Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

Note: The arguments of this paper have now been made in a fuller, book-length version, which can be found here.


In the Nicene Creed, the church confesses that she believes “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Likewise, in the Apostle's Creed, the church confesses that she believes in “the holy catholic church.” In the Reformed world, we are very used to these phrases. But I think that we have not always done a good job at remembering all that they mean.

The word “catholic” means “universal.” In the early church, it also came to have the connotation of “orthodox” as opposed to heretical, and to denominate a true church over against a false one. The idea of the “holy catholic church” is that there is one Body of Christ in the world, and that one Body is the true Body, holding the true faith delivered to it by Christ, over against other bodies which falsely claim to be the Body of Christ and which teach false doctrine or are divided from the true Body by schism. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Christ is the head of his Body, and as Christ is not divided, so neither should his Body be divided. “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)?

This unity of the Body of Christ, the church, has many aspects to it, as we can see from these passages and from the Scriptures in general. There is a unity in the Spirit shared by all believers. Many in the evangelical world today are content to leave it at that. However, biblical unity implies more than this. Christ has appointed not only the Holy Spirit to be with believers, but he has also appointed outward ordinances by means of which he guides and sustains his people through the power of the Spirit. “Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25:3). Church unity is to be manifested not only informally and spiritually, but also by means of an outward, formal unity grounded in a common church government and common sacraments and other ordinances (1 Peter 5:1-5; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

The unity of the church, both in its spiritual and in its outward aspects, goes beyond particular congregations. Believers are not to formally recognize fellowship within their particular congregations, and then forget all about all other Christians in the world. There is a unity of members and officers within particular congregations, and that unity is to be extended between congregations as well. “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:15-16). Although biblical church government does not possess the hierarchy of officers involved in the episcopal system of church government—such as rule by bishops (in the episcopal sense), archbishops, patriarchs, and the like—yet there is a hierarchy that transcends particular congregations. This hierarchy is horizontal rather than vertical, as officers in the church are able to judge other officers in the church. “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Here we have instructions for how to try an elder in a church court, which would be governed by other elders (Matthew 18:15-17). This horizontal exercise of authority does not stop at the local congregation, but continues throughout the whole church in all the world. “Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22). Just as a local congregational session can judge an officer in the congregation, so a regional gathering, or a national gathering, etc., of church officers can judge an officer or a group of officers in a congregation.  The authority of these gatherings is binding on all those who are under the authority of these bodies.  The logic of this pattern of concentric circles does not stop until it reaches the level of the "whole church.”

Of course, what I have just described is nothing less than the classic presbyterian form of church government (as outlined in fuller detail in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government, written up by the Westminster Divines), which Reformed Christians are aware is the biblical pattern of church government. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government (FPCG) describes and gives names to the several concentric circles of church government, or church courts, which are found throughout the whole church:

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical. . . . It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convent, and call before them, any person within their several bounds, whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern. They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church-censures.

Speaking in more detail regarding synodical church assemblies, the FPCG says this:

The scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call Synodical. Pastors and teachers, and other church-governors, (as also other fit persons, when it shall be deemed expedient,) are members of those assemblies which we call Synodical, where they have a lawful calling thereunto. Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and oecumenical. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that there be a subordination of congregational, classical, provincial, and national assemblies, for the government of the church.

(For additional biblical argumentation in support of presbyterian church government, see here.  For further examination of the Westminster Standards as they speak to presbyterian church government and its implications, see here.)


Presbyterian and Reformed churches have generally been good at practicing presbyterian church government at the congregational and classical level. In the early days of the Reformed churches, national assemblies were not uncommon, though today, because of differing relationships between church and state, we seldom hear much about them. Most Presbyterian and Reformed churches today have a higher synodical assembly above the level of congregational session and classis (presbytery) which usually meets on a regular basis, and is often called the “general assembly” or sometimes “synod.” This assembly is typically understood to be the highest court in each denomination. For example, here is how the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) describes the various assemblies of the church:

Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. (FOG XII:2)

The nature of this “general assembly” in modern Reformed churches is curious. What exactly is a “general assembly” supposed to be, and whom is it intended to represent? The OPC, following the typical pattern, says that the general assembly is the assembly of the “whole church” and is the highest judicatory of the church. Is the claim, then, that the general assembly is what the Westminster FPCG calls an “oecumenical” (or “ecumenical”) synod? The word “ecumenical” has a meaning similar to the word “catholic” as well as to the word “general.” They all mean, basically, “universal,” or “pertaining to the whole.” Is, then, the general assembly supposed to be an assembly of the whole church—that is, the entirety of the Body of Christ on the earth?

Here, the answers from modern Reformed churches tend to be a little fuzzy. This is because there is a tension at the heart of much Reformed thinking today. On the one hand, most Reformed denominations don't want to claim to be the whole church—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This generally seems absurdly presumptuous. Instead, each denomination wants to claim to be only one part of the universal catholic church. But this presents a serious problem. According to biblical, presbyterian church government, the government of the church must extend to the whole church throughout the world. The highest judicatory must be the ecumenical council. And that ecumenical council must have binding authority like all other synods, and not be merely “advisory” in nature. So if a particular denomination remains separated from other denominations and proclaims its own general assembly to be the highest judicatory, and yet does not claim itself to be the whole catholic church but only a part of it, what has become of presbyterian church government? It is betrayed. Christ calls for the unity of the whole church throughout the world. If a denomination only claims to be a part of the whole church, why does it divide Christ by remaining divided from the rest of the church with regard to formal unity? This is sinful schism and an embracing of congregational church government (at least beyond the provincial level). On the other hand, if a denomination wants to remain faithful to presbyterian church government and to the preservation of the formal unity of the church, and yet it still wants to remain divided from other denominations, it must, to be consistent, proclaim itself to be the one worldwide catholic church.

Some Reformed denominations, like the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), at least partly relieve the tension by simply abandoning presbyterian church government beyond the provincial level:

The Synod is composed of at least four Classes and represents the whole Church. It is the highest judicatory and the last resort in all cases respecting the government of the Church. (

John 17 is the premiere passage enlisted to prove organizational unity among all believers. The issue in John 17:21 concerns whether the oneness of the invisible and visible church is horizontal or vertical. Is this a command for all Christians to be so united that they strive to create one worldwide church (i.e., the Reformed Catholic Church!), or is the unity primarily with the Triune God? Three significant features emerge: (1) The unity of John 17 is not organizational unity since the unity envisioned is compared to the union of God the Father and God the Son (vv. 11, 21, 22). John 17 is not teaching organizational unity between the Father and the Son. (2) Christ is clearly not praying for horizontal unity but the vertical. The thrust is not that believers may be one with one another. Rather, it is that they may be "kept" (vv. 12, 21). John 17 is fundamentally a prayer for the preservation and thus perseverance of the saints by virtue of their unity with God. (3) It is impossible to consign all Christians in every era into the same visible organizational body. If this is what "all may be one" really means, then Christ's high priestly prayer will never be answered. However, if it means that believers are "kept" by God the Father and God the Son, it is beautifully answered time and time again and in every generation. In every generation of Christians those "kept" are kept because of their union and communion with God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the high priestly prayer of Christ is not a prayer for organizational unity. The world will believe that God has sent Christ not because of a horizontal unity among churches but because of the church's union with the Triune God. (

On the other hand, other denominations, such as the OPC, maintain a commitment to full, worldwide, presbyterian church government:

The church is the body of Christ and there is no schism in the body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:25). As in the human body, there is diversity in unity and unity in diversity (cf. 1 Cor. 12). The point to be stressed, however, is the unity. If there is unity it follows that this unity must express itself in all the functions which belong to the church. Since government in the church is an institution of Christ (cf. Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 1 Pet 5:1, 2), this unity must be expressed in government. The necessary inference to be drawn is that the government should manifest the unity and be as embracive in respect of its functioning as the unity of which it is an expression. A concrete illustration of this principle is the decree of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:28, 29; 16:4).

The ultimate goal of the unity of the church is nothing less than one world-wide presbyterian/reformed church. ( – This is, in general, an excellent document outlining principles of the unity of the church.)

Denominations like the RCUS are more consistent, but they are consistent in opposition to presbyterianism and the genuine unity of the church. Denominations like the OPC are more faithful (at least on paper) to presbyterian church government and the unity of the church, but they are less consistent because they do not want to either proclaim themselves the worldwide catholic church or unite with those others they profess to be other parts of it.

An important distinction needs to be introduced here. Just as we can speak of the church invisible or the church visible, the same church but in different aspects, so we can speak of the church de facto and the church de jure. The church de facto refers to the actual existence of the church throughout the world. Wherever there are those who profess the true religion, and where the Body of Christ is maintained, there we have, in fact, the Body of Christ, the church. There is no doubt but that the Body of Christ, de facto, can exist in a multiplicity of denominations. The church de jure, on the other hand, refers to the church as formally recognized and as being properly and legally constituted. The two are not coextensive. For example, a minister in a church may have an informal friendship with a person who is a non-member of the church. “And yet,” the minister may say, “so far as I can tell, I think he is a true believer.” This is a de facto recognition. On the other hand, the minister (hopefully) has a formal roll of members, and he regards these members in a special way, as those who are formally recognized as being part of Christ's Body, and over whom the minister is formally responsible to function as a shepherd. Similarly, a minister may have an informal relationship with a pastor in another denomination down the street. He may regard this pastor as, in the providence of God, actually functioning as a pastor to a group of Christians. This is a de facto recognition. However, he has a more formal relationship with other ministers who are in his denomination and with whom he is formally united together in a legitimate presbytery. This is a de jure recognition.

It would indeed be presumptuous for any denomination to claim itself to contain within it the entirety of the Body of Christ de facto. This would be to say that there are no regenerate Christians outside of that denomination, and how can anyone possibly have a basis to make such a claim? The claim is evidently false, so far as we can judge such things. However, for a denomination to claim to be the whole church de jure is another matter. As a matter of fact, every denomination either implicitly or explicitly claims this about itself (at least if it holds to a presbyterian view of church government). The very fact of denominational separation implies such a claim on the part of the separated parties. This is evident from what we have already seen. Each denomination has a court of highest appeal, a “general assembly” of some sort. (Even congregational churches have a court of highest appeal, if they have any court at all. They just limit de jure authority to a single congregation because of their commitment to independency. Although, in reality, most congregationalist denominations are not truly fully congregational, as many of them have ministerial associations and other such bodies that sometimes and in some ways function suspiciously like presbyteries and synods.) This general assembly is general because it is regarded as representing “the whole church.” It is, in effect, treated as an ecumenical council. But who is invited to this general assembly and given full voting rights within it? Only the members of that particular denomination. But what does that say? What does it say when a denomination calls a meeting of “the whole church” and yet only includes (as full voting members) officers within that denomination? It clearly communicates the message that that denomination is the whole church, the worldwide catholic church, considered de jure. There is formal recognition of the authority of officers and assemblies within that denomination, but no formal recognition of the authority of officers and assemblies of other denominations. There may be (and often is) a de facto recognition that there are Christians in other denominations, but there is no de jure recognition of the church outside of the denomination. Each denomination, at least implicitly, claims itself to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Christ, considered de jure; and this claim entails that all other denominations are schismatic sects that have cut themselves off from the de jure Body of Christ.1 A recent article on the website of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland puts this well:

Denominational walls are erected on a judicial level and the distinct jurisdiction of church courts is the final and fullest expression of separation. The setting up of rival Church courts from Kirk Session through to General Assembly is an express rejection of the jurisdiction of the Church courts of other denominations and is either schismatic itself or necessarily charges other bodies with the sin of schism. Persisting in such separation is either schismatic or else there is an implicit charge of schism against all those from whom separation is maintained. (


Most Reformed denominations today have grown comfortable with claiming to be only a part of a divided church. Consistency and faithfulness, as we have seen, should drive them either to end their schismatic existences immediately (or at least within a very short period of time), or to come out and declare themselves to be the one holy catholic church de jure. But they do not see the full implications of their continued separate existence. One of the reasons, I think, is that many of them have engaged in certain activities that have tended to function in their minds as substitutes of a sort for full unity. Many of the Reformed denominations in North America, for example, are a part of a group called the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). NAPARC encourages and facilitates a certain degree of dialogue and cooperation between its member denominations, short of full organic unity. On the international scale, many Reformed denominations worldwide are a part of The International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), a similar body to NAPARC but working on a broader scale. These organizations have only an “advisory” character and no binding authority. Because these organizations create the impression of a worldwide group of churches working together happily, they have a tendency to lull members into forgetting that “getting along with each other nicely and informally” is no substitute for full formal unity. Instead of seeing separation as the result of horrendous and sinful schism in the Body of Christ, they come to see the situation as only a “happy, gentle sort of schism” that is not such a big deal.

Another reason, I think, that Reformed churches in the modern day have generally not realized the gravity of what it means to exist as separate denominations is that there has been a lack of taking seriously the full meaning of the authority of church courts. Official courts of the church are not simply a group of wise individuals hanging around giving advice. Church authority is an ordinance of Christ that has his authority behind it.

It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word. (WCF 31:3)

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:15-20)

When a church court, in the legitimate exercise of its authority, comes to a conclusion or makes a practical decision, if that conclusion or decision is in accordance with the Word of God, it has the authority of God behind it. God ratifies it. When a session receives a member into the church, and the act is performed appropriately and biblically, God ratifies it by considering that person to be a formal member of the visible church of Christ, and he holds that individual to the covenant promises involved in that relationship. Likewise in reverse when a session rightfully excommunicates an individual. When a church court pronounces a doctrinal position, or commands a certain practice, and the pronouncement or command is lawful and in accordance with God's Word, the members of that church are under a moral obligation to believe that doctrine or to practice that commanded duty, not only because it happens to be biblical, but also because God has commanded them to do so through his official representatives who are backed by his authority. For “the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2).

Therefore, when a denomination holds a general assembly and excludes officers from other denominations from having a part in it as full voting members, thereby rejecting the claims of those officers to have authority as officers in the church of Christ, if the action of that denomination in doing so is just, legal, and biblical, then God himself ratifies it. Those other officers are rejected as having no authority not only by some human body, but by God himself. On the other hand, if the denomination is rejecting the authority of those other officers unlawfully or for unbiblical reasons, that denomination is guilty of the horrendous blasphemy of abusing the authority of Christ given to it. It has used its God-given position not to do God's will and promote the purity and unity of the church, but to create schism in the church, to rend the Body of Christ into pieces. (It may be doing so in ignorance, but it is still an evil act nonetheless.)

When we understand the awful power granted by God to church courts, we cannot take the act of separating or remaining separated lightly. The fact that there are multiple denominations within the de facto Body of Christ means that many people have much to answer for to God. Let all existing denominations take warning! Realize what an awful claim you are making when you decide whom you will and whom you will not invite to your general assemblies! You are either exercising the de jure power of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, or you are grossly profaning the name of God by abusing your authority to unjustly rend his Body into pieces!


The realization of the true meaning of separation provides us insight into the proper means of promoting the unity of the church. Church unity is not achieved through informal or “fraternal” relationships between divided denominations. Neither is it achieved through a compromised organic union where denominations are brought together by means of watering down commitment to the full truth of God. Both of these, unfortunately, are among the most common methods of trying to promote unity in the church today. But church authorities are not given the option to water down the truth of God for the sake of organic unity. The job of church authorities is to teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). What God commands can never be made optional.  (See here for more argumentation against this idea--typically called latitudinarianism.)

The Bible provides a different model for achieving unity: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). How is unity preserved in the church? By the members and officers of the church “speaking the same thing” and being “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Unity is based on agreement in doctrine and practice.

Our task, then, is to examine the claims, doctrines, and practices of existing denominations. We are to determine which denomination is the purest in doctrine and practice according to the full standards of the Word of God. And we are to look at the history of how the denominations came to be separated. Remember that separation always involves at least implicit claims of divine authority. If a denomination has a right to exist separately, then that denomination is declared by God to have de jure authority to function as the church, while all denominations separated from it are to be regarded as having had their de jure authority revoked (or never granted) by God. We have a moral duty, whether as members or officers, to be joined to and to function within that denomination that has true de jure authority from God. And we have a concomitant moral duty to leave any denomination that has had its authority taken away (or never granted) by God. True unity will be achieved when those who have embraced false teaching and/or are existing in schism from the de jure catholic church of Christ cease to do these things and come back into full union with Christ's rightful church. We should grant that this may take some time, and that it is more practical for some than for others. Some people may not live in an area where there is a de jure congregation. Some people who are currently functioning as officers in a schismatic denomination may have an obligation to the flock that God has providentially placed under their care not to leave that flock without an appropriate shepherd. It certainly would not do for a minister to say, “Well, now that I know that I am in a schismatic denomination, I know that I am not a true de jure minister, and so I will simply cease to show up for Sunday services this week and stop retuning my parishioners' phone calls.” Even apart from the question of the rightfulness of one's authority generally speaking, there are duties that we often have due to providential relationships in which God has placed us. However, while these nuances are real and important, it is also important that they not become excuses for refusing to do our duty. If we are members or officers in schismatic denominations, we have a moral obligation to remedy this situation as soon as it is possible to do so without shirking other duties.

So which existing denomination today is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church de jure? Every one of us must make this examination for himself.  This is an objective question, and it can be answered like any other objective question—by means of weighing claims in the light of the objective evidence.  My position is that it is the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS).  This is not the place for me to go into my own reasons for favoring the claim of the FPCS, but I felt it appropriate to state my leanings.

Whether the de jure catholic church turns out to be the FPCS or some other denomination, this denomination has a moral obligation to state its claim and its reasons for that claim clearly. I think the FPCS has done a much better job of this than any other denomination I have personally been familiar with, but there is still room for improvement. For example, on the FPCS website, it says that the “Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is an evangelical, Calvinistic denomination, reformed in doctrine, worship and practice. It was formed in 1893 and is a mainline descendant of the historic Church of Scotland of the Reformation. As part of the Christian Church, we accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God. We believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith is an accurate statement of the main doctrines of the Bible.” This is a nice description, but surely it falls significantly short of making clear the kind of claim the FPCS is making. The FPCS quite self-consciously considers itself and often explicitly claims to be the rightful heir to the historic Church of Scotland of the Reformation. Although this claim is made clear elsewhere, it is not clear on the front page of their website. (Note: It is now.) But, as we have seen, the FPCS, by existing separately from all other denominations, is claiming not only to be the rightful heir to the Church of Scotland; it is claiming to be the rightful heir to the Church of Christ, considered de jure. If the FPCS believes itself to be only the Church of Scotland, then it has a moral obligation to formally unite immediately with the true de jure churches in other nations. But the FPCS has no formal union with any denomination in any other nation. In addition, the FPCS has congregations in other nations, including Australia, Canada, and the United States of America. The implication of these things is clearly that the FPCS is claiming not only to be the Church of Scotland but the general, worldwide, catholic church of Christ. But if that is its claim, it needs to make this far more explicit and clear than it has done so far. Making its claim more explicit will no doubt make the duty of providing officers and sealing ordinances to be available to people in all other nations a more pressing and present reality as well. (Note: The FPCS has made this more explicit since the time of writing this, such as in their new catechism.)

The Reformed churches need to do a much better job at dealing with the issues pointed out in this article than they tend to do today. In fact, the Reformed churches have often through their history lacked somewhat in their performance in these areas. Even in the early periods of Reformed history, such as at the time of John Knox and the original reformation of Scotland, the Reformed churches have not always had the focus they ought to have had on maintaining the full, worldwide unity of the church of Christ. Let me cite one example of this lack from those early days: In 1566, Theodore Beza of the Reformed church in Geneva, Calvin's successor in the ministry there, sent a letter to the Church of Scotland. In the letter, he gave them a copy of the Second Helvetic Confession that had recently become a popular confession among the continental Reformed churches. In a laudable display of concern for church unity, he wanted the Scottish church to be aware of this confession and to have the opportunity to give their approval to it. The Church of Scotland wrote a letter back to Beza in which they praised the confession with great enthusiasm:

We are therefore altogether compelled, as well by our consciences, as from a sense of duty, to undertake its patronage, and not only to express our approval, but also our exceeding commendation of every chapter and every sentence. For that little treatise rests altogether upon the Holy Scriptures, which we both profess and are prepared to defend at the risk of our lives, or even to the shedding of blood. And we have all of us, as many as by reason of the shortness of the time allowed us, were able to be present, both subscribed our names, and sealed this letter with the common seal of this University. But if you should think that it would be of use to your churches at any future time, we will send you by the first opportunity both the public subscription of this Church, and the formula of our Confession of Faith, confirmed in the Assembly of the Three Estates of the realm.

However, the confession contained one small part in it that the Church of Scotland could not approve of. In chapter 24, it said this:

Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

With regard to this segment of the confession, the Church of Scotland had this to say:

This one thing, however, we can scarcely refrain from mentioning, with regard to what is written in the 24th chapter of the aforesaid Confession concerning the “festival of our Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Holy Ghost upon his disciples,” that these festivals at the present time obtain no place among us; for we dare not religiously celebrate any other feast-day than what the divine oracles have prescribed. Everything else, as we have said, we teach, approve, and most willingly embrace.

This difference in practice between the continental Reformed churches and the descendants of the Church of Scotland continues to this day, and is a significant barrier to full denominational unity. The question that comes to my mind is this: Why wasn't this problem dealt with at the time it became known? The Church of Scotland pointed out dutifully the difference in practice, but why did they not pursue the matter further and try harder to bring unity between the Reformed churches on this matter? And why did Beza and the continental churches not act on the Church of Scotland's expressed concerns? It seems that both churches were content to merely note the difference and then to go along as if nothing important needed to be done about it. If something had been done—if perhaps a formal council had been called to decide the issue, after a period of serious dialogue—perhaps a current barrier to unity between the descendent denominations would not exist today. By now this difference has become so entrenched that it will be perhaps much harder to remove. The Reformed churches were not as universally-minded as they ought to have been in this case.

We can learn a lesson from the past. Let us do even better than our Reformed ancestors did. Let us work to gain and maintain a clear understanding of the proper principles of church unity and authority, and let us put them into practice in our churches, even with regard to the unity of the whole church worldwide. Let us work to better recognize and live the true and full meaning of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

1 It might be objected that there might be a case where a denomination has tried to be united with another denomination and yet that other denomination has refused union. How can it be said to be the fault of the first denomination if union is not achieved? But this is no exception to what has been stated. First of all, if the other denomination is not considered schismatic and its general assembly is considered valid and legitimate, then why don't the officers in the first denomination simply move over to the other denomination and join it, becoming a part of and accepting the rules of its legitimate general assembly? That would solve the unity problem. If the first denomination refused to join into what they regard as a legitimate de jure general assembly and accept its legitimate rules, they would be guilty of schism. On the other hand, if the first denomination feels that it is duty-bound not to join in with and accept the general assembly of the other denomination, but that the officers of the other denomination have a duty to unite with them in their own general assembly, or perhaps in a third joint general assembly, then the failure of the officers of the other denomination to do so should be considered a schismatic act and the first denomination should proceed without them, as they have cut themselves off from the de jure church, leaving the first denomination to be the one worldwide catholic church de jure. So in either case, there will either be a union or a claim to be the one catholic church. If there is no claim by the first denomination to be the one catholic church and the separation continues, the first denomination is declaring itself to be schismatic.

UPDATE (10/5/12):  See here and here for related earlier blog articles.  And see here for a much briefer version of the main argument of the article.  And see here for a fuller, book-length version of the argument.

UPDATE (10/15/12):  As an illustration of how the Reformed churches have historically understood the need to have full formal unity of the church throughout the world, culminating in the ability to have binding ecumenical councils, see this selection from the Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland (1578) below.  Note how the Church of Scotland recognized the presbyterian nature of church government and how it implies concentric circles of binding authority all the way up to the level of the entire church of Christ in all nations.  This biblical model of the unity of the church is distorted when denominations treat their own general assemblies as the highest judicatory while failing to claim themselves to be the worldwide catholic church de jure.

Chapter 7 - Of the Elderships, and Assemblies, and Discipline
  1. Elderships and assemblies are commonly constituted of pastors, doctors, and such as we commonly call elders, that labour not in the word and doctrine, of whom, and of whose several power has been spoken.
  2. Assemblies are of four sorts. For, either are they of particular kirks and congregations, one or more, or of a province, or of a whole nation, or of all and diverse nations professing one Jesus Christ.
  3. All the ecclesiastical assemblies have power to convene lawfully together for treating of things concerning the kirk, and pertaining to their charge. They have power to appoint times and places to that effect; and at one meeting to appoint the diet, time, and place for another.
  4. In all the assemblies a moderator should be chosen (by the common consent of the whole brethren convened) who should propose matters, gather the votes, and cause good order to be kept in the assemblies. Diligence should be taken, chiefly by the moderator, that only ecclesiastical things be handled in the assemblies, and that there be no meddling with anything pertaining to the civil jurisdiction.
  5. Every assembly has power to send forth from them of their own number, one or more visitors to see how all things are ruled in the bounds of their jurisdiction. Visitation of more kirks is no ordinary ecclesiastical office in the person of one man; neither may the name of a bishop be attributed to the visitor only; neither is it necessary to abide always in one man's person; but it is the part of the eldership to send out qualified persons to visit pro re nata.
  6. The final end of all assemblies is, first, to keep the religion and doctrine in purity, without error and corruption; next, to keep comeliness and order in the kirk.
  7. For this order's case, they may make certain rules and constitutions appertaining to the good behaviour of all the members of the kirk in their vocation.
  8. They have power also to abrogate and abolish all statutes and ordinances concerning ecclesiastical matters that are found noisome and unprofitable, and agree not with the time, or are abused by the people.
  9. They have power to execute ecclesiastical discipline and punishment upon all transgressors and proud contemners of the good order and policy of the kirk; and so the whole discipline is in their hands.
  10. The first kind and sort of assemblies, although they are within particular congregations, yet they exercise the power, authority, and jurisdiction of the kirk with mutual consent, and therefore bear sometimes the name of the kirk. When we speak of the elders of the particular congregations, we mean not that every particular parish can, or may, have their own particular elderships, especially to landward; but we think three or four, more or fewer, particular kirks may have one eldership common to them all, to judge their ecclesiastical causes. Albeit this is meet, that some of the elders be chosen out of every particular congregation, to concur with the rest of their brethren in the common assembly, and to take up the delations of offences within their own kirks, and bring them to the assembly. This we gather from the practice of the primitive kirk, where elders, or colleges of seniors, were constituted in cities and famous places.
  11. The power of these particular elderships is to give diligent labours in the bounds committed to their charge, that the kirks be kept in good order; to inquire diligently of naughty and unruly persons, and travail to bring them in the way again, either by admonition, or threatening of God's judgments, or by correction.
  12. It pertains to the eldership to take heed that the word of God be purely preached within their bounds, the sacraments rightly ministered, the discipline rightly maintained, and the ecclesiastical goods uncorruptly distributed.
  13. It belongs to this kind of assembly to cause the ordinances made by the assemblies provincial, national, and general, to be kept, and put in execution; to make constitutions which concern to; prevpon[2] in the kirk, for the decent order of these particular kirks where they govern; providing they alter no rules made by the general or provincial assemblies, and that they make the provincial assemblies foreseen of these rules that they shall make, and abolish them that tend to the hurt of the same.
  14. It has power to excommunicate the obstinate.
  15. The power of election of them who bear ecclesiastical charges pertains to this kind of assembly, within their own bounds, being well erected and constituted of many pastors and elders of sufficient ability.
  16. By the like reason their deposition also pertains to this kind of assembly, as of them that teach erroneous and corrupt doctrine; that are of scandalous life, and, after admonition, desist not; that are given to schism or rebellion against the kirk, manifest blasphemy, simony, corruption of bribes, falsehood, perjury, whoredom, theft, drunkenness, fighting worthy of punishment by the law, usury, dancing, infamy, and all others that deserve separation from the kirk. These also who are found altogether insufficient to execute their charge should be deposed; whereof other kirks would be advertised, that they receive not the persons deposed.
  17. Yet they ought not to be deposed who, through age, sickness, or other accidents, become unmeet to do their office; in the which case their honour should remain to them, their kirk should maintain them; and others ought to be provided to do their office.
  18. Provincial assemblies we call lawful conventions of the pastors, doctors, and other elders of a province, gathered for the common affairs of the kirks thereof; which also may be called the conference of the kirk and brethren.
  19. These assemblies are instituted for weighty matters, to be treated by mutual consent and assistance of the brethren within the provinces, as needs requires.
  20. This assembly has power to handle, order, and redress all things omitted, or done amiss, in the particular assemblies. It has power to depose the office-bearers of that province for good and just causes deserving deprivation. And, generally, these assemblies have the whole power of the particular elderships whereof they are collected.
  21. The national assembly, which is general to us, is a lawful convention of the whole kirks of the realm or nation where it is used and gathered for the common affairs of the kirk; and may be called the general eldership of the whole kirk within the realm. None are subject to repair to this assembly to vote but ecclesiastical persons, to such a number as shall be thought good by the same assembly; not excluding other persons that will repair to the said assembly to propose, hear, and reason.
  22. This assembly is instituted, that all things either omitted or done amiss in the provincial assemblies may be redressed and handled; and things generally serving for the weal of the whole body of the kirk within the realm may be foreseen, treated, and set forth to God's glory.
  23. It should take care that kirks be planted where they are not planted. It should prescribe the rule how the other two kinds of assemblies should proceed in all things.
  24. This assembly should take heed that the spiritual jurisdiction and the civil be not confounded to the hurt of the kirk; that the patrimony of the kirk be not diminished nor abused; and, generally, concerning all weighty affairs that concern the weal and good order of the whole kirks of the realm, it ought to interpose authority thereto.
  25. There is, besides these, another more general kind of assembly, which is of all nations and estates of persons within the kirk, representing the universal kirk of Christ; which may be called properly the general assembly, or general council of the whole kirk of God. These assemblies were appointed and called together specially, when any great schism or controversy in doctrine did arise in the kirk, and were convoked at the command of godly emperors, being for the time, for avoiding of schisms within the universal kirk of God; which, because they appertain not to the particular estate of one realm, we cease further to speak of them. 
UPDATE 5/10/13:  The FPCS has recently released a new catechism of its distinctive principles that deals with the subject of the international catholicity of the church and other issues of church unity and schism.

UPDATE 7/29/13:  A few more reading resources (in addition to articles and books already cited):

The Unity of the Church, by Thomas M'Crie

The Due Right of Presbyteries, by Samuel Rutherford (this can be found as one of the books linked to here)

Undoing the Reformation: Schism, by Matthew Vogan

A Vindication of the Essence and Unity of the Church-Catholick Visible (1658), by Samuel Hudson

UPDATE 8/12/13:  The OPC Form of Government, Chapter III, articulates a beautiful description of the collegiate nature of church authority in presbyterianism.  No room for multiple independent denominations here!  De jure officers do not function independently, but exercise their rule jointly as part of an eldership ruling over the entire church.  Therefore, to exclude certain men (such as officers from other denominations) from having a place at the table in the governance of the whole church is to treat them as having no de jure authority as officers in the church.

Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.

UPDATE 8/21/13:  Here is a brief numbered argument to spell out further my core contention:

1. In biblical presbyterianism, the church is to be one in formal unity through all the world, and the rule of the eldership is collegial in nature.  That is, no elder rules independently.  Elders rule in conjunction with other elders in church courts, and all legitimate, active elders have an inherent right and responsibility as a part of their authority to function as part of the courts of the church.  And no church court is independent, but all church courts have an inherent right and responsibility as part of their lawful authority to function in communion with each other under mutually-binding higher councils (sessions under presbyteries, presbyteries under synods, etc.) going all the way up to an ecumenical council of the whole catholic church.

2. Therefore, it is morally obligatory on all parties that all officers and church courts function collegially as described.  That they function in this way is not simply a nice goal, or an ideal to hope for someday, but is an essential requirement inalienably involved in the very concept of church authority, in the same way that submitting to husbands is an inherent part of the role of wife and caring for the wife is an inherent part of the role of husband.  Churches cannot opt out of this arrangement, citing non-ideal circumstances as an excuse, any more than churches can opt out of the prohibition against the worship of images or any other command of God.

3. Therefore, when presbyterian churches function separately in independent denominations, not united under mutually-binding councils, it is necessarily implicit in this that they are rejecting the de jure legitimacy and authority of each others' officers and church courts, for they are refusing to treat the church courts of the other denominations as would be required if they had de jure legitimacy and authority.

4. When de jure church courts act justly in the proper exercise of their responsibilities, their decisions and resolutions possess divine authority, for they have true authority delegated from Christ.

5. Therefore, when a denomination possessing de jure authority refuses to enter into union with another denomination under mutually-binding councils (thus rejecting the de jure authority of the other denomination), and it is acting justly and appropriately in so doing, its rejection of the other denomination's de jure authority is backed by divine authority, and thus it is an objective fact that the justly rejected denomination from that point on does not possess de jure legitimacy and authority, and therefore should not be treated as if it possessed such authority.

6. Therefore, with regard to the various currently existing presbyterian denominations, their separation from each other entails their rejection of each others' de jure authority.  Therefore, whichever of these denominations has the best claim to a right to separate existence should be joined with by Christians, unless all of them are beset with such doctrinal and/or practical error that there is a need to set up a new denomination.

For the most part, points #1 and #4 introduce the substantial ideas, while the other points simply follow logically from these.

UPDATE 4/27/14:  Here are a couple of relevant comments from Rev. James Porteous from his book, The Government of the Kingdom of Christ (pp. 322-323):

Presbytery is the proper manifestation of the unity of the Church. Let these principles of associated representative government be logically and fully embraced, and its range must be commensurate with the entire Church. It cannot stop with nations, it must embrace the world. The visible Church can no more be restricted to nations, or partitioned among these as separate and independent portions, than may the congregations of a locality. The Church is one in all the earth. . . .
Then the assembly at Jerusalem was not local, not even national—it was universal. Not only the Jewish nation, Syria, and other lands—yea, by the apostles, ‘all nations’ were represented in that assembly. If that example be refused as a model for a universal assembly, it must also be refused as a model for any. Decline to entertain the question as to an assembly for the world, as there exemplified, and all authority for national and local synods is removed. If this be so, then this is the model to which the Church must ever seek to conform.

UPDATE 6/9/14:  Here is a well-articulated comment from church historian James Walker:

The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all . . . This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century.' (James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland. Edinburgh: Knox Press, [1888] 1982. Lecture iv. pp.95-6.)

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