Thursday, June 13, 2013

Two More Examples of Semi-Congregationalism

One of them is from the report from the OPC 2013 General Assembly.  In the course of this report, there is a discussion of the different types of relationships the OPC has with different churches:

The Committee heard from CEIR Administrator, the Rev. Jack Sawyer (Pineville OPC, Pineville, La.). He introduced the CEIR report by explaining the three different levels of relationships which the OPC maintains with other churches: (1) Ecumenical Contact, a relationship with churches with whom we do not have historical or close working relations but do have contact through membership in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council ( or the International Conference of Reformed Churches ( (2) Corresponding Relations, or the getting to know you stage of inter-denominational relations with a view to a deeper, stronger relationship after further consultation. And (3) Ecclesiastical Fellowship, or relationships with churches that fully share our commitment to the Reformed Faith and with whom except for providential, historical or geographical reasons we might actually become organically one church.

I find that last sentence particularly interesting.  The OPC has relationships with churches which it deems to "fully share our commitment to the Reformed Faith" and yet with which it is not yet fully united.  Why is it not yet united with these churches?  Only for "providential, historical, or geographical reasons."  I'm sure there is a lot of content assumed behind these words, so it is difficult to draw too many conclusions merely from this statement.  But simply looking at the words themselves, the statement seems a little weak in terms of what is required to justify continued ecclesiastical separation.  Geographical reasons?  What could that mean?  The church is to be one in formal unity throughout the world (as the OPC itself acknowledges quite clearly), so how can geographical reasons be an excuse for continued separation?  The only way geography could be relevant would be if two churches are so far removed from each other that it is impossible for them to be in contact with each other, such as if one church is lost in the Amazon rain forest with no means of outside communication.  I somehow doubt that this sort of scenario accurately describes the geographical relationship between the OPC and any church with which it has ecclesiastical fellowship.  I can't think of any "geographical reasons" separating the OPC from any of those churches that wouldn't amount to a lame excuse to remain separated for no good reason.

What about "historical" reasons for separation?  Again, this is very vague.  If these "historical" reasons don't amount to doctrinal or practical differences, why should they remain a barrier to modern unity?  The bare fact of having formed at different times and in different places in the midst of different circumstances cannot justify two churches remaining separate from each other.

What about "providential" reasons for separation?  This is the vaguest explanation of all.  It is hard not to suspect that it is shorthand for "we simply haven't found a convenient time to get around to it yet."  I can't think of what else it could mean, though perhaps something more substantial is there.  Perhaps the problem is that the OPC is willing to merge but the other churches aren't.  In this case, the other churches are behaving schismatically, and I think the OPC should say so in no uncertain terms (as the FPCS has in its defenses of its separate existence).

At any rate, despite uncertainties and possible nuances in the meaning of what is being said here, it is hard not to suspect that behind these statements is yet another indication of semi-congregationalist thinking in modern Reformed circles.

My other example comes from Rev. Thomas Sproull, minister of the Reformed Presbyterian congregation at Pittsburgh in 1841, in an article on social covenanting:

Though the church is really one, "the only one of her mother," she nevertheless subsists in visibly distinct organizations. This arises in some instances from sin, and in others from necessity. Whenever conflicting views of divine truth separate the disciples of the Lord, it is on the part of those whose faith and practice are not according "to the law and the testimony," a sinful separation. The church, however, may and does subsist in different communities, all "walking by the same rule, and minding the same thing," without violating her unity. It does not appear as a charge against any of the seven Asiatic churchs [sic], that they were not all united in one visible organization. When owing to the extent of territory included within the limits of the church, or any other insuperable difficulty, there cannot be a supreme judicatory over all who are "perfectly joined in the same mind and in the same judgment," it becomes a matter of necessary duty to have a plurality of coordinate synods, each exercising supreme jurisdiction over that part of the church under its supervision. It is so with the Reformed Presbyterian church. In Scotland, Ireland, and the United States, though under the supervision of three supreme co-ordinate synods, she is really one, united in holding all the attainments of the reformation.

This is vintage semi-congregationalist reasoning, and it clearly and explicitly betrays presbyterian church government.  Presbyterianism demands that the whole catholic church on the earth be one in formal unity, with that unity being manifested in part by all the separate courts of the church (sessions, presbyteries, etc.)  being united under mutually-recognized judiciaries, culminating in the ecumenical council over the whole church.  To say that the church needs to function in presbyterian unity only up to a certain point, while after that it is free to associate in the manner of the independents, is precisely what I mean by "semi-congregationalism" (or "clumpy congregationalism" as I sometimes call it).  It is a betrayal of the full biblical ideal of the unity of the church.  Geographical distances do not necessitate violating God's pattern for church unity (could this sort of thing be what was behind "geographical reasons" in my previous example with the OPC GA report?).  (Not all nineteenth-century Reformed Presbyterian ministers were so confused on this point.)

This example provides an opportunity for a nice practical look at what such semi-congregationalist thinking tends to produce.  Look at the Reformed Presbyterian churches today in Scotland, Ireland, and America.  It turns out that they are not really one anymore in holding all the attainments of the Reformation.  Both the Irish church (the RPCI) and the North American church (the RPCNA) have explicitly rejected portions of the Westminster Confession, while the Scottish church (the RPCS), I believe, has not.  These churches are no longer fully united in faith and practice.  Ministers can no longer be interchanged between denominations (at least without a looseness in holding their own ministers to full subscription).  The terms of communion may be different (though I don't know this).  And what if one of the churches is not happy with something another of the churches is doing or has done?  There is nothing it can do about it except complain, as there is no mutually-recognized judiciary to which all three churches can appeal (thus making it impossible to fully follow Matthew 18).  So I'd say the semi-congregationalist philosophy articulated by Rev. Sproull is not working out very well for the Reformed Presbyterian churches today, unsurprisingly.

For more on this subject, see here, here, and here--and in general here.

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