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Catholicity and Conscience

Peter J. Wallace

In the Apostles' Creed we confess, "the holy catholic church." In the Nicene Creed we confess, "I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." In the Westminster Confession of Faith we confess,

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF 25.2)

Today there are those who would say, "I profess the true religion, so I am a member of the visible church, regardless of whether I am a member of a particular church." But this is not what our Confession says. After all, in the very next section we confess,

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 25.3)

All three of these creeds were written during the age of catholicity. They were written by men who believed that the unity of the visible church was a central tenant of the Christian faith.

Catholicity in the Early Church

The Nicene Creed is a good example. The Council of Nicea expressed the unity of the visible church catholic very well. During the fourth century, each regional church was essentially autonomous. Each one had its own baptismal creed, its own liturgy, and for that matter, its own form of government. For instance, in North Africa only bishops were allowed to preach (presbyters could only administer the Lord's Supper), and so every little dusty village had its own bishop. In Italy and Alexandria presbyters were allowed to preach and administer the sacraments, and so they tended to have fewer bishops.

Nonetheless, although each regional church had its own local flavor, there was essential unity in the faith. All of the local baptismal creeds followed the basic pattern of what we now call the Apostles' Creed. While there was some variety of detail in the liturgies, they all followed the same basic pattern (enter worship on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; reading and preaching of the Word; prayer; eucharist).

The bishop of the leading city in the region was generally responsible for convening synods whenever the need arose. Regional synods were usually able to resolve matters of controversy before they spread too widely, and the decisions of regional synods were supposed to be respected by bishops in other regions in order to maintain fellowship.

But in the 320s, as the Arian controversy spread throughout the church, it became clear that regional synods were unable to resolve the dispute. So Emperor Constantine (note that there was no one bishop with the authority to call a universal synod) called an ecumenical council to deal with the matter and maintain unity in the church and the empire.

Therefore, when the Nicene Creed states, "I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church," it is not referring to one international organization, but one international fellowship of regional churches.

Catholicity in the Reformation

This is the model that the sixteenth-century Reformers attempted to restore. They objected to Rome's attempt to establish an international organization, and re-established the patristic model of an international fellowship of regional churches. This is why Geneva frequently requested the opinion of the other Reformed churches before taking momentous actions. This is why the sixteenth-century confessions look so much alike. For that matter, this is why twenty-four of the eighty-six members of the Synod of Dort came from the Reformed churches of England, Scotland, the Palatinate, Brandenburg, Hesse, Zurich, Berne, Basle, Geneva, etc. (It should be noted that the churches of England and Scotland were at this time episcopal, while the rest were presbyterian. As in the early church, differences in polity did not preclude joint participation in the international fellowship of regional churches.) This was the model that is reflected in chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

It is important to remember that each region only had one church. (I recognize that some might call these "national" churches, but I think regional church is a more descriptive term; the term "city church" would better denote the patristic and reformed presbytery.) Even when James I restored bishops to Scotland, the Presbyterians did not start a new denomination. They understood that the catholicity of the visible church was not negotiable. They would seek to reform the church from within. They recognized that when Paul addressed the corruptions of the Corinthian church, he did not say, "get out!" Rather, he called upon them to reform (and of course the epistle of 1 Clement noted that the Corinthians had not entirely reformed even a generation later!).

Sure, there were anomalies. During the fourth century there was a schism in the church of Antioch, which resulted in more than fifty years with two orthodox bishops. And in some parts of Germany there were Reformed and Lutheran churches side by side. But these were considered temporary aberrations, not models for the future.

Yet today there are more than thirty orthodox Reformed denominations in the United States alone! The bewildering array of evangelical denominations is staggering. How did this happen? There are many factors, and I will not attempt an exhaustive explanation. Instead I will suggest one aspect: the triumph of conscience over catholicity.

Conscience and Catholicity

The exaltation of conscience over catholicity did not happen overnight. It grew steadily from the late Middle Ages through the twentieth century. The Reformation complained about the false catholicity of the Roman church (a catholicity rooted in tradition rather than Scripture), and sought to restore equilibrium, but the Anabaptists and later the Independents and Separatists went to the opposite extreme, exalting conscience over catholicity.

Liberty of conscience was defended by the Reformation, but it always remained within the context of the catholicity of the visible church. We are no doubt familiar with Westminster Confession of Faith 20.2:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

But 20.4 does not seem to garner the same attention these days:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.

In the seventeenth century this statement had powerful implications. George Gillespie, one of the members of the Westminster Assembly, had refused to be ordained by a bishop because he believed that only Presbyterian ordination was lawful. Therefore he waited and became the first ordinand in the wake of the revolution of 1638. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of ministers in the Church of Scotland who agreed with Gillespie, yet they did not leave the church in order to start a new denomination. Instead they worked patiently for reform. Liberty of conscience and the catholicity of the visible church are supposed to reinforce one another, not destroy one another.

Certainly the establishment principle was part of what held the church together during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But this was not true of the Reformed Church of France or of the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, neither of which had any relationship to the state. Yet neither of these churches suffered any division until after the decay of catholicity eroded the unity of the established churches elsewhere. Further, there was neither state support nor central organization during the first three centuries of the church, yet the principle of the catholicity of the visible church was so strong that the church fought off Gnosticism, Ebionitism, and numerous other heresies long before the Arian controversy arose.

How did the churches maintain conscience and catholicity in the midst of controversy? Because they believed that the catholicity of the visible church was non-negotiable. Certainly there might be decades (or even whole centuries) when the regional church of Alexandria and the regional church of Antioch might be out of fellowship. But both sides were convinced that this was not the way it was supposed to be, and the regional churches of Rome and Jerusalem might attempt to reconcile the warring brethren.

Conscience versus Catholicity

The problem today is that we live in an age of conscience, in which true catholicity is nearly impossible to practice. Whereas our Reformed forefathers tried to find a way for all Reformed ministers to maintain a clear conscience within the visible church catholic, today the tendency is to impose the convictions of our conscience upon the rest of the church. We tend to follow our conscience and trust that the result will be good for the church. But if conscience becomes more important than catholicity, then all we are left with is a postmodern Babel in which each group tries to establish dominance over all others. And, like Babel, the only possible result is schism and fragmentation.

It is interesting to note that until the twentieth century most Presbyterian and Reformed churches had closer relationships with Episcopalians than with Baptists. Today this has become reversed. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that many Episcopalians turned High Church in the nineteenth century and Modernist in the twentieth century, but it may also be because Presbyterians have generally turned away from the catholicity of the visible church and have appropriated the Baptist emphasis on individual conscience.

While the triumph of conscience over catholicity has been a long process, one key turning point may be located in the 1830s. This decade saw the emergence of several radical movements that demanded that catholicity yield to conscience: 1) New School Presbyterians argued that the catholicity of the invisible church is all that really matters—and that therefore voluntary associations were the best way to engage in missions. 2) The temperance movement began to insist that alcohol is inherently evil and that Jesus really turned water into grape juice. Several presbyteries and synods begin moving to exclude all those who drink, sell, or manufacture alcoholic beverages from membership (thereby enforcing the dictates of a modern conscience regardless of the historic catholic practice). 3) The abolition movement declared that all slaveholders must be excommunicated and that support for gradual emancipation was wicked. 4) Proslavery "fire eaters" in South Carolina called for the Synod of South Carolina to withdraw from the Old School Presbyterian Church because they did not wish to be in fellowship with anti-slavery men (and when the Synod refused to withdraw, they started their own independent presbytery). 5) The Oxford Movement made extravagant claims regarding the necessity of an apostolic succession of bishops and emphasized the importance of minor liturgical details.

These movements all reveal the ways in which conscience was overthrowing catholicity. One of the most amazing examples of this was the 1845 decision of the Old School General Assembly to declare Roman Catholic baptism invalid, by a vote of 173-8. What makes this vote especially remarkable is that James H. Thornwell and others who denied the validity of Romish baptism could not find one single Reformed theologian prior to the nineteenth century who agreed with them. John Calvin, John Knox, Francis Turretin, and the Westminster divines had all granted the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. The Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, Switzerland, France, Germany, and The Netherlands had always accepted Romish baptism, as did the American churches. But by the end of the three days of debate (nineteenth-century General Assemblies were ordinarily two weeks long), only eight men were willing to accept Roman baptism. Conscience had defeated catholicity. In fairness to the Old School, I should note that even the opponents of Romish baptism admitted thirty years later that the majority of Old School churches had ignored the General Assembly and continued to accept Roman Catholic baptism. The official policy after the reunion in the 1870s was to allow individual sessions to decide for themselves—which attempted to keep catholicity and conscience in balance. The problem, however, was that if one session accepted Romish baptism and then the person transferred to a congregation that did not accept Romish baptism, the latter session would be left in a very awkward position!

Catholicity and Conscience

Today liberty of conscience almost invariably trumps catholicity, because the catholicity of the visible church has become virtually impossible to believe or practice in any meaningful way. If we truly believed that the catholicity of the visible church was as non-negotiable as liberty of conscience, how would it alter our practice?

1) We might consider the term "fraternal relations" to encompass our fellowship with every part of the visible church catholic. This would have implications at both the congregational and presbyterial level. The General Assembly could continue to focus on those churches with which we are more closely related, but at the city church level we should seek to maintain fellowship with all churches that confess Jesus Christ as Lord. For instance, the worldwide Anglican Fellowship is currently initiating discipline against the Episcopal Church USA for tolerating heretical bishops and violating biblical sexual ethics. Faithful ECUSA churches are rejoicing in this. How can we encourage them? Joint prayer meetings, conferences, and diaconal projects are all ways to maintain this fellowship, not to mention a joint Saturday picnic at a local park!

2) Along similar lines, we should attempt to establish local ministerial fellowships with evangelical brethren which provide for the mutual respect of one another's discipline and perhaps could include the discussion of key theological issues. If we are convinced that the Reformed faith is the most faithful summary of biblical teaching, then we should seek to winsomely engage with our evangelical brethren, praying for the reformation of the church in our local region.

3) In matters of controversy, we might be slower to insist that the whole church agree with our particular interpretation of Scripture. Is this issue important enough that we must bind the whole church to my position? The Westminster divines found ways of stating things that included both those who affirmed and those who denied that the active obedience of Christ was imputed to us in our justification. Surely we can allow some room for one another's consciences in the church today.

4) We could work towards an international fellowship of Reformed churches that might occasionally hold ecumenical councils in order to resolve matters of supreme importance. This will not work unless and until we bring conscience and catholicity into harmony (otherwise the decisions of such an ecumenical council would be meaningless). But at least, when we have major issues to decide, perhaps we should follow the example of the Synod of Dort and include members from Reformed churches around the world in our deliberations (and maybe even in the vote?).

5) If the goal is to establish unity at the regional level, then perhaps our efforts toward organic union should focus on the city and region, rather than the "national" level. Something like Robert Godfrey's "Reformed Dream" (Modern Reformation Sept/Oct, 2005) could be very fruitful in encouraging local and regional efforts toward union.

Peter J. Wallace, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is an evangelist of the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario, serving as pastor of Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church in America in Granger, Indiana. His dissertation, " 'The Bond of Union': The Old School Presbyterian Church and the American Nation, 1837-1861," available at, provides a detailed history of Old School Presbyterianism and the relationship between catholicity and conscience. Ordained Servant, December 2008.

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