10 Things You Should Know about the Spirituality of the Church

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. What the doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” means.

Many who hear or read “spirituality” and “church” may think that it means the same thing as “Christian spirituality.” This is understandable since the term “spirituality of the church” has fallen out of use because the doctrine has been forgotten due both to neglect and abuse (see below for the abuse of the teaching). Christian spirituality, to stick with that a moment, has to do with the ways in which the Christian life is personally lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, especially with respect to Christian devotional practices like Scripture reading and meditation, prayer, etc. The spirituality of the church is something rather different than Christian spirituality. The doctrine of the spirituality of the church means that the church as the church (as institute), is a spiritual entity, not a civil one like the state, or a biological one like the family. So the call and mission of the church is not political, social, or economic in the first place. The church’s proclamation of the word of God may indeed have a range of moral implications, including some that impact matters politically, socially, or economically. But this does not render the church a political institution like a political party is or a think tank may be.

The spirituality of the church means that the church has a spiritual mission to the world, to tell it the glorious, good news of new life in Christ—a mission not given to the state, the family, or any other institution of God in the way that it is solely given to the church and its members. The church, in recognizing its true spirituality, then, knows that it must attend to its calling or, alternatively, what it is called to be and do will be done by none other. A recovery of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church will allow the church to see how it is to properly distinguish itself from the world (and all the other institutions that have their own proper roles) and give itself to the world, doing what only the church is called to do as it carries out the Great Commission to all the nations in the gathering and perfecting of the saints, even to the end of the age.

2. It does not solve all problems.

Many approaches purport to do this. If one can only label things properly and thus dispense with them—e.g., a two-kingdom approach that says, “that doesn’t pertain to Christ’s kingdom but to the other” or a transformationalist/neo-Calvinist approach that declares, “that’s something that needs redeeming for the only kingdom there is.” These approaches of “proper labelling” are akin to what one does in the political sphere, dismissing ideas one doesn’t affirm with “that’s liberal/revolutionary,” or, on the other hand, “that’s conservative/ reactionary.” While neither a two-kingdom approach nor a neo-Calvinist approach inherently invite facile dismissal of difficult problems, recognizing the doctrine of the spirituality of the church (SOTC) and properly employing it doesn’t either. The doctrine of the SOTC, rightly utilized, does not simply permit one to put everything in the proper box without really having to deal with potentially difficult matters. I don’t propose the recapture of this doctrine as a panacea.

Empowered Witness

Alan D. Strange

In Empowered Witness, author Alan D. Strange examines the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, urging readers to examine the church’s power and limits and to repress the urge to politicize it.

3. It does not avoid hard work.

This is closely related to the first thing that one should know about the SOTC. Recapturing the truth that the church is, at its core, a spiritual institution (which is what the SOTC is all about) and ought not chiefly concern itself with politics, does not mean that by deciding upfront whether something is keeping with or violates the doctrine of the SOTC solves all problems and avoids the hard work of having to take matters seriously in determining the church’s position.

4. It has been abused.

It has been abused by assuming the sorts of things that numbers one and two assume. Its chief historic abuse has been in the case of American slavery. James Henley Thornwell, Stuart Robinson, and others averred that the doctrine of the SOTC, rightly employed, forbade the church in America from challenging the morality of American slavery because the Bible did not forbid slavery and for the church to call for its end amounted to an unwarranted intrusion of the church into the political/civil sphere. However, the Bible prohibited man-stealing (I Tim. 1:10) and in the Old Testament allowed slavery only of non-Israelites, who otherwise would have been removed from the land by divine warfare. The 1818 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church rightly understood the wrong of American slavery and called for the end of slavery in America and throughout the world. So yes, the doctrine of the SOTC has served at times as a prophetic muzzle to the church in her attempts to blow the whistle on American slavery, which is to say that the doctrine of the SOTC has been abused.

5. It can be abused.

Even as the SOTC was abused in the nineteenth century, being used to silence the witness of the church against American slavery, it can still be used that way. It can still be used to dismiss something as “political and not spiritual”—something that the church ought to attend to because the word of the Lord addresses it. As noted in numbers one and two above, while the church is not to be focused on politics as such, merely asserting that matters civil are not the proper concern and focus of the church does not solve all problems. Certainly, it does not solve them in the same way that asserting that the Sermon on the Mount applies not to now but to the millennium (as I was told as a young Christian) means that I don’t need to concern myself now with following its dicta. Contrariwise, it can be abused by declaring everything “fair game” for the church as the church to address.

6. The right use of this is needed.

The abuse of something does not preclude its right use (or, as in the Latin, abusus non tollit usum). We stand in danger in our times of denying this important insight altogether. Many have rightly come to appreciate the abuse of power in all spheres. However, the abuse of paternal, ministerial, or civil power does not mean that there’s no right use of it. To assert such is anarch and lawlessness. Similarly, abuse of the doctrine of the SOTC, especially as witnessed in the nineteenth-century South, does not mean that there is not a right use of it.

The spirituality of the church means that the church has a spiritual mission to the world, to tell it the glorious, good news of new life in Christ—a mission not given to the state, the family, or any other institution.

7. The SOTC is needed, especially in highly politicized times such as ours.

Without a proper use of the SOTC, the church is likely in such highly politicized times to lose its way. It can do this on either the left or right. The church can seek to be a mirror of and accommodating to the culture and thereby head in a leftward political direction as it has in recent years, competing, it seems in some quarters, with the “woke” society that finds expression in so many institutions around us (media, universities, corporations, and the like, in addition to so many organs of the state). Perhaps the danger is even greater in our confessionally conservative Reformed churches to move in the direction of preaching from our pulpits what the church lacks the competency and calling to proclaim—some sort of political reaction like Christian nationalism, which Kevin DeYoung has rightly called “right-wing wokeism.”

8. It allows us to be united theologically.

The SOTC allows us to agree in doctrine, even in the government, and discipline and worship of the church, which indicates the closest sort of theological and ecclesiastical unity. Because the SOTC teaches that the calling of the church is primarily spiritual, it directs us there for the source of our unity. The church of Christ is a brother/sisterhood that finds its unity in Christ and his word, which means that our unity is not in our political positions about which we may legitimately differ.

9. It allows us to be united theologically while having some political diversity.

While the Christian faith gives shape to all of life, including our politics, meaning that we in the church will share various convictions as Christians (regarding unborn life, marriage, etc.), it is the case that the Christian faith does not mean that we will agree on everything, particularly because much of what concerns us in politics does not have clear biblical answers. Should we have term-limits for civil offices and organizations like OSHA, EPA, FCC, and the like? And how concerned should the state be about the social welfare of its citizens? These and many other questions may find legitimately different answers among Christians, who should be prepared to debate what they think best, not because the word of God contains a divine detailed blueprint for civil society but on basis of what they think wisest.

10. It will thus help with true unity.

True unity is what we want. This is achieved only together with true diversity. Uniformity is never the biblical pattern. Unity is, and unity, as we see perfectly manifested in the undivided Trinity, always not only allows for but promotes proper diversity. Again, as we see in the Godhead, the unity remains and is real and true as is the diversity in which each person—Father, Son, and Spirit—retains his distinctness and doesn’t meld or merge with the other (as in the heresy of modal Monarchianism) or become so distinct as to lose the Godhead (as in tritheism). We see in Revelation the one redeemed host, composed of many tribes, languages, peoples, etc. A proper affirmation of the SOTC allows us to maintain our true unity in the essentials of the gospel (in terms of our creeds and confessions) and, at the same time, to differ culturally, politically, in our callings and giftings, etc. Our differing need not disrupt our unity. The church as church not seeking to specify the details of our political views, since the Scriptures do not, helps all the people to maintain unity where its needed and to allow diversity where its appropriate and enriching.

Alan D. Strange is the author of Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church.

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