Autor: John Hooper
It is possible to distinguish three levels at which this confession of faith is made.
1. First of all, as should be clear from the Scriptures we have already referred to, confession is made at a personal level. We all as individual believers confess our faith before men. We testify of the truth that is in us, of that which we believe.
Scripture has given us the confession of Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16); of Martha, “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (John 11:27); and of the Ethiopian eunuch, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37).
But confession does not end there. It is not confined to the individual. Even Peter’s confession can be understood as being the united confession of the disciples, Peter so often acting as their spokesman.
This brings us to the second level at which confession is made: the local church.
2. A gathered company of the Lord’s people, being of one mind, confess together “we believe.” It was Paul’s prayer for the church at Rome that they might “with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6). In this manner each church becomes a light set upon a hill, a beacon shining out into this dark, sin-benighted world. With every member speaking the same thing, she is like a trumpet giving out a sure and certain sound, telling forth the truth of her God.
Now there are some Christians for whom the whole idea of a church creed or confession of faith is anathema. “No creed but Christ” is their catchy motto. Since this attitude stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and character of a creed, we will digress slightly to explain this in greater detail.
For a biblical description of a creed we need look no further than to Luke 1:1. A creed is “a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us.” It is important that we recognize a creed as having two aspects, both of which can be identified in this text.
Firstly, it is a declaration. That is clearly understood. A creed is an objective statement declaring what a church believes to be true concerning God. It forms an answer to the question “What is truth?” It is easy for us to say that we believe the truth, but it is also very glib. It does not say anything. There is not a church on the face of the earth, however apostate it has become, which will not say it believes the truth. The important thing is to state what we understand the truth to be, what we understand the Bible to say. That is what a creed or confession of faith does. It thereby serves as a standard by which a local church is identified and around which its members unite in opposition to error and the world.
But if we leave our definition of creed there, I believe we will have missed the most important aspect, indeed the whole point of what is meant by “confession of faith.” A creed is something far more than just an objective standard. There is a prominent subjective element. This is evident from the expression “most surely believed,” as found in Luke 1:1. A creed ought not to be considered merely as a collection of doctrinal statements to which believers give their mental assent. That may well satisfy an enquirer as to a church’s orthodoxy, but in itself it is not enough. Ephesus was strictly orthodox, yet there was something of the utmost importance that was lacking: her first love (see Rev. 2:1-7). She had lost her zeal for the Lord and His truth.
Confession of faith is not a cold, clinical assent to a set of doctrines. There is something far deeper and more spiritual involved. Real confession arises from the heart. It is living and vibrant. It is not just an intellectual activity but is a matter of the heart and of the soul. It carries conviction and warmth as the living testimony of the church. In her corporate confession of faith a church is affirming with all her heart, mind and soul, “WE BELIEVE….”
A creed is not like a political manifesto which someone draws up and calls on others to endorse. A creed is the voice of a church’s united faith. It is not something brought in from outside, but it originates in the hearts of the members themselves-hearts indwelt by the Holy Spirit of truth. It has been well said that “the true use of a creed is not to set forth what men must believe, but to record what men do believe” (W.H.P. Faunce).
Confession is the work of the Spirit. That document of objective doctrinal statements which many so decry is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a work of faith, a spontaneous outpouring from the heart. It is the common confession of a company of the Lord’s people gathered together by Christ into a local church. It is therefore to be maintained, outworked, and cherished by that church as a most precious gift from her heavenly Father. When a church is thus united in the faith, giving expression to her unity by common confession, that is truly wonderful and cause for thanksgiving to God.
But we must go further because, wonderful though that may be, it still does not give full expression to the unity of Christ’s body. There is a broader unity, as we have seen, and that too is to be outworked in the life of the churches.
3. When a number of churches, perhaps scattered over large distances as were those of the apostolic age, confess together the same confession, speak the same thing, being united together in the truth also with the church of past generations, that is more wonderful still. That is a more complete reflection of the unity of the body of Christ on earth. That is the unity of the Spirit. In other words, it is biblical church unity.
Paul besought the church at Corinth, together with “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” to “all speak the same thing” (I Cor. 1:2,10). The idea of confession therefore extends beyond the local situation. Churches and saints covering large geographical areas who are united in the truth are required to make common confession of that truth. It is their calling to speak the same thing and not to contradict one another, causing confusion and misunderstanding and thereby bringing dishonor to the name of the Lord.
Clearly enunciating what they believe the truth of the Word of God to be, churches are called to unite in common confession of their faith. They are to identify with that confession, defend it against the attacks and slanders of the world, oppose on its basis all errors and heresies, and give all the glory to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is true that occasionally during the twentieth century this responsibility has been recognized to a degree. Some churches have sincerely sought to express a broader unity by the forging of stronger ties between themselves. Invariably, however, these attempts have been on the basis of wholly inadequate “statements of faith.” Even a recent attempt to revive Presbyterian church government in England has given the appearance of being little more than an accommodation of independency under a broad “presbyterian” umbrella.
The point of Presbyterian and Reformed church government is not that it can accommodate variety. No, the point and the beauty of Presbyterian and Reformed church government is that it unites churches of a common confession. This means in practice that a believer can travel from one side of the world to another and find a uniformity in church doctrine and practice. Wherever he may be he will find a spiritual home from home. He will find churches of one mind speaking the same things.
It is not without significance that the creedal standards of the continental Reformed churches (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht) are together called “the three forms of unity.”
The Historic Creeds
Again the importance of the historic aspect to all of this needs emphasizing. Since biblical church unity embraces the saints of every generation, we need to express that historic unity by joining in common confession with our fathers.
The creeds and confessions which our fathers have handed down to us are not just interesting historical documents of no practical use or relevance, though that seems to be the prevailing view today. The fact that they are largely forgotten, ignored, or even disparaged in our day says a great deal about the spiritual condition of the churches and their leaders. It is a sign of the times in which we live that men will not endure sound doctrine, and the creeds are full of sound doctrine. On the one hand the ecumenical spirit of compromise has displaced all zeal for dogmatic theology. On the other hand a mystic subjectivism, seen in its most advanced form in the charismatic movement, but present in principle in many more orthodox circles, has undermined the churches’ hold on the Scriptures as the truth, the final and complete revelation of God to His people. These twin scourges leave no place for the creeds.
But even among those who acknowledge the historic creeds and confessions as being of some value, it must be said that they are given only lip-service. By ministers they are considered as little more than useful doctrinal handbooks and reference tools to help in sermon preparation. Perhaps on the occasion of an anniversary they are taken off the shelf and dusted, so to speak, but to the congregation they mean little and remain unread.
No one would deny that the confessions are useful aids to Bible study, but to say that this is their only rule today is to miss their real significance. They have long ceased to be what they should be: a living confession rising from the hearts of the Lord’s people united down through history such that they affirm with one voice, “we most surely believe.”
It has to be said that, in their understanding of the meaning and significance of the creeds, the vast majority of churches today, and we are talking now about conservative evangelical churches, have missed the point by a mile. They have failed to see them for what they really are. The creeds are not textbooks. They are living confessions of living faith. Combine this failure with an ignorance of and indifference to the church’s historic unity, and the loss of visible unity becomes inevitable, since it is through the creeds that it is expressed.
Many if not all of the creeds and confessions were formulated in the heat of intense theological controversy. They were the church’s response to heresy, born out of a love and concern for the truth and a need to define and defend it. The saints raised up their creeds as mighty bulwarks against the enemies of truth. It was the heresy of Arianism that gave rise to the Nicene Creed in AD 325. The other trinitarian creeds, the Athanasian and the Chalcedonian, again were written in response to errors concerning the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. But it was the Reformation that produced the fullest expressions of revealed theology. From that work of God, by which He delivered His church from the evil darkness of medieval popery, came such clear and systematic declarations of Christian doctrine as remain unsurpassed to this day among uninspired writings.
This progress of history represents giant steps forward in the church’s understanding of the truth. But we must ask, how did the church arrive at such clearer understanding of truth? Was it not by the Holy Spirit Himself: “when he, the Spirit of Truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13)? The creeds are the product of the Holy Spirit living and working in the hearts and minds of God’s people, causing them, often under severe physical hardship, to see the truth with a clarity and declare it with a sharpness hitherto not known or heard. The calling of the church today is to take hold of that truth into which her fathers were guided and confess it with them.
Does the faith of the children differ from the faith of their fathers? God forbid if that should be so! Has truth changed? It is not for each generation to discover the truth for itself, as the liberal and the modernist would have us to believe, but to receive it with thanksgiving from the hands of those who have gone before, and confess it before men.
This does not rule out the development of truth and continuing reformation down the ages. As the Spirit builds on what has gone before, the church grows in her knowledge and understanding of the truth, but the truth itself does not change, even as Christ does not change. He is “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8).
By subscribing to the great definitions of truth from former days the church maintains the vital link with the church of her fathers. She stands with them and expresses her organic unity with them, and thereby the church of the present experiences conscious fellowship with the church of the past.
Doctrinal independence from the church of the past is the hallmark of sectarianism. Sects, by their very nature, reject and despise the creeds and confessions. They thrive in a climate of theological individualism. They epitomize the idea of all men believing that which is right in their own eyes and then drawing other men after them. In contrast, churches that “hold the traditions” will with gladness in their hearts join their fathers in common confession of the truth which they all as one believe.
If church unity is to be biblical, therefore, the churches must be confessional churches.
Finally, before we move on, there is a further objection to the confessions which we must consider briefly. Against those churches who take their confessional standards seriously the charge is sometimes made that they give them an authority equal to that of Holy Scripture. There are two comments to be made in reply. In the first place, it is doubtful whether the charge is ever actually true, but, in the second place, even if it were a valid charge, the objection is misdirected, since the fault lies not with the confession, but with the individual, church, or denomination giving it the undue authority.
The authority of a creed is a derived authority and is therefore always subordinate to that of Scripture.
The danger today, in these times of doctrinal laxity, lies not so much in giving the confessions too much authority as not enough. Once a church or denomination becomes embarrassed by its stated confession and quietly leaves it to gather dust on the shelf, or allows diversity of opinion on matters which are judged to be unconcerned with the substance of the faith, then the enemy is at the door, if not already rampaging through the house. The churches no longer speak with one voice, and divisions, with all the disruption and pain they incur, inevitably follow.
4. The Keeping of Biblical Church Unity
When the Bible speaks of our calling with regard to church unity, it never speaks of creating unity or of becoming united. This is because unity already exists as a principle intrinsic to the body of Christ. The idea of Christ’s church being divided and having to “come together” is quite foreign to Scripture. Our calling is rather to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called … endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one
baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 1:1; 4:1-6).
The calling of churches is not to manufacture the unity of the Spirit but to keep it, to maintain it.
But that does not mean being passive. Keeping the unity of the Spirit involves effort. The natural inclination of our hearts is toward error, self-seeking, and pride. It is so easy to let the truth slip, to wander from the central path and thus break the bond of unity. For this reason unity has to be worked at. The Philippians were to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). So must we in our day strive together with one mind, earnestly contending for the faith once delivered ( Jude 3). There is work involved. There are battles to be fought: battles against the flesh, the devil, and the encroachment of worldly thought into the church.
Notice the verbs Paul uses: “endeavour” (Eph. 4:1), “strive” (Phil. 1:27), and “earnestly contend” ( Jude 3). These expressions indicate activity and convey to us the difficulty of the task, the toil, the sweat and tears, the spiritual graft entailed. It is not something that comes naturally to us or without effort. It calls for labor and it calls for grace and humility. We can be so independent by nature, deceiving ourselves that we can go it alone; but there is no place for independence in the body of Christ. We are all related one to another as members of the same body and called to strive together for the cause of the unity of that body.
What, then, is the nature of the work we are called to do? What is involved? In other words, how is the church to keep the unity of the Spirit? The apostle Paul explains in this way:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Eph. 4:11-16).
This passage explains to us the principal means by which the church maintains the unity of the body: it is by the preaching of the Word, the work of the ministry.
Earlier we traced an unbroken line of truth from heaven, through the apostles, to the Word of God in our own hands. The Scripture is the truth. The Word of God is our standard and our sole authority in all matters of faith and life. It is therefore, first of all, the responsibility of every child of God to know where that line of truth lies. Then he is to “keep in line.” He does this of course by reading and studying the Scriptures for himself.
That is important, but in itself it is not enough. Our subject is the unity of the church, the unity of a body, that living organic entity which is the body of Christ. The manifestation of that body in the world is to be found in local churches. This means that the child of God has a solemn responsibility to seek out a local church and to join himself to it.
The importance of church membership cannot be overstated. Christ gathers His people into local, organized, instituted congregations in the midst of whom He dwells. Private worship in the secret place, family worship, and listening to tape-recorded sermons all have their appropriate place in the believer’s life. They are all, to varying degrees, beneficial to his spiritual well-being, but none of them may be considered a substitute for church membership and attendance at the means of grace, chief of which is the preaching of the Word. None of them may be considered a substitute for the corporate worship of God and the experience of the communion of saints, confessing together the one faith. This is because in church membership a principle is at work.
The world has a saying that “no man is an island.” This idea surely finds its highest expression in the church of Jesus Christ. Christians are not independent: they are inter-related and inter-dependent as members together of the one body of Christ. When a believer joins a local church he is giving expression to his membership of that body, i.e., that he is a Christian. A believer who remains outside of the local church is a paradox. He is saying, in effect, “I am a member of the body of Christ but not a member.” Such a one will find no support for his position in Scripture.
The seriousness of this case becomes clear when we consider the position of someone who leaves the local church. In withdrawing from the local manifestation of Christ’s body he is sending a signal to all around him that he is not a member of the body, i.e., not a believer. Indeed, that is the principle underlying the final step in church discipline, excommunication. A member who refuses to repent shows all the signs that he does not belong to Christ’s body, hence he may no longer continue as a member of its local manifestation.
No Christian has the right or authority voluntarily to withdraw and absent himself from the local church and maintain an independent existence. He is duty bound as a member of the body to join himself to the local church. “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Heb. 10:24,25).
This means in practice that a believer will search out and join the purest manifestation of the church that he can find in his neighborhood, a local church which keeps herself united on the line of truth, one in mind and confession. It is only as a member of a local church that a Christian can even begin to experience and appreciate the unity of the body of Christ. This is because only in the local church will he find preaching.
Unity is the work of the Spirit, as through faithful preaching by God-appointed pastors and teachers He works to perfect the saints, to edify the body of Christ till all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man. Put simply, the unity of the church is maintained through the ministry of the Word. It is in the preaching that Christ speaks by His Spirit and continues His earthly ministry, bringing to His people the eternal word of truth which has been handed down to them.
That divine truth which Christ received from His Father, which He imparted to His disciples and which they in turn preached to Gentile and Jew in the early years of the New Testament church, is taught and heard today where the Holy Spirit is at work. And just as that truth united then, so it unites now. Just as it is the Spirit who guides us into all truth and by whom we confess that truth, so it is by the Spirit that unity is maintained in the church. The Holy Spirit is the unifying force, maintaining the purity of the gospel, ensuring that what is preached is no more and no less than “the form of sound words” given to the apostles and that the confession of the church today is at one with her confession down through the ages as she gives voice to the truth that is in her.
Little wonder that what we are dealing with is called “the unity of the Spirit.” There is nothing of man in it. Not even the minister of a church can create or enforce unity amongst his flock. Unity is not forced upon believers against their stubborn, independent wills but is worked in them by the gracious, powerful ministrations of the Holy Spirit. He works in the churches to maintain and bring to expression the glorious unity of the body of Christ.
To be disunited, to be tossed to and fro, carried about with every wind of doctrine, says Paul, is to be like children, immature. That is invariably the situation one finds where there is failure or incompetence in the pulpit. That was the situation at Corinth. Unity, on the other hand, fostered by a regular faithful pulpit ministry, indicates maturity, the saints having “grown up” into Him.
Now, quite obviously, it is no easy task for some of the Lord’s people to find such a faithful local church: large tracts of the United Kingdom are spiritual wastelands. But still the believer is not discharged of his responsibility. This may mean that he will have to travel several miles to find a church. If that is not possible he may have to join a church which falls short in some measure. In this case it is his duty to seek the reformation of the church, using all the means at his disposal within the rules of government of that church. If reformation proves impossible, then it may be practicable for a number of like-minded believers to come together and work for the establishment of a separate church.
If none of these things proves feasible, then the lonely believer may well consider whether he should be living in such a spiritually barren place.
As much as it is the calling of the individual believer to belong to a local church, so also it is the calling of local churches to manifest the broader unity of Christ’s body. It is at this point that we introduce the question of institutional church unity, and there is surely an irony in that this is probably the most contentious aspect of our subject. Where there exists amongst churches a unity of both faith and confession, that spiritual, organic unity should be reflected in an institutional unity. The church as an institution is called to express her oneness. This is the logical and biblical consequence of all that we have said before.
We have already seen that the exhortations to unity found in the epistles reach out far beyond the confines of any one local congregation. We have noticed too the practical unity demonstrated by those early churches. They clearly understood that their life and responsibilities did not end with the official worship services of the Lord’s Day but continued through each day of the week to become manifest in practical ways, touching the lives of fellow believers in faraway churches. While the churches were clearly autonomous [self-governing], they were not independent.
At the beginning of our study we noted that the church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23). A body is a living, united organism. It is structured and organized. In the same way the church in the world must have structure and organization (Rom. 12:4,5). This means that her life is to be outworked through local churches in such a way that there exists amongst them a unity of mind and purpose, as we find in the New Testament-churches bound together by the truth for the work of the gospel. On viewing the church scene, one should hope to see decency and order, not a confused ecclesiastical hotchpotch.
There are several important areas of church life which are of common interest and concern. For many churches, particularly small ones, it is not possible to perform these alone. The training of men for the ministry, ministerial support, and the sending and support of missionaries are three such areas. The usual solution to this problem is to resort to independent training colleges, ministerial aid societies, and missionary societies, despite a complete lack of biblical warrant for such para-church organizations. All of these responsibilities have been given by Christ to His church, therefore it is churches that must fulfill them as their common concern. And that means working together in federation, following the example of II Corinthians 8.
Here we come to the heart of the controversy: denominationalism. Independency has the ascendency at the present time because churches have rejected the denomination. But what is a denomination? Ideally it is a number of churches which, being of one mind and one voice, federate together to experience that same unity so manifestly enjoyed by the churches of the New Testament. They are churches that know and love the communion and fellowship that only a common faith and confession can give. They are churches that know the unity of the Spirit,
living in peace and striving together for the faith of the gospel. They are churches that have begun on earth to reflect the perfect unity of the body of Christ which they shall know in heaven.
To dispel some of the misconceptions that often arise regarding denominationalism, it must be stressed at the outset that a denomination is comprised of churches; she herself is not the church. It is the local congregation which is the church, and she must jealously guard her autonomy, recognizing no authority over her but the authority of Christ. Many of the fears and prejudices directed toward church federation stem from painful experience in denominations that have thought they were a church and have exercised more power and authority than was rightly theirs.
The New Testament knows of only two “churches”: the universal church of all ages, comprised of all the elect; and the church local. Christ has given the ministry, the keys of His kingdom, the sacraments and the authority to exercise discipline, to churches, not to denominations. This defines the limits of denominational activity. It is just as wrong for a local church to relinquish her Christ-given responsibilities to a denominational synod as it is to a para-church society. The ordination and calling of a minister, for instance, rests with the local church. His credentials are held by that church, and only that church, not a denominational court, can depose him from office.
I do not believe that the word “church” may be used to describe a denomination. It is proper to speak of a denomination of churches, but to speak of, for example, the Methodist Church or the Lutheran Church, or the Church of Wherever is to abuse the word, giving it a meaning which the Spirit of God has not authorized.
Even if the Westminster Assembly, in its Form of Church Government, was right that the churches of Jerusalem and Ephesus were each made up of several congregations-which is by no means proven-that does not mean that a nationwide or even regional denomination of churches may be called “one church.” Jerusalem and Ephesus were not large geographical regions like England, Scotland, or the U.S.A. Even if they did constitute more than one congregation, then at most we may call them city churches, i.e., several congregations under one city-wide
government; but when Paul wrote to the Galatians, covering a much larger geographical area, he addressed “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2). Likewise he refers to “the churches of Asia” (I Cor. 16:19), “the churches of Macedonia” (II Cor. 8:1), and “the churches of Judaea” (Gal. 1:22), all in the plural.
Historically denominations have arisen largely as a necessary consequence of the church’s divisions. It could be objected that we read nothing of denominations in Scripture, and that is quite true. It was to be a thousand years before a major division took place in the church. But we do read many commands to separate from error and apostasy, and separation by its nature causes a division.
An interesting passage in this regard is to be found in I Corinthians 11:18,19: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions [Greek: schisms] among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies [Greek: sects] among you, that they which be approved may be made manifest among you.” Paul is saying here that it is to be expected that divisions should occur in the church. They cannot be avoided, such being the present fallen state of human nature. Divisions are caused not by those who follow after truth, order, and peace but by the enemies of truth, order, and peace; and, painful as they are, they must take place so that “they which be approved may be made manifest.” Here already we have a foretaste of what was to come.
For many centuries after Pentecost there was only one institutional church. Not until the year 1054, with the separation of the Eastern churches from the Western, did this situation change. Five hundred years later saw another major division with the Protestant Reformation, heralding the beginning of the fragmentation of the church institute into the bewildering multitude of denominations we find today. Of course, this does not mean that the church as an organism has been torn asunder. Such is the spiritual nature of her unity that we can always confess by faith, in the language of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe an holy, catholic church.”
It follows that where two denominations have arisen along different historical routes, but are united in the faith, those denominations should do all in their power to establish an institutional unity, so that all the churches might go forward together in the work of the gospel.
Institutional unity must be on the basis of truth. In stark contrast to this, what may be called biblical ecumenism, lies the false ecumenism of the ecumenical movement. This movement is an attempt to put the clock back and heal all the historical divisions, creating a single vast worldwide church institution. But whatever success it may be deemed to have by its supporters, the final product of all its efforts can only be a grotesque monstrosity, a caricature of the true church. Why is this? Because in its folly it has forsaken truth. It is the church of the Anti-christ.
The only conceivable way in which the churches and denominations of today can return to the true unity of apostolic days is by retracing two thousand years of history. That means taking the path of confession and repentance before God for the errors and heresies that caused the divisions in the first place, and a return to His blessed truth as it is in Jesus Christ. That they will never do.
The all-consuming drive for institutional unity at any price that we see across the world in the ecumenical movement exposes the grave danger of seeking unity for its own sake. When the search for institutional unity is elevated above love and jealousy for the truth, it becomes an unbiblical distraction that will lead the churches ever deeper into apostasy and will ultimately destroy them. There can be no true, God-glorifying unity without the truth. This is why the emphasis in Scripture is not on unity but always on truth. Truth begets unity. Love for the truth is first; unity follows. Unity is the servant of truth, not its master.
But however much institutional unity has been corrupted over the generations, or however bitter our experiences of it may have been, we may not shun it. Indeed we must promote it. We must not let experience cloud our judgment or determine our church practice for us, but we must go back to the Scriptures. We have a biblical example to follow in the council of churches which met at Jerusalem and whose proceedings are recorded for us in Acts 15. This chapter provides us with the clearest guidance on not only the true nature and form of institutional unity but principally its purpose in preserving the churches’ unity in the truth.
An Abiding Principle
The beauty of confessional unity, unity in the truth such as that experienced in apostolic times, is that the people of God enjoy a unity of doctrine and a unity of worship. Occasionally, however, unforeseen problems arise. Doctrinal controversies erupt on subjects which are not adequately covered by the churches’ creeds, if at all. Examples may include marriage, divorce, and remarriage; headship; and the sign-gifts of the Spirit.
One such problem that arose in the days of the apostles concerned the place of circumcision in New Testament churches. The teaching that some believing Pharisees were putting about, that circumcision was still to be enforced, threatened to destroy the unity of the churches. It caused “much disputing” (Acts 15:2,7).
What must be remembered is that, while unity is based upon the truth of God’s Word, this was a lie. This was heresy. Here was something threatening to drive a wedge right down the center of the churches and re-open the age-old distinction between Jew and Gentile, the distinction which Christ had forever abolished “in his flesh” (Eph. 2:11-22; Gal. 3:28).
The point is that this was an issue affecting far more Christians than those in Jerusalem. If this error took hold, it would travel like wildfire wherever the gospel spread. How was it to be dealt with?
The way in which it was tackled provides us with an example for our own day. We do not need to be reminded that heresies and strange doctrines still spring up and have the potential to wreak havoc among the churches. And some do wreak havoc. Teachers of false doctrine never confine themselves to their own little sect and neighborhood. Oh that they would! They go about pandering to malcontents, those with ears itching for something new, and spread their heresies wherever they can gain a hearing.
Neither is heresy something which comes into the churches only from without. It comes from within too: “Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
What was at stake at Jerusalem was not just the orthodoxy of the Jerusalem church but the united faith and confession of all the churches. The truth on which their unity was based was under threat, hence they all had to be involved in dealing with the problem. They were all represented at the council and they all recognised its binding authority. Thereby the truth was upheld and unity was maintained.
It is the application of this abiding principle, inherent in Reformed and Presbyterian church government, that is sadly missing amongst evangelical churches today, contributing much to the ecclesiastical muddle we are in.
Maybe someone objects that the Jerusalem council took place in the times of the apostles and of apostolic authority which we do not have now. Quite so, but we do have the complete canon of Scripture. When the elders and brethren met to discuss at Jerusalem they met with the apostles. Today they will meet with the Word of God. They will meet to search the Scriptures, prayerfully seeking to be guided into all truth by the Spirit. Then, when they have arrived at a knowledge of the truth, they will convey it to the churches as settled and binding “decrees”
to be received, as at Antioch, with joy (Acts 15:30-31). That is the New Testament pattern. That is the pattern for us today.
But while the churches are to beware the Scylla of independency on the one hand, they must also beware the Charybdis of hierarchy on the other.
The example of the Jerusalem council was followed many centuries later by what have become known as the ecumenical or general councils, such as those at Nicea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), and Chalcedon (AD 451). In addition to these general councils were others called by churches in particular districts to deal with problems specific to their own areas. Among these were the Ante-Nicean Councils held at Antioch (AD 269) and Rome (AD 313). Both of these were convened to consider the emergence of heresies, namely the proto-Socianism of one Paul of Samosata, and Donatism respectively.
However, by this time in church history episcopacy had become well established. Bishops had taken to themselves more power than they possessed by right, and a hierarchical structure was beginning to take shape. The seeds of the papacy had been sown.
This leaven of hierarchy is nowhere to be found in the Word of God. It is rightly shunned and feared by all for whom Scripture is the sole authority in matters of faith and practice. There was no hierarchy in Acts 15. The only authority submitted to there was the authority of Christ as it came to the churches through the apostles by the Holy Ghost. And it was because the decisions of that council were thus stamped with divine authority that they were binding on the churches represented, i.e., all the constituted churches of that time.
In seeking to restore this practice today, a number of churches that are bound together in common faith and confession as we have described will also together humbly submit to the Word of God. When their “elders and brethren” meet in an official capacity, representing the churches, to search the Scriptures concerning a doctrine or practice common to them all, then their conclusions will carry the authority of Christ and be binding on all those churches. That will be true even if for some reason a local church is not represented in person (see Acts 16:4).
But there will be no hierarchy. The authority of a synod (or presbytery, or council, or general assembly, whatever name the churches choose to give it) is the authority of Christ in the Scriptures, and the elders present represent churches who unitedly submit to that authority.
A hierarchy is like a pyramid. The local churches form the base of the pyramid, while above them are numerous tiers of ever increasing authority until eventually one reaches the top to find the highest authority of all. This is the way in which the Roman Catholic system is structured, with the Pope at the top as its head. Quite clearly, in this kind of arrangement the local church has very little say in its government. The local church is lost under a vast weight of external authority; it has long ceased to be autonomous.
Neither can Presbyterianism, as it has been historically applied, always escape the charge of hierarchy. To all accounts, this very issue caused “much disputing” at the Westminster Assembly, which is not surprising since it was comprised of both Presbyterians and Independents. Yet, the outcome was a structure of tiered assemblies: congregational, classical, provincial, and national, each being in “subordination” to the higher.
Needless to say, the Scriptural pattern is not of a pyramid. In Scripture the local church is always central. The Jerusalem council, and any other such assembly, can be likened to a circle formed around the church, a circle made up of all the other churches represented. It does not represent a higher authority, for there is none but Christ. Rather, it represents a broader unity. Each local church may thus see itself as at the center, yet also represented on the concentric circles around it in the churches’ broader (larger) assemblies.
The remit and authority of these assemblies are limited in sphere to those matters which are of the churches’ common concern. For instance, it is not for a council or synod to exercise discipline or oversee the appointment or dismissal of ministers. Such matters are for the local church alone.
Perhaps if this distinction had been made clear at Westminster during 1644, the debates would have been less protracted, the outcome more biblical, and the ensuing course of British church history far different, following a more God-glorifying, peaceful, and united line.
Now it may be that on occasion a church will find itself in disagreement with the outcome of one of the broader assemblies. It is appropriate therefore that there should be mechanisms for appeal and opportunity for the reconsideration of the Scriptures. However, if a church continues at odds with its sister-churches, then unity has been broken and ipso facto the church has separated itself from them and can play no further part in denominational life.
Obviously a church’s withdrawing itself from fellowship in this way is a serious matter and one not to be taken lightly. It must be a measure of last resort, taken only when all attempts at reconciliation have failed. When it occurs, it is an occasion for much pain and sadness on the part of all concerned, but also for ongoing prayer that unity might be restored.
Institutional unity is no guarantor of truth; but, then, neither is independency. However, biblical institutional unity embodies the principle that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14; also 15:22 and 24:6), whereas the earlier part of that verse gives a grave warning to those of an independent spirit: “Where no counsel is, the people fall.” In Acts 15 God has given His people a clear example of this principle at work, an example that in its day established churches in the faith and increased their number daily (Acts 16:5). Our calling is to follow that example, in obedience and gratitude to the Lord, both for the good of the churches and for our own spiritual well-being as individual members.
We live in days of small things. Evangelical churches in the UK, churches which separate themselves from the charismatic and ecumenical movements, are relatively few, usually small, and widely scattered. In such circumstances isolation can often become an unavoidable way of life. We grow used to being alone.
Moreover, such churches are invariably independent in their government. A formal, institutional expression of unity is viewed with anything from suspicion to outright horror. Isolation can become almost a virtue.
The consequences of this are clear to see in the diversity or, it should be said, disorder and confusion that characterize the churches of our day. While each church claims to identify with biblical Christianity and to possess the truth, each is also manifestly different from the other in both doctrine and practice. Where present, fellowship is informal and intermittent rather than official and ongoing.
Hopefully the reader understands by now that this situation is far different from the one which the apostles knew. While local church autonomy is a vital principle that must be jealously protected, it is not the whole story. It does not present the complete picture as we see it in the New Testament. Those early years of the New Testament church provide authoritative testimony to the desirability and propriety of visible unity on a much broader scale.
According to Scripture there is no virtue in being isolated. There is no virtue in being alone and separated from one’s brethren. Psalm 133 begins, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1). To dwell in unity is good; that is, it is commendable and beneficial, something to be desired and actively sought.
Unity is pleasant. It is precious, like the sweet-smelling ointment used in the anointing of the High Priest. Just as the perfume from that holy oil was a delight to all who smelled it, so is unity to those who dwell in it. And not only to them, but to God also, for central to this unity is His presence and blessing as He dwells with His people in covenant fellowship. As He blessed Mount Hermon and Zion with life-giving dew, so will God bless those who dwell in unity. He will command the blessing, “even life for evermore” in His house, the everlasting temple which is His church.
The psalmist describes those who dwell together. This is no casual acquaintance or loose association that he is talking about. This is “dwelling.” This is permanent co-habitation, living under one roof, in one house. And this “dwelling” is both good and pleasant. It is not something to be condemned and shunned but valued and cherished as precious and a thing of great beauty. God Himself has said so! Yet so many of us are strangers to that beauty.
This begs the question, Why? Why are we strangers to that beauty? If it is true that unity is both good and desirable, why is it so little in evidence?
There is no simple answer to this question. Part of the answer may lie in ignorance, but perhaps it lies chiefly in unbelief. The problem is that we do not believe that there can be any goodness and beauty in a formal church unity. Rather than keeping our eye fixed on what God has said in His Word, we look away and form our own judgment from the ugly caricature which is the ecumenical movement. We see the growing apostasy of the large denominations and the relentless advance of world ecumenism and retreat into what we perceive to be the safety of independency.
Institutional unity does not work, we say. It is a recipe for problems and eventual disaster. It means local churches must sacrifice their autonomy, inevitably become involved in doctrinal compromise and tainted with the deviations of others with whom they are associated, and thus lose their purity. What is more, there are bound to be dissentions and disputes. Why, then, become involved in the first place? Independence is the better way. Independency is the safer way: it works.
All this is sheer unbelief. It is a denial of the power of grace. As I have tried to emphasize throughout, believers and churches are not united by man but by the power of divine grace. Christ by His Spirit works unity in the hearts and minds of His people to create a church of unparalleled beauty. Envy, jealousy, strife, resentment, etc., all those sinful traits that cause divisions between men are naturally present in the heart of every believer and in every church, but as the Spirit of Christ works in our hearts and churches He causes us to love Him, to love His truth, and to love our fellow saints, agreeing in true faith. He makes us gracious and longsuffering toward one another, so that as new creatures in Christ we are made willing and able to dwell together in unity. Do we believe that?
Unity is all of God, and therein lie our hope and confidence, for “except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Ps. 127:1). Let us by faith look to Him to do His work in His churches, that He may make us of one mind in the truth, speaking with one voice and submitting together to the authority of Christ our Savior and Head. To do less would be unbelief.
What I have attempted to do in this study is to set out the relevant biblical principles as I understand them and as clearly as I know how. From a practical, human point of view the situation looks dire and the future bleak as churches draw yet further apart with the passage of time. If there is to be any attempt to restore biblical church unity today it must be by way of a return to the truth and a common confession with our fathers of the historic Christian faith. That means a return to the church’s historic creeds and confessions. And it means a return to biblical (Reformed/Presbyterian) church government.
Only by taking these bold steps of faith can we hope to see, experience, and enjoy again that dwelling together in unity of which the Scriptures speak so alluringly but which is so rarely known today.