Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Split Ps": Lessons from Micro-Presbyterianism

It is striking how many Presbyterian micro-denominations there are. I noticed in the new Banner of Truth magazine that a new one formed in January 2006: the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States. But there are a number of others as well, for example:
And of course, there are a number of others. The real question here is why? Why are there so many Presbyterian denominations?

Because on the surface, Presbyterianism should be against this sort of division. At the heart of Presbyterianism is the connectional principle--that the body of Christ is represented not just locally but regionally and nationally in connected, graduated church courts. To break that connection is a serious matter, because it militates against the larger unity of Christ's church that Presbyterianism seeks to represent.

Perhaps part of the answer here is in one of the ordination vows that PCA ministers are required to affirm: "Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?" (BCO 21-5). Part of the great challenge is to balance the purity and the unity of the church, while seeking its short-term and ultimate peace.

Reading some of the websites of these micro-denominations, it seems clear that they are seeking to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the purity of the Church as they see it. And for that, all Christians, regardless of denominational affiliation, should be grateful. We need watchmen on the walls of Zion to warn us of doctrinal error and to hold us all accountable to biblical truth. And if these brothers and sisters' consciences are bound to separate, then I wish them God's speed.

Yet in preserving pure truth, it strikes me that perhaps some of these brothers might have forgotten about the unity of the church. After all, Jesus wasn't kidding when he prayed, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:20-21). We must take the unity of Christ's church seriously, as seriously as the "truth" that we are trying to preserve. If we are required to separate, as Francis Schaeffer once observed, it is not with bands playing or flags flying, but with tears and weeping.

Likewise, the peace of the church must be maintained. Now, granted, some people hide under the church's peace as a means of advancing their own agenda. In a similar way, when Elijah confronted Ahab, the latter said, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" (1 Kings 18:17). We may need "Israel" to be "troubled" if there is doctrinal aberration in our midst. Still, the way we seek to address these matters is through the courts of the church and by submitting to the vows we made before God, as either church members or officers--we will submit to the government and discipline of the church.

That being said, the members and ministers of the church have the right to investigate issues, to raise questions about theological concerns, and to bring discipline to the church. That's why I would disagree somewhat with this outsider's perspective on the situation in the PCA. While no one wants a church that is constantly battling itself on side issues, I think some of the issues that are being discussed are worth thinking about. It is a good thing for presbyteries to study these issues, to affirm our common consensus around the Westminster Standards, and to discipline with those who have moved outside that consensus. That is not problematic or disasterous; rather, that is healthy church life.

However, what is problematic is when Presbyterians forget one of our most basic biblical insights--that each of our local churches are connected to other local churches in regional and national groupings and that this connectionalism pictures the unity of Christ's Body for all the world to see. It is only in this way that the purity and unity and peace of Christ's Church will be preserved until he returns.


David Shedden said...

Dear Sean, thanks for this interesting post. I'm a friend of one of your recent students,a guy from Scotland. You may remember him telling you about my dissertation on BB Warfield.

Anyway, I am beginning to think about presbyterianism in a new way at the moment because of this historical picture. Some of my friends and I think that the only way to the 'local connectionalism' the NT speaks about is through a period of radical independency. Historic Presbyterianism is doomed because of its committee / court structure. The bottom up unity that the NT seems to speak of is always suppressed by centralising tendencies - tendencies which seem to facilitate weaker doctrinal positions in bigger denominations.

Keep up the good work on your blog.

Regards, Dave

Sean Lucas said...

Hi,Dave: Your observation is striking, simply because there was a time when I worshipped among Reformed Baptists who affirmed a radical congregationalism that denigrated formal associationalism. It sounded so "biblical" at one level, but in the end, it struck me as a failure for several reasons.

First, and foremost, because no one can do "missions" by themselves. Local churches cannot afford to support missionaries at 100% levels. In addition, in the NT, it seems clear that a number of congregations had a part in Paul's missionary endeavors.

Second, when discipline issues arose between congregations, I found myself longing for a church court to adjudicate the matter. One pastor whom I know was terribly maligned by his former congregation and there was no place he could go for vindication or trial.

Third, there was the issue of the NT letters, which appeared to be directed to regional churches (Galatians, Ephesians, Revelation); this seemed to suggest some sort of connection among them.

Finally, there was the small matter of Acts 15 that seemed to argue for presbyterian connection.

Certainly, in your context, it is easy to see the "dark side" of presbyterianism; and I can point you to failures within presbyterian discipline (as I can do with all other polities). So, the real question is to what do the basic outlines of Scripture point. In my mind, at least, the overwhelming picture that the NT gives of connectionalism points me to presbyterianism. I hope that you and your colleagues might give it some further examination.

Best wishes,