Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Unity: Real or Synthetic?

This post also appears on - an online meeting place for folk who profess to be reformed in doctrine, worship and practice. It picks up on current discussions and debates in relation to issues of unity.
There is a synthetic substitute for real unity within the visible Church. It is created within the parachurch through organisations formed for evangelical or reformed unity. Many of these parachurch organisations go as far as to have representatives and delegates from denominations and to all appearance may be like a council of churches. This is however a substitute for real, organic unity.The irony is that such bodies (including NAPARC and ICRC) actually facilitate schism rather than union and inadvertently serve to undermine presbyterian principles. Mark Hausam writes of this scenario on his blog:
‘The Christian churches today are in a deplorable state of division. One of the things that hinders the resolution of these divisions, or lessens the motivations of those in the church to work diligently for the sort of reform that would lead to their elimination if followed through, is a sense of complacency held by many in Reformed churches today. Many people will confess that there are divisions, and that we ought to work for their elimination, but they are lulled into thinking the situation better than it is by the feeling that we don't really need to have organic union among all the churches of Christ. Just as congregationalists/independents lull themselves into security regarding the disunity of the church (and thus split into thousands of mini-denominations) by their erroneous doctrine that church power does not extend beyond the local congregation (so that they hold that gatherings beyond the congregational level have only advisory and not binding authority), so many Presbyterian/Reformed people today have been lulled into security by the sense that the organic unity of the church need only extend up to a certain level, and after that we can adopt the model of the independents.’
Reformed churches have grown so comfortable with fraternal relations that they think that they can settle down with it as the real thing. The irony is that holding out for real union and unity rather than mere fraternal relations is dismissed as narrow, exclusive, separatist, etc– perhaps even schismatic according to a false understanding of schism. Actually striving for something more than fraternal relations is the bigger, more principled and more catholic (in a good sense) vision and position. When the Westminster Divines were offered a synthetic unity by Independents, to them it was no option at all and one which they roundly denounced as schism.
There are also inherent contradictions in synthetic unity because it means that you must recognise multiple denominations with very different standards and contradictory claims, including both sides of a division (as though there had been a no fault divorce). The main contradiction, however, is what we might call ‘pretend recognition.’ Mark Hausam describes this in another contribution:
‘Whenever there are multiple denominations, each denomination, by virtue of its existence separate from other denominations, is making a two-pronged statement: “We possess legitimate authority, and other denominations don’t.’
To recognise other denominations whilst in reality sayingby our actions that they have no legitimacy is a mere pretence. All these non-denominational structures look like what Baptists and Congregationalists do with their parachurch associations. It's not presbyterianism. This point is made by Carl Trueman:
‘I do not think that evangelical unity is particularly important or something to which we should aspire. Christian unity is; but Christian unity, if it is to be achieved this side of glory, will be a churchly unity. Evangelicalism is a non-churchly category. It does not organize churches. It does not ordain people. It does not disciple people. All these things are done by specific churches in specific places under specific leadership (both in terms of structure and personalities). The church is a creation of God; the parachurch is not. And Christian unity, if it is ever to be achieved on earth, requires churches talking to each other as churches. Being a pessimist, I myself doubt that such unity will ever be achieved this side of glory; but formal churchly interaction is the necessary precondition even for making it hypothetically conceivable.
In fact, to the extent that evangelical groups see themselves as instruments of moving churches along towards the achievement of true Christian unity (as opposed merely to providing support for churches and a forum for limited co-belligerence), to that extent they are playing a trick with gospel-centred smoke and mirrors. If we see Christian unity as something achieved by such parachurch coalitions, then what we are really seeing is a church unity which is essentially independent in ecclesiology and baptistic in practice. Every single evangelical group of which I am aware which sees itself as the key to real unity ultimately defaults in practice to privileging Baptist independency. That is, of course, absolutely fine for the Baptist independent; but if one is Presbyterian or paedobaptist by conviction, such ecumenism amounts to being told “Abandon much of what you hold dear and everything that makes you different to us and - hey presto! - we have unity. Oh, and by the way, if you are not prepared to do that, remember whose fault it is that we are still hopelessly divided.'
Trueman’s points are well made, but churches talking to each other would have to go beyond the kind of fraternal relations where we exchange greetings but always avoid the issues that divide. In that way we can keep up a charitable schism for ever.
Unity: Real, realisable and future
Real, organic unity may seem impossible to achieve. Doubts about the possibility of unity are, however, misplaced when it is promised in Scripture. We are to believe that the Scriptures prophesy of a time in the latter days when the visible Church shall be entirely united in time,‘to serve him with one consent’ (Zeph 3:9). ‘Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion’ (Isa 52:8). George Gillespie believed Scripture on this: ‘Brethren, it is not impossible, pray for it, endeavour it, press hard toward the mark of accommodation.’. Christ's prayer will be answered:‘That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us’ (John 17:21). ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea’ (Isa 11:9).
This is something to be looked for by faith: ‘Thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down, not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken’ (Isa 33:20). There shall be one people of God even as they have one king. ‘I will make them one nation ... and David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd’ (Ezek 37:22, 24). ‘And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one’ (Zeph 14:9). Christ as king shall gather his Church into a visible unity. ‘He shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the enmity of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim’ (Isa 11:12-13).