The federation of churches as we know it in the Reformed tradition is part of the heritage of the great reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. He was the man who laid the foundation, in the first place, as it applies to the development of ecclesiastical life in the country of France, that by virtue of his birth and interest had always been close to his heart. It was there, for the first time, that in Paris, in 1559, the church assembled in a kind of synodical federation.
The occasion for this organizational structure is to be sought in the difficulties that had arisen in some congregations in France and that could not be resolved. For this reason some pastors of neighbouring churches met together after a celebration of the LordÕs Supper. During this consultation, it was decided to convene an assembly in Paris, not only because of the importance of that city, but because it was easier to assemble there without being noticed.
The need was felt for some kind of church federation as it related to the circumstances that the churches were experiencing in France. They could not count on help from the governing authorities. On the contrary, they encountered a government that fiercely opposed any ecclesiastical renewal. In this common need of the hour, the church-federation was born.
Essential for the French churches to come to a union was the Confession of Faith and the Church Order. The French Confession of Faith, which was strongly influenced by Calvin, formed the bond by which the spiritual unity of the churches came to expression. The Church Order formed the basis for the organizational union. The spiritual unity was expressed in the Confession of Faith and therefore the churches could effectively organize by means of an ecclesiastical arrangement.
This also became the experience of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. They discovered one another, so to speak, not in difficult circumstances in their own country. Rather, the Dutch Reformed churches discovered one another outside their homeland, in foreign countries, under extremely difficult circumstances.
It was particularly after the coming of the heavy-handed Duke of Alva, that various refugee churches were established in Embden (on the border of Germany and the Netherlands), in East Friesland, in Wezel, in the Pfaltz and Basel, London, and other places. Some of them had been there already for a while, because right at the outbreak of persecution the believers had been exiled or had fled. In Embden there was a congregation that was so large and so influential in the reformation of the Netherlands that it was called the mother-church of the Dutch Reformed Churches. It provided pastors, gave advice, sent help, and received displaced persons. That is why Embden deserves to be mentioned with honour.
Also London was such a place of refuge, where a large congregation had been established already in the days of Edward VI. When in 1567 the persecution became fiercer than ever, such congregations received and took care of refugees. One might think that these refugee churches would not have to wrestle with problems that we encounter today. But that was not the case. Also in those days, when believers were burned at the stake, all kinds of difficulties occurred in the churches. Where people meet, there sinners meet. The churches were also young and the Reformation was still very much in flux.
It was in that great need that there were people who strongly urged the congregations to meet as a federation of churches. Persons who strongly urged them to do so--Philip Marnix and others--pointed to the example of the French churches. From Geneva it was Theodore Beza , CalvinÕs successor, who stimulated this development. That is how it happened in 1571 that the Dutch Reformed Churches met for the first time in an official assembly of delegates. It was organized when an annual market day was held that was visited by a large number of people, so that the delegates might not be noticed.
United in the Faith
At the Synod at Embden (1571) the foundation for the unity of a church-federation was laid. What was the essence of this unity? Nothing less than unity of faith and agreement of doctrine, as they expressed it. In Embden, the churches chose for the Reformed doctrines without being overly restrictive. They desired not only to subscribe to the Heidelberg Catechism, but also the Genevan Catechism and the French Confession, thereby manifesting true Reformed ecumenicity. They knew themselves to be related to foreign churches as well.
This Synod at Embden, Òstrove after the greatest possible unity among the churches for the maintenance and growth of the churches in general or also some in particular, and that they may especially warn one another concerning heretics, schismatics ... and other such dangerous people so that the churches can be on guard against such. They É expressed unity in the faith which was once delivered to the saints [Jude 3] and in doctrine.
The account of this assembly evokes jealousy. If only we today in our country, could be as unprejudiced, stop making things so complicated, not ask so many questions and give so many answers, but simply subscribe to the Confessions! Were these Reformed brothers then all like-minded? Not at all! There were those who later were regarded as too accommodating. There were those who later would be regarded as too Òprecise.Ó There were those who were convinced Calvinists and also those who had to be persuaded. But they confessed their unity in the faith, without disputing secondary matters. They helped each other, and the churches helped each other. That is what they had learned from the Word of God, and that is why they wished to place themselves under the authority of that Word of God.
This is how, in a difficult period in history, the church-federation of the Dutch Reformed Churches came into being. It was on the basis of the one confession of faith. When we today hear all kinds of objections to church-federation, which come in a variety of ways, we ought to familiarize ourselves with the history of these churches, and we ought to ask whether here is not an example for us.
To be sure, a church-federation can function wrongly. It can degenerate into a new kind of hierarchy and become a tool for lording it over others. Then it becomes a man-centred organization of proud sinners, lusting for power. Then it functions wrongly, not because the structure is wrong in itself, but because people who are wrong administer it wrongly.
The Word must have authority, and the Word alone. Therein lies the unity of the churches. Where this unity is missing, a Church Order does not keep things together. A Reformed Church Order is for Reformed people, that is, for converted people. Where people refuse to deny themselves and bow before God, this means is not helpful. But where they meet each other on the one and only basis, that is, at the foot of that one cross of Jesus, there they recognize each other.
Sometimes God uses evil times for His church to experience unity. That becomes evident from history. Perhaps, today we enjoy too much prosperity for our flesh to experience the blessing of this spiritual bond of the churches in one church-federation.
1. This is the second of a two part series of articles translated from publications by Prof. Dr. W. van Õt Spijker, ÒAspecten van het Kerkverband,Ó Ambtelijk Contact (March 1973 and April 1973). This translation was done and is printed here with the permission of the author.
2. Philip van Marnix van St. Aldegonde (1540-1598) was a Calvinist diplomat and religious writer, active in the revolt of the Low Countries against Spanish rule. He studied under Calvin and Beza. He also had a significant and leading role in preparing for the Convent of Wezel (1568), which had prepared the way for the Synod of Embden (1571). The decisions of the Convent of Wezel (1568) could only be temporary and advisory.
3. Theodore Beza (1519-1605) succeeded John Calvin as professor of theology and leader of Reformed Protestantism. He strove to help the persecuted French Protestants.
4. Alva was still persecuting the believers, but the time was coming closer when the Dutch refugees would be permitted to worship in their own country according to the dictates of their consciences enlightened by the Word of God.
5. It was convened on October 4, 1571, by Òthe churches that are under the cross, scattered in Germany and East Friesland.Ó It met from October 4-13. Kasper Van der Heyden was its chairman. He was pastor of the church in Frankenthal, another of the four major cities of refuge along with London, Wezel, and Embden.
6. ÒIntroducing the Free Reformed Churches of N.A.,Ó 16.