Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Steven Wedgeworth

Reformed Dreams and Church Unity

Pastor Danny Hyde gave an address to NAPARC a few weeks ago, arguing for the relationship between church unity and personal piety.  His argument was that the Reformed churches stand in need of spiritual revival so that they can grow in personal charity before they can ever hope for church unity.  At one point, Pastor Hyde contrasts our carnal age with the 17th century:

Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today. Not shocking enough? Here is why I believe this: we are too carnal and insufficiency spiritual for such an assembly. We are too carnal in holding up “distinctives” as virtually inerrant. We revel in famous dates in our respective histories, as if they are a direct line from the apostles through the Reformation to us. We hold up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).

While we here at TCI do long for a sort of unity among the magisterial Protestant traditions, this sort of nostalgia is actually quite silly.

Many of the 17th century divines, especially those present at Dort and Westminster, were, judged by our standards today, extremely distrustful of one another and even downright hostile and mean.  Gomarus challenged Martinius to a duel, on the floor of the Synod, because Martinius claimed that divine election was grounded “in Christ.”  This notion was so offensive to Gomarus that he was willing to enter into armed combat with the potential to kill Martinius (see R. Letham’s The Work of Christ, 55).  The English delegates at Dort even got into trouble because their clothes were too ornate and brightly colored.  There were plenty who held that their Presbyterian polity was handed down directly from Acts 15.
Why was it that these men were able to “get together” then?  If it wasn’t their personal piety, what could the answer be?

It was the magistrate.  The king made them.  Even at Westminster, Parliament issued the call, and the motivation was for a uniform state church.  It didn’t work, of course, and those revived souls found themselves later chopping off the king’s head.

So getting overly sentimental about the Reformed past is not going to help us today.  In fact, an argument could be made that Reformed Christians and even Protestants are likely as united or more united now than ever before.  Sure, we bicker in blog comments, but we mostly do think of each other as legitimately Reformed and even true Christians. Unbelievably, most Calvinists today even allow that Arminians are saved!

A united Reformed polity is not obviously desirable, let alone possible or expedient in our current civic context.  The fulfillment of John 17 is the possession of the Holy Spirit and then the extension of love and charity to all.  Pastor Hyde admits this briefly, but says that we can and should apply this further, towards church unity.  But a sincere and cordial meeting of ETS is as much a fulfillment of John 17 as is a NAPARC meeting.  We need some further argument why we should apply John 17 more strictly than personal love and fellowship.

Church polity and discipline are ultimately issues of law and, therefore, under the guidance of reason.  Different congregations may legitimately have different polities and not be in schism.  And, as history has consistently shown, church polities are typically modeled after or at least consistent with the civic polity of their land.  In a variegated and diverse polity like America, it only makes sense that our churches would have political diversity as well.

The key to “unity” in this context is charity.  Recognizing the Word as sufficient for “identifying” the church and being modest in our demands and our “dreams” is surely the best way forward.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.