by John M. Frame
[Originally published in The Presbyterian Journal (Aug. 24, 1983).]
Note, 2005: I wrote this article in anticipation of the debate over union between OPC and PCA. As it turned out, that debate violated every principle that I argued here. I continued, and still do continue, to think those principles are biblical. The article became, in effect, the seed from which grew my book Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). –JF
I was delighted to hear that the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) invited the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) to form, with it, a united church (an invitation which, to be sure, must be ratified by the PCA presbyteries). I favor such a union, but I am not looking forward to the debate over it.
Last time the issue came up the discussion was marred by gossip, prejudice, trivialities and unclarity, in my opinion. Thus I feel a need in the churches for some guidelines, defining the issue before us, focusing upon the matters to be debated and the procedures for resolving those debates.
Church union, first of all, is not optional, a luxury, something we can indulge when we are in the mood. It is a necessity, a biblical imperative— and, indeed, an urgent one. Note these reasons:
1) Jesus prayed that the church would be one (John 17:20ff), and the Apostle Paul opposed all divisiveness wjthin the church (Eph. 4:1-16), including the beginnings of denominationalism (I Cor. 3:1-9). The unity in view here is not “spiritual” as opposed to “organizational.” That is a kind of Platonic distinction unknown in Scripture.
The “church” in Scripture is not only the fellowship of believers; it is also an organization, with apostles, elders, deacons (I Tim. 3). We are only kidding ourselves if we think we can be “spiritually one” with other believers when we deny to them the wisdom and gifts of our officers, our church courts; and when they deny us theirs.
2) Presbyterian government presupposes church union: We cannot practice Presbyterianism in the fullest sense until all of God’s own people are united.
Presbyterianism arises from the New Testament use of the term “church,” in which the term is applied to house-churches, city-churches, churches of a particular region, and to the church universal. Each of these “churches” has a governing body. That of the local or house-church becomes, in our terminology, the session; that of the city-church, the presbytery; that of the regional church, the synod; that of the church universal, the General Assembly. Denominationalism, however, frustrates this entire enterprise.
When Christians are divided into denominations, the presbytery no longer represents all the Christians in the city; it represents only those Christians in the city who share a particular tradition of doctrine or practice. But Scripture does notwarrant “presbyteries” of this sort. In Scripture, “church” is never used to denote a denomination in this sense. The Bible never gives to such denominations the right to establish church courts and to rule God’s people. Denominations play no role in Biblical church government. They are man-made institutions, not God-ordained ones.
It is wrong, I think, even to speak of the “Presbyterian Church in America” or the “Orthodox Presbyterian Church” when we are referring to a denomination. A denomination is not a church. Better to speak of the “Presbyterian Churches in America,” etc., after the practice of some Dutch bodies. In Biblical terms, a denomination is a nothing; worse, it is the result of sin (I Cor. 3:1ff again). There is no place in the Christian life for denominational pride.
Does this mean that presbyteries and General Assemblies as they now exist (in the OPC and PCA, for instance) have no authority? I am coming close to saying that.
Of course, local sessions do have authority; no problem there. And the local session is the fundamental basis of all church discipline. Presbyteries and General Assemblies as now constituted, however, have no Scriptural authority; but for the moment they are all we have.
If we believe in Presbyterianism, we must seek to approximate as nearly as possible the Biblical connectional system. And as long as we agree to accept these authoritites (as part of our submission to one another in Christ), we may treat them, for practical purposes, as courts of the church. But we cannot be complacent with such a makeshift arrangement. We must seek nothing less than what God has ordained.
It is God’s purpose that when problems arise we should be able to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17), not merely to tell it to one denominational faction. In solving these problems, God wants us to have access to all the wisdom, all the gifts, that He has given through His Spirit. At present, we do not have such access. It is for that reason, I believe, that our denominations are weakened by onesided emphases, false priorities and divisive arguments.
Does this mean that Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians should all be together in one church? Certainly! Ministers of Arminian and Sacerdotal convictions ought to be in Reformed churches—under discipline! Errors of doctrine do not justify the additional error of church division. This is not to say that we ought to seek union with every denomination. Criteria for seeking union will be discussed below. But we must be clear, initially, on the premise that all de-nominationalism is wrong.
3) Next, church union is urgent because of the Biblical imperative of reconciliation. According to Jesus, being reconciled to your brother is a matter of the utmost priority; it takes precedence even over public worship (Matt. 5:23ff). Paul tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger (Eph. 4:26).
Now if all denominationalism is due to sin, then church union is a matter of reconciliation. And denominationalism is due to sin.
I have said that denominationalism is condemned by Scripture. Thus, whenever one body of Christians has divided into two unconnected bodies, there has been sin (on one side or the other or both). Furthermore, we continue to sin when we allow such divisions to be prolonged, especially when we reject opportunities for restoration.
This is not to say that every invitation to church union must be accepted. Some “invitations” come with strings attached; they require (or render likely) changes in doctrine or practice which a Christian cannot accept in good conscience. Such invitations are not really “opportunities for restoration.” But: We must accept any union proposal that we can accept in good conscience.
The concept of reconciliation puts church union into proper perspective. In the Presbyterian Journal (Jan. 21, 1981), there was an article entitled, “Yes, But Can She Cook?” which compared church union discussions to courtship and suggested a thorough analysis of one another’s strengths and weaknesses before any union took place.
The courtship metaphor does add some vividness (and refreshing levity!) to the discussion. But we must remember that it is only a metaphor, and, in the deepest sense, an especially inadequate one. Church union is not “courtship”; it is reconciliation after illegitimate separation. “Yes, but can she cook?” is a question appropriate to courtship; it would be tragically inappropriate if an illegitimately divorced man refused reconciliation on the ground that he didn’t like his wife’s cooking.
The courtship model denies the urgency of reconciliation. It pictures church union as something we can take or leave, depending on minor personal preferences. The reconciliation-model, however, reflects Jesus’ passion for the unity of His body. It shows us that church union may not be refused, except for conscience sake.
Granting, then, that church union must not be refused, except for conscience sake, how is the conscience to be informed? How do we distinguish between proposals which are tolerable to the conscience, and those which are intolerable?
First, it should be clear that the burden of proof is always on the opponents of union. The question before us is never “why merge?” but “why not merge?” Union is an urgent priority and may be refused, as I have said, only on ground of conscience. Thus the question is always, “Is there some ground of conscience that would prevent union?” If no such obstacle can be shown, we must accept the proposal.
This consideration sweeps away most of the topics that have preoccupied us in past union debates. It is really quite irrelevant to ask how a union would “strengthen” or “weaken” our denomination in one area or another. If a church union weakens us, let’s say, in the area of theological knowledge or commitment to missions, then so what? Has God forbidden us to tolerate weak Christians in our church? Is not the church intended precisely to help the weak (beginning with ourselves!)?
In discussion of “strengths” and “weaknesses,” pride plays an enormous role. One denomination will take pride in its theological scholarship and decline a union proposal because such a union would be a “step down.” But (1) Is theological scholarship the only or major criterion of a church’s strength, according to Scripture? (2) Are denominations strong in theological scholarship necessarily strong in other areas?
We ought, of course, to answer both questions in the negative; and we ought to answer similarly those questions which arise from other sources of pride: missionary zeal, piety, social consciousness, orderly procedures, ethnic or confessional tradition. But: Even if merger with another denomination could be shown to weaken our denomination in all these areas, that would not be ground for rejecting union. It would simply give us opportunity to help some weaker brethren, which we ought to be eager to do.
Obviously, we must not demand agreement on all matters before entering into a church union. Disagreements on missions policy, the legitimacy of church-run colleges, the use of endowment funds, etc., must be resolved in a Biblical way. And what is that? Matt. 18:15ff makes it clear: through the disciplinary process of the church.
Thus, to work out such problems in a Biblical way, we must first be one church; we must share a court structure in which such matters are adjudicated. The Biblical priority, therefore, is, first church union, second resolving our disagreements and problems.
We are not to resolve our problems by shouting at one another over man-made denominational walls; nor are we to resolve them by “negotiation” as in the more traditional church-merger process. That sort of thing is based on the courtship model, not the Biblical reconciliation model.
Must we, then, accept uncritically any and all proposals for church union? No. As I said, union can be rejected when it violates conscience. And when does it violate conscience? We return to our initial question.
We could not, conscientiously, merge with a non-Christian body, a body which does not make a credible profession of faith in Christ. Most of us would add that it would be wrong to merge with a non-Reformed body. A united church must be a church which fits the “marks” of the church: true preaching of the Word, right administration of the sacraments, church discipline.
We can simplify the matter somewhat by reducing these criteria to one: church discipline. For if a body has Biblical discipline, then its preaching and sacraments will be pure. If it has Biblical discipline, it will be Christian, and it will at least be moving in a Reformed direction. Thus, I think, the chief question before us (and in a real sense the only question) is this: Can we trust the courts of a church united according to the proposal before us this year? If we can trust the courts, we can trust them to work out differences and problems. Otherwise, the united church will not be a church at all.
Discussion of any lesser matters than this trivializes the urgent questions before us. Discussion of differences over missions policy, seminary connections, church camps—all of these pale into insignificance before that one crucial question: Can we trust the courts of a united church? Any discussion not related to that question ought to be declared out of order.
I have argued that church union is a Biblical imperative of great urgency; and that the only question to be answered in a discussion of union is whether we can trust the courts of a united church. By what procedures, now, should we come to our decision?
1) A “joining and receiving” process is superior to a traditional “church merger negotiation.” In the traditional merger negotiation, all sorts of issues come up—disagreements over government, theological emphases, policies of agencies. It is assumed that such matters must be resolved before any union can be achieved. This procedure, in my view, follows the “courtship model” rather than the Biblical “reconciliation model.” Such discussions are appropriate to courtship, but not to the reconciliation of those sinfully alienated. As I indicated earlier, the Biblical procedure for resolving such differences is to do it in the church, through the discipline of church courts (Matt. 13). Thus the Biblical order is, first unite, second,resolve detailed problems. It is this order which I find exemplified in the “joining and receiving” procedure. In my view it is far superior to the traditional negotiation method.
2) In all discussions of union, the burden of proof must be upon the opponents of union, as they seek to prove that we may not trust the courts of a united church. Scripture tells us (as I argued earlier) that we must unite if it is possible to do so in conscience.
3) Strict standards of evidence must be required of the opponents of union. Many have observed that church union is serious business, and of course I agree. But it must also be stressed, in the light of the Biblical data, that rejection of union is also a serious matter. To reject a union is to say that we cannot trust the courts of a united church.
Obviously, such a conclusion implies that the other denomination’s courts are defective, that its church discipline is inadequate. And to say that is to say that the other denomination lacks one of the crucial marks of the church, in which case it is not a church at all.
To say this about another body is to make a terribly serious charge. It is a grave matter to excommunicate an individual; it is far more grave to excommunicate, in effect, an entire denomination.
Sometimes, indeed, we must excommunicate. God demands it, for the purity of the church and the reclamation of the offender (I Cor. 5:lff). But Scripture makes plain that such judgments may be made only on the strictest of standards of evidence. Everything must be established by two or three witnesses (Matt. 18:16; II Cor. 13:1) and perjury must be taken very seriously.
No Presbyterian would deny the need for such precautions in the discipline of individuals. But can we accept any lesser safeguards in church union discussion, when we are asking, in effect, whether to excommunicate an entire denomination? Certainly not: A church union debate ought to be as much like a judicial session as it can be.
The opponents of union are in effect bringing charges. They ought to be warned of the solemnity of what they are doing, and told that if they bring false accusations they may themselves be subject to discipline. No accusation against another denomination ought to be accepted without “two or three witnesses.” Representatives of the other denomination ought to be invited to rebut any such accusations. A careful record ought to be kept of all that is said.
Such a procedure would certainly be a drastic departure from what we have been doing! But we must ask if Scripture does not (in this case as in many others) require drastic changes in our ways of procedure. If I have been right in my analysis of the Biblical teachings, these drastic conclusions cannot be avoided.
We cannot any longer accept a church union debate made of trivial and unsubstantiated allegations. Our Lord expects more of us. He loved the church and gave His life for it. We cannot accept any lower standard in our relations with our brethren.
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, AUGUST 24, 1983