The dialogue is entirely fictional. It is between Frank and an "OPC Elder." The elder represents no particular person. I chose the OPC because I am familiar with it and know where to find things quickly in its Book of Church Order, and not because the OPC suffers from semi-congregationalism more than other modern Reformed denominations (the disease is quite widespread both in America and abroad). In past hypothetical examples and conversations, I have used the PCA, the RCUS, etc.
Frank: There is a PCA church about an hour away from here. Do you consider its session, and the officers that make up its session, to have full de jure authority?
OPC Elder: Yes, I do.
Frank: Just as full and real as your authority and the authority of your own church session?
Frank: The Book of Church Order of the OPC affirms Presbyterian church government as biblical. In Presbyterian government, there are a limited number of authoritative offices in the church. There are ruling elders, teaching elders (which can include ministers as well as theological doctors), and deacons. Am I correct?
Elder: Yes, that is correct.
Frank: Are there any other offices recognized by the church?
Frank: The elders (both teaching and ruling) have responsibility for governing the church, correct?
Frank: Are the governing officers to function independently, or together as a board of elders?
Elder: They are to function together and exercise their authority together. The board of elders is called the "session." The session as a whole has more power than individual officers alone, and it can act as a court overseeing not only church members but individual officers who are part of the session.
Frank: The OPC's Book of Church Order (Chapter XII, "Governing Assemblies") describes how the church is to function corporately, with individual officers functioning together as sessions, and sessions being parts of larger governing bodies such as presbyteries, general assemblies, etc.:
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. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body.
Do you agree with this portrayal of how church officers and courts are to function?
Elder: Yes. This is basic Presbyterianism.
Frank: It would seem to me that this system of things implies that each individual officer has a right and a duty to function as a member of a session, and that sessions have a right and a duty to invite and require that individual officers functioning in their congregations function as parts of the session. Likewise, it would seem that each individual session has a right and a duty to function as a member of a larger regional body (a presbytery), each presbytery has a right and a duty to function as a part of a larger general assembly, and so on, and that the larger assemblies have a right and a duty to invite and require the lower assemblies to function as members of these higher assemblies. Am I correct in these observations?
Elder: Yes, quite correct.
Frank: Is your session a part of a larger regional church?
Elder: Yes, we are part of the Presbytery of New York and New England.
Frank: Judging from all that has been said, I presume that the PCA church an hour from here, as it is recognized as having full legitimacy and authority as a church session, is regularly invited to participate as a member church of the Presbytery of New York and New England. Am I correct?
Elder: No, that is not the case. Although we would welcome the PCA church to bring fraternal greetings to the presbytery meeting, the officers of that church are not allowed to function as voting members of the presbytery.
Frank: Why not?
Elder: We are separate denominations.
Frank: What does that mean?
Elder: We don't have a fully worked-out, mutually agreed-upon set of standards for doctrine and practice (though we are close), and we function independently from each other. We are not united under common binding councils.
Frank: How can you function independently of each other? According to the OPC's Book of Church Order, which I quoted a few moments ago, individual church courts never function independently from each other: "These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body." It seems to me it is very un-Presbyterian to have church courts functioning independently from each other, with no possibility of appeals to higher mutually-binding assemblies, etc.
Elder: Well, we don't agree on all matters of doctrine and practice, and concern for the purity of the church demands that we be careful about whom we unite with.
Frank: No doubt that is the case. But you miss my point. According to Presbyterian church government, as articulated in the OPC Book of Church Order, lower assemblies have a right and a duty to participate as members of higher assemblies, and higher assemblies have a right and a duty to invite and require lower assemblies to participate as members of themselves. According to this system, which you acknowledge to be right and biblical, it would seem that by not inviting a fully legitimate and authoritative church session (such as you have acknowledged the PCA church an hour from here to have) to be a full member of presbytery, your presbytery is violating its duty as well as the rights of that church session. And how can this be justified?
Elder: You don't understand. What you say is the ideal, but the church is not in an ideal state. You can't expect the church to function according to ideal standards in non-ideal times and circumstances.
Frank: Do non-ideal circumstances justify the breach of duty, or allow the claims of legitimate rights to be ignored?
Elder: No, of course not. But sometimes non-ideal circumstances necessitate that what would be considered a right or a duty in normal circumstances not be considered a right or a duty in the currently-prevailing circumstances.
Frank: Are you saying that there are some situations that make it so it is appropriate for church courts to function independently, and that lower assemblies not be united under higher assemblies?
Elder: Yes, I suppose that is what I am saying.
Frank: In other words, there are circumstances--such as ones existing today (and for the past few hundred years at least), presumably--in which the church ought not to function under a Presbyterian form of church government?
Elder: I didn't say that! We must always be Presbyterian, but our Presbyterianism doesn't always manifest itself in the same ways.
Frank: Well, Presbyterianism requires lower assemblies to be subject to higher ones, so it would seem that you are indeed justifying a not-fully-Presbyterian practice of church government. If Presbyterianism is the biblical form of church government, how do non-ideal circumstances justify changing it? I presume that you would not think it a good argument were I to justify bringing unbiblical practices, such as the use of images, into the church on the grounds that "current circumstances call for non-ideal practice."
Elder: No, we can't ignore the teaching of the Word of God because of "non-ideal circumstances." That is no excuse.
Frank: I agree. So why the exception when it comes to Presbyterian church government? Why, in this case, do "current circumstances" imply that we should cease to follow biblical patterns of church government?
Elder: Well, the Bible also says that we have a duty to preserve the purity of the church. We are concerned that uniting with the PCA may dilute that purity, and we cannot unite with them until our concerns are assuaged. Just as we should not ordain officers, especially teaching elders, until we are assured that they are biblically qualified and sound in doctrine and practice, so we cannot unite with any other denomination until these same sorts of conditions are met.
Frank: I grant that the Bible commands the church to preserve her purity as well as her unity. I grant that this is a good reason not to ordain certain men to the ministry of the church. I also grant that this can be a good reason to refrain, at times, from uniting with another denomination. However, concern for the purity of the church does not allow the church to ignore proper procedures of church discipline in dealing with existing church officers and courts. For example, if the presbytery were to decide that your session was involved in serious doctrinal error, you would expect them to have to prove that and follow proper formal procedures in charging your session with errors. They could not simply stop inviting you to presbytery meetings, etc. And you should have the right to defend yourself against their charges in a formal way, and the right to appeal to a higher court should the presbyterial court decide against you. Correct? And if you should lose, and assuming the presbytery's case against you was just, your session would rightly be stripped of authority to function as a church session, right? You would lose authority and legitimacy as a church session?
Elder: Yes, all that is correct.
Frank: Well then, since you have granted that the PCA session an hour from here is indeed a fully legitimate session possessing authority, I presume you will grant that the same process ought to be followed in their case as well?
Frank: Why not? Why don't they get to be treated the same as you?
Elder: They are of a different denomination.
Frank: Are they a legitimate and authoritative church session or not?
Elder: They are.
Frank: Then what does it even mean to say they are "of a different denomination"? The phrase has no meaning to me. They either are a fully legitimate church session, or they are not. You have said that they are, so I don't see why they should be treated any differently from you or have any different rights or responsibilities relative to the rest of the church and to higher assemblies of the church. I don't see how the statement that they are "of a different denomination" affects that at all or even adds any meaningful substance to the conversation. Are you inventing new offices in the church of Christ? For example, there are OPC elders, and these officers have different rights and responsibilities from PCA elders? Where in Scripture (or in the OPC Book of Church Order) do we see distinct offices along these lines?
Elder: We don't. It's just that . . . well, they don't have the same status.
Frank: What do you mean? Are you saying that PCA elders have the same office as OPC elders, but they are not given permission to fully execute their roles for some reason? Why would they not be allowed to execute their roles?
Elder: They may not be fully orthodox in doctrine or practice.
Frank: They may not be fully orthodox? I wonder what you would do if the presbytery were to cease to invite you to presbytery meetings or give you or your elders any role in higher assemblies on the grounds (without any specifics mentioned) that you may or might not be fully orthodox? To do this would be to discipline you, and that would require a full formal process, would it not? It could not be done on a mere whim and the expression of some people's informal opinions? Wouldn't they need to formally charge you with some particular error, etc.?
Elder: Yes, that is correct.
Frank: And what would happen if they were successful in charging you with something--say, that you are allowing unbiblical elements into worship?
Elder: Assuming the charge held up after appeal to the general assembly, I and my session (if they went along with me) would have our authority as church officers and as a session revoked.
Frank: Have the officers of that PCA church an hour from here had their authority revoked by such a formal process?
Frank: Have any charges been brought against them?
Frank: So why aren't they being invited as full voting members at presbytery meetings?
Elder: Our presbytery can't charge them or revoke their authority, for they are not under our jurisdiction.
Frank: Who's jurisdiction are they under?
Elder: The PCA presbytery in the area.
Frank: Well, if that presbytery is tolerating error in one of its sessions, you should appeal it to whatever assembly binds you both.
Elder: There is no such assembly, because the PCA and the OPC are independent.
Frank: But Presbyterianism requires churches to function inter-dependently under mutually-binding councils. So how can two legitimate parts of the church be functioning independently?
Elder: Well, we can't unite with them until we are sure they are fully orthodox . . .
Frank: But if you have already accepted their full legitimacy and authority as a church, you have to function inter-dependently with them under mutual councils. That is what Presbyterianism requires. The only way you can avoid doing that is by refusing to recognize their de jure legitimacy and authority. If you have recognized it in the past, you must repudiate it through proper formal channels (church courts, discipline cases, etc.). If you have not recognized it in the past, then you can simply continue not to recognize it. But what you can't do, in Presbyterianism, is acknowledge them as a legitimate part of the church (with all the rights and responsibilities that entails) and then treat them as if they are not. But that is what you are doing.
Let me make a proposal as to how we should best understand your behavior: In reality, you do not accept the de jure legitimacy and authority of that PCA church an hour from here. You do not consider her officers (individually or collectively) as being subject to all the rights and responsibilities that de jure legitimacy entails. You consider only OPC churches as truly, currently possessing de jure legitimacy and authority. The problem is that you have become so confused by the culture and language of denominationalism that you can't see it or bring yourself to see it. But if you want to continue to justly claim to be a proponent and practitioner of Presbyterian church government, you have no other choice.
UPDATE 6/24/14: A second dialogue with a semi-congregationalist can be found here.