Denominations And The Body Of Christ
by John M. Frame
Baker Book House, 185 pages, $19.95
Protestant evangelicalism, it seems, has a symbiotic relationship with American denominationalism. Evangelicals trace their deepest roots to the Protestant Reformation, which was, among other things, a church split. In America, experiential revivalism and disestablishment have combined to liquidate churchliness and encourage sectarianism.
A growing number of evangelicals, however, oppose the denominational system on evangelical grounds. In his irenic jeremiad, John M. Frame, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary, indicts denominationalism as an unbiblical perversion that has done untold harm to the American Church. Frame’s charges are serious and far-reaching. Denominationalism undermines the practice of church discipline, he argues, which was for many of the Reformers essential to the health of the Church. Under the regime of denominationalism, a person disciplined by one congregation is often welcomed into a neighboring congregation. If two congregations belong to different denominations, there are no common procedures for resolving conflicts, nor are there common church judicatories to which appeals might be made.
Moreover, it has long been remarked that denominations tend to be socio-economically weighted, a situation, Frame points out, that produces an imbalance of spiritual gifts among them. One denomination instructs its tiny band of stalwarts in an impressively subtle system of doctrine, while another preaches the ABCs to millions. In addition, denominationalism distorts priorities, as time, talent, and energy are expended in promoting the “home team” rather than in building the Church as a whole.
Worst of all, the disunity of the Body compromises her witness to her Head. Denominationalism was not Jesus’ vision for His Church. On the contrary, the overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament is on the unity of the Church. Frame rejects the readily offered solution of reducing the Church’s unity to an invisible, “spiritual” one. On the contrary, he says, the Church’s unity should be expressed in doctrine, practice, government, and in mutual aid and support. It must, as Jesus Himself desired, be a public unity, a unity evident to the world (John 17:23).
Frame thus echoes Carl Henry’s plea: “Somehow, let’s get together.” Much of Evangelical Reunion is devoted to laying the theological groundwork for the “how” part of that “somehow.” Frame argues that a bounded toleration of diverse views and practices is not a necessary evil but is actually implied by Scripture. He devotes chapters to how differences in doctrine, practice, government, and priorities might be addressed.
As one would expect from a Calvinist evangelical, Frame’s diagnosis and prescriptions are forthrightly biblical and theological: he makes an unabashedly evangelical case for evangelical reunion. One of his chief strategies is to suggest that the Bible is itself less specific in many areas than denominational partisans are willing to admit. He spends several pages arguing that, if the main biblical teachings on Church government are carefully observed, “the practical differences between presbyterianism, congregationalism, and episcopacy would be very small.”
In urging limited tolerance of doctrinal differences, Frame employs the notion of “multiperspectivalism” developed at length in his magisterial 1987 study, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. For Frame and his colleagues at Westminster Seminary, “multiperspectivalism” does not mean a recourse to relativism, but provides instead a way of grasping and articulating the many-sided richness of truth. Frame has argued, for example, that each of the Ten Commandments can be seen as a perspective on the whole of Christian ethics; each commandment assumes and implies the others. Idolatry, as the prophets told Israel, is unfaithfulness to the Divine Covenant Husband and thus is a violation of the seventh as well as of the first commandment. Such prophetic imagery is not, in Frame’s view, merely metaphorical; instead, it points to the profound unity and interconnectedness of God’s law.
Frame’s “multiperspectivalism” in theology directly affects his churchmanship. He suggests that “some doctrinal differences are the result of two parties coming to the scriptural text from different perspectives.” He notes that both Calvinists and Arminians, arch-enemies since the seventeenth century, are seeking to affirm important truths; Calvinists stress, as the prophet Jonah put it, that “salvation is of the Lord,” while Arminians wish to insist that sinners must respond to the Gospel in faith. Frame evaluates Calvinist and Arminian preaching and concludes, Calvinist though he is, that some Arminian preaching may be more biblical than some Calvinist preaching.
If a plea for ecumenism seems oddly dated to veteran ecumenists, it should be remembered that ecumenism is heady stuff in evangelical circles—at least as heady as Thomas Oden’s heretical talk about “orthodoxy” is in certain ecumenical circles. Early on, the twentieth century was announced as the century of the Church, while the latter decades have, irony of ironies, witnessed the resurgence of evangelicalism. If Frame’s book receives the reading it deserves, perhaps the century will end with a welcome marriage of evangelical theology and the ecumenical spirit.
Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.