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Barriers to Ecumenicity

Alan D. Strange

Psalm 133

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
    when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
    life forevermore.

Perhaps we should say that, first of all, in response to the ecumenical imperative of Scripture, we cannot fail to achieve unity, ultimately. Psalm 133 extols the unity of the brethren, and our Lord in John 17 prays that we be one. We have in view at this conference[1] the practical outworking of that in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). Can these two bodies thus fail to be one, at least spiritually and essentially (if not in outward organization)? Even though we may be divided into different denominations, all of those who have been born again of God’s Spirit and who partake of the appointed means of grace are by such united in heart and purpose, having one Lord, one faith, one baptism (as Paul says in the beginning of his great unity chapter—Ephesians 4). So in one very real sense the OPC and the URCNA are one and cannot fail to be one.

That we are, in some sense, already one, does not mean that we ought not to strive to be one, doing all that we can to achieve such oneness even in outward organization. In other words, God calls us in everything to be who we already are in Christ. When our Lord prays (again in John 17) that we be sanctified, we may rightly ask: Can we fail to be sanctified, at least in a measure? Surely, we ought to strive to be sanctified with all that is within us, but in the midst of our struggles, it is encouraging to know that, though we routinely experience much failure, we will be sanctified. Even so, as a part of that, it is truly encouraging to know that what we lack in unity will one day be remedied. We will be perfected, in our unity with Christ and each other, even as we will be made perfectly holy in our sanctification when we are glorified.

The church, though she may be frustrated in her ecumenical efforts, shall be one outwardly (visibly), in glory, and is one already with respect to the invisible church. True ecumenicity is not a foreign work to Christianity but the essence of who we are: all true believers are one in him across all denominational lines. That such denominational lines exist often discourages us, but that there is a unity of all true believers in spite of and across these lines should encourage us to continue to labor together to come outwardly to a greater realization of what is true of us all inwardly: we belong to Jesus Christ and are in union with him and with each other as members of his mystical body.

I am tasked to talk about barriers to ecumenicity between the OPC and URCNA (and thus thrown into the unenviable role of being an ecclesiastical bad cop to the good cop of other speakers here!), looking first at things that keep us apart, both illegitimately and legitimately. And then, secondly, we will briefly examine how to overcome these barriers.

There are, we must admit, things that keep the URCNA and OPC apart. I think that it’s helpful to conceive of what keeps us apart under the rubric of illegitimate and legitimate barriers: the former stemming from our sin, and the latter from our sincerely different understandings of matters ecclesiastical. Let’s start with the illegitimate barriers to our relationship with each other. Simply put, both the OPC and the URCNA fail to love God and each other as we ought: we both suffer the effects of remaining sin, personally and corporately. Remaining sin contributes to our ongoing struggle with failing to love God and each other. We fail to love God personally—sad to say, but who among us loves him as we ought? Is it any wonder, then, that we fail to love each other as we ought? This failure, as just noted, is not only personal but has a larger dimension as well. There is a corporate failure to love each other at the local, regional, and denominational/federational levels.

Here’s the remedy. We need to repent. We have in view here not only John 17, but the whole epistle of 1 John, which challenges us: how can we love God whom we don’t see when we don’t love our brother whom we do see? Failure to love our brother (we are to love our neighbor, even our enemy; think of the parable of the good Samaritan), especially those who are our fellow Reformed and Presbyterian brothers (the nearest to us, next to our own communions), is a sad and singular failure. We should love all fellow Christians and those most particularly with whom we share the same biblical and theological convictions.

We fail in this when we are apathetic or even hostile to our brothers and sisters in fellow Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Perhaps this manifests itself by us simply not caring to reach out beyond our own communions (why should I love or care for Christians outside my congregation or federation/denomination?) or by having a party spirit (the OPC is simply the best and the rest of you are seriously lacking). In short, pride, complacency, or even sometimes envy, cause us to lack in love toward each other.

We often simply fail to take seriously the ecumenical imperative of John 17. Things are fine, and we need not strive for more unity than we already have as believers in Christ. This is especially true as to the visible church—it’s easy to downplay the significance of such visible unity. But we witness to the world that we love Jesus and each other as we have more and more unity in the visible church. One of the great strengths of the early church was its clear witness to a watching world: “see how they love one another,” was the common refrain of unbelievers observing Christians. Should we not strive for this in our own times?

Over the course of decades, that witness of the ancient church so impressed the pagan world that when the Decian persecution came in AD 250, the old canard going back to Nero’s time that the Christians were “haters of mankind” received no credence. This is because everyone saw how loving the Christians were, even to non-Christians, whether helping them in need or saving exposed babies (the call for such being seen in the Didache and elsewhere). What a witness true ecumenicity can be when we show that we love each other with a love that spills over into all the population about us. The more that we are one, the more loving we are to one another as well as to the strangers among us. Hearts of love for each other manifest good to the household of faith and to all with whom we have to do.

Visible unity glorifies God and edifies us. Think about this: how long can we afford to remain apart in the current cultural climate? Because we have unity in the invisible church, as I mentioned above, perhaps we are complacent about it in the visible church. But we should be no more complacent about this than we are about our sanctification. Our Lord’s call to sanctification merits our serious regular attention. So does his call to unity in the body: it merits our most strenuous efforts. Even as we need to strive more to love those within our own communions, we must strive to love each other across denominational and federational lines. This reflects more properly what Christ’s body in this world is. If we choose not to concern ourselves with organizational unity, we fail to take seriously our Lord’s imperative to manifest the unity that we truly have in him.

There are also legitimate barriers to our full visible unity in the body of Christ. These are ones that arise from biblical convictions that necessitate our working in separate organizational structures. For example, Baptists have different sacramental and polity views than us that, even though they may be soteriological Calvinists, necessitate our working in different denominations. Do we in the URCNA and OPC have such doctrinal and polity differences? Well, we don’t have the same doctrinal standards: the URCNA has the Three Forms of Unity (TFU): the Belgic Confession (BC), Heidelberg Catechism (HC), and Canons of Dort; the OPC has the Westminster Standards (WS): the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (WLC, WSC). Additionally, we have different church orders that have some strikingly different features.

Any doctrinal differences among us then would stem primarily from confessional divergences.  Do we have such differences between the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards? The URCNA adopted the following back in 1997:

That synod appoint a committee to study the Confessional Standards, Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory of Worship of the OPC with regard to the similarities and differences between them and the Confessional Standards and Church Order of the URCNA in order to work toward ecclesiastical unity with the OPC . . . . (Minutes of Synod 1997, 10–11).

Such a study was done, and here is what was concluded with respect to doctrinal differences, perceived and real:

  1. Covenant of Works (WCF 7.2, 19.1; WLC 30 and 97)
  2. Regenerated Infants (WCF 10.3)
  3. Assurance and Faith (WCF 14.3, 18.1–4 / WLC 80–81 / HC LD 7)
  4. The Fourth Commandment (WCF 21.7–8 / WLC 117 / HC LD 38)
  5. Marriage and Permissible Divorce (WCF 24.1–6)
  6. Visible and Invisible Church (WCF 25.1–4)
  7. Power to Depose (WCF 31.1–4)
  8. Prayer as a Means of Grace (WLC 154 / WSC 88)
  9. True and False Churches Easily Distinguished (BC 29)

With respect to item 1, the Westminster Standards speak of the covenant made with man in his innocency as a covenant of works. The TFU have no such comparable designation, as this was a subsequent development in covenant theology. The question here is one of continuity between Reformed theology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While some, like Karl Barth, have seen a great discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists (a popular way of putting this perceived disjunction), many others, like Richard Muller, have argued that while there are different emphases that develop in covenant theology, there is essential continuity between the TFU and the WS.

With respect to items 4 and 8 (the Fourth Commandment and Prayer as a Means of Grace), there is likely more accord in practice here than in precept (as is true with respect to liturgy and catechizing). While it is true that the Westminster Standards have a more robust doctrine of the Sabbath than do the Three Forms of Unity, it is the case, observationally, that the churches in the URCNA have functionally at least as high if not a higher history of practice with respect to the Lord’s Day. The OPC, in general, would be happy to have 50 percent of those in morning service return for the evening service. It is customary in the URCNA to have a higher percentage than half of those who worshiped in the morning service returning for the evening service. Similarly, in terms of practice, it is not the case that prayer, ordinarily, plays a lesser part in secret, private, and public worship in the URCNA than in the OPC. Members of the URCNA, as well as churches in the URCNA, appear to be as prayerful as those in the OPC; all could use improvement here, but it is not the case that the URCNA is demonstrably less prayerful than the OPC.

With respect to the other items, they can all be handily addressed. Several of these—points 1, 2, 5, and 6—simply are not addressed in the Three Forms of Unity. It is not that the Westminster Standards contradict the Three Forms of Unity at these points; the TFU have no specific treatment of “elect infants dying in infancy” (something arguably a bit different than what Dort 1.17 affirms); divorce; the visible and invisible church distinction; or the covenant of works. With respect to point 3, different matters are in view in the two traditions. The assurance of which the Three Forms of Unity speak is a contention made over against Rome’s assertion that assurance is an extraordinary work; Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism sees assurance as that which ordinarily accompanies faith. The Westminster Standards treatment of assurance distinguishes faith and assurance, seeing the latter as a reflective act on the former and not of the essence of saving faith itself. The TFU then is speaking of assurance as the conviction accompanying assent and trust, whereas Westminster sees assurance as a reflection on the activity of faith, a believing that one believes.

Point 7 (on the power to depose) points to what will ultimately play out as a polity difference between the OPC and the URC and thus is a real difference, but more of a polity than doctrinal nature. Point 9 (on the true and false church) in the Belgic Confession is written at a point in time when the differences between true and false churches was plainer and a matter of kind not degree. After the proliferation of Protestant groups in the seventeenth century, the matter is less clear: Westminster Confession of Faith 25 is written after the development of Protestantism when it has become the case that the issue is no longer as clearly true or false church simpliciter but a matter of degree among a greater number of churches—“more or less pure.”

Even the historic difference with respect to confessional adherence (the OPC permitting scruples and the URCNA maintaining a “stricter” quia subscription) is not often what some have made of it (stricter vs. looser subscription is not the same debate as the quia/quatenus debate)[2] and reflects a lack of discernment regarding the fuller nature of the WS over against the TFU. What I mean is this: the Westminster Standards contain a more developed doctrinal statement than do the continental standards, with the former addressing matters like lawful oaths and vows (chapter 22) and marriage and divorce (chapter 24).

Permitting scruples about such wide-ranging confessional statements is not the same as permitting such with respect to documents that are more narrowly focused on soteriology and ecclesiology, as are the Three Forms of Unity. There is little that one could conceive of taking exception to in the continental standards, given their narrower explication of soteriological and ecclesiological Calvinism. All this is to say, that our continental brothers need not be nervous over the OPC permitting a few scruples, usually in areas in which their documents are silent or sparse (one thinks particularly here of matters related to the Sabbath as well as those addressed immediately above).

The differences, then, between the OPC and the URCNA, while doctrinal in some measure, are not thought to be chiefly such: the doctrinal differences tend to be matters of emphasis and the OPC coming from a more developed doctrinal statement in the Westminster Standards of the mid-seventeenth century than the earlier Belgic Confession (1561), Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and Canons of Dort (1618). It is agreed that the most significant differences between the two churches lie in the area of polity. Polity differences are not of the same order as doctrinal differences—we Presbyterians reflect this sometimes in referring to our doctrinal statements as secondary and our polity documents as tertiary (with the Scriptures being irreformable and thus primary). Consequently, one might surmise that where such differences obtain among the OPC and URC, it is better that they are only polity and not doctrinal differences.

And this is true: differences that can be more readily composed (as one might assume with tertiary rather than secondary differences), should present less of a barrier to union between the two bodies than divergences of a more substantive sort. Such polity differences as there are, however, must not be pooh-poohed as if they are unimportant and don’t really matter. As important as one’s doctrinal standards are, one’s polity rules are also important, because they function on the level of day-to-day operations of the organization, arguably more so than the doctrinal standards do, strictly speaking. Polity differences (between the two church orders), then, form the more significant barrier between the two bodies at the level of routine functioning. They are not as daunting as doctrinal differences; they are, however, given their regular role in the life of the bodies, important. If the two bodies are to grow closer, polity differences will need to be honestly admitted and carefully engaged in seeking to make ecumenical progress.

The URCNA Committee that examined all the differences between the URCNA and OPC looked, as I’ve noted, not only at the doctrinal differences but also polity differences. They looked at the polity differences under the rubrics provided for in the URCNA Church Order.[3] The URCNA Church Order is considerably thinner than the OPC Book of Church Order. The former contains all the matters pertaining to government, worship, and discipline in the sixty-six articles of its Church Order, whereas in the OPC such matters are spread across three distinct books: the Form of Government, the Directory for the Public Worship of God, and the Book of Discipline. Since I am basing this talk in no small measure on that report, here is the organization of the URCNA Church Order articles and the order of treatment by the committee of the polity differences:

  1. Ecclesiastical Offices (Articles 1–15)
  2. Ecclesiastical Assemblies (Articles 16–36)
  3. Ecclesiastical Functions and Tasks (Articles 37–50)
  4. Ecclesiastical Discipline (Articles 51–66)

With respect to the first section on Ecclesiastical Offices, both the URCNA and the OPC conceive of three offices: minister, (ruling) elder, and deacon, though the two bodies understand them somewhat differently. Both churches see ministers as those who pastor, chiefly, and who administer the Word and sacraments. Additionally, the OPC (in keeping with historic Presbyterianism) views the office of minister as also comprehending that of ruling elder and deacon. In other words, ministers are elders and deacons as well, elders are also deacons, and deacons are deacons. The URCNA conceives of the offices rather more distinctly, so that a minister is not also a church governor (elder). Additionally, in the URCNA the local consistory, of which the minister is a member, has jurisdiction over him, instead of the presbytery, in which body a minister has his membership in the OPC. In the URCNA, the consistory examines and qualifies men (with the assistance of the classis); in the OPC, the presbytery is the examining and qualifying body for ministers and ministerial candidates.

It may also be noted, with respect to the ministerial office, that the OPC, as does historic Presbyterianism and other continental Reformed churches, sees the office of minister as expressing itself not only in the pastorate but in other ways. The OPC church order explicitly describes the teacher and the evangelist, with the former having warrant to teach in the local congregation, as well as in the theological seminary and other educational institutions, and the latter operating in the mission context, including publishing, editing and the like. Formally speaking, it is unclear that the URCNA Church Order provides for any exercise of the office of minister other than that which is carried out in the specific office of pastor of a local church.

With respect to the second section on Ecclesiastical Assemblies, it is also noted that both bodies recognize three assemblies: local (consistory and session), regional (classis and presbytery), and national (synod and general assembly). Here, too, however, there is a somewhat different conception of the matter. The URCNA believes that the consistory is the only continuing judicatory, whereas the OPC believes that the presbytery is an ongoing judicatory as well and that the “broader” judicatories are not merely functional in securing the peace, purity, and unity of the church but are necessary for good order. The comparison of these first thirty-six articles are made with the OPC Form of Government.

With respect to the third section on Ecclesiastical Functions and Tasks, the committee particularly rejoiced in the similarity (especially with the OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God):

Your committee gratefully acknowledges the striking uniformity between the OPC and the URCNA in their common desire to promote God-glorifying, Word-centered worship, to administer the sacraments in an understandable and edifying manner according to the teaching of Scripture, and to conduct the affairs of the local church decently and in good order.[4]

This commendation notwithstanding, the committee did note some differences with the OPC, chiefly: the URCNA mandates catechetical preaching; when the sacraments are observed in the URCNA, one of the provided liturgical forms must be used; and all mission work takes place under the oversight of a local consistory. One might also interpret the URCNA church order to require that the singing of psalms predominate in public worship.

With respect to the fourth section on Ecclesiastical Discipline, the URCNA is sparse when compared with the OPC’s more robust Book of  Discipline. That is the main difference between the two: while both require due process (because it is equitable and God’s Word requires it), the OPC spells out in considerably more detail what comprises and protects that process. There are also more matters treated in the OPC Book of Discipline than in these Church Order Articles of the URNCA. The main difference between the two bodies continues to be the membership and jurisdiction of the minister, which is in the consistory for the URCNA and the presbytery for the OPC.

How to overcome these perceived and real barriers is the challenge that now confronts us. Most of the real differences between the URCNA and OPC, as we’ve noted, are polity differences, not doctrinal differences. This is a judgment that not a few share, and it is reflected in the cited report.

This is quite ecumenically encouraging. Granted the polity differences are nothing to sneeze at as they impact daily operations. But it’s far harder to amend our secondary doctrinal standards than it is our tertiary polity standards. And rightly so. We only need simple majorities to amend our polity standards where we need (multiple) super majorities to amend our doctrinal ones. We should thus think hard about how we can move closer toward one another in terms of polity.

As we turn our attention to composing our polity differences, we need to determine that we will not die on every polity hill. We need to take a long hard look at our differences and see how we could each benefit from the other. Perhaps there’s a lot to learn from each other, e.g., Presbyterians could do with having every minister tied to some church (whatever he’s doing; in addition to being a member of presbytery) and the Reformed might acknowledge that there is a real church in addition to and beyond the local congregation (classis being seen more like presbytery; for this latter, I especially refer you to my paper to this classis in October 2010 on what a healthy classis looks like and how it operates).

In short, it’s going to take compromise. We will need to make a candid assessment of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Let the denominational/federational committees and each presbytery/classis assess their own strengths and weaknesses relative to the other. And the strengths and weaknesses of the other. In other words, let’s look at ourselves and each other and say, “What can I learn?” “What are we doing better than you, and what are you doing better than we are?” If we don’t think that can properly be done, how are we heeding Philippians 2:1–4?

And let’s value the ecumenical imperative enough to sit down and see if we can hash out our differences, building off some already remarkable examples of doing so, namely, the Psalter-Hymnal Committee. In our work together on that project, it is broadly accurate to say that the OPC yielded to the URC a lot on the Psalms (and learned a great deal from our Psalm-singing brethren in the URC; such Psalm-singing was very much a part of historic Presbyterianism but lost to us in more recent times); and that the URC yielded to the OPC a lot on the hymns (particularly in the rich hymnody that has developed among us in the post-Reformation era).  

May the Lord unite us ever in closer fellowship and working relationship, even to the point of union, as the OPC and the CRC came close to doing in the mid-1960s. What kept us from coming together back then was doctrinal, namely, liberalism in the CRC with respect to several matters. Can’t we pick up there, now that we’ve gotten rid of the real differences—the doctrinal differences that kept the OPC and CRC apart? Even then, it wasn’t that the CRC had confessional doctrinal differences with the OPC, having the same confessions and catechism that the URCNA now has. Rather, because of its embrace of liberalism, the CRC was moving in a different direction and away from confessional fidelity.

Those old issues don’t exist in that same way with the URC (you’re not pursuing women in office, lacking clarity on homosexuality, denying the historicity of Genesis 1–11, etc.). The URC really represents all the folk in the CRC that we were so wanting to unite with back then. Why can’t we work together now toward what ultimately eluded us then? Need it continue always to elude us? I don’t think so. It will take a lot of work, but so does everything worth doing (like sanctification).

The Christian life, rightly lived, involves much hard work, not done in our own strength, however, but as enabled by the Spirit, who empowers us to work out, even in fear and trembling, that which God has worked in us to will and to do his good pleasure. I challenge us all—URCNA and OPC—to think of what this sanctification on a corporate level might mean. Surely, no small part of such corporate sanctification would include a greater realization among us all of the ecumenical imperative. Yes, there are barriers to it, as there are to personal sanctification, and it will not happen automatically and without much prayer and labor. Sic ora et labor (“so pray and work”). Let us commit to working out together the unity that we already enjoy as believers in Christ, for our edification and his glorification. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] This article is based on a lecture given at the United Reformed Churches in North America Classis Eastern US, “Semper Reformanda Conference” on October 14, 2014.

[2] Some Reformed churches made a similar distinction as the Lutherans between those who subscribed to the confessions “because” (quia) they were expressive of the Word of God and those who subscribed “insofar as” (quatenus) they were expressive of the Word of God, cf. Peter Lillback, “Confessional Subscription Among the Sixteenth Century Reformers,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, David W. Hall, ed. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995), 33–66.

[3] Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America, Seventh Edition, AD 2016.

[4] URCNA-OPC Study Committee Report, referred to the churches by Synod Escondido of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2001.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, January 2018.

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