OF MULTI-DENOMINATIONAL SEMINARIES AND COUNCILS
Two important developments in the last decade among more conservative reformed denominations have been the establishment of the multi-denominational Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and the joining of NAPARC by the Free Reformed Churches of North America and the Heritage Reformed Congregations, as well as the pending membership by the Presbyterian Reformed Church and the Canadian Reformed Churches.
NAPARC is the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Its official website at http://www.naparc.org/gpage.html states its purpose as follows: “That the adopted basis of fellowship be regarded as warrant for the establishment of a formal relationship of the nature of the council, that is, a fellowship that enables the constituent churches to advise, council, and cooperate in various matters with one another and hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.”* It consists of the following member and pending member churches:
Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary is a
multi-denominational seminary in
There is now more open talk and discussion, at least among some of the seminarians at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, about where the multi-denominational seminary approach and NAPARC should logically lead. The conclusion of at least some – a conclusion I share – is that such should logically lead to denominational merger, and that such a denominational merger may entail toleration within the merged entity of some previously held distinctives of some of the denominations. Among the distinctives (to name but a few) – distinctives which are explicitly or implicitly outlined in the Westminster Standards - that could potentially be lost at least on a denomination-wide basis are: a ban on musical instruments in the public worship, a ban on holy day observance like Christmas and Easter, the Establishment Principle, identification of the Pope as the Man of Sin, a ban on uninspired hymnody in the public worship, female head covering in public worship, literal six day creation (in contrast to toleration of perspectives such as the Framework Hypothesis), received text only (in contrast to toleration of critical text), strict Sabbath observance, and full confessional subscriptionism. Those who vigorously object to such denominational merger would naturally come to be considered as sectarian by those involved in such merger, and those involved in such merger would naturally come to be considered as latitudinarian by those who vigorously object.
We should not imagine that multi-denominational seminaries like Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and multi-denominational councils like NAPARC are merely equivalent to Christian leaders of different denominations sitting down at a table and seeking to discuss and work out their differences. No, such seminaries and councils are the first step towards merger where the lowest common denominator typically ends up prevailing, even if the joining parties fail fully to admit as much (even to themselves) at the beginning of the process. Here is how a leading scholar in the NAPARC churches, Dr. John Frame, describes the role of councils like NAPARC as well as fraternal relationships in his book Evangelical Reunion:
“Among the tiny Presbyterian bodies in which I spend most of my time, there is the concept of a "fraternal relationship.” These relationships vary in detail, but usually churches in this relationship receive members from one another via letter of transfer, without requiring any additional examination or profession of faith. Ministerial transfer is somewhat more difficult, but usually at least without any stigma. Fraternal churches also exchange pulpits with a minimum of difficulty, and they send representatives to one another's presbytery and general assembly meetings to bring greetings. Indeed, even ministers other than official representatives can be seated in the presbytery meetings of a fraternal denomination and be recognized (by vote) as "corresponding members" of the assembly, with privilege of the floor but not the right to vote. The fraternal relationship is actually a kind of half-way union. For it presupposes that both denominations in the relationship accept the doctrinal and practical soundness of the other. Each body recognizes the soundness of the preaching, sacraments and discipline of the other, each recognizes the wisdom and other gifts to be found in the other group… Another sort of pre-union relationship might be an organization of denominations (most likely within the same confessional family) which covenant together to work toward union. An example is the National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC) which meets regularly for inter-denominational discussions and to share suggestions about ways of pre-union cooperation. This is something similar to what I called earlier an "Evangelical COCU." NAPARC has been a useful organization, and I recommend this approach to other confessional groupings.”
Church union is indeed where they logically lead, for they are pre-union relationships. And that is why I disagree with them, because I believe the bottom line of Biblical ecclesiastical affiliation and merger is found in the principles outlined in the original Westminster Standards. In my opinion, there must be full subscription to these principles in order for affiliation and merger to occur on a Biblically sound basis. And it is wrong-headed to form seminaries and councils where that Biblically sound bottom line is not upheld.
* There is some artful dodging and subtle intellectual dishonesty in NAPARC’s basis of Council found at http://www.naparc.org/gpage.html . It reads: “Confessing Jesus Christ as only Savior and Sovereign Lord over all of life, we affirm the basis of the fellowship of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches to be full commitment to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without error in all its parts and to its teaching as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.” This subtle dishonesty comes in two forms. First, a number of the constituent denominations do not adhere to the real originals of these confessions, but to amended versions of them (and not even to the same amended versions!). It would be somewhat analogous to a Reformed Baptist church saying it agreed with the Westminster Standards when it really agreed to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Second, a number of these denominations do not even fully subscribe to the confessions they have. Given these two factors, real doctrinal agreement is not nearly as firm and sound as the stated basis of Council implies. So one must certainly question the soundness of NAPARC itself.