Evangelical Unity, Catholicity and the Conscience

Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents of the Westminster Assembly of Divines 1644 by John Rogers Herbert

There’s been a debate on Twitter today about how Gospel unity, Gospel clarity and the freedom of the conscience should interact. At one point I was asked how I fitted these together as an Independent and I thought about the essay below, written four years ago, about the famous disagreement between Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott at a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance. I think it sets out as fully as possible why, though I value the catholicity of the church highly, I cannot be a member of the Church of England, though I am not sure MLJ’s proposals were quite right either. Nothing below should detract from the great esteem and affection I have for those who take a different view.

In the Nicene Creed, the church confesses, ‘We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.’[1] In doing so, we affirm two key desiderata in the New Testament’s vision of the church: unity between believers, ‘one, catholic’[2] and God’s authority to order his church by his word, ‘holy, apostolic’[3]. Non-conformity, as an ecclesial category, should be judged on these terms: its success and failure defined by how it has embodied this pattern for the church. The last fifty years have seen competing visions for evangelical ecclesiology set out by John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones; visions which clashed famously at the EA meeting on Oct 18th 1966. At the heart of Stott and Lloyd-Jones’ disagreement was how to reconcile these two criteria, which we will call catholicity and conscience.[4] We will examine the two approaches that clashed in 1966 and then examine an older proposal before drawing out contemporary lessons.

The first proposal is to conform to the formularies of the Church of England in order to restore communion with it.[5] Non-conformity is inescapably defined in contradistinction to conformity to the Anglican church. Since Anglicanism is an attempt to bring Jesus’ prayer[6] to fruition within England, described by Packer as ‘a deliberate policy of so ordering the Church that it can be a spiritual home for all “mere Christians”’[7],why not simply conform? Indeed, John Stott suggest that Independents are in danger of ‘pursu(ing) the purity of the church at the expense of its unity’.[8]

Is this charge correct? N.T. Wright argues that ‘the two sacraments mark out the historical and visible church’ and that ‘it is totally fitting if they are administered by those commissioned to act as historical and visible representatives of that church.’[9] However, Wright’s statements here prove either too little or too much. If historic and visible catholicity must be maintained within the bounds of one supra-congregational institution, then the Church of England is vulnerable to the prior claims of Roman Catholicism. If, however, J.I. Packer is right that ‘apostolic succession…(is) faithfulness to the apostles’ doctrine and mission’[10] then historic and visible unity does not require one ecclesiastical institution. Instead, we follow Packer in denying that ‘Christ’s one church is…a ministerial and sacramental network’[11] but

‘the worldwide fellowship of the faithful…a fellowship that becomes visible wherever Christians associate to do together the things that the church does, and that appoints ministers from its own ranks as needed.’[12]

This would seem to create space for an apostolic catholicity unbounded by one institution but created by common confession and practice.

Still though, could supra-congregational institutional unity, while not necessary, be beneficial in the light of New Testament teaching? Packer’s vision of Anglicanism creating ‘a spiritual home for all “mere Christians”’ and thus ‘a truly catholic inclusiveness’ seems compelling. Yet, here, Anglicanism’s very desire for unity thwarts its catholicity. Since, as per Article XXXIV, Anglicanism conceives catholicity in terms of a uniformity of ‘Traditions and Ceremonies’, it imposes practices, unrestrained by the regulative principle, on those that believe them to be forbidden by Scripture either by express prohibition or through absence of command. The Church of England’s problem, therefore, is not that it is too lax but that it is too strict. Those ejected from Anglicanism in 1662 were not expelled because Anglicanism demanded too little from them but because the demands it made of their conscience were too high, consistent with Article XXXIV. In pursuing catholicity as uniformity, Anglicanism denies believers the freedom to obey the Scriptures as their conscience dictates on matters that it admits are ‘ordained only by man’s authority’.[13] Far from being, ‘a spiritual home for all “mere Christians”’ it goes beyond Scripture in its requirements for participating in worship and thus usurps the Christ’s authority over his people.[14] Thus, Anglicanism denies that those whose conscience does not allow them to practice, or impose on others, Anglican liturgy have a place within its definition of the visible church. In denying the catholicity of true churches, Anglicanism is, therefore, not a truly catholic church but a sectarian one. Thus the New Testament’s concern for catholicity, then, not only legitimates non-conformity but requires it.

The question still remains: how should non-conformist churches pursue catholicity? This question drove Lloyd-Jones’ famous address to the Evangelical Alliance in 1966. Far from being concerned merely with ecclesial purity, which he could have achieved simply by pursuing his ministry at Westminster Chapel, Lloyd-Jones’ appeal was generated by his fear that ‘the only people I know at the present time who are guilty of the sin of schism are evangelicals.’[15] Lloyd-Jones’ argument was that evangelicals had operated at the level of ‘movements and societies instead of facing them on the church level’[16] and  that evangelicals were divided by being spread across a variety of denominations. He argued,

‘Why are we evangelicals thus divided?…I think if we are honest we will have to admit that most of us really do not know. It is an accident of birth, I was born a Baptist, or an Anglican, or a Congregationalist, or Methodist, or whatever it was, and, because I was born there, I stay there and I am prepared to fight for it…I am arguing that for us to be divided – we who are agreed about everything that really matters – for us to be divided from one another in the main tenor of our lives and for the bulk of our time, is nothing but to be guilty of the sin of schism.’ [17]

What Lloyd-Jones proposed as alternative to this situation is hotly debated. It is probably unlikely that Lloyd-Jones had any clear end goal in mind[18] nor was he ruling out membership of mixed denominations in toto. His call was that evangelicals should not co-operate with liberals and Anglo-Catholics but rather oppose their teaching and form closer fellowship with evangelical churches across denominational lines. Nonetheless, many heard Lloyd-Jones calling for evangelical Anglicans to secede from Anglicanism and, in fact, a reasonable number did so.[19]

How should we evaluate Lloyd-Jones’ proposal? On one hand, Lloyd-Jones was surely correct in arguing that the bounds of confessional fellowship should be the Gospel itself. That was the flaw in Stott and Packer’s approach to engagement with the Church of England. They wanted to maintain, on one hand, that they were evangelicals who believed evangelical doctrine to be the true Christian Gospel, yet their engagement with the structures of Anglicanism required them to accept the authority of those who denied crucial elements of that Gospel. Packer’s defence of this is that,

‘evangelicals in the Church of England do not suppose that their conflict with well-meant misbelief will be over until the Lord comes. But they are not discouraged. They see this task as part of the package deal which they accepted when they chose Anglicanism.’[20]

But it is hard to square Packer’s language of ‘well-meant misbelief’ with Paul’s description of false teachers as ‘dogs’[21] or ‘fierce wolves’[22] or Peter’s attitude to them in 2 Peter 2. Likewise, Packer describes heterodoxy as the ‘excrescences of current Anglican comprehensiveness’[23] as if false teaching were merely barnacles that will need to scraped from the Church of England’s hull when it reaches its destination, ignoring the fact that the heterodox have been in the engine room and the bridge, setting the course and steering the rudder. Lloyd-Jones put his finger on the problem when he said that, ‘You cannot disassociate yourself from the church you belong’.[24] This tension was elevated by the Keele approach but is inherent in evangelical membership in all mixed denominations. Keele undoubtedly pushed some Anglicans to adopt a broader definition of the Gospel than their evangelicalism would allow; but the alternative approach, of maintaining constant conflict with denominational leadership, scarcely seems more coherent since, as Lloyd-Jones said, ‘(evangelicals) spend a great deal of their time criticizing their own leaders, but remember, those criticized are still their leaders.’[25] Lloyd-Jones, then, was right to call for a Gospel-shaped catholicity.

However, Lloyd-Jones gave far less attention to the specifics of the Biblical witness in regard to the church, that is its apostolicity. Murray records that Lloyd-Jones had little time for debates about either church government or the proper subjects of baptism.[26] It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Lloyd-Jones considered Baptists, Anglicans and Methodist evangelicals to be ‘agreed about everything that really matters.’[27] This implies that churchmanship does not ‘really’ matter. But the New Testament does speak in regard to polity and the sacraments, which are inescapable, since all churches must be governed and the sacraments practiced somehow. The question is: what authority will shape our ecclesiological practice? In viewing these things as adiaphora, Lloyd-Jones was, ironically, taking a very Anglican approach. It is inconsistent to see the Bible as supreme in doctrine but marginal in ecclesiology, tacitly suggesting that obedience in these areas is unimportant. Trueman puts it well, ‘Orthodoxy can no more survive…ecclesial and doctrinal indifference than it can the mixed theological messages of a mixed denomination that tolerates heresy.’[28]

The irony of the 1966 debate is that on closer inspection, it was the Anglican vision of a uniform territorial church that was sectarian and Lloyd-Jones vision of an ‘evangelical ecumenicity’[29] that was guilty of theological indifferentism. Is it possible, though, to maintain unity of believers across differences in churchmanship without implying that these differences are unimportant? This was the situation facing the Independents advising Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s as they sought to shape a national church during the Protectorate.[30] Despite their congregational convictions, the Independents did not abandon the idea of a national church but in the ‘Humble Proposals[31] argued for a national church held together by a mere statement of doctrine[32] defined as, ‘Principles of Christian Religion, which the Scripture plainly and clearly affirmes, that without the beliefe of them salvation is not to be obtained.’[33] However, within this framework individual churches were allowed to constitute themselves and worship without the imposition of a set liturgy. The Independents proposal sought to combine an evangelical catholicity while giving freedom for churches to follow the Scriptures as their consciences allowed.[34]

The ‘Humble Proposals’ were made in a very different historical context to today and were informed by an Erastianism that most non-conformists today would reject. However, it was an attempt to reconcile the twin demands of catholicity and conscience. The Independents of the 1650s saw that, contra Anglicanism, one set of traditions could not be imposed on the entire Catholic church. On the other hand, unlike Lloyd-Jones, they did not refrain from mandating church government or sacramental practice because they were unimportant but because they were so important that no one should be pressed to go beyond the bounds of their conscience. Thus, the Independents sought to achieve a national catholicity while recognizing the validity of the different churchmanships within it.

How might an approach informed by the ‘Humble Proposals’ operate today? Within the visible church there are differences on aspects of ecclesiology important enough to justify different congregations. Presbyterians should not be forced to join Baptist churches, nor Episcopalians Congregational churches. However, Presbyterians, Baptists and Episcopalians who believe and trust in the same Gospel are part of the same catholic church. Therefore, we need two kinds of fellowships of churches, one kind we might call evangelical fellowships and the other ecclesial fellowships.[35] Evangelical fellowships would seek to be an expression of the fellowship that churches have around the essentials of the Gospel. Ecclesiological fellowships would be for those whose ecclesiological convictions were close enough for them to work together in ordaining ministers, giving advice on church discipline, or planting similar churches elsewhere.[36] The key would be to connect the right action to the right kind of fellowship. For instance, church planting by people who are united by the Gospel but differ completely on ecclesiology can only have the effect of tacitly confirming that God’s revelation on such matters can be safely ignored. Instead, through churches being part of both a national evangelical fellowship and a tighter ecclesiological fellowship they can express a generous catholicity without sidelining their ecclesiological convictions.[37]

[1] “Creeds and Authorized Affirmations of Faith,” n.d., https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/newpatterns/contents/sectione.aspx.

[2] John 17:20-21; Ephesians 4:1-6.

[3] 1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 14:23.

[4] Conscience here is not concerned with the protection of the autonomy of the individual but upholding the sole authority of God over his church. As John Owen writes, ‘The worship of God is of that nature that whatsoever is performed in it is an act of religious obedience. That any thing may be esteemed such, it is necessary that the conscience be in it subject to the immediate authority of God. His authority alone renders any act of obedience religious.’ Thus for Owen, the freedom of the conscience did not elevate the authority or autonomy of the individual but maintained the exclusive prerogative of God, through the Scriptures, to order his own worship. Owen is not motivated by an optimistic view of the individuals’ ability to interpret Scripture but from a refusal to grant the ability to impose rites and ceremonies on others to any other individual or group because of the likelihood that they will err in so doing. John Owen, The Works of John Owen. 15, ed. William H. Goold, 5th printing. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 43.

[5] Julian Charnley, an Anglican speaking the day after Lloyd-Jones and Stott had had their public disagreement, made just such a proposal saying, ‘I conclude with this plea – that it is a fitting moment to be seeking a united, territorial Church, rather than advocating secession…Only then shall we be one, visibly as well as spiritually, and the world will believe.’ Julian Charnley, “Church Order,” in Unity in Diversity: Evangelicals, the Church and the World: Ten Papers Given at the National Assembly of Evangelicals at Westminster, London, in October, 1966. : (London: Evangelical Alliance, 1967), 24.

[6] John 17:20-21

[7] J. I Packer, “A Kind of Noah’s Ark? The Anglican Commitment to Comprehensiveness,” in Anglican Evangelical Identity: Yesterday and Today (London: The Latimer Trust, 2008), 144.

[8] John R. W Stott, “Pursuing Truth and Unity: Why Evangelicals Should Remain in the Church of England,” in Why I Am Still an Anglican: Essays and Conversations, ed. Caroline Chartres (London; New York: Continuum, 2006), 11. Stott is consistent here with Article XXXIV of the XXXIX which states that, ‘Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly.’ “XXXIX Articles of the Church of England,” n.d., https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/book-of-common-prayer/articles-of-religion.aspx#I.

[9] N. T Wright, “Evangelical Anglican Identity: The Connection Between Bible, Gospel & Church,” in Anglican Evangelical Identity: Yesterday and Today (London: The Latimer Trust, 2008), 108.

[10] J. I Packer, “Reflection and Response,” in J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George, Beeson divinity studies (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2009), 184.

[11] Packer, “Reflection and Response,” 184.

[12] Packer, “Reflection and Response,” 184. Italics added. I am not clear in my mind how Packer reconciles this with his argument in fn 7.

[13] “XXXIX Articles of the Church of England,” Article XXXIV. Of course, this uniformity never has and never will be achieved since the Church of England’s desire for uniformity is in tension with its concern for comprehensiveness. One could argue that the last 500 years of Anglican history have been the deconstruction of the tension between Article XIX and Article XXXIV.

[14] This is despite the fact that, as Gerald Bray explains in his exposition of the XXXIV article, ‘In the early centuries there was no attempt to impose a single rule on every local church, with the result that different practices emerged in different places.’  Gerald Lewis Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Latimer Trust, 2009), 188.

[15] Lloyd-Jones, Evangelical Unity: An Appeal David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” in Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions, 1942-1977 (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 253.

[16] Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” 250.

[17] Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” 254. Author’s italics.

[18] See Iain Hamish Murray, The Life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1899-1981 (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 390.

[19] Andrew Atherstone, “Lloyd-Jones and the Anglican Secession Crisis,” in Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of “the Doctor,” ed. Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2011), 262.

[20] Packer, “A Kind of Noah’s Ark? The Anglican Commitment to Comprehensiveness,” 169.

[21] Philippians 3:2.

[22] Acts 20:29.

[23] Packer, “A Kind of Noah’s Ark? The Anglican Commitment to Comprehensiveness,” 168–169.

[24] Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” 255.

[25] Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” 254. Matthew Roberts puts it well, ‘It needs to be said that on this matter Stott’s public refutation of Lloyd-Jones’ arguments entirely failed to engage with the point. The argument that there is no pure church in Scripture, and churches in the New Testament are a mixture of true and false believers, is irrelevant. This is neither a justification for sharing a communion with false teachers, nor does it address Lloyd-Jones’ powerful point of the absurdity of having a higher level of unity – an ecclesiastical one – with those with whom we have no fellowship, while restricting our unity with those with whom we have deep and eternal fellowship in Christ to the far lower level of informal parachurch organisations.’ Matthew Roberts, “Lloyd-Jones and Stott: An Evangelical False Dilemma,” The Aquila Report, October 27, 2016, http://theaquilareport.com/lloyd-jones-and-stott-an-evangelical-false-dilemma/.

[26] Iain Hamish Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 789–790.

[27] Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” 254.

[28] Carl R. Trueman, “J.I. Packer: An English Non-Conformist Perspective,” in J.i. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George, Beeson divinity studies (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2009), 121.

[29] Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” 254.

[30] For more on the Independents’ proposals see Sarah Gibbard Cook, “The Congregational Independents and the Cromwellian Constitutions,” Church Hist. 46, no. 3 (1977): 335–57; Jeffrey R. Collins, “The Church Settlement of Oliver Cromwell,” History 87, no. 285 (2002): 18–40; Paul Lim, “The Trinity, Adiaphora, Ecclesiology, And Reformation: John Owen’s Theory Of Religious Toleration In Context,” Westminst. Theol. J. 67, no. 2 (2005): 281–300.

[31] John Owen, “PROPOSALS FOR The Furtherance and Propagation of the GOSPELL in This NATION. As the Same Were Humbly Presented to the Honourable Committee of Par∣liament by Divers Ministers of the Gospell, and Others. As Also, Some Principles of Christian Religion, With∣out the Beliefe of Which, the Scriptures Doe Plainly and Clearly Affirme, Salvation Is Not to Be Obtained.,” 1652, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/a90284.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

[32] The Ministers proposed sixteen articles, which are a combination and distillation of the Apostle’s Creed, Nicea, Chalcedon with Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide added.

[33] Owen, “Proposals,” 5.

[34] The key thing to note is that in the seventeenth century context, the mere statement of Protestant Trinitarian Orthodoxy would not have been seen as sufficient to order the life of the church, as some today would treat, say, the FIEC Doctrinal Basis. Rather, the assumption was that within the bounds of Trinitarian orthodoxy varies thick ecclesiologies and close associations would be developed and formed. Cook describes how the Independents sought to combine catholicity and conscience, ‘The constitutional philosophy of the Congregational Independents
as group had its ideological roots in their concept of revelation. God has not revealed everything to Christians altogether clearly in the Bible, Owen argued. “That any of them, that any society of them,
should have a perfect comprehension of the entire revelation of God, or understanding of the whole Scripture, and every part of it, with all that is contained therein, was never required of them in a way of duty, nor ever designed unto them in way of privilege.” Matters revealed ambiguously in Scripture included minor points of doctrine and major points of church government and forms of worship, such as the proper officers for a church or the appropriate age for baptism. Christians were bound in conscience to follow their best individual interpretations of the divine word in such cases, and their conscientious differences were to be
respected in a spirit of mutual toleration.’  Cook, “The Congregational Independents and the Cromwellian Constitutions,” 340.

[35] Given the argument above, that catholicity does not require a monolithic institution, one may object that no visible fellowship that encompasses the catholic church is necessary. I take it, however, that the catholic impulse that Jesus expresses in John 17:20-21 must have some kind of visible expression. If we do not at least seek to do this then we are open to the accusation that we are not taking Jesus’ words, and their sentiment, seriously.

[36] This was clearly the approach of the Seventeenth Century Particular Baptists. Benjamin Keach writes that, ‘(Church members) have Power to organize themselves with Officers. Yet I humbly conceive I may add, that the Concurrence of the Presbytery is needful hereunto.’ Clearly, for the Particular Baptists, independency did not mean isolation. Benjamin Keach, “THE GLORY OF A TRUE CHURCH, And Its Discipline Display’d. Wherein a True Gospel-Church Is Described. Together with the Power of the Keys, and Who Are to Be Let In, and Who to Be Shut Out.,” in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, ed. Mark Dever (Washington, D.C.: Center for Church Reform, 2000), 71.

[37] It is regrettable that the 1966 meeting, due to a discussion of evangelical unity, saw the fracture of that unity and the decline in confidence, certainly amongst Reformed churches, in the Evangelical Alliance.

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