Saturday, September 27, 2014

Should Non-Scots Join the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland?

This is from chapter four of my forthcoming book, Presbyterianism Re-Asserted:

#13. Isn't it absurd to say that all Christians throughout the world should be members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland? Isn't that something of an oxymoron? 

      As I've already made a statement elsewhere that I thinks sums up what I want to say here pretty well, I'll just quote that:

       “I do not believe it is ideal that Christians in countries outside of Scotland should be members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Ideally, the Church of Scotland ought to be limited to Scotland. The current situation, however, is that the FPCS is not in formal communion with any other denomination around the world. It remains separate from them all, and, assuming it is right in retaining this separation, this leads to a moral duty (all other things being equal) for all of us to seek as much as possible to be in communion with the FPCS and avoid communion with denominations that are not in communion with it, for reasons described above.
       However, what we would like to see ultimately is each nation having its own established orthodox national church in full communion with the FPCS, united under a binding, presbyterian international council.1 For now, for example, it is right for there to be an FPCS in Santa Fe, TX; but ultimately, we would want to see enough churches in the USA to establish a national body that is no longer under Scottish oversight (while still being in full communion with and mutually accountable to the Scottish church). And it is not hard to see that the more we all take these issues seriously enough to act accordingly, even to the point of joining the FPCS, the closer we will be to being able to reach this long-distance goal of having indigenous national churches in full communion with each other and the FPCS. On the other hand, if we all wait until there is already such a national church in our own land before we leave the schismatic denominations and unite with the FPCS, how will such a church ever be built up? It may be the case that some particular denomination in our own land will reform itself to the point that it can join in full communion with the FPCS and become a proper national church, but we cannot wait for this to happen before we consider what our own personal duties may be in these matters.”

1For more on the Establishment Principle and how it relates to the unity of the church, see my article entitled “The Establishment Principle and the Unity of the Church,” found at (Part I) and (Part II) as of 1:22 PM on 9/23/14.

For more, see here.

UPDATE 11/19/14:  Here is what the FPCS has said on its website about the meaning of its name, including the "of Scotland" part:

Q. Why are you called the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland?
A. There are reasons for each part of the name:
  • We are called “Free” because we are the true successors to the Free Church of Scotland formed in the 1843 Disruption from the established Church of Scotland, to keep the Church of Christ free from state interference.
  • We are called “Presbyterian” because we adhere to Presbyterianism, the only Biblical form of Church government.
  • We are called “Church” because that is the New Testament name for Christ’s body on earth in its visible form, of which we are a branch.
  • We are called “of Scotland”, not because we are geographically limited to Scotland, but because we adhere to all the Scriptural attainments of the First and Second Reformations in Scotland, and claim to be the true constitutional representative of the historic Church of Scotland.

The Westminster Standards and the De Facto / De Jure Distinction

This is from chapter four of my forthcoming book, Presbyterianism Re-Asserted:

#12. If the distinction between the visible church de facto and the visible church de jure is so important to presbyterian church government, then why is this distinction not made in the Westminster Standards? 

      I agree that this distinction is not dealt with explicitly in the Standards. The Standards, in their discussion of the church, focus only on the de jure visible church, without commenting on the idea of some manifestations of the visible church existing outside of the legal structure of the church.
      Of course, whatever we make of this fact, it doesn't mean that we can ignore the clear fact that the Standards oppose denominationalism. As we've seen (and as can be seen even more in my article entitled “The Westminster Standards on the Nature of the Church,” found in the articles section at the end of this book), the Standards present a view of the church in which all members are in formal unity with each other throughout the world, and all the elders and courts of the church throughout the world function in mutual submission to each other (such as by participating in mutually-binding councils). So the fact that the Standards do not explicitly discuss the idea of part of the de facto church existing outside of the legal structure of the church does not allow us to deny that the universal church has a requirement to have a formal, legal structure or that it is acceptable ever for there to be multiple independent de jure denominations. So no help here for the semi-congregationalists!
      So why didn't the Westminster Divines bring up our distinction in their Standards? Of course, the simple answer is, I don't know. But we can try to guess. My guess would run along the lines discussed above in objection #8. The Divines did not discuss the church existing outside of the legal structures of the church because they were more focused on their more immediate concern to describe how the legal church is supposed to function as part of their goal of writing up Standards to function as a foundation for unity for the established, legal churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. What should be done with those who wouldn't join the established Reformed churches in these lands wasn't a question that they felt needed to be addressed in the Standards. They were more interested in trying to persuade people like the independents not to try to exist outside the established church but instead to join it. This was a time when multiple denominations within a nation was an unthinkable concept. As I pointed out in #8, things have changed dramatically since then.
      However, although the Divines don't address the distinction in the Standards, there are good reasons, I believe, to make it. These reasons follow from two convictions of mine: 1. Latitudinarianism is false—and therefore we should not allow theological errors in areas where the Bible speaks clearly to be spread without correction and sometimes discipline in the church. 2. We have reason to hope, in a judgment of charity, that there are some who fail to obey some of the clear teachings of Scripture but yet who are truly regenerate, and aspects of Christianity, though corrupted to varying degrees, exist among such people. See objection #6 above for more on these things, as well as my article entitled “Against Latitudinarianism,” found in the articles section at the end of this book. If these two convictions are correct, then a distinction between the visible church de jure and the visible church de facto becomes logically necessary, for we must talk about possibly regenerate persons and other aspects of the church of Christ existing outside of the legal church. But even more to the immediate point, whether one agrees with me on these two convictions or not, as I said above, there is no help for semi-independency here. All that would follow from denying my two convictions would be that there is no church in any sense outside of the de jure church; it would not follow that there ought to be multiple de jure churches. The view of presbyterian church government articulated and defended in this book would be intact even if we were to reject the de jure / de facto distinction.
      Although the Standards do not explicitly discuss the de facto / de jure distinction, yet other Reformed writers have. Prominent among them is John Calvin, who makes this distinction clear and explicit in his discussion of how we should think about the Roman church in his Institutes. I discuss this further below, towards the beginning of the next chapter. Calvin's Institutes is undeniably a primary influence on the general Reformed view of the unity of the church, and on the Standards in particular. So even if the Standards do not explicitly discuss the distinction, the distinction would not have been alien to the Divines who wrote them.

The Standards do not address the question of ways in which the church might exist outside the legal structure of the church, which is the question that leads to the de jure / de facto distinction. They simply describe the visible church with all of the characteristics that God has given to it, including its legal structure (the "ministry, oracles, and ordinances"). They do point out that the visible church has been "sometimes more, sometimes less visible" and that particular churches are "more or less pure." This acknowledgment of imperfections among the visible people of God allows for the possibility of churches and people being in error such that they might be truly Christian in a de facto sense without qualifying to be within the legal structure of the catholic church, but this issue isn't specifically addressed.

Here is the section from Calvin's Institutes that was alluded to above:

Still, as in ancient times, there remained among the Jews certain special privileges of a Church, so in the present day we deny not to the Papists those vestiges of a Church which the Lord has allowed to remain among them amid the dissipation. When the Lord had once made his covenant with the Jews, it was preserved not so much by them as by its own strength, supported by which it withstood their impiety. Such, then, is the certainty and constancy of the divine goodness, that the covenant of the Lord continued there, and his faith could not be obliterated by their perfidy; nor could circumcision be so profaned by their impure hands as not still to be a true sign and sacrament of his covenant. Hence the children who were born to them the Lord called his own, (Ezek. 16: 20,) though, unless by special blessing, they in no respect belonged to him. So having deposited his covenant in Gaul, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England, when these countries were oppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, He, in order that his covenant might remain inviolable, first preserved baptism there as an evidence of the covenant; - baptism, which, consecrated by his lips, retains its power in spite of human depravity; secondly, He provided by his providence that there should be other remains also to prevent the Church from utterly perishing. But as in pulling down buildings the foundations and ruins are often permitted to remain, so he did not suffer Antichrist either to subvert his Church from its foundation, or to level it with the ground, (though, to punish the ingratitude of men who had despised his word, he allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place,) but was pleased that amid the devastation the edifice should remain, though half in ruins.

Therefore while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine. Daniel and Paul foretold that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God, (Dan. 9: 27; 2 Thess. 2: 4;) we regard the Roman Pontiff as the leader and standard-bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. By placing his seat in the temple of God, it is intimated that his kingdom would not be such as to destroy the name either of Christ or of his Church. Hence, then, it is obvious, that we do not at all deny that churches remain under his tyranny; churches, however, which by sacrilegious impiety he has profaned, by cruel domination has oppressed, by evil and deadly doctrines like poisoned potions has corrupted and almost slain; churches where Christ lies half-buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished; where, in short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God. In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the Church still remain - symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate Church.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter 2, sections 11-12, translated by Henry Beveridge in 1599, taken from the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics at at 12:58 PM on 7/16/14)

Calvin here makes clear that, in his view, there are Christians and essential aspects of the church existing outside the legal structure of the church.  Calvin's view, like that of the Standards, was that lawful (or de jure) churches have an absolute duty to remain in communion with each other; there is no allowance for anything like multiple de jure denominations.  And yet Calvin also notes that this does not imply that there is no Christianity and no regenerate Christians outside of that de jure communion.  Since Calvin's view of the nature and unity of the church was so foundational to Reformed theology, and to the theology of the Standards in particular (and also because the evidence says that Calvin was right on this point), I think it makes sense to read the Standards against the backdrop of Calvin's admittance of the de facto / de jure distinction.

UPDATE 10/7/14:  See also the pertinent comments of historian James Walker here.

UPDATE 12/16/14:  Another reason why the Westminster Divines, in the Standards, may not have mentioned the de jure / de facto distinction is that they may not have thought of the church de facto as a concrete, distinct category.  They may have thought it to have been dealt with sufficiently under the heading of the "invisible church."  The category of the visible church de jure is a concrete category, referring to those who meet the formal, legal requirements to be accepted formally as members of the catholic church.  The evaluation of these requirements is an objective matter.  However, the category of the visible church de facto simply refers to the observation of characteristics which, more or less, give us reason to hope in a judgment of charity that a person is truly a regenerate Christian or that the work of the Spirit is going on in the life of some body of professing Christians.  This is obviously a less concrete, less objective category.  We don't really know who is regenerate and who is not; we merely have greater or lesser reasons to hope in a judgment of charity.  So while the category of the visible church de jure is a concrete, objective category distinct from the concept of the invisible church, the category of the visible church de facto is really just an evaluation of observations that give us reason to hope that the invisible church is present in a particular individual or body of individuals.  Thus, the Westminster Divines might not have that thought that it was worth creating another formal category to describe it, but in their minds it might have been included as an implication of the distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  We think of Augustine's famous comment about the visible church:  "How many sheep without, how many wolves within!"  The visible church and the invisible church do not fully overlap.  There are unregenerate people within the visible church, and no doubt there are regenerate people (and also elect people who aren't yet regenerate) outside the visible church.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Protestantism and the Immorality of Joining Sects

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)

The Scriptures are not thrilled with the idea of people joining sects.  Rather, the church is to be one and live in unity.  While there is diversity amidst the Body, we are not to join into clubs and cliques within the catholic church and separate ourselves from each other.

And yet that is precisely what must happen if we think of the church the way the semi-congregationalists in the modern Reformed churches do.  They see the de jure visible church as nothing other than a large conglomeration of independent denominations, with no formal, organic unity and mutual accountability.  In this way of thinking, it is impossible to join the catholic church without at the same time joining some particular sect within it, for it does not exist outside of its independent sects.  So, for example, if I go to an OPC church where semi-congregationalist thinking prevails and I ask to join the catholic church, they will proceed to lead me to join the OPC.  If I ask them if the OPC is the same as the catholic church, they will say, "No, we are only one part of it.  There are lots of other denominations--such as the PCA, the RPCNA, the FCC, the RCJ, etc., etc.--which are also parts of it."  If I tell them that I don't wish to join a particular sect within the catholic church but simply to join the catholic church, they will look at me blankly, for there is nothing in their view which corresponds with what I am asking.  And yet there should be.  Why should I have to join "the OPC club" when what I want is to join the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church?  Where is the biblical requirement that I must join a particular club within the church when I join the church?  Sure, I ought to join some particular congregation if I can, but where is the biblical warrant for having inter-congregational clubs that are independent from each other and have independent church courts and one of which I must join with to be a member of the catholic church?  There is no such biblical concept.  Rather, the Bible condemns the forming of separated groups within the catholic church and calls the whole Body to exist in unity.

This situation points us to the need to rethink our modern "Reformed" semi-congregationalist attitudes.  For more, see here and here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Separated Brethren

The Roman Catholic Church, in a document produced by Vatican II entitled Unitatis Redintegratio, describes its current understanding of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other Christians:

3. Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts,(19) which the Apostle strongly condemned.(20) But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church - whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church - do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body,(21) and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.(22)

Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.

The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.
It follows that the separated Churches(23) and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.

Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life - that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ's Catholic Church, which is "the all-embracing means of salvation," that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God. This people of God, though still in its members liable to sin, is ever growing in Christ during its pilgrimage on earth, and is guided by God's gentle wisdom, according to His hidden designs, until it shall happily arrive at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Of course, there are elements here that are peculiarly Roman, so the statements cannot be wholly accepted, but there is also here a fairly accurate articulation of the relationship that exists between the visible church de facto and the visible church de jure.  Among the things that Roman Catholicism gets right is that the formal, visible church is called to be one, that church courts have real authority from Christ, and that therefore denominational division inherently implies a mutual rejection of de jure legitimacy between the divided denominations.  In the above citations, Rome notes well how the church de facto exists beyond denominational boundaries, while, at the same time, the church de jure is defined by those boundaries.  We Reformed Protestants can take a lesson here.  Rome is far ahead of us in terms of being practically consistent in articulating some of these principles, even though the very same principles are an essential component of our Reformed tradition of presbyterian church government.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, likewise, tends overall to do a better job than we do in these areas.  Here are some comments from Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, from his book The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1997--footnotes excluded):

The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the 'one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church', of which the Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides Orthodox in their relations with other Christians. There are divisions among Christians, but the Church itself is not divided nor can it ever be.  (p. 307) 
    Orthodox writers sometimes speak as if they accepted the 'Branch Theory', once popular among High Church Anglicans. (According to this theory, the Catholic Church is divided into several 'branches'; usually three such branches are posited, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, and the Orthodox.) But such a view cannot be reconciled with traditional Orthodox theology. If we are going to speak in terms of 'branches', then from the Orthodox point of view the only branches which the Catholic Church can have are the local autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox communion.
    Claiming as it does to be the one true Church, the Orthodox Church also believes that, if it so desired, it could by itself convene and hold another Ecumenical Council, equal in authority to the first seven. Since the separation of east and west the Orthodox (unlike the west) have never in fact chosen to summon such a council; but this does not mean that they believe themselves to lack the power to do so. 
Such, then, is the Orthodox idea of the unity of the Church. Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation. This belief has the same basis as the Orthodox belief in the unbreakable unity of the Church: it follows from the close relation between God and his Church. 'A person cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother.' So wrote St. Cyprian; and to him this seemed an evident truth, because he could not think of God and the Church apart from one another. God is salvation, and God's saving power is mediated to humans in His Body, the Church. 'Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.' Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked, 'How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!' While there is no division between a 'visible' and an 'invisible Church', yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.  (p. 246-248)

After mentioning that there are two views on the question of the status of non-Orthodox among Orthodox people today, Bishop Ware describes the view of the "moderates," which he seems (so far as I can see from his book) to share:

There is first a more moderate group, which includes most of those Orthodox who have had close personal contact with other Christians. This group holds that, while it is true to say that Orthodoxy is the Church, it is false to conclude from this that those who are not Orthodox cannot possibly belong to the Church. Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation. The Spirit of God blows where it chooses and, as Irenaeus said, where the Spirit is, there is the Church. We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not. . . . There is only one Church, but there are many different ways of being related to this one Church, and many different ways of being separated from it. Some non-Orthodox are very close indeed to Orthodoxy, others less so; some are friendly to the Orthodox Church, others indifferent or hostile. By God's grace the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of truth (so its members are bound to believe), but there are other Christian communions which possess to a greater or lesser degree a genuine measure of Orthodoxy. All these facts must be taken into account: one cannot simply say that all non-Orthodox are outside the Church, and leave it at that; one cannot treat other Christians as if they stood on the same level as unbelievers.  (p. 308-309)

Again, we see here the distinction between the visible and the invisible church (though Bishop Ware tries to distance himself from this "Protestant" idea right in the midst of embracing and articulating it) and the distinction between the church de facto and the church de jure.  There are true Christians, true members of the Body of Christ, outside the de jury body, yet it is the de jury body which possesses the authority of the church--as is evident in the claim that the Orthodox Church by itself could call and hold an ecumenical council.  Presbyterianism leads to the same conclusions.  There are lots of true Christians outside the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but the decision of the FPCS to remain separate from other denominations implies a claim to be the totality of the de jure catholic church.  It can therefore be rightly said that the yearly Synod meeting of the FPCS is in fact an ecumenical council, for it is currently the highest judicatory of the church and represents the whole church.

Will we own up to these things consistently and clearly?

For more, see here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New Horizons Magazine on the OPC's Presbyterianism

The most recent issue of New Horizons, the OPC's denominational magazine, has an article which, among other things, outlines the presbyterian structure of the OPC:

Most people in the OPC have heard the phrase “General Assembly,” and many have some idea of what it is and does, but for others it may seem obscure. A brief description of how our church is structured may be helpful to some—think in terms of three layers:

1. The local church is overseen by the pastor(s) and ruling elders, together called the session. The session is responsible for the local ministry and the care of church members. At the end of 2013, there were 269 local churches (plus mission works) in the OPC, with a total membership of 30,758.

2. All the members of the local churches in a given area are part of what is called a regional church, and this is governed by a presbytery. The presbytery meets multiple times a year, when the ministers and a ruling elder from each of its congregations convene to oversee the work of the regional church. It is the presbytery that examines men for the ministry, undertakes or assists in the work of church planting within its boundaries, and can be appealed to when problems cannot be solved in a local congregation. In the OPC, we currently have seventeen presbyteries.

3. The General Assembly, which normally meets annually, is the highest governing body of our denomination. Each presbytery is allotted a certain number of delegates, who are sent to this meeting. While much of our denomination’s work is done through standing committees that operate year-round—for instance, the Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education committees—these committees report back to the General Assembly, which may approve, disapprove, or alter their plans. The Assembly may also instruct the committees to undertake actions, or it may erect other committees for specific purposes. The Assembly approves the budgets of the committees and elects their members. More than this, the General Assembly serves as the final court of appeal in matters of discipline. Just as disputed matters may come from a local church to a presbytery for resolution, so too may they come from a presbytery to the General Assembly.

Notice the implications of these comments for the OPC's relationship to other denominations, assuming a presbyterian view of church government.  For example, "All the members of the local churches in a given area are part of what is called a regional church, and this is governed by a presbytery."  All the members?  Including the members of the PCA or the RCUS?  No, only OPC members.  What does that say?  In a presbyterian system, it can only mean that these other churches are not recognized as formal, legal parts of the church in those areas.

"The General Assembly, which normally meets annually, is the highest governing body of our denomination. . . . the General Assembly serves as the final court of appeal in matters of discipline. Just as disputed matters may come from a local church to a presbytery for resolution, so too may they come from a presbytery to the General Assembly."  The GA is the "highest governing body"?  It is the "final court of appeal"?  Well then, in a presbyterian system, this must mean that the OPC does not recognize the legitimacy of the sessions, presbyteries, or other synods of any other denomination--for if they did, they would have to allow these churches also to be involved in these concentric circles of mutual submission and appeals, and yet they actually allow only members and courts of the OPC to be involved.  In a system of semi-independency, we could have separate, independent ecclesiastical governments, but not in a presbyterian system.

For more, see here and here.

Can One Be Catholic Without Being Particular?

Here's a great statement from Samuel Hudson (from p. 251 of his A Vindication of the Essence and Unity of the Church-Catholick Visible [1658)]) on how to think about those who are members of the catholic church but cannot, through various circumstances, be connected to any particular congregation:

As all the subjects of the Kingdom of England are an integral in reference to the King and Laws, though they should for a time want inferiour Officers, and though they bee not in particular combinations, and so are destitute of the particular priviledges, and have no particular Officers to dispense God's Ordinances to them constantly, yet have they right by reason and Scripture rules to all the Ordinances of God, as well as baptism, and they covenant to submit to all God's Ordinances, even those of discipline, and are habitually under the habitual power of the Ministers office, and are capable of censures, as hath been shewed before: onely they want the opportunity of enjoying them constantly by particular Officers of their own.  The right of an English man to the priviledges of the Laws, doth not arise by beeing actually under such and such particular officers in a corporation, &c. but by beeing members of the Kingdom.  So is the right of visible beleevers to Church-priviledges, by being Christs visible subjects.

While I'm at it, here are a couple more quotations from Hudson on the same theme from his
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]):

Yea, suppose a man should be a traveller [sic], merchant or factor [commissioned agent], and settled in no particular congregation, yet being a Christian he is a member of the catholic church. Yea and if he broach any errors, or live inordinately, he shall be accountable to the church wherein he for the present resides, or such crimes are committed, and he is liable to their censure, as being a member of the catholic church . . . Now prohibition is a censure. They are not to be left to the magistrate only, but to the church trial, for those crimes come not always under the cognizance of the civil magistrates, and if they do, he may be a heathen and will not regard an heretic, nor can judge of him. And if every kingdom will try murder, or treason, or any other soul crime committed in the same, though by a stranger, or alien, because the crimes are against their laws, and sovereign, though their laws pertain not to the country where the foreigner was born, and dwells, then much more shall every church try those members of the catholic church residing among them for their crimes, seeing they have all the same sovereign head, the same laws, and are all one body. (P. 35)

Yea, I conceive that there may be many belonging to the catholic church, that belong to no particular congregation, whose conversion has been by accidental occasion, as by reading, or discourse, or haply [perchance] hearing a disputation, or sermon, and yet their habitation, or imprisonment, slavery, banishment, travel, or other occasions may not suffer them to join themselves to any particular congregation, yet are visible Christians yielding professed subjection to the gospel in their lives and conversations. And are, by being of the catholic church, fit to be members of any congregation, but are actually none. . . . Suppose a man by transplanting into America, suffering shipwreck, should swim to some unknown land, and there living among the natives. Is that man without? Is he not [holy] hagios? Of what congregation was the Eunuch, that was baptized by Philip? And yet we doubt not to say, he was a Christian, and one of the church members; but it must be the catholic church. (P. 38)

Of course, we all have a duty, whenever possible, to be members of a particular congregation under the oversight of particular local elders, but it doesn't follow from this that those who cannot be in such a situation are not part of the visible church, for the visible church is not just particular but catholic.  That's the point Hudson is getting at, and it is a great comfort to those of us who are in the sort of situation he describes (hopefully temporarily!).

For more, see here and here.