Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (3)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

Article 27 expresses the Reformed doctrine regarding the catholicity of the church. Catholicity has several facets. We speak of temporal catholicity—this refers to the fact that the church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end. We speak of cultural or social catholicity—this refers to the fact that the church is found among every tribe, tongue, and nation. Closely connected with cultural catholicity is geographical catholicity. The church exists all over the world. The two last facets of catholicity are mentioned in the concluding paragraph of article 27: “Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.  Yet, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”

This is an important statement because it acknowledges that there is broadness in God’s plan of salvation. The church is made up of diverse peoples living all over the globe. In his good pleasure, God has gathered these people into his church. From this, we can discern the truth that it is God’s will to gather people from all nations into his church. He has done it in the past, is doing it in the present, and there is every indication from Scripture that he desires to continue doing it in the future. The fact of catholicity reveals God’s intention that this church be a global church.  Being a global church necessarily implies outward looking missionary activity.

Of the articles that speak of the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst us. This article speaks of the marks of the true and false church. First among the marks of a true church is the pure preaching of the gospel. One might think that this too implies missionary activity. Certainly the gospel must be preached in established churches, but it should be a given that the gospel would also be preached to the lost at home and overseas.

However, as they say, there is a fly in the ointment. The difficulty arises from many modern editions of the Belgic Confession. Compare, for instance, the edition used by the United Reformed Churches of North America with the edition adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches:

URCNA:  “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein…”

CanRC:  “It practises the pure preaching of the gospel…”

The key difference is the word “therein.” That word also appears in the edition adopted by the Reformed Church in the United States, the Free Reformed Churches of North America and several others. It used to appear in the edition used by the Christian Reformed Church of North America, but no longer does, having been removed in 1985.

There are at least two problems with the word “therein” in article 29. The first problem is that the word did not appear in the original Belgic Confession of 1561. It also never appears in any subsequent French, Dutch, or Latin editions. “Therein” seems to appear out of thin air in the English edition adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (now known as the Reformed Church of America) in 1792.[1] It has remained with most English versions ever since.

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

The second issue is far more important: is it biblical to restrict this mark to what goes on in the church? Here is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us. As one of the proof-texts for this statement in the original Confession, we find Matthew 28:18–20, the so-called Great Commission.[2] In this passage, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  The original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.[3] A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel both inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church. Therefore, the word “therein” should be excised from all English editions of article 29. The way in which the Belgic Confession shapes outward looking churches is certainly enhanced if we remain with the original text.  [NOTE:  I’m told that the URCNA at its most recent Synod decided to adopt an edition of the BC which leaves out the word “therein.”]

Last of all, there’s an important statement in article 30 regarding the government of the church. Through the divinely-ordained offices of the churches, it is God’s intent that “the true religion may be preserved and the true doctrine everywhere propagated.” Here again, we encounter a problem with the text of the Belgic Confession. Not all editions agree on the exact wording here. The text I just quoted is what most editions follow and it is essentially a translation of a highly-respected Latin edition commissioned by the Synod of Dort in 1618–19. However, the Synod of Dort only adopted authoritative French and Dutch editions. These have a different wording that is reflected in our Canadian Reformed edition, “By these means they preserve the true religion; they see to it that the true doctrine takes its course…” Notice that there appears to be no mention of the true doctrine being propagated everywhere. Instead, “the true doctrine takes its course.” How do we resolve this?

1561 Belgic Confession -- article 30 included a proof-text reference for Galatians 2:8.

1561 Belgic Confession — article 30 included a proof-text reference for Galatians 2:8.

Once again it’s helpful to look back to the very first editions of the Confession. From the proof-texts used, we can get a sense of what de Brès and the Reformed churches intended with this statement. The text used with this statement is Galatians 2:8, “For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles.”[4] Peter was entrusted with ministry to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. Both had their own calling in their own place. Both office bearers were called to propagate the true doctrine and between the apostles, this true doctrine was being propagated everywhere, inside and out. From this it appears that the Latin commissioned by the Synod of Dort is a slightly different, but still faithful rendering of what the Confession originally intended to say. The true doctrine taking its course is meant to be the same thing as the true doctrine being propagated everywhere.

So our Confession ties the outward, missionary calling of the church to the offices of the church. It is the responsibility of the office bearers of the church to ensure that the true doctrine of the gospel is proclaimed everywhere—all over the world. Therefore, mission must be an agenda item for Reformed consistories. They must send out, support, and oversee the work of mission in our own country and elsewhere. The Belgic Confession assigns this responsibility to the church’s leaders here in article 30. In this and more ways, the Belgic Confession drives Reformed churches to be outward looking.

Given what I’ve said so far, I think we can rule out the “current craze” possibility.  Being outward looking churches is embedded in our confessional heritage.  But is it biblical?  Can we also go the next step and say that being outward looking is Christ’s commission?

[1] The Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (New York: William Durell, 1793), 28.

[2] Guy de Brès, Confession de foy, faicte d’un commun accord par les fideles qui conversent ès pays bas (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 24. From the very beginning, the Belgic Confession included proof-texts to indicate the biblical basis of its teachings. For some recent discussion of the history and role of these proof-texts, see Nicolaas Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 2010), 298–300.

[3] Cf. Calvin Van Reken, “The Mission of a Local Church.” Calvin Theological Journal 32:2 (November 1997): 359.

[4] Guy de Brès, Confession de foy (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 27.

Click here for part 4…

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

Comments are disabled.

%d bloggers like this: