of a nineteenth century division. We are also Protestants who have just commemorated (some have even celebrated) five hundred years of division from the Roman Catholic Church, which is itself the result of an earlier, much greater, division. We live with a sinful heritage.
We can claim that we are not dividing. Instead, we say that we are walking away from an apostate church, a “church” that is not a church. That is what those who separated from the Netherlands Reformed Church claimed when they became part of the Afscheiding (the “separation”) in the nineteenth century. But that is not an amicable parting of the ways, where “you be church there and we’ll be church here.” It is to claim to be the one church. The others are “non-church.”
Reformed folk tend to take this route on confessional grounds. We are one because we are one in confession, one in “faith,” as the Belgic Confession has it. But even here we tend to draw lines rather narrowly. This in contrast to John Calvin, for whom the marks of the true church were in the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Calvin acknowledged that the churches must have a common confession, but he limited that to certain essentials: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like.” (That “and the like” has driven Calvin scholars nuts!)
Even this “unity in confession” makes sense only as we confess, that is, give witness to the fact that we are one in Christ. This holds us together even with, especially with, those with whom we differ, often profoundly, even with those we don’t particularly like! Our unity is not up to us. It is up to the God who shapes the church as a sign and foretaste of what God has in store for all humanity.
Admittedly, I have no answer for our continuing disunity. Of course, I don’t! I write this during the season of Lent, so I’m pretty convinced of the attitude we might take—that of repentance, profound sorrow for and admission of responsibility for our continuing division. That notion is not unique to me. I’ve been intimately involved in the North American Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue. There I hear not only from Protestants, but from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers that the way forward is the path of penitence.
If that is the case, then the path my own church appears to be headed, is an occasion for profound sorrow. This is more than the loss of the church of my heritage. This is the way of sin.