Christian unity is a subject to which Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave much thought and concern in the latter years of his public ministry. Two lasting monuments to his convictions in this regard are found in the volume of his addresses issued by The Banner of Truth Trust in 1989 under the title, Knowing the Times. The first dates from 1962 and stands in the book as chapter nine, “The Basis of Christian Unity.” The second appears as chapter thirteen, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” an address which the Doctor gave to a large gathering of British evangelicals in 1966.
There is much here to speak. to the condition of conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church today and also to that of their like-minded brethren who recently have withdrawn from our denomination. We are faced with the immediate problem of how those still within and those now without should continue to relate to one another. Moreover, the present situation is far from stable. Doubtless there will be further developments. Dr. Lloyd-Jones offers much help to those who love the Reformed faith and who long for reformation of our churches according to the Word of God.
UNITY OF BELIEF
In his first address, the Doctor tackles the problem of promoting unity of organization without first establishing unity of belief. He addresses a passage to which modem ecumenists frequently make an appeal, John 17:21, the prayer of the Lord Jesus: “that they all may be one.” Dr. Lloyd-Jones proceeds to demonstrate that the ecumenical movement is guilty of having taken the text out of its context. The unity which the Lord Jesus prays for is not a unity of organization or ecclesiastical structure. Rather, “it is the unity of those who, in contradistinction to all others, have believed the truth concerning Him (Christ) and His work.” This unity, says the Doctor, is not something which needs to be produced; this unity is already in existence. “It is a prayer to God to keep the unity that He, through His preaching, has already brought into existence among these people.”
Secondly, Lloyd-Jones shows that this unity is a “unity of essence,” a unity rooted in the fact of the believers’ regeneration. It is what we are in Christ as “new creatures” (II Cor. 5:17) and not what we do by way of organizing ourselves into a structure. “It is something which is inevitable because it is the result of being born into a family. Christians are brothers and not merely an association of friends.”
Turning to material in Ephesians 4, Dr. Lloyd-Jones takes up the dubious proposal that fellowship must come first, even in the presence of dear doctrinal disagreements. He cites the case of “a well·known evangelical preacher” (was it Billy Graham?) who proposed to have fellowship with theological liberals in order that through such fellowship all might arrive ultimately at doctrinal agreement. The idea is that “through working together, evangelizing together and having fellowship together we shall ultimately arrive at the unity of the faith.”
Dr. Lloyd-Jones shows that the structure of the whole book of Ephesians argues for a unity that is rooted in knowledge and belief of the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Christians find their unity in the fact of their being the common subjects of the saving work of the triune God: in being eternally loved and elected to life by God the Father; in being ransomed unto God and redeemed by the shedding of the blood of the incarnate Son of God; and in being quickened and sealed with the Holy Spirit as the earnest of our inheritance. It is as we come to know and acknowledge these truths that we can then stand together and walk together in the light of them.
So the Doctor insists that doctrinal understanding and agreement are essential to our unity and must undergird and inform all our relationships with other Christians. It is at this point that he offers us a most important reminder. Our unity is not a matter of belonging to the same denomination; our unity consists of a common belief in the truth of God’s Word and a common experience of the saving work of Christ applied to our hearts by the Holy Ghost. To restrict our circle of fellowship to fellow denominationalists is a species of idolatry and a sin against the holy catholic church. In a similar way, to break fellowship with like-minded brethren who remain behind when we secede from a denomination is true schism; we separate those whom God has joined together.
We must be especially concerned to maintain such unity of the Spirit in times of turbulence and change. There is not a clear and predetermined answer to every question, nor one way to address every problem. In the Bible we find the principles, and we must allow for different ways of apply· ing them to the situation we all face. How tragic it would be if the outcome of the present situation were not reformation according to God’s Word but only a multiplication of disagreements, divisions, and estrangements among Reformed Christians.
UNITY OF THE BODY
We now turn to the second of these two addresses of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The appeal which Dr. Lloyd-Jones made to his fellow evangelicals shows plainly that while maintaining his previous position on the true nature of Christian unity, he was nonetheless far from satisfied with the way that unity has been expressed and practiced by evangelicals historically. By 1966 the push for ecumenical (organizational) unity among the churches (denominations) had greatly accelerated. lmportant questions were being asked about the church and what the church ought to be in the light of the New Testament. Dr. Lloyd-Jones points out how important these questions are and deplores the fact that only the evangelicals seem to be uninterested in them. This he attributes to their history as a matter of meetings, movements and societies which have functioned independently of the various ecclesiastical bodies and structures of the day. Evangelicals have been content to be merely parties or wings of larger and theologically quite diverse denominations. They have been caught in a trap of reaction and have had to settle largely for a role of negativity and protest. Conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church will surely recognize themselves in this description.
Evangelicals, the Doctor insists, must now begin to discuss the doctrine of the church. They must ask important questions. Are they content merely to go on being a wing of a church? Or will they go back to the New Testament and discover there what the church is really meant to be? The Doctor is prepared to answer this latter question. He calls to mind what was said in the previous address, namely, that we must always begin with unity of belief. He reminds them of the Reformed definition of the true church, “where the true doctrine is preached, where the sacraments are properly and regularly administered, and where discipline is exercised.” He adds, “Surely, as evangelicals, we do not want to go back on that.”
He then goes on to protest against the anomaly of the church which is all the right things on paper, in its confessional documents, but not in practice. “The church is not a paper declaration, important as that is.”
Here the Doctor is describing the situation that has become quite familiar on both sides of the Atlantic: that of a denomination with a bright beginning, and a glorious history, but which at present is sadly changed and degraded theologically, spiritually and practically. A church on paper, but not a church in deed and in truth. The Doctor declares that “we must come back and realize our basic view of the Christian church, and that what we need, above everything else at the present time, is a number of such churches, all in fellowship together, working together for the same ends and objects.”
By way of reinforcement, the Doctor goes on to show that genuine schism, the sin of schism, is only possible where there is unity of belief in the first place. “To leave a church which has become apostate is not schism.” Rather, “schism is a division among members of the true visible church about matters which are not sufficiently important to justify division.” And he says therefore it is the sin of schism for evangelicals to remain in their mixed denominations—separated from one another by their various denominational loyalties. He appeals to them to separate from their historic bodies and come together in a united evangelical witness as one fellowship of churches throughout the land.
It should be mentioned here that the reaction to Lloyd-Jones’ appeal was immediate and dramatic. Rev. John R.W. Scott, chairman of the meeting, came to the desk and offered a direct reply seeking to refute and discredit what the Doctor had said. Evangelical unity was shattered thereafter, because Anglican evangelicals for all their protest and dissent, were still very largely attached to their denomination, and not even an appeal to the truth and the need for a united Gospel witness could move them from that position.
It should also be said that there were other evangelicals who were prepared to heed the Doctor’s call. Today in England and Wales there is a growing number of evangelical congregations standing together as a partial realization of the vision of a new, united and unambiguously evangelical Christian witness. It’s a beginning, if only a small one.
There is an important message for Christian Reformed and ex-Christian Reformed people here. It is all too easy to level a charge of schism at those who have seceded. An analysis of the situation from a Biblical point of view shows that the charge is often laid against the wrong people. It mayor may not be schismatic to leave a particular denomination; but it is definitely schism to allow denominational lines to become insuperable barriers that separate brethren of a common faith. We need to exercise much patience and mutual forbearance under the present distressing conditions. We must not exaggerate our differences. We must allow secondary and less than secondary matters to stand as paints of permanent division. Most of all, we must keep our eyes on the goal in the quest for a true visible church, one that is holy, catholic, and apostolic. The reformation of the churches according to the Word of God has only begun. As Lloyd-Jones put it, “Let us rise to the occasion!”
Rev. R.B. Lanning is minister of the Christian Reformed Church in Lamont,MI.