Scripture differentiates those errors which are not excommunicable from those errors which are excommunicable. And it distinguishes those truths which all Christians ought to agree upon versus those which are not so essential that a failure to assent will cause harm to the sum of religion. The Apostle Paul speaks of those errors which are not excommunicable in terms of bearing with our weaker brethren who have fallen into various errors. As Calvin writes in his Institutes: "we have…shown that the errors which ought to be pardoned are those which do not harm the chief doctrine of religion, which do not destroy the articles of religion on which all believers ought to agree; and with regard to the sacraments, those which do not abolish or throw down the lawful institution of the Author." That which "all believers" ought to agree upon encompasses the truths all believers throughout Christian history should assent to, so that the "chief doctrine of religion" is a fixed standard throughout all this history. The visible church here on earth before Christ’s return will never come to 100% agreement on 100% of the issues. As Calvin notes, "since all men are somewhat beclouded with ignorance, either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation." Christians in history who have a wrong-headed perfectionist vision of the church have unnecessarily caused schism within Christ’s visible church in their efforts to move closer to perfection. It is one thing to preach and teach against such error and to exhort our fellow brethren, but it is another thing altogether to break communion and visible unity over issues which are not excommunicable and for which there is not scriptural warrant to separate. It is one thing to strive for perfection, but it is another thing altogether to divide Christ’s visible church because it is not achieved or because it is not achieved as nearly as we personally might like. Calvin wisely remarked: "how dangerous-nay, how deadly- a temptation is it, when one is prompted to withdraw from that congregation wherein are seen the signs and tokens with which the Lord thought his church sufficiently marked?"
But although there are indeed issues over which Christians must allow difference without breaking communion, there are errors which are excommunicable and corresponding truths which cannot be compromised without separation. These truths are the bottom line below which the visible church cannot go. With regards to these issues, a person or group of persons or even a whole church or denomination which has unrepentantly embraced the error must be, so to speak, excommunicated. Such a separation from communion is meant to work repentance in those Christians so excommunicated. But regrettably, those whose beliefs or actions take them below the bottom line will have caused schism within Christ’s body.
Let’s consider six sample bottom line issues from scripture. First, in I Corinthians 5 we have the issue of which marriages are lawful in the sight of God. That man who violated the scriptural principles in his marrying was to be excommunicated until he repented, just as such were to be cut off from the Israelite covenant community (Leviticus 20). Second, we have the issue of refusal of a parent to have his child receive the sign of the covenant. It is required that all in the covenant community- including children- have this sign, lest they be cut off from the community (Genesis 17, Joshua 5). Third, we have the issue of recognizing the right and duty of the civil magistrate to enforce the Ten Commandments and covenanted reformation in his realm. For instance, all those in the covenant community under Nehemiah’s leadership were required to acknowledge this (Nehemiah 10:28). They had to acknowledge that it was good when Nehemiah took actions such as punishing the Sabbath desecrators. Fourth, we have the issue of justification through faith alone in the book of Galatians in opposition to the Judaistic heresy. Those who unrepentantly taught or embraced this were to be cut off from the covenant community (Galatians 1-3.) Fifth, we have the issue of those who would invent worship rites and impose them upon the church. According to Matthew 15:9 and Colossians 2:23 this will worship is not to be countenanced. Sixth, we have the issue of those who would not respect Presbyterian government and decisions. II Chronicles 19:8 and Acts 15 imply it was required that all the people, churches, and synagogues had to respect the decision of the synod of elders. It was a "necessary thing" to follow the decision of the synod in order to remain in communion (Acts 15:28).
It was the goal of our reformation fore-fathers to lay out what they believed scripture taught were the bottom line issues in their confessions such as the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity and the Helvetic Confession. To use Calvin’s terminology, they were seeking to formulate "the chief doctrine of religion" and "the articles of religion on which all believers ought to agree." Believing that agreement on these bottom line issues spelled out in the Westminster Standards was necessary for visible church unity and God-honoring civil government in the United Kingdom, from which the United States came, the Solemn League and Covenant was adopted in the 17th century. As Christians in America today we need to ask ourselves: what is the bottom line for us? Did the original Westminster Standards get it right with what it defines as the bottom line issues and doctrines? I think so.
Our goal in America today (and the world tomorrow!) should be the formation
of one visibly united church of all local churches which embrace the doctrines
and principles of the original Westminster Standards. This visibly united
church is the rightful established reformed church of the United States.
Is that your bottom line as well?