Church Unity

How should one balance the biblical mandate for unity with the biblical mandate for purity, especially in light of the fact that none of us is as "pure" as we should be? Are there different "levels" of unity for which we might strive, some appropriate in certain situations and others appropriate in other situations? With whom should participants in the World Reformed FELLOWSHIP seek to maintain "fellowship?" Where does "cooperation" in the cause of the Gospel become "compromise?" Where does insistence upon Gospel purity become unnecessary theological "nit-picking?"

This is obviously a particularly important subject for an organization like the World Refomed Fellowship and the materials in this section will seek to address these issues.

"Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church," by John Armstrong

Your Church Is Too Small:

Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church

by

WRF Member Dr. John Armstrong

[NOTE: Posted here is the Foreword and Chapter Six of Dr. Armstrong's book.  Information about ordering a copy of the book is available at the end of this material.]

 

Foreword (by Dr. J. I. Packer)

 

My friend John Armstrong is a church leader who has traveled  the distance from the separatist, sectarian fixity of fundamentalism to embrace the kingdom-centered vision of the church and the call issued by a number of Bible-based theologians and missiologists during the past half century.

What vision is this? It is the one that views the visible church  as a single worldwide, Spirit-sustained community within which ongoing doctrinal and denominational divisions, though important, are secondary rather than primary. In this vision, the primary thing is the missional-ecumenical vocation and trajectory crystallized for us by our Lord Jesus Christ in his teaching and prayer and illustrated in a normative way by the Acts narrative and much of the reasoning of the apostolic letters.

Evangelicals have always urged that the church of God is already one in Christ but have typically related this fact only to the invisible church (that is, the church as God alone sees it).  All too often, they have settled for division in the visible church (the church on earth, as we see it) as at least tolerable and at best healthy. The vision Armstrong offers, however, perceives by exegesis that the unity of Christians, which Jesus prayed that the world might see, is neither unanimity nor uniformity nor union (as he neatly puts it) but loving cooperation in life and mission,  starting from wherever we are at the moment and fertilized and energized by the creedal and devotional wisdom of the past. Thus the internal unity of togetherness in Christ may become a credibility factor in the church’s outreach, just as Jesus in John 17 prayed that it would.

Embracing this vision will mean that our ongoing inter-and intra-church debates will look, and feel, less like trench warfare, in which both sides are firmly dug in to defend the territory that each  sees as its heritage, and more like emigrants’ discussions on shipboard that are colored by the awareness that soon they will be confronted by new tasks in an environment not identical with what they knew before. There they will all need to pull together in every way they can. The church in every generation voyages through historical developments and cultural changes, against the background of which new angles emerge on old debates and truths may need to be reformulated in order to remain truly the same as they were. Not to recognize this is a defect of vision on our part.

This perception, not surprisingly perhaps, disturbs persons brought up to believe that Bible-based doctrinal faithfulness counts supremely (yes, indeed, right so far), and that some form of ahistorical fundamentalist fixity was, is, and always will be the doctrinal last word. John Armstrong knows; he has been there.

His corrected and corrective vision generates deep suspicion and an onslaught against its proponents as confused compromisers. Both he and I have learned this by direct experience. Some years ago, in One Lord, One Faith, Rex Koivisto made many of John Armstrong’s points and was effectively ignored. I hope this book will not be ignored but will have the influence it deserves. Aspects of North America’s future—aspects, indeed, of the honor and glory of Christ in this century—may well depend on whether or not it does.

J. I. Packer, Advent 2009

Your Church is Too Small

Chapter Six:  Christ the Center

Only in Christ are all things in communion. He is the point of convergence of all hearts and beings and therefore the bridge and the shortest way from each to each.   As we looked at how Jesus prayed for unity among all his disciples, we discovered that this unity is based on the relational and cooperational communion that existed between the Father and the Son during his earthly ministry. This divine unity between the Father and the Son forms the basis for our own experience of unity with other Christians. But how is our experience of unity, as followers of Christ, bound up with the success of Christ’s mission?

The late Roman Catholic theologian Raymond E. Brown provides helpful insight in his exposition of John 17:
As in [John] 10:16, believers (evangelized by different disciples) are not one flock, but unity is prayed for. vital contact with this future generation and all subsequent generations will not be lost, for Jesus will dwell in them. The indwelling of Jesus, the Christian’s earthly share in eternal life, provides the great bond of union connecting Christians of all times with the Father. Jesus’ love for them is the same as his love for his immediate disciples: a love patterned on the eternal love of the Father for the Son. (So perfect is this love that it will force even the world’s recognition!) And they too shall have a share in the eternal glory of the Son.

The Biblical and Historical Basis for Christian Unity

Christian believers have lived in different nations, cultural contexts, and ethnic settings since the middle of the first century. They have spoken a myriad of languages and have worshiped the triune God in diverse ways. Yet in Christ they remain one people because there is only one flock and one shepherd. Expressions of this one communion may vary, but Christ remains at the center. The issue of whether or not the whole church should be visibly organized will continue to be discussed and debated. But this much is true: we are spiritually one, not two or three. My understanding of biblical oneness combines two commitments that are often considered separately. The first is a commitment to work in every conceivable way to demonstrate and express the God-given spiritual oneness I share with other believers through our union with Christ. This means a willingness to work with the Christians I know and with those I don’t know well. It includes my closest friends and family members as well as churches halfway around the world. Whether people are a part of my church communion or another — Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — I begin by recognizing I am one with them in Christ if they call him Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). Growing in biblical oneness with other believers begins with a commitment to aggressively pursue specific ways to demonstrate our common love for Christ.

But my second commitment goes even further. Many Protestant evangelicals are satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness. Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches. I believe the pursuit of oneness means we must not shy away from opportunities to engage in relational and cooperational unity between churches—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.

Though the three great historic branches of the Christian church cannot presently pursue union with one another, they can seek greater relational and cooperational unity even as they pray for ways to address the historic differences that have led to disunity in the past. We must never settle just for personal  oneness with other individuals. The pursuit of biblical oneness embracesa concern for the unity of the  wider church as well. I personally pray every single day that this would become a reality between churches, locally and globally.

I am often asked, "Do you think the great divided churches will ever become one church?" I often respond by asking, "Who can possibly know what God will do in the centuries ahead?" Could people from centuries past have foreseen what has transpired in the last century? For hundreds of years, Catholics and Protestants were fierce enemies. Entire nations and families were divided. Bloody wars were fought over these differences. Following the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and vatican Council I in the late nineteenth century, no one could have predicted what would happen in the twentieth century. What might happen in the twenty-first or twenty-second century, if Christ has not returned?

Who can know what the Spirit will do as the world grows smaller and the church grows larger? What will happen in Africa, where the fast-growing church and the fast-spreading religion of Islam exist side by side?

Perhaps the most important question, though, relates to Christ’s mission: How will God finally accomplish his purpose to save a people from "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9)? Though I see no obvious reason to say the church must become organizationally united, I do believe we will see and experience unprecedented relational unity when Christ finally returns and his prayer is fully answered. If the answer to this prayer is certain, what might happen prior to Christ’s return?

Will the Spirit lead us to embrace unity, bringing us closer to the final consummation?

Already we see evidence for the spread of a Spirit-given unity that defies our old categories of division. I welcome all serious interactions between churches and individuals who want to pursue the supremacy of Christ together. If Christ is truly the center, Then we can move toward him and find fellowship with one another in the process.

This two-commitment approach may seem obvious to those who love the church. But it has practical consequences for those who consider themselves evangelicals. It means I can no longer be an anti-Catholic, evangelical (Reformed) Protestant. With deep conviction, I am compelled to regard both Catholics and the Catholic Church with love and esteem. This personal commitment to oneness has enabled me to draw great blessings from the Catholic tradition and develop many wonderful friendships with Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

Our Sense of Oneness

For the first thousand years of its history, the church universally maintained an interest in unity. However, in 1054, this unity was radically and tragically altered by the East/West split. Centuries later, the Protestant Reformation broke the Catholic Church’s unity in Europe. The events that followed produced new visible church communions in Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Among Protestants, the Anabaptists and the various Free Church movements further divided the visible church.

While both sides of the sixteenth-century debate initially tried to preserve the unity of the church, each side made decisions that would eventually make this all but impossible (at least for the next five centuries).

As I studied this era of Western history, I discovered a virtually unknown story. Leaders on both sides found compelling reasons to preserve unity even as the church was being divided. For many of the leaders of the Reformation, division was never seen as a desirable result. But as the rhetoric increased and the conflict grew more intense over time, deep divisions developed. Since the sixteenth century, countless church splits have only deepened the chasms between churches.

Still, an amazing reality points to the ongoing work of God in the church. Despite these tragic schisms, there remains a deep desire for unity within the hearts of many Protestants and Catholics. The Protestant theologian G. W. Bromiley expresses this sense of oneness:

[The church] has been split by innumerable dissensions and disagreements. It has passed through many crises and vicissitudes. It has known ages of the most violent individualism as well as the most submissive collectivism. But for all the legitimate or illegitimate variety it has never lost its ultimate and indestructible unity.

The ground of this undeniable sense of oneness is found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Jews were the people of God. They were not two peoples, but one people. Even though they were divided into twelve tribes and later became two different kingdoms, they still remained one chosen people descended from one man. When they left Egypt, they left as one people, and when God gave them his law, it was not a law for many nations and groups but a divine treasure for one people. Yes, they fought civil wars and turned on each other at times, but in the end nothing could destroy the inherent oneness Israel experienced when she remembered her divine origins and the one covenant that united her.

The New Testament does not alter this principle of unity as a characteristic of God’s people. The church consists of people from every tribe, nation, and language, but all of them find their fundamental identity in one person—Jesus Christ. This principle—of the one and the many—is rooted in the communal nature of God as Trinity. The ethnic ground of unity, as seen in the Old Testament arrangement, has passed away. In its place we find the spiritual unity of the new covenant—a new unity rooted in one Savior, whose death and resurrection give birth to one organism, the church. For this reason, Bromiley has concluded,

The whole structure of the New Testament church, or churches, shows us that there is a strong and indissoluble sense of unity not only with the local congregation but extending to the church as a whole.

We should never become complacent about the disunity of God’s people. We must cultivate a holy discontent about our unholy divisions. ?

When Israel under the old order was brought to an end, it was not destroyed but was fulfilled in the new covenant. (This doesn’t mean ethnic Israel has no place in the plan of God [see Romans 11] and certainly doesn’t justify any form of anti-Semitism). What emerged from the old covenant was something in continuity with the holy intentions of God for his one people. The unity once confined to a single ethnic people is now a spiritual reality—"a "holy nation, God’s special possession" (1 Peter 2:9) that is  inherently one, since Christ is the Lord of the church and Christians are brought into his church through faith in him. As Christians, true spiritual unity is the oneness we experience as we are drawn to Christ together.

The Old Testament was the Bible of the early church, and it taught that there could be only one temple of God, not two or three. But the writers of the New Testament Scriptures taught that the one temple was now a new temple. The church of God is made up of "living stones" that are built into a "spiritual  house"—a new temple where we collectively offer spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Peter 2:5). If Christians are to truly live out the reality of this one (spiritual) temple of God, then there is no place for rival,  competing movements. There is one "place" where we worship—the mercy seat of Christ. Christ is also the cornerstone of the new temple, with the apostles—their teaching and witness—as the foundation. As followers of Christ, we are the blocks that make up this living temple, fitted together by God, the architect and builder of his church (see 1 Corinthians 3:16 –17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21–22; Hebrews 3:6).

I find it helpful to think of the worldwide church as a large circle. At the center of this circle is Christ. As people on the outer edge of the circle move inward toward Christ at the center, they grow closer to one another. This Christ-centered unity is not found in man-made structures or efforts to achieve oneness. It is the fruit of our nearness to Christ and is modeled on the unity that Christ experienced with the Father. It is a relational unity, experienced and revealed through shared mission.

Ignatius of Antioch once said that where Jesus Christ was, there you saw the catholic church. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann adds to this idea and suggests that the church is present wherever "the manifestation of the Spirit" resides.  The British theologian P. T. Forsyth rightly contends that the unity of the church lies "not in itself but in its message, in the unity of the gospel that made the church."5In some sense, all of these views are correct. The incarnate person of Christ, the indwelling presence of the Spirit in the hearts of believers, and the proclamation of the gospel message are all essential  characteristics of the relational unity that defines the oneness of the church.

The German martyr-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has sometimes been viewed as a radical who wanted to do away with the "religious elements" of the church. But Bonhoeffer remained a faithful Lutheran to his final day. He rightly stressed that the who question—our identity—must always come before the what question—our practice: When I know who the person is who does this, I will also know what he does. His stress was always on the Christ who came before the church, on the Christ who judges the church, and on the Christ who stands at the center of the church.

His famous lectures of 1933 bear the title, "Christ the Center."  In later chapters we will consider mission as a key component of our unity, but at this point it is crucial to remember that true unity always begins with the question, Who is Jesus Christ? Only by beginning with the person of Jesus can Christians develop a serious approach to unity, since our unity is found in Christ alone, not in the visible structures or particular practices of individual churches. In this sense, Bonhoeffer was right. If we are to pursue unity, especially in the church of the future, we must begin with Christ at the center!

Questions for discussion and reflection

1. Do you believe there is only one church? If so, what does it mean to you? How does it affect your understanding of your local church and its witness?

2. If there is only one church and Jesus is Lord of that church, what should your response be to schism and division? How should you deal with personal disagreements that you have with other believers and churches?

3. How does the growth and development of the church in the non-Western nations impact you? How can the church in the West respond to these changes?

4. How can you make sure that Christ is at the center of all you are and do?

Comments about "Your Church is Too Small by Christian leaders":

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." Too often, these words of Jesus from John 17:20-21 seem like an unreachable ideal. But in  "Your Church Is Too Small," John Armstrong shows that Jesus’ vision of Christian unity is for all God’s people across social, cultural, racial, and denominational lines. With attention to his own pilgrimage and growth in ecclesial awareness, John Armstrong explores here the evangelical heart and ecumenical breadth of churchly Christianity. I am encouraged by his explorations and commend this study to all believers who pray and labor for the unity for which our Savior prayed.

— TIMOTHY GEORGE, senior editor, Christianity Today

Dr. Armstrong’s irenic approach should make it easy for Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—to engage the challenging thesis of the book, while recognizing that there remain points of doctrine among them that will require further clarication. Anyone concerned about either evangelism or Christian unity should read this book and take seriously its call for both mission and ecumenism.

— FR. THOMAS A. BAIMA, provost, University of Saint Mary of the Lake

John Armstrong is one of those evangelical theologians who know that full obedience to Christ embraces the historical transmission through which we know him. is book refuses to scale down the bearer of that tradition—the historical church, that is—or reduce the authority of its voice.

— FR. PATRICK HENRY REARDON, senior editor, Touchstone

This book is a must-read for anyone who has grown weary with Christian divisiveness and schism and longs to discover ways of strengthening the bonds that unite us in the Spirit of Christ.

— CHUCK COLSON, founder, Prison Fellowship

The link to order "Your Church is Too Small" is: www.yourchurchistoosmall.com. From this site, you will be directed to Amazon.com, but Dr. Armstrong's ministry, ACT 3,  gets 5% of all sales if this link is used.

"Our Anglican Heritage: Continuity and Discontinuity" by Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi

DIVINE COMMONWEALTH CONFERENCE

OUR ANGLICAN HERITAGE : CONTINUITY & DISCONTINUITY

A paper presented by the Most Rev. Dr. Benjamin A. Kwashi

November 2011

INTRODUCTION

In order that we may be able to appreciate the true nature of our Anglican heritage, and thence be able to discern patterns of continuity and of discontinuity, it is essential that we are clear in our understanding of what that heritage is, and what it entails. We are concerned here not with mere matters of denominationalism, or what makes an Anglican different from a Roman Catholic of a member of ECWA, or any denomination for that matter. The heart of our faith and of the gospel supersedes all such divisions, as St. Paul made abundantly clear in his life and teaching.

A Christian Israeli Report on the Gaza Conflict

The material below was submitted by WRF member David Zadok

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." (Gen 3:15)

Ever since the fall there is a constant struggle not only on the human part. Immediately we come to Genesis four and we are confronted with the murder of the innocent. The sin and the struggle continue as long as we live in this fallen world. One of the ugly faces of the sin is war. Whether war is a justified war (and I do believe there is such thing) or not, it always brings death, damages and disasters. However, wars not only show the reality of the depravity of man, but also give us hope! For me that hope is two-fold. First the hope that one day there will be no more war, as there will be no more sin and therefore no more death and tears. And on the second hand the hope that we have in Christ who has conquered death, and who will one day bind Satan as well. In His death and resurrection we have seen the fulfillment of the Proto-evangelium (Gen. 3:15), and yet more is to come at the consummation.

For most of us, as Jewish Christians, the war brought home a real dilemma. On one hand we know that every war causes death and destruction and sows the seeds of hatred in those who suffer casualties and loss. Yet on the other hand, we were aware of the tension and stress in the southern cities of Israel that suffered more than 8000 rocket attacks over the past eight years with more and more towns and cities coming within range of the missiles as those improved. On each side, whether Jew or Arab, there is a natural tendency to be loyal to our own side and to hope our side “wins”. As Christians, whether Israeli, Palestinian or American, is it right to feel like this? Are we to forsake nationalism for the sake of our new man? Or, how ought we to feel when a missile lands 3 houses away – as it happened to us as a family? Answers to these questions, and a solution to the moral dilemma are not always obvious. However, no matter what our nationalistic identity and tendencies might be, we should not forget the suffering of the other side, and their hurt and tears. We are all created in the image of God.

Reconciliation is needed on both sides. But for both sides the greatest need is for reconciliation to God, through Jesus Christ. We Israelis need to return to the God of our fathers and to embrace him, and his Son as the lamb of Passover. The same is true for the Palestinians. Peace, true peace can become a reality only if the majority of the people on both sides come to a personal knowledge of the Prince of Peace.

In the aftermath of the war, as both sides are busy fixing and rebuilding, let us pray together that through the bitterness the Lord will bring sweetness, and from the rubble will build his church on both sides of the border. In light of the situation, we in HaGefen Publishing are trying to raise funds for the publication of a book on parenting in the Arabic language. This is the first project that we will be doing in Arabic, but we feel that not only the message of the book by Tedd Tripp (Shepherding a Child's Heart) is needed, but the message of peace and reaching out in these hard times is important as well. We published this book in Hebrew and Russian last October, and now hope to publish it in Arabic. If you wish to receive more information, please write to David@ha-gefen.org.il  

David Zadok,
Field Director
Christian Witness to Israel, HaGefen Publishing

A Christian Palestinian Report on the Gaza Conflict

The material below was submitted by WRF member Munther Issac. It is a communication from Dr. Bishara Awad, President of Bethlehem Bible College. 

Dear Friends and Prayer Partners,

Thank you for your prayers and concern for the Gaza people. At Bethlehem Bible College we have five students from the Gaza Strip and we have some refugees from Gaza that are staying in Bethlehem and are visiting us at BBC. We have also been in direct touch with friends and relatives in Gaza. What they tell us is all the same: they have no food, no water, no electricity and they are afraid for their lives. Once the war is over we will find more about the amount of destruction and the loss of life. The news agencies do not have enough access to the Gaza Strip due to Israeli prohibitions. Therefore it is difficult to find out exactly what is going on. I suspect things are much worse in the Gaza Strip than what we are seeing on our TV screens.

From our direct contacts with the folks in Gaza we have learned that people are in need of security, food,
fresh water, electric power, fuel for cooking, clothing and blankets.

BBC, through the arm of the Shepherd Society, is working with local churches here to try to raise funds
for Gaza.

Sincerely,

Bishara Awad
President
Bethlehem Bible College


For further information, contact Munther Issac at muntherissac@gmail.com  

When Is It Right To Leave A Church Or A Denomination?
by Sam Logan


One of the HUGE issues facing the global church today, as at many times in the past, is how to identify situations which make it biblically appropriate for us to leave a church or a denomination.

Both in my historical studies and in recent conversations, I have encountered many examples of what could be called “church splitting,” where individuals or groups of individuals determine that the local church or the denomination of which they have been a part has made decisions or taken actions which justify and perhaps even mandate their leaving that church or denomination.  Sometimes the reasons given seem to me to be more “personality-based” than “principle-based.” 

I believe that one of the primary hindrances to the missional work of the contemporary Christian church is the divisiveness which “the watching world” sees when it looks at Christians, especially evangelical Christians.  What are non-Christians likely to think when they see nearly 30 different Presbyterian denominations in the United States?  What are non-Christians likely to think when they see more than 100 Presbyterian denominations in South Korea?   What are non-Christians likely to think when they see the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland Continuing, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the United Reformed Church of Scotland, etc.?

In June of this year, my wife and I attended the GAFCON event in Jerusalem.  GAFCON is a ten-year-old organization representing the approximately 50 million evangelical Anglicans from around the world who support the 1998 Lambeth Resolution affirming that biblical marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman.  GAFCON Anglicans are distressed that the mainline Anglican church has failed to discipline those Anglicans who, since 1998, have recognized and affirmed same-sex marriages.  The Jerusalem meeting focused primarily on that issue.  But another issue also became evident during the conference - should those Anglicans who support the 1998 Resolution remain in ecclesiastical fellowship with those churches which seem not to be acting in accord with that Resolution?  On this issue, I sensed significant disagreement.  That disagreement seemed to me to reflect some of the disagreements which produced the many divisions cited in the previous paragraph.  They also suggested to me the kinds of issues which led to the Old Side-New Side, the Old-Light-New Light, and the Old School-New School divisions in the 18th and 19th evangelical Presbyterian Church in the United States (and very few contemporary Christians of any sort seem to understand those splits!).

I therefore determined to seek wisdom from other evangelical Reformed Christians such as the members of the World Reformed Fellowship.  I did so by writing to a few such individuals to request their guidance about this matter.  In my request, I asked both for principles on the basis of which leaving would be appropriate and specific actions which embodied those “leaving” principles.  I mentioned that, in the U.S., the ordination of women has been such a reason which some have believed justifies leaving a church or denomination.  Part of the reason for my use of this specific example came from my experiencing sharp criticism from Ugandan women in our GAFCON prayer group for even suggesting that women should not be ordained.  After all, I was assured by those Bible-loving Ugandans, “Women are the best preachers.”   

I felt that it was appropriate for me to reveal my own position to those to whom I had written although, of course, my present position is certainly open to correction as I learn from others. 

The responses I received are below, preceeded by a quick summary of my present position.  I hope that YOU, members of the World Reformed Fellowship, will add your comments on “The Question” as it has been posed below.  You may do so by signing into the WRF website and posting your comments below.  [If you need to be reminded of your sign-in information, just contact me at the email address listed above.]

In addition to the comments directly below, two longer treatments of this issue are attached.  The first of these focuses on the idea of apostasy and was written by Dr. Rob Norris, Chairman of the WRF Board.  The second focuses on the unity of the church an was written by Dr. Andrew McGowan, Chairman of the WRF Theology Commission.

I pray that this little exercise might actually lead us all to take more seriously Jesus’ prayer:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”     John 17: 20 – 23 (NIV, Emphasis Added]

 The Question:

How Do We Determine When It Is Appropriate To Leave A Church or To Split From a Denomination?

 Sam Logan present position:

The church is not like a country club.  It is "the body of Christ" and I believe, therefore, that I must not intentionally rend that body.  Of course, the body may become “ill.”  And, if I believe it has become "ill," I believe that I am responsible to take actions and speak words to try to bring healing as I understood the healing required by the Bible.  Of course, if the body has become sufficiently ill, it may resist my “medicine” and may ultimately expel me . . . but then, if there is any blame, the blame is on the body and not on me.  I believe that this position is consistent with how both Martin Luther and J. Gresham Machen acted.  [Luther did not “leave” the Roman Catholic Church; he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521. Machen did not “leave” the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.; he was suspended from the ministry by the Presbytery of New Jersey in 1935.]  Far more important, this approach seems to me to be consistent with the teaching of Scripture about the nature of the visible church (Westminster Confession, Chapter XXV, paragraphs 2 and 3.).

Response #1:

The Reformation teaching on the marks, or notes, of the true church is relevant to the issue of when ecclesiastical separation is called for.  Our Lord (Matt. 7:15-20) and the apostles Paul (1 Tim. 4:1-5), Peter (2 Pet. 2:1-3), and John (1 John 4:1-6) all foretold that false prophets would arise within the church.  Such teaching was clearly to be opposed, but what is not so clear is what to do when the false teaching takes over the institutional machinery at the congregational or larger ecclesiastical level.  Calvin’s marks of the true church are the faithful preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline (the third being only implicit in the ‘Institutes’, but explicit in his ‘Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto’).  I believe that the third is also explicit in the English Reformation martyr and pre-Puritan John Bradford and in Bishop John Jewel’s ‘Apology for the Church of England’ (1562), which may be particularly relevant for your Anglican context in GAFCON.

You are right in citing the examples of Luther and Machen as cases of ones who were expelled from their ecclesiastical contexts and thus had little choice but to separate.  The same might be said for pre-Reformation biblical reformers such as the Waldensians in southern France and the Piedmont of Italy, John Wyclif and the Lollards in England, and Jan Hus and some of the Moravians.  It is a little more complicated for the followers of leaders like Luther and Machen and subsequent generations to know when separation may be justified.  My ultimate criterion is when one is compelled by one’s ecclesiastical connection to act or speak in a way that is unfaithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.  I believe this must be left up to one’s individual conscience, which can be affected by circumstances and timing.  Different people will draw different conclusions according to the varying contexts.

This is why I believe it is wise for broader fellowships like WRF not to define membership on too narrow a basis.  This also was true of the old National Presbyterian and Reformed Fellowship (NPRF) that George Fuller led.  It maintained contact between those already separated and those still remaining in the mainline denominations, which helped enlarge the eventual new, more biblical denomination in the South in the 1970s in a way that did not happen in the 1930s in the North.  Part of my summer reading is Sean Lucas’s well-researched and fascinating ‘For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America’ (P & R, 2015).

I hope this helps!

Response #2:

This GAFCON tests the ENCOMPASSING LIMITS of the UMBRELLA CHURCH.  Will opposing beliefs and values result in two churches with mutually exclusive ‘orthodoxies’, or will they stay UNITED as sides agree to disagree within the framework of traditional polity and liturgy.

Behind these options (can there be more than two?) are strongly held teachings regarding  the universality (portability) and indelibility of baptism, confirmation, and ordination. 

For that reason, I think the only real options are (1) split or (2) stay united but without portability.  Thus, for example, churches may ordain women but allow other denominations, churches, pastors, etc. to disregard such ordination with ecclesiastical impunity.

We shall see!

Response #3:

Quotation from Sam: “Further conversations among other GAFCON participants revealed that, while some GAFCON participants believe that women should not be ministers/priests/preachers, that simply is not an issue worth fighting over.  In fact, one participant told me that, if the issue were ever raised, it might destroy GAFCON.”

Response: That's probably true.  Women's ordination seems to be the third rail in GAFCON. 

Quotation from Sam:  "Is women’s ordination an issue over which the church should be split?  Is gay marriage an issue over which the church should be split?" 

Response:  Context (both synchronic and diachronic) is important.  In some church contexts (such as my own) the ordination of women has been closely linked with the issue of the authority of Scripture.  That linkage is even more evident on the gay issue.  The latter matter, of course, is complicated by the visceral response many have.  I've long been amused by what I call "PCUSA homophobes"--those folks who would put up with all manner of heresy for decades and then left the Presbyterian Church over the gay ordination issue.  Is gay ordination more important than the Trinity or the deity of Christ?  Of course, as someone said, "you don't have to explain buggery to the ruling elders," and I'm sympathetic to the argument that such a denial of what Tom Wright calls the foundational "binary" of male and female demands an unequivocal response.

The ordination of women is particularly knotty because everything about the broader direction of our culture tends to render opposition to women's ordination suspect.  It also tends to split the church anyway because liberals will not allow conscience clauses for conservatives in the long term--I wrote an article years ago in the Covenant Sem journal noting that the liberal exclusion of conservatives was inevitable in that women's ordination is a polity issue (of course, it's more than just that) and everybody has to own the polity, the ground rules for how the game is played.  Thus, push came to shove in the old UPCUSA in the Kenyon case over the ordination of women elders (the fundamentum of Presbyterian polity). 

Now for the diachronic angle, I tend to view women's ordination in similar terms to clerical celibacy.  Both are unbiblical and have unfortunate consequences, but there were cultural reasons why the West demanded it for over a thousand years, and we're probably going to have to put up with it now for quite a while. 

Dunno if that amounts to anything, but there you go.

Response #4:

Let me preface my brief comments by saying I know GAFCON leaders and the influencers who began it are men I met thirty-plus years ago. I have followed this movement with profound interest, at least for a time, because I have friends in it and around it. I am also sympathetic, as you are, concerning gay marriage being a biblical practice, or simply put it is NOT a biblical practice. I have tried to get my head and heart around the issue and have friends on every side of it so far as I can see.

Now, your question. I am “with” you 110%. I do not think we should leave but rather stay and force the truth questions by our actions and words both. This requires careful and wise leadership skill and being a peacemaker. Our Lord showed the way. His Spirit still leads us in the way. Your asking the question about women in ministry is more than ironic as these very leaders would have been flat out opposed thirty years ago.

I have a dear friend in the ACNA who is rejected and badly treated because he will not support GAFCON and attack Episcopal brothers and sisters in his diocese/region. He left the EC over this issue but that is not enough. He must become the enemy of GAFCON’s enemies to be accepted and this he cannot do in good conscience.

So I am conflicted by this form of schism. I would not leave but I respect those who did. Having said that I do not respect, nor think it right, to attack the Anglican Church in the way GAFCON has and is doing. You’d think Archbishop Welby is a heretic by these attacks and he is anything but such a person.

I am on the so-called frontlines and see the cold, hard edge of this. Brutal opposition to good leaders routinely. The Episcopal diocese of Dallas, Central Tennessee, Central Florida (Orlando) and Jacksonville (FL) are all training and ordaining evangelical men and women to leadership and ordaining them openly. Why? Their bishops have taken a stand against LGBT ordination and practice yet done so without dividing the church visible. They are courageous and honorable men. I cannot turn against these bishops and say that them not leaving is sinful.

Response #5:

This is very hard. I agree with you. Illustrations: Alistair McGrath book on heresy: yes, significant doctrinal issues were decided in the early church, heresy was on the table. But not at the time of the Reformation, not in all those Protestant divisions, they were ongoing struggles with half-truths, and power was also on the table!! I’m startled by that, but you could say there was a Reformation because the pope shut down the discussion. Kaw and grace, law vs. grace have always been on the table, ambiguities with Norman Shepherd, radical dispensationalism. I doubt Machen should have started that Independent Board, why not just designate support to missionaries in those evangelical missions areas. 15% admin fee, no big deal. Why so casually dump Clarence Macartney et al. Why independent WTS? Machen had a call from Dubuque, or a presbytery seminary in Duluth. Why defend Board only by claiming heresy, why ignore the Calvinistic Methodist union in 1920 with its policy that missions are supported by free-will offerings?’ Clark/Van Til? More positively, Christ’s commands are very focused on caring for the poor, but no one is ever disciplined for not doing that.

Homosexual sex is sin, no doubt about it. How shall we care for those with that temptation? That controversial St. Louis PCA meeting may show the way. Try to find out what’s happening? There have been too many foolish splits, yes I doubt New/Old School was wise, people are converted by the Spirit/their decisions both/and.

Response #6:

I already gave you my comment on how I stayed in the pcusa ( for over 35 years ) as long as I was “free to be faithful”. I actually received phone calls from a number of PCA pastors over the years, asking me if I was free to preach the Gospel in the pcusa. I said, “Yes.” Their inquiry was due to what they perceived to be a lack of freedom to do that in the PCA. They would talk of situations where Westminster seemed to be placed on a higher authoritative level than the Bible. They were seriously considering transferring into the pcusa. Though I announced to HPPC that I was planning to exit the pcusa, I never did. I wound up staying in in order to take the call to [another church which was] trying to navigate their way out……and I wound up having charges unjustly filed against me (though I was not at all involved with helping them depart……I just pastored the people while the Session dealt with the denomination ), and then being defrocked because I refused to be a part of a kangaroo court trial. So they booted me out…..I never voluntarily departed (hope I get extra points for that in Eternity).

The issue for me was I was forced to participate in— and pay for—sin in regard to the health plan providing for same sex partners with no relief of conscience granted when I asked for some ( like they did for many pcusa pastors regarding abortion ).

You might want to look at the exchange between John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones back in 1966 as a way of dealing with this issue.

Here’s another question: should we all just go back to the RC Church and try to navigate Mother Church as Reformed Christians? I’m serious.

Response #7:

A quick and incomplete response. There is a difference between disagreeing about what the Bible teaches and disregarding what the Bible teaches. Does the other party acknowledge the ultimate authority of Scripture? Secondly, there is a difference between primary, secondary and tertiary issues. The gospel is surely a primary issue and it would be justifiable to leave when the authority of the Bible or the gospel are disregarded.

Unless you establish some guidelines like this then you can separate over any issue whatever. From your comments it is also apparent that cultural factors must be taken into consideration too.

Response #8:

As to your question - I published an article on this exact subject (with the Anglican journal Lex Orlando) under the auspices of the then Bishop of London - who then left for Rome!  [A copy of this article is attached.]

Response #9:

I think the church should not split on the issue of women's ordination. The issue should also not be forced on churches in some cultures where female leadership is still against the main culture. The issue of allowing female leadership should be left to local churches to decide on. I have read - I can't remember where - that even Calvin said the ordination of females is an issue that should be treated in the same way the eating of meat is treated as a side-issue, or secondary matter, or matter of minor importance in Romans 14.

Several Reformed churches around the world is treating in such a way where some local churches in a denomination would ordain females and others not, but the remain in one denomination.

But I have heard from Anglicans in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, that the main issue for them was the push in the international Anglican church to accept same sex marriages. When they refused to approve same sex marriages the main Anglican churches in the USA and the UK threatened to terminate their financial support. They then made it clear that they will not be pressured with money to accept the acceptance and ordination of same sex marriages. That led them to join GAFCON.

Response #10:

A tough issue.

The N.T. says much about the unity of the body of Christ.  The church where I have my membership (PCA) apparently believes that purity of doctrine and practice trump our Lord's concern for unity. The egos of dissenters seem to get in the way.  Jesus' teaching about logs should apply here. 

At every service of the Episcopal church we rise to affirm our common faith using the Nicene Creed.  I look as belief in the articles of that creed as a church's identification with the body of Christ.  I suppose I could use the simpler Pauline creed, believing that Jesus is Lord and that he is risen, for the same purpose.  I'm apprehensive of "Reformed distinctives" or theological distinctives of any kind. They tend to create and sustain divisions, and take our focus off taking up our cross and following Jesus.

It is too easy to accuse brothers we disagree with as having a poor perspective of the scripture, when the issue may be differences on interpretation.  St Paul wrote (1 Cor 13) "At present I know only a small fraction of the truth..."  We should be very careful of bearing false witness against others in the body of Christ.. 

There are two churches that consider me a member.  Dual membership doesn't bother the Episcopalians; they can be inclusive in a good sense.  At any rate the "rite of church membership" strikes me as a recent development in the history of the church.  I am comfortable knowing that my membership in the church is certified by my baptism - belonging to Christ and his church.

Response #11:

I have read through your email with interest. The unity of the church is something important to me. When, and if, we choose to separate from brothers (and sisters), we must have very substantial reasons for doing so (the Lord is going to ask about that), and, secondly, our attitude toward others (where we have been and where we are going) had better be in alignment with New Testament standards.

I have no special insights in this matter, no inspired wisdom. But it has always been important, perhaps not as important as it ought to be (when I consider my sometimes critical attitude toward others "in the fellowship").

Response # 12: 

The Biblical concerns of GAFCON and the global sweep of the contemporary Anglican Church have brought into high relief the question of whether it is ever legitimate for a biblical church or a faithful believer to leave a church or denomination.   There are weighty arguments for answering no and for answering yes.  Christ’s prayer for the unity of the Church in John 17, the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ and the Christian ethic of love for God and for our neighbor (and even enemies) as well as the Golden Rule urge a strong negative answer to the question.  On the other hand, concerns for the holiness of God, the truth of the Word of God and the Gospel, the biblical call for separation from evil and the examples of biblical reformations throughout the history of the church argue for the positive.

A third answer is also pertinent, that is, it depends on the circumstances.  Scripture also gives us several insights that lead us to recognize that the answer to this question is not always straightforward or necessarily universally appropriate.  Considerations here are the freedom of the believer, the role of one’s conscience, the necessity of doing all things decently and in order, the need to wait upon the Lord and the movement of His grace, and the exercise of the leadership of the church as to whether it is compelling its members to act unbiblically, to disobey God and His Word, or to resist the moral standards of Scripture established by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

It is thus likely in the circumstances that raise this question, that one will encounter individuals and groups that will answer in each of these three ways.  What is especially challenging, therefore, is for a denomination or a leadership body such as an ecclesiastical assembly, a presbytery or church synod to make a determination.  This is because the individuals and groups that compose them will have each of these three perspectives included.  This means that the body seeking to be biblically faithful may be in danger of fragmentation as well when it determines its answer to this question.

In this last instance, this means that such a body must especially be conscious of all aspects of the debate, proceed with care and prayer, and when it is evident that a decision must be made, that requisite concern and pastoral support have been expended to support not just for the prevailing body but also for the concerned members who will not approve of the majority decision reached.  Gospel concern for the care of the majority and the minority are incumbent on the body that is called to wrestle with these enormous issues of ecclesiastical governance and biblical fidelity.  Although both are less than ideal, there is a difference between fraternal separation and a division of animosity.

All said, let us join in praying for the Anglican worldwide community and the GAFCON movement that they will be granted the wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit so that they will allow do their very best to preserve the peace, purity and unity of the body of Christ in such manner that the Lord will say to them, “Well done thou good and faithful servants” regardless of the decision that is ultimately reached in this regard.

 

Older Comments

  Submitted by Trevor Morrow on Thu, 2018-07-19 11:19

It is significant that you raised this question after attending Gafcon in Jerusalem with Anglicans. You are a Christian believer but also part of the American experiment. The United States of America’s church life in the reformed and evangelical tradition abandoned from the outset the magisterial reformers vision and that of the Westminster divines for national churches. It was seen as alien to the American dream. The European practice in England and Scotland continues that commitment in the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The reformers knew nothing of denominations. Their attitude to the Anabaptists is an expression of their opposition to such convictions. They would have seen themselves as reformed catholics committed to the reformation and renewal of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Schism was for them a grievous sin. 

 As a young evangelical being nurtured in reformed theology in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s those to whom we looked for leadership and as mentors were churchmen and women. Men like  John  Stott, Jim Packer and Alec Motyer from Anglicanism, Eric Alexander, William Still, and the Philip brothers from the Church of Scotland, and Alan Flavelle and TS Mooney from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.  These were our models and mentors. They were a minority in largely liberal national churches but they had a vision for the church catholic and its reformation and renewal. They rejected the separatism of  Martyn Lloyd Jones and his call to have a new church of like-minded evangelicals. Eric Alexander said when he began his ministry in the Church of Scotland you could have put all the evangelicals in the Kirk in a telephone kiosk. I came to discover that they had an ecclesiology which was firmly rooted in scripture and the reformers vision of national churches. It was a belief that the church was not a voluntary organization or denomination for like minded people but rather the covenant people of God whom the Lord had never forsaken even in the darkest moments of its existence. It was this ecclesiology which meant that wherever one found oneself on the theological spectrum and in spite of the profound disagreements we worked together in the presbytery and in our congregations because we were God’s people whom he loved and to separate from such would be schismatic and sinful. 

 It is fascinating, as another contributor has written, that ministers who have lived as minorities within liberal national churches with all sorts of fundamental biblical convictions being challenged concerning the person and work of Christ should now raise the issue of possible separation over an ethical issue on human sexuality. 

 As one looking in from across the pond I see the renaissance of reformed theology in the USA expressed in either a baptistic or separatist ecclesiology. It is not surprising then that those who are influenced by movements like ‘the gospel coalition’ should expect those who are faithful to be in like-minded communities. Separation is expected. Hence your question when? It is significant that the large churches which separated from the Church of Scotland over the acceptance of practicing gay ministers chose to become independent and baptistic in their ecclesiology and have abandoned the historic reformed view of the national church as God’s covenant people. In other words what distinguishes those who have left the Kirk and the vast majority of reformed and evangelical ministers who have remained is their ecclesiology. Anglicanism too, with this high doctrine of the church as it is expressed in Gafcon, keeps emphasizing that their intent is not to leave or separate from the Anglican communion but rather to see it become more faithful to Christ as he speaks by his Spirit in the scriptures. 

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  Submitted by Roy Taylor on Thu, 2018-07-19 15:16

Jaroslav Pelikan well described the Reformation as "a tragic necessity."   Leaving a denomination or a national established Church sometimes is a tragic necessity as well in my opinion. The experience of evangelicals within American mainline protestant denominations has been essentially the same regardless of the polity or denominational doctrinal distinctives;   We all have dealt with three issues:

Doctrinal and ethical decline.Lack of accountability and discipline.Abuse of ecclesiastical power.

The plot line is the same though the cast of characters, dates, and events vary with each denomination.  The same cycle for American Presbyterians has been repeated four times in the last ninety years, resulting in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1930's, the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the early 1980s and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians in 2012.  Among Lutherans it resulted in the formation of the North American Lutheran Church in 2009(?) out of the ELCA.  Among Anglicans it resulted in the formation of the Anglican Church of North America formed out of mainline Episcopal denominations in the USA and Canada in 2009. The catalytic event varies within denominations.

Some take the position that they will not leave a denomination until they are forced out or until the doctrinal and/or ethical standards of the denomination are officially changed.  Others take the position that they will leave when there does not appear to be any reasonable expectation that the doctrinal/ethical inertia of the denomination will likely be reversed.  So they leave so that they can focus their time, energy, and resources in advancing the Gospel rather than fighting a losing battle.   Sadly, some leavers (Carl MacIntire comes to mind) spend much of their efforts in fighting the battles of the past or annually denouncing their former denomination.

The stayers sometimes regard the leavers as deserting the battle against liberalism (revisionisn, or whatever term one may use).  The leavers sometimes regard the stayers as lacking convictions or courage.  Often the evangelicals leavers and stayers lose contact with each other.  That happened among Prebyterians for decades. Sometimes leavers and stayers maintain contacts as in the case with Anglicans with GAFCON and the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion.

In WRF we are united by the universally accepted Creeds of the Ancient Church and the Reformed Faith (evinced by holding to a doctrinal standard coming out of the longer Reformation era).  We allow differences in polity whether episcopal, presbyterian or congregational and do not regard ordination of women to be a primary issue on the level of the creeds and confessions.  So we have a fellowship that is broad (catholic [lower-case c] and Reformed).

In my view, we need as many allies and friends as possible, as our culture becomes more secularized and religious freedom is threatened.  An example of cooperative ministry would be Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania.  It was founded to be an evangelical witness within the Episcopal Church.  After ACNA was begun, it trains a lot of people for ministry in ACNA, while some of its graduates serve in ECUSA.  So it serves both leavers and stayers.  In recent years, TSM has developed a Lutheran track for NALC candidiates and a Presbyterian track for EPC candidates.  I think that is a good idea.

Americans have never been part of a national established Church (though eight or the original thriteen colonies had colonial state churches, either Anglican or Congregational).  Individualism is strong aspect of American culture.  Both factors may figure into why Americans are more likely to start new denominations than our British counterparts. 

Evangelical people will come to different conclusions regarding being a leaver or a stayer in a mainline denomination or a national established church. 

As a leaver, I pray for evangelical stayers because I think it will become increasingly difficult for them to carry on their ministries in the mainlines and for them to be effective in turning about the leftward inertia of their denominations.  Moreover, though I left my former denomination over four decades ago, I still grieve that leaving was a tragic necessity. But whether we leave or stay within a denomination in which evanglicals are a decreasing minority, we need to be faithful to the Lord, the Bible, and the Gospel.

When the Church Lets You Down

John P. Wilson

In the C S Lewis classic (Screwtape Letters), senior devil whispers to his apprentice: “one of our greatest allies at present is the church itself”. Screwtape is aghast that Wormwood’s patient has become a Christian, but he encourages his junior devil by saying that the church is in such a mess that “it matters very little … your patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”

I feel sad today, and ask: Is one of the devil’s greatest allies at present the church itself?

It’s one thing to have Australian society approve of same-sex marriage, but when a church approves – it’s disturbing … and confusing. To be sure, not our church, but nevertheless a branch of the Christian church in Australia.

A week ago, the Uniting Church in Australia issued this statement: “To honour the diversity of Christian belief among our members, we will hold two equal and distinct statements of belief on marriage”:

- that marriage is between “a man and a woman”
- that marriage is between “two people”

And with that, for the first time in Australia, we see the introduction of same-sex wedding services within the Christian church. In announcing the decision of the UCA’s highest body (its national assembly) the expression “dual integrities” is used to explain and defend it: they see themselves as holding to dual integrities.
But surely, both ways can’t be right. Both ways can’t be equally valid. It lacks integrity to suggest that they can be.

It’s significant to note in the UCA Moderator’s statement that this decision is taken “to honour diversity among its members”. I concede that it does exactly that – it honours and serves diversity. But is God honoured? I’m let down by a church not placing God’s honour first.

From the Scriptures, we are reminded of God’s wonderful provision for us. He offers to us the path of true and fulfilling happiness:

  • the book of Genesis tells us that God created Adam and Eve distinctly as male and female, with the invitation to multiply and fill the earth; 
  • Jesus affirmed that this continues to be God’s kind provision for us: it’s right and fitting that a man should leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and that they should become one flesh;
  • the apostle Paul, in his letters, taught that any arrangement other than a man and his wife in sexual intimacy – in particular, homosexuality – is against the natural order of things, shameful and dishonouring to God.

The church is called upon to submit to the teaching of Scripture. This is the best way of honouring God and enjoying a fulfilled life. It’s significant to note that the proponents of the Uniting Church (prior to its inception) promised that they would submit to Scripture (see the 1971 UCA Basis of Union for the UCA): the church’s “faith and obedience are nourished and regulated” by the unique testimony of the Old and New Testaments. Further, the church’s preaching will be “controlled by the Biblical witnesses”.
In contradiction to its own Basis, here is a church not allowing Scripture to regulate her. This is refusal to be “controlled by the Biblical witnesses”; a flagrant disregard for the plain teaching of God’s Word. This is the result of fancy theological footwork explaining away the testimony of God in the Garden of Eden, of Jesus himself and the apostolic witness.

We should not be surprised – we who have observed from a distance have seen such fruit previously. Jesus said that you will always know a tree by its fruit. It comes 41 years after Rev Dr J Davis McCaughey in his UCA inauguration address, 22nd June 1977, referred in his sermon, broadcast over ABC national television, to “the legend of the virgin birth.” Church drift starts with the smallest departure from the teachings of Scripture. Dismissing the trustworthiness of Scripture leaves a church without sure footing. It’s a church no longer standing on a platform but a slope.

At a more practical level, how can it be honouring to God to compose a prayer for the new wedding service that dares to ask God to bless a union and a lifestyle that displeases him? How is it possible to pray for God’s blessing on something that dishonours him? Isn’t such prayer nonsense? When does prayer become blasphemy?
Members of the Presbyterian Church of Australia – how should we respond?

  • Let’s earnestly pray for the Uniting Church in Australia. God can revive a church, even as he did way back in the days of King Josiah and his prophet Zephaniah. God revived and blessed his Old Testament covenant people after the re-discovery of the Word of God and following fresh allegiance to it. We have many dear friends in the UCA. There are many loyal, faithful and dedicated Christians in it. I’m not close enough to know how things work within the UCA, but I wonder if this decision was driven “from the top” – by ideologues in positions of authority … and therefore it’s a decision that disturbs and even appals many UCA’ers in the pew.
  • Let’s pray for the churches and members who are part of the ACCC (Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA) who endeavour to maintain clear testimony to the evangelical faith informed by belief in the Scriptures as the final authority for the church.
  • While we do not seek to proselytise among members of other churches, we need not discourage those who approach us for worthy reasons, especially since we are a church which clearly upholds biblical faith and practice. Let’s be sure that a warm and genuine Christian welcome awaits any visitor from the UCA earnestly seeking a new home. Some see this decision as the watershed moment for them, the tipping point.

The PCA is not a great church. We can be so slow to respond to good things that a church should do to help a hurting world, we’re not brilliant at adapting to our ever-changing culture, and we even have disputes among ourselves at times … BUT we’re still a church worth joining. Especially so because we are devoted to Jesus Christ the Saviour, we love the Scriptures as God’s Word – inspired and without error, we preach the evangelical gospel for the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and we are zealous for evangelism and mission throughout the nation and across the world.

Sometimes, the church will let us down. Christ never will. We should make it our goal to please him.

 

WRF Member John P. Wilson is the Moderator-General of the The Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA)

Viewing the Baptismal Font as Half Empty: How To Choose a Denomination

by Dustin Messer

I recently had coffee with a friend who is seriously considering leaving one denomination for another. His reasons for seeking my advice had less to do with my wisdom and more to do with my experience.

After growing up in a godly, Baptist home—after years of ministry in a healthy Southern Baptist Church—indeed, after graduating from an excellent Baptist college, I became a Presbyterian. To be sure, I left the SBC in a good mood. I wouldn’t trade my Baptist upbringing for the world, and I still reference my notes from Chad Brand’s Baptist History class on a regular basis—his brilliance is still awe-inspiring.  My transition from the SBC to the PCA felt more like a skip than a leap. Said differently, my conversion wasn’t motivated by any perceived weakness in the Baptist tradition. I left because of what I saw as the strengths of the Reformed tradition. This, I now believe, was a mistake.

Now, before you go questioning my Reformed bona fides, let me explain. I’m a committed Presbyterian. My denominational fate was sealed the moment I saw the most beautiful girl in the world wearing a shirt that read “Presbyterian!” God uses “means” to lead us, and sometimes those means wear perfume and have the whole of the Westminster Shorter Catechism memorized. In those cases, you marry the means! It was destiny—maybe even pre-destiny. But back to the point at hand, I’m a happy Presbyterian. I still hold to all of the theological positions and interpretations which motivated my realignment in the first place (and I’m still married to the beautiful Presbyterian!). What I believe was a mistake, looking back, was my optimism. I viewed the baptismal font as half-full, in other words. If I had it to do over again, I would have joined the PCA for her weaknesses, not her strengths.

If you only choose a denomination because of her “best practices,” you’ll always be disappointed. Calvin won’t be your Presbyter, Cranmer won’t be your Bishop, your church will likely not be on Wesley’s circuit. Joining a denomination because of her strengths has a way of making the convert somewhat grumpy. We view ourselves as second generation Israelites in exile, longing for a home we’ve never known. Depending on what you consider the “promised land,” the denomination is too rigid or too lax, too ingrown or too compromising, too modern or too post-modern, too traditional or too progressive. With this mindset, the pastor-brother who does things differently is viewed as a competitor at best, and mere rust on a ship at worst. Churches, further, are simply battle grounds to be won or obstacles to be overcome.

This “competitor” and “battle” mentality is the natural result of choosing a denomination based on “best practices.” After all, think of the theological cage fights which brought you to the denomination in the first place. The choice between Catholic and Protestant consisted of a 4th century theologian against a 16th century theologian. If the Protestant won, you then pitted representatives from various traditions against one another: Calvin v. Arminius, or Whitfield v. Wesley. All of this tussling and you still hadn’t landed on a denomination! Now you had to have Schaeffer v. Van Til, or Keller v. Hart, maybe. Each battle got more and more precise, moving from boxing matches, to basketball games, to chess tournaments.

Of course, the problem isn’t with the competitions themselves. If there is such a thing as “truth” it’s worth finding, and we shouldn’t expect to come to it without a busted lip or two. The problem is with the stakes of the fights: namely, denominational loyalty. If Keller beats Hart, you join the PCA instead of the OPC. However, there are people who sound more like Hart than Keller at General Assembly. Surely, this won’t do—after all, Keller won! Your job, then, is to reenact the “Keller v. Hart” match on the floor of GA and in the halls of your church. Again, in the mind of the arguer, the stakes are the same: denominational loyalty. The winner is “in” and the loser is “out.”

The alternative to choosing a denomination because of her “best practices” is choosing a denomination because of her “worst practices.” Then, your choice isn’t between “X 4th century theologian and Y 16th century theologian.” You can keep them both! Rather, you’ll decide between “X sin (praying to an icon, say) and Y sin (anemic view of the sacraments, say).” Choose the denomination because, at its worst, it still doesn’t command you to do something God forbids or forbid you from doing something God commands. Meticulously account for the “worst” in each denomination, all along the way asking: “can I live with this?”

If you can’t live with X in a denomination, then spare everyone the heartache and don’t join the denomination which consists of many who hold to X. However, if you’re able to live with the state of the denomination, even after evaluating what you perceive to be her “worst practices,” then by all means, join! This doesn’t mean you can’t debate serious theological issues with your brothers and sisters. It simply means that your brothers and sisters are just that, and neither the “winning” nor “losing” party will be excluded from the next family picture.

My friend asked me to get coffee because he wanted advice. After much listening, I simply told him the following: view the baptismal font as half-empty. Sure, love the “best” that your tradition has to offer, but make sure your love is for the denomination you’re joining, not the one in your mind. After all, the utopian-denomination of your mind likely never existed in the first place! Don’t be so homesick for Eden that you fail to march on to the New Jerusalem. Make your peace with the church’s purity, and then do your best to preserve her purity and peace.

 

A Boyce College graduate, Dustin served as Editor-in-Chief of The Bantam Journal at Covenant Theological Seminary before graduating from Covenant in 2014. Under the supervision of Donald Macleod, Dustin is currently pursuing his M.Th. at University of Glasgow/Free Church College, focusing on Scottish Theology. Dustin holds membership in a number of academic societies, including the Evangelical Theological Society and the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship. He and his wife Whitney worship at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, TX where Dustin serves as the Pastoral Assistant.