Monday, November 3, 2014

Nuanced Fellowship

The visible unity of the Body of Christ, though not altogether destroyed, is greatly obscured by the division of the Christian church into different groups or denominations. In such denominations Christians exercise a fellowship toward each other in doctrine, worship, and order that they do not exercise toward other Christians.

- OPC Form of Government, Chapter IV

This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

For the past month, we've been settling into our new church situation.  We are now adherent members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and have a particular connection to the Santa Fe congregation of that church.  We've moved from being members of the OPC, and are now regular attenders at New Song PCA in Salt Lake City.

Our situation is providing us with a practical manifestation of the state of denominational division in the Christian and Reformed world.  We are members of a church whose nearest congregation is in Santa Fe, TX, but we attend regularly a local PCA church.  The main pastor at New Song PCA has (very graciously) established a connection with the elders in Santa Fe, in order to provide help to them in their oversight of us while we live at a distance.  We participate in some aspects of the worship service at New Song, but we do not sing the hymns (and they currently sing no psalms, typically), and we do not participate in communion (which they do every other Lord's Day).  We do not yet have communicant status in the FPCS, and so we are not yet approved to take communion by those who have the authority to make that determination.  New Song has (once again, very graciously) invited us to take communion with them, but we would not want to make a decision to participate on our own without Santa Fe's approval.  Instead, we intend, for as long as we live at a distance, insofar as it is manageable for us to do so, to attend the communion seasons in the Santa Fe congregation.  We also intend to have future children baptized in the FPCS.

Our relationship with New Song, then, is one of nuance.  The quotation above from the OPC Form of Government puts it well.  The PCA and the FPCS are not in full communion with each other.  There is no formal acceptance of each others' legitimacy and authority.  And yet, both denominations are manifestations of the visible Body of Christ.  The visibility of the church, as the Westminster Confession (as well as the OPC Form of Government) points out, is not an all-or-nothing affair.  The church can be and has been "sometimes more, sometimes less visible" and can be "more or less pure."  When denominations are divided, the divided groups are regarding each other as schismatic (assuming a consistent presbyterian system), and yet, as the OPC Form of Government aptly puts it, the visible unity between the divided churches is "not altogether destroyed," but is "greatly obscured," because even schismatic churches can be real manifestations of the Body of Christ.  There is no de jure, formal unity, but there can be a de facto, informal unity.

Being in such partial, informal communion with a local church can be awkward.  It is awkward to be developing relationships, worshipping together, and engaging in mutual fellowship, while at the same time not being formal members, not singing the hymns (or participating in upcoming Christmas celebrations), and not sharing in communion.  It is also awkward to be members of a denomination which has no local existence outside of ourselves, making our communion with that denomination much more difficult and less ideal than we would like.  It is tempting to want to find a way to remove that awkwardness, but, upon reflection, there is something fitting about it.  Our situation should feel awkward, because it is awkward.  It is an immediate, tangible manifestation of the reality of denominational division.  Many in the Reformed world, so it seems, would like to forget about these divisions and simply paper over them, as if they were no big deal.  But they are a big deal.  The church of Christ is supposed to be one.  Churches are supposed to exist in full communion with each other.  There is supposed to be full agreement in foundational matters of doctrine, worship, and practice.  Church officers and courts are supposed to function in mutual submission to each other.  But these things don't happen when denominations are divided.  And this should distress us.  It should be distressing that members of the FPCS, who are Presbyterians, should have to exist in such an awkward state and not be able to be in full communion with and fully participate in the activities of another Presbyterian church.

So I don't think it would be a good thing to try to remove the feeling of awkwardness.  Let it stand instead as a reminder to us and to all that the de facto visible Body of Christ is in a very sad state, and let it spur us on to consider deeply why this is the case and what we can and should be trying to do about it.  And, in the meantime, we will go on (at least for a while) and enjoy the positives of the partial communion that we have with the PCA (which is very precious and not to be underestimated), while feeling awkward about what is missing.

For more, see here and here.

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