By Parnell McCarter


I have recently been engaged in a dialogue on church union with Nate Eshelman, a seminarian at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and ministerial candidate in the RPCNA.  The full dialogue is at http://nathaneshelman.blogspot.com/ .  Here are excerpts:


Parnell: “Are you suggesting there should be affiliation and merger even if it comes at the expense of an erroneous confession and without full subscription to any reformed confession? Is a denomination flawed merely on the grounds of being relatively small in number?... another way I might phrase my questions to you is this: Unity is a noble goal, but how should unity Biblically be achieved? Should it be achieved by rallying around an erroneous confession, just for the sake of having visible unity? Or should it be achieved by rallying around a true confession like the original Westminster Stds, and joining a church which holds to it? But if we do settle on the first method, then why is the Roman Catholic Church not the sensible choice?”


Nate: “I believe that there are a few different things that we need to consider as we think about unity, subscription, and issues centered on church unity vs. purity (if you want to say that they are opposing thoughts).  1. What churches are available locally? There may be a perfect church on paper, but if there are not people locally with whom to fellowship, than you are a being pure in theory, but practice will have to be different. You will either have your papers with the pure church and fellowship with the erroneous church; or you will have your paper in the pure church and have false fellowship- emails, blogs, internet forums. This forsakes the face-to-face nature of the church.  The bottom line is that those who seek out the purest church for the sake of having their Confession usually end up being sectarian. What was Calvin's advice in letters to those who only had Lutheran churches to attend? Be Lutheran.  2. When a couple of ministers leave a denomination to be a pure church they are abandoning the duty to be reformers and those who answer the gainsayer. Time after time, in church history we see people abandoning the church to make something pure- that leaves the larger body with less sound men to fight against error.  Hence the couple of ministers that left have done damage to the body of Christ. It would be like if you had cancer and all of your antibodies left you because they did not like the cancer being there- you die. This is the problem with everyone and their brother starting presbyterian churches with 2-5 ministers: it NEVER ends, and the body of Christ is in further schism.  I could see if all of the church courts had been appealed to and the church refused to repent and kicked a man or group of ministers out- but to leave and start something because you have a problem with a secondary issue- that is schism and sin. (Of course, the main concern should always be for restoration with the sinning body.)  I am not sure of all of the ins and outs of Scottish church history and am in no position to judge all of the bodies (Church of Scotland, Free Church, Free Church Continuing, Reformed Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, Associate Presbyterians, Associated Presbyterians, and many, many more) , but I feel confident in saying that this is not what Jesus Christ had in mind- and neither is a couple of 'pure' ministers who separate themselves from the body of Christ claiming to be the truest church or the purest church.  What was the Reformer and Puritan position on reformation and church unity?  You stay and fight for the sake of Christ until the established church will no longer have you. Were there faulty confessions in the Church of England before the Act of Uniformity? You bet ya! But our forefathers knew enough to set aside party spirit and to fight for the sake of the Gospel and Christ. We have a practical result of THIS practice of 'unity and purity' in the Westminster Standards.  If the Puritans had all left their churches to go start their own churches, I can say with a good conscience that the Westminster Standards would have never been written. There would be hundreds of smaller works that defined little 3-5 ministerial bands. The Westminster Standards are the practical outworking of a Reformed ecumenical spirit. There is no way to argue against this given the historical evidence. 
This is my position, following in the Reformation and Puritan tradition. I will stay where I am and be a witness. A witness for the sake of the Gospel. A witness against what I see as error. A witness for the healing of a body that has been called to be one. I believe where I am is a good place with a lot of work being done for the Gospel.  I will never leave because of minor disputes or cultural baggage. I will not partake in schism.  There is a term amongst youth counter-culture that is helpful. It is called 'chasing the red dragon' and what it means is that you are looking for something that is not there and you will waste your whole life looking for. 
I will not chase the red dragon of the purest church in the world- our Confession of Faith, chapter 25, says that even the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error.  I believe that we are confessionally bound to acknowledge this and to have the same faith of our Puritan forefathers- stay and fight under the captain of our souls, who loved a spotted and unfaithful bride enough to die for her.  I will live for her and pray that she can be pure in doctrine, practice, and single mindedness. 
Two a'Brakel quotes to ponder:

It is not sufficient to merely join the church, to remain with her for some time, and thereafter to separate from her. One ought never to break away from and leave her under the pretense that the church is degenerate, in order to establish a pure church, for: First, the Lord has never blessed such endeavors. There have always been those (in the first church, both prior to her oppression by the antichrist as well as since the time of the Reformation) who under this pretense have broken away from the church. The Lord, however, has always overturned such endeavors, and such undertakings have collapsed of themselves when the initial instigators died. Due to a just judgment of God, however, such individuals have rarely perceived their errors and made confession of them, and have rarely rejoined the church. Rather, having been given over to their own stubbornness, they have remained independent as people without any religion, or they have succumbed to heresy and have joined themselves to such assemblies which most fully agreed with their errors. Such was the case with the Brethren in Hungary, and in our days the Labadists have arisen who have boasted of great things (II: 60).

It is a dreadful sin to depart from the church for the purpose of establishing one which is better, for the church is one, she being the body of Christ. To separate oneself from the church is to separate from the people of Christ and thus from His body, thereby withdrawing himself from the confession of Christ and departing from the fellowship of the saints. If one indeed deems the church to be what she really is, one will then cause schism in the body of Christ, grieve the godly, offend others, give cause for the blaspheming of God's Name, and cause the common church member to err (II: 61).”


Parnell: “I would like to continue the dialogue with these brief comments for now, and hopefully continue as time permits:

1. We ought to distinguish a "church with a true confession" and a "pure church". I have argued for the former, but never the latter. So my question of you and others is what gives you the Biblical right to join a denomination with an erroneous confession (the RPCNA Testimony) when there is a denomination with a true confession (the original Westminster Stds)? You may be moving from Grand Rapids, so the answer cannot merely be it's all that is available locally.

2. If you are willing to join a church with an erroneous confession, then where is your bottom line? Why does it not go as far as joining the Roman Catholic Church and seeking to work to improve it?

3. What happens to church discipline if numbers determine who a person should go with, instead of which party is right on the issue? eg, the APC left the FPCS because they wanted to be able to attend the Romish Mass. So if most in my area agree and leave the FPCS on such grounds, should I leave it too, even though I agree with the FPCS position?

4. I think you have mis-interpreted Rutherford, etc. on church unity, but it is hard to address in a little comment box. As a starting response, please see http://www.puritans.net/news/pillaroftruth011508.htm


Nate: “I must confess that I do not have it all worked out. I do not pretend to know all of these things.  Since the church in the NT is one visible church we must work off of principles and have no clear evidence of church splits, etc.   I also want to say that these thoughts are just that- thoughts on the issue. I am not attempting to present a Reformed dogmatic here.   Should we join Rome if we can join a church with error? Well, no. What errors does the FPCS hold to? Could you join Rome because of it?”


Parnell: “Nate, in answer to your question, I could not join with any denomination which does not adhere to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the original Westminster Stds. That is my bottom line, because I believe scripture teaches it as the bottom line. That is why I could not join with various denominations, inc the RCC, but can with the FPCS. I am just trying to understand what bottom line you are advocating. eg, *if* the only denominations with congregations in one's town were the PCUSA, CRC and RCC, should one join with one of them instead of the FPCS, which does not have a congregation in town?... Rutherford wrote: “When the greatest part of a church makes defection from the truth, the lesser part remaining sound, the greatest part is the church of separatists, though the maniest and greater part in the actual exercise of discipline is the church; yet in the case of right discipline, the best though fewest is the church.” Why should we not believe denominations such as the ARP, RPCNA, and OPC which have defected from the truth by their confessional amendments to the original Westminster Standards are separatists, whereas the FPCS (adhering to the original Westminster Standards) is not?”


Nate: “There is a time to leave a church and a time to plant something else- when... that is what I am trying to work out... I am not sure if I ever will at this point- Scripture does not leave much room for our current system of denominationalism…When I speak of not partaking in schism, I speak of starting something new- adding to the problem. I would imagine that our current list of Reformed and Presbyterian churches is enough. Do not cause further schism. I will, by the grace of God, never be a minister that helps start a micropresbyterian church. That is what I mean… Since NAPARC churches are unified to some degree and have some mutual fellowship, I do not think that it would schismatic if someone went to another NAPARC church (or some similar group of Reformed churches that have accountability to each other).”


Parnell: “Nate, let may submit why you may be having difficulty answering my question about the CRC, PCUSA and RCC: you are concerned where it logically leads. If it is ok to unite with a denomination that has constitutionally/confessionally defected from the truth in some major respects (rejecting Esta Principle, tolerating women deacons, tolerating Christmas observance, tolerating marriages prohibited in Bible[affinity issue], etc),it is quite arbitrary to argue disunity should be maintained with the CRC because it tolerates women elders (for example). Your theory of church unity and affiliation IMO logically leads to the conclusion you should be urging the merger not only of the NAPARC denominations, but also of denominations like the CRC. In contrast, Bannerman's view of church union and affiliation would argue that there should be no union with those bodies that have defected from adhering to the original Westminster Standards (see http://www.puritans.net/news/bannerman051107.htm ). Obviously, I agree with that view.”


Nate: “What about Original Westminster and all of that extra-biblical baggage such as no make up, jewelery, stage plays, etc.  
You cannot claim that the FPCS holds to the original standards therefore we need to join them- and then also require all of the Scottish cultural baggage.  It is like saying that you cannot be a Christian unless you have been circumcised in the manner of Scotland.   Where do you think the line should be drawn? Because churches like the FPCS go beyond the Standards as well.   Do you see any error within the FPCS? If not, I do not think that this conversation can be fruitful because we are arguing from different presuppositions: perfect/pure church vs. all churches have error.   If the FPCS has error- please state what it is because on all of the RFW posts, Puritan.net, etc. I have never seen a disagreement with her.   What are her errors?”


Parnell: “Nate, the things you mention like no make up, no movies, etc. are applications historically maintained by the Church of Scotland of principles outlined in the original Westminster Stds. As you know, I agree with those particular applications, and I'm glad the FPCS is seeking to uphold them. With respect to the confessional standards of the FPCS (the original Westminster Stds), as you know I fully subscribe to them, which means I believe they are true and without error in laying out what scripture teaches. It should surprise no one that the church can derive from the Bible true confessional stds, given it is the "pillar of truth" per the Bible. I find it rather amazing that some individuals agree with no church's confessional standards, but believe they know what is true. Such must think they are the "pillar of truth" and not the church. I think I have made it clear that I believe the FPCS does not perfectly implement its standards, nor do I believe any church on the earth before the Lord's return will. Some examples: some laxity in enforcing movie ban (see http://www.puritans.net/news/moviesfpcs051607.htm ); inconsistency in suppressing jewelry (http://www.puritans.net/news/attire040604.htm ); allowing some officers to believe and teach that Roman Catholic baptism should not be accepted. As I note at http://www.puritans.net/news/biblicalrealism021207.htm  , "...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..." I do not accept that all churches have confessional/constitutional errors. I believe the FPCS's standards are true, but I believe the RPCNA's are not true. But I readily agree no church is perfectly pure. A church, like a person, may hold to the Ten Commandments, but that does not mean they can perfectly keep them. The church we should join is to be the "pillar of truth", but there is no Biblical expectation that it will be perfect before the Lord returns.”