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Editorial: What Is the Church For?

Gregory Edward Reynolds

The title of this editorial is a purposeful take-off on Wendell Berry's book What Are People For? His title is a challenge to define what it means to be human. Mine is a challenge to define the church and its mission.

What The Church Is Not For

One often gets the impression that the only alternative to Pietism is the reformation or reconstruction of culture with a special emphasis on political power or church organization (usually in the form of parachurch organizations) as the means of doing so. Perhaps the evangelical church's awakening from her pietistic slumbers in the middle of the last century accounts, at least in part, for her penchant to think politics is the key to securing her place in American culture. The church has struggled with this tendency ever since Constantine muddied the ecclesiastical waters.

Tocqueville observed that America, for all her flaws, is irrepressibly religious in outlook, giving a healthy buoyancy to her character and institutions. In the midst of the so-called culture wars, the church often finds itself resorting to carnal, that is political and cultural, weapons, when the Bible is quite clear that those are not the weapons of the church. This is, of course, not to say that individual Christians do not have a political or cultural duty, or may not engage in politics at every level and culture in every field of endeavor. It is only to say that it is not the church's business. Jesus defined that business very concisely in the Great Commission.

Several years ago a former United States senator who was running for governor of New Hampshire asked to speak in our church. After all, I had his sign on my front lawn, and did intend to vote for him, and I believed he was a fellow Christian. I politely refused the request, however, citing the nature and purposes of the church's ministry. It is interesting that both political and theological liberals and conservatives are guilty of this Constantinian confusion. It makes me wonder if the hope of many is not, after all, more in this world than in the next.

Recently I read several reviews of Jim Wallis's latest book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong, and the Left Doesn't Get It. For those who know Wallis's writing there is nothing new here. But a notable absence in the reviews, and hence the book itself, is any substantial discussion of the church's role in society. In one sense, of course, this reflects the New Testament's silence on the idea that the church should espouse a particular view of politics or pursue a particular cultural agenda. The only New Testament imperatives regarding the state command Christians to subject themselves to this common grace institution, and if state commands them to stop preaching the gospel, they must humbly submit to the punishment for disobeying. Of cultural agendas there is silence. In another sense, the absence of a substantive exegetical and confessional discussion of the nature of the church's mission in Christian books on politics is itself an American problem because we simply assume one or another version of the Constantinian compromise.

It is certainly true that the Reformed have often been in the vanguard of the transformationist tradition. The Kuyperian view of church and state seeks to transform every cultural institution, every sphere of life, as part of the Christian world-and-life view. While it is true that all aspects of life in the created order are viewed by the Christian through new eyes, as we perceive reality through the lens of Scripture, is this the same as a call to transform every arena of culture in a specifically Christian way? Would Beethoven have written better symphonies had he been a Christian? Can one develop a Christian world-and-life view without seeking to transform each discipline, as opposed to contributing to that discipline as a Christian?

A third way or alternative to the Pietist or transformationist view is what Machen called "consecration."

Instead of obliterating the distinction between the kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God. ...The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor.[1]

A subtle temptation that lurks just beneath the surface of a culture transforming agenda is dissatisfaction with the disenfranchised position of the church. The widespread cultural resentment of past Christian cultural dominance that is so visible today tempts many Christians to long nostalgically for the good old days when America was a Christian nation. In the New Testament the church is disenfranchised by its very nature as a pilgrim people. The disenfranchised prisoner Paul had to convince the proud Roman citizens of the Philippian church that "our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" (Phil. 3:20-21).

The holy nation in the New Testament is not a political entity as it was under Moses. Rather the church, according to 1 Peter 2:9-10, is "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy." The Confession makes this crucial distinction: "The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law)" (WCF 25.2). To identify the holy nation with America, or any other nation, is a dangerous error. Transforming her culture and her politics is not within the purview of the church's mission. In this sense the church transcends all political and cultural realities, not as a Gnostic denial of the value of creation and culture, but as a witness to the intrusion of a new order of grace and glory in the risen Christ.

The Civil War is a tragic example of what happens when the cause of Christ is identified with political entities. The idea in both north and south that God covenants with nations meant, ironically, that the same God was on each side. Each thought itself to be on the side of the kingdom of God and would have the church identify itself with it.

Our Confession equates the visible church with the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is the church, although by no means is the kingdom in its final form, as Geerhardus Vos points out. While many in our tradition take exception to this equation of the kingdom with the church in our confession, it is important to note that even the Puritans, with all of their theocratic instincts, knew better than to define the kingdom of God in broader terms.

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. (WCF 25.2)

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. (WCF 30.2)

Interestingly, our Confession also makes clear that there is an absolute boundary between the institution of the church and the state. "Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith" (WCF 23.3). The concerns of the kingdom are infinitely higher than the temporal concerns of the state. These concerns must be carefully understood.

What The Church Is For

How then should we define the church and its role in this world? The pages of the New Testament must be our ultimate source of truth on this question. I say New Testament because Israel was a geo-political entity unique in the history of redemption. It was a nation ruled by Yahweh the King, as David attests in Psalm 110; it was limited to a particular piece of real estate in Palestine; it had a typological purpose picturing the eschatological glory to be ushered in by Judgment Day. The church is now no longer a geo-political entity. It is the pilgrim bride of the risen Lord, an embassy among the nations of the earth, awaiting its land inheritance in its resurrection glory, calling the nations to repent and believe the good news of the amazing amnesty offered by heaven. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but spiritual. It is not only defining the limits of church power, but the focus of her purposes as well. She is to preach the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations.

The New Testament does have a keen interest, however, in the church's relation to society and the state, but it is not in the interests of Christian civilization. Luke in Luke-Acts sets forth an apologia for the church's "good citizenship," making clear that the people of the Way do not intend to subvert the limited temporal mission of the state, whatever pretensions it may have about itself—as Rome surely did. Christians are engaged in a more enduring spiritual enterprise, subverting the insurgency of the kingdom of darkness. Secondly, the church is an embassy of the risen Lord, given a message that it is commanded to teach the nations in word and deed.

The conservative fundamentalist side of the culture wars tends to be weak in its diplomatic skills, whether it has a transformationist or a separatist agenda. These agendas tend to come across as the self-righteous imposition of traditional morality because there is little or no gospel in them. Instead of engaging culture with the gospel, this approach tends to build barriers to the gospel, and in an ironic twist, noted by Ken Myers, the church ends up of the world, but not in it. Of the world, in the sense that it uses the world's weapons in the warfare, whether it is electronic media-informed worship or the formation of political action committees.

This year, for the first time since 1979, the year I was graduated from seminary, I am not a card-carrying Republican, even though I continue to be a constitutional republican when it comes to political philosophy. That is the way I vote and discuss political issues and fulfill my political duties. The reason for this change is that it is a logical consequence of my belief in the spirituality of the church. Now, I am not saying that being a member of a political party is wrong for Christians or even for ministers. But at this point in history I do not want to commit myself to a particular political position when membership in a particular party is so often thought to be an essential requirement of Christian commitment.

Positively, we are called to engage our culture as servant-witnesses not as cultural warriors. There are no Christian nations, but all of the nations are to have thriving, bold embassies of heaven, pilgrim outposts of the risen Lord. Acts is the inspired record of the kingdom of God moving from being identified with a typological religious nation to an embassy of Christ. The idea of Christian civilization does not appear in the New Testament. The kingdom of God is God's redemptive rule in the lives of his people, the church. There is no other institution on earth identified with this rule. His kingdom is a new creation originating in the heavenly head of the church, who is the first born of that new creation. The full realization of the kingdom is not completed until all citizens have been gathered by the risen King and the land of the new heavens and new earth is inherited in the resurrection. Until then we are pilgrim-witnesses with a wonderful message of reconciliation from our King (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

As officers in the visible church, it is as important for us to teach our members what the church is for as what it is not for. The work of maintaining a faithful embassy of Christ in a foreign and sometimes hostile place is no easy task, but since it has eternal consequences we had better be clear about our mission or our labor will be in vain.


[1] J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 402-403.

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