The Westminster Road to Church Unity
“That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also
may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:21)
Westminster Abbey, London
by Stuart DiNenno
All those who call themselves Presbyterians should understand that the Westminster Standards represent the high water mark of the Protestant Reformation. Despite all the compromises and declensions over the last three centuries made by churches calling themselves Presbyterian, the Westminster Standards remain the standards for Presbyterianism, and everyone who calls himself a Presbyterian should be adhering to them, and should endeavor to convince all Christians to do the same in their own nations, that we all come to be of one mind in the unity of the faith.
But what if someone who professes to be Presbyterian in doctrine does not agree with everything in the Westminster Standards? That is, what if he believes that they largely agree with the teaching of the Bible, or almost entirely agree with it, but he believes that there are doctrines in the Standards which are not biblically supportable? What is he to do in this case?
Before this question is answered, we need to recognize the vital importance of answering it. This is not an academic or esoteric matter; it is a matter of life and death for the church and therefore the concern of every Christian. We must choose one of two paths. Are we Christians collectively going to, on the one hand, continue in the practices that have splintered the church into a multitude of discordant sects and, as a consequence, has weakened it to the point where, if it were not for the sure promises contained in various scriptural passages which declare the perpetuity of the church and the impossibility of its eradication, we might even begin to think that Christianity is on the verge of perishing from the earth? Or are we Christians collectively going to, on the other hand, repent of our self-seeking, schismatic ways, follow the examples, exhortations, and commands of the apostles to be united in doctrine, practice, and fellowship, act as though we believe the prayer of Jesus “that they all be one” will be fulfilled, and understand that we are sinning when we unnecessarily break with the standards of the historic, biblically reformed church and when we make our own preferences the priority over preserving the unity of the faith?
To proceed further, you must also first recognize the vital importance of church unity, the grave sin of creating or abetting division, and the tremendously destructive effect that disunity in the church has had on Christendom over the last several centuries (an examination of which is beyond the scope of this article and ought to be obvious to anyone who has even a basic knowledge of post-Reformation church history). If the low condition of the church grieves you, as it should, and you desire to do something about it, as you should, then understand that not only will your desire be unfulfilled but it is a hypocritical one, if it is accompanied by an apathy toward church unity and an unwillingness to sacrifice anything for it. Anyone who thinks there can be reformation of the church without it being unified, and that Christendom can rise up from its current prostrate position and comatose state while Christians remain divided into numerous divergent factions, does not understand the first thing about reformation. “United we stand, divided we fall” is such an obvious truism that we should be incredulous upon being told of a man who is foolish enough to deny it, and it seems an insult to the intelligence of the reader to further explain the desperate need for a unified church.
Let us continue under the assumption that the reader understands the essential necessity of church unity and recognizes that there must be fixed standards on which to base that unity (those who do not are unlikely to benefit from anything in this article). We now return to the question presented three paragraphs ago, which boils down to: How can we Presbyterians unite under the Westminster Standards if not all of us agree that everything expressed in them is in accord with the Bible?
In order to arrive at the answer, we must first understand that whether or not we all agree 100% with everything stated in the church’s confessional standards, the fact remains that none of us as individuals, or as individual families, or even as individual congregations, has the authority to violate the decrees of the larger orthodox church, which for Presbyterians are the Westminster Standards. Only when we believe that such decrees are not valid because they have been made by councils of apostate or heretical churches, as we do with the councils of the Romanists, or when we sincerely believe that something in the directives of a valid church council would cause us to sin against God if we followed it, do we have reason to disobey them. To do so in any other case is to set our own preferences above the judgments of orthodox and authoritative church councils, to annul the authority of those councils, and to contradict and undermine our own testimony that they are orthodox and authoritative church councils.
To judge rightly in this matter, we also need to know the correct answer to this question: Do church councils have authority over all those in the church and are their confessional standards binding on all of us, or are they just groups of educated men engaging in mere intellectual exercises and only setting forth, for our consideration and subject to our approval, documents containing a multitude of suggestions from which each individual, or family, or congregation is free to pick and choose which points to obey and which points to ignore? It is obvious that the correct answer is the former one. To affirm the latter is to endorse religious anarchy and promote church fragmentation, where every man is doing what is right in his own eyes and going his own separate way.
We must further understand that there is nothing in between these two distant points. Either we submit to the declarations of church councils in their entirety, or we are denying their authority altogether. If each one of us is scanning through the Westminster Standards with a red marker in hand, so to speak, and crossing out each thing we refuse to go along with, then each one of us has made himself a judge over the council that codified those standards, whether we use that red pen a dozen times or only once. To say that we will go along with only some, most, or even nearly all of the confessional doctrines, but not others, is to make ourselves the authority over the Westminster Assembly and to reduce their standards for the church down to mere suggestions. If a church council is authoritative only to the point that each one of us judges it to be authoritative, then it is not authoritative at all.
Someone might object, “The fact remains that some of us do not believe all of the Westminster Standards are in accord with the Bible, and we cannot be forced to agree with those things we believe to be erroneous.” It is true that we all have the freedom of conscience to disagree with particular points expressed in the Westminster Standards, if we believe they differ with the teaching of the Bible. No one can deny that we have such liberty, but, while it is perfectly acceptable for us privately to hold differing opinions from church standards that are consistent with our convictions, we have no right to impose our variances from church standards on others when there is no need to do so. We also have no warrant to disturb the peace of the church unnecessarily and to fracture its unity needlessly by practicing those things which the church standards forbid or by abstaining from those things which the church standards require, when our own moral convictions do not compel us to do so. Much less do Presbyterians have the right to institutionalize schism in the body of Christ by forming independent churches or “denominations” based on disagreement with, and rebellion against, the doctrinal standards established by the Westminster Assembly, when they cannot show that there is any sin in conforming to them.
Someone else might object, “Is there not room for latitude on lesser points of doctrine or practice? Must we be so rigid and insist that everyone follow exactly the same directives?” These questions beg other questions which defeat the objection, in that they cannot be answered. If there is latitude, who has given us this latitude and who has determined how much of it we have? Where does the Bible teach that there are greater or essential points on which we must unify and lesser or non-essential points on which we may diverge? When have any of us been given the authority to determine what is an essential biblical doctrine and what is not? How can there be a matter of the faith that is non-essential? There is no doubt that some doctrines are more foundational to Christianity than others but not even church councils have license to draw lines between which biblical teachings must be obeyed and which can be disregarded so as to facilitate a broader and looser form of unity, nor does the Word of God give them warrant to make essential vs. non-essential distinctions between matters of the faith. Much less do we as individuals have such rights.
Notwithstanding, there is a certain degree of latitude that we may all embrace if we understand the following: it is not necessary for us to agree with everything in the Westminster Standards in order for us to abide by them; it is only necessary that we are able to conform to the practices they require without violating our conscience. Therefore, the question that Presbyterians need to ask themselves in regard to obeying the individual points expressed in the Westminster Standards is not only “Do I agree with what is being required or forbidden here?” but also “If I do not agree with what is being required or forbidden here, can I conform my practice to it without sinning according to my understanding of the Bible?” Even if you answer, “No,” to the first question, if your answer to the second question is, “Yes,” then you have no valid reason for not conforming your practice to it.
The matter is as simple as this: if you cannot honestly state that according to your understanding of the Scriptures it is necessary for you to practice something forbidden by the Westminster Standards and you cannot truthfully say that you believe you would be sinning if you did not practice it, then you have no legitimate excuse for practicing it, you are sinning by unnecessarily violating church standards and thereby overthrowing the church authority behind them, and you are sinning further by needlessly disrupting the peace and unity of the church when you do so. Conversely, if you cannot honestly state that according to your understanding of the Scriptures it is necessary for you to abstain from something required by the Westminster Standards and you cannot truthfully say that you believe you would be sinning if you did not abstain from it, then you have no legitimate excuse for abstaining from it, you are sinning by unnecessarily violating church standards and thereby overthrowing the church authority behind them, and you are sinning further by needlessly disrupting the peace and unity of the church when you do so.
If you remain unconvinced that you are endangering yourself in this matter by sinning against your own soul, perhaps you would do well to look outside of yourself, and consider the welfare of the church and your responsibility toward it, by asking yourself this question: Am I going to be part of the problem of divisions within the church or am I going to be part of the solution? You know that a disunified church can never be a strong church. If this was not already obvious to you by your own common sense, then it ought to be obvious from even a cursory observation of the fractured state of so-called Christendom today. You have been shown that there is a way to correct the problem of schism, a path that was set down long ago in the Westminster Standards. And you should recognize that it is not a difficult path. The burden of the Westminster Standards is light and its yoke is easy, as we would expect from something that is in harmony with the doctrines of Christ. You also have been shown that you have no good excuse for not following that path unless your beliefs are so far divergent from them that you are not a Presbyterian at all. Now that you have this knowledge, what will you do with it? Will you sacrifice some of your personal preferences for the sake of church unity or will you continue to stubbornly insist on having your own way? If you will not do the former, then you are not helping to unify the church, and if you are not helping to unify the church, then you are not doing your small part to reform the church, and if you are not doing your small part to reform the church, then you are being unfaithful to your calling.