Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A (Hopefully) Clear Explanation of the Regulative Principle of Worship

Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the Lord thy God. When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe
to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. (Deuteronomy 12:28-32)

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.  (Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1)

These two passages, one from Scripture and the other from the Westminster Confession, well summarize the basic idea of the regulative principle of worship.  God is to be worshiped only as he has commanded and not in ways he has not commanded.


Although a lot of people have argued against this principle, it is actually quite common-sensical when its basic meaning is clarified, terms are defined adequately, etc.  So let's start by defining "worship."  There is a broader and a narrower meaning of the term "worship," and the regulative principle applies to both.  The broader meaning of "worship" is simply "service to God" of any kind.  Whenever we offer up to God that which is pleasing to him and which he has commanded us to do, we are engaging in "worship" or "service."  "Worship" or "service to God," then, in this sense, is nothing other than a synonym for "obedience to the commandments of God."  This broader idea of "worship" is specifically addressed in the Westminster Confession under the heading "Of Good Works":  "Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention" (WCF 16:1).

The narrower category of "worship" is the subset of the category of "good works" which has to do with specifically devotional acts.  Thus, in this sense, partaking of the Lord's Supper is an act of "worship" in a way that caring for the poor is not, because, while both are commanded, the former is a devotional act directed immediately towards God.


There are three categories of activities that humans have the ability to engage in:  1. Things that are commanded.  2. Things that are indifferent.  3. Things that are forbidden.  The first and the last of these categories are pretty straightforward.  Our lives belong to God to do his will, and he has given us commands as to how we are to live.  When we obey these commands (which would include not doing things that are forbidden as well as doing things that are positively commanded), we do that which is pleasing to God.  On the other hand, when we do that which God has forbidden us to do (which would include both doing things positively forbidden as well as not doing things positively commanded), we do that which is displeasing to God.

The category of "things indifferent" requires a little more explanation.  The idea of "things indifferent" does not imply that there are things we can do for no reason at all, as if we are permitted by God to waste our lives by engaging in worthless activities.  This is too often what the modern idea of "entertainment" or "amusement" means.  In our modern western societies based on Naturalism (the idea that empirical nature is either all there is or at least all that we can know about), there is no concept that we are creatures of God who belong to him and who are obligated to live according to his will.  We are thought to be (as far as can be known) nothing other than accidental by-products of mindless processes, and therefore we owe no obligation to any standards higher than our own desires.  In this kind of an ideological context, the purpose of life is nothing more than simply to find a way to amuse ourselves until we die.  The centrality of "entertainment" to modern western culture is thus not surprising.

But this has nothing to do with what we mean by the category of "things indifferent."  Since our lives belong to God, we are to live them entirely for his glory and in the pursuit of doing his will.  "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).  However, sometimes there are a variety of legitimate ways to live for God in a particular area of life.  Almost always there is some flexibility as to how things are to be done, and that flexibility is more or less in some cases than in others.  For example, we are commanded by God to worship him in a public gathering of the church on the first day of the week (the Lord's Day).  But we are not told precisely at what times we are to meet.  Should our morning service be at 9:00 AM, or at 10:00, or at 11:00, etc.?  The Bible does not say.  So we do what makes the most sense.  And sometimes more than one option makes sense, and so we do whatever suits us best.

For another example, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, help those in need, etc.  But this can often be done in many different ways.  Does this mean that I ought to be doing service in a soup kitchen downtown?  Perhaps.  But not necessarily.  There are other ways people are in need and other ways to help them.  I could give many more examples of this kind of thing.  This is what we mean by "things indifferent."  Situations often arise when more than one choice is legitimate, and in these cases I may choose to do what seems best.  Choosing option A is not a sin, but then neither is choosing option B instead.

The category of "things indifferent" is often relative to the various entities involved in doing the evaluating.  For example, I have more immediate control over my own life than do the elders of the church.  I am under the authority of church elders, but my own authority over my life (self-government) is much closer to my everyday doings and much more involved in the details of my life.  Thus situations often arise when, considering my own responsibility of self-government, I really ought to choose option A over option B and it would be wrong of me to choose option B, and yet my obligation here arises from very specific circumstances of my own life, personality, etc., in such a way that authorities more distant from myself ought not to issue commands in the matter.  For example, perhaps I know that I really ought not to have "just one more cookie."  I've had enough already, and it would be an inappropriate use of resources, bad for my health, etc., for me to have another one.  Relative to my own self-government, it is not an indifferent thing whether or not I eat another cookie.  But relative to church government, it should be viewed as a thing indifferent.  It would not be appropriate for the elders of the church to try to micromanage the diets of the members of the church to that sort of degree.

The relationship between things commanded (or necessary) and things indifferent is well expressed in the Westminster Confession:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.  (WCF 1:6)


So we have the three categories of commanded, indifferent, and forbidden.  I like to think of the regulative principle of worship, in its broadest sense, as simply the principle of keeping these three categories distinct.  We should not treat commanded things as if they are indifferent.  We should not treat indifferent things as if they are commanded.  We should not treat forbidden things as if they are commanded or indifferent, or vice versa.  And so on.  We can confuse these categories in two main ways:

1. We confuse the categories when, in our own lives or in our own thinking, we put things in the wrong category.  For example, the Scriptures nowhere command us to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (at least not in New Testament times).  Neither does it forbid us to go to Jerusalem.  Generally speaking, whether or not a person goes to Jerusalem is a thing indifferent.  If, then, I were to come to hold the opinion that it is a necessary duty for men to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and thus to feel myself duty-bound to do it, I would be in violation of the regulative principle.

2. We can also confuse the categories and violate the regulative principle by misusing our authority over others.  To use the same example, if a church session or council were to command or require members of the church to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a necessary action, the council would be abusing its authority, for what God has not commanded cannot be commanded by those to whom God has delegated authority.  God has not given authority to the church to simply make up commands out of its imagination and impose them on people.  As the passage earlier quoted from Deuteronomy 12 says, we are not to add to nor take away from God's commands.  Similarly, we are not to turn commanded things into things indifferent.  If the church were to tell members that they are not required to regularly attend worship or to receive communion (when otherwise qualified to do so), this would be a violation of the regulative principle, as the church has no authority to negate what God has commanded any more that it can require what God has not commanded.  I think the OPC's Directory for the Public Worship of God captures well how the proper use of church authority (and the same principle applies to all other human authority as well--civil, family, etc.) is bound up with respect for the regulative principle of worship:

God may not be worshiped according to human imaginations or inventions or in any way not prescribed by his Word, nor may the church require her members to participate in elements of worship that God's Word does not require. Only when the elements of worship are those appointed in God's Word, and the circumstances and forms of worship are consonant with God's Word, is there true freedom to know God as he is and to worship him as he desires to be worshiped.  (DPW IB6b)

Throughout the Scriptures, there are warnings against altering the law of God by adding to it or taking away from it--taking that which God has commanded and making it indifferent or forbidden, or taking that which is indifferent or forbidden and making it commanded, etc.  One classic example is Jesus's confrontation with the Pharisees in Mark 7:5-13:

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees both for adding to the commands of God by putting their tradition into the category of things commanded without warrant from Scripture, and for taking that which God had commanded in Scripture and making it a thing indifferent.  In short, the Pharisees violated the regulative principle of worship.

Another classic example is Paul's exhortation to the Colossians not to add to the commands of God either by going back to the ceremonial law of Judaism or by making up new traditions out of their own imaginations:

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.  (Colossians 2:16-23)

Paul warns the Colossians that adding to the commands of God is not only wicked, but also useless.  The Colossians are tempted to think that God's Word doesn't provide sufficient aids to sanctification, and that the defect must be supplied by their own traditions; but Paul warns them that although their "will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body" might seem superficially to be able to advance the sanctification of man, in reality they cannot satisfy the flesh--that is, they cannot provide the needed sanctifying power.  God has given us all we need in his Word, and any attempted additions to this are not only useless but harmful.  As an analogy, we can imagine a recipe written up by an infallible cook.  Any changes made to that recipe by fallible cooks cannot help but can only harm the outcome, no matter how wise those changes may seem to their fallible minds.


In order to make the above discussion more concrete, let's apply it briefly to a particular case: the issue of extra-biblical holy days.

There were many holy days commanded for the people of God in Old Testament times.  However, as the Colossians passage quoted above illustrates, these holy days have been abolished in New Testament times, having been shadows pointing forward to Christ.  The only holy day commanded in Scripture for New Testament times is the Lord's Day on the first day of the week.  (This is not the place to go into an argument for this point, but see this article by Rev. Brian Schwertley for some good argumentation on the subject.)  Throughout the history of the church after the time of the apostles, however, various new holy days were introduced into the practice of the church, such as Christmas and Easter.  These days (and many others) were mandated in the church during the Middle Ages.  At the time of the Reformation, many Reformed churches abolished them, but the continental Reformed churches waffled back and forth on some of them for a while, eventually codifying a few of them into the regular practice of the church at the Synod of Dordt around 1618-19 (see this article by a continental Reformed minister for a historical account of how this happened).  The Reformed Church of Scotland, on the other hand, rejected all of them from the beginning and never embraced them.

So the question is this:  Is it in accord with the regulative principle of worship to observe extra-biblical holy days like Christmas and Easter?

Well, let's start by being clear as to what it means to "observe" a holy day like Christmas or Easter (we'll focus on Christmas to make discussion easier).  Let's describe this idea by dividing it into two parts:  1. For a person to "observe" Christmas means that he sets aside December 25 (at least in the west) in order to focus special attention on the birth of Christ.  2. For a church to "observe" Christmas means that the elders of the church set aside December 25 as a special day to focus on the birth of Christ, usually partly by means of having a special worship service on that day and perhaps commanding members to participate in it.

So is any of this in violation of the regulative principle of worship?  First of all, is there anything wrong with a person voluntarily deciding to spend December 25 focusing his thoughts on the birth of Christ?  No, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this.  What days or times we devote to thinking about some particular topic is, in general, a thing indifferent.  As long as we understand that it is a thing indifferent when we do it, there is nothing wrong with this (speaking generally--obviously, in some particular situations there might be something wrong with it relating to particular details of an individual's life).

But what if we begin to think of it as a thing that is necessary?  At this point, we are in violation of the regulative principle unless we can prove that God has commanded in Scripture that it is a duty to focus on the birth of Christ on December 25.  We cannot add to God's law by making a duty what God has left indifferent.  Sometimes we might be tempted to do this subtly:  "Well, observing Christmas isn't strictly necessary (such a harsh word), but it is really good for my spiritual life, such that my spiritual life would suffer and be significantly impoverished if I didn't do it."  Is it a thing indifferent to cause one's spiritual life to be significantly impoverished or to suffer?  Of course not!  Therefore this is simply a roundabout and disingenuous way of saying that the observance of Christmas is a necessary duty.  But can we really prove that from Scripture (either from what is "expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture")?  I don't see how.  Do we really have evidence that a person's spiritual life is incomplete if he doesn't celebrate Christmas?  Are we willing to say that all those (such as the historic Presbyterians and Puritans) who don't celebrate Christmas have had impoverished spiritual lives and have not been taking care of their spiritual lives as much as they should?  Without such evidence, we have to conclude that the idea that Christmas is an important part of one's spiritual life is not a Scriptural idea but one invented by human imagination.  And thus to think of the observance of Christmas in this way is to make commanded or necessary that which is indifferent, and thus to violate the regulative principle of worship.

Well then, is it a violation of the regulative principle of worship for the church as a body to observe Christmas?  Since the Scriptures nowhere command the observance of Christmas, and since the observance of Christmas cannot be proved to be necessary to fulfill some divine command that is present in Scripture, we must conclude that it is a violation of the regulative principle of worship for a church to command the observance of Christmas on church members.  There is no biblical reason why it is necessary to separate December 25 as a special day on which the focus should be placed on the birth of Christ, and so the church cannot require it or make it necessary.  Of course, the church also should not forbid church members from focusing on the birth of Christ on December 25, so long as they do not do it as a commanded duty but only as something voluntary.

But what if the church does not command members to participate in the observance of Christmas, but simply has a special worship service in order as a body to observe Christmas while leaving it voluntary for members to participate or not?  This may at first glance seem to allow the church to escape the difficulty, for it is not commanding its members to do anything.  But I think that if we examine this scenario more carefully, we will see that it involves a bit of double-speak.  If the church does something as a body under the authority of the church session, surely that involves a claim from the elders of the church that doing this thing is important for the church to do.  It would be ridiculous for the elders of the church to go through the trouble of putting together a special religious service and then, upon being asked why they are doing this, to reply, "Oh, for no good reason."  This would be a waste of the time and resources of the church.  When a church observes Christmas as a body, even when it does not strictly speaking require participation from members, it still sends a clear message that the observance of Christmas is an important thing for the Body of Christ to do, and this implies that those who do not participate are in some sense neglectful of their spiritual life.  They are not, strictly speaking, commanded to participate, but how can their non-participation be regarded when they are refraining from participating in something the church has declared is important enough to pursue as a body?  While the words say that participation is not necessary, the actions imply that those who do not participate are missing out on something that the church ought to be doing.

But cannot the church command days and times to be set apart for particular purposes in certain circumstances in order better to carry out the ministry of the church?  For example, would it violate the regulative principle for the church to set aside a certain Wednesday in February in order to deliver a lecture on some particular doctrinal topic?  No, this would not violate the regulative principle, because it is evident that sometimes circumstances arise in which the teaching ministry of the church requires some time to be set aside other than the regular Sunday worship services.  When this can be shown to be necessary, there is nothing wrong with doing it.  The problem with something like the observance of Christmas is that it involves in its very essence the idea that there is something special about the particular day and that there is some necessity to have a regular ritual in which that particular day is made the focus of special attention.  If a lecture is held on February 17, nobody thinks that this involves some kind of special observance of that particular day as special.  Its being set aside for a particular use is purely logistical in nature rather than being viewed as somehow necessary per se as a part of the ongoing worship and service of the church.  Of course, it is evident that these issues can be tricky and subtle, and that much care and discernment is required to think rightly about them.  We should pray to exercise such discernment, but we should not make the difficulty of some particular cases an excuse to throw discernment out the window and just do whatever we want.  The case here is parallel to that of ethics.  There are cases of ethics that are difficult and require much careful thought and great discernment, but that cannot be used as an excuse to throw ethical discernment out the window and declare that "anything goes."

Of course, we can also add to the above discussion the fact that the New Testament specifically condemns the idea that it is necessary to observe holy days outside the Lord's Day.  I have already referred above to Colossians 2:16-23.  We can add to that Galatians 4:8-11:

Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

So we can say that the Scriptures not only do not command holy days outside the Lord's Day to be observed, but they positively forbid the counting of such days as objectively special or holy.  But notice that we arrived above at this conclusion without having to refer to passages that positively condemn the idea of the necessary observance of extra-biblical holy days.  Although these passages confirm our conclusion, we already knew it was correct simply on the basis that the Scriptures nowhere command the observance of such holy days.

In light of a clear investigation of the facts regarding the observance of extra-biblical holy days like Christmas, the position taken by the historic Reformed Church of Scotland, as expressed in the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, seems warranted:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God's providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.

The disagreement between the continental Reformed churches and the heirs of the Reformed Church of Scotland on this matter has for the past few centuries created a barrier to full unity between these two traditions.  A more careful application of the regulative principle of worship is in order to help resolve the schism.


In conclusion, the regulative principle of worship is much more straightforward and rooted in Scriptural common sense than many people think.  I remember when I used to struggle with this issue, I had trouble understanding why worship could only consist of things commanded in the Scriptures.  Can't we love God with all of our lives, even when we do things that are indifferent rather than commanded?  Yes, of course we can, and should (actually, we are required to do so, as I showed earlier).  The regulative principle of worship does not mean that I can never do anything indifferent to the glory of God.  It simply requires that I keep the three categories of commanded, indifferent, and forbidden distinct.  I can glorify God by means of something indifferent.  What I cannot do is glorify God by turning something indifferent into something commanded (or vice versa, etc.).  For example, I am free to sing man-made hymns to the glory of God.  This is not a bad thing to do at all.  What I can't do is treat the singing of man-made hymns as if it is a duty I am commanded to perform or as if it were something that is per se pleasing to God (in such a way that God would be displeased if I didn't do it).  Nor can I make it a duty for others to do it or command or require them to do it.  Why?  Because the singing of man-made hymns is nowhere commanded in Scripture, nor does it follow by good and necessary consequence from any command of Scripture.  (Of course, I have here raised a contentious issue.  I will not deal with it at this time, however, but refer readers here as a starting point for further investigation.)  The regulative principle of worship is not some immensely complex theological construct.  It is nothing more than the realization that God is the ultimate moral authority of the universe and that we exist to please him, and that therefore only he ultimately can declare to us what our duty is (and what sin is), and we have no right to add to it nor take away from it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One Gigantic Kirk-Session

1. All governing assemblies have the same kinds of rights and powers. These are to be used to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church. All assemblies have the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline reasonably proposed and the power to obtain evidence and inflict censures. A person charged with an offense may be required to appear only before the assembly having jurisdiction over him, but any member of the church may be called by any assembly to give testimony.

2. 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.  (OPC Book of Church Order - Chapter XII, "Governing Assemblies")

CHRIST hath instituted a government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church: to that purpose, the apostles did immediately receive the keys from the hand of Jesus Christ, and did use and exercise them in all the churches of the world upon all occasions.

And Christ hath since continually furnished some in his church with gifts of government, and with commission to execute the same, when called thereunto.

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical.  (Form of Presbyterial Church-Government)

In the biblical, presbyterian form of church government, there is only one church.  This church is made up of all those who have made a credible profession of the true religion throughout all the world and their children, together with all the officers (elders and deacons) whom God has given to serve and to shepherd them.

Although there is only one church, it is evident that the church contains too many members and is spread out too far apart for the entire church to function as one organized body in all its functions at all times.  (For example, just imagine trying to bring the entire worldwide church together in a single place for public worship on the Lord's Day!)  Therefore, the one church is divided into subgroups which allow it to carry out its functions more efficiently.

IT is lawful and expedient that there be fixed congregations, that is, a certain company of Christians to meet in one assembly ordinarily for publick worship. When believers multiply to such a number, that they cannot conveniently meet in one place, it is lawful and expedient that they should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations, for the better administration of such ordinances as belong unto them, and the discharge of mutual duties.

The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings.

First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.

Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.

Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.

In this company some must be set apart to bear office.  (Form of Presbyterial Church-Government)

As the church is divided up into smaller subgroups of members and officers, this leads to the situation described in the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, where the church is "governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical."  At the smallest level, we have the local congregation, with its members and officers.  Each congregation has officers who are appointed specifically to bear rule over that congregation.  Presbyterians typically call these officers the "kirk-session" or the "session."  Therefore, not all church officers have jurisdiction over every congregation.  This would cause confusion and disorder.  Officers should focus primarily and immediately on their own peculiar charges.

However, the fact that we must thus subdivide the membership and rule of the church for logistical purposes does not negate the fact that there is only one worldwide church.  Members have more immediate fellowship with other members in their own congregations, but they are still united in formal communion with all the other members of the church scattered throughout all of the congregations.

Likewise, although elders have immediate and primary charge over their own congregations, yet they are still part of a larger ruling body of elders who are over the entire church.  This is manifest by the fact that they are not to function in complete isolation from each other.  They are to come together in larger governing bodies, such as regional presbyteries, to share rule over the broader church.  The most comprehensive, and thus the highest, governing body in the church is the general assembly, or the ecumenical council, which is the body of all the elders engaging in rule over the entire worldwide church.

Assemblies are of four sorts. For, either are they of particular kirks and congregations, one or more, or of a province, or of a whole nation, or of all and diverse nations professing one Jesus Christ.  (The Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland)

Or, to put it another way, the entire church is governed by one gigantic kirk-session, which breaks up into smaller sub-group kirk-sessions.

As the OPC Book of Church Order indicates, the purpose of the eldership, and of all its assemblies, is "to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church."  Thus, if members engage in erroneous opinions or sinful practices, the congregational session is to discipline them.  If the members believe this discipline to be unjust, they can appeal their case to a larger or higher governing body, such as a regional presbytery, which can affirm or overturn the decision of the session.  If an elder on a particular session engages in erroneous teachings or sinful practices, he can be disciplined by the session acting as a whole.  If an entire session goes astray, it can be disciplined by a regional presbytery, etc.  In all of these ways, the unity and purity of the church are preserved in a logistically efficient manner.


I have put forward the above facts in order to shed further light on an argument I have made a number of times previously in other articles (such as here and here).  My argument is that in a presbyterian system of church government, when two or more denominations are separated from each other, the implication is that these denominations are rejecting each others' de jure authority as churches.  More specifically, they are rejecting the legitimacy and authority of each others' church courts (assemblies).  Therefore, the very idea that there can be multiple de jure denominations (which is held by many professing presbyterians today) is inherently un-presbyterian.

The basis for this claim should be evident from what has been said above.  There is only one church.  There is one worldwide body of elders who have oversight over the church.  By virtue of being a de jure officer in the church, each elder has authority that the other elders must recognize.  He cannot be excluded from exercising that authority in the assemblies of the church.  Modern Presbyterians understand this well with regard to the level of sessions or regional presbyteries.  They all recognize that the following scenario, for example, is unjust and unbiblical.

Bob, Steve, John, and Dave are elders on a local session.  They are meeting together this evening for a session meeting.  Bob, Steve, and John are there, but Dave is absent.  "Where's Dave?" asks Bob.  "Oh, I didn't invite him to come to the meeting tonight," responds Steve.  "Why not?" asks Bob.  "Well, I think he's a bit weak in some areas of doctrine and practice, so I don't think we should allow him to exercise authority on the session."

What's wrong with this scenario?  The problem is that Dave has already been recognized as an elder on the session!  His de jure legitimacy and authority as an elder has already been granted.  It would be perfectly fine for the session to decide not to ordain a particular person to office--that is, to refrain from granting de jure authority as an elder to him--on the grounds of errors or weaknesses in doctrine or practice.  However, it is quite another thing to treat a recognized de jure officer as if he has no authority by excluding him from participation in the governing assembly.  This is to act unjustly, by treating him as if he does not possess an authority which he does in fact possess.

We could portray a similar scenario at the presbytery level:

Sessions A, B, C, and D are all part of a regional presbytery, which is currently meeting.  A, B, and C are present, but D's representatives are absent.  "Where are the representatives from Session D?" asks the moderator of the presbytery.  "Oh, we decided not to invite them," responds the stated clerk.  "They're a bit shaky in doctrine and practice in some ares, and we don't trust them to exercise authority in the presbytery."

Of course, this scenario involves the same problem as the previous one.  It is fine and good for a presbytery to decide not to receive a particular congregation and its local session into the presbytery--thus giving that session authority in the presbytery--on the grounds of problems in doctrine or practice.  However, it is quite another thing to have already granted de jure status to a particular session and then treat them as if they have no de jure authority by not allowing them to exercise their rightful authority in the appropriate manner as a part of the regional presbytery.

Modern professing presbyterians typically get these two kinds of scenarios.  But many start having problems when we begin dealing with different denominations.  Perhaps the best way to bring this out is to portray another scenario involving a general assembly meeting.

Denomination I is having a general assembly meeting.  The general assembly is the highest assembly recognized by Denomination I, and thus represents the whole church.  One of the commissioners raises his hand.  "Yes, what is it?" responds to assembly moderator.  (Yes, if this were real, it would be much more formal.)  "Where are the representatives from Denomination II?" asks the commissioner.  "We didn't invite them," replies the moderator.  "We do not grant them the right to exercise authority in this assembly.  There are doctrinal and practical concerns we have about them that keep us from uniting with them at this time."  "So we don't accept their de jure authority?" asks the commissioner.  "Oh yes, we definitely grant the de jure authority of their church courts," replies the moderator.  "They certainly have true authority to function as officers and assemblies in the church.  We simply don't invite them to exercise their authority in our general assembly."  "But," protests the commissioner, "there is only one church!  If Denomination II's church courts have de jure legitimacy and authority, then we must be able to join with them in exercising joint authority in an assembly in which we both share.  If we make this current assembly our highest assembly, and yet exclude them from it, we have excluded them from sharing with us in the overall rule of the whole church, which is their right as de jure officers and assemblies."

The commissioner is surely right.  All legitimate, active church officers and assemblies, by right, have the authority to participate together in a common assembly over the rule of the whole church.  One section of the one church of Christ has no right to refuse to join in a common assembly with any other section of the one church.  If two denominations refuse to join in a common governing assembly, it can only mean one of three things:  1. They have abandoned the presbyterian form of church government and thus the biblical unity of the church.  2. They have decided to be unjust by refusing to treat each other as their respective proper legitimacy and authority would dictate.  3. They do not grant to each other de jure legitimacy and authority as active officers and assemblies in the church.  There are no other possibilities.  Thus, the idea that there can be multiple, independent de jure denominations is incompatible with presbyterianism.

We can show this in another way as well.  As we have seen, the job of the eldership of the church is to guard the purity, peace, and progress of the church.  Church courts are to discipline members, officers, and lower courts which engage in erroneous opinions or sinful practices.  Although there is some confusion about how to do this in some modern Reformed circles due to the influence of latitudinarianism in much of the modern church (see here), most modern Reformed churches understand this task to a significant degree.  For example, if a local session in a Reformed denomination were to embrace credo-baptism, it would typically be disciplined by the presbytery exercising oversight over it.  This makes sense, because there is only one church, only one body.  Church shepherds are not to be concerned solely for doctrinal and practical integrity within their own immediate congregations, for "there should be no schism in the body; but . . . the members should have the same care one for another.  And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Cor. 12:25-26).  And "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (Galatians 5:9).

And yet this same care is not shown across denominational lines.  For example, the RPCNA practices exclusive psalmody.  They believe this to be required by the biblical doctrine of the regulative principle of worship.  Within the RPCNA, this practice is enforced.  If a session were to embrace uninspired hymn-singing in public worship, its overseeing presbytery would discipline it.  However, the RPCNA church courts never attempt to enforce discipline against other denominations that don't practice exclusive psalmody.  Why is this?  If the RPCNA and, say, the OPC, both possess de jure legitimacy and authority, then the RPCNA general assembly ought to call for a formal trial of the general assembly of the OPC over exclusive psalmody to take place within the over-arching assembly that binds both denominations together.  But, of course, there is no such assembly.  Either this means that the RPCNA and the OPC do not recognize each others' de jure legitimacy and authority, or it means that they have decided to be unjust or to abandon pure presbyterian church government.  The fact that they allow each other to embrace doctrinal and practical positions that they themselves reject (and enforce discipline against in their own assemblies) shows that they do not accept each others' full de jure legitimacy and authority within a presbyterian context.

For more, see here and here.

UPDATE 7/25/13:  To put the above argument very succinctly:

When a person becomes an elder in the church, he does not just become an elder over a particular congregation.  He joins a worldwide body of elders who govern the entire worldwide church.  Therefore, he has an inherent right to participate in the general assembly, the over-arching governing body of the church (though this may be by means of representation, as particular sessions send representatives to presbytery, presbytery sends representatives to the national assembly, etc.).  And this over-arching governing body has the task of preserving the unity, peace, and purity of the entire worldwide church--though it does this to a great degree by means of smaller divisions of itself such as national assemblies, regional presbyteries, and local congregational sessions.

Therefore, to refuse to have all elders and governing assemblies in the church represented in the highest governing body of the church, or to have two highest governing bodies that are independent of each other, is un-presbyterian.  But that is what denominationalism does.

UPDATE 8/12/13:  The OPC Form of Government, Chapter III, articulates a beautiful description of the collegiate nature of church authority in presbyterianism.  No room for multiple independent denominations here!  De jure officers do not function independently, but exercise their rule jointly as part of an eldership ruling over the entire church.  Therefore, to exclude certain men (such as officers from other denominations) from having a place at the table in the governance of the whole church is to treat them as having no de jure authority as officers in the church.

Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Let's Play "Pin the Denomination on the De Jure Visible Church."

The Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland well sums up the presbyterian nature of the church.  Take a look at the outline below of the various parts of the one visible church of Christ de jure, and figure out where your denomination's general assembly (or synod) fits into it. Then pick another denomination and figure out where it fits into it.  After you do this, read what I say below the outline.

Chapter 7 - Of the Elderships, and Assemblies, and Discipline
  1. Elderships and assemblies are commonly constituted of pastors, doctors, and such as we commonly call elders, that labour not in the word and doctrine, of whom, and of whose several power has been spoken.
  2. Assemblies are of four sorts. For, either are they of particular kirks and congregations, one or more, or of a province, or of a whole nation, or of all and diverse nations professing one Jesus Christ.
  3. All the ecclesiastical assemblies have power to convene lawfully together for treating of things concerning the kirk, and pertaining to their charge. They have power to appoint times and places to that effect; and at one meeting to appoint the diet, time, and place for another.
  4. In all the assemblies a moderator should be chosen (by the common consent of the whole brethren convened) who should propose matters, gather the votes, and cause good order to be kept in the assemblies. Diligence should be taken, chiefly by the moderator, that only ecclesiastical things be handled in the assemblies, and that there be no meddling with anything pertaining to the civil jurisdiction.
  5. Every assembly has power to send forth from them of their own number, one or more visitors to see how all things are ruled in the bounds of their jurisdiction. Visitation of more kirks is no ordinary ecclesiastical office in the person of one man; neither may the name of a bishop be attributed to the visitor only; neither is it necessary to abide always in one man's person; but it is the part of the eldership to send out qualified persons to visit pro re nata.
  6. The final end of all assemblies is, first, to keep the religion and doctrine in purity, without error and corruption; next, to keep comeliness and order in the kirk.
  7. For this order's case, they may make certain rules and constitutions appertaining to the good behaviour of all the members of the kirk in their vocation.
  8. They have power also to abrogate and abolish all statutes and ordinances concerning ecclesiastical matters that are found noisome and unprofitable, and agree not with the time, or are abused by the people.
  9. They have power to execute ecclesiastical discipline and punishment upon all transgressors and proud contemners of the good order and policy of the kirk; and so the whole discipline is in their hands.
  10. The first kind and sort of assemblies, although they are within particular congregations, yet they exercise the power, authority, and jurisdiction of the kirk with mutual consent, and therefore bear sometimes the name of the kirk. When we speak of the elders of the particular congregations, we mean not that every particular parish can, or may, have their own particular elderships, especially to landward; but we think three or four, more or fewer, particular kirks may have one eldership common to them all, to judge their ecclesiastical causes. Albeit this is meet, that some of the elders be chosen out of every particular congregation, to concur with the rest of their brethren in the common assembly, and to take up the delations of offences within their own kirks, and bring them to the assembly. This we gather from the practice of the primitive kirk, where elders, or colleges of seniors, were constituted in cities and famous places.
  11. The power of these particular elderships is to give diligent labours in the bounds committed to their charge, that the kirks be kept in good order; to inquire diligently of naughty and unruly persons, and travail to bring them in the way again, either by admonition, or threatening of God's judgments, or by correction.
  12. It pertains to the eldership to take heed that the word of God be purely preached within their bounds, the sacraments rightly ministered, the discipline rightly maintained, and the ecclesiastical goods uncorruptly distributed.
  13. It belongs to this kind of assembly to cause the ordinances made by the assemblies provincial, national, and general, to be kept, and put in execution; to make constitutions which concern to; prevpon[2] in the kirk, for the decent order of these particular kirks where they govern; providing they alter no rules made by the general or provincial assemblies, and that they make the provincial assemblies foreseen of these rules that they shall make, and abolish them that tend to the hurt of the same.
  14. It has power to excommunicate the obstinate.
  15. The power of election of them who bear ecclesiastical charges pertains to this kind of assembly, within their own bounds, being well erected and constituted of many pastors and elders of sufficient ability.
  16. By the like reason their deposition also pertains to this kind of assembly, as of them that teach erroneous and corrupt doctrine; that are of scandalous life, and, after admonition, desist not; that are given to schism or rebellion against the kirk, manifest blasphemy, simony, corruption of bribes, falsehood, perjury, whoredom, theft, drunkenness, fighting worthy of punishment by the law, usury, dancing, infamy, and all others that deserve separation from the kirk. These also who are found altogether insufficient to execute their charge should be deposed; whereof other kirks would be advertised, that they receive not the persons deposed.
  17. Yet they ought not to be deposed who, through age, sickness, or other accidents, become unmeet to do their office; in the which case their honour should remain to them, their kirk should maintain them; and others ought to be provided to do their office.
  18. Provincial assemblies we call lawful conventions of the pastors, doctors, and other elders of a province, gathered for the common affairs of the kirks thereof; which also may be called the conference of the kirk and brethren.
  19. These assemblies are instituted for weighty matters, to be treated by mutual consent and assistance of the brethren within the provinces, as needs requires.
  20. This assembly has power to handle, order, and redress all things omitted, or done amiss, in the particular assemblies. It has power to depose the office-bearers of that province for good and just causes deserving deprivation. And, generally, these assemblies have the whole power of the particular elderships whereof they are collected.
  21. The national assembly, which is general to us, is a lawful convention of the whole kirks of the realm or nation where it is used and gathered for the common affairs of the kirk; and may be called the general eldership of the whole kirk within the realm. None are subject to repair to this assembly to vote but ecclesiastical persons, to such a number as shall be thought good by the same assembly; not excluding other persons that will repair to the said assembly to propose, hear, and reason.
  22. This assembly is instituted, that all things either omitted or done amiss in the provincial assemblies may be redressed and handled; and things generally serving for the weal of the whole body of the kirk within the realm may be foreseen, treated, and set forth to God's glory.
  23. It should take care that kirks be planted where they are not planted. It should prescribe the rule how the other two kinds of assemblies should proceed in all things.
  24. This assembly should take heed that the spiritual jurisdiction and the civil be not confounded to the hurt of the kirk; that the patrimony of the kirk be not diminished nor abused; and, generally, concerning all weighty affairs that concern the weal and good order of the whole kirks of the realm, it ought to interpose authority thereto.
  25. There is, besides these, another more general kind of assembly, which is of all nations and estates of persons within the kirk, representing the universal kirk of Christ; which may be called properly the general assembly, or general council of the whole kirk of God. These assemblies were appointed and called together specially, when any great schism or controversy in doctrine did arise in the kirk, and were convoked at the command of godly emperors, being for the time, for avoiding of schisms within the universal kirk of God; which, because they appertain not to the particular estate of one realm, we cease further to speak of them. 

Did you try to find your denomination plus another one in there?  Hopefully you noticed that it is impossible.  This outline does not have any room for multiple de jure denominations.  That is because presbyterianism has no room for multiple de jure denominations.  The idea of there being multiple de jure denominations is not presbyterian but semi-congregationalist in nature. Multiple denominations don't fit because the church courts of different denominations are independent from each other, while presbyterianism does not allow for independent church courts in the visible church.  Also, different denominations usually have somewhat different standards of doctrine and practice.  And yet presbyterianism requires that purity of faith and practice be preserved by the eldership of the church. Sessions keep local congregations pure, presbyteries keep churches under them pure, national assemblies keep churches under them pure, and ecumenical or general international assemblies keep national churches under them pure.  This system does not allow for purity to be kept only at the presbytery level or the national level while divergence from purity is tolerated beyond it.

If we want to be presbyterian in the manner of the Second Book of Discipline, we are going to have to rethink much of what we do in the modern Reformed world.

For more, see here and here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Responses to Objections and Questions Regarding the Claims of the "End Denominationalism" Facebook Page

As the "End Denominationalism" Facebook page receives more and more responses, questions, objections, arguments, etc., I would like to keep track of important questions and objections and responses to them in defense of the basic ideas of the page.  This blog entry will be the place to store these objections, questions, and responses.

OBJECTION #1:  "Is it not an overreaching of the proper jurisdiction of the FPCS for them to claim that people should unite with them in formal membership outside of Scotland?  Wouldn't it rather be right for each nation to develop its own national church rather than members and churches in other nations to be under the oversight of the FPCS?  Also, are not ecumenical councils simply occasional rather than standing councils?"

Response:  An excellent set of questions! I've thought about these issues a lot, and I definitely see your points.

There are a number of (related) reasons (or perhaps rather an ongoing argument-string) why I think we ought, for now, to join the FPCS, and why I
don't think it is a breach of the limits of their jurisdiction to have churches and members outside of Scotland:

1. The FPCS has no formal communion with any other denomination. This implies a rejection of the de jure authority of all other denominations. The practical implications of this are that all other denominations are schismatic and lack de jure authority in the opinion of the FPCS, and I agree with their separate stance. Therefore, the situation we have is one de jure church centered in Scotland and no de jure denominations elsewhere. We ought not, normally, to join in membership with illegitimate churches; and we ought to be in communion with the proper de jure church.

2. Because there are no de jure denominations in other nations, the FPCS represents the totality of the de jure visible church at this time. (Again, that is the clear implication of denominational division in a presbyterian system.) Therefore, its situation is analogous in relevant ways to a situation where the church has not sent missionaries into a foreign land, such as in the days of the early church. The church of Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries to plant new churches. Was this an overreach of their jurisdiction? No, because it is the responsibility of the de jure church to spread itself to places where there is no de jure church. It would not have been appropriate for the church in those early days to have said, "Well, there's no proper church in, say, northern Italy, but we won't do anything about it. They can start their own church independently from us, and then once they get established they can join with us in formal communion."

3. The church is at all times to be joined in formal communion around the world. It would therefore be inappropriate for churches in various nations to have to grow to be sufficiently established (ten years, twenty, thirty, more?) before establishing formal communion with the already-existing de jure church. Therefore, the church, say, in the US, should begin in formal communion with the FPCS rather than wait to have that in the future. But this implies starting out under the oversight of the FPCS.

4. In order for church officers to enter into formal communion with the FPCS, the FPCS will need to examine them in some way to be sure they are fit for communion and recognition as officers. Why not then start out with ministers ordained in the FPCS rather than ordaining them in some home church (or in a schismatic denomination) in the hope that someday they will be recognized by the FPCS as legitimate? It would be more efficient to start in full communion and recognition. It would also ensure agreement from the beginning rather than risking unnecessary differences growing up that become a barrier later.

5. The FPCS already has quite a few churches (and even entire presbyteries) in different nations. If this is going beyond their proper jurisdiction, they have crossed this line long ago. It is evident that, practically speaking, they do not see having churches in other nations as beyond their jurisdiction.

6. I agree with you that, ideally, the FPCS should remain only in Scotland. The best way to achieve that is to grow up churches which begin under the oversight of the FPCS and then attain eventually their own national councils which will then be joined with the FPCS in formal communion under an ecumenical council. Of course, one way this could happen is by an already-existing church (say, the RPCNA in the US) reforming enough to join in full communion with the FPCS. If that would happen, it would be great. But we cannot in the meantime do nothing towards unity and ending denominationalism in the (rather far-fetched, humanly speaking) hope that various denominations are going to do this. We have a duty right now to be in full communion with the FPCS and to leave illegitimate denominations. This may take time, and it must be done in an orderly manner, and it may be for some it is practically impossible, but if it is practically possible we should not refrain from doing it in the hope that our whole denomination will do it in the near future (or more likely hundreds of years from now, if ever).

I agree with you that the ecumenical council should probably be a far more infrequent gathering than the lower councils. But the practical reality and possibility of it must always exist so that national churches will be accountable to each other. At any time, any national church ought to be able to call an international council to deal with some problem in another national church, etc., so as to preserve full unity in doctrine and practice, etc.

I'm really glad you raised these questions, because they are extremely important.

Response from Objector:  I think that firstly, I need to study more ecclesiology before I'm able to argue my position persuasively, but that's why I asked those questions: to see what areas I needed to study up on. But anyway, a few brief thoughts, though they mostly follow from applications of this first point...

1. Jurisdiction in Presbyterianism arises from churches joining together under a common court: provincial, national, and ecumenical. No church constituted in one area may simply take jurisdiction over a church constituted in another area. They may only be constitutionally joined (which is what I understand you to mean by "formal communion") with a church in another area by one of those appropriate higher courts. The FPCS is constituted in Scotland. The only way for it to constitutionally join with a church in another nation is by an ecumenical court. This also means that a churches constitutionally joined as a national church step outside of their jurisdiction if they wish to act authoritatively outside of their nation without going through the ecumenical court--even as a Presbytery would be stepping outside its bounds to take authority over another Presbytery without going through the national court (after all, the higher courts then Presbyteries are the same in nature as a single Presbytery. They're just larger and have more power. Though the ecumenical court is different in that it is not a regularly meeting court.).

2. You raise the point of missions. I grant that a church may send missionaries into another land. But the congregation planted must have its own elders ordained so that it is not under the government of the sending church, but is self-ruling. As further congregations are constituted in the mission land, these congregations will organize themselves into a Presbytery, and eventually a national church, but all the way up never being under the immediate power of the sending body. To do otherwise seems to be against the principles mentioned above. One may plant a new church in Italy, but that church in Italy must actually be a church in Italy--constituted in Italy--and so not under the government of the sending body outside of that ecumenical court.

3. You raise the point that the FPCS is already in other lands. Given that the FPCS is constituted in Scotland, it technically doesn't exist outside of Scotland. It may have a congregation in America, but that congregation is not an American church but a foreign one that accordingly answers to a foreign court. As an American citizen visiting Scotland remains an American still, so the FPCS visiting in America remains a foreigner confined to Scotland still. As such, it has no jurisdiction over American churches, and so no American church must feel obligated to constitutionally join with that FPCS congregation except through an ecumenical court. Further, this means none outside of Scotland is obligated to join the FPCS. The church being determined by locality, those individuals have no obligation to join a church in Scotland.

4. You mention that all denominations in all other lands are schismatic. Have you personally investigated the history of each and every denomination of each and every land? Because if a de jure national church may have jurisdiction outside of its nation, how do you know that some other church in some other nation is actually the de jure visible church relative to which the FPCS is schismatic? I also find it odd that the de jure church would happen to be a Reformed one. Why is some less pure church not de jure? It seems to me that the reason the FPCS has de jure status is not merely because of not being schismatic but because its doctrine best reflects the apostles teaching.

5. What does it mean for a denomination to be schismatic? It should be noted that not all denominations have broken away from another. Some have very independent histories, and especially in nations like America that were once the target of missions from church of all sorts of nations. It seems to me then, that the mere existence of two denominations does not necessarily mean one or the other are schismatic. Paul and Barnabas separated, but the Scriptures say nothing about whether one or the other or both were schismatic. They certainly divided, but that division is neither commended nor condemned. Surely too, we would not think that one of them lacked de jure authority (or de jure church-planting authority) from here on out until they were reconciled. So it also seems, that not all separations are necessarily schismatic either. Certainly though, by definition, all denominations are divided from each other where they are not constitutionally joined in the appropriate manner for their locality and extent. And I would further note, that it is impossible for a denomination outside of Scotland to be schismatic relative to the FPCS, since they never were initially joined with it and they furthermore exist outside of the jurisdiction of the FPCS (the FPCS doesn't even exist in those nations and so can't have other denominations schismatic relative to it, as noted earlier). And since the rules for denominations joining (e.g., the denominations must agree) are different from separating, they cannot be claimed to be schismatic for not joining constitutionally with the FPCS via the ecumenical court.

6. That raises the question of: What gives a denomination the right to exist? Iirc, the FPCS website mentions nothing about schism but merely says that it has a right to exist because it reflects the apostles' teaching. Surely, the right to exist comes from the head of the Church. You would probably say here that churches are schismatic (or divisive) for not agreeing with the FPCS so they can constitutionally join it via the ecumenical court. This seems to presuppose that churches that do not reflect the apostles' teaching as purely as another church have no right to exist. But along with the wild hunt one would need to go on to find the purest church on earth, Presbyterian principles see churches with a true profession as being lawfully constituted and with which we are obligated to join; the false church being the only church from which we are obligated to leave. So perhaps it is merely a true profession that gives a denomination a right to exist (in the sense of being legitimate). Perhaps the only case where one may have a question then is where there actually was schism: namely, when a group unlawfully separates from another church's courts but retains a true profession. Does the unlawfully separated group have a right to exist? I'm not sure myself yet, but even if it doesn't, as noted earlier, it is impossible for a denomination to be schismatic relative to a denomination in another nation.

7. You then raise a bunch of practical arguments. The FPCS being foreign in principle means that we are not even in practice obligated to join the FPCS or come under its oversight in other nations, because to give it that much unjustified power is not good in practice. However, if the FPCS were actually to plant real congregations in other lands (rather than simply visiting other lands) that are not under the immediate jurisdiction of the FPCS, I have no disagreement in principle (though obviously, then one isn't joining the FPCS but another denomination), though I would disagree in principle that all within that nation are obligated to join that denomination (rather, I would see it as I would any other denomination: work for reform in the purest church in your locality, and if Providence allows, then go ahead and join a purer church if you wish--perhaps even by encouraging a church plant in your area; this seems justified by Ephesians 4, in which the catholic church grows into confessional unity, and by the particular churches in one's area being local expressions of the catholic church). However, practically, that would mean the creation of yet another denomination in a land, and the FPCS which struggles to take care of its own would have practical difficulties with doing such. And then there's the problem of the denomination possibly departing from the doctrine of the FPCS. Given these considerations, whatever route one takes, it will probably take a long time for particular churches to confessionally agree, and it may take a combination of both routes for such to take place.

But the practical considerations weren't my main concern anyway, and I hardly consider myself an expert in such matters; it was only the claim that those outside of Scotland are obligated (morally or practically) to join the FPCS and it operating outside its jurisdiction that I was concerned with.

Response:  I appreciate your willingness to think through these issues. Unfortunately, it seems that they are rarely thought through these days in Reformed circles, and so we have a mass of confusion on them. But these are important issues, and they need to be dealt with carefully and thoroughly. I am grateful to interact with those who wish to deal with them and who can challenge me and all the church to do better in thinking about them.

1. I entirely agree with your sentiments here, provided that we are dealing with a situation where there are multiple de jure, legally constituted national councils in different nations that recognize a mutually-binding ecumenical council (or the possibility of calling one--which is really what I mean when I talk about it as existing). So, for example, if the FPCS had formal communion under a binding international council with a Reformed church in the US which claimed national jurisdiction in the US, then it would be a violation of the limits of FPCS jurisdiction for them to have congregations in the US or for people in the US to join them.

However, this does not accurately describe the current situation. The FPCS has no formal communion with any other denomination. This implies a rejection of the de jure authority of all other denominations. Assuming they are right to take this stand (and it is my position that they are), they are not intruding on the jurisdiction of any other de jure church by having congregations outside of Scotland or for accepting members in other nations, any more than the church in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the church was violating its jurisdiction when it watched over members outside of Jerusalem before distinct city churches with distinct elders could be formed.

2. Your thinking here seems to be based on a principle like this one: There is something inherently wrong with having churches in one nation be under the oversight of a higher presbyterian body in another nation. What is your basis for this idea? I am not aware of any basis for it. I see no hard and fast rule here at all.

While I grant that it is good to have distinct national councils, i think this is good simply for logistical purposes, not because there is some kind of sacrosanct boundaries between nations. In fact, nations are often in flux--dividing into separate parties, forming from unions of previously divided parties, changing boundary lines, etc. In the NT, we see no national churches in the modern sense at all. We see city churches--the church in Rome, the church in Antioch, etc. That was no doubt because division by city made more sense in a vast Roman empire. Today, dividing along national lines makes a lot of sense, but such divisions are human-made and are not sacred. While it makes sense under normal circumstances to have distinct national councils and not have congregations under foreign national councils in another nation, yet I see no hard and fast rule that says that things must always be this way no matter what the pros and cons in the specific situation.

In fact, if we take your principle to its logical conclusion, I think it leads to some absurd practical conclusions. If congregations can never be under councils in other nations, then sending churches can never exercise any oversight over mission works in other countries. So if the FPCS were to send a missionary team to, say, the Congo, the team would (by God's grace) convert people to the faith, but then it would have to tell these converts that they are on their own since oversight cannot be exercised over them by a foreign church. The missionaries would have to say, "Well, you guys are Christians now. Go ahead and appoint elders. We hope you do it right. Good luck! We can't exercise oversight over you, so if you go wrong, oh well! After a few decades, perhaps, when you've built up a full-fledged national council, we'll unite with you under an international council." But I don't think that really makes sense. It makes much more practical sense, and is better consistent with the unity and purity of the church, to have the small group be under the oversight of the foreign church until they are mature enough to have their own "self-sustaining" national church. Since there is no hard and fast rule regarding churches being under councils in other nations, this seems to me to make the most sense.

In the case of those of us outside of Scotland, since there are no de jure churches other than the FPCS, it makes sense for us to try to join the de jure church rather than simply remaining in schismatic denominations until our dying day--provided that it is practical for us to try to join the de jure church. We are commanded to be in formal communion with God's de jure people and under the oversight of de jure shepherds, so we should seek to be in that state if we can.

3. I think the points here have already been sufficiently addressed above. I would agree that it makes sense to be part of a more local church if possible, all other things being equal; but if the more distant church is de jure while the local church is not, then in that case we ought to try, if we practically can, to be part of the de jure church.

4. Your statements about doctrine being important in determining which churches are de jure suggest that you do not understand core aspects of my overall position. If you go to the About tab on the Facebook page, then click on the link that takes you to the description, you will see links to articles that will explain my point of view more fully. In particular, this article - http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2013/04/why-i-favor-claim-of-free-presbyterian.html - will be helpful. In it, I explain why I think the FPCS is the de jure church. You might also look at this article - http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2012/10/one-holy-catholic-and-apostolic-church.html - where I lay out my overall position.

It is not so impossible as you might think to evaluate the legitimacy claims of different denominations, and doctrine plays a crucial role in doing so.

5. Again, part of what you are saying here shows a lack of familiarity with my overall perspective. See the article on why I favor the FPCS, as it will explain further how I define splits and schisms, etc.

All churches have split from all other churches, because the church of Christ started out as one. Each time a split occurs, we must ascertain which side was right as much as we can. The American Presbyterian tradition (at least the mainline tradition) started in the early 1700s and was schismatic from the beginning, as it did not seek to maintain the covenanted uniformity of the Solemn League and Covenant but instead veered off in unbiblical directions from the start. It thus started out schismatically.

Your comment that not all separations are sinful shows a lack of a full presbyterian concept of church government. In presbyterianism, all churches must be one in formal unity throughout the world. There is only one visible church, and so all de jure churches must be united in mutually-binding councils. It is sinful schism when something comes in the way of that (except for things beyond the control of man's will, such as a church being lost in the Amazon rainforest for centuries without the ability of outside communication, etc.). All separation implies sin on the part of somebody, if not everybody.

Your comparison of denominational separation to the split between Paul and Barnabas is not valid. Paul and Barnabas did not form distinct denominational churches; they simply decided not to continue to be a single missionary team. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that (whether or not that particular decision was right). If Paul had decided to start a distinct church, that would have been an entirely different matter. 1 Corinthians 1, among other places, makes clear that Scripture (and Paul in particular) did not sanction denominational division. It is sinful to divide Christ. Your idea that not all separation is sinful reflects the very semi-congregationalist attitude towards the unity of the church that this Facebook page was created to confront. We've got to get back to pure presbyterianism.

6. Here you get into the question of what constitutes the proper basis of church unity. Your comments reflect what I would call "latitudinarianism." This position holds that churches need not agree on all Scripture teaching to be unified. Rather, we can separate out from Scripture things that are "essential" and other things that are not, and church unity need only be on the basis of the "essential" teachings of Scripture.

If we apply latitudinarian thinking consistently along with a consistent presbyterian view of the church, what we end up with is the idea that there should be one worldwide denomination agreed only on the "essentials," while allowing diversity on "non-essentials." Of course, everyone's list of "essentials" differs somewhat. Let's say that infant baptism is not considered essential. In that case, the one denomination will tolerate diversity on infant baptism, and not allow members or officers to be disciplined for diverse views on it.

What you probably advocate, on the other hand, is one visible church divided into different legitimate denominations, where the denominations have fellowship with each other on the basis of the "essentials" but allow diversity between themselves on the "non-essentials." But this position simply adds the error of semi-congregationalism to the error of latitudinarianism. The de jure church is to be unified throughout the world. There is no presbyterian basis for churches to recognize each others' de jure legitimacy but not be in formal communion under mutually-binding councils.

On the other hand, what I would advocate is the anti-latitudinarian point of view. I explain my views here - http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2013/07/what-is-involved-in-profession-of-true.html. My position is that the bond of unity should be all of what Scripture clearly teaches, not merely some list of proposed "essentials."

7. I think what I have already said above adequately deals with these points.

Feel free to follow up further! This is a very important conversation. If we are ever to attain unity and purity in the Body of Christ in this world, we have to tackle these issues head on, clarify our thinking, and come to agreement on the same basic principles. There is simply no shortcut.

OBJECTION #2:  "Undo market competition by shopping at Wal-Mart."

Response:  I would like to analyze this comment further, as it is intended as an argument against the purpose of this site--promoting ending denominationalism by joining the FPCS.

The argument depends on there being a similarity between competition among denominations and competition among shopping institutions. The idea of undoing market competition by shopping at Wal-Mart is considered absurd for these reasons:

1. There is actually nothing wrong with competition among shopping institutions, so the very goal and premise of the idea is flawed.

2. It is arbitrary (and self-serving) for Wal-Mart to put itself forward as the one place people should shop at. Other shopping places are good as well.

So the alleged similarity between shopping competition and denominational competition perhaps assumes some kinds of propositions like these:

1. There is actually nothing wrong with competition among denominations. Multiple denominations are just fine, so the very goal and premise of the idea is flawed.

2. It is arbitrary (and self-serving) for the FPCS to put itself forward as the one denomination people ought to join. Other denominations are just fine as well.

The problem with this argument is that shopping competition and denominational competition simply aren't relevantly similar. Shopping competition is fine, but denominational division and competition is a violation of the ideal of church unity and results from sin. Also, it is not arbitrary or inappropriately self-serving for the FPCS to put itself forward as the proper denomination to join if in fact it does have the best claim to a right to separate existence--as it and I claim it does. 

So the argument doesn't hold up. But it is a good example of how denominational thinking has greatly infected our common-sense intuitions regarding the nature of the church, and how a more careful analysis can help dispel fog in this area. Unfortunately, sometimes we Christians selectively adopt the same sort of latitudinarian and relativistic love of diversity that characterizes the broader western culture, but on a smaller scale. Evangelicals lament relativism and the celebration of diversity in western culture while embracing that attitude in calling Calvinists arrogant for saying they are right and Arminianism is wrong. Calvinists often complain about latitudinarianism and indifferentism in broad evangelicalism while practicing it among themselves by getting angry with people who make assertions that "exclusive psalmody is right and hymn-singing is wrong," etc. And confessional, original Westminster Presbyterians often lament latitudinarianism in the broader Reformed world while practicing it within the narrow range of more confessional denominations. The problem is that latitudinarianism is a bad thing no matter how narrow the spectrum. We should be concerned to have full unity in the whole truth among the churches of Christ.

See here for more on this. 

OBJECTION #3:  "Wait, I took logic a few years ago. I can help end denominationalism by joining a denomination?"

Response:  I would like to examine this comment more closely. The argument is that the premise of this page is committing a basic logical error by advocating at the same time 1. the end of denominationalism and 2. the promotion of a particular denomination.

When accusing the arguments of others of violating basic logic, it is good to be sure first of all that it is not oneself that is violating rules of basic reasoning.

That is the case here. The above argument is nothing more than a semantic trick hinging on ambiguity in the word "denomination." It is much like the classic Atheist argument that asks the question, "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?" In that argument, a rhetorical trick is being played with the word "can't". "Can't" is assumed to imply a lack of power, but the fact is that "can't" doesn't always imply a lack of power. Sometimes it actually implies the opposite. In this case, God "cannot" make something more powerful than himself not because he lacks power but because he is all-powerful. Once the rhetorical trick is exposed, the argument vanishes.

The same sort of thing is happening in this argument. The assumption is being made that "denominationalism" is the existence of any denominations at all. In that case, to end denominationalism would require the elimination of all denominations. But this assumption is incorrect. "Denominationalism" (see the definition in my long description of the page) refers to the acceptance of the existence of multiple denominations all as true de jure churches. Once we clarify the meaning of the word, the objection vanishes. If everyone were to join in formal full communion with the FPCS, there would only be one denomination. There would therefore in that case no longer be multiple denominations, thus ending denominationalism.  The promotion of one denomination as being right to join is not the promotion of "denominationalism," but rather the opposite.

So the premise of this page makes perfect sense and is not at all illogical. Let's be careful not to have our views and practices in this important area derailed by simple un-thought-through fallacies.

UPDATE 10/21/14:  I've ended up not really adding to this page all that much, as I originally thought I would.  Rather, I just keep publishing new articles that deal with these issues.  So for more positive analyses and responses to various objections, see the articles under the label "Presbyterian church government."  There's a lot of stuff there!