To the Members of the Church at Philadelphia,
We have neared the end of our discussion of the wrongness of separating one’s self from the Church. We shall, in fact, conclude our discussion of this matter with this letter. There is, however, one point which still needs to be discussed. This point was brought to my attention by one of your fellowship, and it is important enough to discuss in a separate letter.
The occasion for this question was some remarks I made in an earlier letter concerning the reasons why people separate themselves to form isolated Bible study groups. You will probably recall that I made some remarks to the effect that people often do this because they are unhappy with their Church. They are unhappy with the denomination of which they are a part because they see various evils which are present in their denomination: support of false doctrine, protection of heretics, tendencies to Boardism on a classical or synodical level, clericism—a domination of ecclesiastical affairs by the clergy to the exclusion of elders and deacons and believers, and such like things. This sort of situation on a denominational level can spill over into congregational life so that the preaching in a local congregation goes stale at best, heretical at worst; and so that Christian life is lost from the congregation, swallowed up in a tidal wave of materialism, worldliness and carnal living.
When we were discussing these things, I mentioned that people who are dissatisfied with this state of affairs and who express their dissatisfaction by forming individual Bible-study groups sometimes sever their relationships with their congregation altogether to form an independent, quasi-ecclesiastical group. But they do not always do this. Sometimes they form such a group while at the same time maintaining their connection with the established Church.
It is in connection with this latter statement that a question arose. And that question, came down to this: what is the relationship between a local congregation and a denomination? Is it possible, e.g., to be a part March 15,1977 of the local congregation and not be responsible for what goes on either at a classical or synodical level? Is it possible to immerse one’s self in the life of a local congregation while letting the denomination as a whole go its own way? Especially if one is a member of a relatively conservative congregation with a relatively orthodox minister and a concerned and godly Consistory, cannot one devote himself to the affairs of the congregation, and let the denomination go its own evil way?
This question really has to be carried back one additional step. Is it possible to be a member of a congregation in which things are done, actions taken, sermons preached which are not according to the Scriptures by living one’s own individual life with one’s family or with a group of like-minded believers in the congregation, and let the congregation go its own way without being unduly affected by the evils present. in that congregation?
These questions are rather important issues for people, and we ought to say something about them.
We ought perhaps to start with the idea of denominations and the relationship in which a local congregation stands to a denomination.
This has been a subject of no little discussion over the years—especially among those who have made a study of Reformed Church polity. And the study has not been merely an abstract study of principles involved in this question; rather the study has had all sorts of consequences for the life of the Church throughout the ages. In practically every church controversy this question has somehow intruded. It is not my intention to discuss this question from that point of view. That would involve a lengthy discussion which would carry us far afield. My purpose is different from this.
We have stressed, in past articles, the truth that the local congregation is autonomous. That means, on the one hand, that each local congregation is acomplete manifestation of the body of Christ in its own right. That means, on the other hand, that the authority of Christ within His Church is an authority which is exercised within a local congregation only, through her officebearers. This is one matter of importance. It is a truth which the Church denies (either in theory or in practice) to her own spiritual peril.
On the other hand, it is also true that there is no explicit injunction in Scripture which commands local congregations to form a denomination. No one can point to a specific command which makes it obligatory for Churches to do this. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the calling to form denominations is a calling of which Scripture does not speak. Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that the Church of Christ must express the unity which she has in Christ. And this unity; because it must be expressed, must result in denominations. Local congregations form a denomination of congregations, with which this unity can be expressed in the midst of a world of confusion and disunity.
This unity must be a unity of one faith, one doctrine, one calling—according to Paul in Ephesians 4:1-13. And that unity of one calling also implies that local congregations labor together, within the bounds of a denominational life, in the fulfillment of that calling. Hence, local congregations join together to solve mutual problems, to encourage and correct each other, to establish Theological Schools, to do the work of missions, etc. Denominations are important, and denominations have their Scriptural place in the life of the Church.
We are aware of the fact that denominational life, however, must never intrude upon congregational life in such a way that the autonomy of the local congregation is lost. However, I do not intend to go into this whole question now. The point which is of concern to us is: how are congregations related to denominations from the viewpoint of the individual responsibility of the believer?
The answer to this question involves the truth of what is called “corporate responsibility.” Man is created by God in such a way that he never stands in the midst of life as an individual. God created Adam as the head of the whole human race—as both organic head and legal head. The second Adam, Christ, is also the organic and legal Head of His people. Man forms, therefore, a unity, an organism, a single body. Paul says that God created all the nations of men who dwell on all the face of the earth of one blood. (Acts 17:26.) John Donne, the English poet, said that man is not an island—although this is true probably in a far deeper sense than Donne meant it.
This is an important truth. It is the curse of Arminianism that this, heresy denies it. I said once in a sermon that, from a certain point of view; the error of individualism, so common in Arminianism, is worse than the error of free will. In fact, the doctrine of free will really stands or falls with the whole Pelagian conception of individualism. Arminianism has no conception of the unity that prevails among men. Arminianism constructs a theology which assumes that each man is an isolated individual to be treated as such in his relation to Adam, to his fellow man, and to God. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Man lives as a part of a whole. In the broadest sense of the word, man is a part of the whole human race. He fell with the whole human race and stands guilty before God with the whole human race. The true human race of God’s election is also one in Christ. The believer never stands alone either. He is one with Christ and therefore one with all the people of God in every age.
This unity of which man is a part is an organic unity. If we can think. in this connection of a human body, (a figure which Scripture uses, by the way, to describe the Church, cf. I Cor. 12) then the small bone in the knuckle of my right hand is an organic part of my body as a whole; but it is also a part of my right arm; and, further it is a part of my right hand; and more specifically yet, it is a part of the index finger on my right hand. To every part of the whole and to the whole it stands in a certain relation. If I die, soon the knuckle of the index finger of my right hand also changes back into dust. So it is with the believer. From the point of view of history he is a part of the whole human race. But through sovereign election, he is also a part of the body of Christ. But within that body of Christ, he stands in all sorts of other relationships. He stands in the organic unity of a family, of a local congregation, of a denomination, of a particular society, of a nation, of the number of employees in a given place of work, etc.
Now it is always true that whatever happens to a man affects in some way the whole unity of which he is a part. To go back to my figure, what happens to the knuckle of my right index finger affects all of me. Or, the other way around, what happens to my body or to my arm or to my hand or to my finger, affects also that knuckle. This lies in the nature of an organism. There is not anything which can change that.
God sees us and deals with us, God saves us and judges us, God fulfills, his counsel with us and accomplishes his purpose through us, only within the context of all the relationships of life in which we stand. What happens to the organism or the part of the organism to which. we belong affects us. And what happens to us affects the organism; When one member of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. (I Cor. 12:26.) When the nation goes to war, I am affected—whether I agree with the war or not. When a member of my family is ill, the whole family is affected, Whatever I do as a father in the family has its effects upon and has repercussions for the whole family.
Further, as a part of such a corporate group, I am responsible for what goes on in that group. The extent of, my responsibility is determined by the position I occupy in that group—that is true. It is more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Chorazin and Bethsaida. But nevertheless, the whole family of Achan was stoned and burned when Achan took the accursed things from Jericho. And God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate him.
This makes the whole matter of membership in a congregation and a denomination an important matter. What happens in a denomination and a congregation of which I am a part is my responsibility for which I am held accountable before God. I can never escape this. I may not like it. I may attempt to deny it. I may ignore it. I may live as if it is not true. But the fact remains for all that.
God does not await the day of judgment only to make this reckoning. God works this whole accountability out in history. So true is it that what a denomination does is my responsibility that I bear all the consequences for that path which my denomination has chosen to walk. I bear these consequences in my life and. in the lives of my family members. If the denomination goes astray doctrinally, the terrible consequences of this, come upon me and my family. There is no escaping this. I may try in my life to escape these consequences and hold fast to the truth. I may even be partially or wholly successful in this for a time. But the consequences are mine to bear. The congregation of which I am a part goes gradually astray along with the denomination. And I—and my family—go along with it, even sometimes without my being aware of it. When decay of the body sets in, it may take a while for the decay to affect the extremities, but sooner or later this will happen.
Well, I must close this letter. I am really finished with this subject, although I have had to end it rather abruptly. If you do desire to discuss this matter further, let me know.
Fraternally in Christ,