Normally on Mondays I post book reviews, but today I have the privilege of sharing with you an interview I got with John Frame on his book Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the Body of Christ. The book was originally published in 1991, but only few seem to have found its content worthwhile. I am among the few and so I decided to ask Dr. Frame about the work and some questions related to the theme of Evangelical ecumenism. For more on Deonominationalism see my 3 part series: John 17 and Denominationalism.
1. What motivated you to write Evangelical Reunion (ER)?
I was a member of a tiny denomination called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. They taught me that in general ecumenism was a good thing, referring me to John Calvin, John Murray, and Ed Clowney’s writings. But whenever they had a chance to join in church union with another denomination, there was always a reason against it. They believed theoretically in ecumenism, but in practice they could not fellowship with anyone who didn’t believe and practice the “OPC distinctives.” Similarly, they resisted church planting and evangelism, because they found fault with the theology of anyone who tried to do such things in the OPC: their methods of evangelism downplayed the OPC distinctives too much. When some of us had had enough of this and sought to join another Presbyterian denomination (PCA) more friendly to evangelism, the OPC folks charged us with schism and betrayal.
As a theologian, I thought that this OPC chauvinism was biblically wrong. In the situation I wrote various papers, gave various talks, and eventually brought my argument together in ER.
2. The book’s main thesis states that denominationalism always involves sin on someone’s part, why do you say that?
Jesus founded a single church, not many denominations. The early church was united—not only “spiritually”—but in one organization under the authority of the apostles. In that organization there were methods of resolving disputes (Matt. 18, Acts 15, etc.). But believers never had the option of leaving the one true church and starting another church. Rather, they were expected to resolve their conflicts within the church and to avoid the party spirit that leads to division (1 Cor. 1-3).
But today we have thousands of denominations. How did that happen? Two things: (1) some people violated the unity of the church just mentioned. When they were dissatisfied, they left the one, true church and started churches of their own. That was sin. (2) Others forced believers they disagreed with to leave. Sometimes that was legitimate excommunication (1 Cor. 5:13), but usually not. That too was sin. So there was always sin, either on the part of those who left the one, true church, or on the part of those who illegitimately forced other believers to leave that church. So most all denominations came into being as the result of sin.
3. Is there a difference or any important distinction to be made between denominations and denominationalism?
Denominations are objective realities. Denominationalism is an attitude toward them. Anti-denominationalism is an alternative attitude.
A denomination is an organization of churches with some “distinctives” of doctrine, practice, ethnicity or tradition, not shared by Christians outside the denomination. This means that Christians in the denomination often cannot share fellowship, even communion, with Christians who don’t maintain these distinctive. “Denominationalism” is the view that the existence of multiple denominations is a good thing. Usually “denominationalists” promote the existence of separate denominations and resist church unions or mergers.
4. How does the Evangelical ecumenism you promote differ from the more liberal ecumenism?
Of course, the work of biblical ecumenism is the work of re-uniting the Christian church. It has no particular interest in uniting Buddhists, Muslims, or idealist philosophers. So there must be some standards by which we identify people and churches as Christian. Liberal ecumenism thinks that any standards at all violate the ecumenical goal. Evangelical ecumenism must disagree. Of course it is not easy to come up with a set of standards that would be acceptable to all evangelicals. My suggestion is this: for now, the test is conscience. If denomination A is able to join with denomination B without violating the conscience of its members, they should do so. This at least is where we should start. Later on we can tackle the more difficult questions—e.g. of whether the Eastern Orthodox should be accepted as Christian.
5. You’ve stated that the response to this book has been “less than overwhelming.” Why do you think there is not much of a desire to discuss ecumenism in the larger Evangelical community?
Denominations, to many of us, are like home. They are our family, our team, our country. We like the people, we like the customs, we like the atmosphere. So often, when we are asked to merge with another group, even though our conscience cannot such a merger, our emotions take control. We don’t want to leave home; we don’t like the unfamiliar. Another reason is that evangelicals have not been taught much about the Bible’s own doctrine of church unity.
6. Do conferences and organizations like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition give you any hope for the future of ecumenism?
Well, more broadly, what has happened is that Christians have supplemented their denominations with para-church ministries. They want to work together, say, to evangelize a university campus. They can’t get their churches to work together, so they work independently of the churches. Of course, in Scripture, evangelism is the work of the church. But it is also true that for Scripture evangelism is the work of a united church. So the para-church is less than God’s best, but I cannot condemn it in most cases. As long as they maintain in other respects a church-friendly ministry, para-church ministries are a good thing. The danger is that they adopt “distinctive” positions that exclude other Christians and thereby become like denominations—additional wounds in the body of Christ.
Now Together and Coalition are parachurch ministries like the above. On the whole, I like what they are doing. But they have sometimes adopted “distinctive” views—on church music, evangelistic methods, etc., even beyond the distinctive of the denominational confessions. That tends to produce further divisions in the body of Christ.
7. What would you recommend that the average Christian could do to try to breed this type of ecumenism in their local church?
I make some general suggestions at the end of the book: learn to tell jokes about your own denomination, learn to listen seriously to what people in other denominations are saying, bring in speakers from other denominations, etc. See http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_books/Evangelical_Reunion/Chapter19.html.
In the local church, it is especially important to speak well of Christians in other denominations (even the rival congregations down the street), to dissent from the self-congratulatory denominational celebrations and histories, to join other churches in ministries (insofar as conscience permits!) as well as social events, etc
Also you might see this excellent article from Joe Thorn: Friendliness Between Denominations
Justin Taylor has believes the principles about creating division is one of the least obeyed Scriptures in the church, see here.