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.