Q&A About the Unity of the Church of Jesus Christ in her Current State, Denominations, and the Obligation of a Christian

Question: In 2013, the Christian churches are woefully and hopelessly divided, and yet Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:11.)  Should we attempt to determine which of all the churches (denominations) is the most pure or correct, and just consider all the others to be illegitimate unless they join her?

Answer:  According to the united testimony of the Church throughout history, No.  It is true that the Church of Jesus Christ is divided, in visible form.  There are literally hundreds of separate communions and denominations which are not inviting one another to take part in their important work and decision-making.  This is due to many factors and circumstances of history.  Many of them involve sin.  But, wherever there is the pure preaching of the Word in its fundamental truths of the law and gospel, the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are administered according to Christ’s commandments, and the members of Christ’s Church are walking together in love and mutual discipline, Christians ought not to abandon her.

Because:

      1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

      2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

      3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is                         recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

This position is supported by the best Bible-scholars and theologians throughout the history of the Christian Church.  Following are some key examples:

1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol III.  turretin

Of the unity of the Church, Turretin states, “Nor is it uniform as to rites and government.” P. 27

Speaking of the Church visible, he writes, “Although there are many particular churches scattered through the world, the unity of the church is not on that account broken up or his body despised because the catholic church remains always one, composed of these various parts, which (because they are homogeneous) obtain the same name with the whole.”  Note that in referring to the “same name”, Turretin affirms the legitimate ecclesiastical power and authority of separated churches.

In what sense is the church called catholic?  P. 30 “First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name of the catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers (those triumphant in heaven as well as those militant upon earth), in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived form the beginning of the world or will live even unto the end.”

p. 31 “Now although the word “church” popularly speaking denotes an external and visible assembly, it does not on that account follow (speaking accurately of the church of Christ) that its proper and natural signification implies simply a visible assembly or a simple external profession: for a spiritual and internal communion constitutes its essence, as has been seen.”

On p. 143 he discusses disagreements between the evangelical and Reformed churches, “Disagreements are a prejudice under which the evangelical churches labor.  But they cannot hinder them from retaining the name of the true church, because they agree as to the foundation.  And if any differences exist, (which God wished to permit in order to prove our faith), they are about articles less necessary, in which there can be a disagreement without touching the essence of saving religion:  as the apostolic churches formerly had their differences and stains, as is evident from the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles; nor were the eastern and western churches, the Latin and the Greek, the African and Italian churches free from them, which did not on that account cease to be true churches.  Again, the contentions and differences of the evangelicals are far less than those which are agitated among the Romanists, who, as was seen before, frequently charge each other with heresy.  Nor do we notice here the more rigid judgments of some of those who take their name from the great Luther, who, carried away by sinister prejudices, are accustomed to attack us.  For however harshly they may have treated us, we do not cease to honor them with brotherly affection.  And if, their prejudices and private affections being laid aside, they would seriously examine the thing itself by the law of love, truth, and Christian prudence, they would not be so much averse to a pious syncretism and reconciliation with us, or at least a mutual toleration, to which not a few of the more moderate among them are not indisposed.”

p. 307 “councils are not simply and absolutely necessary to the being of the church.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

p. 46 “In the first place, the principles laid down as to the Church local and catholic, serve to evince the nature of the relation in which both member and office-bearers of separate Churches stand to each other, notwithstanding of the separation.”

He goes on to say on p. 47, “the office-bearers of the Christian Church are not the office-bearers of any particular society alone, but the office-bearers of the whole visible community of believers.  It may be necessary for the advantageous exercise of their office, and profitable for the Church, that particular ministers should be set apart to labour in particular charges, as more exclusively theirs.  But their ministry is not limited to these.  Their commission as preachers of the Gospel is a commission co-extensive with the visible Church of Christ; and they are free to exercise their ministry wherever and whenever they have a regular opportunity to do so…Difference of doctrine or administration or worship may indeed hinder their fellowship,–and not without sin on one side or the other; but it ought never to be forgotten, that both members and office-bearers, however separated, if they belong to the Christian society at all, belong not to many Churches, properly speaking, but to one; that they are in communion, not so much with various local societies, as with the one catholic Church of the Redeemer.” P. 50 “The oneness of the invisible [church] is the ideal, to which, amidst all its breaches and divisions, the visible Church can only approximately approach.”

2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

Hodge, Charles, Church Polity.

hodgeWhile acknowledging the normal, ideal, and biblical form of the church, would have all churches meeting together in common councils and taking part in mutual submission p. 93, Hodge states that the current denominational lines and distinctions are a necessary evil, due primarily to disagreements between Christians on the biblical model of church government.  He gives a summary of what has divided each of the major denominations from one another, then says, “Thus the evil has gone on increasing until the Church is split into sects and independent communions almost without number.  Nevertheless, the existence of such divisions is the less of two evils.  When men differ, it is better to avow their diversity of opinion or faith, than to pretend to agree, or to force discordant elements in a formal uncongenial union.” p. 95  He then goes on to discuss what the relative duties of these divided denominations are, in recognition of one another as churches of Christ.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

Speaking of the term “catholic”, Turretin states, p. 32, “But whatever is the reason of this appellation, it is certain that it does not belong to the Roman church, since it neither holds the catholic faith, nor is it everywhere diffused—innumerable churches both in the east and in the west having been separated from and having nothing in common with it.

Speaking of whether the external splendor of the church may be entirely obscured in any age, Turretin writes, p. 48, “The church can never wholly fail on earth (as was seen before), but not that it is always conspicuous and prominent, but is often so obscured and sunk (whether by persecutions or errors) that no assembly of her appears clearly in the world, but remains obscure and withdrawn from the eyes of men.”

p. 55 “It is one thing for the gospel ministry to be the ordinary means of the gathering together and conservation of the church, which will perpetually endure even until the end of the world (which Paul asserts in Eph. 4:11, 12 and is granted by us); and another for this ministry to be perpetuated in an uninterrupted succession in any one seat (to wit, the Roman) and always with the same splendor of uncorrupted doctrine as well as of inviolate order and observable dignity.  Following the Scriptures, we deny the latter.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ  bannerman

”different interpretations of Scripture have introduced among professing Christians a difference of belief regarding the doctrines of Christianity.  Opposite opinions, too, as to the forms of administration and modes of worship appointed for the Christian Church, have led to apparently irreconcilable breaches among them.  And now the vast society of professing Christians throughout the world is broken up and divided into distinct sections, which not distance of place, but distance of opinion and practice keeps apart; so that, while they profess to worship one through one Mediator, they would not meet together for that worship in common, even although they could.”

3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics

p. 670

Heppe summarizes the historic Reformed position being that where the three marks of the purity of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline exist in a communion, Christians must not separate themselves from this church.  20. Naturally all these attributes do not attach to all separate Churches in the same perfection, yet that is why the Christian must not forthwith separate himself from the communion to which he belongs when he notices in it errors and lacks of minor importance.  All that matters is that everything belonging to the saving nature of revelation is preserved in complete purity.  calvin  –Calvin (IV, I, 12): “When we say that pure ministry of the word and pure rite in celebrating the sacraments is a fitting pledge and earnest, that we may safely embrace as the Church a society in which both exist, it holds to the extent that it is nowhere to be rejected, so long as it persists in these things, although it is otherwise rife in many defects.”

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

p. 86 on the marks of the true church, “After having treated of the nature, properties and adjuncts of the church, the order demands that we discuss its marks.  This question pertains to its external state and is of the highest importance in religion.  For since salvation cannot be obtained except in communion with the true church and many glory in this sacred name who are destitute of this truth, it is of great value to know its true marks that we may be able to distinguish the true fold of Christ from the dens of wolves; and the genuine society of pious Christians (to whose communion we are called) from the conventicles of heretics, which must be shunned by us; also that thus we may know what that assembly is to which it is necessary that we should join ourselves that we may obtain salvation.  And because the question can be twofold (the first concerning true marks, which are asserted by us; the other concerning the false and adulterous which are obtruded by the Romanists), we shall discuss each separately and now treat of the first.”

In response to the Romanist assertion that “the union of the members with the head and with each other” is an essential mark of the true church, Turretin argues, p. 111 “The seventh mark is “the union of the members with the head and with each other.”  But neither can this be a mark. (a) For since a union can be twofold—one internal, the other external—neither can be a mark.  Not the internal and mystical of believers with Christ and with each other because it is invisible, known to God alone.  Not the external or with a visible head because there is none; or of the members with each other by the possession of the same sacred things and symbols and offices of mutual love because this can be obscured and hypocritical, separated from the truth of doctrine (without which there can be no true union.)  …XXXVI (c) It is not inseparable because there can be dissension among Christians, while the truth is unimpaired and often was (Acts 11:2, 15:39, Phil. 3:15, 16).  It is indeed the property of a well-constituted church [that is, unity]; it is the duty of all.  It is the surest method of defending and preserving the church, peace, and concord being recommended unceasingly by Christ and the apostles.  But not forthwith does a church cease to be true which is afflicted with certain discordancies and whose parts are drawn asunder in various heads, provided an agreement as to the foundation remains.  Thus formerly there were various differences between the apostles about the primacy, between Paul and Peter, Paul and Barnabas.  Thus among the ancients (between the Eastern and Western churches), there was a fierce contention which lasted through many centuries about the celebration of the Easter.  Among the fathers there was more than one dissension: as between Irenaeus and Victor, Cyprian and Stephen, Chrysostom and Epiphanius, Jerome and Ruffinus, Cyril and Theodoret and various others, which nevertheless did not make the church of that time lose either its name or its truth.”  Name for Turretin means legitimate ecclesiastical authority which extends to all its acts and ordinances.  Above Turretin recognizes external unity as a duty of the true church, yet emphatically denies that it is a distinguishing mark of the true church.

…”Hence unity is to be estimated by faith, not faith by unity.” P. 112  …”Otherwise, as Nazianzus well remarks, ‘A discord arising on account of piety is better than a corrupt concord’”…”Athanasius did not cease to be orthodox, although Liberius had expelled him from his communion and would not receive into common converse the bishops sent by him from Africa.  He commanded the whole fraternity not to admit them to their houses, so that not only hospitality, but also peace should be denied to theones coming (as Cassander informs us on the seventh article;”

p. 137 Are the evangelical and Reformed churches true churches of Christ?  We affirm.

“…which seceded from Rome, in communion with which therefore salvation can certainly be obtained.”

Note that in all of this discussion of Turretin in distinguishing among churches that are called Christian, between those that are true, and those that are false, he is writing in the context of the duty and obligation of Christians to join themselves externally to the true church for their own salvation.  (Because this is where the ordinances and ministry are which God has ordained to be the means of grace to lead men to salvation.)

Although Turretin recognizes external, formal, unity as a duty of all churches, he explicitly denies that it is or can be a mark which distinguishes that true church to which Christians must unite themselves from the false church from which Christians must separate themselves.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

It is in the context of viewing the true Church of Jesus Christ catholic and visible as historically divided in doctrine, worship, and government that Bannerman goes on in the second part of his work to discuss the existence and exercise of ecclesiastical power in doctrine and ordinances.  The power that the Church has in doctrine and ordinances is not, according to Bannerman, confined to one sect or party, but exists wherever the true Church of Christ exists in the world, despite a sinful state of separation.

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