This letter to the Lynden consistory regarding the URC contains an extensive analysis of the agreement adopted by General Synod 2001 as it relates to the admission of guests to the Lord's Supper. This analysis provides arguments agains the pluriformistic approach of the URC and a defense of Art. 61, C.O.

January 16, 2005

The Consistory
The American Reformed Church
Lynden, WA

Esteemed brothers:

We are writing in response to your letter of June 7, 2004 in which you interact with us regarding the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship with the URC and other related matters.

In the first part of your letter, you respond to our allegation that the URC hold to a belief in invisible/pluriform views of the church with the consequent practice of admitting guests to the Lord's Table who do not profess the Reformed faith or who do not obey Christ in their church life. You respond with two points. First, you imply that this cannot be so since the URC "happen to confess the doctrine of the church with the same words that we do." This begs the question as is proved by churches such as the CRC and the RCA that also hold the same confession of the church yet manifest a practical belief in the invisible/pluriform church concepts. In other words, if a church confesses one thing but practices something else, then their confession does not automatically settle the question. If the URC admits people to their Lord's Supper celebrations from a variety of denominations, some of which are not even Reformed, then we must look beyond their simple confessional statements for some explanation for their practice.

It is not unreasonable to conclude from a variety of sources that the invisible/pluriform concepts of the church indeed underlie the practices of the URC. We may point to the influence of A. Kuyper's view of the church, the nearly universal North American protestant belief and/or practice of these views, and the actual anecdotal statements of a variety of URC officebearers. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of any other explanation for the actual practice of the URC other than a practical belief in these concepts. (Explanatory note from C. Stam, Everything In Christ, p. 83: "Common Theories about the Church...the idea that the Church is basically an invisible organism and simply 'manifests' itself in various forms {institutions}, whereby all the various Churches form the one invisible Church of Christ {Theory of Pluriformity; Invisible Church concept}."

Your second point appeals to the Statements of Agreement approved by Synod 2001 (p. 154) as showing that our view of Art. 61, C.O. is not that supported by our churches. Several things should be noted.

First, the fact that Synod Neerlandia gratefully took note of the Agreement does in fact reveal that their view of Art. 61 is not the same as ours; however, it does not prove that our view is incorrect.

You point out that the reference (in the last paragraph of this part of the agreement) to "guests from elsewhere" is not restricted to sister churches. We agree that this must be the scope of the words quoted since it is clear that Synod was attempting to reach an agreement with churches that did not hold to our restriction of sister churches. To summarize: the Canadian Reformed view has been that guests were restricted to sister churches whereas the URC view has been that guests were not restricted to sister churches but those from any church considered "biblical" (cf. Art. 45 of the URC Church Order). In order to accommodate the broader view of the URC, the agreement had to use a definition such as "guests from elsewhere."

Your argument is that this agreement approved by Synod shows that my view of Art. 61 is not the only and correct one. Actually, we believe it shows the very opposite for if your understanding of Art. 61, that allows for the admission of those outside of our sister churches, were correct, then there would be no need for such an agreement-both federations would have understood that they were operating under the same parameters relative to guests. The fact is that precisely because the language of Art. 61 is so patently clear as to its restrictive scope that such an agreement was necessary. It was evident to the two federations that the two views were not compatible and that some compromise agreement was needed. In this case, our churches did the compromising-we gave up the more restricted position for the less restrictive one of the URC.

By approving such a compromise agreement, Synod has effectively forfeited the ecclesiastical distinctiveness explicit in Art. 61 with all of the consequent implications for fencing the Lord's table. Further it requires those who seek to defend the agreement as consistent with Art. 61, to impose on the simple and clear words of this article an interpretation and application essentially alien to its intent. Again, approval of this agreement, rather than proving that our view of Art. 61 is not correct, only serves to underscore the correctness of our view. As you say, "this shows that your position on Article 61 is not quite the same as Synod's (the federation's) position." This is not because our understanding of the article is aberrant but only because Synod, by approving this agreement, has abandoned the clear meaning and implications of the article.

We must not underestimate the radical change that Synod's approval of this agreement brings to our application of Art. 61. Given the agreement definition "guests from elsewhere," the phrase "sister churches" becomes almost meaningless. We are now committed to the broader definition of the URC: "biblical church membership," or "a faithful church which confesses the doctrines of the Scriptures." For the URC this may include admission of guests from the CRC, not to mention a host of other denominations with which we, and possibly they, have no relationship. The problem with the URC category is that there is no agreed upon definition for a biblical or faithful church. (At least the phrase "sister church" has a clear definition within the framework of our confessions and church order.) Hence, with the agreement, each local consistory will decide the ecclesiastical criteria for admitting guests, an independentistic practice that leads to confusion (which churches?), contradiction (some congregations will admit people from churches that others will exclude) and compromise (people, such as members of the CRC, who are unfaithful in their church life, will be admitted) at the Lord's table.

At this point, it is necessary to make some positive observations about the correct meaning and application of Art. 61 since this article is central to the debate.

There are numerous references to "sister churches" in various contexts in the Church Order (cf. Arts. 4,5,50,61,62). While there is no explicit definition given for this phrase, these references in conjunction with the history of our churches should establish without any doubt what we mean by this phrase. Practically and historically speaking, sister churches are those other congregations in our own federation that have committed themselves to the same confessions and have agreed to live together under the same rules of the Church Order. In addition, Art. 50 defines for us how such a sister church relationship should work with churches in other countries. In light of these articles, as they function in the context of our confessional statements about the church and as they are applied in our geographical situation, it is important to notice that there are no ecclesiastical relationships envisioned that would include congregations in North America that are not ipso facto a part of our federation. In other words, we do not believe in nor do we practice pluriformity of the church. It is only in recent history that our churches have gradually moved away from this position. The problem is that this movement away is incompatible with the language and meaning of what we have confessed and agreed to. In short, this is deformation.

Some have argued that Art. 61's restriction regarding visitors being from sister churches does not preclude people from non-sister churches being allowed to the supper. They conclude that the reference to sister churches only tells us what to do with visitors from such sister churches but says nothing about people from other denominations. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it begins with the a priori assumption that pluriformity is legitimate and must therefore be imposed on this article. However, to do so does violence to the clear language and intent of the article.

First, there is an internal logical consistency to the article that must be appreciated. The reference to the admission of people from sister churches cannot be artificially isolated from the first paragraph regarding the criteria for admission of communicant members to the supper. Besides those whom the consistory has admitted locally to the supper, where else may we find people qualified for admission to the supper? The second paragraph answers that question with the reference to sister churches because only sister churches have been recognized as true Churches of Christ by the federation at large. Only this group of churches adhere to the same criteria for admitting members to the sacrament. This means that sister churches are ones that not only adhere to the same confessions but also exercise the discipline of Christ according to those confessions and the same church order-hence the reference to "a godly life" and "good conduct." When understood in this way, it becomes clear why the idea of positing another whole category of people, those from non-sister churches, as being outside the scope of the article and thus also possibly qualified for admission to the supper, is contrary to the meaning of the article. In short, the article is explicitly and intentionally restrictive based on our doctrine of the church.

Article 61 is based upon the principle contained in Belgic Confession Article 29: that "we believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true church ...". B.C. Article 29 is based upon the Biblical principle found in I John 4 ("test the spirits..."). Article 61 is based on the assumption that this is to be done at the federational level, not in an independentistic way by local churches acting alone. It assumes a process that could indeed start with a local church that comes across another church that the federation is not aware of, one that appears to be a true Church of Christ based on the objective criteria of faithfulness to Scripture and the Confessions. In such an event, the local church is bound by Art. 61 to initiate an orderly process by which the "testing of the spirits" takes place. This process includes evaluating the other church's doctrine and practice. This orderly process by which other churches are officially recognized is one that conforms to the principle of unity in the truth that is found in John 17.

The first paragraph of Art. 61 provides us with the necessary criteria for admission of our own church members to the supper-note the reference to "only those." Then, paragraph two provides us with the definitive reference to where else we will find "only" those kinds of people who are not members of our local assembly-they are only found in sister churches. By definition, non-sister churches are those with whom we have not yet established a relationship precisely because it has not yet been determined that they too live according to the scriptural rules for determining profession/doctrine and godly life/conduct. Thus, we again see that Art. 61 is meant to be exclusively definitive of those who may be admitted from outside our local church, not merely representative of a larger group. We also must again reiterate that it is only when the assumption of pluriformity is made that Art. 61 proves troublesome and requires an explanation that does violence to its contextual meaning.

Corroboration of this understanding can be found by seeking to apply the aberrant view to Art. 62. On this view it could be argued that we could also grant attestations to communicant members to move to non-sister churches since the article doesn't explicitly exclude such a process. If this were so, then the whole point of issuing and receiving attestations would be undermined. In other words, the absurdity of this conclusion alerts us to the fallacy of the premise and also then guides us to see that the same attempt to twist Art. 61 is indeed fallacious.

The same can be said in regard to Art. 50 except now the absurdity becomes even more pronounced because here it is explicitly clear that virtual uniformity of confession and order are pre-requisites for a sister church relationship. The point of the article is to define the parameters of our relationship with churches abroad. Thus, it becomes nonsensical, if not perverse, to argue that since the article makes no mention of churches without reformed confessions and order, therefore we are free to establish relations with such churches.

In this light, it should be clear that the only legitimate meaning of Art. 61 is that the reference to the admission of visitors from sister churches is not meant merely as a regulation for the admission of one group among many-as though the reference to visitors from sister churches was just a sampling of a broader category. Rather, it is meant to show that only people from this group are allowed to be admitted. Indeed, it can also be said that the fact that the article goes to the trouble to define and spell out the rules for admission of those closest to us-those from sister churches, virtually proves that the absence of reference to groups outside that scope presupposes that there are no other groups to be contemplated.

Returning to the Synodical agreement, it should now be evident that Synod's approval of this agreement is clearly an abdication of our historic confessional and church orderly position regarding visitors to the Lord's supper. Indeed, one must ask if it is even legitimate for Synod to approve such an agreement when it effectively supplants our existing position and practice according to Art. 61. Such an action also bypasses Art. 76 of the Church Order which speaks of Synods changing the Church Order-presumably not indirectly by means of agreements with other federations. In short, the adoption of this agreement is tantamount to an extra-confessional binding. These are profound reasons, brothers, why you should strenuously object, according to Art. 31, to such decisions and refuse to uphold and implement them.

You continue in your letter by arguing that our position and reading of Art. 61 is not supported by a number of church order commentaries. Since we only have access to With Common Consent by W. W. J. VanOene, and since his reasoning is appealed to most extensively, we will respond to this. You appeal to his comments on p. 280 regarding the application of Art. 61 to visitors. You quote him to the effect that a visitor from a non-sister church may be admitted without attestation and to do so would not violate the provisions of Art. 61. While this is technically true, you have not placed his comments in their context and thus twisted his meaning.

It is clear from the context, that Rev. VanOene holds the same strict understanding and application of Art. 61 as we are defending. The only exception he notes has reference to "someone who is not a member of a foreign sister church and has no attestation." Rev. VanOene's explanation in no way provides grounds for the interpretation of Art. 61 that allows for the acceptance of visitors from non-sister churches in our own country(ies). With regard to the exception raised by the author, it must be noted that his description of the process required for admitting such a foreign visitor is tantamount to having that person profess his faith in one of our churches. In short, the extraordinarily narrow possibility in question (how many foreign visitors have ever applied?) coupled with the rather extensive proposed examination process virtually eliminates this as a meaningful exception to the rule of Art. 61 and thus provides no foundation for your claim that Rev. VanOene supports your view of this article.

Technically, we would want to take issue with Rev. VanOene over this kind of exception. His claim that admitting such a guest does not violate the provision made in Art. 61 is patently untrue as has been explained already. It may well be true that we do not have sister church relations with churches in some countries of the world. If a visitor from such a country is present in our midst for any length of time, he should be required to actually profess his faith in our churches according to the usual procedure. In the case of the casual foreign visitor, we would see no harm if such a person were simply denied admittance on the basis of Art. 61. A detailed argument about this point is not relevant in this context. It is sufficient to note that the point made in your letter based on Rev. VanOene's comments is without merit because it extrapolates from one rare exception to a level of application not envisaged by the author. Contrary to your assertion that Rev. VanOene's commentary invalidates our interpretation and application of Art. 61, we would assert quite the opposite.

Since the Statement of Agreement with the URC reached by Synod 2001 is at the center of our dispute, some comments must be made about the content itself. As has already been noted, the heart of the problem with the Agreement is that it attempts to force together two views that at root are mutually irreconcilable. The principles involved in the respective methods of each federation are not compatible even though similar language is used in connection with each. For example, an attestation concerning doctrine and conduct issued by the elders of our sister churches is quite different in principle from a signed personal attestation concerning doctrine and conduct from an unspecified "biblical" church. Attestation by the elders overseeing a member is not the same as self-testimony (cf. Art. 62, C.O.). As explained above in connection with Art. 61, membership in a sister church is a precisely defined category and far different from the unspecified "biblical" church membership of the URC.

To be more specific, a signed personal attestation that one is a communicant member not under discipline undermines the vital principle involved in our position as expressed in Art. 61 and corroborated by Art. 62, namely, the requirement for attestation by the officebearers. Art. 62 makes it explicit that attestations regarding doctrine and conduct are signed on behalf of the consistory by two of its members. This requirement is based on the recognition that only the elders of the church are charged by Christ with the oversight of His congregation. The signature by two members, based on the scriptural principle that legal matters are to be established on the witness of two or three, verifies the official character of the transactions in which attestations are required. In contrast, the recognition in the agreement that the personal attestation must confirm that one is not under discipline confirms our view that official attestation is required. In the nature of the case, discipline is imposed by the consistory on its members. The early steps of formal discipline do not require public knowledge of the person; hence, only the consistory has knowledge of those under discipline at these levels. At this point in particular, personal attestation is not only inappropriate but also inadmissible since it bypasses the pattern of authority and discipline established by Christ in His church. To put it another way: if the elders of the local church determine who is under discipline, and thus, who is allowed to partake of the supper, then it is the elders of the visitor who must verify the standing of the visitor for the elders of the celebrating church. To break this pattern by allowing for personal attestation regarding such matters undermines the ability of the consistory celebrating the supper to fence the table with integrity.

An example from civil life may help illuminate the above point. A foreigner seeking citizenship in this country must verify that he does not have a criminal record that would forbid him from enjoying such privileges. It is patently obvious that such verification does not rest finally on the self-testimony of the person applying for citizenship. Rather, it is confirmed by the civil authorities-the officebearers-under whose oversight the person has previously lived.

The agreement goes on to qualify the personal attestation by the following: "when as much as possible the elders have attempted to secure confirmation of the guest's godly life from reliable sources." There are two problems with this qualification.
First, the "as much as possible" phrase faithfully reflects the relativistic framework expressed in the URC church order, Art. 45. However, such a relativistic approach contradicts the principled position expressed in our Art. 61 (& 62) that demands attestations issued by the consistory. Again, we see the contradiction and confusion created by attempting to conflate two views that are fundamentally incompatible. In practice, it is clear, that the implementation of these two approaches results in different outcomes: the URC method will undoubtedly result in the admission of guests to the Lord's Supper that our method will deny. If the URC practice has scriptural support, then our practice must be seen as unnecessarily restrictive and must be abandoned lest we be guilty of sectarianism.

Secondly, the reference to securing confirmation of the guest's godly life "from reliable sources" appears to go beyond the URC's Art. 45 and suggests that an attempt was made to bring the URC practice more into line with the principle of our Art. 61. For our churches there is only one reliable source and that is the overseeing consistory. Since the URC does not require this kind of attestation there are three possibilities. First, they could possibly receive a consistory-issued attestation (cf. a guest from one of our churches). Second, they could seek testimony of church members acquainted with the guest. Third, lacking either of the above, the "as much as possible" still leaves room for the simple testimony of the guest himself, as is evidenced by the further expression that the signed self-attestation must affirm that the guest is not under discipline.

Again, it should be evident that the broader scope of the language of the agreement at this point further confirms the unequal results of application compared to our practice. Furthermore, it should also be evident, from what has been written above, that such latitude in verifying a guest's life easily bypasses the Christ-ordained pattern of authority in His church in which only the elders are responsible for the exercise of discipline-and in many cases are the only ones who may know who is under discipline and therefore not allowed to partake of the Holy supper. There is an important Biblical principle underlying the practice described in the second paragraph of C.O. Article 61 - that the elders of the home church of a visitor are responsible for the oversight of that visitor and that that oversight is transferred when the person undertakes to travel and visit another Church of Christ.
One example will serve to underscore the fallacy of the relativistic position in the agreement. When we have someone profess their faith in our churches, the consistory, with the congregation, observes the life of that person over time. If it is evident that their life comports with their profession, then they are admitted to the Lord's Supper. In contrast, the personal testimony of a guest to his life clearly fails to pass the test of integrity consistent with the duty and role of the office bearers. While it may be theoretically possible in an interview with a guest to determine a credible profession of the Reformed faith, it is impossible for that consistory to verify the life of such a person. Our churches, in recognition of these issues, have aptly agreed to Art. 61, which binds us to the scriptural principles and practices.

By accepting the agreement with these conflicts we have tacitly condemned ourselves, with our stricter practices, of sectarianism. As has already been made clear, it is impossible to reconcile the two views and practices since they each reflect a different set of principles.

The agreement goes on to characterize those churches of guests that are acceptable as "faithful" and ones, which "confess the doctrines of the Scriptures." Once more we are confronted with a contrast between this relativistic definition and the precise definition of "sister churches" in Art. 61 of our order. In the end, the URC local consistories are left to individualistically determine which churches fit these criteria of "faithful" and "confess the doctrine of the Scriptures." It should be evident that such a practice inevitably leads to contradiction even within the boundaries of the URC-one consistory might admit someone that another would deny (or vice-versa) depending on how a local consistory interprets and applies the broad ecclesiastical categories in question.

As we know from actual documented practice, this latitude also results in the URC admitting guests from a wide variety of churches, many of which we do not know as sister churches. Specifically, we know that it results in their admitting guests from the CRC-a testimony not only to the latitude of application of the criteria but also to the very different view of the church in contrast to our own.

You defend their position by asserting their practice is "a local matter, and is regulated by their church order." This is obviously so, but it misses the point. You also argue that "where and when discrepancies between the adopted order and the local practices arise, these can be addressed to the local URCs." Again, this begs the question. In fact, URC congregations that admit guests from churches such as the CRC defend their practice as fully consistent with their adopted order! The overriding fact is that their practices conflict with ours and with scripture itself.

Enough has been said to make clear why this agreement represents a profound compromise on our part and also reflects why it is impossible for us to consistently live in ecclesiastical fellowship with the URC or to pursue consummation of unity steps. For all these reasons, we hope, brothers, that you will agree that you should not continue to accept and implement these synodical decisions but rather appeal them.

In response to our charge of having been too narrow (vis-à-vis URC latitude), you state that

"Lord's Day 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and Art. 61 of the Church Order, do not, in fact, necessitate your 'only guests from sister churches' position, nor the strict practice of attestations which you put forward (p.3)."

You make this assertion with no proof nor with any interaction with the references themselves. Furthermore, we have shown in our letter of Feb. 23, 2004 the arguments proving our view of Lord's Day 30 and Art. 61, yet you do not interact with these either (cf. p.4, p.6ff., and the Addendum: "The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and Closed Communion").

You state,

"If our efforts towards unity with other churches causes us to reflect better and in a fresh way on what we really have written in the confessions and the church order, and lets us see again what the Reformed tradition and history displays, that cannot be a bad thing, Nor is it something to be alarmed about."

Our alarm in this case arises from the fact that the reflection you mention has led us away from Scripture. Tradition and history have a legitimate role in assisting us in our reflections, but they are not at last normative or authoritative. In fact, we may as often be warned from these sources not to stray from the scriptural path as we may be encouraged to follow the truth. When these sources foster deformation, they must be rejected and we should be rightly alarmed when they become the means of defending that deformation.

Your explanation of the local implementation of Art. 61 presents a distorted view. There are several things to observe. First, while it is true that local consistories are responsible to the Head of the church, the principles and outline of how this responsibility is to be met with integrity within the bond of churches is regulated by Art. 61. To deny the kind of uniformity required by Art. 61 is to implicitly foster a form of independentism that is contradictory to the inherent nature of our federation of churches.

Second, you assert that local variations in supervision /admittance to the Lord's Table do not violate the catholicity or integrity of Christ's church gathering work. This is true so long as those variations in practice do not contradict, undercut, or circumvent the clear intent and meaning of the adopted rule. It must be noted that Art. 61 is not like Art. 53 in which consistories are given the latitude to determine the manner in which certain days are to be commemorated. The variations you cite-written attestation vs. phone-call attestation, in our judgment, are acceptable because they fit consistently with the principle of Art. 61 (i.e., official testimony), even though the results might be different. This is far different from the kind of variations in practice reflected in consistories that, for example, admit guests from non-sister churches on the grounds that Art. 61 does not refer to this category of people, or to consistories that waive the necessity for official attestation in favor of personal testimony or the testimony of non-office bearers. It's one thing for different results to come about due to simple administrative variations, but it is quite another when the differences arise from either the application of varying criteria regarding church membership or the acceptance of varying categories of testimony (official vs. unofficial). The integrity of Christ's church gathering work does indeed suffer in the latter case but not in the former.

In this letter, we have undertaken to respond to your concern that we had not sufficiently interacted with the decisions of Synod. However, we would like to make the point that your failure to respond to many of our arguments for this reason is based on a misunderstanding. First, our letter was not intended as an appeal to a broader assembly, as per Art. 31 and thus did not need to rise to the level of such a document. Second, whenever members of the congregation respond to consistory decisions with reasonable arguments based on either scripture, confessions, or church order, then the consistory has a pastoral duty to respond to those arguments regardless of whether the communication precisely fits some preconceived pattern. For example, while some of the points in our letter may not have directly interacted with the decision(s) of Synod(s), your convictions should enable you, using those decisions, to show what is wrong with our arguments. In other words, there is no church-orderly requirement that members must only interact with consistory based on such decisions.

There are other matters from our February 2004 letter that we wish to pursue further with you; however, due to the length of this letter already and due to the different subject matter, we will save those matters for another letter.

Based on what we have written in this letter, it should be clear that the decisions of Synod regarding the URC contradict scripture, confession and church order. In light of this, brothers, we appeal to you to liberate yourselves, and our congregation, from the yoke of this extra-confessional decision and to appeal these matters to the next general synod. By persisting in the defense and implementation of this wrong decision you create division here in the body of Christ and risk the removal of the lampstand of Christ's presence in our midst.

With brotherly concern,

Barry Hofford

Maureen Hofford

Glenn Hofford