Friday, August 23, 2013

We Lost the Keys to the Church!

My friend Riley Fraas of the High Plains Parson blog and I have been corresponding recently regarding issues of church unity and authority.  Specifically he has been challenging my claim that when presbyterian denominations are separate from each other, this inherently involves a rejection of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority, and that it is appropriate for some denominations to reject other denominations' de jure authority.  (I have made these claims here and here, and in general here.)

Our conversations have been very productive.  I would say that Riley has provided the best arguments in response to my position that I have yet seen.  I appreciate good dialogue with those who take truth seriously, realize the need to think clearly about important issues like these, and are willing to take the time and put in the effort necessary to deal with them.

Riley's basic argument seems to be this (correct me if I'm wrong, Riley!):  The only way de jure authority can be removed from a denomination is by means of a formal declaration of an ecumenical council.  Since the sixteenth century, it has been impossible to have an ecumenical council, because it has been impossible to get all the divided groups (Rome, the various Protestant denominations, etc.) to come together to have a free and honest council.  For example, if the OPC were to invite all the various denominations to join them in such a council, most of them wouldn't accept the invitation.  Therefore, as it is impossible to have such an ecumenical council, it is impossible for any of these denominations to have their de jure authority revoked, because none of the individual denominations have the authority to do this.  Therefore, while recognizing (I think) what I've said about how there is a moral responsibility for all churches to function collegially in mutually-binding councils, Riley holds that the current separation of denominations does not necessarily evidence a mutual rejection of de jure authority on the part of all parties, for some of them may remain separated from other de jure bodies not because they are rejecting their de jure authority but because they simply cannot avoid it due to their lack of authority to call a council.

While this way of thinking has some plausibility, I think there are certain realities that it does not take into account which are its undoing:

1. If this way of thinking were correct, it would destroy nearly all the possibility of discipline in the church, at least discipline of church courts and elders.  The basic assumption it makes is that an ecumenical council exercising oversight over various denominations is only valid if all the parties under its jurisdiction actually agree to participate in it.  But this principle would wreak havoc on church discipline.  Imagine a situation where a session has fallen into heresy.  The presbytery calls a meeting to deal with the situation and discipline the session.  The rules of procedure adopted by the presbytery say that only with the consent of all the sessions can a meeting of presbytery be called, but the erring session refuses to consent to the meeting.  The presbytery, therefore, cannot call a legal meeting, and so cannot discipline the session.  They have no choice but to leave the session undisciplined and its authority intact.

And this could happen at any level.  If a presbytery went rogue, the General Assembly would not be able to call a meeting to discipline them unless they agreed to come; so if they don't agree to come, they get to escape discipline!  If an individual elder in a particular session were to fall into heresy, the session couldn't discipline him if he did not consent to come to the session meeting.  The session would be incapable of ejecting him from the session, removing his authority, because they could not call a meeting to deal with the situation.

Christ has given authority to his church to deal with these kinds of matters of discipline.  He does not intend that authority to be able to be voided merely by such trickery by those who need to be disciplined.  Christ has created an eldership whose job is to rule not only over particular congregations or presbyteries, but over the entire church.  Any part of the church can be disciplined by any higher council, going all the way up to the ecumenical council.  Therefore, we can infer that anything necessary to maintain such discipline is logically included in the command to discipline.  This must necessarily include the ability of church courts to call meetings to deal with erring parties even when those parties refuse to participate in the meetings.  Sessions can call session meetings when necessary even when individual elders refuse to come and participate, and those elders can be disciplined for refusing to participate and for other things at those meetings (if such is the purpose of the meeting).  The same goes for presbyteries dealing with erring sessions, synods dealing with erring presbyteries, national councils dealing with erring synods, and ultimately the ecumenical council dealing with erring national churches, etc.  This must be so, or the discipline Christ requires his church to maintain would be impossible.

We can also say that the need to maintain church discipline allows the church to call meetings in an extraordinary manner when the ordinary manner is ineffective.  For example, imagine that the majority of churches in a presbytery go rogue, and only one or two faithful sessions remain.  Ordinarily, a minority of sessions ought not to be able to call a meeting of the entire presbytery without the consent of the other sessions.  However, in this case, they would have the authority to do so.  Otherwise, discipline within the presbytery could not be adequately maintained.  If the one or two remaining faithful churches call a meeting of presbytery to deal with the erring majority of sessions, as this is a necessary act, it is also authoritative, and the other sessions have an obligation to participate in it.  If they refuse to show up, the remaining faithful churches can proceed without them, including disciplining them for their errors and even specifically for the sin of rejecting the authority of the presbytery by refusing to show up at that meeting.  Such a presbytery would have lawful authority even to the point of rescining the authority of those sessions and cutting them off from the presbytery, if necessary.  And this would be the case at every level, all the way from sessions to the ecumenical council.  So if the OPC were to call an ecumenical council to deal with the various errors in existing denominations, all those denominations would be morally required to come and participate in it.  If they refused to come, the OPC, even alone, could constitute the ecumenical council and engage in lawful discipline against the other denominations.

2. It is inherent in the concept of delegated authority that such authority only extends to that for which it was delegated.  Any actions beyond this lack authority.  This fact allows the decisions of human courts to lawfully be declared null and void if they go beyond the lawful authority delegated to them--which would happen if a court violated the rules of the authority superior to it, or even if it proceeded beyond the limits of the jurisdiction delegated to it.

One implication of this is that the highest human court in any institution can be overruled by a direct appeal to the authority of God, who is the ultimate moral authority of the universe and over all merely human authorities.  This is, of course, evident from many scriptural examples, such as the refusals of Daniel and the apostles to obey lawful human courts when they commanded disobedience to God.

We should note, however, that such direct extraordinary appeals to God directly need to be undertaken only in the light of all the rules of the Bible for dealing with these sorts of things.  One such rule is that one cannot appeal directly to God without first going through proper, ordinary human channels.  Matthew 18:15-20, for example, articulates this.  When a fellow church members sins, one cannot simply go straight to God's Word, declare the sin an excommunicatable offense based on that, and then decide personally that the sinning individual is excommunicated.  One must go through the proper channels--go to him personally (if it is a personal offense), take two or three witnesses, go to the church, etc.  Taking into account the full picture of presbyterian church government presented in the Bible, this would also involve allowing appeals to higher church councils, potentially going all the way up to the ecumenical council.  But if the highest human council refuses to deal with the discipline issue, it may be permissible for the individual to appeal directly to God and declare the opinion of that highest human council overturned by his Word, and thus treat the person as excommunicated.

I say, it may be permissible, because other factors are involved as well.  God commands us to seek the peace and unity of the church, and so we ought not to overrule regular authorities unless it is absolutely necessary to avoid sin, because otherwise we unnecessarily disturb the regular order, peace, stability, and unity of the church.  Going along with this, we must give the benefit of the doubt to the human councils.  In particular discipline cases, there is often involved some degree of subjectivity as to how a certain situation should best be handled.  We should always defer to the wisdom of the established councils when possible to do so.  In practice, I think this means that it will probably almost never be the case that we should appeal beyond the highest human council in cases of individual discipline.  The need to do this is more likely to occur in matters of doctrine or practice, or matters of discipline that touch especially on these (such as if a session were to appoint a female minister, as such an act is not only an individual issue but could call into question the doctrinal commitments of the entire denomination if allowed to go undisciplined--yet even here, we must take things on a case-by-case basis and only do what is truly necessary).

Another biblical rule that needs to be kept in mind when we consider overruling human councils is found in Romans 13:1-2:  "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation."  If a human power is, de facto, funtioning in a position of necessary, God-ordained authority, that human power is said by God to have de jure status.  This is why Daniel and the apostles submitted, respectively, to the governments of Babylon and Rome.  The rulers of Babylon and Rome were not qualified to rule according to biblical qualifications for civil office.  But, nevertheless, they had de jure authority because they had been put in a place of authority by the providence of God.  (With regard to civil rulers, but having application, I think, to other areas of authority as well, see here and here for more argumentation on this immediate point.)  Note that this does not imply that tyrants cannot be at times resisted, and even overthrown.  If, in God's providence, it becomes possible to lawfully, reasonably, ethically, etc., set up a more adequate government, this is not off the table.  However, what this does imply is that the current government cannot be declared illegitimate (on the basis of being unlawful, lacking biblical qualifications, etc.) until an alternative option is available in the providence of God.

Putting these points together, we can say that it is possible to overrule even the highest human authorities by appealing directly to God and his Word, so long as this is done in light of the proper rules of God's Word.  Applying this to our current topic of discussion, it means that church members and churches are not stuck, having to work only through ordinary means and ordinarily proper channels in carrying out their necessary work helping to preserve the unity, peace, and purity of the church.  If an ecumenical council cannot be called in an ordinary fashion, this does not mean the church can do nothing to discipline erring denominations.  In order to fulfill their necessary duty to guard the purity and unity of the church, an appeal could possibly be made, if appropriate, directly to Christ in order to call a needed ecumenical council, even if many of the existing denominations refuse to cooperate with or participate in such a council.  The council would still be lawful, and could lawfully discipline these non-cooperating denominations.

To give a specific illustration of the above principles, we can go back to our earlier scenario where the OPC wants to call an ecumenical council for the sake of the unity and purity of the catholic church.  Contrary to Riley's point of view, we see that the OPC could indeed call such a council, and it would be lawful and could lawfully exact ecumenical discipline, even if other denominations refuse to cooperate or participate in it.

One more issue needs to be addressed before we conclude:  In the history of denominational splits since the sixteenth century, many major splits among Protestants (and between Protestants and Rome on the Protestant side) have not occurred by means of formal councils rejecting certain churches.  Rather, many times, what happened was simply that denominations drifted apart, failing to stay in adequate contact and running off in their own directions.  This is especially the case among the Reformed churches.  So this raises a question:  Are splits produced in this sort of way lawful and legitimate, or does an actual council need to be called to reject the de jure authority of some denomination (even if that council is called in an extraordinary way, as outlined above)?  The FPCS, for example, has never called a council and formally rejected the Church of England, or the OPC, but their continuing willing separation from these bodies implies a rejection of their de jure authority.  Can this be just?

Yes, I think it can be, and in fact is with regard to the FPCS.  In these sorts of cases, I think what we can say is that although it would have been better for the separations to have occurred more formally and as regularly as possible, rather than simply through historical processes of different churches going different pathways and more implicit rejections, yet as the separations have in fact occurred already, the latter less formal historical processes have, in effect, amounted to the functional equivalent of a more formal rejection.  It would be a failure to acknowledge history and current reality to try now to go back and call a council of all these groups and only then conclude with a formal rejection of erring groups if the council fails.  The different existing denominations have already established themselves as separate bodies with clear and conclusive doctrinal and practical positions.  None of them are going to be willing to join in a mutually-binding council with the others.  If they were to do so for the sake of formality, they would all go in intending firmly (and communicating clearly to their membership that they are intending firmly) to preserve their own doctrinal testimonies, so the council would be something of a sham, a mere formality where everyone already knows the conclusion.  The FPCS could call such a council, but the OPC and the Church of England wouldn't come, and if they did come and vote on, say, exclusive psalmody, they would all go their own already-established ways after the council was over no matter which way the council decided.  Since this outcome is already known, there is no reason not to accept the actual state of reality and embrace the conclusion history has already delivered--namely, that the groups are separated and reject each others' de jure authority.  I would say that if we could go back in time, it would have been better to have divided in a more regular, formal way.  But, as we can't go back in time, I don't think it makes sense to try to go that route now.  The state of separation and mutual rejection of authority already exists, and it makes no sense to act as if it doesn't and do what would have been sensible in the 1680s.  I see no reason to think that it is unlawful to proceed in this way, seeing that the conclusions such a council would be called to reach have already been reached and it would be mere pretense to call such a council under these circumstances.  Conversations between already-separated churches should proceed not by undoing important separations already accomplished, but by means of ongoing dialogue between the already-separated bodies.

I must conclude, then, that Riley's way of construing the current situation is not adequate.  In fact, modern churches are not stuck, unable to fulfill their duty to seek the unity and purity of the church because of the unwillingness of erring bodies.  Christ has commanded the eldership of his church to keep discipline in his church, and he has accordingly given them the power to do that.  That, therefore, is what they should do.  Therefore, we ought to continue to say that when denominations claiming to be presbyterian are divided, there are only three possibilities:  1.  They are rejecting each others' de jure authority.  2. They have decided to be unjust by refusing to take seriously the authority of the other bodies, or by refusing to do what they can and ought to do to seek the unity and purity of the whole church.  3. They have abandoned pure presbyterian church government.

UPDATE 9/9/13:  Another argument for the position taken in this blog post can be made based on the fact that elders and church courts have an intrinsic right and duty to function collegially in mutually-binding councils.  If this is the case, then even if the majority part of a governing body refuses to call a meeting to deal with errors and divisions, the smaller part has the authority to call the meeting and require the larger part to attend it on the grounds that the smaller part, as well as the larger part, has a right and a duty to function collegially with all the church courts in common governing councils in order to do the work of the church.  Since this is an intrinsic right, the larger part has an obligation to grant it to the smaller part.  Therefore, when the smaller part calls a council, the council is obligatory and therefore authoritative even if the larger part refuses to participate in it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Presbyterian Unity of the Church

Let's take a look (particularly focusing on the New Testament) at some fundamental aspects of how the Bible portrays the nature and unity of the visible church.

1. There is one body.

First of all, there is only one church, which is the Body of Christ.

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.  (Ephesians 4:1-6)

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.  (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

The one church is to be united and not divided.  Divisions are evil, as they split the Body of Christ.

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?  (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?  (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

Notice also that the unity of the church is to be found in agreement in doctrine and practice, as everyone holds to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42).

2. The one Body of Christ consists of a variety of individual members who are all parts of it and have concern for the whole.

As in a physical body, the members are all bound up with each other.  They are not independent, but are parts of the larger whole.  Their care should not just be for themselves, but for each other, for the whole body.  All the different parts of the body have particular roles to play and they all need each other.

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked. That there should be no schism in the body; but that 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. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.  (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

3. The Holy Spirit has given gifts to the members of the church, and these gifts are to be used in communion with the whole body and for its edification.

These spiritual gifts are diverse according to the diversity of the members of the church, and they are all to be used in conjunction to complement each other for the good of the whole body.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. . . . Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?  (1 Corinthians 12:1-11, 27-30)

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.  (Ephesians 4:4-16)

4. Among these spiritual gifts are particular gifts that prepare members of the church to fulfill certain established offices in the church--such as the temporary offices of apostle and prophet, as well as the permanent offices of elder and deacon.

The word deacon means "servant."  The office of deacon was established to contribute an office not of rule or teaching, but of service to the church.

And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.  (Acts 6:1-7)

Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.  (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

We saw from the lists of spiritual gifts in the previous section that gifts of rule, administration, and teaching have been given to the church.  In the New Testament church, the first place in terms of rule and teaching is given to the apostles.  But secondarily, God has also appointed elders or bishops in the church to rule and to teach.  As the apostles' office was temporary, the elders were to take the first place on earth as rulers and teachers of the church after their departure, always subject to the words of the apostles recorded in Scripture, as these are the words of Christ himself who has given spiritual gifts to men.

This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.  (1 Timothy 3:1-3)

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.  (Titus 1:5-9)

Not all elders have exactly the same gifts.  Some are called more especially to teach in the church as well as to rule:  "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" (1 Timothy 5:17).

The role of elders in the church is to rule over and shepherd the church, to teach sound doctrine and refute false doctrine, and to exercise spiritual discipline over the church.  The church is in danger of evil doctrines, practices, and divisions entering into its life, and the job of elders is to use teaching and spiritual discipline to prevent these and to nourish the body and help it grow properly.

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  (Matthew 16:13-19)

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.  (John 20:19-23)

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.  (Matthew 18:15-20)

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.  (Hebrews 13:17)

A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.  (Titus 3:10-11)

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. . . . And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.  (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15)

And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves.  (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.  (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)

Elders are not to rule independently from each other.  Just as the individual members of the church are to use their gifts in conjunction with each other for the edification of the whole body, so elders are to function interdependently and complementarily, joining together as a ruling body to exercise oversight over the church.  Each elder is to function as a part of the whole ruling body, and he is subject to the whole, even to being disciplined in cases of sin or error:  "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" (1 Timothy 5:19-20).

A good illustration of the unity of the church in the early days of the church is found in Acts 2:41-47:

Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

5. As the church grew and spread throughout the world, it became necessary for logistical reasons to sub-divide the church into smaller groupings, particularly local congregations, and yet the unity of the one Body of Christ remained the same.

Whereas at the beginning there were simply the believers in Jerusalem, as recorded in the Book of Acts, later on, after the church had spread throughout the world due to persecutions and the preaching of the gospel, individual congregations in different places were developed, such as the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Antioch, the church in Rome, etc.  Each local congregation formed its own mini-body, with a diversity of members sharing their spiritual gifts with each other--as we see, for example, in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul gives instructions to the local congregation in Corinth regarding their gatherings and the proper use of spiritual gifts in those gatherings.

However, there was still only one Body of Christ in unity throughout the world.  The local congregations were to continue to share the fellowship of the whole body with one another.

Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.  (Colossians 4:15-16)

Here we have the Apostle Paul writing letters to different churches and telling these churches to recognize each other in fellowship and share their apostolic letters with one another.

And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.  (Acts 11:27-30)

But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.  (Romans 15:25-29)

Here we have examples of the care the saints are to have for the whole body of which they are a part being manifested between congregations in different areas.

But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.  (1 Corinthians 11:16)

The Apostle Paul's comment here comes at the end of his instructions to the Corinthian church regarding head coverings in the worship of the church.  He states that if anyone wants to argue about the teaching he has delivered to the church as an apostle (see 11:2), that person should be aware that there is no other custom in the universal church.  The churches throughout the world are united in the doctrine of the apostles.

6. As with the other aspects of the church, so with the oversight of the church.  For logistical purposes, the rulers and official teachers of the church are sub-divided into distinct groupings to serve the various congregations, and yet they remain unified as part of a governing body that has rule and oversight over the entire worldwide church.

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.  (Titus 1:5)

And we sailed thence, and came the next day over against Chios; and the next day we arrived at Samos, and tarried at Trogyllium; and the next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.  (Acts 20:15-17)

So there are elders appointed in each city, over the diverse congregations.  These elders, in their immediate office, are given charge over particular congregations or smaller groupings of Christians.

However, as we recall, the eldership was given to the church as a whole in order to preserve the whole body from heresy, schism, sin, etc.  It is evident that the elders, say, of Corinth, functioning specifically in their role as elders of Corinth, would not be able to exercise rule over the entire church.  And yet the entire church requires the exercise of oversight over the whole body.  If the elders and church of Antioch, for example, were to go astray, this would not be a matter affecting only them.  The entire Body of Christ would be concerned in a part of itself becoming infected with evil, and it must be the job of the eldership of the church to discipline the offending congregation in order to preserve the peace and purity of the entire church; just as when a particular elder in a congregation goes astray, he must be disciplined by the larger body of elders of which he is a part (1 Timothy 5:19-20).  We can see, therefore, that just as a body of elders in a local area have oversight over the individual elders making up that body, so the same must hold for the church throughout the world:  Individual elders and groups of elders must be accountable to the larger body of elders that is over the entire church.  Only then is the unity of the church preserved, along with the unity of its spiritual gifts, including rule, that are to be exercised within the context of the entire body and for the benefit of the whole body, despite any sub-divisions made in that body for purely logistical purposes.

The above is inferable from principles already articulated, but it is also confirmed by direct examples.

These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.  (1 Timothy 4:11-16)

Here we have the Apostle Paul exhorting Timothy, an evangelist sent by Paul to aid the churches, to carry out his responsibilities--which responsibilities he received from Christ through the "laying on of the hands of the presbytery [that is, the body of elders]."  The body of elders as a whole gave to Timothy his charge as an evangelist--and they also have the power to take it away if necessary.

Our greatest example of the elders of particular congregations coming together in a joint body to exercise rule over the entire church is the occasion of the Jerusalem Council:

And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. . . . Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.  (Acts 15:1-6, 22-35)

Here we have a situation where a certain issue was troubling one of the local churches, the church in Antioch.  Unable to resolve the issue there alone, the church in Antioch sends representatives to Jerusalem to meet there with other elders from the wider church in order to discuss the matter and come to a resolution.  This general council comes to a conclusion, and that conclusion is then binding on all the churches: "And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16:4-5).

Notice that although the apostles were involved in this council, yet they did not exercise their immediate apostolic authority alone in it.  Instead, they joined in a larger council with the other elders of the particular churches, and the entire church came to a conciliar decision.  In doing this, the council left us an example to follow even after the apostles had left the scene.  When matters concerning the entire church cannot be adequately resolved by one local body, the elders can join together in a larger governing body, even up to the entire eldership over the universal church, to decide the matter; and so long as their decision is in accord with the Word of God (which includes the teaching of the apostles, thus making them, in a sense, present in spirit at every such council), it is binding.  This is perfectly logical, considering what we have seen regarding the biblical teaching on the unity of the one church of Christ throughout the world.  If such a council were not possible, there would be no way for the elders to govern the entire church.  The universal church as a whole would be without an eldership, contrary to Christ's gift to the entire church of the spiritual gift of leadership to be exercised within the context of and for the benefit of the entire body.

To sum up everything we have seen thus far, what we have is one church, one Body of Christ, throughout the world.  This one body is made up of many diverse members, each of whom is given a different set of spiritual gifts to use within the context of and for the benefit of the entire church.  Among these spiritual gifts are gifts of service, as well as gifts of teaching and leadership, which are to be exercised in permanent offices within the church.  As the church has grown in size, it has become necessary for logistical purposes to sub-divide the church, its members, and its officers into smaller local groupings, without impairing the essential worldwide unity of the entire church.  That unity is preserved within particular congregations as members use their spiritual gifts to build each other up and elders teach and rule over the church, and it is also preserved between local bodies throughout the world as members care for each other and fellowship with each other throughout the world as opportunity arises and as the elders over particular local bodies come together in larger governing assemblies to exercise rule over the wider church.

7. This biblical picture we have seen of the nature and unity of the church has been called the presbyterian view of the church and church government, and it has been historically the view held by the Reformed churches.

1. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.

2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

3. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.  (Westminster Confession of Faith 25:1-3)

1. For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.

3. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.  (WCF 31:1, 3) 

THERE is one general church visible, held forth in the New Testament.

The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of the New Testament, are given by Jesus Christ to the general church visible, for the gathering and perfecting of it in this life, until his second coming.

Particular visible churches, members of the general church, are also held forth in the New Testament. Particular churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz. of such as, being of age, professed faith in Christ, and obedience unto Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles; and of their children. . . .

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.

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convent, and call before them, any person within their several bounds, whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern. They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church-censures. . . .

The scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call Synodical. Pastors and teachers, and other church-governors, (as also other fit persons, when it shall be deemed expedient,) are members of those assemblies which we call Synodical, where they have a lawful calling thereunto. Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and oecumenical. . . .
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.  (Form of Presbyterial Church-Government)

We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church-- a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. . . .

And so this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.  (Belgic Confession, Article 27)

We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.

But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.

And to preserve this unity more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to God's Word, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church, in order to join this assembly wherever God has established it, even if civil authorities and royal decrees forbid and death and physical punishment result.

And so, all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God's ordinance.  (BC, Article 28)

We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and adminster the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church. (BC, Article 30)

We believe that ministers of the Word of God, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by a legitimate election of the church, with prayer in the name of the Lord, and in good order, as the Word of God teaches.

So everyone must be careful not to push himself forward improperly, but he must wait for God's call, so that he may be assured of his calling and be certain that he is chosen by the Lord.

As for the ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the church.  (BC, Article 31)

8. A few important practical implications that follow from the above doctrine of the church that are particularly relevant for the Reformed churches in this day and age.

As we have seen, the church of Christ is one through all the world.  Its unity is not merely invisible, but visible, as members of the church unite in formal, visible fellowship with each other under the formal, visible eldership of the church.  And since the church is one through all the world, this formal, visible unity does not stop at local congregations, or even regional presbyteries, but must be extended throughout the whole church in all the world.  Members of the church, as opportunity arises, must exercise their spiritual gifts not only for the benefit of their particular local congregations, but for the whole body of the church everywhere.  And elders, in particular, are not to exercise their teaching and ruling functions only with regard to particular congregations, but in the context of and for the benefit of the entire universal, catholic church.

If we take seriously the biblical picture of the unity of the one catholic church and its government, we cannot take lightly denominational separation.  There is absolutely no room in this biblical picture of the church for multiple denominations that recognize each others' de jure auhority but are not united to each other in formal fellowship under a common government or eldership.  When Presbyterian denominations are separated from each other, the necessary implication is that they are rejecting each others' de jure authority and legitimacy as churches (though not necessarily their de facto existence as churches) and accusing each other of the sin of schism, of causing division in the Body of Christ, by separating themselves through various means from the entire catholic body.

We can also see from the above principles that the unity of the church cannot be sought by uniting in formal unity by means of agreeing to disagree on some of the doctrines delivered by the apostles.  The teachings of the Word of God are non-negotiable and cannot be given away as bargaining chips in negotiating formal unity between Christians.  Neither can churches maintain unity merely by cultivating relationships with each other short of full institutional unity, for, as we've seen, institutional separation involves a rejection of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority.  Rather, the unity of the church must be sought by means of individuals and churches examining themselves and repenting of any sins or errors they maintain in order to come to agreement in doctrine and practice with each other on the basis of the truth, thus removing any need for continuing division.

Also, we see that the unity of the catholic church is not merely the unity of a genus to a species.  That is, the biblical picture is emphatically not that we have a general category of "church" which is then manifested or instantiated in "particular churches."  This is a congregationalist or semi-congregationalist view of the church.  The biblical, Reformed, Presbyterian view is that there is not merely an institutional, visible unity at the level of particular churches but at the level of the entire catholic church as well.  The universal church de jure, no less than particular congregations de jure, is to be a visible, institutional body governed by a tangible body of elders (made up of all the elders of all the churches throughout the worldwide church).  Particular churches are members of the catholic church not merely by being instantiations of a "church" genus, but by being local parts of a larger institutional body governed by the ecumenical eldership of the whole church.  When this aspect of what the "catholic visible church" means is not preserved, the presbyterian nature of the church has been fundamentally violated and mutilated.

For more on these practical implications of the presbyterian unity of the church, see here, as well as in general here.

May we all better recognize in our own day and age the blessings God wishes to bestow upon us through a full, biblical understanding and practice of what it means to be the one Body of Christ.

UPDATE 2/14/14Here is an article from Matthew Vogan which looks at some Old Testament evidence regarding the unity of the church.

Monday, August 12, 2013

One Lazy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?

I have previously documented (see here, here, here, and here, for example) a number of ways modern Reformed people inclined towards semi-congregationalism try to escape the full implications of presbyterian church government, particularly the fact that when Presbyterian denominations are divided, there is a mutual charge of schism and a rejection of each others' de jure authority as churches.  Semi-congregationalists want to say that there can be multiple independent denominational churches that acknowledge each others' de jure authority.

Here is another argument someone might use to escape these facts:

I entirely agree that the church should be one in formal unity throughout the world.  As a matter of fact, it is.  All the true churches in the world are indeed in full communion with each other under mutually-binding councils.  The OPC, the PCA, the RPCNA, the FCC, the FCS, etc., are all united together under the possibility of a unifying worldwide ecumenical council.  So there really is no denominational separation, and therefore the denominations do not reject each others' de jure legitimacy and authority, nor do they accuse each other of schism.

OK.  So if all the denominations of true churches on the earth are indeed united together under mutually-binding councils, as presbyterianism requires, then why is there so much division among the churches?  Why so many differences in faith and practice?  Why hasn't a mutually-binding council been called to clean this mess up?

Well, although we are under common councils, yet those councils haven't met for a long time.  It's been ages since there has been a full ecumenical council, for example.  But the possibility is still there, so that's OK!

If this is truly the case, then I must say that all these denominations have been severely neglectful of their duty.  It is the duty of higher assemblies to help discipline and correct the lower assemblies.  If a session goes wrong in doctrine or practice, the presbytery is to step in and bring correction and discipline to fix the problem, and so on.  So if all these denominations are really united together, then they have shown quite clearly by their actions that they don't really care at all about the purity of the catholic church.  They care about purity within their own little groups, but they don't care enough about the rest of the Body of Christ to do what needs to be done on a broader scale.  When a liberal denomination professes to believe a certain confession of faith, but in practice completely ignores it and has no discipline whatsoever based on it, we rightly say that their profession to hold to that confession is a mere pretense.  A church with no discipline at all is a church that is not truly bound to what they say they hold to.  Well, I would say that the same thing would apply here.  A church which professes to be concerned for the unity and purity of the whole church and that it is quite possible to call a council of the whole church to deal with problems in these areas, but which never actually calls any councils to deal with these issues, shows that their profession is mere pretense.  They are not really unified; they merely profess to be unified while living dis-unified in practice.  So I would say that their profession makes no real difference and does not describe what they really are or what they really believe.

But, in fact, the various Reformed denominations don't claim to be part of one unified church under mutually-binding councils, so the whole argument is moot anyway.  The OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), for example, acknowledges that the Reformed denominations exist in separation from each other and not in full communion (not even such a lazy full communion as described above):

E. The present division into separate denominations is because of unfaithfulness to God as expressed in beliefs, teaching, and living, on the part of both individuals in the church and the churches that are contrary to the Word of God.

F. We find ourselves in this sinful situation as we undertake to pursue the mandate to unity. There exists between us and all other churches a sinful disunity that demands reconciliation in a biblical way. This sin must be faced and removed so that true and full unity and fellowship of the church may be reached.  (Biblical Principles of the Unity of the Church)

The visible unity of the Body of Christ, though not altogether destroyed, is greatly obscured by the division of the Christian church into different groups or denominations. In such denominations Christians exercise a fellowship toward each other in doctrine, worship, and order that they do not exercise toward other Christians.  (OPC Form of Government, Chapter IV)

The FPCS (Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland) points out the same thing.  In answer to the question, "Why are you a separate church?" the FPCS responds:

We take the Bible alone as our guide to Doctrine, Worship and Practice. We preach the Gospel of God's sovereign and free grace. . . . In order to safeguard these precious truths, we are separate from other Presbyterian churches which have compromised on these matters.  (Frequently Asked Questions)

Later in the same document, it adds:

Being a Presbyterian church we believe in the unity of congregations in a Presbyterian structure. We do not believe in the spurious unity of the modern ecumenical movement which minimises doctrinal difference between the Protestant churches and which is leading towards re-union with Roman Catholicism under the pope of Rome. We believe in the unity of all Spirit-taught, born-again, believers in Christ throughout the world, and that they ought to be united in one Presbyterian Church.

Therefore, the inconvenient fact remains:  Divided Presbyterian denominations, if they are truly presbyterian, are rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority and accusing each other of being schismatic.  There is no other way to read the situation without abandoning presbyterian church government.

Is the OPC's General Assembly an Ecumenical Council?

An article in the most recent edition of the OPC's New Horizons magazine makes some interesting comments regarding the nature of the OPC's General Assembly:

The Bible teaches that the apostles planted local churches, organized regional-city churches (Titus 1:5), and met as a general assembly to hear appeals from the latter (Acts 15). These churches had officers (Phil. 1:1), with biblically restrained authority (1 Cor. 4:6) over specified members “allotted to” their “charge” (1 Peter 5:3; Heb. 13:17). When one translates that into modern practice, the result is what we ordinarily call a Presbyterian denomination. The General Assembly is part of that original ecclesiastical order. This is important. . . .

More than that, the General Assembly is a gospel assembly—or it is nothing at all. This is not just a priority that our OP forefathers handed down to us. Meeting as a general assembly continues an ecclesiastical practice that began in Acts 15, when the New Testament church was struggling to transition from a circumcising Jewish church into a baptizing international church. Moving from the Old Testament era to the New Testament era was not an easy thing for people to do. Christ was murdered by the resistance, which continued to hound the church all through the New Testament age. This gross opposition provides the antagonistic backdrop for most of the New Testament, including the church’s first general assembly as recorded in Acts 15.

The apostles participated in an ecclesiastical assembly to debate what the gospel is and to vote on it with the other officers. This is an amazing juncture in the maturation of the New Testament church: the apostles, side by side with the men they trained to lead the next generation of churches forward, met together in a general assembly, to debate and vote on what the gospel is and is not. This was a foundation-laying moment. . . .

In substance, the first general assembly of the New Testament church addressed whether or not the gospel is the gospel. We have in Acts 15 the equivalent of the minutes of that meeting. Every subsequent ecclesiastical assembly is a gospel assembly or it is part of the resistance. May the OPC continue to follow that original trajectory in her assemblies and keep the faith.

Can you tell what I find interesting about these comments?

The author connects the concept of the "General Assembly" to the meeting described in Acts 15.  But what was the meeting described in Acts 15?  It was the first ecumenical council.  It was a meeting of the "whole church" (15:22) throughout the world.  Acts 15 is an important text in establishing the biblical basis for presbyterian church government, and for the concept that the unity of that government must extend to the whole church throughout the world in an ecumenical council.

As a matter of fact, the OPC uses ecumenical language in describing its General Assembly:

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

So does the OPC consider its General Assembly to be an ecumenical council, a gathering of the whole church throughout the world?  It should, because the General Assembly is the highest recognized judicatory in the OPC.  There can be no appeal to anything higher (short of God's Word itself).  In the presbyterian form of church government, the highest judicatory in the church is the ecumenical council of all the churches in all the world.  Therefore, either the OPC must recognize its General Assembly as an ecumenical council, implying that the OPC denomination is equivalent to the entire de jure catholic church in all the world, or the OPC can say that its General Assembly is not an ecumenical council but is a meeting of only a part of the de jure catholic church, in which case it has abandoned the biblical concept of the unity of the church and presbyterian church government.  There are no other possibilities.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Pluralism, Secularism, and Societal Peace and Stability

It is commonly alleged by those in favor of "secularism" that one of its great selling points is that it can bring peace and stability to society, while non-secular societies are going to be rife with conflict and strife.  Let's take a look at this idea just a little more closely and see if it holds up in theory.

For our purposes, secularism refers to the idea that civil government should avoid taking sides in worldview/religious disputes.  Secularism implies a state that refuses to endorse or reject any particular worldview or set of beliefs that belongs to any worldview.  In other words, secularism implies a religiously neutral civil government.

Let's consider the various kinds of societies, in broad outline, that can exist, and see if we have any reason to believe that secularism's claim to be the ultimate producer of peace and stability can withstand scrutiny.

1. First of all, we can imagine what I will call a pluralistic, pietistic, tolerant, non-secular society.  What I mean by this is a society full of citizens/residents where there is a large amount of significant worldview-diversity (pluralism) among the citizens/residents, but where the citizens/residents (can I just call them "citizens" for short from now on to save space?) have no real concern to have their own ideals, beliefs, values, or goals reflected in the actions and policies of the governing institutions (pietism).  The society is non-secular, and so the civil government does not claim to be neutral but straightforwardly and honestly adopts a disputed set of beliefs and values and bases its laws and policies on them.  However, it also displays a great deal of tolerance towards those who do not share the official government worldview.

It would seem that such a society is likely to be very peaceful and stable, at least with regard to disputes that might originate from differing worldviews.  Since the citizens in the society are allowed to live their own private lives in accordance with their own beliefs and values due to a policy of broad toleration, while they have no desire to have their views reflected in government policies, there is no recipe here for significant conflict.  (Of course, one can raise the question of whether an entire population in the real world is likely to be pietistic to this extent.)

2. Secondly, we can consider a society that is pluralistic, non-pietistic, tolerant, and non-secular.  The key difference between this society and the first one is that the citizens are not content merely to live out their private lives in accordance with their own beliefs and values.  They also have a strong desire that the civil government follow their own beliefs and values in policy-making and law-making.  They hold their values and beliefs to be important not just to themselves but to the general good and the well-being of society, and they want society's policies and laws to be wise and just (as they count wisdom and justice).

This society is going to be prone to conflict and will lack stability.  It is full of people who have completely different ideas of the true and the good, all of whom wish their ideas to be reflected in official law and policy. The problem, of course, is that there can only be one set of laws and policies for a unified society, and those laws cannot reflect everyone's conflicting viewpoints.  As the state is non-secular, it will have a straightforwardly-acknowledged official worldview guiding its public policy.  The citizens whose views coincide with this official public worldview will be likely to be satisfied with this state of affairs, while those whose views are at odds with the reigning paradigm are likely to be dissatisfied with the situation, even if the state tolerates their dissident views in private life.  Conflict may be significantly diffused if the state allows some kind of legal processes, however long-term, by which dissidents can work within the system to try to alter the overarching constitutional order and thus the reigning paradigm of the society (such as by allowing amendments to the Constitution to be made by a certain number of votes).  However, this will be unlikely to resolve all societal tension.  Even with a legal process for change in place and available, it will be difficult in a pluralistic society to get the society to permanently and with stability endorse anyone's particular point of view.  As all sides of a particular dispute can use the same legal channels, it will be hard for one group to establish any kind of permanent dominance for its views over other existing views.  A pluralistic society of this sort is thus likely to forever be like a see-saw, constantly going back and forth between conflicting views and policies.  If the disputed matters are highly important to the parties (think of something like abortion, where both sides feel crucial, fundamental rights are at stake), there will likely be an increasing frustration as the parties realize they will never really be able to make the society what they want it to be so long as it remains non-pietistically pluralistic.  This seems likely to eventually lead either to the breaking up of the society or to serious and even violent conflict, assuming the pluralism remains in place.

3. Now let's imagine a society that is pluralistic, pietistic, tolerant, and secular.  This society is like the first society except that it is secular--that is, it claims not to have an established official worldview but to be neutral between contested worldview beliefs in the society.

This society, like the first, will likely be prone to peace and stability, for the same reasons as the first society was.  If secularism vs. non-secularism has any effect at all, it will likely be towards slightly decreasing the amount of peace and stability.  A secular society claims to be neutral between viewpoints and to treat all viewpoints equally.  However, it is actually impossible for a state to be neutral in this way (especially in a pluralistic society).  Different worldview beliefs lead to different values, and different values lead to different ideas as to what is good, worthwhile, beneficial, etc., both at an individual level and on a societal level.  Therefore, a pluralistic society will have differing ideas as to what laws and policies in a society are truly good and wise.  The state, in embracing some particular set of values, priorities, goals, policies, etc., will of necessity end up endorsing the ideals of one or some groups of people over others'.  Especially in a deeply pluralistic society (like the modern USA), there simply will not be enough items agreed upon between those with differing worldviews to provide a sufficient foundation for governmental law and policy without the government having to add to those items other controverted ideas and ideals.  So religious or worldview neutrality is really impossible for a single society.  (For more argumentation on this point, see here, here, and here.)  Therefore, any promise of neutrality made by a secular civil government will be necessarily deceptive.  It will promise a kind of equality to all the citizens and their views that it can't really deliver.  The society, as it must go on and make laws and policies in order to survive, will in fact adopt some set of controversial ideas and ideals anyway, all the while claiming it is not doing so.  It will encourage citizens who don't share the concealed official viewpoint to think that their views are equally honored in the society when they truly are not.  This situation is likely to bring resentment, as citizens with minority worldviews come to expect society to be more congenial to themselves and their values than is really the case.  There would be less resentment, and thus less tension, if the society would simply come out and declare honestly and straightforwardly what its official viewpoint is and thus encourage its pietistic minority citizens to remain pietistic and not get their hopes raised too high.

4. Next, we can imagine a society that is pluralistic, non-pietistic, tolerant, and secular.  This society is like society #2, except that it is secular.

This society is going to be prone to conflict and instability, for the same reasons as society #2 was.  Will the society's being secular help?  I don't really see how.  In society #2, the civil government adopted a contested point of view as the basis upon which to make law and policy.  The conflict arose because the non-pietistic population was not content to let views contrary to their own dominate political policy.  The same situation will be in play here, the only difference being that the civil government will be pretending not to have a controversial official worldview while in reality it does.  I suppose this might appease a few very stupid people who also don't really care all that much about what is true and good, and it also might make those with a majority viewpoint who don't think too deeply feel better about themselves, as if their views aren't being favored any more than anyone else's (though they really are).  But it is more likely to exacerbate the problems had by society #2 for the reasons I mentioned when discussing society #3:  A non-secular government might take views at odds with your beliefs and values, but at least it is honest and straightforward about it.  A secular society, on the other hand, may just as much hold views contrary to yours, but it will disingenuously try to make you think that it is not doing so, that it is treating your views fully equally with all other views.  This is likely to increase rather than decrease tensions among those with minority viewpoints.  Also, a non-secular government, because it is fully aware and up-front about its controversial positions, is likely to be more aware than a naive or disingenuous non-secular government will be about the possible desirability of allowing societal tension to be diffused by means of putting in place legal processes towards change that minorities can avail themselves of.  A secular government, on the other hand, may be less likely to consider carefully such an idea, since it denies outright that there are any minority views in the society (after all, how can there be views that are out of accord with the official viewpoint of the civil government--which is what I mean by "minority views"--if the civil government is neutral?).  Thus, I must conclude that the secularism of this society is likely to make it less rather than more stable and peaceful than the otherwise comparable non-secular society #2.

5. OK, now let's consider a society that is pluralistic, pietistic, non-tolerant, and non-secular.

This society, for obvious reasons, is going to be prone to strife and instability.  Even though the citizens are pietistic, yet they still hold beliefs and values that they consider important to their private lives.  Insofar as the state refuses to allow them to hold and practice these beliefs and values, there is likely to be conflict.  Of course, toleration comes in degrees.  We can think of a society that allows dissident beliefs and values to be held and practiced in private life, but not in public view.  (Imagine, for example, if Jews were allowed to be Jews and live as Jews in their private lives, but were not allowed to go outside in Jewish dress, erect publicly-visible synagogues, etc.)  We can think of a society that goes further than this and outlaws even private beliefs and practice (insofar as such things can be witnessed enough to come to government attention).  And we could imagine other forms of non-toleration as well.  I think we can say, generally, that the less tolerant a pluralistic society is, the less peaceful and the more unstable it is likely to be, all other things being equal.  A pluralistic society is a society full of people with different worldviews, different beliefs and values.  If we make the way of life of a large group of people illegal in a society, we are courting serious resistance and thus conflict.  For example, some people in Germany and the USA, and probably other western countries, want to outlaw male infant circumcision, including for religious reasons.  What baffles me is how they never seem to realize just how impractical that idea is.  Jews, and those who would sympathize with Jews if persecuted, make up a significantly large part of the populations of these countries.  To ban an essential practice of Judaism (and apparently Islam as well, or so I'm told) would result in mass unrest and chaos.

6. Now, a society that is pluralistic, non-pietistic, non-tolerant, and non-secular.

Need we say much here?  Obviously, this society is going to be significantly more unstable and chaotic than society #5.

7. What if we make the society pluralistic, pietistic, non-tolerant, and secular?

It's hard to see how making the society secular is going to have any influence to make the society more stable or peaceful.  Again, as we saw earlier, a secular society is one that is disingenuous towards those with minority views, and thus, if anything, is simply going to increase rather than decrease tension.  Secularism might even possibly have the effect of encouraging a society towards more non-toleration:  A non-secular society knows and acknowledges that it disfavors certain views, and thus it is likely to consider how those holding such views should be treated.  On the other hand, a secular society denies that it disfavors anyone's views (while doing so anyway), so it might be less inclined to consciously consider how tolerant its policies are towards dissidents in some cases.  It might be less tolerant in some cases without noticing, due to a naivete arising from its secular philosophy.  On the other hand, perhaps secularism might be more likely in some ways to be tolerant than a non-secular society, in that a society can only go so far in terms of discriminating against minorities before the illusion of neutrality comes to be in grave danger of bursting.

8. How about pluralistic, non-pietistic, non-tolerant, and secular?

Again, I don't see how secularism would make this society any more stable than society #6.

9. Now, let's imagine some non-pluralistic societies.  I'm going to look at these more briefly and in a single point, because once we've gotten rid of pluralism, we've removed the basic cause of worldview conflict, as is evident from what we've seen.

Obviously, a tolerant, pietistic, non-pluralistic society is going to be prone to peace and stability.  But a non-tolerant, non-pietistic, non-pluralistic society will also preserve overall peace and stability, because there will only be a very few people in it with minority views.  All societies are intolerant towards some ideas and actions of some members of the society.  For example, in the modern USA, we are intolerant towards theft and human sacrifice.  Are there people in our society who want to steal, think it's OK to steal, and actually steal?  Obviously.  Are there people in our society who think it is good thing, or even a religious virtue, to practice human sacrifice?  I would be surprised if there weren't.  However, these ideas and ideals are enough of a minority that those who have and practice them do not make up a significant portion of the population--or, to put it another way, the society is not really significantly pluralistic with regard to these ideas and practices.  Therefore, we can be intolerant towards them (by making them illegal) without undermining our overall peace and stability as a society.  And this will be the case generally with such uncommon views.  In a biblical theocracy, for example, where the public expression of idolatrous worship would be outlawed, so long as the population does not become significantly pluralistic regarding such matters, the outlawing of these things will not tend to decrease peace and stability.  More likely, it will increase peace and stability, as it will discourage pluralism in these areas from developing and reinforce publicly-shared values.  (Of course, throughout this whole examination, I've been looking at these things from a purely human point of view, not taking into account how God would bless a society favorable to his will and curse a society non-favorable.)

It seems to me it would make little difference whether a non-pluralistic society were secular or non-secular.  It would have little practical reason to be secular, as there would be little point in pretending to be neutral.

So let's consider what we've learned through this little exercise.  Our goal was to examine more closely the theoretical claim that secularism will tend to make human societies more peaceful and stable.  We have not seen any reason at all to think that that is the case.  If anything, secularism might, in some circumstances, make a society somewhat less stable and peaceful, but it's hard to see how it would be at all likely to make it more so.  I think we can conclude that if it is peace and stability we are after, secularism is a useless dead-end.  Getting rid of pluralism, on the other hand, would seem to be a very good move, if it could be done in a peaceful way (such as through large amounts of voluntary conversions to a single worldview ideology).

So Where's the Catholic Church?

The dominance of semi-congregationalist thinking in Reformed circles today is not only a betrayal of biblical, Reformed theology on the presbyterian nature of the church, but it is providing an opportunity for Romanists to latch onto it in order to draw Reformed Protestants to Rome.  This is illustrated in a couple of articles I came across yesterday on the "Called to Communion" website, a Romanist site dedicated to trying to persuade Reformed Protestants to convert to Romanism.


One of the articles is entitled "Why Protestantism Has No 'Visible Catholic Church'." Throughout the article, the basic assumption is made that Reformed Protestants' conception of the organizational, visible church only extends to individual congregations or groups of believers and not to the worldwide church as a whole.  This assumption is not so much argued for (though it is supposed to be supported by a quotation from the Westminster Confession) as it is assumed as a starting point.  The article then goes on to draw the conclusion that there really is no concept of the "visible Catholic Church" in the Reformed faith, and that therefore Reformed Protestantism is at odds with the historic catholic affirmation of such a body and should drop the terminology from its usage.

But, as I show below, Protestantism itself has no visible catholic Church. It has only denominations, congregations, believers and their children. Within Protestantism there is not some one additional entity to which the term “visible catholic Church” refers, consisting of these denominations, congregations, believers and their children.

What allowed the authors of the Westminster Confession to believe sincerely that there was a “visible catholic Church” other than the Catholic Church headed by the Pope, was a philosophical error. This was the error of assuming that unity of type is sufficient for unity of composition. In actuality, things of the same type do not by that very fact compose a unified whole. For example, all the crosses that presently exist all have something in common; they are each the same type of thing, i.e. a cross. But they do not form a unified whole composed of each individual cross around the world. . . .

We can apply this same test to the term “visible catholic Church” in the Westminster Confession to see whether it refers to an actual entity or only to a mere plurality. The “visible catholic Church” is defined by the Confession as consisting of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children. If there were no actual visible catholic Church, but only the term ‘visible catholic Church,’ the Protestant denominations, the Protestant congregations, and the individual Protestant believers and their children, nothing in Protestantism would be any different. All the denominations, congregations,  individual believers and their children would be exactly as they are, if there were not, in addition, this entity referred to by the term “the visible catholic Church.” This shows that the term ‘visible catholic Church’ does not refer to an actual unified entity (i.e. the visible catholic Church), but is merely a name used to refer to what is in actuality a plurality of things having something in common, just as “Panapple” could be used to refer to all apples, even though in actuality there is not one thing consisting of all apples.

When we apply this test to the Catholic Church, by contrast, we find that in order to remove the whole and leave the parts, we have to change the world. This is because the Catholic Church’s hierarchical unity changes and orders the activity of her members.2 And this is also true of a society, on account of its singular government.3 But what allows the removal of the “visible catholic Church” from Protestant ecclesiology, without changing anything else, is that Protestantism mistakenly denies the necessity of hierarchical unity for visible unity at the universal (i.e. catholic) level. Reformed Protestantism recognizes that local churches, in order to be visible, must be hierarchical. No one would say that the fact of there being believers in a city ipso facto constitutes a local visible church. But, this fact is arbitrarily set aside in Reformed ecclesiology’s conception of the visible catholic Church, through its denial that the “visible catholic Church” need be hierarchical. If the local church must be hierarchical in order to be visible, then Reformed Protestants must either form a worldwide hierarchy if they wish to affirm a “visible catholic Church,” or drop the claim that there is a “visible catholic Church” to which they belong.

What are the implications of Protestantism having no visible catholic Church? If Protestantism has no visible catholic Catholic, then given Protestantism, the catholic Church is only invisible. This entails that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is the set of all the elect. . . . And it is clear in the Matthew 18 passages that ‘ekklesia’ there refers to the visible Church, not a merely spiritual entity. Matters of discipline cannot be brought before the set of all the elect. This shows us that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of which Christ speaks in Matthew 16 is not a mere set; Jesus was not meaning “upon this Rock I will build my set.”

Since, as I have shown above, Protestant ecclesiology has no visible catholic Church, and yet since from Scripture we see that the one catholic Church that Christ founded is visible, Protestantism must either give up the word ‘catholic’ in the Creed (as some Lutherans have done, replacing it with the word ‘Christian’), or seek reconciliation with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, the Catholic Church from which Protestants separated in the sixteenth century.

The author's argument here is absolutely valid and correct.  In the view he is critiquing, there really is no entity to which the phrase "visible catholic church" corresponds, at least on a formal, de jure level.  On a de facto, informal level, we can say there is one worldwide church, because the Christians of the world informally hang out with each other and work together to some degree, even joining into voluntary (but non-binding) confederations such as NAPARC and ICRC.  But there is no formal, organizational unity, no common council that binds all the churches together into one worldwide, universal (catholic) church.  As the author points out, the view he is critiquing here is biblically defective on this point, as the Bible clearly points out one worldwide church unified in a single worldwide organization.  There is no room in the biblical view for multiple, independent de jure denominations.

The problem with the article is that the author thinks he is critiquing classic Reformed theology, but he is really only critiquing the perverted, semi-congregationalist form of Reformed theology that is so dominant in Reformed circles today.  Historic Reformed theology affirms not a semi-congregationalist but a presbyterian view of the nature of the church and of church government.  In the presbyterian view, there is indeed one worldwide church.  Local congregations are bound together by participating in larger regional assemblies (often called presbyteries).  Presbyteries are bound together by participating in yet larger assemblies, such as national assemblies.  And all the national assemblies are bound together by participating together in a single, worldwide ecumenical or general assembly that represents and has binding authority over the whole church.

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")

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)

In the presbyterian view, there is no room for multiple, independent, legitimate denominations.  There is only one worldwide church.  Unlike in semi-congregationalism, in presbyterianism there is indeed a real entity which corresponds to the idea of "one visible de jure catholic church."

But we can only partly blame the author for his blunder here in thinking the Reformed faith is semi-congregationalist.  Unfortunately, such a non-Reformed view has greatly saturated the modern Reformed world.  If we want to stop giving a foothold to Roman apologists on this point, we need to reaffirm clearly a fully consistent presbyterian view of the church.


The other article I read yesterday is entitled "Michael Horton on Schism as Heresy."  As the title suggests, the author of this article (who is the same person as the author of the previous article) takes Michael Horton, a popular modern Reformed theologian, to task for failing to distinguish the concept of schism from the concept of heresy.

The author recounts a conversation he had with Michael Horton in which he asked him this question:

So, what is it, exactly, in your opinion, that distinguishes a *branch within* the catholic Church, from a *schism from* the catholic Church? That is, how does one rightly determine whether a particular denomination is a *branch within* the Church, or a *schism from* the Church?

This question makes sense from both a Romanist and a Reformed presbyterian point of view.  If the author had asked me this question, I would have responded with something like this:  "A  branch within the church is a part of the church that is in full communion with the rest of the worldwide de jure catholic church, while a schism from the church is a church which, however orthodox it might be in other ways, is divided from full communion with the catholic church."

But here is how Horton answered the question:

With our confessions, I’d say that this is determined by proclamation of the true gospel and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s institution. While no church exhibits these marks with complete purity, bodies that reject the gospel or anything essential to it and substitute their own dogmas, duties, and discipline for Christ’s institution have separated themselves from the visible Church.

Do you spot the problem with Horton's answer?  The author certainly did:

I appreciate his reply, but I think it reveals a fundamental flaw in Reformed [and Protestant] ecclesiology. Horton’s reply defines schism from the Church as synonymous with heresy, and in this way eliminates the very possibility of schism from the Church [in the traditional sense of schism from as treated in the Church Fathers].

The author goes on to point out that the church fathers regularly distinguished between schism and heresy.  They are not the same thing.  And he draws some significant conclusions from this.

To the best of my knowledge, St. Optatus, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and all the Church Fathers who wrote about schism wrote about schism from as something conceptually distinct from heresy. Yes, any schism from the Church would invariably fall into some heresy, at least in order to justify its schism from the Church. But, nevertheless, schism from the Church referred to a particular Church’s (or smaller group’s) visible break in communion with the Catholic Church (even where that particular Church or group had not embraced any heresy), whereas ‘heresy’ always referred to a departure from the Apostolic faith, even if communion had not yet been visibly broken.

So, it seems to me that Michael has departed from the Church Fathers in this respect, by defining schism from the Church as heresy, and thus eliminating from his ecclesiology the possibility of schism from the Church [in the traditional sense of schism from]. And when schism from the Church is defined out of existence, one loses the possibility of recognizing whether one (or anyone else) is in schism from the Church; it becomes a meaningless question, a question that evokes a blank face, or an attempt to translate the question into the only definition of ‘schism’ one knows, namely, a question about heresy, which is then answered with an assurance that one is holding on to the biblical gospel and sacraments, and therefore that one is surely not in schism from the Church. . . .

What has happened, when a fundamental patristic concept is no longer even accessible or intelligible? This concept of schism from the Church dropped out of Protestant theology because the justification of the Protestant departure from the Catholic Church required an underlying radical change in ecclesiology, from an essentially visible catholic Church to an essentially invisible catholic Church with local visible expressions.

Once again, our author is clearly right.  Michael Horton answered his question not as a presbyterian should but as a semi-congregationalist must.  Semi-congregationalism has no concept of a worldwide organization of which all more particular manifestations of the church are a part, and so there is nothing for a church to be in schism from.  Therefore, the historic concept of schism simply drops out of existence and the word becomes simply a synonym for heresy.

However, once again, while the author's critique of Horton in this respect is right on, Horton is not representing historic Reformed presbyterian thought in this area.  In historic Reformed thought, there is one worldwide catholic church and all de jure churches are united together under common binding councils.  Therefore, it is quite possible to be basically orthodox but still to be in schism from the catholic church by failing to remain in full communion with her.  Matthew Vogan, a ruling elder in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, brings this out well in his excellent booklet, Undoing the Reformation: Schism:

Presbyterianism has drifted very far from the true concern of the Westminster Divines and the Second Reformation (represented by James Durham, Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie) for the unity of the Visible Church. Merely exchanging greetings amongst competing denominations would not have satisfied these men because it is a practice that avoids any confrontation with the fact of schism and never seems to work towards genuine unity. The Westminster Divines were of an entirely different view. As James Walker records, the Congregationalists at the Westminster Assembly proposed a friendly co-existence and occasional communion with the Presbyterians which, while separate in government, would they claimed be “no plain and total separation, we shall be working substantially towards the same end.” This was resolutely declined with the explanation: “So, might the Donatists and Novatians have pled, and indeed almost all the separatists who have figured in the Church's history. Such separation was unknown in the apostles' time, unless it were used by false teachers: all who professed Christianity then held communion together as one Church. If you can join with us occasionally in acts of worship, you ought to act with us in joint communion, not in separated congregations. God's way of revealing truth to such as are otherwise minded, is not by setting men at a distance from each other. That you should be a distinct Christian organization, taking members from our Churches who may have scruples of conscience, is schism undoubted in the body of Christ.” Congregationalism was regarded as a schismatic principle (pp. 7-9).

Following the early Church emphasis on One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church (apostolic relates to the doctrine taught), the Presbyterians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries maintained that the Universal Visible Church should be seen as one and that this oneness should be visible with National Churches forming provinces of one large empire across the world. This was particularly confessed in Scotland and at the Westminster Assembly. The historian James Walker summarises the position well: “True Churches of Christ, side by side with one another, forming separate organizations, with separate governments, seemed to them utterly inadmissible” (pp. 6-7)

Presbyterianism has no room for multiple, independent de jure denominations.  Under a presbyterian system, just as under a Roman episcopal system, when two denominations are divided from each other, both sides are rejecting the others' de jure legitimacy (though not necessary their de facto existence) as churches and at least implicitly accusing each other of schism.

Denominational walls are erected on a judicial level and the distinct jurisdiction of church courts is the final and fullest expression of separation. The setting up of rival Church courts from Kirk Session through to General Assembly is an express rejection of the jurisdiction of the Church courts of other denominations and is either schismatic itself or necessarily charges other bodies with the sin of schism. Persisting in such separation is either schismatic or else there is an implicit charge of schism against all those from whom separation is maintained ("'Reformed Scottish Presbyterianism: Reunion in the 21st Century?' - A Response," p. 6).

Reformed thought allows the possibility that trouble might come upon the church to such an extent that it might make impossible the formal unity of the church on a worldwide level.  For example, persecution could arise to such an extent that churches become incapable of being in contact with each other beyond a very local level.  Or a worldwide disaster could occur to such an extent that non-local communication could be cut off.  However, Reformed thought does not allow that churches able to recognize each other as de jure churches can ever remain independent from each other.  It is the intrinsic right and duty of all de jure churches to be united to each other in formal unity (see here, here, and here for more extensive argumentation on this point).

So the author's objection against the Reformed faith in this area fails, but it fails no thanks to many modern Reformed thinkers.  Interestingly, the day before I read this article, I had just written a blog article myself, entitled "'Schism' Is Not Just a Romanist Concept," in which I made much the same point that our author is making, writing in opposition to semi-congregationalist trends in the modern Reformed world.

I should briefly make one more point before I close.  If the Presbyterian view is that all de jure churches, by nature, are united to each other under binding councils, forming one worldwide organization, which denomination today represents the de jure catholic church?  My claim, held with high probability, is that it is the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  See here for some of my reasoning underlying this position.

In conclusion, again, aside from simply the motive of fulfilling our duty to remain faithful to biblical teaching regarding the nature of the church, we modern Reformed Protestants should be greatly concerned to recover the historic presbyterian vision of the nature and unity of the church in order to prevent Romanists from gaining a foothold on this point against the Reformed church and its members.  If we do not correct the error of semi-congregationalism, the Romanists will be only too happy to do so.

For more on these ideas, see here and in general here.

UPDATE 5/26/14:  Samuel Hudson, in his book entitled A Vindication of the Essence and Unity of the Church-Catholick Visible (1658), cites approvingly the London Ministers who authored Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici (The Divine Right of Church Government), a famous work defending presbyterian church government, on the difference between presbyterianism and independency (p. 125):

[T]hey [the London Ministers] only set down the difference between the Presbyterians and Independents there [in the preface to Jus Divinum] to be in this, that the Presbyterians hold that there is one generall Church of Christ on earth, and that all particular Churches and single Congregations are but as similar parts of the whole; and the Independents (say they) hold that there is no other visible Church of Christ, but only a single Congregation, meeting in one place to partake of all Ordinances.

The distinguishing characteristic of presbyterianism (at least in contrast to independency or congregationalism) is that presbyterians hold that there is a single visible catholic church on the earth, whereas independents hold that there is not one visible church on the earth (at least in a formal sense) but that there are only particular visible churches formally independent from each other.  Our modern semi-congregationalists allow for individual congregations to clump together in denominations, but, as the denominations exist independently from each other, we still have a form of independency rather than pure presbyterianism.

I highly recommend Hudson's book in general as a great defense of the presbyterian view of the universal visible church.

UPDATE 6/4/14:  In an introduction to Samuel Hudson's original treatise on the church, Essence and Unity of the Church Catholic Visible, found in the Anthology of Presbyterian and Reformed Literature, vol. 5, ed. by Chris Coldwell (Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, 1992), the writer of the introduction compares episcopalianism, independency, and presbyterianism (pp. 4-5):

      Samuel Hudson (d. 1683) wrote his treatise The Essence and Unity of the Church Catholic Visible in the midst of the "grand debate" in the Westminster Assembly over the government of Christ's church.  The Assembly was divided into three factions, as was the nation as a whole.
      The first faction, that which might be called the episcopalian, took the view of church government that the bishops had served the church well in the past and could possibly do so again in the future.  Some, though certainly not all, maintained that episcopacy is the form of government taught in Scripture.  The majority of this faction, however, admitted that the best argument for episcopal church government was its long-standing use in the church.
      The second faction, that of congregationalism or independency, took the view that each particular church contains everything needed for the church within itself.  While relations with other churches are possible and at times even preferable, there is nothing in Scripture which demands a connection with other churches, according to this view.
      The third faction, that which carried the day at the Westminster Assembly and to which Samuel Hudson belonged, is that of presbytery.  By the time Samuel Hudson wrote, presbyterians had developed a view of jus divinum or "divine right" of church government.  By this, they meant that not only is connectionalism allowed and even preferred, it is commanded by implication in Scripture.  In their view, the congregationalists had virtually denied the catholicity of the visible church.

Presbyterianism holds that the entire catholic church visible is to function as one universal visible body, while congregationalism holds that it need not do so, but it is permissible for there to be multiple, independent, legitimate factions within the Christian world.  The presbyterians accuse congregationalism of in essence denying the existence of the catholic church visible because of this.  Since the semi-congregationalists deny the requirement for the whole church to be united in one body, this puts them in principle in the camp of the independents rather than the presbyterians, even though they hold that it is good (and maybe even required) for individual congregations to unite in more-or-less larger "clumps" of churches called "denominations."

UPDATE 6/9/14:  Here is a well-articulated comment from church historian James Walker:

The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all . . . This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century.' (James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland. Edinburgh: Knox Press, [1888] 1982. Lecture iv. pp.95-6.)

UPDATE 3/10/15:  In the description of the recent Romanist apologetics book against Protestantism by Devin Rose entitled The Protestant's Dilemma, we read this description of Protestantism:

What if Protestantism were true? What if the Reformers really were heroes, the Bible the sole rule of faith, and Christ s [sic] Church just an invisible collection of loosely united believers?

Obviously, this shows once again the Romanist confusion over the what the Protestant doctrine of the church really is, a confusion made somewhat understandable by internal lack of clarity on the doctrine of the universality of the visible church within Reformed circles themselves these days, despite the clear testimony of the Reformed doctrinal standards that there is indeed one catholic visible church.

In the introductory statement from the editor in the most recent (March 2015) edition of Ordained Servant, a periodical for church officers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the editor makes this comment (this edition of Ordained Servant is devoted to the doctrine of church membership):

The modern world privileges informality with the mistaken idea that the informal is more authentic. So the written rolls of church membership and the vows to affirm the commitment of membership are seen as being unspiritual. This is a nineteenth-century Romantic ideal, not a biblical one, but cultural pressures persist, and the less people pay attention to their Bibles the easier world-conformity becomes.

And yet the denominationalist attitude within many Reformed circles today commits this very error--it denies any formal visible catholic church, and leaves us with only a bunch of visible particular churches or groups of churches (denominations) which have no formal governmental expression of their unity.