Denominationalism defines the modern church. By denominationalism is meant the social existence of the church as a congeries of groupings (congregations) invested by private law with a certain degree of collective or “moral” personality, grouped together voluntarily in associations of greater or lesser geographic extent, whereby these associations are separated the one from the other by statements of faith and church orders.

This is a situation we take for granted, not having known anything else. It is thus for the most part an unexamined state. Yet it involves far-reaching consequences.

What denominationalism has done is divide the church into mostly competing factions, in terms of differences in the detail of their confessions. Because of these differences, churches split into like-minded associations (denominations). These can be viewed as pillars – a sort of “vertical” segregation. And these denominations in the nature of the case are loose associations of effectively independent individual congregations. This is “horizontal” segregation. The upshot is congregationalism: denominationalism establishes congregationalism as the mode of existence of the modern church.

These two dimensions of ecclesiastical segregation have fractured the force of the church in society. The effect and influence of the church is restricted to that which these segregated congregations can muster. And that not being very much in the great scheme of things, the collective force of the church in society is little more than a scattershot of pinpricks, like an infantry battle line firing uncoordinated salvoes of pellets from bb guns.

So these congregations, conscious of the lack of influence outward, turn inward. And the church becomes a collection of pietistic cells of retreat safely ensconced behind the congregational walls, whereby “building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4: 12) becomes programs of congregational expansion. The congregation is everything; the denomination exists, of course, but it is a means to the congregational end; consciousness of a collective body of Christ greater than congregations per se is obfuscated if not lost entirely. And social action is severely restricted by the awareness of how little this or that congregation can accomplish; and besides, there are charitable organizations that “take care of that kind of thing,” not to mention the welfare state’s vaunted “safety net.”

But this is not the whole story. Unity there will be, by hook or by crook. And the vehicle to achieve collective action on the part of churches, or at least church members, is political action. To some extent this compensates for the dispersion on the ecclesiastical front. It can be argued that this has been the method for American Christians since the breakup of the established churches in the various states making up the Union. It is part and parcel of the Enlightenment agenda, according to which religion divides while the generally human (the correlate of which is a universal natural religion[1]) unites. In this state of affairs, we do not have to agree on doctrine or dogma – a form of civil religion serves the purpose well enough to uphold the ethical claims of Christianity, enabling Christians of all stripes to cooperate with regard to temporalities while leaving to one side those pesky spiritualities.

Such an agenda seemed to serve the purpose well enough in the past, when the ethical systems of Christians and non-Christians lined up more or less the one with the other, but increasingly and distressingly, the divergence between the two has become painfully evident. The result has been the celebrated culture wars. But not to worry – political action could be harnessed for phase two of “unified Christianity” with the rise of the “Christian Right,” the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and whatever other organized form it might take. The latest iteration is probably the Tea Party. While these efforts might not enjoy the support of every Christian – usually, the more educated if not more left-leaning believer rather looks askance at them, if not with outright abhorrence – they do harness a great deal of grass-roots, salt-of-the-earth, common-ordinary-everyday Christians to the cause, the kind of person that, if truth be told, made America great.

What has been the result? For one thing, because churchgoers have found their locus of unity in politics, they have become more adept at speaking the language of Locke and Rousseau than at speaking the language of Canaan. We talk a lot about our rights – freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion – and very little about God’s claims on society and mankind. And in the meantime, putting all our eggs into the political basket turns the church into a vehicle of politics and political agendas. When it doesn’t turn the preacher into a surrogate politician, it imports into the church the spirit of party, the spirit of interests, and the (surreptitious) willingness of leaders of these movements to acquiesce in a spirit of compromise on issues over which at bottom there can be no compromise, regarding which the Word of God and the law of God speak clearly and unequivocally, and woe betide the nation that sets that Word and that law aside.

But the political process so subverts our way of thinking that we begin to think that it must prevail over those eternal verities, that there can indeed be a round of horse-trading of absolute truths, that the alternative – a higher law above the political process – is too horrifying to contemplate, especially when it means giving up our notions of civil (least-common-denominator) religion, the gentleman’s agreement that no longer carries the force it once did.

But what is the alternative? Are Christians simply to renounce the political process, democratic institutions, the gentleman’s agreement to agree to disagree, and be satisfied with nothing less than a theocratic state along the lines of (mutatis mutandis!) an “Islamic Republic of Iran” or some such-like barbarity?

Perish the thought. In these discussions, one ought to keep in mind that it is Western Christian civilization that voluntarily introduced the institutions of modern democracy, and voluntarily yielded so much of its prerogative to the forces of secularism. To repeat, this was done voluntarily, albeit with a lack of knowledge. For it has opened the floodgates to forces of intolerance that should never have been given that opportunity. But that doesn’t mean that democracy cannot be recovered such that these abuses can be remedied.

Be that as it may, the political process is not the be all and end all of a polity. We have made it such. In so doing, we have subjected everything of absolute value to the horse-trading of a game of interests and the spirit of faction. We have to draw a line in the sand and call out to the political process, “thus far and no farther.”

In the past we have done this through the institutions of private law: property, contract, family, private association. But increasingly through the instrumentality of legislation, these bulwarks have been undercut when not overthrown by the seemingly invincible advance of a political agenda embracing and regulating every area of life.

Perhaps we need to start with the church, and try to reverse the fateful descent into denominationalism that has led, among other things, to the politicization of Christianity. But where to begin?

Actually, there is a book which addresses this very issue. Not in so many words, for it was written for another time and another ecclesiastical condition; but the author, in attempting to make sense of where the church in his country had gone off the tracks, and how she might get back on the right track, was so kind as to expound universal principles that might serve to restore to the church an understanding of who she is and what she is and what she should be about. And in the process, recover a notion and, slowly but surely, a reality of a unified church, a church that, as the Dutch expression concisely puts it, “makes a fist” and so brings to bear the claims of God on the polity and the nation.

The author’s name was Philippus Hoedemaker (pronounced WHO-duh-mah-ker; translated, it means “hatter”), and his book was entitled The Church and Modern Constitutional Law. Actually, the subject was broader than the title would indicate. It is the idea of the church per se, and in consequence, it draws inferences regarding her place in terms of law and constitution. But that is quite enough to provide a not-inconsequential shove in the right direction.

Hoedemaker’s purpose was to address the condition of the Dutch national church in 1904. What has that to do with us? Quite a bit, as it turns out. For when Hoedemaker put his finger on what ailed that church, it turns out that that ailment was denominationalism. In other words, despite the status of the official Dutch Reformed (known as the “Hervormde”) church as the established, national church, the church arrangement (since the restoration of the monarchy in 1815) was a form of denominationalism by which the church was splintered into individual congregations and kept from any functional cooperation or more general assembling. This was effected by establishing a board arrangement atop the church, a bureaucracy exercising control over the church in the interest of the government, which as it turned out, was nothing other than to curtail the church’s influence in society. This arrangement was anathema to Hoedemaker, and it precipitated his thorough examination of the church “according to divine right,” as he put it, whereby he unearthed the principles of the church so as to determine whether this board arrangement could even remotely be considered biblical (it couldn’t), and if not, what the biblical arrangement might well be. Hence, this exploration of the church according to divine law is an exploration of the biblical bases and principles of the church.

It would be going too far afield to unfold Hoedemaker’s arguments in all their range and depth. But to our point – the locus of unity – Hoedemaker’s argument is compelling. As if by a prophetic vision, he argued that the Reformed church needed to recover the power of association, not as private individuals forming private clubs, but as congregrations retaining their integrity and represented by means of their own office-holders at more extensive levels of assembly, so harnessing the power of individual congregations into unified wholes acting collectively as with one mind. For the church never was and never is simply the local congregation; she is the body of Christ in her collective entirety as well.

The effect on society at large of such an expressed unity would be enormous in and of itself. Or, to cite Hoedemaker’s analogy:

If we compare the confession of the [unified] church to a building placed in the middle of a park, and the legislator to a landscaper who has been called to lay out that park entirely independently, it speaks for itself that the location of the house, when the architect takes it into account, determines the location of garden paths and flower beds. Still, it cannot be said that the architect has lost his independence. He is only taking existing data into account.[2]

Indeed. Facts on the ground must be taken into account, and even the most blasé and pragmatic politician will be moved by them. It works for the homosexual movement, which exercises an influence belying the number of actual homosexuals; why shouldn’t it work for a church restored to her birthright and confident in her mission?

Given the historical background of the Dutch Reformed church, Hoedemaker’s ideal would have been to restore her Presbyterian form under the Three Formulae of Unity. A fine ideal for the Netherlands, but even then not to be reached without the consent of the congregations, and Hoedemaker realized that, given the range of doctrinal discrepancy then obtaining in the “Hervormde” church, such an ideal would be one to strive for over a period of years, and one not to be obtained by imposition. The example of the Scottish Presbyterians in the English Civil War is not one he would imitate.[3]

But are his recommendations only to be attained by pursuing the expansion of Presbyterianism? I think not. And in fact, church tradition offers an alternative approach: quite simply, that of conciliarism. As with the condition of the church in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is the struggle for the locus of unity that impels us to seek to reestablish that unity in the face of disintegration. Then, it was the failure of the papacy to unite the church; today, it is the failure of the churches themselves to attain any unity at all.

But what of the various councils of churches such that litter the ecclesiastical landscape today? One need only examine the agendas put forward by such councils to see that they function exactly the way Hoedemaker’s bête noir, the board arrangement, did: they simply attempt to harness churches to the fashionable political agenda of the day while suppressing the preaching of the Word in its purity. There is nothing of the gospel of Christ in them, and certainly nothing of the law of Christ; just the latest iteration of the religion of humanity on display, in the name of Christ.

No, we should have in mind something entirely different: 1) the unity we seek should be geographic unity; 2) the unity we seek should be comprehensive, including all churches confessing Christ, not just our own denomination; 3) the unity we seek should be grounded in the confession of faith shared by the church in all places and at all times, the truly ecumenical church; 4) in terms of doctrinal specifics, the unity we seek should have as its goal (as opposed to starting point) a broad Augustinian synthesis.

As Hoedemaker argues, we do not create the church, nor is she brought into being by us; she is already there, invisible; only she becomes ever more visible the more we give shape to her, the more we establish the offices, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and the exercise of discipline in conformity thereby, at the congregational level; and broad assemblies of office-holders expressive of the body of Christ at all levels.

Would such Augustinian ecumenism do away with denominations per se? I do not see why that should be the case. Congregations can form part of greater unions in terms of doctrinal specifics. But that should not be the only form of unity. There is much more that the various church traditions share than that they differ on. Conciliar movements in the past have foundered on the quixotic quest to achieve doctrinal conformity. But that need not hinder a compound form of unity whereby the denomination forms one axis, but the parish another, the region or state or province another, the nation another. These councils should be a part of church life, manned by officers of the churches in representative fashion, and charged with arranging joint affairs, and making known the claims of God to society at large.

This includes the classic expression of prophetic judgment on the nation, in the tradition of the prophets of old; but it also should include a joint diaconal effort along the lines of Thomas Chalmers’ efforts in early 19th century Glasgow. A true diaconal work shared in by all the churches in a local community, a joint effort that has the potential of doing a lot more good for the brokenness of concrete families and neighborhoods than impersonal public welfare ever could. A regulated parish system – well, why not? What’s stopping us?

In these ways a territorial church system might be organized giving expression to the church as body of Christ. So might Hoedemaker’s vision become attainable for the modern church. And so might we become more faithful to our calling as members of one body.


[1] The defining characteristic of such a natural religion is that it deprecates “organized” religion, in other words, the church.

[2] p. 171.

[3] The section “Surgery, Hygiene, and Therapy” (pp. 134ff.) examines this question in detail.