The Visible Church & the Outer Darkness.
Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
There has seemingly always been an element within Christendom that denied the covenantal relationship that exists within the body of Christ. This viewpoint has manifested itself variously as Montanism, Donatism, Ana-baptism, Separatism, Independency, etc. The thread that runs through each of these groups is the insistence that they cannot maintain communion or covenant with others of God's people due to a perceived laxity with respect to Church discipline.
Many modern evangelical Christians advance the idea that Christianity is a highly individualistic religion. Reformed Protestants claim that precisely the opposite idea is true. They maintain that Christianity is a covenantal religion by which God makes a covenant with a community of people. The community has manifested itself in various forms in the history of redemption. God at first called His people through families, then as a nation. This community of saints is now called in and through God's visible church.
The Westminster Confession of Faith XXV:2 claims as much for the visible church, where it states, The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
The Westminster divines wisely steered a scriptural course between two extremes which have repeatedly plagued the church. On the one hand, they avoided maintaining with Rome that outside the visible church there is absolutely no possibility of salvation. On the other hand, they maintained along with Scripture that God has placed the ordinary means of salvation in deposit with the visible church.
The anticovenantal view often works itself out in the splintering of denominations into smaller, Separatist denominations. It may also take the form of a particular church becoming frustrated with a denomination or presbytery and opting for independency. In its most virulent form, individuals forsake the church altogether and maintain family devotions in place of assembling for worship.
We do not deny that there have been places and times in the history of Christianity so destitute of a gospel witness that it became necessary for families to keep up Christianity in conventicles. Persecution by civil or ecclesiastical authorities, abusing their power, has driven the church underground in the past and even in some parts of the world today. The catacombs of Rome bear silent, yet eloquent, witness of a day in which Caesar forbade Christians to meet openly. Some estimates place the number of Chinese Christians meeting in house churches in the millions.[Jonathan Chao, The Structure of House Churches, China and the Church Today, (Hong Kong: Chinese Church Research Center, March-April 1983), p. 8. The actual estimate is between thirty-five and fifty million, as compared to 840,000 communicant Protestants in China in 1949.]
There is a substantial difference, however, between persecution scattering the church on the one hand, and private Christians independently declaring that the state of the church justifies their schisms on the other. Yet the latter is usually the case in the church at the end of the twentieth century. Either from a low opinion of the church herself or from a false view of her makeup, people regularly lapse from church membership.
The Separatist attitude is apparent in many ways in today's church. The most common way in which the attitude manifests itself is church hopping. If a preacher displeases someone (perhaps by denouncing a sin of which that person is guilty), the Separatist solution is simple: find a church where that sin is not mentioned.
A certain preacher may be too particular, or too strait, or too verbose, or too young, or too old, or too well educated, or not educated enough. In today's church, none of those things presents a problem! One merely finds another church where the preacher is more to his liking. Of course, we should not expect such a one to remain at the second church for long either. The modern Christian doesn't have a church home so much as a string of church hotel-rooms.
As we look at Scripture to see for whom Christ died, we encounter terms such as His sheep, His people, His church, etc. At no point does Scripture inform us that Jesus laid down His life for individuals apart from the covenant community. That does not mean that there is no possibility of salvation under any circumstances outside the visible church. Nor does it indicate that we do not come to Christ as individuals. As the divines of the Westminster Assembly so ably phrased it, there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the visible church.
Pastors and sessions are not guiltless in the present situation. It often happens that when a prospective new member presents himself that the session rushes to accept him with little or no conference with his former session. This does two things: first, it encourages people to drift from congregation to congregation with little continuity of accountability. Perhaps just as significantly it reveals a low opinion of the unity of the visible church on the part of the receiving session. Some sessions have even gone so far as to counsel prospective members that if they are unable to obtain a certificate of dismission from their former session they can be accepted by reaffirmation of faith.
It is in this national and even international context that the following pages attempt to address the arguments of separatism and independency. This book interacts closely with a recent (August 1991) paper by a Presbyterian turned Independent. However, while that paper is the occasion for this reply, it is not the only purpose of it. The larger purpose is to help the mother of the faithful to reassert that unity which Scripture claims for her.
Several places in the body of this book assert that it is unlawful to separate from true churches into a state of independency or isolation. Protestant theologians have made many attempts over the years to answer the question of what constitutes a true church. Early attempts, such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530, defined the church as the congregation of saints (or general assembly of the faithful) wherein the gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. Similar is the statement in Article xix of the Church of England, The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in the which the pure word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's appointment, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
The Scots Confession of 1560 takes the notes, or marks, of a true church one step further. There John Knox et al. maintained the marks include First, the true preaching of the word of God . . . [and] Secondly, the right administration of the Sacraments. Additionally, to the Scottish Reformers, a true preaching of the word and a right administration of the sacraments would result in an upright church discipline. If discipline is viewed properly, it begins with instruction and correction from the word of God. For impenitent sinners, discipline may extend to suspension from the sacraments and even excommunication from the body of Christ. Ecclesiastical discipline is therefore at least a concomitant mark along with the teaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments.[See Scots Confession of 1560, chapter xviii. John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, edited by William Croft Dickinson (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), vol. 2, Appendix vi, p. 266.]
Eventually, however, the Reformers began to distinguish between the being and the well-being of a true church. As William Binnie points out in his nineteenth century work The Church,
In the course of a generation or two, men began to feel that, however necessary Church discipline may be to the health of a Christian society, it would be wrong to say that a Church without discipline is not a Church at all. Even in regard to the Sacraments men felt themselves shut up to a similar change of view . . . The effect of this change of sentiment is seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith . . . . According to it, the only thing indispensable to the being of the Christian Church is `the profession of the true religion;' the other things - purity of doctrine, of worship, of discipline, and the like - are mentioned as excellent attributes of particular Churches, by which we may measure the degree of their purity.[William Binnie, The Church (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1882), pp. 10-11.]
This may seem at first glance to be a step backward to those who look for a narrowing definition of a true church. But there has probably never been a generation of men who studied the biblical doctrine of the church in greater detail than did the Presbyterians of seventeenth century England and Scotland. It was important to such men to formulate a definition that would be no narrower than the narrow gate of Scripture.
However, this definition of a true church is not so broad as it may appear at first glance. The confession does not say that the church consists of all those who profess religion, but all those who profess the true religion together with their children. This is not a latitudinarian statement designed to satisfy or appease everyone. It is a definition designed to be broad enough in its application to be useful to every generation of Christ's church despite the regularity or irregularity of the specific times.
As will be noted in the body of this book, the church often finds herself in irregular times. Laxity in church discipline may pervade her to such an extent that there may even be corrupt men in her ministry. And yet, as John MacPherson points out,
It is interesting to note how Rutherfurd, Brown, Gillespie, Durham, and generally all the best men of that school [of the Second Reformation in Scotland] seek to multiply reasons against separation, and show themselves willing to bear the heaviest burdens and submit to the severest strain rather than take what to them is the most painful step in separating from communion with any body with which they had previously held church fellowship.[John MacPherson, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1903), p. 103.]
A recent monograph entitled Presbyterian Government in Extraordinary Times has received some circulation in Presbyterian circles, and due to its expressed concern for the purity of Christ's church it has received a certain acceptance. As much as the title may claim to be about Presbyterian government, however, the monograph is a rehash of old-line Congregational, Separatist, Independent arguments. Far from being on the subject of Presbyterian Church polity, that paper attempts throughout to justify separation from the true Presbyterian polity.[Kevin Reed, Presbyterian Government in Extraordinary Times (E.T.), (Dallas, Texas: self published, 1991), p. 26.]
The author of that monograph, Mr. Reed, quotes Thomas M`Crie's The Unity of the Church [E.T., p. 4, citing Thomas M`Crie, The Unity of the Church (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1989)] to the effect that it is not always the departing party that must bear the guilt of schism. That is obviously true, and one need look no further than the Reformation to see that it was the Popish party and not the Reformers who were guilty of apostasy and thus brought about the separation involved in the Reformation.
Particular congregations are not free to walk alone any more than individual Christians are free to act (judicially) on their own. The church in which M`Crie was a Minister had formulated some specific testimonies when they seceded from the Church of Scotland. During M`Crie's lifetime the Secession Church's synod changed those documents so that the character of the church itself changed. Those few Ministers who continued to hold to the testimonies were required by conscience to form a new synod in order to maintain the same and continuing testimony of their former church. Neither M`Crie nor the other Ministers associated with him attempted to gather new congregations out of their former church. M`Crie states on page 19, But as individual Christians are not at liberty to walk and act singly, so neither are particular congregations at liberty to act as independent and disjointed societies.[M`Crie, op. cit.] Dr. M`Crie abhorred independency and would not have condoned for one instant the sort of so-called Presbyterianism set forth in Extraordinary Times.
Mr. Reed's monograph has afforded the opportunity to address from a scriptural, Presbyterian viewpoint two questions that always seem to lurk behind such arguments for independency. First, what are the duties of Christians in destitute or extraordinary times in church history, either as private members or as church officers? Second, how do we become partakers of other men's sins, and what sort of separation is necessary in order to prevent becoming such a partaker?
The bulk of the references in this book are from the seventeenth century. There are three reasons for this. First, as mentioned above, there is probably no other generation in church history that devoted so much attention to the doctrine of the visible church. Second, the context was one of extraordinary times in both church and state. If ever an argument for exemption from ordinary rules could be made, it would be for seventeenth century England and Scotland. Finally, that noblest of reformation documents, The Westminster Confession of Faith, was born in the midst of this brief and shining moment of church history. That document forms the constitution of the First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett (PCA). The sentiment of this author is the same as that of James Walker, who maintained, I am well convinced that in the Presbyterianism of the seventeenth century we shall obtain the elements of the Church system we need. And we need such a system.[James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland (Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1982 repr. of 1888 2nd ed.), p. 126.]
A detailed list of the people to whom thanks are due would require another volume this size. Yet some have been of such assistance that they must be mentioned. Chris Coldwell of Naphtali Press has been of invaluable assistance in locating several rare first editions from the seventeenth century. I also want to thank Dr. Louis Lugo of Calvin College for the many Saturday mornings he spent on the telephone with me, helping me to ask the right questions. Finally, thanks to Dr. Francis Nigel Lee of Queensland Theological Seminary in Brisbane, Australia for both his encouragement and suggestions.
Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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