Thursday, November 1, 2012

Let's Not and Say We Did!

If you remember the 90s, you may remember a saying that was popular at that time.  A group of people would be standing around trying to decide whether or not to do something.  Some would say "Let's do it!"  Others would say "Let's not!"  And then inevitably some wise guy (or girl) would say "Let's not and say we did!"

I've been reminded of this saying recently as I have discussed the issue of church unity and authority with various people.  If you are familiar with my recent thoughts on these issues (such as can be found here and here), you know that I have been arguing that separate denominations do not recognize each others' ecclesiastical authority.  The very act of remaining out of formal communion with each other inherently implies this.  For example, when the Presbytery of the Dakotas (POD) of the OPC calls a presbytery meeting, they invite the officers in all the OPC churches in the region, but they do not invite the PCA officers, or the RCUS officers, etc., to come to the meeting as full voting members.  This quite clearly implies that the OPC does not recognize the de jure authority of these officers.  The OPC treats them as being without authority, as if they are not true, duly constituted, de jure officers in the church of Christ.  For if the OPC did regard these officers as true de jure officers in the church of Christ, how could they fail to treat them the same as the OPC officers and include them as full voting members in the meetings?  And if the OPC believed that the presbytery meetings of the PCA or the RCUS were valid, de jure regional meetings of the church, how could they fail to go to them and be a part of them as full voting members (or at least try to do so and feel an injustice has been done if they are not allowed)?

Now, frankly, this seems quite obvious to me.  And yet I have spoken with a number of OPC officers, as well as officers from other denominations, who simply can't seem to see it.  I've been told that I am wrong to say that separated denominations do not recognize each others' de jure authority.  "Of course we recognize the full de jure authority of officers in the RCUS and the PCA!" I'm basically told by some officers in the OPC.  "How could you think otherwise?"

How indeed.  Well, it seems to me that if officers in the POD claim to respect and recognize the full de jure authority of officers in other denominations (and, by the way, I am not saying that all of them make this claim), it is blatantly inconsistent of them not to invite those officers as full voting members to their meetings.  They are saying one thing and doing another.  They say with their words that they recognize the authority of these other officers and church courts, but their actions clearly say otherwise.  It seems to me a clear case of "Let's not and say we did!"

This sort of situation, where people say one thing and do another, comes up a lot in life.  The secularists loudly and proudly proclaim that they are neutral in religious matters, while at the same time advocating Agnosticism and rejecting Christianity and other worldviews as the official worldview of the nation.  LDS missionaries love to insist that they never attack anyone's faith, while at the same time explaining to you that your church is wrong and that you ought to join theirs.  People often say that their relationships are going along just fine, when anyone who is not blind can see that they are falling apart.  Sometimes people have trouble seeing reality for what it really is.  Particularly, sometimes people have trouble perceiving that their actions betray their stated positions and intentions.

With regard to the issue currently under discussion, I find it amazing that people cannot see that denominational separation implies a refusal to recognize de jure authority across denominational lines.  To use an analogy, imagine you are working for a company.  Your boss is speaking to a group of his employees, and he says, "I just want you to know that I consider you all members of the team.  In my view, you are all the same, and each of you has just as much a right to be treated as an essential part of the team as anyone else.  However, I will only allow some of you to come to our meetings as official team members and vote in team meetings."  I hope I'm not the only one who notices something contradictory about these statements!  Well, that is essentially the sort of statement I am getting with regard to denominational separation.  "Sure the RCUS and PCA officers are full, de jure officers in the church of Christ!  They are just as much true officers in the church as OPC officers.  They all have the same authority and privileges and rights as officers in the church of Christ.  However, when we have a meeting of all the churches in our region, we will only invite OPC officers to come as full voting members.  The rest of you we won't allow (though you can come and visit, and maybe even give a speech if you want)."

Some people may say that they do indeed recognize other denominations and their church courts and officers as having true de jure authority, but their actions speak louder than their words.  In reality, they do not grant de jure authority to them.  So why do they insist that they do?  I think it is just part of the general confusion on these issues that seems to plague Reformed circles these days.  Let's work harder to think harder about these important issues, so that we can have a coherent position that both makes sense and is biblical!  If we want to embrace some denomination and exclude others from being recognized as having de jure authority, let's do it clearly and consistently.  If we want instead to embrace these other denominations, let's do that clearly and consistently, both in terms of words and actions.  At least then, even if we get the wrong answer at first, it will be clear where we stand, which will enable us to much more easily be able to check ourselves against God's Word to make sure that we are doing what is right.

UPDATE 11/8/12:  Just a thought to add:  Perhaps the reason why Presbyterians sometimes think that they are recognizing de jure authority in other denominations when they obviously really aren't is because they are confusing the concepts of de facto and de jure. When they say they do indeed recognize the de jure authority of other denominations, perhaps all they really mean to say is that they recognize de facto that the people in the other denominations are true Christians and that the other denominations are true churches de facto.  In that case, there would be no contradiction, because there is no contradiction between recognizing de facto that a group of people seems to be a part of the Body of Christ and denying that they have any legitimate authority to function as the church de jure.  Perhaps we could even construe the idea of "fraternal relations" as simply a formal recognition by a denomination that "we think the guys in that other denomination are really Christians, though we rightfully don't grant them any de jure authority for the present."

This probably does explain some of the confusion over this issue in the Presbyterian world, but it also probably doesn't explain all of it.  I still think that this is likely more than simply a matter of semantics.  I think there is genuine confusion on the matter going on as well.  But perhaps pointing out a possible source of semantic confusion can help matters at least a little.

UPDATE 11/14/12:  I thought it might be useful here to provide an example of what I am talking about.  Here is a statement from an (anonymous) actual Presbyterian correspondent with whom I have spoken about these issues:

"No reformed denomination claims that other denominations do not possess legitimate authority.  No reformed denomination holds itself alone to be the visible church of Christ (the Prot. Ref. Church may be close to this).  To hold that is the mark of a cult, not a church of Jesus Christ.  Reformed churches confess the opposite.  They confess that the church is one and that God gathers his people in many different local churches, many of which are organized as denominations or federations of churches.  We do recognize the authority of assemblies, presbyteries, and sessions of other denominations."

You can see here the confusion and lack of a clear distinction between the idea of a true church de facto and the idea of a church having legitimate, formally recognized authority de jure.  You can also see the flirtation with a congregationalist rather than a presbyterian idea of church government, as there seems to be a contentment with having a bunch of different denominations working together informally without any formal full communion.

With regard to why, if full de jure authority is recognized between denominations, the church courts of one denomination do not invite officers from other denominations as full voting members at their meetings, this correspondent had this to say:

"The issue of who votes at an assembly is determined by whether the person is a member of that judicatory properly delegated to vote at it.  For example, no reformed church allows a ruling elder or minister in the same denomination to vote at a session meeting when that ruling elder or minister is not installed to serve as a voting member of that session.

Full recognition of authority does not require full union."

Notice that this answer sidesteps the real issue.  Of course one has to be formally ordained and appointed and recognized as a member of a judicatory in order to vote in it.  The question is, why do church courts of different denominations systematically refuse to invite officers in other denominations to be formally recognized as members of their church courts when they are in the same region?  For example, why does the Presbytery of the Dakotas of the OPC not invite to be formally recognized as full voting members officers in that same region in the PCA?  A presbytery is a regional gathering, so why leave out officers in that region?  And with regard to officers in different regions, why are they not all called together in a unifying higher assembly?  Of course, the real answer is that the denominations do not recognize each others' de jure authority, despite protestations to the contrary.

I'm afraid full recognition of authority does indeed require full union, because the very idea of all the courts and officers in the different denominations fully formally recognizing each other would be exactly the same as the idea of all these denominations merging and ceasing to be different denominations.

UPDATE 1/10/13:  An argument that no one yet has made but that could possibly be made by someone wanting to argue that denominations do in fact recognize each others' de jure authority is that while ministers and other officers are not invited as voting members in the synods of the church, yet that is not because their authority as officers is not being recognized, but because there are different kinds of officers in the church.  There are some kinds of ruling elders and ministers whose office includes being full voting members of presbytery meetings, etc., while there are other kinds of ruling elders and ministers whose office does not allow for this.  And assemblies of these latter sorts of officers don't get to be included in official church court meetings.

As I write this out, it is obvious to me how strained a person making this argument would have to be to hold their position in light of the contradictions of reality.  (In order to be as careful as possible to be fair to opposing positions, I have a tendency to try to invent any arguments I can think of that the other side could use, even if the other side never actually uses them.)  This would be a good argument if, say, the OPC Book of Church Order had a section in its chapter on church officers entitled, "On Non-Voting Church Officers, Such as the RCUS," etc.  But it doesn't.  The only offices recognized in presbyterian churches are ruling elders, ministers, teaching elders, and deacons.  And it is clear that RCUS officers simply don't fit in at all in this scheme of things in the OPC, or vice versa.  They simply are not recognized formally as legitimate officers, nor are their gatherings formally recognized as legitimate.  In a presbyterian system, to thus not recognize each others' officers and courts is quite clearly to charge the other side with schism and to deny the other side de jure legitimacy.  There is simply no other way to understand such actions.

UPDATE 1/12/13:  When Denomination A is separated from Denomination B, there are only three possible ways of understanding Denomination A's position:

1. Denomination A does not hold to presbyterian (or episcopal) church government, but rather congregationalism or semi-congregationalism.  In this case, denominational separation is seen as normal and implies no charge of schism towards Denomination B or a rejection of Denomination B's de jure authority and legitimacy.  (However, as presbyterian church government is the biblical view, congregational church government is an inherently schismatic principle that does not adequately preserve the unity of the church.  Church courts and officers are not recognizing each other as they should.  So, in that sense, it could still be said that congregationalist or semi-congregationalist churches are rejecting each others' de jure authority.)

2. Denomination A holds to presbyterian church government, and also attributes de jure legitimacy and authority to Denomination B and its officers and church courts, but simply refuses to give those officers and church courts their due or to hold them to their responsibilities.  In this case, Denomination A is deliberately refusing to do its duty and has chosen to act schismatically.

3. Denomination A holds to presbyterian church government, but does not attribute de jure legitimacy and authority to Denomination B and its officers and church courts, and for that reason does not treat them as having such legitimacy and authority by being in formal union with Denomination B.  In this case, Denomination A, obviously, is refusing to recognize Denomination B's de jure legitimacy and authority, and is also charging Denomination B with schism (for maintaining doctrines and/or practices that continue to cause an unlawful breach between the two denominations).  If Denomination A is correct in its position and actions in this case, then it is in the right and the other denomination is indeed schismatic and without proper de jure legitimacy and authority.  If Denomination A is wrong in its position and actions, however, then it is acting schismatically by inappropriately rending the Body of Christ.

UPDATE 2/5/13:  A couple of further thoughts:

1. First of all, let me put out a few quotations from the Westminster Confession and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government:
2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

3. 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 25:2-3)

THERE is one general church visible, held forth in the New Testament.

The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of the New Testament, are given by Jesus Christ to the general church visible, for the gathering and perfecting of it in this life, until his second coming.

Particular visible churches, members of the general church, are also held forth in the New Testament. Particular churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz. of such as, being of age, professed faith in Christ, and obedience unto Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles; and of their children. (Form of Presbyterian Church Government, "Of the Church")
To whom are the "ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God" given?  To the "general church visible" or the "catholic visible church."  That general catholic church, then, for reasons of logistics, forms into smaller sub-groups.
IT is lawful and expedient that there be fixed congregations, that is, a certain company of Christians to meet in one assembly ordinarily for publick worship. When believers multiply to such a number, that they cannot conveniently meet in one place, it is lawful and expedient that they should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations, for the better administration of such ordinances as belong unto them, and the discharge of mutual duties.

The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings. (FPCG, ""Of Particular Congregations")
This has implications for the meaning of denominational separation.  If the "ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God" have been given by God to the entire catholic church as a whole, then any true, de jure officers within the entire catholic church would have, by right, all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of their offices, and all the church courts would have all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of true church courts.  This means that if any officers or courts are regarded as possessing de jure authority and legitimacy, they must be granted all these rights and privileges.  They cannot be excluded from any of them, such as by not being invited to be full voting members in the assemblies of the church, or by having their assemblies left out of the highest general assembly of the church.  Denominational distinctions are foreign to the Westminster Standards.  In the Standards, there is only the one catholic church divided up for logistical reasons.  All the officers and courts of the entire catholic church, then, would have the same rights, responsibilities, and privileges (according to the nature of their office or the level of their assembly).  So the current popular practice of denominations not granting these rights and privileges to officers and courts of other denominations is either a refusal to grant their de jure legitimacy and authority, or it is a brazenly schismatic act, or it is a symptom of being confused by semi-congregationalism rather than holding more purely to presbyterianism.

2. I thought of another argument someone might use to escape all of the reasoning put forward on this subject.  If one denomination (D-A) is separated from another denomination (D-B), a representative of D-A might say this:  "We don't reject the authority of D-B.  It's just that we currently don't have an opinion about the legitimacy and authority of D-B, and that is why we are not in formal communion.  We need more time to consider the status of D-B.  But we don't formally reject their legitimacy."

Here would be my answers to this argument (which I have never actually heard made--yet):

1. Even if it is true that you don't have an opinion on D-B because you need more time to get to know them, that doesn't change anything.  It is still the case that, at this time, you only actually formally attribute de jure legitimacy and authority to D-A, and therefore you formally consider D-A at this time to be the entirety of the de jure catholic church, so far as you have any knowledge of.  An unapproved because unexamined would-be officer has no more formal authority granted to them in the church of Christ than an officer who has been examined and rejected.

2. Why have you not yet got to know D-B well enough to figure out whether de jure authority and legitimacy should be attributed to them?  This would be a good excuse if D-B had been until last week lost in the Amazon rainforest with no way to contact the outside world.  But if D-A and D-B have been able to interact with each other for a significant number of years, this is no excuse for not having figured out by now whether or not D-B is qualified to be granted de jure legitimacy and authority.  This is even more the case if D-A has had fraternal relations with D-B and lots of interaction on various levels.  The delay here is unreasonable and really shows a lack of concern for formal church unity, probably influenced somewhat by a semi-congregationalist rather than a pure presbyterian view of church government.

3. If you admit you don't recognize D-B's de jure legitimacy and authority right now, why are we arguing?  That is all I have claimed.  You have granted my entire point.  In fact, what people really want to say is that they do formally recognize each others' de jure legitimacy but they don't want to enter into formal communion with them anyway.  But this is simply to abandon biblical, presbyterian church unity for the schismatic principle of semi-congregationalism.


Afterthought said...

Hello. There does seem to be some truth in what you say, yet the consequences of what you are saying makes it seem it is not the whole of it. I don't have my finger on what it is yet and am just a layman anyway (one involved with the OPC and yet having reached many of those old "Scottish" conclusions myself) who is admittedly weak in the knowledge of ecclesiology. Would you perhaps be comfortable expanding your horizons to figure out some answers on this rather serious issue? I know there are plenty of OPC and PCA pastors on the puritanboard; perhaps you could bring up the topic with them? If it isn't prudent to do so publicly, perhaps privately? Or perhaps you could discuss the matter with those few on there who would seem to agree with much of what you say, yet stop short of the fullness of your conclusions (like some of the Free Church people, or those who hold your principles yet work in the OPC or PCA)?

I myself am curious about this issue and was going to ask someone about it or bring it up on the puritanboard myself, but I think it is more important that someone like yourself is satisfied without causing damage--if you indeed err--than for me to merely satisfy my curiosity, when I cannot be tempted by such thinking yet due to my own ignorance.

Anyway, I hope you figure these things out. I know that shortly after I had become convinced of the various "Scottish" views, that I had difficulty with figuring out what my duty with respect to the Church was (and I don't entirely have it figured out yet; just enough to do what I am doing for now), and it wasn't the most comfortable of times. And I also hope you have a good Lord's Day!

Mark Hausam said...

Hello Afterthought (I assume this is not a birth name? : ) ),

Thanks for your comments. I think that the reason my conclusions seem strange is because we in the Protestant world have simply become so used to accepting the state of denominational plurality that we have failed to think about it clearly or deal with it in terms of what the biblical and Reformed principles would require. We've become used to accepting the situation and compromising on the issues, and the church has been doing this for so long that it doesn't even occur to many of us. The real practical implications of these things did not begin to strike me until January or so of this year, although of course I had built up a base of ideas over the years that led quickly to this conclusion once the issue was properly raised before my mind.

I would be happy to discuss these issues on the Puritan Board, or wherever. I haven't spent any time on there in the past, so I am not too familiar with the whole setup. Perhaps you could help introduce me to how to go about bringing it up, or perhaps you could bring it up and I could join in?


Afterthought said...

Definitely not my birth name! It is my poorly and uncreatively thought out username I use on the Puritanboard that when I joined, I put down as a last resort in frustration cause all the good names were already taken and I didn't want to put a number at the end of my username! :)

I'm not exactly one for social graces, on the web or in person! But it is probably best to first observe how people post on the Puritanboard, see what kinds of topics they bring up, and see what kinds of beliefs certain individuals hold. Perhaps it would also help to look up past discussions. The reason being that it seems to be the best way to become familiar with the atmosphere there, and so will help one choose one's words carefully in making a post. And further still, if you found it better to discuss it privately with someone, you would know who would be the people who would be best to contact. Beyond that, it often looks strange to have a completely new member join and start talking about controversial topics (as is the case with all message boards!), so it might be good to join and make a few other posts first so that you're more familiar to the posters there. Usually, since I'm rather uneducated compared to the rest of the posters there, I post or start threads by asking questions and keep my posts as non-confrontational as possible.

I suppose I could try starting a thread on the subject, but I don't want to misrepresent your views, so it would probably be best for you to bring it up. The board has a policy against "blog wars" or "board wars", so I'm not sure I could simply just link to your blog posts (and besides, the longer it is to read/the more stuff one links to, the less likely one is to get responses). But besides that, I'm not sure when I would be able to start a thread on the subject, since I'm busy finishing my school semester, and I have something coming up during winter break that will keep me from posting initially. If I were to start a thread on the subject though, I'd probably hash out the ideas, then ask something like, "What do you all think about this? Is there a mistake in applying Reformed principles here?"

Anyway, I hope that is helpful in some manner!

Mark Hausam said...

Yes, it is helpful. Thank you!