Church: Evangelically catholic
Now, the focus on our Presbyterian identity which many of my friends have taught me could lead to a sectarianism that would sanctify our branch of the Christian tradition as the only true church. I say, could, because strictly speaking the Presbyterian tradition has long recognized the unity of Christ’s church even in its different denominational expressions.
Indeed, Presbyterianism has in its own beliefs, practices, and stories, within its own identity, those resources necessary to move away from the “sectarian temptation” and recognize the church catholic. And this is what I and many others long for: that we as a church would be evangelically catholic.
I’ve chosen this quite deliberately because I believe that our catholicity, our ecumenicity, must be motivated and guided by the Gospel itself; not only this, but our catholicity must serve the Gospel, particularly the Gospel has summarized within our own doctrinal standards. In fact, we cannot be catholic or ecumenical unless we take our own identity seriously, unless we speak out of the locality of our own Presbyterian place within the broader Christian tradition. And yet, this catholicity is evangelical and so forces us outside of ourselves into conversation with all those who name Jesus as Lord, who should be our gospel-believing friends (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3).
Still, we have to face this reality: any type of confessional commitment, with doctrinal particularity, could lead to doctrinal isolation and sectarianism. That has led some, particularly in my own generation, to desire to hold our doctrinal commitments more loosely in order to engage in a broader conversation with other Christian traditions and theologians. The thrust of Jesus’ words in John 17:20-21 weighs heavy on my generation; our temptation is to minimize confessional particularity in order to fulfill Jesus’ ecumenical mandate.
I think this is where lessons, both positive and negative, from our own conservative Presbyterian tradition can help us. As we consider that tradition, we learn that it is only when we thoroughly embrace in our own particular religious identity that any form of genuine, meaningful, productive ecumenical dialogue between confessional communities can occur. Hence, our own deep commitment to the Gospel as articulated by our own tradition is necessary if we are going to be able to listen well to other voices, to determine places of convergence and divergence, and to be a true friend who is willing to wound in order to further genuine friendship (Proverbs 27:9). To be together for the Gospel, we must understand for ourselves what the Gospel is and what it demands of us and the world.
And yet this means that we can’t escape Jesus’ words in John 17 too easily. That is why it is my great hope that our denomination would engage in a joining and receiving or organic union process with other Presbyterian denomination in my lifetime. To me, this is another lesson that comes from thinking through what it means to be evangelically catholic: our Presbyterian articulation of the Gospel in our confessional and connectional commitments, as well as the best aspects of our history, demands that we continue to seek structural oneness where there is doctrinal commonality. As we seek to be evangelically catholic, as we seek to live as friends, we will be motivated and guided by the Gospel to seek to further the oneness of the church within our own branch of Christ’s body.
[One of the footnotes in the section had this: This was true even for a jure divino Presbyterian like Thornwell; see, for example, his “Address to all the churches of Christ,” where he writes, “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian. We embrace all other denominations in the arms of Christian fellowship and love, but our own scheme of government we humbly believe to according to the pattern shown in the Mount, and, by God’s grace, we propose to put its efficiency to the test” (Ibid., 463). See also his “Church Boards and Presbyterianism,” in Collected Writings, 4:293-4.]