Monday, November 26, 2012

A Look At What the OPC's Book of Church Order Has to Say Regarding the Implications of Denominational Separateness

As I've argued in previous posts, when denominations are separated from each other, not in formal unity of some sort, this state of separation, in the context of a presbyterian system of church government, implies a mutual rejection of the full authority of each others' church courts and officers (and an implied charge of schism is directed from each denomination to the other).

Many have objected to this characterization of the meaning of denominational separation.  Therefore, in this post, I want to further my argument by providing an illustration of what I am talking about from the Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

I've already mentioned the fact that the lack of recognition of the authority of other denominations is manifest in the refusal of sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies to invite officers from other denominations as fully recognized voting members of these assemblies, as well as in the refusal of the different denominations to recognize as binding the decisions of each others' church courts.  (Inside one denomination, if one presbytery had serious problems with defection in another presbytery, the first presbytery would appeal against the second one to the general assembly.  Thus, Matthew 18 is followed within a system of formal unity.  When a presbytery of one denomination has a problem with something a presbytery of another denomination is doing, however, there is no way to follow Matthew 18 fully because there is no formal unity and no formal recognition of authority between the denominations, and so the first presbytery can only complain about what the second one is doing, but cannot do anything formally about it in terms of church discipline.  The same thing goes for the decisions and actions of sessions, general assemblies, etc.)

Let's take a look at the instructions in the OPC's Book of Church Order regarding the receiving of congregations into the OPC to see what it has to tell us regarding how much legitimacy and authority is granted between denominations (at least from the OPC's point of view).  So here is Form of Government (FOG) XXIX : B.1-2:

B. Receiving Congregations

1. A congregation not belonging to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church may be received only under the supervision of presbytery. The presbytery of the regional church to which the congregation would most naturally belong shall have jurisdiction in the matter.

2. In receiving an existing, local church not belonging to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a new and separate congregation (church) the procedure shall be as follows:

a. A congregation which desires to become a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church shall apply to the presbytery, through its clerk, to be received. In its application the congregation shall state the reasons which have moved it to apply for membership in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

b. The presbytery or a committee appointed by the presbytery shall examine the applicants as to their Christian faith and life and their knowledge of and willingness to submit to the standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

c. The elders of the congregation, if there be such, shall be examined as to their qualifications as set forth in Chapter X and as to their subscription to the formula for the ordination of elders in Chapter XXV, Section 6, of this Form of Government.

d. The pastor of the congregation, if there be such, shall be examined according to Chapter XXIII, Section 2, of this Form of Government.

e. When the above actions have been approved by presbytery, a service of recognition and installation shall be conducted by presbytery or a committee appointed by the presbytery. At the appointed time the congregation shall be informed of the action of the presbytery and the moderator shall address to the congregation the following question:

In reliance upon God for strength do you solemnly promise to walk together as a church of Jesus Christ according to the Word of God and the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?The congregation shall answer in the affirmative by raised hand. After this the congregation shall be recognized as a new and separate church of the regional church. Then the officers shall be (ordained and) installed according to this Form of Government.

There are a few things of interest to notice in this.  First, notice that the church coming into the OPC, before it comes in, is not formally recognized as a separate church within the presbytery.  First, there is a ceremony, and then "the congregation shall be recognized as a new and separate church of the regional church."  If denominations fully recognize each others' de jure existence and authority, why wasn't the non-OPC church previously considered a "separate church of the regional church"?  The fact that there must be a ceremony in order to formally recognize it as an existing separate church within the regional presbytery says quite clearly that it was not so formally recognized before.  When the congregation was outside the OPC, it was not formally recognized, de jure, as an existing church.

Secondly, notice that the members of the non-OPC church are to be examined with regard to Christian faith and life.  But what if they had already been examined, having already become members of a church previously?  No matter.  They must be examined again.  Why?  It is as if the OPC does not recognize their previous examination and admittance into the church--which, of course, is precisely the case.

This leads us into the third observation.  Why doesn't the OPC just take the word of the leaders of the congregation that the members have been well-examined and received into the church previously?  Because those officers themselves are not considered de jure officers with recognized authority to fulfill the roles of officers.  Notice that the elders of the congregation (if there be any) and the minister of the congregation (if there be any) are to be examined by the OPC to be sure they meet the qualifications for elders and ministers.  After this examination, if they pass, they are to be formally recognized and installed as elders and ministers.

Now, let's think about this for a moment.  If the OPC already fully recognizes the de jure status and authority of the officers of other denominations (as many have protested to me that they do), why are they being examined to see if they meet the qualifications for their offices?  Is the OPC in the habit of recognizing the authority of officers without bothering first to see if they are qualified to hold that office?  No.  The fact is that the examination makes clear that the OPC does not formally recognize these men as de jure officers until after they have been properly examined.  This lack of previous recognition is also manifested in that these men must be formally recognized (which involves a similar process to ordination of a licentiate) and installed to their offices.  If they were already previously recognized de jure by the OPC as being officers in the church of Christ with full rights and authority, then why do they need to be again formally recognized and installed?  Clearly, this ceremony indicates that the OPC did not formally recognize their de jure existence or authority as officers before they were examined, recognized, and installed.

So we see from the procedure laid out by the OPC for receiving new congregations into the OPC that the OPC does not acknowledge or formally recognize the de jure existence or authority of non-OPC congregations or officers (despite protestations to the contrary).  Note also that the OPC does recognize its own authority, in that it sets itself up as having authority to authoritatively examine and approve the officers and members coming into the OPC.

There are one or two aspects of OPC practice that may seem baffling in the light of its generally consistent trend of not formally recognizing congregations and officers outside of the OPC as having de jure existence and authority.  One of these is the practice of transferring members from OPC congregations to the congregations of other denominations.  Here is a part of the OPC's prescriptions for how to do this from their Book of Discipline (BOD) II : B.3:

3. The names of members shall be removed from the roll of the church only by order of the session and according to the following provisions:

a. Members may be removed by a letter of transfer to another congregation approved by the session. When upon the request of a member the session dismisses him to another congregation, the clerk shall send a letter commending him to its care, and the clerk of the receiving church shall notify the dismissing church of the date of his reception. When notification is received the clerk shall remove his name from the roll and record the fact in its minutes. He shall be considered subject to the jurisdiction of the session which dismissed him until the time when he actually is received by the body to which he has been dismissed.

b. Members may be removed when they desire to be dismissed to a church of which the session cannot approve as a church of like faith and practice. If it appears to the session that the spiritual interests of the members will be advanced by their uniting with such a church, it shall grant them certificates of standing, and, upon being informed that they have joined such a church, shall remove their names from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes.

c. Members shall be removed from the roll of the local church by ordination as a teaching elder, according to the Form of Government, Chapter VI, Section 4.

d. Members may be removed by erasure according to the following provisions:

(1) When a member desires dismissal to a church of which the session cannot approve as a church of like faith and practice, nor a church which will advance his spiritual interests, and he cannot be dissuaded, it shall grant him a certificate of standing, unless the session institutes disciplinary action against him; on being informed that he has joined such a church the clerk shall erase his name from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes.

As I understand it and have seen it practiced, it is common OPC practice to transfer members to sister denominations (that is, non-OPC denominations with whom the OPC has fraternal relations) using the method outlined in 3.a above (although it is noteworthy to me that 3.a doesn't actually explicitly approve this practice--it does not even mention other denominations--and this is not always consistently practiced in actuality, as sometimes sessions will refuse to give a letter of transfer even when a member is transferring to a sister denomination).  Now, this practice, on the surface, seems a bit inconsistent with what we have seen previously.  We have seen that when a congregation from outside the OPC wants to join the OPC, there must first be an examination of the ministers and elders of the congregation to make sure they have the proper qualifications to function in their offices, and then they are recognized and installed.  Clearly, therefore, while officers remain outside of the OPC, the OPC does not formally grant that these officers are functioning de jure as officers or even that they have the proper qualifications to do so.  If that is the case, then how can it be pastorally appropriate to transfer members from OPC congregations to be under the jurisdiction of these officers?  "Well, it is true that Pastor Bob and the ruling elders with him are not regarded by us as actually being de jure officers, as we have no formal recognition of them, nor do we have any formal position on whether or not they are qualified for office and can do their jobs adequately, but we'll go ahead and happily transfer our members over to them anyway!"  How can this be regarded as pastorally competent?

Perhaps this practice can be reconciled with the rest of the outlook of the OPC by noting that the transfer of members to other denominations is not considered an ideal situation but a concession to non-ideal circumstances.  Notice that according to 3.b, it is acknowledged that sometimes members might wish to be transferred to a church of which the session cannot approve as being of like faith and practice but that may still be regarded as advancing that member's spiritual interests.  (And note that, by virtue of remaining separate from other denominations in light of Christ's command for formal worldwide unity, the OPC is declaring all non-OPC denominations to have some problems either in faith or practice; for if the OPC believed another denomination to be perfectly sound, why would they still remain separate from it?)  Unlike with 3.d(1), 3.b does not say that the session should try to dissuade the member from joining this church not of like faith and practice.  But how can it be a good and acceptable thing to transfer a member to another church of which the session cannot approve as being of like faith and practice?  Surely transferring a member from a more pure church to a less pure church would be, all other things being equal, a move downwards and not an ideal thing.  But perhaps what these instructions are recognizing is simply that non-ideal circumstances can sometimes arise in which the best option available for the spiritual interests of a member might be to allow him to transfer to a less pure church.  Perhaps the member's job, for example, requires him to move to a city in which there is no OPC congregation and it is not feasible for him to quit his job.

So I don't think we need to read these instructions regarding the transferring of members as necessarily in conflict with the instructions for receiving congregations which indicate that there is no formal recognition of the de jure existence or authority of officers, or even of their qualifications for office, when they are outside of the OPC.  The instructions are merely recognizing that non-ideal circumstances may arise in which it may be best for a member to be transferred to a church outside the OPC's jurisdiction where there is no formal opinion regarding the qualifications of its officers and no formal recognition of their authority.  (In a somewhat analogous situation, I have requested membership in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland even though there is no local FPCS congregation in the area where I live.  The Kirk-Session to which I have made my request, when it meets next month, may advise me to stay in the membership of the OPC, not because they think this is the ideal situation or because they formally recognize the OPC's authority or qualifications, but because it may be the best choice given the options available.  Being part of a schismatic church could be seen as better than being a part of no local church, other things being equal.  I myself have held this opinion, which is why I have remained a member of the OPC.)

One more brief question before we conclude.  When a member is under discipline in another denomination, the OPC will not receive that member into membership in the OPC until the matter is dealt with (unless, presumably, the OPC determines that the discipline case is unjust).  Is this a recognition of the full de jure authority of the church courts of other denominations?  No, I don't think so.  This behavior is fully explained by the respect that the OPC has for the de facto functioning of separated denominations.  Although there is no formal recognition of the de jure authority of the other denominations, there is a recognition that, in the providence of God, the Body of Christ is alive and functioning in these other denominations.  Although the officers of the other denominations do not have their authority formally granted by the OPC, yet the OPC acts under a recognition that those officers are in fact, de facto, functioning as overseers over the souls of men, and that that function should be respected.  This behavior is perfectly consistent with our understanding of the meaning of denominational separation.  This is the same recognition that makes me feel it is my duty, so long as it is reasonably possible to do so, to respect the OPC's procedures and rules while I remain a member in the OPC and with regard to my eventual transfer out of it and into (most likely) the FPCS.  I should not simply get up and leave without going through the proper procedures laid down by my OPC session.  Why?  Is it because I don't regard the OPC as schismatic and believe their authority should be formally recognized in ideal circumstances?  No, it is because they are functioning, in the providence of God, as overseers over me, and that role, even if it is exercised in the context of an overall schismatic position, deserves respect.

Also, notice that I mentioned above that it is my presumption that the OPC might defy the discipline of another denomination and receive a person into OPC membership on certain occasions if they decide that the discipline the person is undergoing is unjust.  But, in such a case, why would not the OPC use formal channels to resolve the unjust discipline process?  It won't because it can't.  Because the denominations are not in formal unity with each other, the OPC can only complain and request that the other denomination act justly.  If the other denomination defies their pleading and complaints, there is nothing else the OPC can do.  Such is one example of the many evil consequences of schism and a congregational attitude to church government when it comes to relations between denominations.

In conclusion, what I see in the OPC's Book of Church Order is a fairly clear illustration of my position regarding the meaning and implications of denominational separation.  The OPC, in pretty much every formal way, treats non-OPC congregations, church courts, and officers, as being without any formally recognized authority, while sometimes acting in ways that show respect for their de facto authority under the providence of God as well as a recognition of what must sometimes be done in non-ideal circumstances.

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