A Word of Commendation and Defense
The RPNA (Reformed Presbytery in North America) has received some strong and unwarranted criticism from various quarters of the Christian community. Some have even made the ridiculous claim that it is a cult. Even if the RPNA may contain some errors in its doctrine and practice, there is still no excuse for false charges such as these. The reality is that these are brethren in the Lord. Furthermore, they have done and are doing a great service in the body of Christ to awaken the community to truths which need to be proclaimed and have been too much hidden from view. These truths include among others: national covenanting, the errors in the U.S. Constitution (specifically the first amendment non-establishment clause), presbyterian church government, the descending obligation of national covenants, full subscriptionism, exclusive psalmody and no musical instruments in public worship, the establishment principle, the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce both tables of the law, historical post-millenialism, covenanted reformation and others. By publishing and distributing the writings of our reformed and presbyterian fore-fathers, the RPNA has made us more aware of the nature of the historic reformed faith.
Furthermore, the RPNA’s message awakens us to the fact that the individual reformed Christian is not always duty-bound to be a member of a local fully constituted church if all the local churches in an area have fallen into unrepentant, excommunicable error. There must be and is a "bottom-line" of what doctrine and practice a church must embrace in order for one to join it as a communicant member. Indeed, it was the purpose of our reformed fore-fathers in drafting such confessions as the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity to lay out many of these "bottom-line" truths. If in a certain region for a certain time they are willfully rejected in the fully constituted churches, then individual Christians do not have to be dragged down with them. Rather, such individual Christians should either re-locate to a place with a sound "bottom-line" church of a sound presbyterian denomination, or, if this is not wise or feasible (which it some time is not), they should be joined to a sound presbyterian denomination and worship in the churches of this denomination when feasible.
One charge that has been made against the RPNA is that they have substituted the doctrines of men (as found in the documents of the Scottish reformation) for the commandments of God. That is really not a fair charge, because in reality they believe the documents to which they subscribe accurately reflect what scripture teaches, and they would not believe it unless the content of the documents were consistent with scripture. This is no error which openly teaches that we can add on tradition to scripture as Romanism does.
Much of the ire that the RPNA has generated results from the way its members are told to separate from other Presbyterian and reformed denominations. But in most cases these other denominations have no one to blame but themselves. They have themselves effectively abandoned many of the tenets and practices of the historic reformed, scriptural faith as they are accurately summarized in the *original* Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity. These denominations are then left flat-footed when the RPNA presents them with a challenge from the mouths of our reformed and presbyterian fore-fathers.
And some of the opposition to the RPNA arises from the view that they
believe other Christian denominations do not contain any or many true believers.
But a thorough study of RPNA literature will show that this is indeed an
But A Word of Reservation and Dissent as Well
Having stated this commendation and defense of the RPNA, a word of reservation and dissent is necessary as well. There are areas where the RPNA needs to refine and reform its current doctrinal standards and practice.
First, there is subtle but real error in some of the RPNA’s terms of communion. For instance, term # 3 reads thus: "That presbyterial Church Government and manner of worship are alone of divine right and unalterable; and that the most perfect model of these as yet attained, is exhibited in the Form of Government and Directory For Worship, adopted by the Church of Scotland in the Second Reformation." The first clause of this term we should certainly agree with. Scripture teaches what is commonly called ‘presbyterian’ church government. But the latter clause contains these errors. First, "the most perfect model" of presbyterian church government is exhibited in scripture, not in any uninspired forms, even of those found in the Westminster Standards. This is true even if we agree that as far as we know the Form of Government and Directory For Worship is agreeable to scripture. But if we interpret this term of communion to only be considering uninspired forms, there are still problems with this term of communion. First, in terms of uninspired forms, it is inappropriate to ask a person which is the best such uninspired form in history as a term of communion. Unless someone had read and studied every form ever written, he could not really tell you which is the best and most perfect model. And for all we know some forms in history are lost to us now. The Forms themselves do not even attest to be "the most perfect model of these as yet attained". Second, it is irrelevant whether these Forms are the best "as yet attained" among uninspired forms. It is not the duty of a Christian to join himself to a church with what he regards as the best forms. Joining a church is not an exercise in a holiness contest where churches are the contestants. Rather, what is relevant for such a prospective communicant member is whether the form is sufficiently agreeable to scripture so he can join with the church in good conscience. More precisely, the prospective communicant member should be convinced that the forms are consistent with such scriptural principles as the regulative principle, principles of decency and order, the Sabbath ordinance, etc. To assent to this RPNA term of communion is to assent to the subtle error that a prospective communicant member should be chasing after the church that is highest up the peak of perfection and attainment. But this is an unscriptural basis for choosing the church with which to join. Indeed, it ultimately and ironically undermines the establishment principle and even Presbyterian church government itself. There will always be some minister or group of ministers who know or think they know more scriptural truth than is presented in the then current subordinate standards of the established Presbyterian church. And there will always be some sin and error present in Christ’s church here on earth. This term of communion could lead them to believe they have the right to separate because they think they have reached a higher attainment, when in fact they have no scriptural basis for separation. The only basis for separation is when a church fails to meet the scriptural requirements of a properly constituted Christian church (the "bottom-line" conditions addressed earlier).
Second, the RPNA should not separate itself from ecclesiastical communion, fellowship and merger with any churches or brethren that agree with the doctrines contained in the original Westminster Standards but which deny their duty to adopt all the subordinate documents of the Church of Scotland and the Reformed Presbytery. The subordinate documents of the Church of Scotland have no moral claim on the US, although the principles contained in them, if they be scriptural, do. The same could be said of the subordinate documents of the Church of the Netherlands. It is sad that churches may be denominationally separated simply because they are each insisting that their native ethnic subordinate standards must be adopted by all. Americans do not live in Scotland or the Netherlands. And even the Solemn League and Covenant never required all the territories under the then King’s dominion to adopt the subordinate standards of the Church of Scotland. It may very well be valid that a church holding to the doctrines of the Westminster Standards cannot in good conscience merge with a Dutch reformed church that has fallen into the sin of mandated extra-scriptural holy days and musical instruments in public worship, but this is different from requiring the Dutch reformed church to adopt *all* the subordinate documents and acts of the Church of Scotland.
Third, if the RPNA is going to make the perpetual obligation of the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant a term of communion, it needs to clearly define upon which parties they oblige. It is highly doubtful that there is any descending obligation from national covenants in cases of military occupation of other countries, for example. But there is scriptural reason to believe the child nations of a parent nation are obligated. So, for example, both Judah under Reheboam and the northern ten tribes of Israel under Jereboam (the child nations) were obligated by the national covenants of the twelve tribes of Israel (the parent nation).
Fourth, it is to be highly doubted that it is right to have as a term of communion agreement with what Christians in another country did in church history, as is found in RPNA term of communion number five: "an approbation of the faithful contending of the martyrs of Jesus, especially in Scotland…" While it is good and appropriate that Christians respect what Christians in Scotland did to fight for the truth, such assent does not rise to the level of a term of communion. And it is unnecessary to single out the Christian example of brethren in just one nation. (I even say that as one who is of Scottish descent and love the heritage of my ancestry.) Interestingly, when Scotland and England were formulating the Westminster Standards to unite them in the faith, there was no such requirement as this that Christians in England would have to acknowledge regarding specific acts of Christians in Scotland. And more importantly, there is no scriptural mandate or precedent for this.
Fifth, the RPNA should arguably re-consider those nations it views as
having nationally covenanted to Christ. It is possible to be covenanted
to Christ even though it is not expressly described in these terms.
For example, all individuals who profess Christ as their Lord and Savior
and seek to glorify Him through obedience to His Ten Commandments are effectively
covenanted to Christ, even if they have not expressly described it in this
way. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are implicit statements of this
covenant. Similarly, nations that profess Christ as their Savior
and King and seek to glorify Him through obedience to His Ten Commandments
are effectively covenanted to Christ. The fact that Israel in the
days of David and Solomon did not have the nation expressly covenant in
the exact same way as Hezekiah and Josiah did not mean that Israel was
not covenanted to Christ during the days of David and Solomon. Implicit
covenanting is as valid as more explicit covenanting. But the explicit
national covenanting of Hezekiah and Josiah are certainly wholesome acts
of expressing submission to Christ. Considered this way, we can see
that national covenanting did not begin in church history in Scotland or
Geneva in the 16th or 17th century. Rather, there are examples of
societal and national covenanting dating back to the early centuries of
church history, because as people and nations became Christian they were
in effect covenanted to Christ. It was the goal of the Apostles to
have every man and institution of man, including governments, to become
subject to Christ. That means nothing less than being covenanted
to Christ, even if it is not so expressly stated.
One Last Word
It is my prayer that either I will be shown why my current assessment
is wrong, or that the RPNA will correct in its standards what needs to
be corrected. There are many doctrines which we hold in common, and
it is my prayer that the Lord would bring us to further agreement, for
the sake of Christ's Crown and Covenant.
Additional Note: On the Covenanters list and in private there was some additional discussion on this topic. The following represents some of the questions and issues I have raised:
If I understand the theory you [the RPNA] espouse of how we know which church we are not supposed to separate from, it is that one whose standards are the highest attainment up to this point. Is it an "attainment" greater than that of the doctrine, govt and worship reached by the assembly of churches during the days of the Apostles? But are there any synods or presbyteries which have reached a higher attainment in doctrine, govt and worship than that reached by the assembly of churches during the days of the Apostles? If so, how do you know? But if you are excluding the assembly of churches during the days of the Apostles as part of your relative measurement of attainments, why? Are there any other assemblies of churches in history that you are excluding? I would interpret the Reformers as trying to bring us back to the doctrine and practice of the early Church and not thinking they were creating something above it. The assembly of churches during the days of the Apostles was not perfect, but it set the standard for what is a 'true church in well being'.
--- In covenanters@y..., john_putz@y... wrote:
> Greetings once again Parnell, I had the opportunity to talk with pastor Price about the phrase (from memory), "most perfect >as yet attained." He said that he believes that they are to be understood as the most perfect as yet attained from church >courts (anywhere).
My response: Hi,John. ... Regarding the "as the most perfect as
yet attained from church courts (anywhere)" pertaining to the
Form of Government and Directory For Worship: 1. Should I assume
that it is held that the same could be said of the other documents
prepared by the Westminster Assembly (WCF, etc.)? And the rest of
the subordinate documents of the RPNA?
2. The documents included in the Westminster Stds do not as far as I know make the explicit claim that they are "the most perfect as yet attained from church courts (anywhere)". Which books have you read that most convinced you that this claim is true? 3. Should I assume that this claim is pivotal in determining which denomination is duly constituted? In other words, if some other Form of Govt is 'more perfect' then that would change which denomination is duly constituted?
>Thus, when you ask, "Why should I believe the principles to which a church must adhere in order to be a 'church in well >being' are changing over time?" we would understand you to be saying (in the language I'm using, at least), "Why should I >believe the principles to which a church must adhere in order to be a 'perfect church / ideal church' are changing over time?"
But I did not mean perfect/ideal church. I meant a church we should not separate from. And at least presently I conceive of the necessary and sufficient conditions of the 'church we should not separate from' as being as fixed in scripture as the standards for determining a 'true church in being'. As I noted to Ben, this remains perhaps the central point of difference between us. I do not understand why you say the standards are changing.
Below was the exchange with another RPNA member:
I'm not necessarily sure if Jesus, Paul, James, Peter and John would
hold this position, nor do I believe that Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, Gillespie
or Steele would recommend adhering to this statement. If like-minded
people worship in error or sin, or cling to a bottom-line sound presbyterian
denomination that is backslidden, then I personally think that these Christians
should be cautious about their public and family testimony. If this
was acceptable teaching, we would not have the doctrine of being verses
well-being, visible verses invisible or most importantly, faithful worship
Did Rutherford and Gillespie not attend services of the Church of Scotland
in the 1620s and 1630s (pre-1638), did they ever say it was wrong to at
the time or later, and what was their counsel to those in the Church of
England during the 1630s when it had certainly backslidden from earlier
days? What did Knox do when there was some backsliding in the state
and church in his latter years (in comparison with before Mary returned
from France)? Jehosophat's covenanted reformation was not as thorough
as David's, but did God tell the people to leave the Church of Judah during
Jehosophat's reign? Have you read Samuel Rutherford's commentary on Matthew
23 and compared it with the interpretation of the RPNA? Having read
Calvin, are you saying he believed that someone should leave the established
reformed church of a nation because there was *any* backsliding from a
previous attainment? (Everything I have read of Calvin suggests otherwise.)
Or was his view rather that one should remain in an established reformed
church unless it had descended beyond a bottom line? (I might add
here, that already one RPNA member has admitted to me he disagrees with
Calvin's statements on this issue. And I think the whole RPNA disagrees
with Calvin on this issue.)
You might think that I'm splitting hairs and trying to be a "puritan" about the matter, but these distinctions are important when a Ruling Elder such as yourself offers these recommendations to his flock "publicly". Weaker brethren can stumble and fall.
I do not think you are splitting hairs at all, but I do think you have mis-interpreted what John Calvin, John Knox, Rutherford, Gillespie, and (most importantly) what the Bible teaches.
Furthermore, most Puritans did *not* separate like the Pilgrims of New
England did, but the great body of Puritans of the early 17th century remained
within the Church of England and sought to purify it. Some of these
formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And both Gillespie, Rutherford,
and other Scottish Presbyterian divines agreed that they should have remained
in the established Church of England even during the dark days of James
I and Charles I, though it was backslidden in some measure from previous
days. Indeed, the English divines at the Westminster Assembly had
not separated like the Pilgrims. And the Scottish divines recognized
the legitimacy of the established Church of the Netherlands in the 17th
century even though it had in certain respects declined from where it had
been, but had not yet descended below an unacceptable bottom line. I explain
this bottom line at http://www.puritans.net/bottomline.html .
> 5. Contra Mr. McCarter, the covenants of Josiah, Nehemiah etc., (cp.
> with the texts found on the title pages of the NC and SL&C, WCF, pp.
> 345,55, Josh. 24:25, 2 K. 11:17, 2 Chron.15:15, Is.44:5, Jer.1:5)
> were covenants with the body politic/ecclesiastical of Israel. As
> such they have passed away, though we approve of them in substance.
> The SL&C though, was made with the three kingdoms and as such
> necessarily included the American colonies. That is the difference.
Bob, unlike you I do not believe a covenant with descending obligations upon a church has to be *explicitly* noted in its deed of constitution. (This is why I reject the way dissenters so early left the Revolution church.) But obviously you and the other dissenting covenanters (as opposed to mainstream covenanters) believe this. But if that means that you and the RPNA and the other dissenters *deny* the descending obligation of the Nehemiahic covenant upon today's church then that is just one more reason I could not join your church.
There is indeed a descending obligation of the covenant of Josiah, Nehemiah, etc. upon today's Israel, the church of Jesus Christ. The church to which Nehemiah belonged is the church to which I belong. When that church entered into a covenant corporately, it has a descending obligation upon today's church which I belong to. Gentiles such as myself were engrafted into that church; that church did *not* just disappear and a whole new entity was created.
I think it can be shown that it was not the view of the reformed and presbyterian reformers that a member had the right to separate from a church in any and every case if there was backsliding on some issue. Rather, it depended upon the nature of the issue, and whether it was a matter that took the church below an unacceptable bottom-line (see http://www.puritans.net/bottomline.html ).