Putting the Nationalism in Denominationalism

Colin Hansen makes an arresting admission in his piece about having grown up a Methodist and how he left the communion:

As a former United Methodist, I thank God for these friends and co-laborers in the gospel, even if I no longer share all their theological views. I recognize my spiritual debt. They were my family. They are my family.

I’m in no position to advise these people called Methodists. I forfeited that right when I left. And no one is asking for my advice, anyway. But I want my United Methodist friends to know something important. I did not leave because of your views on sexuality. By the time I left in the early 2000s I didn’t even realize you had been debating sexuality for decades. I left to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh, including my Daniel kin. I left to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.

I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.

Imagine if New Calvinists and Gospel Allies followed the same logic. “We do not belong to the PCA or the OPC or the URC, so we have no reason to offer you advice or criticism. By virtue of our not being members in your communion, we are in no place to tell you about Reformed Protestantism.”

Imagine too if those who associate or form alliances with New Calvinism — ahem — also followed what is implicit in Hansen’s understanding of membership. Imagine if a Presbyterian ally of the gospel said, “well, because I am a member of the PCA, even ordained in it, my first duties (PCA First) are to the denomination where I serve. That means, I might have to cut down on participating with non-Presbyterians. I might even reconsider my relationship to non-Presbyterians because we are merely allies, not fellow members of the same body.”

But I also noticed what Hansen did with Methodism. He did with it what he did with Calvinism. “I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.” The same goes for Gospel Allies. The identify less with Calvinist communions to find Calvinism.

And so, the problem of belonging to the church, the ministry of the church, ordination, and membership rears its head again. To parachurch or to church?

But Hansen did seem to acknowledge that not being a member of an institution means he loses standing for being heard by members of a denomination. That point also suggests that someone who is more involved in parachurch endeavors while belonging to a body of Christians also loses some of his or her standing for dialogue and instruction. As if.

After all, if borders between countries matter, if governments of nations matter, why shouldn’t the borders and polities of Christian communions also matter?

What To Do about Church Law

If you are worried about antinomianism, then what do you do with those rules and structures that regulate the ministry of the word? In the OPC, for instance, ministers must answer in the affirmative to the following questions (among others):

(3) Do you approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?

(4) Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?

(5) Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to seek the office of the holy ministry from love to God and a sincere desire to promote his glory in the gospel of his Son?

(6) Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel and the purity, the peace, and the unity of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?

If you are a Presbyterian or Reformed Protestant minister and take vows like this, should you be careful in aligning yourself with parachurch ministries that replicate the means of grace that God has given to the church? Of course, life outside the church would not be possible without a parachurch organization. Everything from a non-denominational Christian college to National Public Radio qualifies as a parachurch organization. But there are parachurch organizations and then there are parachurch organizations. And if you are in one that has a mix of Reformed and non-Reformed church officers and that engages in work that resembles the teaching and preaching of the church — that even claims to support the church — have you engaged in antinomianism? What about the oversight that should accompany the ministry of the word? Isn’t the biblical model of oversight presbyterian? And even if you belong to a parachurch agency that is comprised entirely of Presbyterian officers, shouldn’t your organization be overseen by an assembly of the church? Does ministry ever happen without oversight by the church? Doesn’t the church matter? Doesn’t church law matter?

Before you answer, be sure to keep in mind (if you are a Presbyterian) that system of doctrine that includes a set of theological affirmations on oaths and vows (though why we need that chapter or whether anyone pays attention to it is beyond me):

1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.

2. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.

3. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform.

4. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.

5. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

6. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.

7. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.