Spirituality of the Church

Unlike most other social institutions, the Church is the gathering together of a people who are self-conscious pilgrims awaiting their heavenly home (or, it should be). Our home is an eschatological reality, but it is not entirely future. Eschatology, properly understood, is a concern of the present and the future, the now-and-not-yet we might say. Tensions naturally arise with regard to the questions of how Christians live in their day-to-day lives. How does the Christian balance the temporal concerns of their earthly citizenship with their eternal concerns of their heavenly citizenship? The Two-Kingdom perspective offers a helpful answer to this question with the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church as its guide. With this doctrine we neither minimize the importance of eschatology, forgetting that we are pilgrims in a land not our own, nor do we create an over-realized eschatology that drags heavenly, other-worldly, things down to earth. Without being exhaustive, by any stretch of the imagination, I hope to make us think about the implications of the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church for how we understand our highest calling as Christians: to be the bride of Christ and proclaim to the world that the Kingdom of God is here right now...and not yet.

Understanding what is meant by the “the Church” is helpful. The Reformed understand that there is both a visible and invisible Church, similarly to how there was the nation of Israel and the remnant of Israel. While, from the Divine perspective, no such distinction between visible and invisible need be made, it must be made from a human perspective. We cannot effectively discriminate between those who merely profess faith and those who have genuine saving faith, at least not on this side of eternity. In light of this we must have a generous understanding of the Church. The doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church concerns the visible Church and so the term “Church” will be used in this respect for the remainder of this discussion. How do we define the Church then, in light of this? The Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful at this point:

“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2)

Jesus describes the Church as not of this world, as he is not of this world (John 17.14-16). Peter describes the Church as a spiritual house, chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation in order that they “may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2.4-5,9). Peters description of the pilgrim people, the Church, dovetails nicely with the author of Hebrews describing Abraham's expectation of inheriting a city whose designer and builder is God (Hebrews 11.10). In a similar way Paul describes the spiritual nature of the Church's conflict by instructing us to put on our spiritual armor as we fight “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6.12). The point here is not to suggest that we aren't concerned with earthly, temporal, matters, but to show that our higher calling is on things above. Our home is not here, and our greatest fight is not a carnal fight.

Church authority is another relevant point. The Reformed understand Church discipline to be a matter concerning the keys to the kingdom, binding and loosing. When the Pharisee's and Sadducee's demanded a sign of the authority of Christ, the only understanding of this authority was given to Peter and the disciples. Christ then gives the authority of heaven to his disciples:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16.18-19)

We see the nature of this authority defined by Christ himself in Matthew 18 where Church discipline is outlined. Christ associates the authority derived from binding and loosing with excommunication from the Church. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul, dealing with another case of Church discipline, commands that the Church in Corinth expel the immoral brother from their midst. Binding and loosing, the keys of the kingdom, are an issue of Church authority. There was no authority given to the Church to demand civil retribution; excommunication from the Church was shown as the highest form of authority. This is rather mild by temporal standards, but carries with it the weight of heavenly authority. The Westminster Confession also understands that the binding and loosing is given to the officers of the Church as for disciplinary reasons:

“To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 30.2)

Church power is not civil power. The government of Christ’s Church is fundamentally other-worldly, and the discipline of this government is also other-worldly. This distinction between Church power and civil power was expressed eloquently by Kentucky Presbyterian, Stuart Robinson:

“[Ecclesiastical and civil power] differ in that the scope and aim of the civil power are limited properly to things seen and temporal; the scope and aim of ecclesiastical power are things unseen and spiritual. Religious is a term not predicable of the acts of the State; political is a term not predicable of the acts of the Church. The things pertaining to the kingdom of Christ are thing concerning which Caesar can have rightfully no cognizance, except indirectly and incidentally as these things palpably affect the temporal and civil concerns of men; and even Caesar cannot be too jealously watched by the Church. The things pertaining to the kingdom of Caesar are matters of which the Church of Christ as an organic government can have no cognizance, except incidentally and remotely as affecting the spiritual interests of men; and even then the Church cannot watch herself too jealously.

They differ in that the significant symbol of the civil power is the sword; its government is a government of force, a terror to evil-doers; but the significant symbol of Church power is the keys, its government only ministerial, the function of its officers to open and closer and have a care of a house already complete as to its structure externally, and internally organized and provided.” (“The Church of God”, III.5.c,d)

            The mission of the Church is another thing to consider. Whether or not this is a transformational mission is a much-debated topic. The dominion mandate (Gen 1.26-28) is used by many as one of the purposes of the Church. It is worth noting that elements of the dominion mandate were re-instituted after the Noahic flood as a part of the covenant with Noah, but that is a part of the responsibility of those in common kingdom (by “common kingdom” I mean the realm where sinner and saint work together in this world; the realm of humanity as a whole). The Great Commission offers a very different mission for the Church:

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.18b-20)

It is significant that as Christ claimed “all authority in heaven and on earth”, he did not commission his disciples to take up the cause of dominion. The commission was to make disciples, baptize, and teach. While the dominion mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue to the earth, was given to all mankind, the Church is set apart on a special task, a heavenly task. The Church is to call all mankind back to its God. The earth, and all of creation, will be destroyed in the great judgment, and the Church will finally receive what it already possesses, it will inherit the new heavens and new earth.

The Church is the ultimate focus of all of Christ’s redemptive work. A. Craig Troxel states very nicely the chief end and purpose to which the Church has been called:

“As the church, we must resist the world’s temptations, because we are not of the world. But we may not abandon the world in its need, because we are in the world as its salt and light. And to meet the greatest of the world’s needs, [Christ] has entrusted to the church the good news of redemption and the hope of the world to come. It is not an either-or. It is a matter of priority. To be sure, there is nothing in all the world, over which Christ, the head of all things, does not cry ‘Mine!’ But for him, the world is not enough. So out of it he has ransomed his church, which is his body. And to her he says, ‘You are mine, forever!’” (“The World Is Not Enough”, essay taken from the OPC's “Confident of Better Things” collection)

Troxel makes a great distinction here. We, as Christians, are to be actively involved in this world. We are commanded by Christ to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is a command for all men everywhere, a common command, and we as Christians have no witness if we do not love our neighbor, care for the sick and impoverished. We are called to be examples of Christ and show genuine compassion for those in need, to be the salt and light of the world. But as a Church, we are given a higher calling. Only the Church is entrusted with work of evangelism, the work of kingdom proclamation. The kingdom of God, which is the Church of God, is here right now and we are to be heralds of Christ's work of redemption in these last days. We are to call all people in all nations to repent and believe in Christ. As great as helping people with their earthly needs is, we are called primarily to help them with their eternal need: they are sinners and the one whom they have sinned against is coming back to judge all mankind. The greatest need for mankind is not food, drink, clothing, or shelter in this world; the greatest need for mankind is the body and blood of Christ for eat and drink, being robed in Christ for clothing, and having the heavenly Mount Zion for shelter.

            We are pilgrims in a world not our own, but we are still in this world. We as Christians ought to be some of the most upstanding citizens of the earthly kingdoms we find ourselves in, but we ought to never forget about our greatest calling: the calling to be about the work of our heavenly kingdom. The church is the kingdom of God on earth, and we ought to be about our King’s business. Go, and make disciples, baptizing, teach...kingdom business.

John lives in Denver, Colorado. He is a member at a local OPC and is currently working towards a Bachelor's degree. He enjoys good books and local brews. He blogs at Presbyterian Sojourner.