JAMES BANNERMAN ON DENOMINATIONAL AFFILIATION AND ECCLESIASTICAL UNION
James Bannerman (1807–1868), old Free Church theologian, is one of the most learned scholars regarding ecclesiology that history has produced. His book The Church of Christ stands as a monument to his scholarship in this field. Therefore, we would be wise to consider the book in forming our own views on denominational affiliation and ecclesiastical union. Let’s now review some of his points in the book that relate to these questions.
In Appendix A of his book, Bannerman first sets forth the general principle that “union, and not division, is a Christian axiom.” More specifically, “where God giveth opportunity, there a Christian society or Church should acknowledge another Church, and unite with it in the worship of God and Christian fellowship.”
He then avers 1 of 2 conditions that alone may stop such union: “first, that it is impossible to acknowledge them as Christian men or Churches; or, secondly, that while acknowledging them as such, it is impossible to work together with them without sin.” With respect to the first condition he states this: “The Westminster Confession lays down the simple and catholic doctrine, that “the profession of the true religion” is the one test of a Christian Church…by the possession of this one feature, a Church of Christ is known…however much it may differ from us in non-essential points of creed, or government, or worship, - we are bound to recognize and deal with it as a Christian Church, and not a synagogue of Satan.” In other words, Bannerman’s first stated condition would have us to ask whether the other church is a true Christian church in being (esse). With respect to the second condition, he would have us ask “if it can show that union for the joint administration of Word and Sacrament, of government, worship, and discipline, in a Church, lays upon ministers and members the necessity of some compromise of truth, or some surrender of duty”. He states this, by way of example: “I believe that the Congregational body is a true Church of Christ…but I would not be a minister of that Church, because, as such, I should be forced to act upon principles of Church government, which to me, as a Presbyterian, cannot be made to consist with those Church principles which I recognize in Scripture.” In other words, Bannerman’s second stated condition would have us to ask whether the other church is a Christian church in well being (bene esse). He then implies that the articles of what constitutes well being of a church are accurately outlined in the Westminster Standards, by answering whether union with a particular denomination would involve compromise of any article in the Westminster Standards.
This is consistent with what Bannerman wrote in the body of his book, in these words:
“We recognize this distinction every day in regard to a Christian man; and it is no less to be recognized in its application to Christian society. There is many a doctrine and truth of revelation, in regard to which a man may err without ceasing on that account to be a Christian man; and there may be many a duty recognized in Scripture as binding upon all, in which he may be totally deficient without forfeiting his Christianity. In other words, there is much in doctrine and duty, in faith and practice, necessary to the perfection of a believer, which is not necessary to the existence of a believer as such; and so it is with a Christian Church. What is essential to its existence as a Church is something very different from what is essential to its perfection as a church.... This distinction is of considerable value, and not difficult, under the teaching of Scripture, to be applied. We read in Scripture that the Christian Church is, "the pillar and ground of the truth," and that, "for this cause the Son of God himself came, that he might bear witness to the truth." In other words, we learn that the very object for which the Church of Christ was established on the earth was to declare and uphold the truth.... Judging then by this first test, we are warranted in saying, that to hold and to preach the true faith or doctrine of Christ is the only sure and infallible note or mark of the Christian Church, because this is the one thing for the sake of which a Church of Christ has been instituted on earth. A true faith makes a true church and a corrupt faith a corrupt church: and should it at any time apostatize from the true faith altogether, it would by the very act, cease to be a Church of Christ in any sense at all. The Church was established for the sake of the truth and not the truth for the sake of the church.... For this thing then the Church of Christ was instituted; and this thing, or the declaration of the truth, must therefore be, in its nature and importance, paramount to the church itself. Again we read in Scripture that Christ," 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." In other words we learn that ordinances and office bearers have been established for the object of promoting the wellbeing and edification of the Church. These things then, unlike the former, were instituted for the sake of the Church and not the Church for the sake of them; and these things therefore, must be, in their nature and importance, subordinate to the Church (James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, Vol. 1, 1869, SWRB reprint, 1991, pp. 5659).
In summary, “administration of Word and Sacrament, of government, worship, and discipline” are measures of a church’s well being, whereas her profession of faith is the measure of her being a Christian church or not, according to Bannerman.