Monday, April 7, 2014

Could Divided Denominations Be in Partial Communion with Each Other?

I have argued in many posts, such as here and here, that when denominations are separate from each other they are necessarily (assuming a presbyterian system of church government) exercising discipline against each other, charging each other with schism, and rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority.

A person might accept this basic line of reasoning but partially object to the conclusion, perhaps, in this way:

"OK, I accept that churches are exercising ecclesiastical discipline against each other when they refuse to be united to each other denominationally.  I accept that they are not accepting each other as sister churches in good standing.  But perhaps they are not entirely, but only partially, rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority.  To make a comparison, a presbytery might suspend a pastor from certain rights and duties ordinarily associated with his office without entirely revoking his pastoral role or authority.  For example, they might suspend his right to vote in presbytery meetings while refraining from suspending his right to function as a teacher in his congregation.  Likewise, perhaps two denominations might put each other partially under discipline and revoke some of each others' rights, such as the right to vote in a common general assembly, while still assigning some rights to each other, such as the right to rule over congregations, etc."

This is my response to this line of argumentation:

1. First of all, I acknowledge that the argument is correct in pointing out that what it describes could, theoretically (with some qualifications, as noted below), be a state of affairs between two churches.  In this case, the denominations would not be entirely separate from each other but only partially separate.

But there are problems with this argument as well, both theoretical and actual:

2. As a matter of fact, no denomination actually understands its relationship to another denomination in this way.  The OPC and the FPCS, for example, do not have any formal relationship with each other whatsoever.  There is no formal granting of any rights, responsibilities, or duties, from one denomination to the other.  There is nothing in the minutes of any OPC court which acknowledges FPCS pastors or elders to be on the roll of the church as pastors and elders, but under some specific disciplinary action.  Nor is there anything like this in the records of the FPCS.  But this is the sort of thing we would have to see in order to acknowledge that the situation suggested by the above argument actually describes any currently existing state of affairs.

3. There are also serious theoretical impediments to such a scenario.  If the OPC, for example, were to formally recognize FPCS officer and church courts as being formally recognized but under partial discipline, it is still the case that the FPCS would not agree to this characterization of itself.  FPCS courts and officers would not acknowledge themselves as being under discipline and as having any rights or duties revoked, and so they would continue to function as if they are not under such discipline.  It would be absurd for such a situation to carry on indefinitely.  If a presbytery brings discipline against an individual session, it expects that session to acknowledge that it is under discipline.  If the session refuses to acknowledge or submit to the judgment of the presbytery, the session will end up sinking deeper and deeper into stronger discipline until its authority is finally entirely revoked.  Thus, such a situation will be naturally unstable and tend to dissolve into complete separation before too long.

4. Another theoretical impediment is that it is difficult to imagine a sensible state of discipline in which voting rights in a higher church court are denied while full rights to rule over and teach in a congregation are maintained.  If a church court is not deemed competent because of sin or error to have a role in voting in a higher church court, why would they be deemed competent to rule or teach in a congregation?  Are the latter functions less important than the former?  If anything, I would think it would be the opposite, though I would say they are of equal importance.  Again, therefore, I would think that such a situation would be naturally unstable and, if anything, would simply be a very temporary stepping stone to either reconciliation or complete separation.  Such a situation would surely not constitute a long-lasting (even centuries-long!) permanent relationship.

For these reasons, therefore, I do not believe we can see the relationship between existing denominations in the way the argument envisions.  Rather, the kind of denominational division that actually exists between the various denominations today involves a refusal to grant any formal recognition to the de jure legitimacy and authority of other denominational church courts (though it does not necessarily involve rejection of the de facto being of the visible church in the various denominations).

(Someone might argue that fraternal relations between denominations constitute a form of partial de jure communion, but I would say that they do not.  Fraternal relations do not involve the formal granting of any rights or responsibilities to officers and church courts as such beyond denominational lines, or any acknowledgement that one denomination considers the other denomination to be under partial discipline.  I think that fraternal relations--assuming they have any coherent meaning at all in a presbyterian context--are best understood as an institutional recognition by one denomination that another denomination is a de facto part of the visible church of Christ along with a commitment to take certain steps of dialogue and action intended to work towards eventual de jure communion.  I discuss these ideas a bit more here and here.)

UPDATE 4/8/13:  Just briefly, I might add that I question whether a situation such as described by the argument dealt with above could even accurately be described as a situation involving separated denominations.  When a session is under discipline by a presbytery, we don't say they have become (even partly) two separate denominations.  We don't say they are now in "partial communion."  Rather, we look at the situation as two bodies that are in the same denomination, in full communion, but with one body under the discipline of the other.  So if was the case that the OPC looks at the FPCS as another branch of the formally recognized church, subject to mutually-binding councils but under discipline, I don't think we would describe this situation as one in which we have two distinct denominations interacting with each other.  Rather, we would say there is one denomination in which one body is under discipline from another body.

But this is not the situation between the OPC and the FPCS (or between any other divided denominations).  The fact is that the OPC and the FPCS are indeed separate denominations because they simply have no formal recognition of the de jure existence, legitimacy, or authority of each others' courts and officers.


Riley said...

There are separate denominations which do have a formal, documented, agreed upon status recognizing rights and privileges, while falling short of fully unity: for example, the OPC, URCNA, RPCNA, and ARP. You can transfer a member from one to the other without requiring a reaffirmation of faith. That is fairly close communion.

Mark Hausam said...

Hi Riley. Yes, there are interesting things like that that go on.

One way of thinking about such practices is that they are simply incoherent elements of a confused ecclesiology (basically resulting from a mix of presbyterian and semi-congregationalist principles).

But I think that such practices can also be understood within a more coherent presbyterian context as well. In that context, these actions would, I think, best be understood not as inter-denominational recognition of de jure legitimacy and authority but as manifestations of mutual recognition of de facto existence. (I examine this more fully in those two articles I link to towards the end of this article--the one on fraternal relations and the other examining the OPC Book of Church Order on these matters.)

One difficulty with seeing these practices as manifestations of de jure authority is that if that were the case, we would have to say that, say, the OPC and the ARP actually do recognize each others' de jure existence and legitimacy, but that they hold each other to be under some form of formal discipline. If ARP officers and courts, from the OPC's point of view, have de jure legitimacy and authority, then why are they not united in one common binding council? Such unity is one of the natural rights and responsibilities all de jure true churches have towards each other in a presbyterian system (as opposed to various forms of independency). Since the OPC does not allow the ARP courts and officers voting rights in a mutually-binding council, we would have to say (if they do recognize their de jure legitimacy) that they hold them to be under formal discipline in which their normal rights have been revoked (just as with a session within a presbytery being forbidden to vote in presbytery meetings). But, as I discuss in this article, the OPC does not seem to actually regard the ARP in this way, nor does such a situation really make much theoretical sense. It is better to understand the relationship between the OPC and the ARP (assuming a consistent presbyterian context) as one in which we have two denominations that do not formally recognize each others' de jure legitimacy and authority but do recognize each others' de facto existence and try to embrace the unity that the latter implies in various ways as much as possible, as well as dealing with non-ideal situations involving members, etc., that arise in our age of so many denominations. (Again, I discuss this not only in this article but in the two articles linked to near the end.)

Mark Hausam said...


Here is a selection from my article on the OPC Book of Church Order (linked to in this article--the last linked article) in which I discuss what you have raised more fully (I've got to post this in multiple comments because it is too long):

"As I understand it and have seen it practiced, it is common OPC practice to transfer members to sister denominations (that is, non-OPC denominations with whom the OPC has fraternal relations) using the method outlined in 3.a above (although it is noteworthy to me that 3.a doesn't actually explicitly approve this practice--it does not even mention other denominations--and this is not always consistently practiced in actuality, as sometimes sessions will refuse to give a letter of transfer even when a member is transferring to a sister denomination). Now, this practice, on the surface, seems a bit inconsistent with what we have seen previously. We have seen that when a congregation from outside the OPC wants to join the OPC, there must first be an examination of the ministers and elders of the congregation to make sure they have the proper qualifications to function in their offices, and then they are recognized and installed. Clearly, therefore, while officers remain outside of the OPC, the OPC does not formally grant that these officers are functioning de jure as officers or even that they have the proper qualifications to do so. If that is the case, then how can it be pastorally appropriate to transfer members from OPC congregations to be under the jurisdiction of these officers? "Well, it is true that Pastor Bob and the ruling elders with him are not regarded by us as actually being de jure officers, as we have no formal recognition of them, nor do we have any formal position on whether or not they are qualified for office and can do their jobs adequately, but we'll go ahead and happily transfer our members over to them anyway!" How can this be regarded as pastorally competent?

Mark Hausam said...

Perhaps this practice can be reconciled with the rest of the outlook of the OPC by noting that the transfer of members to other denominations is not considered an ideal situation but a concession to non-ideal circumstances. Notice that according to 3.b, it is acknowledged that sometimes members might wish to be transferred to a church of which the session cannot approve as being of like faith and practice but that may still be regarded as advancing that member's spiritual interests. (And note that, by virtue of remaining separate from other denominations in light of Christ's command for formal worldwide unity, the OPC is declaring all non-OPC denominations to have some problems either in faith or practice; for if the OPC believed another denomination to be perfectly sound, why would they still remain separate from it?) Unlike with 3.d(1), 3.b does not say that the session should try to dissuade the member from joining this church not of like faith and practice. But how can it be a good and acceptable thing to transfer a member to another church of which the session cannot approve as being of like faith and practice? Surely transferring a member from a more pure church to a less pure church would be, all other things being equal, a move downwards and not an ideal thing. But perhaps what these instructions are recognizing is simply that non-ideal circumstances can sometimes arise in which the best option available for the spiritual interests of a member might be to allow him to transfer to a less pure church. Perhaps the member's job, for example, requires him to move to a city in which there is no OPC congregation and it is not feasible for him to quit his job.

So I don't think we need to read these instructions regarding the transferring of members as necessarily in conflict with the instructions for receiving congregations which indicate that there is no formal recognition of the de jure existence or authority of officers, or even of their qualifications for office, when they are outside of the OPC. The instructions are merely recognizing that non-ideal circumstances may arise in which it may be best for a member to be transferred to a church outside the OPC's jurisdiction where there is no formal opinion regarding the qualifications of its officers and no formal recognition of their authority. (In a somewhat analogous situation, I have requested membership in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland even though there is no local FPCS congregation in the area where I live. The Kirk-Session to which I have made my request, when it meets next month, may advise me to stay in the membership of the OPC, not because they think this is the ideal situation or because they formally recognize the OPC's authority or qualifications, but because it may be the best choice given the options available. Being part of a schismatic church could be seen as better than being a part of no local church, other things being equal. I myself have held this opinion, which is why I have remained a member of the OPC.)"