The Spirituality of the Church

  • Posted on: 14 February 2016
  • By: Chris Strevel

When a pastor addresses social issues from the Bible, is he violating the spirituality of the church? When a believer defends a particular social belief from the Old Testament, is he committing the same offense, or a “history of redemption” error? These are common responses within the Reformed community. The spirituality of the church is taken to mean that the church should speak authoritatively to “spiritual” issues, while addressing moral and social issues only generally, never with chapter and verse.

            It is wrongly assumed by many that “since Israel was a theocracy,” church and state were coterminous. Therefore, any use of Old Testament law in the modern era necessary entails a blending of domains that we now recognize as separate. One author I recently read said that Israel was so unique that God virtually suspended his normal dealings with the nations during the existence of Old Testament Israel – sort of an inverse Dispensationalism. With the passing away of Israel “as a body politic,” at least in the biblical sense, God now deals with nations based upon the general provisions of the Noahic covenant, not in terms of the covenant of grace – blessings for faith and obedience in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, and judgment for unbelief and disobedience.

            Church and state were not coterminous in Israel, and “theocracy” did not mean the rule of society by the church. This faulty definition of “theocracy” leads many astray. Israel was a theocracy in that God was its King, ruled by his law, with all spheres of society – church, state, and family – under his governance. Kings did not offer sacrifices – or if they did, as in the case of Saul, they were sorely judged. Priests did not rule the state. Prophets called both kings and priests to be faithful to God’s word in their spheres of responsibility and authority.

            Therefore, there are not two kingdoms, or three, or ten, but one. We do not pray for God’s “kingdoms” to come, but his “kingdom,” his rule over all spheres of life, to come. That is, we pray, as our catechisms teach us, for civil rulers to be nursing fathers and mothers to the church, to countenance the true religion and put down infidelity and profaneness, and by way of summary, to kiss the Son (WCF, LCQ 190-191). Both church and state, albeit with different emphases, spheres, and methods, are under the authority of God and his Christ, so that, as Calvin wrote in his Preface to King Frances I in his Institutes, that kings that do not rule by God’s law are guilty of brigandage – theft of God’s glory and abuse of the power entrusted to his civil ministers.

            Did Calvin, most of the leading Reformers, and the Westminster divines not believe in the spirituality of the church? Were they guilty of blending kingdoms and spheres that should be kept absolutely separate? They understood better or more courageously than we are willing to do that all spheres of life are under the one King, the living God, and now given into the hands of the mediatorial King of kings, Jesus Christ. This did not mean that they thought the church should rule society or that Christians finding themselves living under ungodly or anti-Christian rulers should withhold reverence, obedience, and prayers. It certainly means that the church always has a prophetic responsibility toward every sphere of life: church, state, family, business, etc. They took seriously the prophecy of Zechariah that in the days of the Messiah, even the horses’ bells would have “HOLINESS TO THE LORD” engraved upon them (13:20).

            They certainly did not envision that the church would ever arrive at a place where an appeal to the Old Testament would call for elaborate justification, wading through supposed types and typological conundrums, hoping that she could find some point of connection between natural law general equity and God’s law, so that she might not be embarrassed to say simply, “Thus saith the Lord:” about women serving in combat positions in the military, or the Bible’s teaching about the God-ordained roles and distinctions between the sexes, or sodomy, or any number of other issues to which the church must speak with clarity, boldness, and humility, or else be guilty of abdicating her duty before God.

            The spirituality of the church does not lie in her hesitance to speak God’s word to state, family, and business concerns. It lies in the fact that she speaks to these matters from God’s perspective. This assumes that she has “rightly divided the word of truth” and is confident that she speaks for her God and Savior. But speak she must. We have his completed word, apart from which there is only darkness. Can we turn to fallen man’s reading of a supposedly sufficient “natural law” to speak to our particular nation’s propensity to engage in one foreign war after another? Or to condemn sodomy, support the husband’s headship in the home, or to call upon modern nations to kiss the Son? God’s word clears up our otherwise confused notions about these and many other issues. Since he has exercised such care in giving us his word, then we are worse than ingrates if we look for other standards or sources of wisdom. Our standard is clear: “To the law and to the testimony.” Ah, but this was only for Israel. Other nations did not have to look to God’s law but were free to follow their common grace understanding or natural law interpretations of reality. There is a natural law – God’s law. It is not man’s autonomous reading of history or what other nations believe proper. The problem with all natural law theories is that we have gouged out our eyes and lost the ability to read them properly. God’s revealed law is the spectacles by which our blindness is cured.

            When God gave Moses the law, he specifically said that the other nations would look to his testimonies and marvel at their wisdom, with the implication being that a wise nation or leader would not simply gawk but obey (Deut. 4:6-8). During Solomon’s reign, foreign leaders came to learn from Solomon, whose wisdom was not separate from God’s law but drawn directly from it (Eccl. 12:13). Isaiah speaks of God’s judgment upon all the inhabitants of the earth for “transgressing the laws, changing the ordinance, and breaking the everlasting ordinance” (Isa. 24:5). God held Israel more accountable than the other nations, for his people had more light, but the other nations are not exempt from judgment on the basis that they lacked it. What God set up in Israel was intended as a model – not the more limited laws that pertained only to Israel as a body politic, but God’s moral law engraved upon the hearts of all and summarized in the Ten Commandments.

            Thus, the law is spiritual (Rom. 7:12), assuming it is used rightly. The church is acting very spiritually when it addresses moral and national concerns prophetically from God’s word. This is not the same thing as aligning with particular social movements or endorsing parties and candidates. To join herself with men’s ever-changing movements and philosophies jeopardizes her prophetic authority and integrity. Instead, she must apply God’s word to the vast array of issues that confront her in this world from a position of loyalty to God, his word, and his Christ. Then, his kingdom truly comes, for nothing is more powerful than his word. His name is reverenced, for God has tied his honor and our defense of it to his word. His will is done on earth as in heaven, for he has made his will known in his word. Nowhere in Scripture is his will said to be ascertainable to sinful men apart from his word (Deut. 29:29). 

            To speak in this way and with this confidence requires more humility and wisdom than we presently possess, so there is great need at the present hour for all Christians to bury their noses in the Book of God: all of it. We must learn to tremble again before his word, and then we shall find our tongues loosed to speak it courageously, even to those issues that raise so much ire among the children of disobedience and among many in the church who have forgotten what God has said about war, gender, sexuality, political polytheism, and male-female relations. Let it not be said of us that we are fearful to speak where God has spoken.

            There stood our Savior before Pilate, bleeding and weak. Under confused and increasingly fearful questioning, for Pilate’s conscience trembled in the presence of its lawful King, our Savior proclaimed that his authority was higher than Pilate’s. This was of course true respecting his divine nature, but as he confessed earlier under Herod’s malicious threatenings, it was particularly as the Son of man, the mediatorial King (Dan. 7:13-14), of which he was speaking in that hour (Matt. 26:34). It was this revelation that infuriated Herod and deepened Pilate’s fear. They were confronted with the truth of God and with God’s King. These are higher than man’s petty kingdoms. In Jesus Christ, the kingdoms of this world have become God’s (Rev. 11:16). He has given his word. All are to kiss the Son. Let us not be afraid to speak his word or confuse spirituality with silence, multiple kingdoms, dangerous dualisms, and typological mazes from which even those who propose them cannot find their way out again. 

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