Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction

I had a discussion a couple of days ago with a deacon in the Eastern Orthodox Church who is a friend of mine.  During the discussion, the topic of the status of the Pope in the Eastern Church came up.  My friend made the statement that the Pope (and the Roman Catholic Church in general) is considered schismatic from the Eastern point of view and lacking in any legitimate, de jure jurisdiction as a bishop in the church.  As a manifestation of this fact, he mentioned that Eastern Orthodox persons living, say, in Rome do not join the Roman Catholic Church (as they would do if the Pope really was the legitimate Bishop of Rome), but instead are members of some Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of some Eastern Orthodox archdiocese, etc.

The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has a congregation in Santa Fe, TX, USA.  This is very noteworthy.  What is a church of Scotland doing in Texas?  The same thing an Eastern Orthodox Church is doing in Western Rome.  The presence of a Scottish church in Texas implies a rejection of the legitimacy of American churches (including Presbyterian/Reformed churches).  If there was a legitimate US church, the FPCS would surely defer to that body.*  There are several Reformed churches, including a number of PCA churches and two OPC churches, in the Houston area (where Santa Fe is located).  If these churches were seen as legitimate, it would be schismatic to plant a Scottish church in that same area, drawing members away from these American churches.

The FPCS is the only de jure denomination existing in the world today.  This is the FPCS's point of view, as evidenced by its beliefs about unity and schism as well as by its practice of planting churches in other nations.  There are FPCS churches on five continents:  "In the present day, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has congregations in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Canada, USA, Ukraine, Israel, Singapore, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Australia and New Zealand."  (This is from the Sydney FP website.)  The recent Catechism of the History and Principles of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (see also here) points out clearly the presbyterian conviction that "unity is an absolute duty," from which flows the concomitant conclusion that the church should be one in visible unity throughout the earth and thus that when churches are not united, there is an implicit charge of schism from one church to the other and the churches are rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches:

106 Q. What is meant by Christ’s Church being Catholic?A. The word Catholic means Universal, which teaches us that the Church of Christ is one in all nations. 
141 Q. Is the Free Presbyterian Church opposed to union with other Churches?A. No, the Free Presbyterian Church encourages biblical union with any Church in Scotland or overseas provided that there is a unity in doctrine, worship, government, discipline, and practice. 
146 Q. When should individual believers separate from the fellowship of others?A. The Scriptures enjoin believers to withdraw themselves from those who are professed brethren and who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), so when men have so rejected sound doctrine, right government, and discipline, or have introduced superstitious worship, or are maintaining a schismatic position, and when an orderly correction of these evils fails, then believers are to separate from such. 
147 Q. When is it lawful to break ecclesiastical union through separation?A. Unity is an absolute duty and therefore the only lawful reason for separation is when one is compelled unavoidably to sin in order to maintain the bond of union. In this case the sin of schism is made by those compelling to sin. Up until this point any separation would be unjust schism since one may still testify against corruptions in the Church and use all lawful means to have them removed. 
148 Q. What is schism?A. Schism is a breach of the union and communion that ought to exist within the visible Church in doctrine, government and worship (1 Cor. 12:25; Rom. 16:17).

On the website of the FPCS, in an FAQ section, we read this:

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.

These conclusions have also been spelled out explicitly in various articles by FP ministers, elders, and members (such as here, here, here, and here). The last article just cited puts it this way:

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.

Since the Synod of the FPCS is not in communion with any other church anywhere in the world, it follows that the Synod claims to be the only legitimate group of churches known to exist on the earth at this time (not to exclude the possibility of orthodox churches made up of believers lost in the Amazon rain forest or in other ways out of contact with the rest of human society).  It follows from this that the extent of the jurisdiction of the FPCS Synod is the entirety of planet earth, not just Scotland.  If I were to ask, "Which synod's jurisdiction do I fall under living here in Orem, UT?", the answer must be "The Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland," for there is no other legitimate synod.  (There are plenty of de facto churches full of true believers, but no de jure churches that should be formally recognized.)  If I had lived in Germany in the year 34 AD, which synod's jurisdiction would I have been under?  I would have been under the jurisdiction of the church in Jerusalem, for there was no other church at that time.  It would be years before the church would be able to reach well into Germany, but it could not have claimed that any believers who might live in Germany were not the responsibility of the church which at that time was in Jerusalem, for believers are to be subject to valid elders, and they can only be subject to valid elders who actually exist.  In a presbyterian system of church government, elders in the church function collegially as a body ruling over the entire catholic church, so any de jure church members anywhere are, by definition, under the jurisdiction of the highest ruling council of the church, and those who are seeking membership fall under their jurisdiction as well.

For more, see here and here.

*Or, if somehow both jurisdictions ended up being present in the same place, at least the situation would be regarded as a temporary confusion to be sorted out as quickly as possible, like the situation with the various jurisdictions of Eastern Orthodox churches in the US.  My friend, the Eastern Orthodox deacon, described the situation to me in an email in this way:

The Church in America was originally under Moscow until it was mature enough to be self governing, but once the Communist Revolution took over Russia things got complicated and people feared Moscow's leadership to potentially be compromised.  So people began to appeal to the motherlands of Orthodoxy, usually based on ethnic categories, to have priests sent, or bishops consecrated, etc., which ended up causing the rather uncanonical situation of overlapping jurisdictions. There is hope, though. The Ecumenical Patriarch called a meeting of the bishops of America to begin working this out so that we can have regularization of the situation in America and the rest of the diaspora.

UPDATE 5/9/14:  A couple of further thoughts:

1. I acknowledge that there are probably all kinds of creative ways to justify having a church of Scotland in Texas for those who don't want to acknowledge that separate presbyterian denominations are rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority, so it is probably the case that the existence of a Scottish church in Texas doesn't necessarily imply, in all possible hypothetical scenarios, that the Scottish church rejects the legitimacy of American churches or even churches in the Houston area.  However, as there are lots of other reasons to conclude that separated presbyterian denominations don't accept each others' legitimacy, this fact is no problem for that thesis.

One other explanation for why there might be a Scottish church in Texas is that the Christian Scots of Texas want to have a distinctly Scottish ethnic church.  This is not the actual reason the FP church in Santa Fe exists, but it is a possible hypothetical reason some Scottish church in Texas might have for existing.  My response to this would be that as the church is called to be one Body, "where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free" (Colossians 3:11), I think it would be inappropriate for there to be separate church bodies divided from each other along ethnic lines (except in cases of practical necessity, such as when there are two groups who don't at all speak the same language or something like that).

2. To help further to get a feel for what it means to have a church rooted in one jurisdiction far away from its own turf and deep into the territory of another jurisdiction, think of one American denomination, the OPC.  Here is a list of the various presbytery jurisdictions of the OPC.  Imagine that the Presbytery of New York and New England attempted to plant a church in the Houston, TX, area, keeping the planted church indefinitely under their own jurisdiction rather than under the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of the Southwest (within which Houston lies).  Would not the Presbytery of the Southwest ordinarily see this as a slight against their jurisdiction, an implicit rejection of their authority and competency to handle the churches in their area?  Would it not be seen as inappropriate and irregular?

UPDATE 9/30/14:  Here is an interesting article by Eastern Orthodox Father Andrew Stephen Damick discussing the jurisdictional issues facing Eastern Orthodoxy in America. 

UPDATE 11/18/14:  I just came across this nice map of OPC presbyteries.  And, while we're at it, here is a list of congregations in the FPCS.  We don't seem to have a presbytery map on the website.  If, some day, we do, perhaps I'll post it here.

UPDATE 1/7/15:  Here is another article on the Eastern Orthodox Church's jurisdictional situation in America, with some very good points about why it is inappropriate, where it can be helped, to have jurisdictional overlap.  The visible expression of the unity of the church is compromised when there are choices of jurisdictions in the same area.  Rather, all de jure Christians in an area should be required, normally, to be united to each other and to elders based on boundaries decided "by the respective bounds of their dwellings" (as the Form of Presbyterial Church Government puts it)."[R]espect of persons" should be excluded in deciding canonical church boundaries, which includes ethnic and other cultural differences unless these constitute unavoidable practical obstacles to fellowship (such as an inability to communicate).  So we Presbyterians completely agree with the Eastern Orthodox on this point.

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