The spirituality of the church teaches that, given the church’s nature under Christ’s mediatorial reign, there are limits to church power, and this power must not be confused with the power of the state. Through most of Reformed history, the church’s spirituality has not entailed a silence on all political matters, but rather a commitment to the uniqueness of the church’s mission and a principled conviction that the church’s eternal concerns should not be swallowed up by the state’s temporal concerns.
The theology behind the church’s spirituality was present in Geneva with Calvin and Beza, but the doctrine took definitive shape in Scotland. Unlike its neighbor to the south, Scottish Presbyterianism — finding early expression in the “Second Book of Discipline” (1578) — insisted that the jurisdictions of church and state should not be confounded and that the head of the church and the head of the state were not the same. When a pastor makes a declaration in the name of “Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of His Church,” he is not only denying the authority of the pope, but is also repudiating the authority of any earthly monarch over the church.
Notice the principle: The church should not meddle in civil affairs and, except in extreme situations, should limit itself to ecclesiastical matters.
One of the clearest statements on the church’s spirituality — if not in name, then in essence — comes from the “Westminster Confession of Faith”: “Synods and councils 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.” (WCF 31.4)
Notice the principle: The church should not meddle in civil affairs and except in extreme situations should limit itself to ecclesiastical matters.
It must be said that in the American South the church’s spirituality was often used to justify silence on the slavery issue. But not all Presbyterian theologians used the church’s spirituality to the same effect. Charles Hodge, for example, argued that while the Bible did not give the church the right to make pronouncements about tariffs, a national bank, and states’ rights, the Bible did give principles by which the church could speak about the slave trade and slave laws. The church’s spirituality was not, for Hodge, an injunction to stay silent on political matters when the Bible clearly had something to say.
And yet, rightly applied, the church’s spirituality is an important part of biblical and Reformed ecclesiology. The doctrine (1) warns ministers against forgetting their gospel charge in a flurry of civil concerns, (2) calls churches not to transgress their God-given powers (not to mention, their area of expertise), and (3) reminds church movements and church leaders not to pronounce too exactly and too confidently upon matters that demand a great deal of prudential judgment. The doctrine of the spirituality of the church is not a cure-all for the politicization and polarization in the church, but wisely administered it is a helpful prescription for many of the controversies that plague the church today.
Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and an assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He is also the author of dozens of books, including “Just Do Something,” “The Biggest Story,” and “Crazy Busy.”