A charge often leveled at Reformed Christianity is that it is inherently schismatic and fiercely anti-ecumenical. This is simply not true. A superficial reading of recent Reformed history may seem to support this idea but the facts are far more interesting. A proper understanding of the term "Reformed" calls for a much deeper understanding of this term than that employed by modern Calvinists who define their use of this term by a TULIP or some similar form of reductionism.

The Reformed Church in the Netherlands, as well as the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, both experienced serious dissensions that led to formal schism in the nineteenth century. In fact the Church of Scotland had already experienced two divisions in the eighteenth century. Some of these splits led to a wave of new immigration to America. These American churches were later plagued by further splits. But this is not the whole story. There have been reunions as well. Sadly, this part of the story is much less talked about.

A primary reason for these Reformed splits is quite easy to discover—Reformed Christians generally take doctrine more seriously than many other Christians. What looks like a minor theological issue to some Christians is a serious concern for many Reformed Christians. Yet it would be wrong to assume this history is only true of the Reformed. Lutherans and Baptists have had their own share of divisions, as have many other groups.

McGrath In spite of this heritage some of the strongest proponents of unity and catholicity have been Presbyterian and Reformed Christians. John Calvin, contrary to the misunderstanding that many have of his writing, was a strong advocate of unity. And in the twentieth century ecumenical movement it was Reformed Christians who often became strong leaders in calling for unity. Many worked tirelessly for catholicity.

My conclusion here is shared by many historians and theologians. Reformed Christianity has a classical commitment to the church catholic and thus takes the injunction to pursue unity very seriously. This is the mainstream witness of the movement. At the same time there has been a sectarian strand of Reformed Christianity that has often overshadowed the better nature of this movement. This strand glories in schism and in a type of elitism that sees Reformed Christianity as true Christianity. It sees Reformed Christianity as exclusionary of other expressions of the Christian faith. This sectarian strand is what lies behind the quotation I gave yesterday from the words of a Reformed leader to a friend of his who joined the Orthodox Church. In his response he makes it clear that his friend has left the Christian faith altogether. You should ask: "What makes a person say something like this in the face of the obvious fact that Orthodox Christianity affirms everything essential to orthodox Christian faith?"

Do not misunderstand my view. There are legitimate reasons for being concerned about union and unity. Purity of doctrine is a valid concern. So is the fear of certain types of bureaucracy that will cripple the church in missional faithfulness to Christ. Opposition to some unions is not necessarily wrong.

John Calvin is very helpful at this point. He was no “ecumaniac,” ready to rush into union at any price. Calvin wrote, in his commentary on John’s Gospel: “Schism is the worst and most harmful evil in the Church of God.” Yet he adds, “It is those who will not be obedient to the truth of God who tear the church by schism.” Dr. I. John Hesselink, a first-rate Calvin scholar, says that there are three criteria for true unity in Calvin’s thought: (1) Obedience to the truth; (2) Genuine godliness or piety; and, (3) The unity of faith. But having said this there is still the very practical problem of how we determine what is essential and nonessential regarding truth. The classic Protestant definition of a true church is one in which the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed and the sacraments are properly administered. But this still leaves a wide open door to question what is “true” and what is not. Says Hesselink, “Everything hinges on how one defines truth and purity.”

Interestingly Calvin warns against overscrupulousness in regard to doctrinal and ethical standards. A church, he says in The Institutes (IV.1.12) may “swarm with many faults.” I think he is spot on. The church in Corinth demonstrates his point. Here we have a congregation that abused the Lord’s Supper, failed to practice moral discipline (even tolerating serious sexual sin), divided over various leaders and their gifts and then missed the centrality of the bodily resurrection. Can you think of a more incriminating list of errors? Yet, Paul still addresses this flock as a true church.

It seems apparent that Paul believed that if the basic teaching of the apostles concerning God and Jesus Christ were sound then a true church exists. Perfectionism is, in this instance, a grievous sin. Christians who continually insist on dividing the church often commit serious sin in the process. Calvin adds, “It is a dangerous temptation to think there is not church where perfect purity is lacking. Anyone who is obsessed by that idea must cut himself off from everybody else, and appear to himself to be the only saint in the world, or he must set up a sect of his own along with other hypocrites” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 1:2).

The question, it seems to me, is thus clear: How much is necessary to believe in order to avoid heresy on the one hand and perfectionism on the other? I will address this tomorrow.

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  1. Dozie August 21, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    “John Calvin, contrary to the misunderstanding that many have of his writing, was a strong advocate of unity.”
    What? Perhaps, unity needs to be explained!

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