The spirituality of the church teaches that given the nature of the church under the mediatorial reign of Christ there are limits to church power and that this power must not be confused with the power of the state. Through most of Reformed history, the spirituality of the church 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 concerns of the church should not be swallowed up by the concerns of the state.
I believe in the spirituality of the church. I believe it is a doctrine with a rich Reformed pedigree and a doctrine that can be immensely helpful in today’s cultural and ecclesiastical climate.
I also believe the spirituality of the church can, and has been, inappropriately applied. The doctrine has been variously understood and is not a quick fix for the problems vexing evangelical and Reformed churches.
In general terms, the spirituality of the church teaches that given the nature of the church under the mediatorial reign of Christ there are limits to church power and that this power must not be confused with the power of the state. Through most of Reformed history, the spirituality of the church 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 concerns of the church should not be swallowed up by the concerns of the state.
Presbyterianism Made Manifest
The theology behind the spirituality of the church is present in Calvin and Beza, so the roots of the doctrine can certainly be found in Geneva. But for understanding the spirituality of the church as it has taken shape in the Presbyterian world (and through Presbyterianism to the broader church), we can start with Scotland and the Second Book of Discipline.
Approved by the General Assembly in 1578 (though never approved by Parliament because of its understanding of church property and patronage), the Second Book of Discipline as a brief manual on church government is “the first explicit statement of Scottish Presbyterianism.” A central theme throughout the document is that Kirk and the civil magistrate will, at times, work toward the same ends, but “always without confounding the one jurisdiction with the other” (10.4). To be clear, the Second Book of Discipline envisions nothing like the separation of church and state arrangement we have in the United States. It is assumed that the magistrate will be a Christian magistrate and that he will help support, defend, and promote the cause of the Kirk. Scotland was considered a Reformed realm in which church and state worked together to maintain a godly commonwealth. So the American Constitution this is not.
And yet, unlike its neighbor to the south, Scotland insisted that the head of the church and the head of the state were not the same. When even today Reformed and Presbyterian pastors make a declaration in the name of “Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of his Church,” they are denying not only the authority of the pope, but also the authority of any earthly monarch over the church.
This is why chapter 1 of the Second Book of Discipline begins with an examination of “the Kirk and Policy Thereof” and “Wherein It is Different from the Civil Policy.” Sections 11-15 are particularly relevant to the development of the spirituality of the church.
- The magistrate commands external things for external peace and quietness amongst the subjects; the minister handles external things only for conscience cause.
- The magistrate handles external things only, and actions done before men; but the spiritual ruler judges both inward affections and external actions, in respect of conscience, by the word of God.
- The civil magistrate craves and gets obedience by the sword and other external means, but the ministry by the spiritual sword and spiritual means.
- The magistrate neither ought to preach, minister the sacraments, nor execute the censures of the kirk, nor yet prescribe any rule how it should be done, but command the ministers to observe the rule commanded in the word, and punish the transgressors by civil means. The ministers exercise not the civil jurisdiction, but teach the magistrate how it should be exercised according to the word.
- The magistrate ought to assist, maintain, and fortify the jurisdiction of the kirk. The ministers should assist their princes in all things agreeable to the word, provided they neglect not their own charge by involving themselves in civil affairs.
Notice several things from these points.
First, the magistrate and the minister exercise jurisdiction over different spheres. The magistrate can only deal with external things. That is, he cannot make laws that demand certain affections or compel the conscience to believe certain things. The minister, on the other hand, has the right to judge inner dispositions and outward obedience, though the minister mainly deals with spiritual things (as his sphere) and only “handles external things for conscience cause.”