Desideratum—A United Reformed Church

Although adopted into our English language, the word desideratum, as used in the title above, is Latin and may be somewhat unfamiliar. Why use it then? Because I can think of no other single word that says it all — that is, all that I wish to try to say about the matter of a United Reformed Church.

As usual, Webster puts it in a nutshell: “desideratum — that which is not possessed, but which is desirable; something much wanted.” In that sense a United Reformed Church may indeed be said to be our desideratum.

An exciting prospect — Suppose that in God’s gracious providence the day would dawn when Reformed Church bodies — of course, I am thinking particularly of the CRC — would experience a drastic housecleaning. . . . Suppose that such denominations would some day purge themselves of the foe within the gate and of those bold innovations that now threaten to undermine the Reformed faith. . . . And suppose that out of the tensions, all in God’s gracious providence, a new denomination would emerge — a denomination that would not shilly-shally in its witness to the Reformed faith; but a church that would rather be unambiguous, consistent, and enthusiastic in the profession of it. . . . Just suppose that some day God would be pleased to grant this . . . allow me then to suggest as a name, that it be called the United Reformed Church.

Consulting the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, I do not find among those who call themselves Reformed any denomination by this particular name. Please correct me if I am guilty of an oversight in this. If anyone knows of a better name, fine! let’s have it. At any rate the idea intrigues and excites me — the idea of belonging to a denomination that would be honestly, unambiguously, and enthusiastically committed to the Reformed faith in doctrine and life — and then also to have a name that says just that.

“Just dreams, fantasy,” some pragmatic reader may say. “No such church body will ever be achieved on this side of heaven. The best we can do in any denomination is settle for what in German is called realpolitik in statecraft — i.e., be realistic instead of insisting on that which is idealistic.” The idea is then that in ecclesiastical matters also, we must compromise when there seems to be nothing else to do and that we had better learn to live with the situation as best we can.

However, to be resigned to realpolitik in ecclesiastical and denominational matters would be a betrayal of the Reformed faith as a sacred trust. And the acid test for anyone who professes this faith is not whether he will succeed in achieving the ideal but whether he will remain faithful in pursuing it. As an unknown author once said:

Before God’s footstool to confess A poor soul knelt and bowed his head. “I failed,” he wailed. The Master said, “Thou didst thy best — that is success.”

The unfying principle — To be a Reformed church, not only in name but in fact, a church must be committed to the teaching of Scripture as this was rediscovered and proclaimed in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Looking there for the unifying principle to make a church truly Reformed we come upon the basic teaching of sola Scriptura — a Latin expression meaning the Bible alone. The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible is to be the church’s supreme rule for faith and life. There we find the bedrock of what it means to be Reformed.

Many there are who have tried to unite the church — always in vain — on something other than the Word. The familiar slogan, “Doctrine divides; service unites,” is false and ultimately always futile. One might just as well expect to pick fruit from a tree rooted only in thin air. Rene Pache says it so well in his excellent work, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Moody Press) when he writes:

“Apart from revelation, as a standard by which to evaluate and correct our fallible human notions, sinners such as we are will be forever cast upon the shore of an ocean of doubts and speculations. And when modern theology tells us that we cannot trust the Bible or ourselves, it turns us over to an uncertain fate with no hope or respite” (p. 262).

Human reason, science, commonly-accepted mores, ethnic identity — however valuable these may prove to be — may never take the place of unconditional commitment to Scripture as the basic principle for ecclesiastical or denominational unity.

God said it long ago — a directive still as valid now as it once was for Israel of old: “To the law and to the testimony! if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them” (Isa. 8:20).

“Let this be a firm principle:” says John Calvin, “No other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word” (Institutes, IV, VIII, 13).

Note also from our Lord’s highpriestly prayer in John 17 how He relates the unity of His people to the truth or the Word of God. This close relation lies right on the surface as He prays: “I have given them thy word. . . . Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. . . . And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. . . that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:14ff).

The ongoing challenge — Several years ago, the late Rev. R. B. Kuiper wrote the following in To be or Not to Be Reformed: “To take it for granted, as I fear some do, that the Christian Reformed Church will continue sound for, let us say, another century is to do it a vast disservice” (p. 7).

A lot of water has gone over the dam since that time, and meanwhile that complacency against which “R. B.” warned so earnestly is obvious on every hand for anyone who still has eyes to see. As we rest comfortably in our affluence and freedom from persecution, the forces of evil are steadily chipping away at the Reformed faith we still profess, and they threaten to rob us of our heritage.

As I write these lines, the 1977 CRC Synod has not yet been convened and so I have no way of knowing what action will be taken on what has come to be known as “the Verhey case.” The matter is so serious because the truth of the Bible is under attack. However, actually it is not the Bible that is on trial but rather the CRC that is on trial. Unless this matter is decided by Synod rightly, definitively, and unambiguously a wedge will be driven to divide the CRC even more tragically than is already the case. There are issues that agitate us that are simply not negotiable if we are sincere about really wanting to remain Reformed, and this is such an issue.

Without any attempt at being needlessly alarmist or sensational, it is not too much to say that, if the ongoing attack upon Scripture among us, continues to be tolerated, the possibility of secession from the CRC can only be expected to become a growing prospect. Any attempt to play for time and tolerance when a clearcut and crucial issue is before the church must be vigorously resisted, because in such cases time and tolerance are almost invariably on the wrong side. You ask me: how are we to go about it to arrive at a United Reformed Church. My answer: how I wish I knew! There is so much at stake and we know that secession is a terribly serious business. We should be much in prayer at the throne of grace for a clear sense of direction. Meanwhile your suggestions are eagerly awaited.
Someone writes me that no church has ever been reformed from within. Apart from checking the historical accuracy of this assertion, we do believe that our God is able, in answer to the fervent petitions of His people, even to do that which may have never been done before. Impetuous steps for drastic reformation may so easily lead to abortive results that impede rather than prosper the cause.

Meanwhile, we are not to forget for a moment that we have a corporate responsibility as long as we remain as members of a church when she is no longer true to the sacred trust with which she has been endowed.

Although, admittedly I am unable to clearly chart the course to achieve a United Reformed Church, I do wish to propose the following specific steps toward meeting the ongoing challenge and ask you to consider them for whatever they are worth.

Let me first plead with you to become informed as to the issues that are agitating the church at large, and the CRC in particular. Read, investigate, and examine for yourself the issues that are agitating the church and disturbing the peace of Zion. Don’t allow yourself to be confused or prejudiced by those who may make personal attacks on those who are speaking and writing to alert the church to the heretical thinking that is gaining ground among us. I sound this warning also because just today an instance of this kind of thing was reported to me. Even Calvin, Luther, and others who were leaders in the Protestant Reformation had their failings; but far be it from us to reject their great achievements because of personal frailties from which they also may have suffered. The plea is so urgent: read, study, think, judge for yourself what time it has gotten to be in the CRC. Woe be to anyone who simply refuses to be concerned as long as he knows that he is comfortably on the side of the majority without ever considering seriously whether or not he is on the side of the Lord!

And, when once you get to know the score, speak up or write and communicate your informed concerns and convictions to others. There is a silent majority also in the CRC that could become a potent force and determining factor in rejecting the evil innovations that threaten the future of the church if only such are willing to let themselves be heard. There is no room in the church for those who choose to be mere spectators and are unwilling to become involved when the Reformed faith is being assailed. Contributions from our readers as to how to bring into being a truly United Reformed Church are welcome, and these will be seriously considered for publication. Of course, no blanket promise can be made to publish anything and everything that is received. Discretion and good judgment will have to be observed. However, to know what our readers are thinking about the state of the church and the remedy to be pursued may, under God, prove to be of real help in coming to our sorely needed sense of direction. The cause is of the utmost importance because it concerns the precious church of our Lord Jesus Christ which He purchased with His own precious blood. The generous financial support that continues to come from our loyal supporters means so much to us. If you are now willing also to share your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions about the course to be followed, that too may energize and activate developments that are so sorely needed.

Moreover, please also give serious thought to the wisdom of formulating and circulating what might be called a Reformed Faith Manifesto. Consulting Webster once more, a manifesto is “a public declaration of intentions, motives, or views.” A document of this kind should accentuate the positive in setting forth in unambiguous terms what we believe, for example, about the Bible as God’s Word, the church and requirements for membership, ecclesiastical offices and the Scriptural teaching as to who are and who are not to serve, and other matters of special concern in our time. Of course, such a manifesto should also spell out in no uncertain terms a rejection of current evils that continue to be advocated among us; for example, the so-called “new hermeneutic,” the toleration of lodge members in the church, women in Church offices, a growing denigration of preaching, the adherence to and teaching of evolution, and other innovations that threaten the downfall of the church. It may be objected that we already do have our creeds and doctrinal standards and that these should be sufficient. However, it should be obvious, as we realize what is being tolerated today notwithstanding a profession of these creeds and doctrinal standards, that it has now become imperative to clearly and unequivocally cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s so that there may be no misunderstanding as to what is Reformed and what is not. With the Lord’s blessing, such a Reformed Faith Manifesto might help us along on the way to what eventually might prove to be the United Reformed Church for which we long so eagerly. Will such a URC be realized before Jesus comes?  Only God knows.

Finally, allow me once again to urge concerned members of the CRC and of other Reformed bodies to organize Reformed Fellowship local chapters in the pursuit of the goals we cherish. In union there is strength. If you are interested in promoting the organization of such a chapter in your area, feel free to write to Reformed Fellowship, Inc., P. O. Box 7383, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49510. Assistance and suggestions as how to go about this will gladly be sent upon request. Several areas throughout the church now have such chapters for regular meetings and mutual encouragement and inspiration. Although such beginnings may be small and the efforts may seem feeble, there is no limit to what our God is able and may be willing to do. Of course, you and I are not a John Calvin or a Martin Luther, but remember they were also mere men like us and they had no monopoly on God’s grace and willingness to help.

Rev. John Vander Ploeg (1902-1983) served as pastor in Christian Reformed Churches from 1930-1956.  He served as editor of   from 1956–1970. After he retired from The Banner, he became the editor of The Outlook.

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