A Challenge to the “Spirituality of the Church”
It is my contention that even though the church and state must be separated…the church (whether in pulpit preaching or by synods and councils) still has the obligation to speak to the civil magistrate concerning the enactment of laws that God calls an abomination. Calling out the sins of the civil magistrate is not intermeddling with civil affairs. It is being faithful to our calling as witnesses of God.
The term “spirituality of the church” has become one of those phrases that often stops all further conversation about the relationship between church and state. Few Christians ever question the meaning of the phrase. It assumes that the church should remain silent about all political matters. Although the expression does not appear in any of our confessional standards, it has become a doctrine of Presbyterianism as sacrosanct as any one of the five points of Calvinism. No one is allowed to challenge it without being labeled with a pejorative term. It is my contention that rightly understood, it can be a useful phrase, but if contextualized in terms of either dualistic Greek thought, or in terms of present-day secular pluralism, it is not only faulty, but also dangerous to both the church and the civil government.
- If the spirituality of the church is interpreted in terms of Greek dualism, then it assumes that the spiritual is the higher good and that the physical is the source of evil. The goal of mankind is to escape the physical (this world) and rise into another realm of spirituality where the pains caused by this present world will disappear. The Church is heavenly and therefore good. The Civil Magistrate is earthly, and therefore the root of evil. The goal of the Christian is to escape living in this world. From this perspective the concept of the spirituality of the church is more Neo-platonic than it is Christian.
- If the spirituality of the church means that the church must not speak to political issues because we live in a pluralistic society, and we must not impose our views on others, then this is not only a faulty view, but a dangerous view. It is an impossibility because some law-system derived from some religion will always reign in any society. Silence by Christian leadership when sin is legalized by law, even in a so-called pluralistic society, is a dereliction of duty. It lets evil run wild without rebuke, and therefore will bring judgment on both the civil magistrate and the church. It may be worse than Greek dualism. R2K theologians believe that the civil sphere should be ruled by natural law, but since homosexuality and transgenderism are now considered natural, this approach is bankrupt.
- If the spirituality of the church means that there are two realms ordained by God and they must remain separate, then this view is biblical. If it means that the civil magistrate has been given the power of the sword to punish evil, and the church has been given the Holy Spirit to empower her to preach the word of God, to administer the sacraments, to pray, and to carry out church discipline (the ordinary means of grace), then it is a legitimate way to speak of the spirituality of the church. Both realms have separate powers and limitations on that power. The church is not to make laws for the body politic, no more than the civil magistrate is to make laws for the church.
The politics of the Civil War in the United States in the 19th century drove the southern church into a hidden cave where she thought she should retreat and rest in peace at a distance far from political issues. It is very dangerous to take sides in the middle of a war. Getting the elect into heaven became her primary calling. We still have not recovered from that. Unknowingly, the church became irrelevant to issues that her sheep must face every day in the workplace because of political decisions. The spirituality of the church still holds a powerful grip on neo-puritans.
The most powerful defense of the spirituality of the church is often proffered by reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 31.IV where it says that “synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they are thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” Generally, this is quoted as the final appeal in any debate on the spirituality of the church.
However, it is my contention that even though the church and state must be separated in terms as outlined in #3 above, the church (whether in pulpit preaching or by synods and councils) still has the obligation to speak to the civil magistrate concerning the enactment of laws that God calls an abomination. Calling out the sins of the civil magistrate is not intermeddling with civil affairs. It is being faithful to our calling as witnesses of God.
Certain sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms were rewritten and adopted in 1788 by early American Presbyterians. Part of that goal was to update an older view of the relationship between church and state that had existed in England which had permitted the existence of a national church like the Church of England. The new revision also allowed for the freedom of Christian denominations to exist in the various colonies or states.
Too, it should be noted that the justification for adding the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was to avoid a national church at the federal level, and to guard the freedom of the states to establish Christianity as a state religion according to the conscience of the people in each of the various states. Most colonies (and later states) had adopted Christianity as the official religion of those several states. For example, Virginia was Anglican and New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts were Congregational.
Although the American version of the Westminster Confession of Faith was changed in several places, our forefathers meeting in Philadelphia in 1789 failed to be consistent and left several sections as they originally appeared in the original edition of 1647. The old way was not totally erased. As such, they left in place the responsibility of the civil government to watch over the church, and the responsibility of the church to call out sin in our civil governments even though it be via humble petition. Note the following quotes from the Westminster Larger Catechism on how we as Presbyterians should view the role of the civil magistrate.
Larger Catechism Question #108 asks the question “What are the duties required in the second commandment?” The answer contains the following: The duties are “disapproving, detesting, and opposing all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it and all monuments of idolatry.” The clear implication here is that a civil magistrate in his place and calling must oppose all false worship by removing it, and any evidence of it, from our body politic.
Larger Catechism #118 asks the question, “Why is the charge of keeping the sabbath more specially directed to governors of families, and other superiors?” The answer is that they as superiors are “bound not only to keep it themselves, but to see that it be observed by all those that are under their charge.” Again, the term “other superiors” includes the civil magistrate.
Larger Catechism #191 asks the question “What do we pray for in the second petition?” The answer says that we are to pray Thy Kingdom Come, and that “the Kingdom of God is to be countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate.” In other words, the work of the church in establishing the Kingdom of God is to be favored and protected by the civil magistrate as the church promulgates the rule of Christ over all the earth.
Politics is a big word that covers everything from political parties, to commerce between states, to the maintenance of highways. To such commonwealth issues, the church need not concern herself. However, if the spirituality of the church means that we cannot speak to the ungodly issues of the day legalized by politicians, then the idea of the spirituality of the church needs to be rejected. If we cannot publicly call out the evil in abortion, in homosexual marriage, and in transgenderism, then we hurt both the church (by refusing to honor God) and we fail in our obligation to call the Civil Magistrate to repent, leaving our nation as potential objects of the wrath of God. The United States was part of Christendom when the American Version of the Westminster Confession was written. Christendom is now dead in this country and we must reevaluate our approach to the civil magistrate.
Modern America is in a pool of despair and wickedness. Christ is her only hope. The times have changed. It is time for preachers along with church synods and councils to speak humbly, but boldly to the politicians of our day. We are not talking about the state administrating the sacraments, or the church supporting a legislative bill to build more interstate highways. We are talking about blatant transgressions of God’s law legislated and mandated by the civil magistrate. It is time for both church bodies and individual preachers to speak to the issues of the day. It is time for those with a large platform to enter the public square with the word of God. It is time to pray for a few bold leaders like John the Baptist who told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her [his brother’s wife]” (Mt. 14:4).
Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tenn.