We are in great need today of principled Biblical realism on matters of church affiliation and relation. I would like first to explain what I mean by principled Biblical realism as a general concept, and then define it with more specificity.
To understand principled Biblical realism as a general concept, let’s consider its individual parts. By ‘principled’ I mean that there are some standards we hold to as non-negotiable. These are standards that we simply cannot tolerate to be rejected by church officers and even communicant members (albeit the latter will generally be less thoroughly knowledgeable of and able to defend them than the former) of the church. Indeed, these are standards that we must insist all church officers and even communicant members subscribe to, after first having been catechized and trained in them. Without such a corpus of standards, church unity would be a sham and empty of real content. Scripture alludes to a corpus of such standards in numerous places, as well as laying out what those standards are. By ‘realism’ I mean that there must be a proper recognition and response to the remaining sin and ignorance of all humans (even those regenerate) both as manifested in individuals and in the visible church. As the Westminster Confession rightly notes, “the purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error.” For instance, the Ten Commandments summarize the moral law of God (as the Westminster Standards so rightly point out), but no man (save Jesus Christ) or institution of man on earth has perfectly complied with the law, even though they may hold to the law as a summary of what they should obey. By ‘Biblical’ I mean that the source of where we learn the corpus of non-negotiable principles that we must require communicant members to understand, embrace and adhere to, as well as areas where we should allow flaw and imperfection without separation, is the word of God alone.
As the general concept has been defined, I would submit that the Biblical standards outlined in the original (i.e., real) Westminster Standards accurately outline the corpus of standards that should mark our unity. The reformed confessions and orders of the Protestant Reformation, whether of France, the Netherlands, etc., were intended for this very function. It so Providentially happened that the church, in composing and approving the Westminster Standards, was able to draw upon the earlier confessions and church orders to achieve a level of completeness and thoroughness that the earlier ones could not. Of course, in point of fact the corpus of standards was in existence before and without any of these church composed and approved standards, because it is perspicuously revealed in the Bible. The church confessions and orders are merely outlines of what scripture teaches, often produced in order to combat the heresies of heretics and the errors of schismatics whose beliefs and actions contradict the word of God. Sadly, due to spiritual declension, that part of the visible Christian church which fully adheres to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards has diminished in relative size since the time of the Protestant Reformation. But this diminution in support in no wise alters the duty to seek to join with a church that fully subscribes to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards.
But we should not expect there to be perfect implementation of the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards by any church. The very standards themselves aver as much, as previously noted. To expect and insist upon perfect implementation of the standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards is in fact to deny the very standards themselves. The church will inevitably fall short in her implementation of the standards she holds dear. She will not perfectly enforce the laws she should enforce, nor will she always abstain from punishing that which is innocent. She will not always rightly perceive all of the implications of the standards. Nor will she always adjudicate every case perfectly. But this lack of perfection alone is no just basis for separation from a church.
So long as there is full subscription to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards and a reasonably good faith effort on the part of the church assembly to implement those standards, we should seek to be united to such a denominational church. On the other hand, we ought not to join ourselves with churches that do not fully subscribe to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the original Westminster Standards. And we ought not to join with denominations schismatically formed, when there was already a denomination which fully subscribed to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards and there was a reasonably good faith effort on the part of the church assembly to implement those standards. We ought not to aid and abet schism in the visible church of Christ in our church membership. If a church meets the scripturally bottom line conditions, then we ought not to leave it on the fanciful prospect of some “better” church that could possibly be created.