Posted on: May 27th, 2009 “Strange Ecclesiology,” Indeed

In his article about the Church of Scotland’s recent decision to “appoint” its first openly practicing homosexual minister, Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman argues that the decision of some evangelical churches to remain in the C of S but not to associate (including financially) with the denominiation or with non-orthodox parishes is “strange ecclesiology.” And I agree.

However, Truman’s own ecclesiology, it seems to me, is just as strange, in its advocacy of separating from denominations when they don’t conform to one’s own idea of “orthodoxy.”

It seems to me that this approach (inscribed into the history of Protestantism, and, in its own way, post-Tridentine Romanism) is problematic on three levels:

First, who gets to say what orthodoxy is? Some arbitrary conglomeration of individuals and congregations who band together on the basis of agreement? On the contrary, orthodoxy is the rule of faith, which is concretely embodied in the creeds of the church in her liturgy. Beyond this, we are called to engage in an ongoing, open-ended discussion of real listening and give and take. This discussion has a name: tradition.

Second, and related, the very idea of a denomination is fatally problematic. That is to say, efforts to organize the church on the basis of any doctrinal content other than what all Christians believe amounts to ideological gnosticism, and not the witness of proclamation of the Christian church. It guts the church of her primary way of imaging the God of which she is an icon: unity. (Within this unity of God and analogously of the church there is of course great diversity. Hence the presence of various interlocutors in the ongoing dialogue.)

Third, as NT scholar (and friend) Daniel Kirk points out here, denomination wars aggravate and encourage Gentile-like (and Pharisee-like) conflict before a watching world. This is the very kind of division and power-play that Jesus and Paul rail against. (Of course the church has always been full of sinners, but denominationalism raises this kind of conflict to a new level.)

What binds the church together in unity is her eucharistic liturgy, which necessarily involves Scripture, bishops, and creeds (among other things). I do believe in something called “church discipline” (as I have posted on here) but this is quite different than breaking the unity of the church at a structural level. (What I mean by “unity,” by the way, is eucharistic unity: sharing the eucharist around the same table.)

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5 Responses to ““Strange Ecclesiology,” Indeed”

  1. R. Scott Clark Says:
    May 27th, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Why is is the definition of orthodoxy so mysterious?

    Don’t the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Westminster Standards define “Reformed orthodoxy”?

  2. David Says:
    May 27th, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Clark’s comments above are a postive and needed note Matt. There is a constant assumption (for instance) of a massive protestant fragmentation; in fact there is massive unity on certain points – though it does not center on eucharist and espiscopacy. Both fragmentaiton and unity are real. And we both know that what is often suggested to as a united Church (ie Rome, etc.) is hardly so, either now or in history. I won’t insult anyone by saying that the Anglican Communion is a ‘denomination’ in the American sense of that word, but neither can it claim authority beyond itself, and must still relate to Rome and Constantinople (I speak in the general sense) as a foreign boyy of sorts – at least in thier eyes!

  3. matt Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Why the need to qualify orthodoxy with “Reformed?”

  4. matt Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 8:59 am


    I am not under any illusions that the history of the church prior to the 16th (or 9th) century was free of conflict, obviously.

    However, if the eucharist is the church’s iconic sign of unity in the world, then surely it is a travesty when this is broken, as denominationalism indeed breaks it.

    Your comment about the Episcopal Church being a denomination: of course, this is what is at issue is so many of the conflicts we are presently undergoing. Will we see ourselves as bound together in some agenda / ideology, or in the apostolic ministry, which is universal both in time and in space, in all its fullness, which includes bishops and eucharist (the latter presupposing creed & scripture). Is the Anglican expression of the church in this land a denomination, or a communion?

    I am convinced that in the Anglican tradition there will always be a way to live into the latter option, including in this land. I think that the GAFCON developments and the recent paper, signed by the “Communion Bishops” (which I have blogged about) are two examples of this.

  5. matt Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I do not believe, however, that unity in the church is at all founded ontologically on doctrinal agreement beyond the _historic_ rule of faith, which is conveniently summarized in the Creed.

    And I take this to be of the essence of the difference b/t Confessionalism (including classical Presbyterianism and classical Lutheranism) and what you might call “Creedalism” or (in my opinion) Catholicity.

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