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07.04d. Ecumenicism vs. Denominationalism. It is interesting why a Calvinist pastor would convert to Roman Catholicism Tim Bayly discusses the topic, and suggests it is the desire for authority, for certainty. Part of his post is on a different angle, though: disgust with the isolation in individual congregations or denominations of many Protestants:

Neuhaus is an interesting and, I think, instructive case. When he converted to Roman Catholicism he sent a number of us a letter explaining his action and I here quote what I found most telling, and have since resonated with:

"With respect to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of which I was a pastor, the evidence compelled me to the conclusion that its operative understanding of the Church is informed not by the ecclesiology of the New Testament, nor by that of the fathers, nor by that of the Augsburg Confession, but by American denominationalism. I can no longer persuade myself that Lutheranism is an evangelical catholic movement of Gospel reform within and for the one Church of Christ. It now seems to me that Lutheranism is a Protestant denomination among Protestant denominations, and is determined to remain so." (Richard John Neuhaus in "To Friends and Colleagues," September 10, 1990.)

Sadly, this rings true for both denominations I have held membership in--the Presbyterian Church (USA) and, now, the Presbyerian Church in America. In meetings of our judicatories, at times it seems each man is out to build his own kingdom, not the Kingdom of God; and together, that we are denominational men working to build our denominational apparatus and institution. Rather than a confessing community holding to particular doctrines, we become an organizational community held together by our denominational affiliation with numbers in our eyes.
That sounds right to me, too. The official doctrine in almost all Protestant churches, following the Apostle's Creed, is that there is just One Church, which for convenience is divided into individual congregations and denominations. There is disagreement over which individuals, congregations, and denominations are in the One Church, but not, I think, over the fact that mere organization is crucial. (I could be wrong on that-- Anglicans who believe in the Apostolic Succession might believe that, for example, a Methodist church with all the same doctrines was still not part of the One Church, because its pastor was not properly ordained.) Thus, someone in the conservative PCA Presbyterian denomination might believe that the entire Orthodox Presbyterian denomination is doctrinally sound, and that while there is no special reason to merge the denominations, the obstacle is the inconvenience of reorganization. He might also believe that many congregations in the liberal PC-USA Presbyterian denomination are sound doctrinally, even though the denomination is not (it's complicated-- both denominations use the Westminster Confession as their creed, but the PC-USA clearly doesn't take it seriously and would not discipline a pastor who repudiated it.) And he would also believe that many members of the Roman Catholic church were members of the One Church, even though their denomination has unsound beliefs.

I might be wrong in attributing these views to the mainstream of the PCA Presbyterians, but the same reasoning would apply to my own church, the independent Evangelical Community Church, which broke off from the liberal Presbyterians some 30 years ago. We have a denomination consisting of just one church, so it would be silly for us to claim exclusivity-- we even hire our pastors from other denominations.

In practice, what happens, though? Individual congregations are happily isolated. In denominations such as the PCA, at least the pastors and elders of different congregations do make contact at "presbytery" meetings, but the ordinary members do not, and have very little sense of being in even a denomination. Pastor Bayly seems to be saying that at the leadership level, it is just as hard (perhaps harder?) to go outside the denomination to think about other congregations acknowledged as true Christians.

There is a caveat I should make. Congregations are quite good at connecting with other congregrations, and even ones in different denominations, that are in foreign countries. The reason is that this is organized under the heading of "Missions", which is looked at differently. Also, the foreign connections are usually not bilateral--- the American congregation sends support or people to the foreign one, but not vice versa. It may be, too, that there is help given to other American congregations after disasters, but that, by definition, is not on a regular basis, and that, too, is unilateral. Ideally, all the congregations in a given town that believe each other to be truly Christian should have contacts with each other, and should help bear each others' burdens and take advantage of opportunities. Rather than each church deciding whether it needed and could afford a new building, for example, they would pool their money and their needs. If one church had an internal argument, it would appeal to nearby churches for advice, mediation, and arbitration. If one church saw another one slipping into error, it would feel free-- and compelled by duty-- to point out the error, rather than politely standing by and pretending not to notice-- or worse, yet, as in our current situation, truly not noticing.

This is an organizational problem rather than a theological one, or even one of motivation. I am sure what I said in the last paragraph would provoke little open disagreement, and perhaps it even sounds platitudinous. But it is utopian. We simply won't get round to connecting with other churches unless we go about it with some kind of formal structure. I myself am as guilty as anyone-- perhaps more, because I am aware of the problem. With only modest effort, I could keep track of what is going on at different churches-- and, indeed, I had an unusual opportunity to do so when my old church broke up and dispersed to various other local churches. But unless something gets on a person or a church's agenda, it gets overlooked. That, notice, is why the Missions connections with foreign churches work better--- it has a place on the agenda.

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