Why the Mission of the Church Is Spiritual and Not Political

An Ongoing Dialogue

Historically, the church has at times claimed a supremacy that she does not have—over the state, especially—and she has, at other times, allowed the state to dominate her. Part of the genius of the Reformation was the rediscovery that the state is not over the church or vice-versa, but that all institutions are properly under God. The Scots, in opposing Erastianism—the notion among some Protestant rulers that the church is properly under the state, as was the case with the Church of England under the English monarch—particularly developed this Reformational notion that the church was not under the state in what they called the “spiritual independency of the church.” In the American context this came to be known in the nineteenth century as the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” (SOTC).

To be sure, the doctrine was often abused to stop the mouth of the church against slavery; however, Charles Hodge of Princeton, and others of his time and following him, developed a better use of the doctrine, capturing the older notion that the spirituality of the church was calculated to spare the church from simply giving way to politics and state control, minding instead its proper spiritual call and mission, having rule over its own affairs. At the same time, Hodge was careful not to muzzle the prophetic voice that the church always possesses as she calls the whole world to repentance and faith. The spirituality of the church of this sort could be helpfully recovered for the ongoing dialogue of how the church is to relate to the world in which it finds itself, both in how it distinguishes itself from the world and how it gives itself to the world.

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.

It is important for the church to do both: to distinguish itself from the world, or it fails to be the distinct agency of gospel proclamation that it is called to be, and to give itself to the world, or it fails to be the foot-washing servants that Christ calls it to be. The present atmosphere, in which the politicization of virtually everything looms, can prove especially challenging in this regard. Highly charged partisan political currents can impact the church as well as civil society, especially when it comes to the temptation of those on both extremes—left and the right—to bring social, economic, political, and like agendas into the church. The church as church may have something to say about present concerns (e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.), which is to say that God’s word may address such, usually in principle, though not in detail; in any case, not in a way that renders the church just another voice in the current cacophony of shouted political slogans, but that contributes a proper faith perspective to vexing moral questions in the public square. We need to be salt and light, to witness to the power of Christ and his gospel in an unsavory, dark world in a way that does not avoid the moral issues of our time, bringing a clear prophetic witness to them, but also not allow politics to swamp the boat so that the gospel gets sunk in a sea of cultural concerns.

Recapturing Spirituality

The SOTC, which we seek to recapture, is today either forgotten as a concept or remembered only for its abuses (e.g., justifying the church not addressing American slavery and the racial hatred that especially developed in its wake, including iniquitous Jim Crow laws). The doctrine of the SOTC, however, is connected first to the development of the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit that was underdeveloped, or overleapt, in the Middle Ages and given extensive treatment only in the Reformation, especially by John Calvin and his theological heirs.

The SOTC relates to the reality that the church is supremely a spiritual institution (not a biological one, as is the family, or a civil one, as is the state) and that its power is moral and suasive (not legal and coercive, as is state power), ministerial and declarative (not magisterial and legislative, as is power in the Roman Catholic Church). Thus, the church is an institution gathered and perfected by the Spirit, having chiefly spiritual concerns, carried out in a spiritual fashion by a Spirit-indited use of the means of grace.

We need to be salt and light, to witness to the power of Christ and his gospel in an unsavory, dark world in a way that does not avoid the moral issues of our time.

Even as the early church developed the doctrine of the person of Christ, chiefly, with the work of Christ awaiting medieval development, especially in the atonement theory of Anslem, so the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit remained underdeveloped in the theology of the Middle Ages. Lombard and Aquinas testify to this, with Aquinas’s Summa Theologica moving from the doctrine of the person and work of Christ to the doctrine of the sacraments (as part of his doctrine of the church). The sacraments, to be efficacious in a context without a corresponding robust work of the Holy Spirit, require something like an ex opere operato efficacy.

While Luther, in developing Augustine’s doctrine of justification to be punctiliar and definitive rather than a process, advances a proper soteriology, the doctrine of the work of the Spirit, more broadly considered, remained underdeveloped until Calvin in his Institutes. There, the Spirit is seen as the one who brings us to Christ and Christ to us, and in so doing applies all the merits and mediation of the Savior. Thus, Calvin’s ecclesiology is clearly preceded by his pneumatology. It is this developed doctrine of the work of the Spirit that marks the church as a spiritual entity, charged to carry out a spiritual task in the world. Charles Hodge and Princeton are the heirs of this, and Hodge links his doctrine of the work of the Spirit with his doctrine of the spirituality of the church.

Charles Hodge was dubious about the claims of the SOTC as forwarded by James Henley Thornwell and some others at the 1859 and 1860 General Assemblies of the PCUSA. However, at the 1861 Assembly, Hodge was the chief architect of the opposition to the Gardner Spring Resolution, which Hodge rightly argued sought by its statement of support for the Lincoln administration to decide the political question. Hodge embraced a doctrine of the SOTC that did not muzzle the prophetic voice of the church and at the same time protected the church from being engulfed by and giving way to political concerns. Hodge did not think that the actions of the church, including the pronouncements of her pulpits, should be narrowly political about matters that would divide good men who had the same doctrinal confession.

Hodge continued to distinguish that which the church as the church ought to address, respecting the civil magistrate and society more broadly. He witnessed to his dismay the Presbyterian church go from being arguably squeamish about addressing civil matters to a too-ready willingness to politicize both the church’s judicatories and her pulpits. The Civil War contributed greatly to this politicization, as those that fought together on the same side came to feel that they had more in common with each other, even if divided by historic Old School/New School concerns, than they did with the other side.

Keeping Political and Spiritual Separate

The Old and New Schools reunited in 1869 on a political rather than a theological basis, a reunion opposed by Hodge, who insisted that the theological issues that had divided the two schools be dealt with and not marginalized. The history of the PCUSA subsequent to that was one in which that politicization contributed to theological liberalism, the social gospel, and other problems that came to plague the PCUSA. Thus, the PCUSA, the Northern Presbyterian Church, and the PCUS, the Southern Presbyterian Church, came increasingly in the twentieth century to concern themselves with conforming to a liberalizing, secularizing civil society. The word of God was increasingly marginalized in the mainline Presbyterian churches, prompting the emergence of the OPC and the PCA.

The SOTC has been, and can be, used for good or ill. Too many churches today allow the political to dominate the spiritual: mainline churches may be an “us too” chorus for a variety of liberal causes, while conservative churches may sound like the Republican party in worship. The church as the church, as an institution as opposed to Christians living out their callings in the world, is not a political institution and ought to resist such. It is right that any given congregation be composed of those of various political views (some believing that tax rates should be higher for the wealthy; others insisting on gun rights), while the members agree on fundamental biblical doctrines. This is because the church is a spiritual institution, and its core of agreement builds upon truths that transcend the more ephemeral matters that concern politics. The church needs to agree on what the Bible teaches, but the Bible does not give a detailed blueprint for civil society, and Bible-believing folk should be able to have political differences while maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

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

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