After the passing of the FV/NPP report at the recent PCA GA, Jim Cassidy counsels proponents of the FV:
Is there not, brothers, safety in a multitude of counselors? I’ve read some of the responses already by FVers. And quite frankly, I am surprised. They are disappointed, but there is no sign among them that perhaps they might be wrong. Brothers, the vast majority of the Reformed church in America has said that the FV is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Does that not at least give you some pause? I mean, if my brothers spoke so loudly and in such unison to me about my views on a given issue, I would be trembling. Maybe I am weak in my nerves, but when the corporate body of Christ speaks with such unison, I am humbled. Yes, assemblies and counsels may err, but this is the Visible Church speaking here! Aren’t we to have a high regard for the Visible Church? Is she not our nursing mother to feed and nourish us spiritually? Has she not spoken a word of admonition to you? Do you not honor her? Do you not heed the voice of your spiritual mother?
The problem with all of this is that the PCA and OPC are not — and I know that some of you might find this hard to believe! — the ‘corporate body of Christ’ speaking in ‘unison’. I am not sure that it is appropriate to accord ecclesial status to such bodies, even on the local level. The same can be said of any denominational organization or local denominational church.
One of the problems that we have to face is that, in the age of denominations, we cannot simply take the ecclesiologies of previous generations and apply them directly to the local denominational congregations that we attend. The problem of denominations is not, as some suggest, something that originated primarily in the Reformation. There were divisions in the larger Church before the Reformation. However, there was not a proliferation of denominational churches on the local level. Even after the Reformation in a number of places this remained largely the case. Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed churches were not originally denominational churches in the quite the same way that Baptist, Methodist and other such churches were.
That situation has long since changed. However, it is important that we appreciate the type of ecclesiastical situation within which people like Calvin formed their ecclesiologies. The Reformed Church of Geneva was not quite the same sort of entity as a local PCA congregation. Its ecclesial status was far less questionable, as it was far closer to the biblical model of a local church. Our world, in which everyone chooses to belong to some denomination or other (where everyone is, technically speaking, a ‘heretic’), is far removed from the sort of world that the early Reformers thought within. Consequently, we must give serious attention to the disanalogy that exists between their situation and our own when reading their ecclesiologies.
The Church that we now belong to has changed radically since the age of the Reformation and we need to think theologically about the situation that now faces us. In particular, we need to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches. This is something that has been argued by a number of people, from the Orthodox John Zizioulas to the Presbyterian John Frame. The Church — whether local or universal — is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The same cannot be said of the local denominational congregation. There are countless denominations, so it is utterly inappropriate to speak of them as ‘one’. As John Frame observes:
The church is holy, not in that all Christians and congregations are morally perfect, but in that God has set his church apart from all other institutions in a special relationship to him. But Scripture gives us no reason to believe that God has placed any human denomination in such a special category, except insofar as it is part of the church as a whole. Among those denominations which are truly parts of the body of Christ, none is in this sense any more holy than the others.
The local denominational church is certainly not ‘catholic’. Even in addition to their exclusion of those of other denominations, local denominational congregations often have an attendance that is weighted strongly in favour of people from particular class, ethnic, linguistic and educational backgrounds. Different denominations tend to attract different kinds of people. For instance, you are often more likely to find the local evangelist attending a non-Reformed evangelical congregation. The local expository preacher and exegete is less likely to be within the charismatic congregation down the road.
The local Church that you belong to is not the local denominational congregation that you attend, important though that congregation is. Biblically speaking, the local Church that you belong to is defined more by geographical than denominational or confessional lines. The local denominational congregation that you attend might be more closely analogous to a Gentile Christian group in Antioch in the first century. Such a group is part of the local Church, but it is not the local Church. The local Church includes Jews and Greeks, male and female, slave and free. In our situations, the local Church will probably include Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.
In light of this, we should beware of giving too much loyalty to denominations. The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination. We need to become more concerned about the progress of this larger work than we are about the progress of the cause of our denominations. We need to become more committed to the larger cause of God in our area than we are to preserving our particular denomination’s identity. We may be a Puritan of the Puritans — concerning the confessions, a Westministerian — but be called to count this identity as loss, so that we might better serve the Church of God in our locality. The fact that we often value such denominational and theological identities more than we value the local Church that God has placed us in is a tragedy.
In the situation of disunity that we find ourselves in, the task of working towards unity between denominations is a difficult one. Unity must always be in the truth. For this reason unity with ungodly groups is very dangerous and sectarian, tending away from the unity that God calls us to strive for. However, this doesn’t mean that we can write off unfaithful denominations altogether. Roman Catholics, for instance, are still Christians, just as the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were still the people of God (and treated as such by the prophets), despite their many idolatries. We should still work towards unity in such cases, even though full institutional unity is impossible as long as things remain as they are.
There are a number of important practical steps that we can take in the direction of unity. One of the things that saddens me is witnessing the manner in which many Reformed people will condemn those who do not hold to precise formulations of doctrines such as the imputation of the active obedience of Christ or the covenant of works. Such doctrines are not the gospel and are not of primary importance. They are ways in which many of our forefathers sought to protect the truth of the gospel, but they are not themselves the gospel. To make such doctrines essential to the gospel is a deeply sectarian move. Those who make such theological moves often see themselves to be protecting the purity of the Church, when they are actually isolating themselves from the rest of the Church.
The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.
Our theological dialect is merely one expression of the Christian faith (even supposing that it is a better expression than others). Such a degree of dissociation between these two things is important. We must remember that our dialect is not a language in its own right and that we need to ensure that we do not make ourselves incomprehensible to others who share that language with us. Many theologians do not engage with many beyond the small circles of their own theological traditions. Consequently, their regional dialect is very much in evidence. Should a visitor from a different theological land happen upon their writings, they would find it very hard to understand them.
In many of the current theological debates we face problems of dialects vs. the language. For instance, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is well-established language in the Christian tradition. Many Reformed Christians and evangelicals fiercely resist using such language to speak of their theological positions. I believe that in such instances we should go out of our way to try to find appropriate ways to use the common language. The fact that such language has become problematic in our theological dialects is probably a good sign that we need to bring our dialects back into greater conformity with the language of the rest of the Church, lest we become sectarian and incomprehensible to other Christians.
They are few things more frustrating than trying to speak to someone with a very strange dialect, with a very peculiar vocabulary and grammar, who blames you for not being able to understand him. Theological traditions that develop such peculiar vocabularies should do their best to keep them in check. There is nothing wrong with a theological dialect having some words that are peculiar to its vocabulary, provided that these words do not stand in the way of communication with others. Also, if at all possible, we should try to speak in ways that make us more comprehensible to people from other theological backgrounds. Most theological traditions are guilty of confusing others by their specialized vocabularies to some extent or other.
We should particularly beware of accusing people of not speaking the ‘language’, simply because they do not speak our dialect. Our dialect is not the standard of orthodoxy, even though it might be a better way of articulating the faith than others. Someone may resist including such expressions as ‘covenant of works’ and ‘imputation of active obedience’ in their theological vocabulary and still be perfectly orthodox.
Seeking union in the local Church despite the existence of denominations is not easy. There are different levels of unity that we can achieve in different situations. In my experience, it is when we seek to express our deepest convictions in our common language, and downplay our particular dialect’s peculiarities of expression, that we are most likely to begin to find true unity. There are situations where sin and error pose obstacles to unity, but there are numerous other situations where a far greater degree of unity could be enjoyed, if we only had the vision and determination to strive towards it.
What are some concrete ways in which we can work towards a greater degree of unitry between denominations. Here are a few brief suggestions:
1. Recognize the discipline of other congregations in your locality.
2. Recognize the ordination of people from other denominations and don’t force them to jump through too many hoops to serve within your denomination.
3. Recognize the baptisms of people from other denominations, including the infant ones.
4. Admit people from other denominations to the Table.
5. Read widely, beyond your own theological tradition. Seek to learn from other theological traditions and encourage crossfertilization of ideas.
6. Become friends with people from other denominations in your area.
7. Pray for the various churches in your locality and ask them to pray for you.
8. Seek to co-ordinate evangelistic efforts with other churches.
9. Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality. Doug Wilson helpfully suggests that we rediscover the idea of ‘parish’. If we really started to think and act in terms of the concept of parish we would soon find ourselves enjoying more fellowship with other Christians in our communities.
As we start to relativize our denominational backgrounds and seek to actively work towards a future in which denominations feature less prominently, we should beware of a number of things. We need to be careful not to use a critique of denominations as a way to devalue Church discipline. We live in a situation where there are many rival courts that people can appeal to. In such a situation Church discipline can seem meaningless. I don’t think that it is, even though no single court has the final word. Seeking unity between congregations in recognizing and respecting each other’s judgments is important here.
I am firmly convinced that one of the reasons why the Church is often so impotent in our societies is our disunity. The disunity of the Church hinders our prayers. We do not pray with one voice and set ourselves up as rivals to each other. The Church’s authority to bind and to loose is thus hindered. Seeking unity in prayer with other denominations is very important if we are to enjoy the authority that Christ has given to His Church.
I do not doubt that the day will come when Christ will reunite the Church. God is in control of history and He has broken up His Church so that He might reunite it in a more glorious form. At the moment we live with denominations, but we look beyond these to the day when there will no longer be Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics, but one glorious united body of Christ. The present denominational stage, despite its problems, is, I believe, a necessary part of the growing process, like teething is for children. It is part of the way in which God is working towards a far better form of unity than we can currently imagine. For this reason we must not be impatient and force unity where it should not yet exist. Rather, we should work in hope, enjoying unity where it can be found, but looking beyond all present structures and organizations to Christ’s great purpose and promise for His Church.