On September 14, the Young Calvinists held a Talking Points meeting dealing with the truth of the catholicity of Christ’s church and how that truth is worked out in our lives. Most of us as young people could give a pretty good definition of the “holy catholic church” that we confess every week; we have been taught its meaning since we were small. How do we view and relate to the members of the holy catholic church who are not in our denomination, however? That is harder to answer. The relatively large group that attended the Talking Points meeting was an indication that Protestant Reformed young people can sometimes grapple with this question and other questions like it. Rev. Jon Mahtani led our discussion and gave us biblical, reformed principles to apply when considering this topic.
Rev. Mahtani began by laying a scriptural and confessional foundation for our discussion. He demonstrated from passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:2 and Revelation 9:5 that scripture plainly sets forth the truth of the catholicity of the church. He demonstrated from Article 27 of the Belgic Confession and Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism that our confessions hold the truth of the church’s catholicity in very high esteem. Our other binding creeds do as well. He made the point that it is confessional to place a strong emphasis on the catholicity of the Church. It is confessional to glory in the doctrine that Christ saves a people from “all nations and kindreds and people and tongues” (Rev. 7:9).
After establishing that the truth of the catholicity of the Church must be treasured and lived out, Rev. Mahtani drew a picture of a road with a ditch on either side of it. The picture illustrated the two dangers that people can fall into when dealing with the truth of the church’s catholicity. On the left hand is the ditch of overemphasizing the catholicity of the church at the expense of the importance of the local congregation and her doctrines. On the right hand is the ditch of overemphasizing the importance of the local congregation or denomination at the expense of the truth of catholicity. The truth of the church’s catholicity is so important that it may not be obscured by the promotion of the local congregation or denomination. The importance of the local congregation and of the fight for pure doctrine is so important, that it may not be obscured by the promotion of the truth that God’s church is catholic. Neither ditch is preferable over the other; both are serious errors.
Most in the United States who call themselves Christian fall into the left-hand ditch. They claim that the church is bigger than it really is and minimize the importance of the local congregation. Such people ultimately sacrifice pure doctrine and a holy walk of life in the name of unity. Properly confessing “an holy catholic Church” does not mean ignoring or minimizing doctrinal differences. Nor does it mean compromising the truth in order to adopt a blind acceptance of all who claim to be Christians. Sadly, this is exactly what we see happening in many denominations today. In our own denomination we are not immune to falling into the left-hand ditch. Rev. Mahtani warned us against minimizing the importance of Protestant Reformed doctrines and distinctives. He warned us against using the truth of the church’s catholicity as an excuse to participate in worldliness with nominal Christians, or to date those outside our denomination while ignoring the doctrinal differences. He forbade us from twisting the doctrine of the catholicity of the church to justify fellowship with those whom the church is officially disciplining or with those who knowingly continue in presumptuous sins. A compromise of either doctrine or holy living is never the proper expression of unity within the Church catholic.
On the other hand, there are those who fall into the right-hand ditch; those who view God’s church as being smaller than it really is. These people dwell on denominational differences, ignore the areas of unity in doctrine and sanctified living, and are quick to make damning implications about other denominations. In some areas of church life they mistake preference (that which is strictly tradition) for principle (orthodoxy), and inevitably end up looking down on those from other denominations whose practices in these areas do not align with their own. Where real doctrinal differences arise, they say, “I either agree with another denomination on all points of doctrine and have unity with them, or I disagree with them on certain points and will have no unity.” Rev. Mahtani pointed out that we may not say this. “Unity is not an all or nothing idea,” he said, “You do have doctrines that you have in common with other Reformed believers.” We also share a common holiness with those other believers that flows out of the same Holy Spirit. Those who fall into the right-hand ditch essentially cut themselves off from a great portion of Christ’s church, depriving themselves of a wealth of legitimate spiritual insights and support. Additionally, their appreciation for the magnitude of Christ’s saving work is stunted.
Few have ever accused our denomination of tending toward the left-hand ditch. Instead, the accusation is often: “You PRs think you’re the only ones saved.” This is a sinful accusation for someone to make, and we know that it is not true. It is worth noting that this accusation often comes from those who themselves have fallen into the ditch on the other side of the road. We should not completely ignore this accusation, however. Rev. Mahtani urged us to examine ourselves and work toward ensuring that we do not give an inaccurate impression of how we view God’s precious people in other denominations. He instructed us to judge their doctrines, judge their walk of life, and to witness to the differences, but to do so meekly and in love. This means showing them why you believe what you believe and praying that they come to a better understanding of what is truth. “Call sin, sin. Call heresy, heresy. But do so carefully, and unless they undoubtedly deny Jesus Christ do not judge their salvation.” He made the point that our spiritual (not denominational) unity with members of other true denominations is to exist in as far as we are unified in doctrine. Just as there are degrees of doctrinal unity, so there are degrees in our expression of spiritual unity. This means that we have the strongest spiritual unity with our own denomination and no spiritual unity with a denomination that is completely apostate. In that regard too, we must prioritize our friendships and fellowship according to this standard.
It is worth recognizing that in an age where church after church is apostatizing and (to use the picture of Israel in Elijah’s day) “bowing the knee to Baal,” it is of utmost importance that we do not write off “the 7,000” who have not. God’s church is perfect and unified in number, but imperfect in her representation here on earth. This truth is somewhat of a mystery, and many stumble at it. We thank God for our denomination and pray that he will continue to lead our churches by his word as we make confession of his one, holy, catholic church. How we look forward to the day when Christ will return and as his church we will behold perfectly what John beheld in Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”
*Aaron Vandyke is a member of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, MI. He is currently majoring in Secondary Education at Calvin College.