2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Owen in 1616 and the 50th anniversary of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' address on Evangelical Unity on 18th October 1966. Both men gave attention to the matter unity between Christians. Lloyd-Jones was a student of Owen and drew upon his work on Christian unity. However, I argue that Lloyd-Jones' strategy for achieving greater unity among gospel churches was flawed in that was tied to Evangelicals coming together under one organisational umbrella group. In a previous post I looked at 'John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Schism'.
The Puritan ecclesiastical experiment of the Commonwealth era had failed to unite all reform-minded believers under a single form of church government. Some favoured a drive to further reform the Church of England, others preferred Presbyterianism or others still, Independency. With the monarchy restored in 1660 the Church of England with its Episcopalian system became the State Church once more. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer was imposed on all Church of England congregations, leading to over 2,000 Puritan pastors being deprived of their livings. Anglicanism was the only officially recognised religion in England.
It was payback time for the regicidal Puritans. Non-Anglicans faced sometimes viscous bouts of persecution. The well-known trials and tribulations of John Bunyan are a case in point. An attempt was made to impose Protestant unity upon all Christians in the land by means of the power of the State. But as Owen pointed out, rather than fostering true spiritual unity, the State-sponsored imposition of Anglicanism, Bishops, liturgy and all, only exacerbated divisions still further. Owen argued that God alone is Lord of men’s consciences. The Head of the Church had not left himself without witness when it came to the government, life and worship of the church. What he has commanded, man has no right to supplement, much less ignore.
Owen pleaded for toleration on the part of Nonconformists, arguing that doing so would not undermine the unity and peace of the nation. People should have the right to “do church” in the light of their understanding of Scripture and for the benefit of their souls, rather than be forced to conform to a Church that would not reform. Anglicanism was in danger of being as imperious and intolerant as Rome in insisting that unity could only be found under her banner and looking to the State to persecute Dissenters.
In 1672, Owen published A Discourse Concerning Evangelical Love, Peace and Unity. Our divine understood that inter-church unity could not be created institutionally, by forcing all Protestants to join the Established Church. True spiritual unity said Owen exists at three levels:
First in the Catholic Church on earth, which “is comprised that real living and spiritual body of his, which is firstly, peculiarly, and properly called the Catholic Church militant in this world. These are his elect, redeemed, justified, and sanctified ones, who are savingly united to their head by the same quickening and sanctifying Spirit” (15:78). All true believers belong to and are one with the Catholic Church on earth. They may disagree over many things and differ on points of church government, and yet “they esteem the things wherein they agree incomparably above wherein they differ.” (15:80). Those differences are to be handled not by one group of Christians riding roughshod over another because they have the power of the State on their side, but as befits their unity in the gospel. “It is love, meekness, forbearance, bowels of compassion, with those other graces of the Spirit wherein our conformity to Christ doth consist, with a true understanding and due valuation of the ‘unity of faith…’” that alone will enable believers to avoid the evils associated with entrenched differences between churches. To what extent do we give expression to our unity with the Catholic Church on earth that perchance exists outside of our hermetically sealed Reformed bubble?
Second there is the visible Catholic Church “comprehensive of all who throughout the world outwardly own the gospel, there is an acknowledgement of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism:” which are a sufficient ground of that love, union and communion among them” (15:82). It is in this manifestation of the Catholic Church “that salvation is to be obtained and out of which there is none.” (15:84).
Convinced Independent though he was Owen certainly did not want to limit the visible Catholic Church so defined to his own Independent church grouping. He regarded it as an “absurd, foolish and uncharitable error, which would confine the Catholic Church of Christ unto a particular church of one single denomination”. (15:84). Striking a consolatory note, notwithstanding his differences with the Church of England, Owen said he regarded her “to be as sound and healthful a part of the Catholic Church as any in the world.” (15:85). So far from being a narrow minded sectarian was Owen that he insisted, “Unto this Catholic Church we owe all Christians love, and we are obliged to exercise all the effects of it, both towards the whole and every particular member, as we have advantage and occasion.” (15:86). Owen was no sectarian Donatist, then. To what extent does our love for fellow Christians overflow our church groupings, to embrace believers in the mixed denominations, Charismatics, and others?
Thirdly Owen discusses the church of Christ in terms of those who profess the gospel and gathered into particular churches. All believers are obliged to belong to a local church. But in line with his principles, Owen did not recommend an “any church will do” approach. Should a local church degenerate from the biblical pattern and seek to impose unscriptural practices upon believers, the godly may separate from such a congregation and in doing so should not be regarded as schismatic. Owen stresses that in such situations reform-minded believers should not show themselves difficult rabble rousers. They are to attempt “peaceable endeavours to reduce [the church] to the order of the gospel” (15:97). All the time showing “charity, love and forbearance towards the persons of those whose miscarriages at present he cannot remedy.” (15:97). But if sincere Christians found themselves having corrupt practices and erroneous teaching forced on them, Owen counselled that they should peaceably withdraw and seek fellowship in a more biblically sound church. At a local level unity should not be sought at the expense of biblical purity.
What, then, according to Owen are the defining characteristics of gospel church unity that we are bound to seek?
1. It is spiritual “the unity of the Spirit”, the product of being ‘spiritually and savingly united to Christ” (15:108), not the product of imposed uniformity.
2. It is “unity of faith”, based upon “A precise and express profession of the fundamental articles of the Christian religion”. (15:108). Owen is not interested in lowest common denominator ecumenism, or sectarian exclusivism. Unity in the essential truths of the gospel is what matters.
3. It is a unity of Love. Love knits together all members of the body of Christ as the “bond of perfection”. This gospel love is not pernickety and excluding, but “acts itself by forbearance and condescension towards the infirmities, mistakes and faults of others”. (15:110). Is that always the case with us? Are we sometimes too quick to write others off?
4. It is a unity in the orders of rule and ordinances of worship instituted by the kingly authority of Jesus. Where churches receive grace and gifts from the Lord Jesus to this end and seek to act in line with the Word, says Owen, “no such variety or difference will ensue as shall impeach that unity which is the duty of them all to attend unto.” (15:110). He is not demanding absolute uniformity of view and practice, but unity in diversity among churches that gladly submit to the rule of King Jesus laid down in his Word.
During the Restoration period Owen and his fellow Nonconformists faced a very different situation to ours today. Dissenters are no longer subject to persecution because we do not belong to the Church of England Established by Law. Much of Owen’s work on the doctrine of the church was an extended plea for the right of Nonconformists to exist persecution-free. That is no longer the need of the hour, thank God. But we are gospel-bound to pursue church-level Evangelical unity and Owen helps us to understand what that means. Evangelical unity flows from the gospel we believe and is shaped by the gospel of love. It is not about bringing all church groupings under one umbrella structure, or seeking to obliterate denominational distinctives. As with the poor, differences over church government, baptism and worship styles will be ever with us. But both within and among Gospel Churches we must do all we can to give expression to our unity in the gospel. How that works itself out in practice will differ in our various situations. Sometimes more fellowship will be possible with other neighbouring churches, sometimes less, but we need to find ways of expressing our unity in faith and love. Isolationism isn’t an option for true Independents.
Sure, Affinity, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, Grace Baptist Associations, Evangelical Presbyterian and Evangelical Anglican groupings, Gospel Partnerships and so on have a role in fostering unity between our churches. But is none large and comprehensive enough to serve as a pan-Evangelical Big Tent, where the “fundamental articles of the Christian faith” are confessed, but conscientious differences respected. Lloyd-Jones’ vision for Evangelical unity was strategically flawed in that he sought to replace the institutional unity of the World Council of Churches and British Council of Churches with that of another organisation, the British Evangelical Council. While we may agree that Evangelicals should separate from church groupings where there is no realistic prospect of reform, the answer is not as Lloyd-Jones put it in his 1967 address Martin Luther and his Message for Today: “Come out of it! But come together also…into an association such as this British Evangelical Council… Come out! Come in!” (Unity in Truth, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Evangelical Press, 1991, p. 43).
Dr. Owen grasped what Dr. Lloyd-Jones apparently did not at this point, that Evangelicals were already “in”, in the sense that together they belonged to the gospel-proclaiming Catholic Church in its local manifestations. Joining the BEC would not necessarily have broken down barriers between Evangelical Churches. What was needed there was a greater catholicity of spirit, more love for one another across denominational divides, a deeper determination to submit to the Lordship of Christ, come what may. Come out! Yes. But come out because you are in and that unity needs to be seen in action as gospel churches partner together to reach the nation for Christ. Lloyd-Jones would have been better advised to have stressed the basic principles, as did Owen, and not to have tied his vision to a single organisation.
Inter-church unity is organic, not organisational. As John Owen says in The True Nature on the Communion of Churches,
Take in the whole, and the union of churches consists in their relation unto God as their Father, and unto Christ as their only immediate head of influence and rule, with a participation in the same faith and doctrine of truth, the same kind of holiness, the same duties of divine worship, especially the same mysteries of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the observance of all the rules of Christ in all church-order with mutual love, effectual unto all the ends of their being and constitution, or the edification of the Catholic Church. (16:190).
Though there may be differences among gospel churches, our essential union is an expression of the oneness for with the Lord Christ prayed in John 17:20-23, that his disciples may be “perfect in one”. Giving that oneness visible expression is vital to the mission of the church, John 17:21.
There has been a welcome revival of interest in Puritanism among Evangelical Christians in the last few decades. That interest has largely focused on the rich treasury of Puritan devotional writings. But we must never forget that Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the reformation and revitalisation of the church. Reading the Works of John Owen Volumes 13-16 it is evident that he was a pastor-theologian; a theologian of the church and for the church. His ecclesiological writings are a standing reminder that, Ephesians 5:25-26.
* From my Evangelical Library conference paper: Reading John Owen: Volumes 13-16