Robert Godfrey’s proposal for Reformed unity: does anyone care?

Every time someone suggests that various denominations should end their divisions and join together with one another someone, somewhere raises the same old objection. Our unity, they say, is grounded in our common faith and in the bond of the Spirit, and such unity does not require formal bonds or practical cooperation. Unity has nothing to do with visible denominational cooperation, and to say that it does is actually to deny the invisible unity that all Christians have in Christ.

Really? Is that what Paul was thinking about when he criticized the Corinthian church for dividing itself into factions that each aligned with a different preacher (one faction smugly declaring its own allegiance to Christ in contrast to all the others)? Is that what Jesus meant when he told us that the world would know that we are his disciples by our love for one another? Is that what Luke was referring to when he described how representatives from the various Christian churches (missionaries from the Gentiles and apostles and elders in Jerusalem) met together to discuss how the church should handle the thorny question of the Mosaic Law? Is that what Paul was describing when he called the Gentile churches to pay their debt to the Jewish churches by providing them with resources during hard times in Palestine?

To be sure, Scripture does not require the sort of top-down, hierarchical unity that Christians so often fear when they consider what it would mean to break down denominational barriers. In fact, I would argue that this model of unity is really about power and uniformity rather than the kind of unity appropriate to the body of Christ – a body with many different kinds of parts and various gifts but only one head. True Christian unity must be able to allow variations of practice and conviction within the breadth of fidelity to the gospel and the authority of Scripture, not because we are willing to compromise the truth, but because each of us is humble enough to recognize that our interpretations, judgments, or practices are not the same thing as the truth itself. In short, we recognize that while genuine Christians agree that Jesus is Lord, that he died and rose again for our salvation, and that he exercises his authority over the church through Scripture, they may not come to the same conclusions about what that means for church government, for the details of worship, or even for particular nuances of doctrine.

But it’s not just that we ought to be unified. It’s that we need each other. Robert Godfrey writes of the various denominations making up the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council,

Each of these denominations has peculiar strengths and emphases that it brings to the Reformed community. These various denominations are often perceived as expressing Reformed Christianity distinctively: some seem to have particularly strong congregational life, some to lay great emphasis on piety and prayer, some to stress clear doctrine and maintaining the antithesis between believers and the world, some to be devoted to evangelism and missions, and some to champion the historic Reformed approach to worship. None of these strengths and none of these histories should be lost.

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And yet in practice each denomination finds its own distinctives far too precious to be diluted through union with a denomination that may have a different strength. “You may have need of us,” we say in essence, “But we have no need of you.” The RGX ends up attracting all the people attracted by quality A, while losing all the people concerned about quality B to the PZY. Meanwhile the PZY loses all the people concerned about quality A to the RGX, and so forth. And as a result each of our denominations finds itself marked by tragic blindspots and weaknesses corresponding to our greatest points of strength.

We need each other.

We also need each other because without unity our witness to the world is diluted. It is not just that the Reformed witness is complicated. It is that broken up into a hundred fragments, it is incomprehensible. As Godfrey writes,

The failure to manifest unity greatly weakens the credibility of the Reformed cause. Our opponents too easily can claim that conservative Reformed Christianity is hopelessly divisive and expends its energy on theological warfare rather than on making Christ known. That charge misses the real hostility of our culture (and many churches) to Reformed Christianity, but still has an element of truth to it.

But how could we join together without compromising the truth? Godfrey notes but passes over the option that is most often tried but rarely works for obvious bureaucratic and political reasons: “to continue having interchurch relations committees talk to one another and seek organic union after working through all differences and suspicions.”

What solution does he propose instead?

Our confessional Reformed denominations should consider a bold move to express their unity and increase the credibility of their witness. Let all of these denominations (or as many as are willing) join together under one general assembly ( or general, national synod) with each former denomination becoming a particular synod under that general assembly.

This simple (and modest!) proposal would obviously have to be worked out in terms of specifics, but let me suggest some of the elements of the idea that would help it work. The general assembly would adopt the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity as its confessional basis. It would meet every three years and have very specific, limited powers. It would have the authority to make decisions in relation to joint actions of the synods. The general assembly would be composed of delegations from the synods according to the size of the synod (in fairness to the larger synods), but the decisions of the assembly would have to be ratified by a majority of the synods (in fairness to the smaller synods.) The assembly would have the authority to remove a synod that was judged to have departed from the Reformed faith but would not have the authority to interfere with the internal operations of a synod. The assembly would encourage greater cooperation and coordination among the synods, and over time some synods would probably merge, but each synod would be free to make those decisions on its own.

Each synod would initially continue to function exactly as it does now as a denomination. All current practices, teachings, and ministries would continue as they are. For example, the Reformed Presbyterians, if they became a synod under the new general assembly, would be able to preserve their doctrine and practice of exclusive psalm-singing without musical instruments without any possibility that the General Assembly could ever interfere with that position.

Godfrey admits that this is somewhat of a dream, and his proposal has received little traction over the years (though it has probably received more attention than any other proposal in the Reformed world). Why is that? As one of my professors in seminary used to say, “What is wrong with us?”

Perhaps the problem is simply that we don’t care enough. Perhaps it is that we are too influenced by the American democratic ideals that suggest we should each be free to go our own way. But that’s why I think we need to keep emphasizing the point. Jesus called us to be unified, both in theory and in practice, and he taught us that whether or not the world recognizes us to be his disciples will hinge to a certain degree on whether or not we obey him. Perhaps (perhaps?) if we really care about witnessing to the world we should take our lord a bit more seriously. Unity is not simply an ideal. It is an obligation of the gospel.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 12, 2012, in Unity of the Church and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Robert Godfrey’s proposal for Reformed unity: does anyone care?.

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