Monday, August 23, 2010

Denominations and the Unity of the Church

Since the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, by which the outward bond of the Romish hierarchy was broken, and the Church returned to her position of liberty in Christ, the Church in the world has been and still is divided into many denominations and sects. This was to be expected. Always there is the carnal seed in the Church in the world. False teachers must needs sneak into the Church and inculcate their false doctrine into her members, seducing them to a carnal life. The manifestation of this evil may be suppressed and covered up by the power of an outward hierarchical yoke, but as soon as the yoke is removed, and the Church recognises no other bond than that of the Word of God, it is bound to reveal itself. Hence, what is called Church in the world is hopelessly divided. Every denomination has its own creed, every sect its own particular doctrine. Those that call themselves undenominational, or those that sail under the slogan, "No creed but Christ," insist upon their own peculiar doctrinal hobby perhaps more than those that adhere to and confess their creed.

Now, this division of the the Church into many different denominations and sects is frequently, but falsely, called the multiformity of the Church. It is argued that in all these denominations is found the holy catholic Church, so that they are, essentially, all one in Christ. It is further argued that all these different churches with their different creeds have the truth as it is in Christ. Only, they all know in part, and none of them can claim to know and proclaim the truth in all its purity. Hence, they are all imperfect manifestations of the true Church. And as they present different aspects of the one Gospel, and all reflect the abundant glory of Christ in their own way, they represent the Church in its multiformity. They are to be compared to so many spokes of one wheel: all these churches are centred in the hub, which is Christ, yet none of them has actually reached the centre. They all point to Christ; they strive to reach His fulness; but they are all imperfect. In the consciousness of this imperfection, no particular church on earth dare claim to be the pure Church in distinction from others. Rather, we must assume the position that the Church in which we have our membership is, together with all the others, but one imperfect form and manifestation of the holy catholic Church, no purer than others.

This conception of the multiformity of the Church on earth is as pernicious as it is false.

It is false, because it denies that the pure preaching of the Word of God is, indeed, the distinguishing mark of the true Church. According to this view, the truth of the Gospel is vague and ambiguous. Scripture cannot serve as a clear and definite criterion to determine where the truth is confessed and preached. Hence, the preaching of the sovereign grace of God and of absolute predestination together with the Arminian error of man's free will constitute an approach to the truth; both are aspects of a truth that lies on a higher plane, too high for us to grasp. If one Church believes in infant baptism, and the other opposes this truth, while a third must have nothing of "water baptism" at all, they are all fundamentally agreed, only, they are striving to reach a height of truth that is beyond them. In such a view there is no room for discipline exercised upon those that introduce false doctrines. But this is quite contrary to the whole Word of God which everywhere exhorts us to stand fast in the truth, and to watch against the false prophets and teachers, that would seduce the saints from the way of righteousness. False this view is, too, from a historical viewpoint. For it is simply not true that all the existing denominations and sects represent so many forms of the Church, simultaneously striving to attain to the fulness of the truth in Christ.

Such is not their history.

That history is not to be compared to a movement along the spokes of a wheel towards its hub.

It does not present the picture of a number of different churches, equally imperfect in their apprehension of the the truth as it is in Christ, but simultaneously approximating it.

On the contrary, it was a development from a definite starting point, along a straight line, from which, however, under the influence of the carnal element in the Church, in the course of time, many departed, to follow after their own philosophy, and to establish various denominations and sects.

From the beginning of the new dispensation, the one, holy, catholic Church was built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles of which Jesus Christ is the chief corner stone. In the doctrine of the apostles and prophets, as contained in the Holy Scriptures, was clearly indicated the line along which the Church must develop and grow in the knowledge and grace of her Lord. And along this line of revealed truth there was, indeed, development, but always in the face of much opposition by heretics. These heretics did not innocently wander from the path of truth: they were evil men, motivated by the flesh, loving the world, and seeking to seduce the Church from the way of righteousness, and thus to lead her to destruction. Thus the Scripture always presents them, and ever warns the Church against their seducing influence. The apostle Paul exhorts believers to grow in the knowledge of Christ, "that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive." Eph. 4:14. And the apostle Peter warns the Church against false teachers that shall arise, "who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not." II Pet. 2:1-3.

Hence, the history of the Church is a constant struggle to maintain the truth over against the inventions of evil men. It is the history of progress in the face of opposition, of constant deformation and reformation.

It presents the picture, not of spokes in a wheel, but of one central line of progress from which many lines more or less sharply diverge.

In these divergent lines, one dare not see the true multiformity of the Church of Christ. The lie is never a form of the truth.

It is the sacred calling of every believer to seek and to determine, in light of Holy Scripture, where the central line of the truth runs, and ever to remain on that line, or to return to it. In other words, it is his most solemn duty, to join himself to the purest manifestation of the Church in the world, and with her to remain.

This does not mean that the believer who takes this calling seriously imagines that no one is saved outside of the particular church in which he has his membership. But it does mean that he abhors all deviations from the truth as it is in Christ, and that he refuses to go along with those that move in the direction of the false church.

Only the truth of Holy Scripture may be his criterion.

Where the Word of God is preached, there is the Church!

Quoted from Hoeksema's Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, "The Triple Knowledge". From pages 243-247, treating the doctrine of the communion of the saints (LD21, Q55).

1 comment:

manuelkuhs said...

This is excellent, thank you Sam!