There is a deep ambivalence in Presbyterian and Reformed history with regard to the unity of the church. In the sixteenth century there was a strong desire for unity, one that was stretched by the division with Rome and then impacted by division with other Protestants, especially with Lutherans. (Sadly, all of the magisterial Reform movements rejected the hated Anabaptists, thus joining with the Catholics in their assault on these simple believers.) In the twentieth century Reformed churches and ministers became some of the most prominent leaders in the rise of the modern ecumenical movement. But you would not know this if you listened to many of the popular Reformed teachers of our day.
This fact is indeed clear: many conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Christians are known for some of the fiercest doctrinal debates imaginable. Numerous splits between these churches have been the sad result of several hundred years of theological warfare. In America these fires have been stoked by deep fears within a number of denominations and groups. The Internet provides a marvelous means for the vigorous pursuit of more schism. People who engage in this kind of polemical debate have virtually no desire to pursue unity with anyone who does not agree with their “essentials.” (The list of “essentials” varies from person to person and from place to place!)
I have routinely argued that a strong desire for unity is the best expression of true Reformed Christianity. The regular reader of these posts can see that there are strong opponents of this view, some of whom routinely raise objections to my posts. I remain Reformed but I seek to follow a way of charity and unity with other Christians who are anything but Reformed in their understanding of a number of significant doctrinal debates.
Recently a friend answered an email from a man who wrote him to say that he had left the Reformed Protestant faith for the Orthodox Church. What made this correspondence interesting to me was that I have also had more than a few friends join the Orthodox Church. One of my dearest friends, and the past chairman of our ACT 3 board, left the evangelical Protestant ministry to become an Orthodox priest. This experience led me to take an immediate interest in this particular correspondence. My friend answered this man by telling him why he regretted his decision to become Orthodox. But he also indicated that he would remain a friend and brother in Christ. The letter of my friend was then forwarded to another Reformed leader. This second correspondent is a strong advocate for the polemical stance of much conservative Reformed Christianity in America. Without divulging the name of this person I share a part of his response to allow you to see precisely what I am talking about when I write various posts on this subject. I do not make this stuff up. This letter will demonstrate my point abundantly. Here is the unnamed Reformed leader’s response to the conversion of his friend to Orthodoxy:
Because I have so enjoyed our friendship, this news is hard for me. As you already know, my views on Rome and Orthodoxy are decidedly less sanguine than [those of your other Reformed respondent]. In my judgment you are leaving behind the Christian faith, and for that I mourn. I'm not angry, and I'm not offended, and I'm not hurt. I'm just sad. It is a sadness I have been through far too many times, including with respect to sheep that were at one time actually under my care. I don't need to fuss and fume, and you can rest assured of two truths. First, I will pray that God would open your eyes to the truth on these matters. Second, if He should be so pleased, I will rejoice with the angels in heaven.
There you have it. This man’s response is to tell his friend that he is “leaving behind the Christian faith.” This is utterly and completely preposterous. I will explain my response more fully tomorrow but it must be said now that everyone who confesses “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3) is my brother.
Yes, I am quite aware that there are many who confess Christ who are not truly his disciples. Our Lord repeatedly warned his followers to make sure that they really knew him. I am also quite prepared to say that you do not know who his true disciples are since “the Lord knows those who are his.” A little more humility here would go a long way. When you are convinced that you possess the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then you are prepared to tell people who become Catholic, or Orthodox, or anything else besides your version of the faith, that they “are leaving behind the Christian faith.” This is unmitigated tragedy. Who made you the judge of your brother or sister?