Thursday, May 2, 2013

Facing One of the Practical Problems Arising out of Denominational Separation

As I have said many times in this blog (would you believe me if I said that I often tend to mull a topic over until I've explored it from every conceivable angle?), when denominations are separate from each other, not in full communion, within the context of a Presbyterian system of church government, the separated denominations (however they came to be separated) are rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches.  Each denomination is claiming that it has the authority to function as the church, while other denominations don't.

And this is not only true within individual nations, but on the international level as well.  When denominations are divided from each other in Scotland, or in the United States, they are rejecting each others' authority and accusing each other of being schismatic.  But also, when a church in Scotland and a church in the United States are not in full communion with each other, manifested by mutual submission to each other in a binding presbyterian international council and a willingness to seek the same unity of faith and practice with each other that they practice within themselves, they too are rejecting each others' authority and accusing each other of schism.

Now this has some very important practical implications.  One area in which those implications need to be explored is in a situation where Christians are living in an area where no de jure church is present.  I am acutely aware of this particular kind of situation, because it is one in which I and my family currently live.  We believe that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the proper de jure church to be a part of.  The fact that the FPCS is not in full communion with any other church in the United States implies that the FPCS rejects as illegitimate all non-FPCS churches in the United States.  That includes the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, which are the only Reformed churches present in our area.  There are a number of reasons why the OPC and PCA are not in full communion with the FPCS.  One of those reasons is differences in understanding how the regulative principle plays out in worship.  For example, the OPC and the PCA both use uninspired hymns and instrumental music in worship, while the FPCS views this as a violation of the regulative principle.

An obvious questions arises here:  What are I and my family supposed to do in this situation?  All the churches in our area have been declared illegitimate and schismatic by the church we regard as possessing the de jure authority to say so, and we concur with this judgment.  Is it right to be members of illegitimate churches?  Throughout Christian history, I think the typical answer to that would have been "no."  But on the other hand, if we aren't members of an illegitimate church, we will not be able (at least in the near future) to be members of any church at all.  And yet Scripture tells us we need to have elders to submit to who watch over us.  In our case, we have initiated an attempt to join with the Santa Fe (Texas) congregation of the FPCS (the existence of which is another indication that the FPCS rejects all other American churches as schismatic and illegitimate), but this will likely be a very long-term process.  We have already had a visit from one of the elders there, and will likely be able to have further visits.  We were hoping to travel to Santa Fe next month, but occupational and financial responsibilities have made that impossible.  In our current situation, we are very rarely, if ever, going to have the ability to travel cross-country, particularly when the only way to meet with the session at Santa Fe is to go there during a communion season.  And we are not, financially or vocationally, able to move at this time.  But nevertheless, at least there is a way forward that can be taken to some degree, though it is not for the short run.

The main thing I have found frustrating about this situation is that the FPCS has no clear, worked-out policy regarding how to deal with people like us.  This is an area where the people of God need good, solid, clear pastoral advice.  What should we do?  Should we continue members of our schismatic church?  Should we leave it?  If we leave it, will pastoral care be able to be provided?  If so, how?  If not, what should be done?  The FPCS is a small denomination, and it exists mostly far, far away in Scotland.  It is difficult for them to deal with people on the other side of the world.  But what could be done, and what I think should be done, is that the FPCS could develop clear standard policies regarding such situations, so that when people contact them to ask, "What should we do?" there will be a clear answer ready at hand (even if it has to be adapted from time to time in light of unusual circumstances).  That answer, that policy, could consist of any number of possibilities.  Perhaps the role of superintendent (such as discussed in the First Book of Discipline) could be revived.  Perhaps a system could be set up to send ministers to visit regularly with people who contact the FPCS.  Perhaps instructions could be given to attempt to join the nearest FPCS congregation while remaining in membership with another denomination in the meantime (with a clear, thought-out, theological foundation for the legitimacy and appropriateness of doing this--see my own thoughts on this here).  Perhaps persons could be advised to leave their schismatic denominations and simply exist outside of formal membership until they are able to join with the FPCS, and contact could be kept up periodically with such families and groups as they try to hold informal meetings for psalm-singing, listening to sermons, etc.

I don't know what would be best (we've currently taken the next to last option mentioned).  But I think that the FPCS ought to have worked through this issue enough so that some kind of standard plan and instructions are in place, rather than simply leaving it to the individuals to figure out for themselves what they should do.  It is no light matter to be in a situation like the one described.  Serious moral issues are at stake:  Is it wrong for us to be without formal pastoral oversight, even if it comes from a schismatic church?  Is it wrong to support a schismatic church by remaining a member?  Is it wrong to remain out of formal communion with the true de jure church?  Surely these are questions the church ought to be ready to answer with its pastoral guidance.  If the church deems it fit to provide practical instructions and guidance when it comes to what Bible translation to use, whether or not people ought to ride public transport on the Sabbath, how people ought to dress in worship, etc., surely these matters are not less important?  Surely they should not be left without careful thought and individuals left without some clear guidance from the church?

I do not say this in criticism of any individuals in the FPCS.  Everyone I have spoken with about these matters in the FPCS has been very sympathetic and very helpful.  I've received much advice and in general had much correspondence with a number of people.  I've already mentioned the practical steps the Santa Fe Kirk Session has taken to provide help and guidance.  My comments are not meant to point out anyone's individual failure, but simply to point out that a denominational response is needed to these matters.  This is something that the FP church as a whole needs to deal with and needs to come to some kind of practical conclusions with regard to.  We live, increasingly, in an international world.  National churches cannot afford to simply remain turned inward, dealing with their own affairs, but not worrying much about the international catholicity of the church and the practical implications that necessarily come from taking a position of remaining out of formal communion with other churches.  These matters need to be squarely taken up and faced, and that soon.  Concern for the souls of men, for the gospel in the world, for the purity and unity of the church in the world, and ultimately for the glory of God, demands it.

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.

UPDATE 11/17/14:  See here for a biographical update relevant to the subject of this post.

I would also add that the FPCS has indeed articulated a position on the subjects addressed in this post, although it could be more specific and practical relative to particular situations that are out there.  For example, the new FPCS catechism mentioned in the earlier update makes it clear what those who are in schismatic churches should do:

146 Q. When should individual believers separate from the fellowship of others?
A. The Scriptures enjoin believers to withdraw themselves from those who are professed brethren and who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), so when men have so rejected sound doctrine, right government, and discipline, or have introduced superstitious worship, or are maintaining a schismatic position, and when an orderly correction of these evils fails, then believers are to separate from such.

The Synod statement from 2013 on the separate existence of the FPCS adds this:

Accordingly, conduct giving the impression that there is no obstacle to association with other Churches undermines the necessity for a separate position and is therefore inconsistent with loyal adherence to the Free Presbyterian Church, and is consequently disapproved of by this Church.

These statements make it clear that we are not to be united with schismatic churches in any way that would suggest that these churches are not schismatic or possess legitimate authority.  This doesn't answer all practical questions, but it certainly narrows the options and puts forward some key principles necessary to deal with the practical issues.


Sharon said...

"We live, increasingly, in an international world. National churches cannot afford to simply remain turned inward, dealing with their own affairs, but not worrying much about the international catholicity of the church..."

I agree wholeheartedly. It seems that some national churches are so preoccupied with fighting defensive battles on their own turf, that they don't have time to encourage and support the growing interest in historic Reformed principles in other parts of the world.

Mark Hausam said...

I think one thing that can help here is having congregation in other nations, as the FPCS does. Ultimately, in the US for example, we want to have our own national church in full communion with but distinct from the Church of Scotland, but having international diversity in the denomination can be a reminder of the need to deal with other parts of the world.

Also, I think we need to keep emphasizing the international catholicity of the church. I think the FPCS has done a great job of pointing out that there can only be one church in Scotland (speaking de jure). Having multiple denominations is not acceptable. But this is just as true internationally, though it is sometimes easier to forget.