How should one badly bruised and inadequate church relate to another? (I am not addressing the blessed possessors of absolutely perfect churches, naturally.) I believe there are three things to bear in mind.
First, we must be open to the values in other Christian traditions - even Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Have we done such a great job in conservative protestantism that we are certain we have nothing to learn from these other churches? Simple openness and willingness to listen and learn from other churches is an important part of catholicity. I shall return to this concern in the next section of this essay.
Second, churches must become committed to a principle of mutual recognition of one another's orders and discipline.
This requires self-discipline, or it will never work. How easy it is to receive disgruntled people from the church down the street! How easy to believe the bad report they bring! From my experience, however, people who are troublemakers in one church will be troublemakers in another. Why not call up the pastors of the other church, and ask them for their side? And if they say that this family is a problem, why not grant initial credibility to the findings of these shepherds?
Let me illustrate this with a couple of stories. We had a problem in our former church caused by a man from another church. Eventually we found that we had to bring a written protest against this man before his church. We found, however, that they could not receive a "protest," since according to the definition found in their manual of discipline, "protests" can only come from within their own church. We were tempted to write another letter, calling it a "beef!" Moreover, some were not sure what they could do about it, since they did not "recognize" us as a church. Though in this situation the men were sympathetic, and did hear us out, this is the kind of problem that comes when open recognition of other churches is not the rule. Similarly, we had on occasion been forced to declare certain of our members excommunicated from the church. These people, almost without exception, simply go down the street and join another church. Did the pastors of these churches phone us up and ask us about it? No. Never. Not once. Indeed, we took it upon ourselves, on occasion, to write letters or phone other churches when we heard that they had taken in excommunicated people, but we seldom received any recognition.
Now, what is interesting is this. A presbyterian church in our town split. Who was right in the center of causing the trouble and the split? A couple of people excommunicated from another church. Also, recently, a presbyterian church in a nearby town also split. Who was right in the center of that split? Again, it was a couple of people excommunicated from another church. There is a price to be paid, it seems, for despising the government of other churches.
In our early days, a man came to us from another denomination. He had been excommunicated. He said it was because he had come around to Calvinistic doctrine that he had been persecuted. Instead of checking out his story, we believed him. Within six months we had had to excommunicate him also. Then we checked up on him, and found out that the real reason his former church had excommunicated him had nothing to do with doctrine! We had to learn the hard way. The next man who came to us with that story was sent back to his former church, not a presbyterian church, to set things right. Initially he was very angry with us, but after a couple of months he did go back and make his peace with his former congregation, and was enabled to transfer in peace to a presbyterian church.
Third, internally we need to work out a balance between catholicity and integrity. There are generally four ways to resolve the tension between the two.
(1) A church may strive exclusively for catholicity. In my opinion, this is what happens when the Lord's Supper is held, and the officiant invites everybody who thinks he is a Christian to partake. Visitors are not interviewed, and the elders make no attempt to fence the Table. Such churches sometimes have no written roll of members and accept virtually anybody who professes some kind of commitment to Christ. The problem comes when there is a need to make basic decisions, and everyone has a vote regardless of maturity and/or commitment to the (generally unspecified but very real) theology of the church. Somebody has to make a decision about this kind of thing, but the church is little more than a large Bible study. So the pastor or the elders must assume power in the middle of the situation, in order to do what they know to be right. This causes hostility, and can wreck the church. A similar problem arises from the unspecified theology of the church, so that people do not know exactly what they have to agree with and what they do not. Persons angry with the leadership can make hay with other members by charging, "You have to agree with the elders on every little point." False as this accusation may be, the fact that the boundaries of integrity are not defined leaves the elders open to this kind of charge.
(2) A church may opt for integrity, and ignore catholicity except in theory. Such churches rapidly become quite sectarian in character. Only people who believe exactly as they do are permitted to come to the Lord's Table. In theory they maintain that they are part of the church catholic, but there is no way in which such catholicity can come to expression sacramentally. This position is also quintessentially congregationalistic, because every member has to accept the whole theological package, and the congregation as a whole is seen as the guardian of orthodoxy.
(3) "Muddling through" is the third option: trying to come up with a blend of catholicity and integrity. This is a common way of handling the problem nowadays, especially in the presbyterian circles with which I am most familiar. The church maintains standards, and all the communicant members are supposed to come up to a certain par. Children must master certain details of dogma before they can be admitted to the Table. At the same time, the communion is open to all professing Christians. We recognize other churches if they are kind of like us, and if it is convenient.
Moreover, anybody who professes Christ can be not only a communicant but also a voting member of the church. The latter tends to dissolve integrity by opening the possibility of many people making decisions in the church who are not aware of sound doctrine. The check on this comes in the special officers (elders), who are supposed to know the faith more perfectly, but this again is compromised when "ruling elders" are elected only on the basis of being notable persons, and not on the basis of Spiritual and doctrinal maturity. We might pursue this, but it should be clear that catholicity and integrity are working against one another in this system. The more catholic we are, the more diluted we become, and the more integrity we try to have, the more exclusive we become.
(4) The fourth option is to combine a strong commitment to integrity with a strong commitment to catholicity. Here, integrity is committed to the province of the special officers, and anyone is permitted to come to the Table of the Lord who (a) has been baptized, (b) professes Christ as Savior and Lord, and (c) is under some ecclesiastical government. Such church members may be very ignorant of the doctrine of the church, and may be in considerable error, but as long as they are willing to listen to the preached voice of the Master, they are permitted to share at His Table.
This position makes a distinction between voting and nonvoting members. Children, people who are new to the faith, people who have not come to a knowledge of various fundamentals of the faith, and persons under chastisement for some sin clearly will not be permitted to vote in the selection of elders to govern the church.
The guardians of orthodoxy in the church are not the people at large, but the special officers. Their integrity is in turn guarded by making sure that voting membership is properly restricted. The advantage of this fourth position is that it preserves the integrity or the church, her morals, government, and doctrine, while allowing for a very broad catholicity. Virtually any kind of Christian can be welcomed to the fellowship of the Lord's Table, without jeopardizing the standards of the church.
Who is our Exemplar in this? Was there ever anyone with more integrity, and who made greater demands, than Jesus Christ? Yet look at the catholicity of His practice: He ate with publicans, harlots, and sinners, and He took nursing infants into His arms and thus to Himself. Who complained about all this? The Pharisees. How could Jesus, the spotless Son of God, associate with such evil people? Simple: They were (a) members of the visible church, even though that church was borderline apostate (run by Sadducees and Pharisees). They were (b) not excommunicate from that visible church. They were (c) willing to listen to what He had to say. Now, of course, after they listened for a while, most of them departed, not willing to persevere. They excommunicated themselves. But initially, they were welcomed according to the catholic principle we have outlined. Notice that Jesus ate and drank with them. It requires a clever bit of nominalism to miss the sacramental implications of this. Pharisees, beware!
By following the fourth option, then, our Savior's example can be imitated, and we can avoid falling into the kind of sectarian practice that so often characterizes the most thoroughly conservative churches.
James B. Jordan is scholar in residence at Theopolis Institute.
I don't intend this to be taken in some simplistic sense. A person is initially admitted to the Table based on these three qualifications. Should he show himself in moral sin, or an avid advocate of some perverse doctrinal viewpoint, discipline would be in order.
Biblically speaking, the age of voting, of coming into the assembly, is 20; see Numbers 1:3. As regards new converts, Biblical data indicates that background should be taken into account; see Deuteronomy 23:3-8. The power of the New Covenant is such that, I believe, it is not necessary to wait several generations; but perhaps the wait of a sabbath period of six years would be advisable.
Beware indeed! Jesus reserved His most ferocious threats of hellfire for those who refuse to recognize other Christians. See Mark 9:38-50, and also Numbers 11:27-29. Jesus articulates an important principle of catholicity in Mark 9:49-50. The man who hassalt in himself- the fire of self-purification and humility - will be a peaceful man, esteeming others better than himself, and with that attitude he can correct the wayward.
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