The state of ecumenical relations is in constant transition. The days of merging likeminded denominations, at least for now, are over. Current discussions are about covenants, agreements, and partnerships—all of which presuppose the existence of churches that are independent of each other, equal to each other, and open to an ecumenical relationship.
There are also substantial changes in the way churches relate. There was a time when ecumenical relations were initiated and maintained primarily with those who shared the same faith, viewpoints, confessions, and theological heritage. For the Christian Reformed Church, that meant that our church-to-church relations were initiated and developed with churches that were, in significant respects, most like the CRC. Historically, ecumenical contacts of the CRC were exclusively with denominations in the Reformed tradition who shared the viewpoint that ecumenical partners assume responsibility for keeping each other confessionally Reformed. Not only did synods consult each other on important theological issues, but the one partner could hold the other partner accountable for deviations or practices that were considered to be objectionable.
The Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the CRC has learned that requiring such uniformity for ecumenical relationships is no longer a meaningful option. The requirement that ecumenical partners think biblically, theologically, and confessionally like the CRC can soon make the circle of ecumenical relationships very small. Furthermore, such a demand for similar perspectives exposes the risk of being perceived as being theologically arrogant. That risk is real because the demand for similar perspectives sets up a dynamic of monitoring and control instead of the development of healthy relationships with ecumenical partners. Perhaps every denomination can cite instances when it was subjected to such monitoring and controlling behavior when another denomination judged that they had moved beyond the pale of theological and biblical integrity.
These changes in ecumenical relationships prompted Synod 2006 to revise its Ecumenical Charter. The CRC is less insistent than it once was that our ecumenical partners understand issues in the same way as these same issues are understood in the CRC. This change in attitude allowed the CRC to expand its ecumenical involvement beyond the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) and become a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) [soon to be the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC)], the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), and develop a relationship with the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). At the same time, some bilateral (church-to-church) relationships remain a challenge for the CRC because the earlier approach to ecumenical relationships has not yet been fully supplanted by the present perspective.
The reality is that the CRC is in a period of transition, and transitions can cause one to live with certain contradictions. As such contradictions become visible, it is important to address and correct them. If it is possible for the CRC to accept the theological diversity present in the NAE and WARC, then why not with a greater number of bilateral (church-to-church) relationships even if there are substantial differing perspectives on ethical and theological issues? The CRC does not need to endorse every position taken by an ecumenical partner. Rather, the present understanding in ecumenical circles is that churches learn from each other and discuss differing perspectives. Ecumenical relationship can be built on common interests and commitments to the ministry of the gospel and the mission to which that gospel calls the whole church. When the CRC believes that a particular denomination is part of the universal church of Christ, then the CRC can be in an ecumenical relationship with that church and consider such a church an ecumenical partner, especially in areas where we share values and a common mission. The Ecumenical Charter of the CRC that follows this introduction reflects the CRC’s desire for such ecumenical relationships.
Four configurations of ecumenical relationships are identified in the Ecumenical Charter. First, there are churches with which the CRC has a particular affinity, which are called churches in ecclesiastical fellowship. Second, there are churches with which the CRC is in a stage of exploration for a closer relationship, or with which there is a memorandum of understanding, which are called churches in dialogue. Note: Churches in dialogue may or may not become churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, since each relationship within this designation is governed by particular circumstances. Third, some relationships are more distant and episodic and, therefore, are important to the extent that the CRC considers such churches to be part of the global Christian family. This third classification is called churches in other ecumenical relationships. These first three classifications are at times referred to as bilateral ecclesiastical relationships. And, fourth, there is a classification for participation in ecumenical organizations. This last classification is at times referred to as multilateral relationships. The Ecumenical Charter provides room for all these types of relationships and for some variation within each classification of relationships.
The CRC does not relinquish any of its principles or convictions by engaging in a variety of ecumenical relationships. Rather, by broadening its ecumenical engagement, there is increased opportunity to be involved in the discussion with Christians who together seek to be faithful to the mission of God in the world.
Ecumenical Charter of the Christian Reformed Church
I. Biblical principles on the unity of the church
A. Made one in Christ
From a fallen and broken humanity, God gathers a new humanity—the church. For this purpose God called Abraham and Israel and then acted in a unique and definitive way in Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection are the foundation of the church. Unity is therefore central to the being and mission of the church. As there can be but one Lord, there can be but one church; one Head, one body; one Husband, one bride; one Shepherd, one flock (Eph. 4:5, 15; 5:25-33; John 10:16). The church is as indivisible as Christ is indivisible (1 Cor. 1:13; see Belgic Confession, Art. 27; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21).
Focusing on the continuation of his ministry and mission in the world, Christ prays for the unity of the church, a unity as deep and wondrous as that between him and the Father: “that all of them may be one . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). At stake in the unity of the church is the witness in and for the world to the unity of God, the one Father of us all (Eph. 4:6).
B. Our unity with the church of all generations and throughout the world
The Bible speaks of the church as extending through time and place. The description “people of God” emphasizes the historical continuity between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. It pictures the church of all ages, from God’s choosing Israel as his special people to Jesus’ calling the disciples and, by the power of his Spirit, creating the new people of God from all nations, a great multitude that no one can count (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; see also Phil. 2:10-11). This saintly multitude from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation portrays the one church throughout the world (see Belgic Confession, Art. 27).
C. Unity as gift and goal
The unity of the church is a precious gift. The biblical challenge is to treasure, preserve, deepen, and demonstrate this given unity. The unity of Christ-followers is flesh-and-blood testimony to God’s reconciling work in Christ.
For the church in New Testament times, the summons to unity had a different ring than it has today. In the New Testament context, it was a call to be more fully what we are—one in Christ. However, once the divisions, which Paul could not so much as contemplate (“Is Christ divided?”), fractured the body, the call to unity has taken on new and painful urgency. In the midst of today’s disunity, the call to be one requires that we pray and work to overcome the scandal of division. Divisions among Christians and churches are a stumbling block to our witness to the unity of the being of God. Division contradicts the good news of reconciliation in Christ. The call to unity is a summons to manifest the unity of God himself and the reconciling power of God’s love in Christ.
The ecumenical task is the responsibility of the church at all its organizational levels. This task is especially important at the level of the local congregation, for it is there that the witnessing power of visible unity—and the counter-witness of division—is most vivid. Local congregations should seek to worship, witness, and work with neighboring churches that are part of the Christian community and unequivocally witness to Jesus Christ (see Belgic Confession, Art. 29).
D. Diversity in unity
Unity does not mean uniformity. Indeed, the manifold wisdom of God is to be made transparent through the church (Eph. 3:10). It is displayed not in the obliteration but in the reconciliation of diversity. The uniqueness of tribes, tongues, customs, and culture is reflected in a rich diversity of worship, confessional forms and formulations, and church structure. It is this unity in diversity and diversity in unity that we attest when we confess “the holy catholic church” (Apostles’ Creed; see Belgic Confession, Art. 27).
Diversity in worship
Though all Christians confess one God, administer one baptism, and celebrate one Lord’s Supper, they worship through various languages, liturgies, prayers, and hymns.
Diversity in confessional forms and formulations
Though all Christians confess one God, one faith, and one hope, they express this confession in different ways, in accordance with different cultural contexts, traditions, and modes of theological reflection.
Diversity in forms of governance
Though all Christians confess one God, one Lord, one Spirit, and one body, they order their church affairs in different ways, depending on their understanding and application of New Testament models of ministry and in accordance with different cultural forms of social interaction and decision-making processes.
E. Unity and truth
Unity is intrinsic to the truth of the gospel and to our confession. Unity and truth are not alternatives. The unity of the church is a unity in truth, the truth that is Jesus Christ, as revealed in Holy Scripture.
To confess Christ, therefore, is to confess the unity of his church and to be impelled to pray and to work for its visible unity.
The process of comprehending this truth needs to be done “together with all the saints” (Eph. 3:17-19). God has blessed the church throughout the ages to grow in understanding and confessing the truth as it is in Jesus, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Yet, even in the company of all God’s children throughout the ages and throughout the world, we stand in wonder of the truth that is beyond our comprehension.
Understanding the truth is limited by history, culture, situation, and experience. Moreover, it is distorted by sin. We know only in part and see but a poor reflection (1 Cor. 13:12). Divisions in the body of Christ also impoverish our understanding of the truth. We are called, therefore, to engage in a dialogue that involves mutual learning and correction in order that, in the words of the apostle, “together with all the saints, [we] grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . .” (Eph. 3:18). As we come to a deeper understanding of God’s revelation, we walk more consistently, more humbly, and more joyfully in its light.
In brief, the biblical witness leads us to draw two complementary conclusions.
-- Passion for the truth of Christ impels us to reach out to the people of God everywhere, striving for the visible oneness of the church.
-- Passion for the truth of Christ calls us to reject all forms of unity that compromise unequivocal witness to Jesus Christ (see Belgic Confession, Art. 29).
II. Values that shape ecumenical relations
A. The unity we seek
In striving for the unity of the church, we celebrate the extent to which unity is already visible in
a. the one, holy, written Word of God, given for us and our salvation;
b. one baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
c. common ecumenical creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed;
d. common hymns, prayers, and liturgical practices;
e. united witness to the name of Christ in evangelism;
f. common witness in the name of Christ in public testimony and action on ethical-social issues; and
g. common confessions of faith, especially with churches who share a Reformed heritage.
In striving for unity, we seek to make the spiritual and visible communion we already have in Christ more fully visible.
Because the unity of the church is a unity in Christ, it demands an ever deeper conversion to Christ (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 33). As we draw closer to Christ, we draw closer to each other. Such conversion entails repentance, the reconciliation of churches now separated, and the healing of wounds and memories of the past. Questions of institutional relations and negotiations aiming at organizational merger are important only as they serve this deeper unity.
B. The path we take
As we draw closer through conversion and renewal, the search for greater visible unity may be pursued along various avenues and take a variety of forms, such as
a. mutual understanding
b. cooperation in ministry through partnership agreements
c. common witness—mission and evangelism
d. collaboration in ethical-social testimony
f. combined worship
g. pulpit and table fellowship (as decided by a church council)
h. regular combined prayer for unity
i. organic union
The pursuit of visible unity shall be guided by biblical principles on the unity of the church as articulated in section I above and by both historical and confessional considerations.
The pursuit of visible unity needs to be diverse and flexible, open to surprising manifestations of the working of the Spirit in various communions.
III. The ecumenical responsibility of the Christian Reformed Church
A. General principles for the ecumenical task of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)
The CRC recognizes its ecumenical responsibility to cooperate and seek unity with all churches of Christ in obedience to the gospel.
For the purpose of pursuing the CRC's ecumenical calling, ecumenical relationships are categorized into four (4) classifications.
a. Reformed churches with whom the CRC is in ecclesiastical fellowship.
b. Churches of Reformed heritage and selected other communions with whom the CRC is in dialogue to develop closer ties or to develop a ministry partnership.
c. Other Christian denominations and independent churches (evangelical), as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches—the ecumenical relations of the CRC with churches in this classification, called other ecumenical relationships, may vary in depth and intensity of fellowship, determined by the degree of our affinity with them.
d. Ecumenical organizations in which the CRC chooses to participate.
The CRC may enter into relationships that are church-to-church (bilateral) or into a relationship with an ecumenical organization (multilateral). A church-to-church (bilateral) relationship is established with a particular denomination or church. A relationship with an ecumenical organization (multilateral) is established when the CRC joins with other denominations or churches for the purpose of fellowship and common witness.
The CRC’s ecumenical responsibility is expressed locally (between and among neighboring congregations), regionally (among churches in a given geographical area), and denominationally (among churches nationally and internationally).
Ecumenical relationships on the synodical level are initiated, promoted, and maintained by a standing committee on ecumenical relations, as articulated in Church Order Article 49:
a. Synod appoints an Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC) to encourage relationships with other Christian churches (especially those that are part of the Reformed family) so that the Christian Reformed Church may exercise Christian fellowship with other denominations and may promote the unity of the church of Jesus Christ.
b. Synod shall approve, upon recommendation of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee, with whom the Christian Reformed Church is in ecclesiastical fellowship, the churches with whom the Christian Reformed Church is in dialogue and the ecumenical organizations in which the Christian Reformed Church holds membership or significantly participates.
Ecumenical relationships at the local level can be expressed by joint involvement in areas such as worship, service projects, prayer, and address to social/ethical issues.
B. The specifics of ecumenical relationships
Churches in ecclesiastical fellowship
The CRC, in accordance with Church Order Article 49, values ecumenical relationships with other Christian churches, particularly those that are confessionally Reformed. With some such churches, synod may establish a close relationship; and if such is decided with reference to a particular group of churches, then the category is designated churches in ecclesiastical fellowship. The purpose of such a close relationship is to
a. encourage joint action in Christian endeavors, where possible, and a common Christian witness to the world.
b. explore whether the unity we share with such churches may include various forms of organizational expression—the shape of such organizational unity shall be determined in keeping with prudence and such circumstances as language, distance, and nonessential differences in formal standards and practices.
c. provide the opportunity to exchange fraternal delegates at major assemblies.
d. make possible the engagement in pulpit and table fellowship.
e. exercise mutual concern and encouragement with a view to promoting the fundamentals of Christian unity (Acts of Synod 1974, p. 57).
f. communicate on major issues of common concern.
g. remain abreast of current developments to assure that such fellowship continues to grow in vibrancy.
Churches in dialogue
a. Churches in a stage of exploration leading to ecclesiastical fellowship
The CRC encourages churches in the Reformed family to explore the possibility of being in ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC. During such an exploration phase the CRC designates such relationships as churches in dialogue. The very purpose of such exploration implies that the classification is of a temporary nature. The following general provisions shall apply to relationships designated as churches in dialogue:
1) Invitations will periodically be extended to send delegates to each other’s broadest assemblies where delegates may be recognized by the assembly.
2) When ecumenical delegates are not exchanged, the EIRC will be expected to communicate periodically with these churches and, when appropriate, to inform synod of such correspondence.
3) The EIRC shall regularly offer the Agenda for Synod and Acts of Synod (and any other relevant information) to each of these churches to keep them informed about the CRC and thereby demonstrate our continuing interest in them. In turn, the EIRC shall encourage each church in dialogue to inform us by correspondence about itself and its activities.
4) The EIRC shall continue to explore specific ways in which we may be of service to these churches through our denominational agencies; for example, through opportunities for higher education of pastors and teachers in our educational institutions, availability of teaching and training materials through Faith Alive Christian Resources, and services of our various boards and committees. Such services will require the cooperation of these agencies with the EIRC. The EIRC shall likewise be alert to services and help that these churches may be able to contribute to the CRC (Acts of Synod 1993, pp. 408-10).
b. Selected other communions with whom the CRC is in dialogue to develop closer ties or to develop a ministry partnership
This classification is for a relationship with Christian churches with which the CRC has mutual interests, or with which the CRC has a ministry partnership even though a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship is not envisioned. In cases where a ministry partnership is involved the agreement shall be described in a specific “memorandum of understanding” between the two churches. The general provisions specified in section III, B, 2, a above shall also apply to this classification.
Churches in other ecumenical relationships
The CRC may establish relationships with Christian churches that, though not necessarily Reformed, will enrich the CRC’s ecumenical fellowship. This category of relationship is called churches in other ecumenical relationships. The purpose of such relationships, while less formal than what pertains to churches in ecclesiastical fellowship and churches in dialogue, is to maintain contact, correspondence as circumstances may dictate, and conversation. Churches in this classification may include a wide range of Christian churches with a view to being informed about their ecclesiastical life, their relationships, and how such churches address current issues. The following general provisions shall apply to relationships with churches classified as churches in other ecumenical relationships.
a. The CRC will be responsive to churches that desire to establish contact with the CRC because of its Reformed theology, polity, and particular emphasis on education, evangelism, and benevolence.
b. The CRC will be responsive to churches that previously have broken ecclesiastical ties with the CRC or have withdrawn from fellowship with the CRC due to previous doctrinal, creedal, Church Order, or ethical decisions.
c. The CRC will be responsive to churches from differing historical and confessional backgrounds that are willing to address matters of common interest or issues that require clarification.
It is synod’s prerogative to decide with which denominations the CRC will maintain ecclesiastical fellowship and with which churches the CRC will be in dialogue. The EIRC shall keep synod informed about the status of all relationships. Such reporting provides synod the opportunity to monitor the EIRC’s involvement in the broader Christian family.
a. The CRC seeks to pursue its ecumenical task by also participating in ecumenical organizations. The purpose of such participation is to better carry out the CRC’s ecumenical responsibilities broadly, effectively, and efficiently.
b. The propriety of relationships with such ecumenical organizations is circumscribed by the biblical principles on ecumenicity and the principles for ecumenical practice of this Ecumenical Charter. The EIRC shall evaluate the nature of the ecumenical organizations as described in the constitutions, bases, and statements and as demonstrated in the activities of each. It is synod’s prerogative, upon recommendation of the EIRC, to decide with which ecumenical organizations the CRC is affiliated.
IV. Specific responsibilities of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee
A. Synod, through the maintenance of an Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC), in conformity with the provisions of this charter and in accordance with synodical decisions, shall maintain and promote interest in the worldwide church. The EIRC is synod’s committee of contact in ecumenical relations and will advise the executive director of the CRC in fulfilling the responsibilities of representing the CRC as the ecumenical officer.
B. The EIRC shall annually present to synod in the printed Agenda for Synod a report of its activities, including a summary of all the ecumenical relations included in its mandate.