Two Cheers for the Spirituality of the Church

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.

11. The magistrate commands external things for external peace and quietness amongst the subjects; the minister handles external things only for conscience cause.

12. 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.

13. The civil magistrate craves and gets obedience by the sword and other external means, but the ministry by the spiritual sword and spiritual means.

14. 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.

15. 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.”

Second, the minister is not silent on all matters pertaining to the state. Indeed, he is called upon to “teach the magistrate how [the civil jurisdiction] should be exercised according to the word.”

Third, even though the minister has a right and responsibility to deal with matters pertaining to the civil realm, that is not his chief work. The minister’s involvement in civil affairs must not be to the neglect of his own charge.

Some of the particulars of the Second Book of Discipline may seem strange to us today, especially in our American context. But its biggest contribution was the overarching theme assumed throughout the document; namely, that the church and the state are two kingdoms with two kings, both under the authority of God but with different officers, different responsibilities, and different aims.

Westminster and Beyond

We have many of the same ideas at work in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Again, we must be clear that the Confession did not presume a Jeffersonian separation of church and state. If anything the Confession—which was, after all, the creation of an assembly called by Parliament and without any official ecclesiastical authority—has more hints of state intrusion into the affairs of the church than the Second Book of Discipline does. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church is present:

Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude 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 by thereunto required by the civil magistrate. (31.4).

While the Confession is not talking about ministers but about synods and councils (an important distinction), the principle from the Second Book of Discipline is once again operative. The church should not try to run the state or meddle in its affairs, except in extreme situations that call for redress or when the church has been called upon to offer its opinion.

Early in American Presbyterian history, the conception of church and state relations began to change, but the basic contours of the spirituality of the church remained and were reinforced. With the Adopting Act of 1729, the Presbyterian church allowed that chapters 20 and 23 of the Westminster Confession were no longer binding on ministers and that ministers need not receive “those articles in any such sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over Synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority.” In other words, any notion of an Established Church, let alone an Erastian one, was gone. It was still assumed that the church and state would be allies in Protestant America, but they were distinct bodies with different responsibilities pursued by different means.

When the first Book of Church Order was approved at the first General Assembly in 1789, eight Preliminary Principles were included, the same eight principles that you can find in substantially the same form in the PCA’s Book of Church Order today. The seventh principle states, in the 1789 language, “That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws, to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God.” This is the spirituality of the church in a nutshell: Church power is ministerial and declarative not civil and coercive, the church cannot bind the conscience except as the Word of God binds the conscience, and the church can only make decisions and pronouncements founded expressly upon the Scriptures.

Slavery and the South

For at least 200 years, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church developed without any reference to slavery. To suggest that Southern Presbyterians invented the spirituality of the church to sidestep the issue of slavery is to ignore the presence of the doctrine on both sides of the Atlantic long before the sectional crisis in America. We should not throw away the spirituality of the church because we are (rightly) ashamed of slavery.

And yet, it is true that as the issue of slavery took center stage in Presbyterian denominational life in the 19th century, the spirituality of the church came to be applied by ever narrower means. Alan Strange has done a masterful job of navigating the nuances of the doctrine and the conflicts surrounding its application in his published doctoral dissertation, The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge. To cite just one example, Strange relays how Hodge strongly disagreed with Thornwell’s contention that since the church was only to preach the gospel that the church had no right to open her lips against the slave trade (p. 289). “Yes,” says Hodge (who was mostly a moderate when it came to slavery itself), “the Bible gives us no rule for deciding the litigated questions about public improvements, a national bank, or a protective tariff or state rights. But it does give us rules pronouncing about slave-laws, the slave-trade, obedience to magistrates, treason, rebellion, and revolution” (pp. 289-90). The spirituality of the church was not, for Hodge, an injunction to stay silent on matters clearly addressed in the Scriptures.


I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to the history of the doctrine, and I’ve done almost nothing to show its scriptural support. Someone should write a short, lay-level book introducing a new generation to the usefulness—and the complexities—of the spirituality of the church. The doctrine, as construed throughout most of the Reformed tradition, does not mean that pastors and churches can never speak to issues that some might label as “political” or “social justice.”

The doctrine does, however, offer a salutary warning against ministers forgetting their gospel charge for civil concerns, churches transgressing their God-given powers (not to mention, their area of expertise), denominations losing sight of the spiritual aims of the church, and movements and their leaders pronouncing too exactly and too confidently upon matters not explicitly stated in Scripture and that demand a great deal of prudential judgment. The doctrine of the spirituality of the church is not a cure-all, but rightly administered, it is a helpful prescription for many of the controversies that plague us in the church today.