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.
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
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:
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
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
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?
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.
It is “unity of faith”, based upon “A precise
and express profession of the fundamental
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.
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?
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
on the Communion of
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