My Ecumenical Manifesto and a Plea to the Reformed Church in America

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

“It is to be numbered among the evils of our day, that the churches are so divided one from another, that there is scarcely any friendly intercourse strengthened between us; much less does that holy communion of the members of Christ flourish, which all profess with the mouth, but few sincerely regard in the heart. … Thus it comes to pass, that the members being divided, the body of the church lies disabled.”

From a letter from Jean Calvin to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, 1552


Protestantism was an unfortunate historical accident. The Western church most certainly had problems–significant problems–and was in desperate need of reform. This is indisputable. Even Roman Catholics today would look back at the corruption and the violation of the church’s own laws and see that there were significant problems. That reform was necessary is not a question.

Even before this, the Patriarch of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople (New Rome) excommunicated one another, though Rome went first, in 1054. At issue was some theological convictions (such as the filioque), liturgical practices (such leavened vs unleavened bread), and governance (such as whether the Patriarch of Rome was a primus inter pares or exercised universal jurisdiction). Language and space led to the church developing its own life within the Roman patriarchate and the other patriarchates of the east. After 1054, the church was broken and the body of Christ was in schism. After this the trajectories that began to diverge and five hundred years of further development and diverged further.

It was this Western church that Martin Luther was excommunicated from. Despite the historical revisionists to give a schism-sympathetic view, he did not boldly leave the church. Unknowingly, Luther lit a match in a powder keg. The enlightenment was beginning as was humanism as people began to look back to the sources. This was the time that folks in the Western church began to look back beyond the Latin Vulgate to the Greek and Hebrew Texts. It was a time in which people began to assert their own identity with their own perspectives and convictions. It was a time after the movable type printing press, which made mass-market production of texts possible. It was in this perfect storm that Luther sought to reform the church.

Forming denominations was never on the minds of the first generation of sixteenth century Protestant reformers. Luther never wanted to start a new denomination called “Lutherans” and Calvin would have lost his mind if he knew there were people were running around calling themselves “Calvinists.” These fires of reform started in all sorts of places which led to the problem of different factions. The genie was out of the bottle.

The first generation of these protesting Christians saw this factionalization as deeply problematic. Perhaps separation was necessary, but it was always wrong. Something can be wrong and necessary at the same time.

Current Reality

Amongst the Protestants, it seems as though Protestantism has become seen as a permanent and self-evident reality. But the reality is quite the contrary.

The Body is Broken, Christ is factionalized, the church’s witness is compromised.

Siblings who share a common confession and common history are divided, siblings in Christ who share similar histories and very similar confessions are divided. If we cannot seek true and visible unity with those, how will we ever seek real and visible unity with those with whom we have more differences?

In my mind, Protestantism remains an emergency measure and should only exist so long as there are things that are fundamentally wrong. I hope that within my son’s lifetime, Protestantism will come to an end. That we will find a way for the protest to conclude, not because essential things were sacrificed, but because understanding has grown.

We are called to tear down walls, not build them. We are called to unity, not factionalization, we are called to a single witness, not the ecclesiastical free market.

A Plea To My Denomination

As my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, is in a process of restructuring. It has never been clarified what they are restructuring, or the foundational assumptions from which they operate, but this is an important time to make this plea.

Secessionists, filled with the spirit of division from the enemy, left because not everyone shared the same ethical convictions as the living out of the gospel message. The majority of them did not, however, join with an existing denomination, because a spirit of division only leads to division. And so they formed five separate church denominations or pseudo-denominations. When we denounced their continuing to divide Christ, they argued that perhaps we should rejoin with the Roman Catholic Church. And they are exactly right.

We have inherited what we have inherited. We do not bear the guilt of the missteps of our forebears, but we certainly bear the consequences of their proliferation of denominations. What we do bear responsibility for, however, is what we do with it. Do we accept the current state as self-evident? Or do we work for something more? Do we work, seriously, for the reunification of the church?

Our current restructuring task force has put “disciples making disciples” as the foundation and goal of their process. However, this couldn’t be more generic.

My question to them is: What unique witness do we offer the world that others don’t? And if we can’t answer this clearly, we should cease to exist.

Our denomination has a very long and storied history over the past nearly 400 years. However, if we do not have anything unique to offer the world in the particular heritage of our witness, we should no longer exist. Just as Protestantism should never be seen as an enduring and self-evident reality, neither should our denomination.

We are divided from those with whom we share so much. The Presbyterians, The United Church of Christ, our fellow Dutch Reformed in the Christian Reformed Church, the Lutherans. The ethnic origins of these churches were once meaningful, but they be no longer. In a world in which everyone is assumed to be Christian, staying separate because one cannot agree on exactly how the real presence of Christ is made manifest in the sacrament may make sense. But this is no longer the reality in which we inhabit. A nationalism with Christian clothing has been growing in our nation, and most of all what is needed is a meaningful, single, unified witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We cannot do this when we are divided.

I love my denomination, and my denomination’s history. However, I love the witness to Jesus the Christ even more. We need to stop gazing at our own navels and begin the hard and serious work to which we have been called. To seek to live into the desire of Jesus, “that they may all be one.”

I desperately hope that part of the plan of the restructuring team is to begin immediate and multilateral conversations with the PC(USA), the UCC, and the ELCA, denominations with which we are already in full communion, to work toward full and organic union. We can take the best of our traditions and add to one another. This is the first step in a long process toward increasing unity, not only organizationally, but in a way that people are able to see. Enough of division. The prophet Isaiah tells the people of God that they “shall be called the repairer of the breach” (58:12).

It is time to repair the breaches that exist, and we must begin with those closest and never give up until the breaches in all of Christianity are repaired.

10 responses to “My Ecumenical Manifesto and a Plea to the Reformed Church in America”

  1. Herman Harmelink Avatar
    Herman Harmelink

    Lutherans and Reformed began uniting in Germany in 1817, and in the Netherlands more recently. There is no longer a Dutch Reformed Church in The Netherlands; why should there be in the USA?

  2. James Hart Brumm Avatar
    James Hart Brumm

    “What unique witness do we offer the world that others don’t? And if we can’t answer this clearly, we should cease to exist.”

    Amen! If we’re not going to be Reformed–as opposed to Presbyterian or American generic–and have a reason for it, we should close up shop.

    1. At this point I’m not even sure if the distinction between British/continental Reformed is meaningful in any real way any longer.

  3. Just finished reading your post today son. Nicely written. Yes, division division division. We humans have always been good at it.

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Wow! Incredible food for thought. Very well expressed. If only all Christians could long for this same unity.

    1. Thank you! I do hope that someday we will get there.

  5. Kenneth Bradsell Avatar
    Kenneth Bradsell

    During my tenure as a member of the GPC, then GSC staff (40 years) there were 3-4 times I almost lost my job. The one time pertinent to your excellent manifesto was when I spoke at an event prior to General Synod in the Midwest and said (unscripted) that I looked forward to a day when the RCA crest banner hanging behind me was hanging as an archival banner alongside those of our ecumenical partners who honored our histories but honored our unity in Christ far more. I suppose, in retired hindsight, I should have resigned and pursued my passion/calling.

    1. Well, don’t should on yourself. I think hindsight is clearer, and that’s where wisdom comes from. But yes, I can imagine (being a midwesterner myself) that that would have ruffled some feathers. But the importance of such unity is ever increasing, I hope we will pay attention to it and not see post-denominational as a road that leads only to increasing congregationalism.

Join in and share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

%d bloggers like this: