The Church Should Mind Its Spiritual Business

The True Calling of the Church

The calling, or mission, of the church as the church is to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, not to be another merely (or even chiefly) political, social, or economic institution. The church, in its full-orbed existence, may have political, economic, or social concerns that develop out of its mission, but those aspects are not what primarily mark and define it. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is head and King of the church, made it clear in his marching orders to the church—what we’ve come to call the Great Commission—that he intended the church to go to every people group (often translated “nations”) and to evangelize and disciple them (Matt. 28:18–20), enfolding them into his kingdom, which is “not of this world” (John 18:36), a kingdom that does not have the transitory but the eternal at its heart (2 Cor. 4:18). It is Christ himself, our heavenly King—since he is with us even now by his Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45)—who gathers and perfects his church (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3) through the appointed means.

The gospel is not about worldly success in any proper sense, then, but is rather about deliverance from the penalty, power, and ultimately the presence of sin, a message that comes to permeate the whole of the lives of those transformed by it. We can rightly say that the message of the church is a spiritual one, coming to people of every sort in every land to bring them here and hereafter into the spiritual reality of the kingdom of Christ. Therefore, Paul encourages the Christians in Corinth, “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor. 7:24). Paul makes clear that the bondservant may and should avail himself of the opportunity of freedom (1 Cor. 7:21). He also makes clear, however, that whatever condition one finds himself in, even whether one is married or not, is not paramount: what is most important is not one’s vocation or life circumstance but being called by and coming to Christ, being a new man or woman in Christ. Paul’s concern is that his readers are Christians, whatever else may be true of their lives. His concern for them, to put it another way, is chiefly spiritual.

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.

This is the spiritual message that the church is privileged to herald to the world (salvation by grace alone), the good news—the meaning of gospel—without which there is no good news. The story of the world after Adam’s fall is nothing but bad news since all is sin, darkness, and hopelessness without the good news of the gospel. The gospel of salvation in Christ, however, is the good news that transforms the worst into the best, seen particularly at the cross, where humanity at its worst not only fails to defeat God but where God uses humanity’s attempt to do so as the centerpiece of our salvation. Christ has overcome the world. This is the message that the church joyfully preaches to the world. It does not preach itself, nor does it promote some sort of political, social, economic, or cultural utopia to be achieved in this age.

The church preaches that we are to live in this age not for this age but for the coming age that has broken in on this age and beckons us to a new heavens and a new earth that await all who trust in Christ alone. This is no “superspirituality” and certainly not any form of gnosticism but simply the recognition of what is central—the spiritual message of the gospel—out of which all else radiates and from which the full-orbed Christian life, with all its consequences, emerges. This is the great message given to the church to proclaim to the world (faith alone in Christ alone), not some lesser political, social, or economic message that addresses only the things that pertain to this world and not to the world to come.

The gospel is a spiritual message for a world whose greatest need is spiritual: redemption from sin and new life in Christ. This is not to say, however, that the effects of the gospel do not have consequences for the world in which we live. Indeed, the effects of the gospel, when the church obeys the Great Commission and the gospel is taken worldwide, is that the nations, in the comprehensive obedience taught to the faithful, come to have among them those who both trust (fundamentally) and obey (consequentially); thus the Christian faith and its fruits do, in fact, profoundly change the world because those touched by the gospel are new creations and because that spiritual rebirth affects them and those around them.

The task of the church as such is not to transform the world at large or any society in it. The task of the church is to transform lives: to proclaim the gospel as the person and work of Christ applied by the power of the Holy Spirit in the means of grace so that men and women come to Christ by faith and are justified, adopted, and sanctified—all a gift of God’s grace. Such changed lives typically affect the lives of others in the various societies in which the saints find themselves. We as God’s people, the church, must certainly be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have within (1 Pet. 3:15) to all those we encounter in their profound spiritual need—chiefly, salvation in Jesus Christ. That we are concerned primarily for the spiritual vitality of those around us, however, does not mean that we as Christians are to be indifferent to the nonspiritual needs and sufferings of those around us, but we are to love and help them as we have opportunity, as did the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), a responsibility with implications reflected even in the final judgment (Matt. 25:31–46).

Christ has overcome the world. This is the message that the church joyfully preaches to the world.

Let the Church Be the Church

All that constitutes such obedience, however, does not play out in the life of the corporate, or institutional, church. The church can be variously conceived: as an institute, on the one hand, or as an organism, on the other.1 While it is the mission of the church as institute to evangelize and disciple all her members among the nations of the world, it is not the mission of the church as institute to incarnate the Christian faith in all of life. It is the call of the members of the church as organism to live the whole of their lives from the standpoint of faith and obedience, taking the ethics taught them by the church, for instance, and employing Christian ethics in their businesses, politics, culture, and so on. The church as institute must remain the church, a spiritual entity, and does not become the state, a civil entity, or the family, a biological entity. It does not even seek to do as institute what its members may do, singly or collectively, in the ordinary living of their Christian lives; this latter imperative is the task of the church as organism.2

Throughout history, and again in our times, challenges have come from a variety of corners to the church as church—or, as just noted, the church as institute—pushing it to be something that it is not called to be. Some say that if the church is to have any value to society, it must be or become a political, social, or economic entity, as quarters of the church in the United States became in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when figures like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden promoted the social gospel.3 This pressure that the church become like other earthly agencies or institutions stems from the conclusion that some agenda other than the one to which the church is called is really the most important thing in the world.

Marxism or other economic or social ideologies are seen by such who ill-regard the true calling of the church as most needful for the problems that currently beset us. These all-comprehensive ideologies demand that the church, along with the family, the university, the state, and any other institutions, if they are to be worth anything, join them in their conviction, as was Sigmund Freud’s, that all reality is sexual/psychological—or, in Karl Marx’s case, economic; in Charles Darwin’s, biological; and so forth—especially manifested in the fluid genderism left in Freud’s wake that outpaces our best attempts to keep up.4

Martin Luther’s theology has been portrayed as teaching, “Let God be God!”5 It is my burden to say, “Let the church be the church.” A variety of competing claims threaten to overrun and overwhelm the institutional church in our times. The call of the Lord to the church, the mission that he has given to the church, is an essentially spiritual one. If the church loses that, she has nothing to offer the world, or as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones reportedly said, “The church does the world the least good when she seeks to be most like it.”6 The world does not need the church to echo all its utopian schemes for a better life. The world needs the church to preach the gospel to it. Yes, when that gospel is faithfully preached and received, men and women throughout the world not only come to Christ but also live in ways that better everything about them. If the church fails to do that, however, as she is called to do it, she suffers and the whole world with her.


  1. Abraham Kuyper, Collected Works in Public Theology, vol. 3, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, ed. Jordan J. Ballor and J. Daryl Charles, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman and Ed M. van der Maas (1904; repr., Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020), 36–43.
  2. In his book Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), Jonathan Leeman is critical of aspects of this distinction between the church as institute and organism (378–88) and finds more useful distinctions in church polity having to do with the nature of church power (380–82). Like others, Leeman believes that Kuyper ultimately developed his concept of church as organism at the expense of the church as institute. I think Kuyper did have this tendency, though Leeman himself appears to consider the “Christian” political position on given issues as more discernible than I do. I think a fair amount of legitimate political differences exists within Reformed confessional bounds.
  3. For a favorable view, see Christopher H. Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A Histor (New York: New York University Press, 2017), esp. 107–34. Even when positively presented, the net effect of the social gospel’s impact on the churches of the time was, in my view, subversive of the church’s true calling.
  4. One of the best recent books to illuminate the historical roots of the current sexual crises that confront the church, given the all-pervasive influence of figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and others who have shaped contemporary views on gender and various sexual aberrations, is Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
  5. Philip S. Watson, Let God Be God! An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1949).
  6. I heard this quote attributed to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones many years ago, and though I have searched for the source, I have not been able to find it. This sentiment certainly rings true to what Lloyd-Jones says elsewhere; see D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, A First Book of Daily Readings (Epworth, 1970), excerpted in “April 18 Daily Devotional: A First Book of Daily Readings, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” Orthodox Presbyterian Church (website), accessed March 22, 2023,

This article is adapted from Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church by Alan D. Strange.

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