Rightly Defining the Spirituality of the Church

Matthew Tuininga
Sean Michael Lucas's fascinating book, For a Continuing Church, highlights in no uncertain terms the vital importance of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to the origins of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Next to the authority of Scripture, no other commitment played a more important role in forging the identity of the evangelical Presbyterians who established the PCA. These Presbyterians insisted that the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) had exchanged its spiritual mission of evangelization, summarized in the Great Commission's call for the church to make and train disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), for the activism of the social gospel. 

And yet, Lucas's book also makes clear just how misleading these evangelical Presbyterians' self-understanding was. For in point of fact, they were just as concerned about the social and political impact of Presbyterianism as were their progressive rivals, and just as likely to use their religious authority to argue against communism or racial integration as were their opponents to argue against the Vietnam War or segregation. As often as not, it seems, the spirituality of the church doctrine was invoked simply to shut down efforts that were deemed too progressive, only to leave the church free to proclaim the implications of Scripture for a conservative social worldview. In short, many of those who appealed to the doctrine interpreted it through the lens of their own reactionary politics rather than from the standpoint of the gospel of the "kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33), biblically understood. The whole church, the right wing as well as the left, was all too politicized. 

It is this history that renders recent calls for renewed fidelity to the doctrine of the spirituality of the church so problematic. Let me be clear. I believe in and endorse the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, properly understood. But I fear that this doctrine has long been left far too undefined, and has been far too woefully abused, to hold any remaining practical value, without some serious, soul-searching analysis and biblically-rooted clarification on the part of its advocates. After all, it was the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that allegedly prohibited the southern Presbyterian church from speaking out against the evils of racial slavery, let alone disciplining those guilty of its heinous horrors. And it was the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that served as the shield for southern Presbyterians' defense of racial segregation. We dare not recover a doctrine that has so devastated the church's gospel witness without serious revision.

And yet, it is hard to find any two Presbyterians who actually agree about what the spirituality doctrine means. Does it prohibit the church from addressing social and political questions at all, as some rhetoric suggests? Or does it merely prohibit the church from speaking to social and political questions not addressed in Scripture? And what of those matters not addressed explicitly by Scripture, but to which the word of God speaks by clear and necessary consequence? Is the real issue that the church should not be involved in politics, or is it that the church refrain from involvement in anything social? And at the risk of piling up questions, does the spirituality doctrine merely protect the church from the social gospel, defined as a conception of the mission of the church that emphasizes the need for social reform at the expense of evangelism and individual conversion, or does it require us to say that the gospel has no social implications at all? And these questions do not even begin to penetrate the complexities involved in deciding whether any given dimension of discipleship to which Scripture speaks, and which the church must therefore teach in accord with the Great Commission, is primarily individual or social, moral or political, spiritual or secular.

To be clear once again, my goal here is not to tear a worthy doctrine to shreds and then stand by while others attempt to piece it back together. I have made my own arguments for Reformed two kingdoms theology, which is the theological foundation for the spirituality doctrine, here at Reformation 21 and elsewhere. My forthcoming book explores and defends Calvin's two kingdoms theology, including Calvin's insistence that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual.[1] My goal, then, is to describe what I think a useful and biblical doctrine of the spirituality of the church looks like, and how it might be recovered in a meaningful and faithful way by the church today.

I want to begin by suggesting that the spirituality doctrine makes most sense only when understood from the standpoint of a classic Reformed two kingdoms eschatology, to which, I would argue, John Calvin is an excellent guide. After all, as an abstract concept, the word 'spiritual' is hardly self-defining. It is often interpreted so as to connote the sense of immateriality, through a sort of gnostic spiritualization that reduces the gospel's impact on this world purely to a matter of saving individual souls for an eternal beatific vision in heaven. But this is not how Scripture ordinarily uses the term nor does it have anything to do with what John Calvin meant when he said that the kingdom of Christ (or the church) is spiritual. Rather, that the kingdom is spiritual means 1) that its power is that of the Holy Spirit; 2) that it fulfills creation's ultimate eschatological purpose; and 3) that it will be consummated only when Christ returns to make all things new.[2] To put it another way, that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual means that it is of the age to come, though it breaks into the present age through the power of the Holy Spirit.

That the kingdom of Christ is spiritual does not mean that the kingdom of Christ has nothing to say about the social affairs of the material creation. After all, Jesus calls us to seek the "kingdom of God and His justice/righteousness."[3] That is because the kingdom is bringing about the reconciliation of "all things" (Colossians 1:15-20), including the redemption of material creation itself (Romans 8). As Calvin put it, this includes the "restoration," "renewal," and "renovation" of the material world.[4] With respect to passages that seemed to suggest a greater discontinuity between the kingdom of God and the present creation, such as Isaiah 65 and 2 Peter 3, Calvin declared, "Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same."[5] Like the bodies of believers, which will be transformed into "spiritual" bodies in conformity to the resurrected body of Christ, even as they remain the same physical bodies that believers now possess (1 Corinthians 15), so the creation will be transformed into an exalted, spiritual form in the kingdom of God, even as it remains the same physical creation that we now inhabit.[6]

To be sure, this material creation does not take place, either for believers or for creation, this side of Christ's return at the last day. For now, Calvin argued, the spiritual kingdom of Christ breaks into this age through the ministry of the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the word, the sacraments, and discipline. It came to expression in the regeneration of human beings and in the righteousness of Christ to which they increasingly conformed. It took concrete social expression in the love, joy, and peace that Christians practiced toward one another and toward outsiders, and it took institutional expression in the justice and mercy administered by the diaconate. And yet, the affairs of this age, including the affairs of government, property, marriage, and family remain temporal, destined to pass away. Christians are called to witness to the love and justice of the spiritual kingdom in these affairs, but they have no power to transform or regenerate them. 

It is this distinction, between the spiritual kingdom's breaking into this age through the church, witnessed in every area of life by believers, and the continuing normativity of temporal affairs that will pass away, that constituted the basis for Calvin's distinction between the two kingdoms, the spiritual kingdom and the political (or temporal) kingdom. It was in turn the basis for his insistence that the church, as the institutional expression of Christ's spiritual kingdom in this age, is spiritual. And it was the basis for his claim that the ministry of the church should not be politicized. The spiritual power of the church's pastors, teachers, and elders is entirely contained within the word, the means by which the Spirit establishes Christ's kingdom. Whenever the church's ministers use their spiritual office to proclaim truths not found in Scripture, or to discipline believers for practices not clearly prohibited in Scripture, they usurp Christ's scepter, substituting their own authority for that of their lord. Though believers witness to the righteousness of the kingdom in their vocations in every area of life, the ministers of the church may only use their spiritual office to exercise the spiritual functions delegated to them by Christ. Once they start performing other functions, including political functions, they no longer act with the spiritual authority of Christ.

But that does not mean that the church may not say anything about social or political affairs. After all, the word of God speaks to social and political affairs because the righteousness of the kingdom breaks into such social and political affairs. While Christ refused to take up the work of a lawyer or a civil judge in order to arbitrate a legal dispute over property (Luke 12:13-14), for instance, he had a lot to say about the way his disciples should handle their property (Luke 12:33; Cf. Acts 2:45; 2 Corinthians 9:7), demonstrate hospitality (Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 25), and reach out to various marginalized groups (Luke 5:30-32; 7:37-48; 14:12-14). While he insisted that his disciples may not use violence as do the political kingdoms of this world (John 18:36), he required them to recognize the authority of Caesar by paying taxes (Matthew 22:21), and he called them to exercise a distinctly different model of leadership (Luke 22:25-27). Likewise the Apostle Paul urged believers not to sue one another in the courts (1 Corinthians 6:7), but that did not stop him from requiring integrated worship and fellowship among Jews and Gentiles (Galatians 2) any more than it stopped James from condemning the practice of segregating worship between rich and poor (James 2:1-7). And this is to say nothing about the many things Christ and his apostles taught about social relations ranging from government and labor relations to marriage and parenting, all in light of the transforming impact of the gospel.

Were these mere spiritual practices, as some southern advocates of the spirituality doctrine claimed, without any necessary social or political implications for today? To claim such is entirely arbitrary, more the result of self-serving exegesis than humble submission to the word of God. It is an interpretation that refuses to see any connection between the righteousness of the kingdom that is coming and the material creation in which we have been called to practice it and which it is coming to transform. To be sure, Jesus recognized that civil laws must necessarily accommodate the hardness of human hearts, even as did the Law of Moses. We cannot turn the civil structures of this world into the kingdom of God. But that did not stop him from proclaiming the true justice according to which all people will be judged, and to which they are required to aspire (Matthew 19). In short, the righteousness of the kingdom remains the horizon according to which all temporal practices and institutions are to be evaluated and judged, and the gospel the church is called to proclaim and embody in its practices points forward to the destiny which all human beings are to seek. 

If all of this is true, then the church cannot pretend to be faithful to the Great Commission, to baptize and train disciples to observe all that Jesus commanded them, while dividing the world into realms and bracketing the social/political realm such that it falls outside of the scope of such discipleship. The church is not to meddle in politics, abusing its spiritual power for political ends, as Calvin argued and the Westminster Confession rightly maintains, but that does not mean it should cease proclaiming the righteousness of the kingdom, with all of its social and political implications. To put it in terms that would have challenged southern Presbyterians of days gone by, that the church should not be proposing specific policies with respect to the abolition of slavery or racial integration did not mean that the church was not obligated to proclaim the sort of righteousness that rejects racial injustice and division, overcoming it with the good (and eminently social) news that God has reestablished a new humanity in Christ, one in which there is no more Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). To say, as some have, that this unity in Christ is purely spiritual, and therefore requires no concrete social expression, is directly contrary to Paul's stated purposes in the letter to the Galatians. And to say that what is true for the church has no meaning for the world is to forget the very purpose of the church.

Until advocates of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church (not to mention advocates of two kingdoms theology) come to grips with the social implications of the spiritual gospel they will not be able to make the necessary distinction between inappropriate meddling in civil and political affairs (which they rightly criticize) and the church's responsibility to proclaim the full scope of the gospel, with all of its social implications (which duty they avoid). Until we understand how the spirituality doctrine not only permits the use of church discipline and the diaconate to promote the justice and righteousness of the kingdom, but requires it, we have not grasped just what it is that spirituality means. To politicize the church is surely a horribly misguided attempt to manipulate the Spirit for our own purposes, but to muzzle the Spirit or partition the social dimension of human life from the gospel is hardly less a display of rebellion.

Have many churches misused the social implications of the gospel as a Trojan horse for their own political agendas? They certainly have, and in some cases they have been destroyed by it. The faithful should always oppose such politicization. But our response cannot consist in mere reaction, the sort of reaction that would content itself with avoiding one error only by embracing another. If Lucas's book is any guide, too much PCA history has been defined by reaction: against the social gospel, against liberalism, against progressivism, against the United Nations, against racial integration, against the federal government, and on and on. We cannot afford to allow reaction to drive so much of what we do and say, politicizing and so contaminating our witness before a wary world that has seen this script so many times before. Rather, we should come humbly and with an open mind to the word of God, asking what the gospel teaches us about every area of life, and to what sort of witness - individual and social, in the church and in the world - it is calling us. 

Political and social conservatism does not equal the Christian worldview, as far too many of our evangelical ancestors have imagined. The politics of the right has no more claim on our consciences than do the politics of the left. Our call is make and train disciples of the gospel of Christ, a gospel that is spiritual even as it is comprehensive, a gospel that saves individual souls even as it promises the restoration of all things in Christ. If we are going to recover the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, that's the kind of spirituality we need.

Matthew J. Tuininga teaches moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He and his family worship at Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Atlanta. He blogs at www.matthewtuininga.wordpress.com


[1] Matthew J. Tuininga, Christ's Two Kingdoms: Calvin's Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); Matthew J. Tuininga, "Good News for the Poor: An Analysis of Calvin's Concept of Poor Relief and the Diaconate in Light of His Two Kingdoms Paradigm," Calvin Theological Journal 49.2 (November, 2014): 221-247; Matthew J. Tuininga, "'The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual': John Calvin's Concept of the Restoration of the World," in For the Healing of the Nations: Essays on Creation, Redemption, and Neo-Calvinism (Ed. Peter Escalante and W. Bradford Littlejohn; Moscow: Davenant, 2014), 81-102.

[2] Tuininga, "'The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual,'" p. 88.

[3] The Greek word could easily be translated 'justice' or 'righteousness.' Non-English translations ordinarily use the word 'justice.'

[4] Tuininga, "'The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual,'" p. 84.

[5] Calvin, Commentary on 2 Peter 3:10 [1551]; CO 55:476.

[6] Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 [1546]; CO 49:557-560.