We have already mentioned one biblical foundation for the spirituality of the church, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. Another key text is Romans 13:1–7, where Paul says that God gives the sword to the state, not the church, to punish evildoers and reward those who do good. We also have the example of the Apostles, who do not direct the church to make laws for the secular society, as well as the calls and examples of people such as Daniel and Jeremiah who demonstrate that we must obey the secular state and be concerned for its well-being unless and until it compels us to do something God forbids or forbids us from doing what God commands (Jer. 29:4–7; Dan. 1).
One final point concerning the spirituality of the church is the distinction between the church as an institution and individual Christians. There are many things that individual Christians may do that are not necessarily appropriate for the church to do. Individual Christians, for example, can serve as police officers, but the church’s mission does not encompass the enforcement of law for the state, so it is not the church’s mission to provide such services to the community.
the doctrine in practice
This spirituality of the church has sometimes been misconstrued, by both its detractors and its supporters, to mean that the church may never, as the church, address the state or declare its view on matters that concern both Christians and non-Christians in society, such as abortion, human sexuality, and slavery. This is not so. Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4, a classic expression of the principle of the spirituality of the church, tells us:
Synods and councils [of the church] 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 be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
The church can address the state in two cases. The first is “cases extraordinary,” cases in which the state is grossly derelict in its God-appointed duties, unnecessarily hindering the mission of the church, or taking for itself authority that belongs to the church or to the family. Remember that God gives the state the job of punishing evil with the sword and protecting physical life. If the state is abandoning these duties by legalizing abortion on demand, for instance, the church must speak against it. Dr. R.C. Sproul frequently reminded us that the proper view of the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of the state and God. The state should not establish an official state church, but it still is responsible to do its God-given duty. The church, as Dr. Sproul noted, is to be the “conscience of the state” in this regard and call the civil magistrate to do its job.
Second, the church should speak up when the state’s policies hinder the church from doing its own job. So the state cannot enact laws that tell us how to preach or that forbid us from worshiping according to God’s Word. It has also erred in enacting laws that affect the church significantly in a more remote way. An example here is the legalization of so-called gender-affirmation surgery for minors. At its 2023 General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church in America voted to call the U.S. government to outlaw this surgery. Why? Because not only does this surgery cause unnecessary harm and mutilate healthy bodies, but it creates undue burdens for Christians who have to worry about losing their jobs or even their children to the state if they resist the continued societal embrace of transgender theory. The state, by legalizing these surgeries, is not fulfilling its duty to protect the innocent, and it is creating a burden on the church and its ministry, so it is appropriate for the church to petition the state to stop the practice.