by Rev. B. R. Hofford
March 10 2007
Some have made the charge that those who have liberated themselves from the American Reformed Church in Lynden are guilty of the errors of the Donatist schism of the 4th century. Along this same line of thinking is the accusation that the liberated people would not have tolerated the Corinthian church of the New Testament era or the churches described in the book of Revelation. In short, the liberated church, and those who support them, are guilty of an unscriptural insistence on purity and are unable to distinguish between a false church and an erring church.
In order to evaluate the first charge, we must know something about the Donatist schism. Most historians do not refer to this movement in the early church as a heresy since the Donatists were considered orthodox in their beliefs. However, because their decisions and actions resulted in a split between the churches of North Africa and the European churches, it is referred to as a schism.
B. K. Kuiper gives the following summary of the heart of the Donatist controversy: "During the severe persecution by Diocletian many Christians had denied the faith. The Donatists thought that these should not be readmitted to the Church. Some bishops had surrendered their copies of the bible to the government officials to be burned by them. The Donatists believed that such bishops were not worthy to administer the sacraments or ordain others as bishops." (The Church in History, Eerdmans, 1964, p. 37). Not everyone agrees on how to assess the Donatists, and those interested in a fuller evaluation should consult 7000 Shall Remain by A. Van Der Jagt.
Are the newly liberated guilty of the errors of the Donatists? Are they insisting on a supra-scriptural standard of purity for the church and its office bearers that has led them to wrongly break with the church? Even a cursory perusal of the material on this website related to the Lynden liberation will make clear that this secession was not based on an extra-biblical understanding of the purity of the church. The scriptural standard of faithfulness being maintained by the liberated people was none other than the confessional documents of the churches and the accompanying Church Order of Dort that reflects and applies those same teachings. It should be abundantly clear by now by the materials readily available to all that the liberated church is not advancing any new teachings or practices but simply seeking to remain faithful to what the churches have always confessed and practiced. It should be equally clear that by accepting and implementing wrong synodical decisions, the churches are the ones that have changed and hence deformed. In reality the liberated believers have not broken with the church; the church has broken with them, and the liberated church is simply the continuation of those who are faithful to the confessions and church order.
It becomes clear that those who raise the Donatists in order to dismiss the liberation in Lynden are either ignorant of the facts or looking for excuses. One may legitimately take issue with the liberation cause but to do so with integrity, one must seriously interact with the actual issues at stake.
But is it true that the liberated believers have been so zealous in their concern for purity that they would not be able to tolerate the church of Corinth and the churches of Revelation? Most readers are familiar with the problem-plagued church described in Paul's epistles to the Corinthians and with the variety of errors and sins characteristic of the churches described in Revelation. A detailed catalogue or description of these problems is not necessary here in order to evaluate the charge being made.
With regard to the church at Corinth, it must be noted that II Corinthians reveals that there had in fact been genuine repentance in the congregation (cf. 7:6-15). We don't know all of the details as to how each of the problems outlined in I Corinthians were ultimately settled. However, it is important to note the process of successful discipline at work in this situation. What if the church at Corinth had not repented? Surely the Apostle Paul would not have acquiesced to their persistent sin. The clear scriptural principle is that when people persist in sin and refuse to repent, they are placed outside the Kingdom of God (cf. Deut. 30:11-20, Matt. 18:15-20).
Had the liberated believers in Lynden instantly removed themselves from the congregation the moment they observed deformation, then the accusation made might have some warrant. However, the facts reveal that these believers worked diligently over many years seeking to bring the congregation back from the path of deformation. However, when it became clear that the call to repentance was being ignored and there was no further avenue of discussion left, they were forced to separate themselves from those who refused to be obedient to Christ and the Apostolic teaching as we have come to summarize it in the confessions and manifest it in our practices through the church order.
The churches of Revelation are somewhat different. We have one static picture of these churches. We see many errors and sins in these churches, although Christ does commend some of them. However, we don't know the result of the admonitions conveyed to these churches via the letters recorded for us. Nevertheless, we do have the clear warning that if they did not repent, the lampstand would be removed (2:5). This means nothing less than becoming a false church. Again, we see the clear scriptural teaching that erring and deforming churches that refuse to repent eventually loose their standing as true churches of Christ.
Again, it is clear from the documents on this website relating to the Lynden liberation that this very pattern was followed. The problem was not that the liberated people could not stand to be members in an erring church, for they were. Rather, the problem was that the liberated believers could not continue to remain in an erring church that refused to repent.
All must be warned not to hide behind such distorted interpretations and applications of biblical teachings in order to avoid the real issues. Those who believe the Lynden liberation is scripturally, confessionally or church-politically unjustified are duty-bound to show how and why. Even more importantly, all should be alerted to the danger of finding excuses for either not confronting these sins in your local congregation or for remaining in such churches when they refuse to repent, for if you do, then you may find yourself among those who are at last outside the Kingdom.