Recently I have been presented in various and sundry contexts with the question of how to know which church to join. One basic issue associated with this question is whether one should join the right denomination or simply the best congregation in one’s local area (irrespective of its denominational affiliation). It is often the case that the right Presbyterian denomination- based upon considerations such as confessional standards, form of subscription, worship practice and church history- does not currently have a congregation in the area where one resides. So what should one do in these circumstances? To help work through this issue, let’s engage in the following thought experiment:
Suppose one were a member of Presbyterian denomination A, which required women to wear headcoverings in the public assemblies. But suppose a large minority faction in the denomination were unhappy with this policy, so they chose to leave Presbyterian denomination A and form Presbyterian denomination B. Presbyterian denomination B no longer required women to wear headcoverings in the public assemblies, and most women did not wear it. Additionally, suppose in one’s own local area all the members in Presbyterian denomination A agreed with the stance of new Presbyterian denomination B except you, so everyone except you in your local area chose to join Presbyterian denomination B. What should you do in this case, especially in light of a passage like I Corinthians 11:16 (“…if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God…”)? Scripture says “there should be no schism in the body” (I Corinthians 12:25), so would it be right to join with those who have caused schism, dividing the visible church of Christ on erroneous grounds? Or rather should one remain a member of Presbyterian denomination A, even if no one else in one’s local area does? Or is one instead bound to follow the mass of professing Christendom in one’s local area, wherever it leads?
This situation is not totally foreign to scripture, where we read how the northern tribes of Israel separated from Judah and most of them created a new church based in erroneous doctrine and worship practice. It is sufficiently clear in scripture that even the people in the region of these northern tribes, though the majority erroneously formed a new church and denomination, should have remained in the church of Judah. And, indeed, it is clear that a remnant residing in the region of these northern tribes did remain in the church of Judah, partaking in her religious feasts, and did not join the schismatic church of the northern tribes. This would seem to indicate that one should join the right denomination and not simply the best congregation available in one’s local area.
The general contours of the situation painted in this thought experiment manifest itself in many modern real life experiences, as the following example illustrates. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland had a congregation in Chesley, Ontario, Canada. In the first half of the twentieth century the minister in that congregation, Rev. William Matheson, had a dispute with the synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland related to the issue of Sabbath public transport (for full details of the case see the article at http://www.puritans.net/news/sabbathpublictransport042605.htm ). As it turned out, all of the members of that congregation followed the minister in leaving the denomination. But the records indicate that if one or some members in the Chesley congregation concurred with the synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, they would have been allowed to remain members in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and not simply been encouraged to join the minister and the rest of the congregation, because they would have been few in number. Decades later this same congregation in Chesley became part of the Presbyterian Reformed denomination. It so happened that a gentleman that was part of that Presbyterian Reformed congregation (named Mr. Garrit Schuit), came to a realization of the congregation’s past history, and he came to agree with the position of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and not of his own Presbyterian Reformed denomination. When he approached the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, it did not simply turn him away and tell him to stay joined with the best local congregation in his area. Rather, it allowed him to pursue the course of his conscience and join with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. And when years later another gentleman from Indiana sought to pursue the course of his conscience and join with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, it did not turn him away and tell him to join a Presbyterian Reformed church or some other denominational church present in his local area, but it allowed him to join with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
The First Book of Discipline of 1560 of the historic Church of Scotland (see http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/bod_ch03.htm ), which is part of the constitutional standards of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, recognized the duty of the church to accommodate people throughout the breadth of the nation it served. This is why “superintendents” (i.e., traveling ministers of the Gospel) had to temporarily be made use of, so that the people throughout the nation could be served. As it reads: “We consider that if the ministers whom God has endued with his [singular] graces amongst us should be appointed to several and certain places, there to make their continual residence, that then the greatest part of this realm should be destitute of all doctrine; which should not only be occasion of great murmur, but also should be dangerous to the salvation of many. And therefore we have thought it a thing most expedient for this time that, from the whole number of godly and learned [men], now presently in this realm, be selected twelve or ten (for in so many provinces have we divided the whole), to whom charge and commandment shall be given to plant and erect churches, to set order and appoint ministers (as the former order prescribes) to the countries that shall be appointed to their care where none are now. And by these means [your] love and common care over all the inhabitants of this realm (to whom ye are equal debtors) shall evidently appear; as also the simple and ignorant (who perchance have never heard Christ Jesus truly preached) shall come to some knowledge by the which many that now are dead in superstition and ignorance shall attain to some feeling of godliness, by the which they may be provoked to search and seek further knowledge of God, and his true religion and worshipping. Where, by the contrary, if they shall be neglected, they shall not only grudge, but also they shall seek the means whereby they may continue in their blindness, or return to their accustomed idolatry. And therefore we desire nothing more earnestly, than that Christ Jesus be universally once preached throughout this realm; which shall not suddenly be unless that, by you, men are appointed and compelled faithfully to travail in such provinces as to them shall be assigned.” Those who were candidates for the ministry were to have been “examined by the ministers and elders of the kirk, and that openly, and before all that list to hear, in all the chief points that now lie in controversy betwixt us and the Papists, Anabaptists, Arians, or other such enemies to the Christian religion.” So there was no policy of advising some people in Scotland that they need not be joined to the Church of Scotland, because there were insufficient ministers or congregants in the area. If a church (or missions church) can be justified in a given nation by a denomination, then that denominational church should seek to extend its ministry to people throughout the nation. The alternative would be to promote schism in Christ’s visible church. It would have been unheard of to tell some people in the nation just to join another denomination.
I concur with this approach of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and of the historic Church of Scotland long before that, which is no mere thought experiment.