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One han' caan clap, no, one han' caan clap, Tell it to de worl' dat one han' caan clap!

Chorus based on Jamaican proverb

The chorus "One Han' Caan Clap" points to a basic truth about life and being human. It is something we all know from daily life: none of us can go it alone. We need one another to share our joys, sorrows, strengths and our weaknesses. One hand alone cannot clap!

This is a song that our various traditions should sing often, for not only people but also churches need to be reminded time and again that one cannot live, function and develop alone. It is in relation to others that, generally speaking, we become more ourselves. The Reformed family is gradually becoming aware that, in this respect, all is not well. We also realize that even within our denominational family we are not optimally giving shape and content to the inherent unity of the church nor - and the two are not unrelated - optimally engaging in the church's God-given mission. [1] It is this awareness that has led the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the John Knox International Reformed Centre to create the Mission in Unity project 1999-2002 (MIU).

Central to the MIU project is the metaphor of the church as the "body of Christ", with an understanding of church and mission similar to the one set forth in the World Council of Churches' (WCC) document The Nature and Purpose of the Church. [2] Regarding the church's purpose, its raison d'etre is to share, as Christ's body, in Christ's mission. Regarding its nature as Christ's body, the church consists of many different parts and it is only within the larger body that they can find their purpose and be energized for their individual tasks. Thus, mission and unity are two sides of the same coin, i.e. two features which define the church, whereby - theologically speaking - the given unity is for the sake of mission.

When looking at the church as it exists in reality, however, it is clear that simplistic equations like "more church unity equals better mission" or "disunity results in a lack of mission" will not do. The ecclesial reality is more complex than that. Nevertheless, the present disunity and unconnectedness in the Reformed family certainly does not enhance credible and creative witness; in fact the contrary is true. Hence the MIU project seeks to raise awareness about the problem of division and disunity in the Reformed family for the sake of the churches' mission, and to accompany Reformed churches as they search for new expressions of working and witnessing together in a particular context. This process takes different forms in different countries and situations, but underlying all are the basic questions of our understanding of the being of the church, our understanding of mission and the church's role in it, and the ways in which our ecciesiology and understanding of mission mutually influence and challenge each other. Thus, the questions that the MIU project poses to the Reformed family are very similar to the ones which this consultation poses to the wider ecumenical family.

For this reason the WCC organizing team suggested that the Mission in Unity project perspective become the starting point for this exploration of ecclesiology and mission in the Reformed tradition. What does one see when looking at the Reformed tradition with MIU project spectacles? Before attempting to answer this question, however, two preliminary points should be made.

First, the word "Reformed" is used here in a comprehensive sense. It refers not just to churches which have the word "Reformed" in their name but also to those which call themselves Presbyterian, Congregational and Disciples of Christ, or in some cases evangelical (e.g. Germany), as well as those united churches which have some of these roots. A recent survey lists more than 800 churches which consider themselves to be part of the Reformed family worldwide. [3]

Second, until recently my work focused more on mission than ecclesiology, which means that Reformed ecclesiology is a relatively new field for me. Thus what is offered here is a very tentative attempt to describe how Calvin's spiritual sons and daughters understand and give expression to "church" and "mission" today. It is indeed no more than a Reformed perspective from a particular and limited viewpoint, and will thus need to be complemented by other Reformed perspectives.

Some Reformed ideas of church and mission

What does one see when looking at the Reformed family through MIU glasses? I see, first of all, a family that shares a long history with all the other families present at this consultation. It is important to note that for many of us here the period during which our church traditions were one is much longer than the period of separation. Therefore, as Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Orthodox, evangelicals and Reformed we are bound to share many important insights into church and mission. As well as these common convictions, however, the Reformed family came to place some specific emphases of its own in the 16th century. This was the time when ferment and change in Europe led to new insights regarding the nature of the church, the authority and potentialities of the Bible, and the relation between God and people. Some of this thinking was subsequently captured in key phrases like sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia. Thus, our ecclesiology and mission vision is defined both by notions we have in commo n with other traditions and by ideas that are typically Reformed.

Regarding the latter, I see a family where there is much room for variety. As Reformed churches we seem to have a variety of everything: of church orders, of baptism and ordination practices, of confessions grown out of crises, and liturgies generated by contexts. This is so much the case that it is often said that what is typically Reformed is that nobody knows what is typically Reformed. Yet there seems to be an underlying clarity to the great diversity, viz: the conviction that the primary, authoritative source for understanding God, the world, ourselves and the church is scripture. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that in the final analysis scripture does not give a blueprint of what the church should look like or how it is to be organized. Nor would we, it is said, accept the idea of an infallible interpretation of scripture even if it contained such a blueprint. The gospel, it is affirmed, comes alive anew in each time and place. This suggests that the Reformed tradition consciously embraces a wonderful diversity of ecclesiologies and mission theologies. In theory, therefore, we could, even within this one tradition, live out that biblical vision of the body with its many different but interdependent parts all finding their identity and purpose within the larger whole.

Nevertheless, as indicated above, it is precisely at this point that the Reformed reality is less wonderful than one might expect. We have become increasingly aware that what characterizes the Reformed family is not only a beautiful diversity but also, at times, a diversity that is made absolute to the extent that it leads to division and disunity. Rather than functioning as a family, to a considerable extent we are a collection of individually operating entities which often do not know each other, do not work together, sometimes even compete with one another, and have a rather high rate of splitting and multiplying. In this context, it is significant that of the more than 800 Reformed churches and communities in the world, only some 215 belong to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Some churches belong to other Reformed international structures like the Reformed Ecumenical Council but many others are not part of any international network. This contrasts with, for example, the Lutheran family, where more than two-thirds of all the world's Lutheran churches belong to the Lutheran World Federation, thereby giving concrete expression to the vision of the body of Christ as a global as well as a local reality.

Over the past ten years, much time has been devoted to analyzing the reasons why such a sense of global community appears less developed in the Reformed family, and the reasons for the strong tendency to split. Though processes are usually complex and factors seldom operate in isolation, several key Reformed insights and features have been identified as potentially dangerous when overstressed. For example, the strong emphasis on the significance of the local church -- important as it is -- can, when overstressed, easily lead to a disregard for regional, national and indeed the universal dimension of the "body of Christ". Likewise, the strong emphasis on the centrality of the word may have meant that disagreements over the theological interpretation of that word could easily lead to splits, as little else that happened in the church was seen as more important than a "correct" understanding of scripture. Of course, there are also other and less inherently theological reasons for the plethora of Reformed churche s everywhere, such as the founding of separate Reformed churches by missionary societies in the past, ethnic identities and migration, leadership conflicts and competition among mission personnel. However, documentation suggests that it is indeed important to revisit certain aspects of Reformed ecclesiology. [4]

MIU programmes

To address this concern, the MIU project is presently conducting a worldwide inquiry with Reformed theologians and seminaries, to explore further the specific elements in our ecclesiologies and mission theologies which help or hinder efforts to maintain unity in the Spirit. Meanwhile, other MIU programmes seek to assist groups of Reformed churches in particular countries or regions as they search for new ways of working and witnessing together, as for example in Southern Africa, Bolivia, Korea and Uganda. Likewise, the MIU project stimulates processes whereby mainline churches in, for example, the United States of America and The Netherlands, prompted by a changing demography, explore the missiological questions and challenges implied in the new situation of a plurality of cultures and nationalities. Do mainline churches and immigrant churches relate and cooperate? How does each group understand its ministry and mission? Are there possibilities to work and witness together as different members of the one body ? [5]

In this first part of my paper it is suggested that there is, in fact, a wide variety of Reformed ecclesiologies, and that this is positive in as far as churches actually share these with one another and thus complement each other's thinking and practice, and thereby live out something of the reality of the body of Christ. However, it is also suggested that for a considerable number of the world's Reformed churches their disconnectedness from one another and the larger Reformed and ecumenical family means they do not share in the process of becoming what they are meant to become, viz, truly interdependent, missional churches. In view of this, the MIU project was created to "tell it to the world that one hand cannot clap". There are, after all, many within the Reformed family who, like myself, have grown up in situations of disunity and have come to accept the plethora of Reformed churches in their country as part of the scenery, and now search with churches for new expressions of mission in unity.

Holistic mission

What the discussion so far has not explicitly addressed is the question of how mission is actually understood in the Reformed tradition. In the perspective of the MIU project, one could refer to the idea of "mission in Christ's way", as discussed in the 1989 San Antonio conference on world mission. It is clear though that in the wider Reformed family there is a great number of different mission concepts, and probably an even greater number of mission practices. That is the reason why WARC has embarked on a comprehensive process of rethinking and reinterpreting mission for the 21st century, of which the MIU project is a part. With this process, WARC is responding to the requests from many of its member churches. WARC obviously wants to take account of what the wider ecumenical movement is doing in this respect but also intends to revisit the long history of Reformed mission engagement and renewal.

Reflecting on the specificity of Reformed experience in mission, the following may be noted:

1. The Reformed tradition has favoured the creation of church communities for mission. This refers to the fact that several traditional mission societies in the North, and their partners in the South, found the courage and commitment to put the "partnership in mission" ideals of the 1 970s into a structure and a process for mutuality and power sharing. It can be noted, indeed, that the Council for World Mission (London), the Communaute Evangelique d'Action Apostolique (Community of Churches in Mission, Montpellier) and the United Evangelical Mission (Wuppertal) are all at least partly of Reformed origin. Perhaps there is something in Reformed ecclesiology that facilitates the birth of these new kinds of mission-focussed structures, and the surfacing of an "unless the grain dies" theology which undergirded the dismantlement of the old, Western-dominated mission structures.

2. In recent years WARC has also embarked on a process of "Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and on the Earth". Starting from the assumption that globalization has developed features which foster economic injustice and the destruction of creation on an unprecedented scale, WARC has called on its member churches to engage in a common process of reflection, confession and action. It is hoped this will result in a common stand vis-a-vis the negative aspects of globalization. It is a process is confessionis, as the programme initially was called. Implied in this process is a holistic understanding of mission. This type of mission witnesses to God's love and will in word and deed in the face of all that separates people from people, creation and God; and in the face of all that negates life in its fullness for all, be it economic structures, false ideologies or human weaknesses. As WARC engages in this process, we revisit our Reformed tradition of restating our faith for the time in which we live, especially at times of great ferment and oppression. Thus, we can draw not only on the 16th and 17th century confessions, but also on contemporary examples, e.g. the Barmen Declaration drawn up in Nazi Germany, the Cuban confession drawn up in the context of the Cuban revolution, the new Taiwanese confession, which grew Out of the struggle for human rights and self-determination and the Belhar confession developed in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. All of these are the fruit of mission and aim to inspire mission in the essential sense of living out the gospel wherever-we are.

3. A third process to be mentioned when exploring Reformed understandings and foci of mission is WARC's programme on partnership between women and men. On the assumption that a church is not complete if some of its members are not allowed to be full partners in its ministry and mission, the programme challenges member churches to explore to what extent women and men are indeed equal partners in church and mission. In this context, it is interesting to recall that in our tradition the Waldensians ordained women as far back as the 12th century, while the congregationalists in the United States realized the importance of it in the mid-l9th century. Today, about half of all WARC member churches practise women's ordination, thereby changing significantly what the church and its mission look like; new ecclesiologies and mission understandings are emerging.

Potentialities and problems

In summary, it would seem that the Reformed tradition has both potentialities and problems with regard to church and mission. We can draw on a heritage of important emphases, and the old motto of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda expresses our commitment to reinvent a credible church with a credible mission for each new time and context. We also have problems in that such hard needed reform often does not take place, or it develops into split and division. However, we are increasingly aware of the discrepancies between our vision and our reality of church and mission, and that, I think, gives hope.

It may not be an exaggeration to state that our world is burning. The statistics about, for example, AIDS orphans, child soldiers, people living below the poverty line and people living without a sense of hope and meaning, are well known. In June 2000 the UN Summit for Social Development that was held in Geneva, Switzerland, highlighted once again that the commitment to change, for greater justice and a liveable world for all, is disappointingly small. Our world is burning and what is lacking sometimes in our churches and ourselves is urgency; something of that profound longing with which the disciples asked: "Lord, is it now that you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" [6] They had seen in Jesus something beautiful, a new way of living and relating for all, and they yearned for it with passionate longing. Something of this same urgency can be heard in David Bosch's definition of mission: "that dimension of our faith that refuses to accept reality as it is and aims at changing it." [7] It is my since re hope for this consultation that indeed we will find understandings and processes that enable us to work and witness more closely together, but that even if we have not yet sorted out all the implications and acceptable vocabulary, we do, at least, get going. To end with a classic statement of Calvin, "All true knowledge of God comes from obedience (to God)." [8] It is in the process of doing God's will, of concretely engaging in mission, that we will gradually see more clearly what God's will is and what our mission, church and unity should look like.

(*.) Jet den Hollander is the executive secretary of the Mission in Unity project 1999-2002, based in Geneva. She belongs to the Uniting Churches in the Netherlands and has worked for the Council for World Mission (CWM) and the Caribbean and North America Council for Mission (CANACOM).


(1.) See e.g.: And the Net was not Torn: Report from a consultation on mission in unity, John Knox Series No 10, Geneva, JKIRC, 1998.

(2.) The Nature and Purpose of the Church. A stage on the way to a common statement, Geneva, WCC, 1998, p. 13, 14, Faith and Order Paper No. 181.

(3.) Bauswein, Jean-Jacques and Vischer, Lukas, eds, The Reformed Family Worldwide: A survey of Reformed churches, theological schools and international organizations, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999.

(4.) And the Net was not Torn, op. cit., pp. 22-25, 43ff.

(5.) The added challenge in the process between mainline and immigrant churches is that the latter group includes many churches of other denominational families. For the MIU project, it has been clear from the beginning that, while the project is initially set up as a Reformed venture, its horizon is not merely a more united Reformed family nor concrete manifestations of the church universal, however important both are. The beckoning perspective is that of the oikoumene, the unity of all humankind reconciled in God. In view of this, mission in unity between Reformed churches and churches of other denominations is to be encouraged wherever possible.

(6.) Acts 1:6.

(7.) Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll N.Y., Orbis Books, 1991, p xv.

(8.) Calvin: "Omnis recta cognitio Dei ab oboedientia nascitur" (all true knowledge of God comes from obedience). Theo Witvliet has commented: "The Argentinian theologian Jose Miguez Bonino doubtless had this sentence from Calvin in mind when he wrote: Obedience is not a consequence of our knowledge of God, just as it is not a pre-condition for it: obedience is implied in our knowledge of God. Or, to put it more bluntly: obedience is our knowledge of God.'" Witvliet, Theo, A Place in the Sun. An Introduction to Liberation Theology in the Third World, London, SCM Press Ltd, 1985, p. 33.
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Article Details
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Publication:International Review of Mission
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jul 1, 2001

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