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A Church That Can’t Exist in the World

April 5th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

Recent years have seen many evangelical thinkers become more alert to the work that individual doctrines do in our broader understanding of the Christian faith and life. The neglected, occasionally despised, and much misunderstood doctrine of divine impassibility, for example, has been shown to have deep relevance to questions of pastoral care, as Derek Rishmawy and Wesley Hill have both demonstrated.

Doctrines do not hang in the ether as abstractions that we simply affirm or negate, like questions on a school exam on which we will be graded. Rather, they explain, support, and anchor the practices of God’s people as we sojourn in the world.

In considering R. Scott Clark’s objections to the Evangel Presbytery’s overture to the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly, it might be helpful to turn this same question loose on the distinctly American idea of the “spirituality of the church.” What work does this doctrine do in the life of the Christian church?

For context, Evangel Presbytery has called on the assembly to petition the American government concerning its complicity in the promotion of false ideas about sex, gender, and the body, particularly with regards to transgenderism and especially offering so-called gender-affirming care to minors.

While aspects of the overture are a bit sloppy—it is odd to claim, for example, that “The Bible says… that it is scientifically impossible for a male to become a female or a female to become a male”—those issues can be easily resolved through the ordinary processes of the communion.

The broader issue here and the appropriateness of this act is well established both by the PCA’s adoption of its recent report on sexuality and by church precedent. If our communion is comfortable petitioning the government with regards to abortion, as we have already done, then by the same principle we can and should petition the government regarding our culture’s confusion concerning sex and gender.

Professor Clark has objected to this petition, however, because he sees it as a violation of the church’s confession:

The Westminster Divines wrote and the PCA confesses that the “[s]ynods and councils” of the visible church are to “handle” or “conclude nothing” except that which is “ecclesiastical.” The visible church is “not” to intermeddle with civil affairs, i.e., those things which concern the commonwealth, i.e., everyone and not just the visible church. It grants two exceptions, which exception the presbytery is invoking here: “cases extraordinary” or the church may ask for advice “for satisfaction of conscience” with this proviso: “if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

What is in question here is not the grounds of the overture, with which I agree entirely and heartily, nor is it the actual petition itself, with which I agree. What is in question is whether the transgender crisis—make no mistake about it, we are in a crisis in the West—constitutes what the Divines had in mind when they wrote “cases extraordinary.”

There are several points to be made in reply.

First, Clark’s excerpt dodges an earlier section of our confession, which notes that the civil magistrate is ordained by God “for his own glory and the public good.” For Clark it would seem there is no room whatever for the church to speak to the common or public good at all. It is also hard to square Clark’s account of the church’s spirituality here with the injunction of the sixth commandment, which as our catechism puts it, exhorts us to “protect and defend the innocent,” and forbids “whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”

Second, we should consider the work that the spirituality doctrine has tended to do historically. There are two answers here: First, the doctrine is meant to preserve necessary distinctions between places where the moral law is plain and so the church must speak to the commonwealth and places plainly outside the scope of the church. It would be wrong, for example, for the church to collectively insist on a certain tax rate, as the question of “what should the tax rate be?” is one that must be decided contextually and prudentially. In other words, the spirituality of the church doctrine helps to define the limits to the church’s wisdom and judgment because she cannot speak without the guidance of Scripture.

That said, there is a second much darker historical work done by the doctrine. While there is some language suggestive of these ideas outside of the southern American presbyterian tradition, the historical doctrine we know today as “the spirituality of the church,” was articulated most fully by 19th century southern Presbyterians. The most complete explication of it was that because the church is only concerned with “spiritual” matters and not “temporal,” therefore the church should not address questions of politics and public life. It is not hard to imagine why white 19th century southerners would adopt such an idea. The work this doctrine did in the life of the Christian communion, then, was to create a buffer between the church and questions of justice. It insulated the life of political society from the moral teachings of Christianity, thereby allowing egregious evils to go on existing in what professed to be a Christian society.

What is important to say here is that this particular application of the doctrine actually fails by the standards of historic Reformed thought. The Reformed tradition as a whole has not embraced this teaching, either the southern presbyterian conception of the spirituality of the church or the particular ways in which that teaching protected and preserved chattel slavery. While you will find a careful delineation of church authority and political authority across the tradition, what you will not find is the idea that the church should not speak to matters temporal or political at all. To consistently apply such a rule would require the church to not exist in the world as an embodied, real, concrete institution. Church authority and governmental authority are different, and yet the moral law that governs the church governs the world because the visible church exists in that world.

Althusius has explained it well, arguing that we need the entire counsel of the Decalogue not simply to aid the church in her life, but to actually anchor the life of the world.

The precepts of the Decalogue are included to the extent that they infuse a vital spirit into the association and symbiotic life that we teach, that they carry a torch before the social life that we seek, and that they prescribe and constitute a way, rule, guiding star, and boundary for human society. If anyone would take them out of politics, he would destroy it; indeed, he would destroy all symbiosis and social life among men. For what would human life be without the piety of the first table of the Decalogue, and without the justice of the second? What would a commonwealth be without communion and communication of things useful and necessary to human life? By means of these precepts, charity becomes effective in various good works.

This is not to say that only Christian societies can be just because the precepts of the decalogue are simply a distillation of the natural law, as Eric Hutchinson has before explained on the main site.

According to this line of thinking, the natural law–by which I mean the basic principles of knowing what things should be done and what should be avoided, or the ability to distinguish between good and evil, imprinted on man’s heart by God– is the same in its principles as the moral law, and the moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments.

To whatever degree communities are able to know what simply shouldn’t be done, those communities are able to live with a degree of relative justice. So the point here is not to say only Christian nations can be just, let alone that only nations with established churches can be just. None of that is at all in view here.

The point is much simpler, there is knowledge implanted in the human person which is resisted by our sin natures (and sometimes more complex to access both due to our sin nature and due to one’s particular social context) but which nonetheless remains accessible and can lead us toward a temporally good life, if we assent to it. The notion that the content of this knowledge would reside outside of the purview of the Christian church is utterly ahistorical, even within the Reformed tradition. Clark’s conception of “extraordinary cases” is so extraordinary one struggles to imagine a case when the church could speak to these matters.

It also imagines a church that not only doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, but quite literally cannot exist in the world, for if it cannot speak plainly about human bodies and such basic points of moral knowledge, I am not sure what is left for it to offer, save a disembodied Gospel that can’t even speak coherently, given that the God it speaks of has himself taken a body. Clark would likely reply, and indeed says precisely this in his piece, that individual Christians are free, perhaps even obliged, to speak up, but the church itself oughtn’t. Yet, again, I must ask: If the redefinition of sex itself and the surgical mutilation of children’s bodies in the name of health is not “extraordinary,” then what exactly is?

Of course, there may be another way in which this church imagined by Clark cannot exist in the world: It was only last year that the Lincoln City Council attempted to pass a fairness ordinance that would have effectively criminalized the act of reading Romans 1 in any place of “public accommodation,” a term defined by the statute so capaciously that it applies to virtually anywhere outside a private home, including church buildings themselves. For Clark to propose that the latest developments in the sexual revolution have not yet imposed “undue burdens” on local visible churches regarding this issue suggests that he simply isn’t paying attention to the news, including the news in a city he once called home, as Clark himself is a former resident of Lincoln and is a graduate of the city’s university.

The arguments and disagreements currently tearing at Christ’s body in America seem virtually limitless. The fracturing of the church is ongoing. Indeed, it may well get far worse in the years to come. Yet there are points where God’s people can and should agree and can and should speak with a clear voice. If the plainly false and destructive teachings of the sexual revolution are not such a place, then I wonder what remains where we can speak with one voice.

To be sure, some might argue that this petition is unnecessary—no fair-minded person could possibly wonder where the PCA stands on this matter, especially after the adoption of the sexuality report. But the point of a petition to the government is not simply to proclaim our beliefs. That work is done through our confession and through denominational reports. The point of petitioning the government in this way lies elsewhere. And when we come to the purpose of such petitions we come against something utterly opposed to the logic of Clark’s particular rebuttal, which is grounded in such an extreme reading of the spirituality of the church that it is hard to imagine a more complete severing of the life of the church from the life of political society or, indeed, a more complete break from the historic teachings of the various reformed communions. The point of a petition such as this is to say that Christian morality does not operate in a cordoned off space known as “the visible church.” Rather, Christian morality is guidance in how to be human. This overture gives all sides of the PCA a chance to affirm and underline our tradition’s commitment to the common good, public justice, and a humane life.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).