The Biblical Basis for the Spirituality of the Church

Rick Phillips

Last week I posted a piece suggesting three principles by which the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) may respond to the call to confess racist tendencies in the years leading up to its founding.  One of these principles was to carefully observe the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.  I have noticed recent objections to this principle, including from fellow ministers in the PCA.  This surprises me, since the doctrine is plainly expressed in the Westminster Standards.  It has also surprised me to learn that in recent presbytery meetings of the PCA motions have been made to form permanent social justice committees.  At least one presbytery also received a motion for the PCA to publicly call for financial reparations from white people to African Americans in compensation for the institution of slavery that existed in America prior to 1865.  These actions would seem to oppose the spirituality of the church.

The Westminster Confession defines the spirituality of the church in this language:

Synods and councils are to handle, or concern 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

Every officer in the PCA has taken a vow to this confession and thus to this language.  Therefore, unless an exception has been sought and granted, one might expect church officers to support this doctrine.  Even more significant is the strong biblical basis for the spirituality of the church.  It turns out that this doctrine was not invented by racially-insensitive white Christians but by Jesus Christ and his apostles.  One way to see the biblical teaching is through the proof texts of the Confession.

The first proof text offered is Luke 12:13-14, where a man came to Jesus asking him to become involved in an inheritance dispute: "Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me."  Jesus' answer revealed his priorities: "Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?"  Here was a civil justice matter involving important principles, not to mention the impact on the people involved.  We may presume that Jesus was fully away of the correct solution.  But Jesus declined to speak publicly on the matter because his office was not concerned with civil justice.  The logic is that if Jesus declined to "intermeddle with civil affairs," this same principle would extend to the officers of his church.

The second proof text is more familiar.  In Jesus' public trial, Pontius Pilate demanded to know if Jesus claimed kingship.  Our Lord answered, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence" (Jn. 18:36).  Here we have a plain statement from Jesus about the spirituality of his kingdom: it is not pertaining to the matters of this world.

A third proof text is Matthew 22:21, Jesus' famous declaration, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."  Here, Jesus acknowledges a secular realm and a spiritual realm, refusing to intermingle them in the matter of taxation.  Jesus would have known full well that Caesar used taxes unjustly.  But he told his hearers to pay them because that was Caesar's responsibility and not his.

To these clear proof texts, we may add the fact that in Philemon, Paul appeals to his reader not on the basis of civil justice but on the principle of love.  Paul did not issue statements about the institution of slavery but suggested a personal course of action befitting a Christian.  To be sure, Philemon does not endorse or defend the institution of slavery (as many 19th century Christians falsely taught).  But it does show how the apostle restricted himself to the spiritual realm pertaining to the kingdom of Christ.  This principle is seen in all of the apostle's ministry, in which he did not address himself to the profound social injustices around him but instead preached the gospel and planted churches.

Perhaps most important of all is Jesus' Great Commission, where the church receives its mission directly from the Lord: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:19-20).  Here, the mission of the church - which its organization and activities should reflect - is evangelism, discipleship, and church building.  This is the great work of all history to which we are privileged to be called.  There is no evident biblical basis for the church to add other missions, such as social justice, to the commission given by our Lord himself.

Some might read these materials and conclude that Christians have no civil duties at all.  But this is mistaken, as Jesus emphasized in Matthew 22:21.  Christians have civil duties as citizens.  As Christian citizens, our involvement - including political activity - should reflect the ethics and values of God's Word.  But the church as the church does not have civil authority and does not have a warrant, as the Confession says, "to intermeddle with civil affairs."  When there are extraordinary cases to which the church will speak, it should restrict itself to "humble petition," whereby it declares the express teaching of Scripture, with its good and necessary consequences, and avoids comment on political strategies and endeavors.  The PCA has carefully observed this distinction in the past with respect to such vital matters as abortion and sexual/gender perversion, often refusing at its general assembly to issue political statements.  We will be blessed to follow this biblical approach in other important civil matters, including racial strife and purported matters of social injustice.

Jesus commanded the church to "teach [disciples] to observe all that I have commanded" (Mt. 28:20).  This ought to make Christians model citizens whose public and private conduct reflects the teaching of God's Word and the presence of God's gracious Spirit.  With this in mind, Christians should be urged to oppose racism and its institutions and exert their influence in the direction of racial reconciliation.  But the church has a vital spiritual mission, the eternal importance of which mandates its entire attention and resources.  Our mission, which ought to be reflected in the church's public statements and permanent structures, is well stated by the apostle Paul: "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20).