Chickens and Eggs - Ecclesiology and Soteriology
Those who were to become the Counter-Remonstrants were in favour of the strict ‘Beza-ite’ theology, a ‘gathered’ church with a clearly identifiable membership, ministers and consistories that confirmed through the exercise of Church discipline who was part of the church community and who was not, a strictly controlled right to take Communion and the affairs of the church firmly in the hands of its ministers. The Remonstrants took a pretty much opposite stance at every turn. Their theological practice was more relaxed, they saw the church as much more embracing of the local community, ministers mainly preaching and exercising pastoral care rather than exercising discipline through the Consistory and Communion over to all who called themselves believers.
1575 Some persons wished the Ministers would be contented to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments without excluding anybody from the Holy Table … The same persons… said the establishment of Consistories was a new sort of monkery and that the clergy would in time make use of them to encroach upon the Civil Government as they had done in the time of popery.
1578 Hubert (Duifhuis – Minister of an evangelical but not strongly Calvinistic church in Utrecht) had a conference with three Reformed Ministers: he was asked in that conference whether he had not read the small treatise of Beza, wherein he shows that the magistrate has a right to punish heretics with death. ‘Ah! Gentlemen’, said Hubert, ‘is this the thing you are aiming at? Let not my soul partake of your counsels. I will have no correspondence with such people.’
1579 The magistrates of Leiden declared that no ministers should be chosen, but such as are able to comfort penitent people and reprove obstinate sinners, that the church ought to be governed by Christ alone, and not by minsters and Consistories, lest they should set up for heads of the church and rule over conscience; by which means, the yoke of a new papacy would be introduced to the church.
1580 Gaspar Coolhaes had another dispute with Luke Hespe his colleague. The latter said, that ‘All those who come to the holy table with him, must be of the same opinion in everything; otherwise he would not give them Communion, nor even look upon them as his brethren.’ Coolhaes maintained on the contrary, that we ought to acknowledge for our brethren all those, who, agree fundamental points, and desire to live peacefully with us, otherwise… we must reject John Hus, Luther, Zwingli and many other excellent divines.
What should we make of all of this? There are a number of observations we can make:
A ‘gathered church’.
Our churches are very much ‘gathered’ groups of believers rather than churches that embrace the whole of our community. For the Dutch Reformed, however, their theology of a gathered church came less from Calvin and Beza and more from the pressure of co-existence alongside Anabaptist (Mennonite) churches who, through a strong emphasis on believers’ baptism and church discipline, had developed a strong concept of gathered communities of believers. Whatever else the theological shortcomings of the Anabaptists, they had a clear sense that they were called to be a ‘holy people’ and the Reformed communities knew it! There was a tension in the Reformed communities between a theology of infant baptism which predisposed them towards inclusivity and a doctrine of election plus pressure from the Anabaptists which pushed them towards exclusivity.
A strong emphasis on Church discipline.
For Calvin, discipline held three purposes – the glory and honour of Christ, to bring the sinner to repentance and to prevent sin from infecting the church. Discipline was enforced through the Consistory (a committee of pastors and elders which met on a weekly basis). Yet here again the Reformed were strongly influenced by the Mennonites though they never cared to admit it. Their emphasis on a ‘gathered’ church achieved through believers’ baptism and the ‘ban’ (church discipline) was something of a thorn in the side of the Calvinist churches in the Netherlands. Anabaptists were often more godly in their conduct than the Reformed and the ministers in the Reformed churches knew it if they only cared to look.
In our commitment to a ‘gathered church’ today baptism and church discipline play crucial roles. In New Testament terms it is baptism which surely defines membership of the body of Christ (even if we also happen to use joining courses to undergird vision and values). Let’s also be aware that church discipline used wisely is a vital tool in maintaining the health of the local church. In all of this, however, let’s be aware that our debt lies at least equally with Anabaptism and with Calvinism.