Unity and Division
Hywel R. Jones
In the 1960s and '70s there was considerable debate concerning the doctrine of the church in the United Kingdom. It was an agonizing and perplexing time, and recent events have reminded me of it.
For almost a century now a kind of Ecumenism has been in the air. Earnest attempts have been made towards bringing denominations together in full communion with each other, notwithstanding the interruptions and alienation caused by two world wars. Although this has not met with success (yet) it has served to highlight how deeply the dividedness of the visible church runs. It has also (but inadvertently) so publicized the presence of grievous error in the church that many who adhered to the truth about Christ and his work as laid down in apostolic scripture were obliged to examine their ecclesiastical allegiance. Upholding the principle of semper reformanda they either distanced themselves from involvement in the World Council of Churches, forming new associations, or they strove to recall their denominations to paths that had been forsaken. Sad to say, the degree of difficulty involved in doing this has been greatly increased because churches that call themselves "evangelical" minimize the importance of doctrinal truth and now groups are "emerging" from that diffuse and incoherent movement that are willing to embrace anything religious.
Such a melting pot has made us more conscious of our ecclesiastical distinctiveness and determined not to blur it. Not one of us has used a pick 'n mix method in determining his church allegiance or "mental reserve" when taking vows, whether as members or office-bearers. Church-wise, each of us is where he or she is in good conscience. Upholding this is therefore a matter of solemn duty. But it is not the sum-total of our duty for we all also believe that there is "one holy catholic and apostolic church." This is not just something to say and mean coram Deo. We are to seek to manifest it and pursue it because we ourselves are not as united as we should be.
How then are we to seek greater unity on an inter-church level? Some of you may think it foolish of me to raise a question of such magnitude when I have only an 800-word limit. But raising the question is what I am seeking to do because it is not often thought about. However, I see (thanks to word count!) that I have more than 400 words left. So I will sharpen the question a little and make an appeal.
The question is "Should we seek to promote better relations between (and of course within) denominations where the solas of gospel truth are upheld and God's gracious power is at work?" That question demands a positive answer given the composition of Westminster Seminary California, its friendly relationship with the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, and the incorporation of White Horse Inn Ministries. We recognize such gatherings as truly Christian. Are there any further steps that can be taken towards a closer fellowship between us as churches?
The appeal is that we do not turn our churchly differences into barriers. If we think that there are no steps of the kind just referred to that we can take, let us not deny the term "church" to each other but strive earnestly "to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" because "there is [but] one body." The Lord Jesus Christ spoke about building [his] church. He lived and died for her and he prays for her. The church is not ours. Our denomination or association is only part of it.
To conclude here is an excerpt on this matter from my favorite 17th century theologian, John Owen. He was to the fore in the effort that was made to bring about union among Protestants towards the end of his life. In his treatise On the Nature of Schism he wrote,
I confess I would rather, much rather, spend all my time and days in making up and healing the breaches and schisms that are amongst Christians than one hour in justifying our divisions even therein wherein, on the one side, they are capable of a fair defense. But who is sufficient for such an attempt? The closing of differences amongst Christians is like opening the book in the Revelation, - there is none able or worthy to do it, in heaven or in earth, but the Lamb: when he will put forth the greatness of his power for it, it shall be accomplished, and not before. In the meantime, a reconciliation among all Protestants is our duty, and practicable, and had perhaps ere this been in some forwardness of accomplishment had men rightly understood wherein such a reconciliation, according to the mind of God, doth consist. When men have labored as much in the principle of forbearance as they have done to subdue other men to their opinions, religion will have another appearance in the world.