Because there is nothing that is new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10), we can readily expect to see a kind of perpetual rerun of human history, generation after generation. A careful review of the writing of any historian clearly bears this out. Therefore, the student of history is better equipped to understand both the present and the future. I was recently struck by this thought when reading a section of Iain Murray’s excellent work: A Scottish Christian Heritage. In chapter eight (The Churches and Christian Unity) he offers a summary warning about the dangers of heralding a particular view of ecclesiology over the Gospel itself. I was struck by the wisdom and insight of what he wrote, and am convinced that our own generation needs such wisdom today:
"The idea of preserving Christian unity by means of recognizing only one church failed because it elevated the form of church government as a truth of primary importance. Presbyterians of the seventeenth century rightly saw Christian unity as fundamental to Christianity but they erred in thinking that this unity could only be secured by means of one single ecclesiastical structure. In the words of George Whytock, on of their later spokesmen: ‘The elders of a particular congregation are to consider themselves subordinate to those of the neighbouring congregations, and these again to a larger body…This is not the subordination of one church to another, it is the subordination of a part to the whole.’ In principle, the goal of this view of government is international. In Gillespie’s words: ‘The line of ecclesiastical subordination is longer and further stretched than the line of civil subordination; for a national synod must be subordinate and subject to an universal synod.’ This conviction lay behind the Scots desire to include the Church of England in their plans for reformation in the 1640s. So definitely was this view of unity believed by a number of the Scots at the Westminster Assembly that, inevitably, they had to regard all who did not share their understanding of church government as opponents of ‘Christian unity’. In order to secure unity, they held, there had to be one form of government embracing all churches. I am not here concerned to discuss the Presbyterian system as such; my point is rather that unity does not take its starting point at the organizational and institutional level. It must start rather with the gospel and with principles directly related to the gospel. Unity begins with believers being in Christ and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. From that fact, love, sympathy, helpfulness between Christians will naturally follow, and follow as universally as circumstances and the fallibility of Christians permit. For Christ is not divided, nor are his people. They already belong to the one church, ‘You are come to…the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven’ (Heb. 12:23). Christians in different parts of the world are united in their Head, even though they never meet on earth. The unity is spiritual. It depends not upon participation in a common, universal form of church government but upon spiritual realities – realities that are strengthened by fellowship with Christ and weakened by grieving the Holy Spirit whose presence is the bond of union. As already said, this was the emphasis of the Reformers against the externalism of the Roman Catholic Church. At that date Roman Catholic authors responded that all would be confusion and disorder if Christians were not kept under the rule of the church. To which it was replied, as for instance by William Tyndale, that there is rule in the church but it is the rule of Scripture and the existence of ‘the law of love’ between brethren. This rule was a great reality for those in Christ and it bore the spiritual fruit so largely absent in the pre-Reformation church despite all the supposed unity of government that then existed."
Without Scriptural authority there can be no governmental reality in any church, no matter how well structured it may be. This is the repeated lesson of history and it is greatly needed for the present and future generations.