IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 44, October 30 to November 5, 2000

Dedication, Preface, Introduction

by John M. Frame

Copyright © 1991 by Baker Book House Co. Published by Baker Book House. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved. This material is for personal use only and cannot be published in any form without written permission. This material is not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in any form or in other media either in whole or part, or mirrored at other web sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.


To the Churches Who Nurtured Me:

Beverly Heights United Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Westerly Road Church
Princeton, New Jersey

Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Hamden, Connecticut

New Haven Evangelical Free Church
New Haven, Connecticut

Community Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania

New Life Presbyterian Church
Escondido, California

Covenant Presbyterian Church
Winter Park, Florida

PREFACE (1990)

Although I teach theology, I have never specialized in the doctrine of the church, or "ecclesiology" if you prefer. Still, I haven't been able to avoid thinking about the church the way I've been able to avoid thinking about, say, the timing of the Rapture. In a sense the old saying is true that if God is our father, the church is our mother. Everything I know about God and about Jesus I have learned, directly or indirectly, from the church. Most of my spiritual encouragement, challenge, and comfort has been through the church. Most of my friendships have been within the church. (I do admire Christians who are able to develop deep friendships with non-Christians, but I don't seem to have that gift.) Most of the love I have known has been in the church. I found my wife in the church, and now my children are growing up in the church. My home away from home is always the church. My favorite music is the music of the church. My favorite people are the people of the church. Many of my favorite times have been times spent in the worship of the church.

I am probably even more "churchy" in my lifestyle than most theology professors. A theologian can justify a certain amount of "church hopping:" spending his Sundays preaching and teaching in one church after another, never putting down roots in a single fellowship. For various reasons of temperament and gifts, I have never felt that God has called me to such an itinerant ministry, although I have no quarrel with my colleagues who do sense such a call. I am a "stay at home" type. I serve on the session of my local Presbyterian church. Every Sunday I play the piano and lead the congregation in worship. Often I teach Sunday school as well.

So my life is probably even more church-centered than that of most Christians. I don't consider myself superior to those believers who have not found the sort of fulfillment in the church that I have. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, Christians find themselves in churches that don't carry out their biblical responsibilities and therefore don't provide the blessings they ought to provide. And some Christians, gifted in evangelism, for example, spend more time than I do out in the world, witnessing to the lost, seeking to bring people into the church from outside. I commend them enthusiastically. I do think, though, that the church ought to be important in some ways to all of us, even to those in bad church situations and to those who are called to labor mostly among the unchurched. It is the church, not just individuals, for whom Jesus Christ shed his blood (Acts 20:28, Eph. 5:25-27). And for that reason, together with the reasons peculiar to my own personality and gifts, I have been unable to avoid meditating on the biblical teachings about the church.

And there are other reasons why I keep coming back to this subject. One dates back to 1958, when I was just starting college. In that year the denomination of my childhood, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, merged with the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. The UPNA had been relatively conservative in theology, while the PCUSA had been strongly liberal, though with some conservative congregations. Just about that time, the conviction began to dawn on me that "liberalism" was not the Christian gospel at all.1 I came to the conclusion that I could not remain in the PCUSA, especially since my PCUSA presbytery at that time was demanding that its ministerial candidates receive training (which I interpreted as "brainwashing") at liberal seminaries. I joined an independent church at that point. But many of my closest friends and respected teachers (notably John H. Gerstner) made other choices, forcing me to rethink and rethink. So my earliest years of theological self-consciousness were focused upon denominational and church questions: What is a true church? What obligations are involved in church membership? In what sort of church would God want me to minister?

Another reason for my interest in ecclesiology is that for twenty-two years I was a minister in a tiny (20,000 members, 200 churches) denomination called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (henceforth OPC). The editor of a Christian magazine once described the OPC as a kind of continuous theological seminar. Granting some editorial license, I can accept that description, with the footnote that most of the time, as I recall it, the seminar focused on ecclesiology. Like me, the OPC2 had withdrawn from the PCUSA over the issue of theological liberalism, in 1936. In 1937, the Bible Presbyterians broke away, in turn, from the OPC. Those events were constantly discussed in the OPC; most all of us elders heard many opinions about schism, church purity, denominations and so on. So in those twenty-two years I did a lot of thinking about the church. In 1975 (?) I served as counsel to a fellow minister who was charged with being too sympathetic toward charismatics and others. On three occasions since I was ordained, the church engaged in intensive discussions concerning merger with other bodies. And during the last of my twenty-two years, 1988-89, I spent much time pondering, together with my local congregation, whether they and I should stay in the OPC or to seek transfer into the somewhat larger denomination (200,000 members, 1000 churches) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). We did make that transfer; the church and I are now PCA. But we did not make it without a lot of Scripture searching, heart searching, emotional agony, and intellectual labor.3

Through all of that, I have come to certain convictions about the church, particularly about denominations and denominationalism. These are convictions that do not seem to be commonly expressed in the theological literature. Indeed, I have not been able to find much agreement to them among my friends with whom I have shared my thoughts. Yet, I cannot seem to wriggle away from these ideas, for they seem to me to be the inescapable teaching of Scripture, and I still believe with B. B. Warfield that "what Scripture says, God says." So I've decided to try out my thoughts on the Christian public at large, the trans-denominational body of Christ. If you think I am wrong, please show me how I am wrong; show me from Scripture, please. I'm willing, I hope, to change my views in response to a really biblical argument. If you think I'm right, then see what you can do to change the thinking of others in the church, so that somehow we might, by God's grace, overcome the "curse of denominationalism" that defames our Lord and so often enfeebles our witness.

By "denominationalism," I mean, sometimes (1) the very fact that the Christian church is split into many denominations, and sometimes (2) the sinful attitudes and mentalities that lead to such splits and perpetuate them.4

I do not look on this book as a scholarly volume, though I trust that it is well-informed. It is not a systematic ecclesiology; it will not be part of my dogmatic project, A Theology of Lordship. There will not be a lot of scholarly footnotes (though there will be a number of explanatory ones), and I will seek to avoid technical concepts for the most part. This book is simply a cry from the heart,5 but one that I want very much for my brothers and sisters to hear.

I continue to acknowledge debt to many who have stimulated my thinking on this and other subjects. Some are listed in the preface to my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.6 Here I would like to give special thanks to the twenty-five or so friends who read an earlier version of this book, especially the following who offered a great many suggestions: Richard Gaffin, James Jordan, Thom Notaro, Robert Strimple, Vern Poythress, and Jay Adams (who, very much in character, urged me to add a chapter on "what to do now"). Of course, I take full responsibility for the use of their ideas (and my own!) herein. Thanks also to my pastor Dick Kaufmann who shared with me some of his written thoughts about the great need for new churches, which I have interpreted as a ground for thanksgiving that the work of church planting need not be borne only by one denomination; see chapter 4. Thanks also to Presbyterian Heritage Publications who, after I had completed the first draft of this volume, republished (in God's providence!) a most valuable work from the early nineteenth century, Thomas M'Crie's The Unity of the Church.7 M'Crie was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who viewed at close hand several church splits and attempts at reunion. His scriptural insights have been very helpful to me, and although I differ with him at several important points, I would recommend the book to anyone who wishes to go deeper into the biblical basis of church unity. If someone were to say that the present volume is a kind of updating of M'Crie, I should not argue very much. I wish to acknowledge also the Rev. Arnold Kress, who opened my mind to consider some radical alternatives, and three evangelical theologians of our time who have spoken and written cogently about the unity of the church; would that the church had heard them: Edmund P. Clowney, the late John Murray, and Carl F. H. Henry, who once wrote in a Christianity Today editorial, "Somehow, let's get together."

PREFACE (2000)

Nearly ten years have passed since Evangelical Reunion was first published. Response to it was hardly overwhelming. A few reviewers seemed a bit bewildered by it and dismissed the main thesis - that denominationalism always involves sin on someone's part - as extreme. Some others liked it, but not well enough to keep the book in print for more than three or four years. I'm told that church courts of some denominations have expected their candidates for the ministry to "set their positions over against" mine, and that my approach has recently been derided by some as a "big tent" view of the church.

Still, the book has had a bit of a following. I still autograph a few of them each year, and somebody at www.christianbook.com has maintained a stash of them.

As for me, I remain unbowed by the critics. So far as I know, nobody has seriously taken up the challenge of my first Preface, to refute me from the Bible. Until someone does, I must remain where I stand.

I am grateful to Richard Pratt and Ra McLaughlin who have granted me the facilities of the Third Millennium web site to pass this message on to readers of the new century. They have also been most generous in their web publication of a number of my other shorter writings.


This book is not for everybody, though I will not forbid anyone from buying and/or reading it. In this volume I will be speaking to fellow Christians, those who love Jesus Christ, trust him for their eternal salvation, and are seeking to obey his commands. In my vocabulary, and in the teaching of Scripture, "Christian" does not refer to someone who merely holds to high moral standards, or goes to church, or seeks justice in society, or admires the teachings of Jesus. A Christian is rather someone who has a special relationship, a friendship, with Jesus. For Jesus Christ is no mere historical figure. He is a living person, raised from the dead. Moreover, he is Lord, the supreme ruler of heaven and earth.

How do you become his friend? First, by recognizing that no matter how good you may be in your own eyes and in the eyes of other people, you are a sinful person in the eyes of a holy and righteous God (Rom. 3:23). Second, by recognizing that sin against perfect holiness deserves death (Rom. 6:23). Third, by recognizing that you can do nothing to prevent the eternal death that is coming to you, and by throwing yourself upon the mercy of God (Eph. 2:8-9). Fourth, by recognizing that Jesus died in the place of his people (Mark 10:45) and that he offers eternal life to all who trust in that sacrifice (John 3:16). Fifth, by yourself trusting Jesus: asking forgiveness on the basis of his shed blood and seeking to obey him as your Lord, your supreme Master.

Further, this book is written to those Christians who have come to see the need to trust and obey God's written Word, the holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). This book is essentially a Bible study, though it does deal with our present situation as well as with the Bible. My deep conviction is that the Scriptures are God's very voice speaking to us. Unless you share this conviction, you will think my argument is not very strong. Indeed, it is a weak argument, if it is only my argument. But if it is the argument of God himself, then we had better pay attention to it and heed it. If the argument is only mine, then you can dismiss it politely by saying, "That's very nice, but we would prefer to leave things the way they are." But if it is God's argument, then we had better be willing to make disruptive, dramatic changes. What God says, particularly, takes precedence over the warm feelings of coziness we have in our present denominational structures.8

Before you read the argument, perhaps you should ask yourself whether, if God wanted you to help him tear down all the old, familiar denominational structures, you would be willing to join the project. If you are not willing to make such a conditional commitment in advance, you are not one of the ones to whom this book is addressed. Rather, you need to work on the basics of Christian discipleship and godly priorities. I am writing in this book to potential ecclesiastical revolutionaries, to those who are so sold out to Jesus that they are willing to give up many cherished things for him (meditate on Deut. 6:4ff.; Matt. 8:18-22; Luke 9:23-26; 14:26; 1 Cor. 9; Phil. 3:1-14). I am writing to those who put the authority of God above the comfort of the status quo.

Denominations, I have discovered, are something of a sacred cow in Christian circles. We often look at them the way a Steeler fan, say, looks at his football team, or the way a patriot looks at his country, or the way a loving son looks at his mother. The denomination is my team, my country right or wrong, my mother9 in Christ. We like to see our denominations succeed where others fail, indeed to succeed at the expense of the others. Sometimes, we identify such success with the blessing of God. Failure to support the team, then, turns out to be a kind of blasphemy, almost like renouncing Jesus himself. To others, the denomination is not so much a team as it is a warm, cozy place to call home. And a man's home, of course, is his castle. When the castle is perceived to be under attack, the attackers must be vanquished. Something very deep inside us calls us to all-out war against anyone who threatens the home.

So perhaps it is foolish for me to write this book. Many will see it as an attack on their team, their country, their mother, their home. Actually, I don't think it is. I think my argument, if implemented, will produce a much stronger team and country, a far more comfortable maternal home. Indeed, rather than destroying all we love and cherish in our denominations, my proposal will preserve all that is good about them far more effectively than we are able to preserve it today.

But even if the application of these ideas leads to some loss, some sadness, the people of Jesus ought to be willing to make such tiny sacrifices for Jesus. Tiny? Yes, compared with his great sacrifice for us. His sacrifice is the only measure of our love (1 John 4:7-11).

  1. See J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962).
  2. At first it was called the Presbyterian Church of America, a name changed later because of legal problems. This name should not be confused with the present day body founded in 1973 called the Presbyterian Church in America.
  3. In this book I shall refer from time to time to my experiences in the OPC and the PCA. I grant that these are small bodies and may not be of interest, in themselves, to most readers of this book, who, I hope, will represent many other communions. I beg you, however: please don't write off the book as parochial because of these references. I am taking some pains to use examples from other denominations as well; but I must write out of my own experience, and, for better or worse, that experience has been mostly in the OPC and PCA. My editor at Baker Book House urged me to find more examples and illustrations from outside the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. I tried, but without much success. I am not a specialist in modern church history, and I hesitate to use examples that I have not experienced from the inside, so to speak. And of course besides addressing the broader evangelical constituency, I do also want to say some things to "my own people" which I think they need to hear. If you are neither OPC nor PCA, these references to obscure denominations may help you to gain a more objective perspective on the issues discussed, more objective than if I were discussing your own denomination. If you are in one of these groups, you may lose the advantage of objectivity, but gain the advantage of a more existential or personal involvement. Some readers will need more of the one, some more of the other; I'll trust the Spirit to sort all that out.
  4. As I will indicate, not everyone who advocates a split or the perpetuation of a split is guilty of sin. Sometimes those who leave a denomination and/or start a new one are in the right; sometimes it is right to turn down an opportunity for reunion. However, it is my firm conviction that wherever a denominational division occurs, and whenever an existing division is prolonged, there is sin somewhere. That sin may be in the original group, the seceding group, or both. Most often, in my judgment, the last alternative is the case.
  5. Hence the perhaps excessive use of the first person singular pronoun. But that is also because many of my suggestions are tentative and reflect my own rather narrow experience. I don't want to claim too much for these ideas.
  6. Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987.
  7. Dallas, Tex.: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1989; originally published in Edinburgh, Scotland by William Blackwood, 1821.
  8. I realize that theological liberals, those professing Christians who do not allow God's Word to rule all of life, also are concerned with ecumenism. This book will have little if anything to say about those discussions, about the NCC, WCC, COCU, etc. There are plenty of books and articles on these movements, almost none on evangelical ecumenism (doubtless because there is so little of the latter). Also, liberal arguments for eliminating denominations are not, except in trivial ways, the same as mine, and I wish in this book to address evangelicals very specifically, using distinctively evangelical arguments.
  9. The metaphor is certainly not entirely wrong. See the Preface.
Copyright © 1991 by Baker Book House Co. Published by Baker Book House. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved. This material is for personal use only and cannot be published in any form without written permission. This material is not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in any form or in other media either in whole or part, or mirrored at other web sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.