Friday, May 16, 2014

The OPC, Semi-Congregationalism, and Foreign Missions

The OPC's practice with regard to foreign missions reflects the semi-congregationalist, non-presbyterian tendencies that are rampant in many Reformed circles today.

On the one hand, the OPC's official statement on the unity of the church is quite presbyterian, insisting that denominational division is inherently sinful because there is a duty for all true churches to be united in one denominational church.  Below are some quotations from "Biblical Principles of the Unity of the Church," which, according to the OPC website, "sets forth the position of the CEIR [that is, the "Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations" of the OPC] and of the OPC regarding the unity of the church."

The church, the visible organization, is described in the Bible as one church. God has given only one covenant of love (Deut. 7:6-12) and has only one people of the covenant.

The gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation of the church resulted in establishing churches as covenant communities in various locations, churches which were ruled by elders. These churches and these elders were not independent, but were one body united by Christ their head, by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and by the covenant promise of God. The elders at Antioch and Jerusalem resolve a problem, under God, and their decision is binding on the churches (Acts 15, 16:4).

The church of the apostolic days embraces all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues. There is no evidence in the New Testament for the diversification of distinct denominations and anything tending to such diversification was condemned (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-13). The emphasis falls upon the oneness of faith (cf. Eph. 4:5) and the oneness of the fellowship of the saints (cf. Eph. 4:2-4; 11-16; Phil. 2:2, 3; 4:2).

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).

When these principles of gradation and communion are appreciated, and when coordinated with other considerations already established, especially that of the unity of the body of Christ, we appear to be provided with a pattern that points to the necessity of making the presbyterate as inclusive as is consistent with loyalty to Christ and the faith of the gospel. In a word, we are pointed to the necessity of unity in government, a unity that is violated when churches of Christ adhering to the faith in its purity and integrity are not thus united.

The ultimate goal of the unity of the church is nothing less than one world-wide presbyterian/reformed church.

The present division into separate denominations is because of unfaithfulness to God as expressed in beliefs, teaching, and living, on the part of both individuals in the church and the churches that are contrary to the Word of God.

We find ourselves in this sinful situation as we undertake to pursue the mandate to unity. There exists between us and all other churches a sinful disunity that demands reconciliation in a biblical way. This sin must be faced and removed so that true and full unity and fellowship of the church may be reached.

[Actual steps towards uniting with other churches include] [r]econciliation between the bodies (the sin that is involved in the separate existence must be faced and resolved: this may be only the sin of separate existence; or a sin which has historical roots; or doctrinal error; or error in the life of the church).

These statements are pretty clear.  But on the other hand, the OPC's stated methodology for its pursuit of foreign missions includes this interesting articulation of the ultimate goal of the OPC's foreign missions programs:

Goal: Establishment of a healthy indigenous national church:

  • that is firmly and fully committed to the Reformed standards
  • that is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating
  • with whom the OPC may have fraternal relations
  • that is itself sending out foreign missionaries to other nations
  • which no longer needs the services of OP foreign missionaries

So the goal of the OPC's foreign missions is that an indigenous national church be established "with whom the OPC may have fraternal relations."  What are "fraternal relations"?  In the OPC's terminology, to have "fraternal relations" with a church means that the OPC has a good working relationship, even (at the most) a relationship of "Ecclesiastical Fellowship" (see here for the different sorts of "fraternal relations" the OPC recognizes), with a church short of denominational unity.  So the OPC wants national churches that are distinct denominationally from the OPC (not united in government, under mutually-binding presbyterian councils) but with which the OPC can have fraternal relations.

Let's think about this for a moment.  According to the OPC's document on church unity, denominational division is inherently sinful.  "There exists between us and all other churches a sinful disunity that demands reconciliation in a biblical way."  And this includes denominational divisions on the international level--"The ultimate goal of the unity of the church is nothing less than one world-wide presbyterian/reformed church" (emphasis added).  And yet the goal of the OPC's foreign missions program is to create national churches that are denominationally divided from the OPC.  So the OPC's goal is to create churches from which it is sinfully divided?  This sounds like a dating/courtship program whose ultimate goal is to create "happily divorced couples who get along very well and work together sometimes."  Hmmm . . .

So which is it going to be?  Are we going to be presbyterian, or semi-congregationalist?  Trying to be both looks just a tad bit inconsistent . . .

For more, see here and in general here.  And also here.


Anonymous said...

Are you thinking that a worldwide church requires a standing worldwide "ecumenical" assembly? I don't think it would. Though it would likely be required to have a special meeting from time to time, like the ancient ecumenical councils, Synod of Dordt, Westminster Assembly, etc. If we follow their examples, there would assumably not be a standing worldwide council.

Mark Hausam said...

Good question. I don't think that there is a requirement to have a standing ecumenical council. The key is worldwide mutual submission. The national churches need to be in subjection to each other, so that, in addition to mutual admonitions and fellowship, it would be possible to call an obligatory council consisting of elders from the various national churches which would be binding on all those churches. That's what the different denominations today don't have, which is why the OPC rightly says that there is sinful disunity between them all. It would not be sinful disunity simply to not have a standing ecumenical council, but it is sinful disunity to not have the mutual submission and general unity that such a council would be one manifestation of.