Tabletalk Subscription
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining.You've accessed all your free articles.
Unlock the Archives for Free

Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.

Try Tabletalk Now

Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?

Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.

{{ error }}Need help?

Christ gave His church one mission: to make disciples of every nation who love Him, trust Him, and endeavor to obey all that He has commanded (Matt. 28:18–20). Yet the history of the Christian church is the history of the church’s straying from this mission. The Reformation occurred, in part, because the Western church was not making disciples of Christ. Bishops and priests ceased living among the people in many places, making it impossible for them to shepherd the flock. Access to God’s Word and to the sacraments was limited. The Reformers acted to help correct these abuses and others and get the church back on its appointed mission.

Generations later, many churches that trace their history back to the Reformers have not followed the Reformers’ example but have allowed their churches to drift from the mission that Christ gave, often into full-on apostasy. There’s hardly an international problem, political position, government policy, economic issue, or social concern that the so-called mainline churches have not opposed, endorsed, or commented on. Many of these things may deserve comment from the church. But all of them? God’s Word addresses all of life in the sense of giving us wise principles, but it often does not tell us exactly what policies to apply.

Issues of the church’s mission and when the church may speak as a corporate body must be considered, for we know that God has given us the church and has sent it on a mission. An important idea that can help us think properly about these things is the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.

defining the doctrine

The concept of the spirituality of the church appears in the Reformed confessions and in the writings of the great thinkers in the Reformed tradition. To explain the doctrine, we must first recognize that God has instituted three distinct authorities to govern three distinct but interrelated spheres. Parents govern the sphere of the family (Ex. 20:12). The visible, institutional church, specifically elders and deacons, governs the sphere of professing Christians and their children (1 Tim. 3:1–13). And the state, especially the civil magistrate, governs the sphere of the wider society where both Christians and non-Christians are citizens (Rom. 13:1–7).

The spirituality of the church concerns mainly the relationship between the church and the state and the nature of the power and authority of each. The concept states that the church has authority over spiritual matters such as doctrine and the discipline of church members, and church leaders are tasked with maintaining good order in the church, preaching the Word, and administering the sacraments. In doing this, church leaders may not take up the sword to enforce their decisions but must work by persuasion and censure. The state, on the other hand, has authority over matters of common concern to all people, Christian or not—protection of physical life and property, the ordering of government, and so on. It can enforce its laws with force when necessary. The church and the state are to respect each other and recognize each other’s authority in their spheres, and they are not to take up the duties of the other. So the church does not make laws or enforce them for the secular society, and the state does not preach the Word, administer the sacraments, or punish heretics by force.

The spirituality of the church concerns mainly the relationship between the church and the state and the nature of the power and authority of each.

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.

The spirituality of the church helps us not to overstep the boundaries that God has put in place for the well-being of His bride, the church of Jesus Christ.

Finally, the church may respond to the state when the state asks the church for its opinion, as the last point in Westminster Confession 31.4 notes. At times, the magistrate may want to know what the church thinks, and the church may answer.

Another way to misuse the spirituality of the church is to make such a sharp distinction between the spiritual kingdom (the church) and the common kingdom (civil society) that although one might say that there are cases in which the church should address the state, in practice it almost never happens. While the desire to keep the church and state minding their own respective affairs is a good one, a radical distinction between those two kingdoms that says that the common kingdom need not pay attention to the Scriptures but is accountable only to natural law is wrongheaded. Some thinkers have said that the civil magistrate should just abide by the moral law that we find in nature (natural law) and that it is inappropriate for the state to consider biblical civil law while governing a nation. Yet while the magistrate cannot make a direct application of biblical civil law in exactly the same way as it was used in old covenant Israel, to entirely neglect this law and the principles behind it cuts leaders off from a fount of wisdom for good governance.

The classic view of the spirituality of the church does not say that the state must remain absolutely neutral on all religious questions. The state cannot bear the sword for church discipline or force conversions, but this does not mean that it cannot favor Christianity, the only true religion, in any way. Some thinkers, in the name of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, have argued that the state cannot treat the church any differently than it treats the synagogue or the mosque. That would be news to the Christians from past centuries from whom we have learned the spirituality of the church. Most of them did not envision the civil magistrate’s being completely neutral in the arena of religion, which is an idea derived more from the past century’s worth of U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding religious freedom than anywhere else.

Of course, the degree to which the civil magistrate should legislate in ways that favor Christianity may vary according to the history and composition of the society, as well as other factors. But favoring the Christian church in the law can be compatible with the spirituality of the church. For example, many U.S. states once had Sunday “blue laws” that limited or even outright banned certain kinds of commerce on Sundays so that Christians could more easily observe the Lord’s Day. These laws, insofar as they did not force conversion on people, did not necessarily violate the spirituality of the church.

why the doctrine is important

The spirituality of the church is important for the church to maintain if it is to stay faithful to its proper mission and to retain its competence in what God has called it to do. If we think the church is obligated to speak to every social issue or solve every social problem, we will neglect preaching the gospel and society will come to set our agenda. The church and its leaders are simply not competent to set foreign policy, determine tariff rates, or decide how many acres should be set apart for national parks. That is fine because God has not called the church to that work. Individual Christians, serving God in their various God-honoring vocations, are called to address these things, and they can take a variety of views on many issues without sinning. Once the church speaks about a civil matter, it is restricting the liberty of Christians to disagree on certain peripheral issues and risks speaking where God has been silent. The church may and must call the state to do its job of protecting life and property, so there are many areas about which the church must speak to the state. But the spirituality of the church helps us not to overstep the boundaries that God has put in place for the well-being of His bride, the church of Jesus Christ.

Unchanging Truth in a Changing World

Sovereign over Suffering

Keep Reading Augustine of Hippo

From the February 2024 Issue
Feb 2024 Issue