Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to Tell If Your Church Accepts the Legitimacy of Another Church

. . . at least if your church is a Presbyterian church.

In the presbyterian system of church government, ecclesiastical authority is collegial.  Elders do not function alone, but as parts of larger bodies of elders.  Individual elders function as parts of sessions, in submission to each other.  Sessions function under larger bodies of elders called presbyteries which have authority over the sessions and elders that make them up.  Presbyteries are subject to the authority of larger binding synods made up of elders from the various presbyteries, and these synods can be provincial, national, ecumenical, etc.  As American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge summed it up, "The Presbyterian doctrine on this subject is, that the Church is one in such a sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and the larger to the whole."

In light of this, here is a question you can ask to find out if your church (assuming it is presbyterian) accepts the objective legitimacy and authority of another church:  If the other church called on your church to join them in a common council to discuss and try to resolve differences in doctrine and practice, and this council would be binding on both churches, would your church accept the call?  If the answer to this question is yes, then your church recognizes the legitimacy and authority of the other church.  If the answer is no, then your church does not recognize the legitimacy of the other church.  Since church power is inherently collegial, a refusal to submit to the authority of the other church by joining with them in a mutually-binding council amounts to a declaration that that church does not possess ecclesiastical authority.

To give a concrete example, take the OPC and the FPCS.  If the FPCS called the OPC to join them in a mutually-binding council to discuss and resolve doctrinal and practical differences, would the OPC accept the call?  The answer is no, they would not, because they would not want to grant the FPCS power over the doctrine and practice of the OPC.  Since the OPC professes a presbyterian view of church government, this means that the OPC does not recognize the objective legitimacy and authority of the FPCS.  The FPCS, likewise, would not accept a call from the OPC to join in a mutually-binding council, so the FPCS does not accept the authority of the OPC either.

For more, see here and here.

UPDATE 2/17/15:  Some may try to escape the force of the above reasoning by suggesting that their denomination (D-1) is indeed in mutual submission to another denomination (D-2) because D-1 is perfectly willing theoretically to join with D-2 in a mutually-binding council, even though D-1 refuses to recognize any way in which such a council could legitimately be called, and so there no practical possibility for such a council ever to happen.  So, theoretically (although I do not believe this claim is actually made), the OPC might claim to be in mutual submission to the FPCS because it is perfectly willing to join with the FPCS in a mutually-binding council--although no such council could ever actually happen because the OPC refuses to recognize any acceptable way to call it.  In this way, theoretically, denominations that want to think of themselves as consistently presbyterian but which don't want to acknowledge that they reject the authority of other denominations might try to evade the presbyterian logic.

But this evasion won't work, because to acknowledge something in theory while completely rejecting it in practice amounts to the same as rejecting it in theory (except that it adds hypocrisy to the mix).  What would we think of a church which claimed to be presbyterian but which recognized no way to have presbytery or higher synodical meetings, making it impossible ever to have them?  This would be presbyterianism on paper but not in reality.  Such a church would rightly be regarded as in actuality a congregationalist church.  Or what would we think of a church that claimed to reject icons in its creed but which actually tolerated them without any concern at all and refused to hear any discipline case against their use?  We would say, rightly, that such a church is not really opposed to icons.  It must be recognized that a church's practice will not always perfectly match its profession (just as it is with each of our individual lives as well), and there must be some toleration for flaws in practice, but there is also a limit to such toleration.  A church which completely and fully in practice rejects what it claims to affirm in theory is just playing games and its profession should not be taken seriously.

And that is why this evasion does not work.  If D-1 wants its claim that it is in mutual submission with D-2 to be believable, it must make reasonable efforts to practice such mutual submission.  At least this must translate into recognizing some possible, practicable way in which a mutually-binding council could be called and actually allowing such a thing to occur if it is called.  So if the OPC wishes to claim (and I do not say that it does) that it recognizes the presbyterial authority of the FPCS, it must show that it is willing to submit to the FPCS's authority by acknowledging (and following through with if called upon to do so) some practical way in which a mutually-binding council between these denominations could be called.  Without such a tangible expression of submission, a profession of such submission would be nothing more than mere pretense.

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