21 February, 2008

Chasing the Red Dragon: A Loving Response to A Reader and Friend

I have been asked to write a bit on my principles of church unity and subscriptionism. I should preface with saying that I subscribe to the original Westminster Standards and have very few exceptions to the Testimony of the RPCNA. My exceptions have been made known to my session. Here are some of my thoughts:

I believe that there are a few different things that we need to consider as we think about unity, subscription, and issues centered on church unity vs. purity (if you want to say that they are opposing thoughts).

1. What churches are available locally? There may be a perfect church on paper, but if there are not people locally with whom to fellowship, than you are a being pure in theory, but practice will have to be different. You will either have your papers with the pure church and fellowship with the erroneous church; or you will have your paper in the pure church and have false fellowship- emails, blogs, internet forums. This forsakes the face-to-face nature of the church.

The bottom line is that those who seek out the purest church for the sake of having their Confession usually end up being sectarian. What was Calvin's advice in letters to those who only had Lutheran churches to attend? Be Lutheran.

2. When a couple of ministers leave a denomination to be a pure church they are abandoning the duty to be reformers and those who answer the gainsayer. Time after time, in church history we see people abandoning the church to make something pure- that leaves the larger body with less sound men to fight against error.

Hence the couple of ministers that left have done damage to the body of Christ. It would be like if you had cancer and all of your antibodies left you because they did not like the cancer being there- you die. This is the problem with everyone and their brother starting presbyterian churches with 2-5 ministers: it NEVER ends, and the body of Christ is in further schism.

I could see if all of the church courts had been appealed to and the church refused to repent and kicked a man or group of ministers out- but to leave and start something because you have a problem with a secondary issue- that is schism and sin. (Of course, the main concern should always be for restoration with the sinning body.)

I am not sure of all of the ins and outs of Scottish church history and am in no position to judge all of the bodies (Church of Scotland, Free Church, Free Church Continuing, Reformed Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, Associate Presbyterians, Associated Presbyterians, and many, many more) , but I feel confident in saying that this is not what Jesus Christ had in mind- and neither is a couple of 'pure' ministers who separate themselves from the body of Christ claiming to be the truest church or the purest church.

What was the Reformer and Puritan position on reformation and church unity?

You stay and fight for the sake of Christ until the established church will no longer have you. Were there faulty confessions in the Church of England before the Act of Uniformity? You bet ya! But our forefathers knew enough to set aside party spirit and to fight for the sake of the Gospel and Christ. We have a practical result of THIS practice of 'unity and purity' in the Westminster Standards.

If the Puritans had all left their churches to go start their own churches, I can say with a good conscience that the Westminster Standards would have never been written. There would be hundreds of smaller works that defined little 3-5 ministerial bands. The Westminster Standards are the practical outworking of a Reformed ecumenical spirit. There is no way to argue against this given the historical evidence.

This is my position, following in the Reformation and Puritan tradition. I will stay where I am and be a witness. A witness for the sake of the Gospel. A witness against what I see as error. A witness for the healing of a body that has been called to be one. I believe where I am is a good place with a lot of work being done for the Gospel.

I will never leave because of minor disputes or cultural baggage. I will not partake in schism.

There is a term amongst youth counter-culture that is helpful. It is called 'chasing the red dragon' and what it means is that you are looking for something that is not there and you will waste your whole life looking for.

I will not chase the red dragon of the purest church in the world- our Confession of Faith, chapter 25, says that even the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error.

I believe that we are confessionally bound to acknowledge this and to have the same faith of our Puritan forefathers- stay and fight under the captain of our souls, who loved a spotted and unfaithful bride enough to die for her.

I will live for her and pray that she can be pure in doctrine, practice, and single mindedness.

Two a'Brakel quotes to ponder:

It is not sufficient to merely join the church, to remain with her for some time, and thereafter to separate from her. One ought never to break away from and leave her under the pretense that the church is degenerate, in order to establish a pure church, for: First, the Lord has never blessed such endeavors. There have always been those (in the first church, both prior to her oppression by the antichrist as well as since the time of the Reformation) who under this pretense have broken away from the church. The Lord, however, has always overturned such endeavors, and such undertakings have collapsed of themselves when the initial instigators died. Due to a just judgment of God, however, such individuals have rarely perceived their errors and made confession of them, and have rarely rejoined the church. Rather, having been given over to their own stubbornness, they have remained independent as people without any religion, or they have succumbed to heresy and have joined themselves to such assemblies which most fully agreed with their errors. Such was the case with the Brethren in Hungary, and in our days the Labadists have arisen who have boasted of great things (II: 60).

It is a dreadful sin to depart from the church for the purpose of establishing one which is better, for the church is one, she being the body of Christ. To separate oneself from the church is to separate from the people of Christ and thus from His body, thereby withdrawing himself from the confession of Christ and departing from the fellowship of the saints. If one indeed deems the church to be what she really is, one will then cause schism in the body of Christ, grieve the godly, offend others, give cause for the blaspheming of God's Name, and cause the common church member to err (II: 61).


Mark said...

Great post, Nate. Christ is not divided, and we need to get our organizational unity to better reflect our spiritual unity.

As much as I'd like to see the various splinters join together again, I think realizing that we all have a spiritual unity in Christ as His adopted sons is where we need to begin. It's one thing for two churches to have different confessions, it's another for them to think the other isn't quite Christian enough because of it. Those that are more stronger in the faith should bear with the weaker brethren and visa-versa, building each other in faith.

Incidentally, I love your point that unity and purity aren't mutually exclusive. A whole lotta wisdom in that.

Linda L. said...

Amen to that. My eldest daughter can attest to this, in having witnessed 2 separate schisms in 3 yrs which she lived through, and is now still trying to process 7 yrs later.

DROLLORD said...

Calvin's advice in letters to those who only had Lutheran churches to attend? Be Lutheran.

-How about baptists, Calvin?

Nate said...

There were no Baptists yet.

Nate said...

Chris Coldwell, from Naphtali Press, sent me these articles in response to this post. Please click my name to receive Thomas Boston, Rutherford, and other's thoughts on this matter.

Parnell McCarter said...

Nate, thank you for engaging me in discussion on this topic. It is obviously a very important topic that affects us all. I would like to continue the dialogue with these brief comments for now, and hopefully continue as time permits:

1. We ought to distinguish a "church with a true confession" and a "pure church". I have argued for the former, but never the latter. So my question of you and others is what gives you the Biblical right to join a denomination with an erroneous confession (the RPCNA Testimony) when there is a denomination with a true confession (the original Westminster Stds)? You may be moving from Grand Rapids, so the answer cannot merely be it's all that is available locally.

2. If you are willing to join a church with an erroneous confession, then where is your bottom line? Why does it not go as far as joining the Roman Catholic Church and seeking to work to improve it?

3. What happens to church discipline if numbers determine who a person should go with, instead of which party is right on the issue? eg, the APC left the FPCS because they wanted to be able to attend the Romish Mass. So if most in my area agree and leave the FPCS on such grounds, should I leave it too, even though I agree with the FPCS position?

4. I think you have mis-interpreted Rutherford, etc. on church unity, but it is hard to address in a little comment box. As a starting response, please see

Nathan said...

Nate this is a vary well thought out post I really enjoyed reading it. I am about to link to it on the Covenater Youth Forum (http://www.rpcnayouth.com/)for discussion.

An Eshelman said...


I must confess that I do not have it all worked out. I do not pretend to know all of these things.

Since the church in the NT is one visible church we must work off of principles and have no clear evidence of church splits, etc.

I also want to say that these thoughts are just that- thoughts on the issue. I am not attempting to present a Reformed dogmatic here.

Should we join Rome if we can join a church with error? Well, no. What errors does the FPCS hold to? Could you join Rome because of it?

Just some more thoughts.

Parnell McCarter said...

Nate, in answer to your question, I could not join with any denomination which does not adhere to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the original Westminster Stds. That is my bottom line, because I believe scripture teaches it as the bottom line. That is why I could not join with various denominations, inc the RCC, but can with the FPCS. I am just trying to understand what bottom line you are advocating. eg, *if* the only denominations with congregations in one's town were the PCUSA, CRC and RCC, should one join with one of them instead of the FPCS, which does not have a congregation in town?

Steven Carr said...


Good post. I think chasing the true church is a bit like Ahab chasing Moby Dick. The chase is from the wrong motives, the chase embitters the chaser, and the chase ends in disaster for everybody.


The true confession is the wrong criteria for a true Church. The three marks (right preaching, right administration of the sacraments, and Church discipline) provide us with the right criteria for the true Church. The Belgic Confession and many other Reformers and Reformed Confessions were correct to place the marks of the true Church in the means of grace. A members greatest duty in joining himself to the body of Christ is to place himself under the voice and command of the Great Shepherd. Making and judging the Churches Confessions is not the duty of the members; it is the duty of the Church courts. That is why the officers have always been the ones to produce the Church's Confession. Memebership must be based upon the means of grace, not the confession. True, the Confession can ensure that the three marks will be in place, but that is not for the member to worry about, as long as the three marks are in place.

Parnell McCarter said...

Rutherford wrote: “When the greatest part of a church makes defection from the truth, the lesser part remaining sound, the greatest part is the church of separatists, though the maniest and greater part in the actual exercise of discipline is the church; yet in the case of right discipline, the best though fewest is the church.” Why should we not believe denominations such as the ARP, RPCNA, and OPC which have defected from the truth by their confessional amendments to the original Westminster Standards are separatists, whereas the FPCS (adhering to the original Westminster Standards) is not?

DROLLORD said...

"There were no Baptists yet."
-I realise were speaking "about unity, subscription, and issues centered on church unity vs. purity."
-Nate, you were taking that as a general principle. You quote Calvin at us for principles which apply now, please deal with the anti-paedobaptists. Sacramental understanding is at stake here, which in misuse or disuse is spoken of in quite strong terms. I really don't like the idea of covenantal youth being treated as cut-off from the promises. Cut-off is corporeal/discipline talk, not to mention God going after Moses's head, which by good and necessary consequence, should arouse proportionate ire in His people. Neglect of sacramental principles rouses God's anger, 1 Cor. 11.
-Since I sort of in jest brought the Baptists up, I will say I'm greatful to God I'm not forced to deal with that situation, but in another sense, I am.
-Also Nate, do you remember where you saw this letter of Calvin? I have the AGES cd of Calvin's works.

Parnell McCarter said...

Steve, in order to help me understand what you mean more concretely, I would ask of you the same question I have posed to Nate: *if* the only denominations with congregations in one's town were the PCUSA, CRC and RCC, should one join with one of them instead of the FPCS, which does not have a congregation in town?

Andrew Duggan said...

It seems to me that it really boils down to those three marks of the church.

What seems tricky is agreeing what defines right preaching and administration of the sacraments?

For example, does denying baptism to children of believers remove the sacraments mark from the Baptists? Does the Mass remove it from the RCC?

So does a church need all three marks or can it scrape by with two out of three? How about one?

It really often boils down to that third mark of the church, discipline. It's the discipline that makes the definitions of the first two marks more than just platitudes. On the one hand you could have people de-churching congregations over one bad sermon, but on the other hand, without the discipline you have ministers teaching that the Virgin Birth of Christ, and his bodily Resurrection are myths.

If a church is missing either of the first two marks, isn't it really because it had already lost the third?

It seems to me that Mr. Eshelman's position is based on the premise that the loss of third mark of the church comes if and only if (and when) when the discipline is used to remove those practicing the first two marks. Furthermore, until that happens, one cannot prove that the either of the others is gone.

Now considering that the PCUSA didn't suspend Machen from the ministry for teaching or preaching truth, but rather for his refusal to support the official foreign missions board. The actions of the 1934 PCUSA GA seem pretty similar to passing an act of uniformity. Since that's not sufficient shouldn't one conclude that Mr. Eshelman would agree with the PCUSA that Machen was himself (and the OPC by association) schismatic? Should the RPCNA have relations with schismatics?

I ask the following with all sincerity.

Mr. Eshelman, how can you reconcile your current position with what appeared to be your agreement with your congregation's relatively recent denominational re-alignment? Did your former denomination excommunicate you and your congregation for preaching the true gospel, or because you tried to administer the sacraments rightly?

In your posting I was really puzzled when you switched from the first person to the second person. In your number "2." you have two paragraphs in the first person and then jump to the second person? Why?

Or, is this all just an academic exercise, considering that there is no established church the the US? Seems like you're giving some mixed messages: it's OK for you to chase the red dragon with a couple spots (your minor exceptions to the RPCA Testimony), but everyone else is just being too picky. Even though the RPCNA doesn't like to go by the name of Covenanter anymore it seems odd to me that you would feature their banner at the same time you seemingly condemn those who did refuse the uniformity, and were martyred.

Nate said...


Just a few quick thoughts:

This began as a note back to my friend Parnell. I do not claim that it is well written or even complete in thought. It was a beginning point for conversation. These are initial thoughts.

Here are a few more:

1. The act of uniformity was sufficient to get rid of the Puritans- they could not sign in good conscience and it would not allow them to minister according to the Scriptures.
2. I agree that Machen had a similar situation... except there were other Presbyterian bodies that he could have joined (for another time) instead of starting the OPC.
3. There is a time to leave a church and a time to plant something else- when... that is what I am trying to work out... I am not sure if I ever will at this point- Scripture does not leave much room for our current system of denominationalism.
4. When I speak of not partaking in schism, I speak of starting something new- adding to the problem. I would imagine that our current list of Reformed and Presbyterian churches is enough. Do not cause further schism. I will, by the grace of God, never be a minister that helps start a micropresbyterian church. That is what I mean.
5. Since NAPARC churches are unified to some degree and have some mutual fellowship, I do not think that it would schismatic if someone went to another NAPARC church (or some similar group of Reformed churches that have accountability to each other).

Like I said, thoughts. These are humble thoughts- I am trying to work this through in my mind, I am not pretending with this post, that I have it all figured out.

Considering the current mess, there is a lot to think about!

In Christ,

Parnell McCarter said...

Nate, let may submit why you may be having difficulty answering my question about the CRC, PCUSA and RCC: you are concerned where it logically leads. If it is ok to unite with a denomination that has constitutionally/confessionally defected from the truth in some major respects (rejecting Esta Principle, tolerating women deacons, tolerating Christmas observance,tolerating marriages prohibited in Bible[affinity issue], etc),it is quite arbitrary to argue disunity should be maintained with the CRC because it tolerates women elders (for example). Your theory of church unity and affiliation IMO logically leads to the conclusion you should be urging the merger not only of the NAPARC denominations, but also of denominations like the CRC. In contrast, Bannerman's view of church union and affiliation would argue that there should be no union with those bodies that have defected from adhering to the original Westminster Standards (see http://www.puritans.net/news/bannerman051107.htm). Obviously, I agree with that view.

An Eshelman said...


What about Original Westminster and all of that extra-biblical baggage such as no make up, jewelery, stage plays, etc.

You cannot claim that the FPCS holds to the original standards therefore we need to join them- and then also require all of the Scottish cultural baggage.

It is like saying that you cannot be a Christian unless you have been circumcised in the manner of Scotland.

Where do you think the line should be drawn? Because churches like the FPCS go beyond the Standards as well.

Do you see any error within the FPCS? If not, I do not think that this conversation can be fruitful because we are arguing from different presuppositions: perfect/pure church vs. all churches have error.

If the FPCS has error- please state what it is because on all of the RFW posts, Puritan.net, etc. I have never seen a disagreement with her.
What are her errors?

In Him.

parnell mc carter said...

Nate, the things you mention like no make up, no movies, etc. are applications historically maintained by the Church of Scotland of principles outlined in the original Westminster Stds. As you know, I agree with those particular applications, and I'm glad the FPCS is seeking to uphold them. With respect to the confessional standards of the FPCS (the original Westminster Stds), as you know I fully subscribe to them, which means I believe they are true and without error in laying out what scripture teaches. It should surprise no one that the church can derive from the Bible true confessional stds, given it is the "pillar of truth" per the Bible. I find it rather amazing that some individuals agree with no church's confessional standards, but believe they know what is true. Such must think they are the "pillar of truth" and not the church. I think I have made it clear that I believe the FPCS does not perfectly implement its standards, nor do I believe any church on the earth before the Lord's return will. Some examples: some laxity in enforcing movie ban (see http://www.puritans.net/news/moviesfpcs051607.htm); inconsistency in suppressing jewelry (http://www.puritans.net/news/attire040604.htm); allowing some officers to believe and teach that Roman Catholic baptism should not be accepted. As I note at http://www.puritans.net/news/biblicalrealism021207.htm , "...we should not expect there to be perfect implementation of the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards by any church. The very standards themselves aver as much..." I do not accept that all churches have confessional/constitutional errors. I believe the FPCS's standards are true, but I believe the RPCNA's are not true. But I readily agree no church is perfectly pure. A church ,like a person, may hold to the Ten Commandments, but that does not mean they can perfectly keep them. The church we should join is to be the "pillar of truth", but there is no Biblical expectation that it will be perfect before the Lord returns.

Andrew Duggan said...

Mr. Eshelman,

Thanks for those clarifying words. It is a mess, but not always based on schism. That's what the 20th Chapter of the WCF is all about. While some will use that to justify what is probably schism, I don't think one can successfully argue that all division is schism.

So my question is, does a church which holds to the WCF have the right to bind the conscience of its members?

There's not a lot to pick from for someone who is Reformed, really believes in the RPW (EP, wine in the Lord's Supper,no xmas or easter), etc.

The Holy Spirit leads all who are in Christ into all truth, but He does not do it all at once or at the same rate (or in the same order of doctrines) from person-to-person or group-to-group.

Bottom line is that I am unconvinced that organizational unity on earth was the thing for what Christ was praying in John 17.

Robbie said...

excellent musings,

to help sharpern your thoughts I recommend John Frame's book "Evangelical Reunion." I found his piece helpful over this past Christmas break as I needed guidance through a few things. Also there is Tim Keller's article on subscription in the PCA, it is helpful and helps one figure where one is in the debate.

my own thought is a realization of our own depravity. Do we realize how sinful we are, and how wrong we are in our lifes? We do need a humble orthodoxy in these discussions.

Parnell McCarter said...

Church union is a noble goal commanded in scripture, but there are two diametrically opposed approaches. On the one hand there is the approach I have advocated in such articles as http://www.puritans.net/news/biblicalrealism021207.htm , which is described this way: “So long as there is full subscription to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards and a reasonably good faith effort on the part of the church assembly to implement those standards, we should seek to be united to such a denominational church. On the other hand, we ought not to join ourselves with churches that do not fully subscribe to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the original Westminster Standards. And we ought not to join with denominations schismatically formed, when there was already a denomination which fully subscribed to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards and there was a reasonably good faith effort on the part of the church assembly to implement those standards.” Implicitly or explicitly, this has been the historical approach of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS), and my prayer is that it will continue on this path. On the other hand, there is the basic approach advocated by John Frame in his book Evangelical Union, which rejects what has derisively described by some as “rigid confessionalism”. This basic approach is the one being pursued by those denominations such as in NAPARC and in the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC). These two approaches inevitably lead in two very different directions, the resultant distance and differences becoming more obvious in time. And it is safe to say that for the immediate future the numbers will favor the latter approach.

Parnell McCarter said...

Please excuse my mis-spelling. Make that Evangelical Reunion. Here is a choice quote from Frame’s book which captures the approach well: “The sort of unity my wife experienced in her neighborhood Bible study I have also experienced, especially in pro-life activity. In a recent rally I attended, the most eloquent speaker by far was a Roman Catholic priest, and he was at his best when he spoke of salvation through Christ alone. Oh yes: he also mentioned that he addressed Mary in prayer. He carefully explained that he did not worship Mary, but that she was part of the communion of saints and he desired her fellowship as he desired that of living saints, in bringing his requests to God. I still do not share his assurance that Mary hears our prayers and somehow relays them to God; but in that context the distance between my views and those of the priest-- on that matter, anyway, did not seem terribly far apart. He was fighting-- far more heroically than I, for he had been to jail often for his convictions-- a battle for Jesus and for the little ones made in God's image. I have no doubt that he and I are fighting the same battle. Before we talk about dissolving denominations into church unions, we need an influx of new vision.”

Jody said...

Hey Nate, thanks for the post, I quite enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

"What was Calvin's advice in letters to those who only had Lutheran churches to attend? Be Lutheran." Would kindly provide a reference for this? Thanks!