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 - - will be helpful. In it, I explain why I think the FPCS is the de jure church. You might also look at this article - - 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 - 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!

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