The Spirituality of the Church

I came across an excellent article by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether entitled, The Spirituality of the Church,” which was extracted from the Ordained Servant, July 1998. I would encourage you to read the entire article, but two paragraphs jumped out at me during this political season (Doesn’t it seem to always be a “political season,” at least on the cable networks?):

Though he is rarely cited as an exponent of the teaching, in 1861 [Charles] Hodge articulated a view of the church’s spiritual purpose and means that, though shorter, rivaled anything James Henley Thornwell or Robert Lewis Dabney could have written. Hodge was writing in response to the Spring Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the Old School Presbyterian Church that not only split the denomination along regional lines but also declared that the Presbyterian Church had an obligation to “promote and perpetuate” the integrity of the United States and the federal government. Hodge, however, denied that the church had any duty to take sides in the emerging struggle between the North and South. He wrote, “the state has no authority in matters purely spiritual and that the church [has] no authority in matters purely secular or civil.” To be sure, in some cases their spheres of responsibility overlapped. Still, “the two institutions are distinct, and their respective duties are different.” To substantiate this point Hodge went on to quote from the Confession of Faith, chapter thirty-one, which states that synods and councils must handle only ecclesiastical, as opposed to civil, matters. He then added an explanation that showed his understanding of the point germane to the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church, namely, the extent and nature of church power. “The church can only exercise her power in enforcing the word of God, in approving what it commands, and condemning what it forbids,” Hodge wrote. “A man, in the exercise of his liberty as to things indifferent, may be justly amenable to the laws of the land; and he may incur great guilt in the sight of God, but he cannot be brought under the censure of the church.”

Hodge’s political sympathies were clearly with the Union. In 1865 he would weep at the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Still, he recognized that in the political questions surrounding the war between the North and the South — that is, whether the federal government or the states were ultimately sovereign — the church had no warrant from Scripture to take sides or to compel her members to do so. Christians must be obedient to the government and the church had a duty to teach and encourage such obedience. But the Bible did not settle the matter of the states versus the federal government. “The question,” Hodge wrote, “is, whether the allegiance of our citizens is primarily to the State or to the Union? However clear our own convictions of the correctness of this decision may be, or however deeply we may be impressed with its importance, yet it is not a question which this Assembly has a right to decide.” To take sides in this matter, Hodge concluded, was tantamount to singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Lord’s Supper.

It is just another reminder to us that our hope is not to be found in the church’s dabbling in Political Action Committees, “Get Out the Vote Campaigns,” or fine arts symposiums, but in doing the work that God has called us to do through the ordinary means of grace: Word, Sacraments, and Prayer.


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