Local Church Unity

By Lue-Yee Tsang

Even under Congregationalist church polity (a thing I see as fundamentally flawed), there was not in former times such splintering of the Church, and such hyperindividualist idolatry, as there is today. Now, especially without denominational ties, each congregation in a given area tends to itself without much heed for the others. As congregations tend also to be segregated along lines of cultural similarity – a largely Charismatic-pietistic Korean congregation versus a Presbyterian white congregation – this insulation extends the walls that divide the rest of society.

Even with attempts at unity cobbled together by such umbrella organizations as Unity in Christ, there is far less real unity in heart and action than there is of what others, perhaps a little pessimistically, have characterized as ‘a vague, sentimentalistic and aphoristic “spiritual” unity on the terms of a “Gospel” that maximally excludes the “sinners” of other “corrupt” traditions’; or else, the Church disregarded and discarded, there is an all-inclusive atmosphere of non-judgement (better known as lack of judgement). In our quest for unity ‘in spirit’, even the Body we have, practically speaking, is largely but a virtual figment.

In the current climate, much can be learned, or at least recalled, from the Cambridge Platform, a document adopted by the Massachusetts Puritans in 1649. Even if Berkeley’s various assemblies of Christian worship belong to different denominations, some even to what in truth is a denomination of one, it must be possible to have at least the minimal unity that the Cambridge Platform prescribes in Chapter XV, ‘Of the Communion of Churches One with Another’:

Although churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confounded one with another, and equal, and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another, because they are all united unto Christ, not only as a mystical, but as a political head; whence is derived a communion suitable thereunto.

In other terms, the Church ought to be united visibly as well as invisibly, a commonwealth joined together by more than common traits. ‘The communion of churches’, the document continues, ‘is exercised sundry ways’.

I. By way of mutual care in taking thought for one another’s welfare.

This is perhaps the basic task on the individual level, that each Christian should learn to take thought for other congregations than his own, the duty most often known by the name of love. This love cannot be sustained merely by the common pep rallies that we call InterPraise, valuable as that venue is as a way for Christians from all over Berkeley to see other Christians gathered from many other congregations. I wish this care were more robustly urged both in the pulpit and in private speech.

II. By way of consultation one with another, when we have occasion to require the judgment and counsel of other churches, touching any person or cause, wherewith they may be better acquainted than ourselves; as the church of Antioch consulted with the Apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem, about the question of circumcision of the Gentiles, and about the false teachers that broached that doctrine. In which case, when any church wants light or peace among themselves it is a way of communion of the churches, according to the Word, to meet together by their elders and other messengers in a Synod to consider and argue the points in doubt or difference; and, having found out the way of truth and peace, to commend the same by their letters and messengers to the churches whom the same may concern. But if a church be rent with divisions among themselves, or lie under any open scandal, and yet refuse to consult with other churches for healing or removing of the same, it is matter of just offense, both to the Lord Jesus and to other churches, as bewraying too much want of mercy and faithfulness, not to seek to bind up the breaches and wounds of the church and brethren; and therefore the state of such a church calls aloud upon other churches to exercise a fuller act of brotherly communion, to wit, by way of admonition.

Indeed, how often is it that the various assemblies consult with others rather than either falling to pieces or stifling controversy with a sickly sweet hand? How often do they work through debates graciously but firmly, ordered by holy Scripture’s lawful ways? Rarely, when the lack of outside recourse keeps each assembly too concerned for its own face to endure any unmasking of its weakness, its unease, its disturbance lying beneath. The Persian city of Isfahan may have been ‘half the world’, but here each assembly is a world unto itself.

III. A third way, then, of communion of churches, is by way of admonition; to wit, in case any public offense be found in a church, which they either discern not, or are slow in proceeding to use the means for the removing and healing of.

Then follows a description of proper procedure, based on Christ’s instructions for admonishing an impænitent sinner (Matt. 18.12–18):

Paul had no authority over Peter, yet when he saw Peter not walking with a right foot, he publicly rebuked him before the church; though churches have no more authority one over another, than one apostle had over another, yet, as one apostle might admonish another, so may one church admonish another, and yet without usurpation. In which case, if the church that lies under offense, does not hearken to the church which does admonish her, the church is to acquaint other neighbor churches with that offense, which the offending church still lies under, together with their neglect of the brotherly admonition given unto them. Whereupon those other churches are to join in seconding the admonition formerly given; and if still the offending church continue in obstinacy and impenitency, they may forbear communion with them, and are to proceed to make use of the help of a Synod or counsel of neighbor churches, walking orderly (if a greater cannot conveniently be had) for their conviction. If they hear not the Synod, the Synod having declared them to be obstinate, particular churches approving and accepting of the judgment of the Synod, are to declare the sentence of non-communion respectively concerning them; and thereupon, out of religious care to keep their own communion pure, they may justly withdraw themselves from participation with them at the Lord’s Table, and from such other acts of holy communion, as the communion of churches otherwise does allow and require.

The Platform also provides for innocent and dissenting members of an offending congregation, that they may be received in other congregations:

Nevertheless, if any members of such a church as lies under public offense, do not consent to the offense of the church, but do in due sort bear witness against it, they are still to be received to wonted communion, for it is not equal that the innocent should suffer with the offensive. Yea, furthermore, if such innocent members, after due waiting in the use of all good means for the healing of the offense of their own church, shall at last (with the allowance of the counsel of neighbor churches,) withdraw from the fellowship of their own church, and offer themselves to the fellowship of another, we judge it lawful for the other church to receive them (being otherwise fit) as if they had been orderly dismissed to them from their own church.

But we are too enlightened and too much in unity already to care for such harsh dissension. Instead will we let parishioners drift to and fro as they please, voting with their feet as to which parish is most to their taste. Far be it from the Church of Jesus Christ to confront herself with the word of God and bring up the issue of (gasp!) sin. For as long as we pursue our own pieties, let us live in pieces peace.

Meanwhile the Protestants, practically pretending that the Romanists are utter pagans, plunder Mexico with their missionaries for the mere fact that Mexicans have not had conversion experiences in which they accepted Christ into their lives as Lord and Saviour. By the same token might a Baptist missionary society poach from a uniformly Presbyterian region in which catechesis rather than revivalism was the norm.

IV. A fourth way of communion with churches, is by way of participation; the members of one church occasionally coming unto another, we willingly admit them to partake with them at the Lord’s Table, it being the seal of our communion not only with Christ, not only with the members of our own church, but also of all the churches of the saints; in which regard we refuse not to baptize their children presented to us, if either their own minister be absent, or such a fruit of holy fellowship be desired with us. In like cases, such churches as are furnished with more ministers than one, do willingly afford one of their own ministers to supply the place of an absent or sick minister of another church for a needful season.

This one, it seems, most of us do most abundantly but most meaninglessly, admitting to the Lord’s Table anyone who sees fit to call himself a Christian. What we have is not interparticipation but chaos and sacrilege: in one congregation an impenitent adulterer can come to the Lord’s Supper despite his unbelief and in another congregation a believer can be shut out for not belonging to that particular congregation.

V. A fifth way of church communion is by way of recommendation, when a member of one church has occasion to reside in another church; if but for a season, we commend him to their watchful fellowship by letters of recommendation; but if he be called to settle his abode there, we commit him, according to his desire, to the fellowship of their covenant by letters of dismission.

Not using this practice nowadays, we leave ourselves constantly in doubt, or else in false security, about fellowship with members of another assembly. The former makes for no unity, the latter for a false unity.

VI. A sixth way of church communion, is in case of need to minister relief and succor one unto another, either of able members to furnish them with officers, or of outward support to the necessities of poorer churches, as did the churches of the Gentiles contribute liberally to the poor saints at Jerusalem.

But surely each assembly hath too many of its own concerns and too little of its own money to furnish others with. How rich we are, and how self-sufficient, to lack the money to stop to help another congregation! for instead we will go on with our own programmes, too indifferent to see any but our parochial needs and our parochial outreach and our parochial pet projects overseas.

It is my hope that we may rise to the challenge of maintaining visible unity in the local Church across sectarian lines, holding rather to peaceable familial bonds than to the seeming peace of quiet divorce. Let us pursue the unity that our Lord once pled for his Church militant on earth.

6 thoughts on “Local Church Unity

  1. Hi Lue-Yee,

    You bring up a number of problems that are quite complex. How to answer cultural differences compounded by doctrinal? Most upsetting is the “quiet divorce” that often passes for spiritual unity. We’re really grabbing at loose ends. That’s what makes this day and age so depressing.

    The Cambridge Platform sounds a lot like James Jordan’s ecclesiastical proposals found in his 1984 book, Sociology of the Church. There needs to be a common discipline. That’s bottom-line. However, to get there people have to talk “nuts and bolts”, and be willing to share each other’s burdens. Unfortunately, this often becomes a set of empty platitudes unless churchmen are forced to live under the same roof.

    ACNA is a last-ditch attempt to rescue North American Anglicanism. What’s interesting about it is the federal structure adopted. Each diocese has entered the ‘communion’ as a distinct entity with a lot of autonomy. This has very strong resonance with the 1649 Platform above. Many ACNA dioceses have little in common theologically, but because their clergy must sit together in synod, this has created some needed cross-pollination. Rather than getting broiled down in doctrinal dispute, conflict has been dampened by focusing on mission, and this seems successful in containing our more hairy differences. We’ll see how long.

    Anyway, I think there needs to be a bit more than pure voluntarism behind unionism, and perhaps the place to start is between churches that have some confessional commonalities? For example, many conservatives have left the mainline at different points in time over the last century. Perhaps they should make attempts to form a common synod, make mission a priority to deflect narrow doctrinal difference, and then proceed to slowly hammer out distinctions? Anyway, my experience is unless there is some kind of covenant that makes folks partially accountable, ecumenical goodwill doesn’t translate to concrete action. The Cambridge Platform is an excellent start, and I’m interested in an elaboration on the first point, namely, how conferences can do a bit more than pass resolutions. ACNA is not quite beyond the ‘resolution’ stage. The danger is we become a provincial Lambeth.

    1. Focusing on mission does provide some focus. I do consider it of paramount importance, though, to define that mission theologically, because feelings alone cannot constitute unity. Otherwise, we descend into chaos again in another few decades as different groups seek to grow in logically irreconcilable directions.

      If congregations will not even recognize each other enough to honour or care to investigate excommunications (if they ever happen these days), the (con)fœderated visible Church can be of no consequence as consumers drift from one commodity-church to another.

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