The Primary Mission of the Church: Engaging or Transforming the World? by Bryan D. Estelle. Ross-shire, UK: Mentor, 2022, 448 pages, $19.99, paper.

Letter to the American Church, by Eric Metaxas. Washington, DC: Salem, 2022, xiv +176 pages, $22.99.

The cry of the hour in some quarters of the institutional church—by liberals, typically—is “relevance!” The challenge levelled at the church by such liberals is that the message and service of the church must properly serve a culture that insists on wage equity, gender sensitivity, “wokeness,” and the like. In other quarters—as witnessed in Eric Metaxas’s book—the call for the church is to “speak up” about matters that are of concern to many on the other end of the political spectrum. So whether the church is being told that it must be relevant to progressive culture or that it must not be silent politically in the face of liberalism, the calling, task, and mission of the church appears by such imperatives to have as much to do with cultural currents as it has to do with anything that Jesus Christ has commanded his church to do. Not, however, for Bryan Estelle, Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California. Dr. Estelle is clear that the primary mission of the church is not to testify directly to political, social, economic, or cultural verities as some perceive them but for it to be faithful to the call and commission of the Lord to evangelize and disciple the nations (Matthew 28:18–20).

Estelle’s subtitle also suggests his view of the church’s primary mission, though put in a question form: is the church to engage or transform the world? It becomes quickly evident that Estelle thinks the answer to the question is different than the one H. Richard Niebuhr furnished, who thought that the Reformed understanding of “Christ and Culture” was to see “Christ as the Transformer of Culture.” Dr. Estelle does not see the church as the transformer of culture; rather, he sees the church as an institution given a specific task from Christ, in which she is to “engage” the world and to call her to faith alone in Christ alone. Estelle in this book treats that conviction in four sections: beginning with a biblical survey, exploring various competing approaches to the question of the primary calling of the church (theologically, confessionally, and historically), and ending with a treatment of church power and a treatment of the relationship of church and state. This tract for our times provides an apt remedy for the pervasive politicization that afflicts us even in the church.

Estelle begins his treatment in Genesis, finding the foundations laid there “for the biblical teaching on the primary mission of the church” (72). He sees it as rooted in covenant, both in the covenant of redemption and historical covenants, namely, the redemptive covenant of grace and the non-redemptive Noahic covenant. This forms the basis for a two-fold citizenship for God’s people, a sacred and secular citizenship, along the lines of Calvin’s two kingdom view, according to Estelle. The question then becomes one of how the Christian and the church should comport themselves in the world in this present age. Estelle makes it clear here that he is not suggesting that it is possible for a Christian to “keep his faith out of certain spheres of life” (72); rather, the question is how the Christian and the church ought to engage what Estelle calls the “secular sphere.”

Estelle suggests Old Testament answers to “secular” engagement in chapters 2 and 3 of the book, in which he treats in turn both Joseph and Daniel. These two are case studies for strangers in a strange land, as Joseph was forcibly taken to Egypt and Daniel to Babylon, with each in turn coming to have exemplary lives, albeit with both in captivity. Estelle sees Israel’s life in its own land as emblematic of saints in the new heavens and earth, while the saints in exile, as were Joseph and Daniel, typified life in the New Covenant era, in which the church labors under a pilgrim identity, as did Israel in its wilderness wanderings; the church reaches its eschatological fullness in the coming age, as anticipated by Israel entering and living in the promised land.  

In chapter 5, Estelle examines the New Testament witness to the primary mission of the church, looking at classic passages in the gospels and the epistles that testify to the spiritual character of the church’s divine task, particularly as that task is conceived over against the task of other institutions of God, like the state or the family. Estelle concludes that the New Testament clearly teaches that “Christ is ruler of the Universe; however, how He rules in creation and civil society as moral governor of the world is different from how He rules His church as mediator of the covenant of grace” (145). Here Estelle self-consciously relies on his colleague David VanDrunen in affirming that “the church is ‘the only institution and community in this world that can be identified with the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace’” (145).

In Part 2 of his book, Estelle looks at various approaches to the question of Christ and culture and definitions of the primary mission of the church that he takes to differ from the approach that he is setting forth, which is that the institutional church has a more precise, and narrow, call than many may conceive it to have. He begins in Chapter 6 by looking at Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and North American Calvinism and is critical of their propensity to modify secular matters, even one’s job, with the qualifier “Christian” (as in “Christian architecture” or “Christian cooking”). While he is critical of such approaches, he is even more critical in what follows, as he engages a Marxist approach in his examination of Liberation Theology (Chapter 7) and, on the other end of the spectrum, Reconstructionist and Theonomic viewpoints (Chapter 8).

Finally, he finishes Part 2 with looking at what he calls “missional creep,” as seen in the ways that Leslie Newbigin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Social Justice Movement more broadly have sought to redefine the church so that it ends up not primarily shaped by and responsive to the command to preach the gospel narrowly focused (the person and work of Christ and the call for faith and repentance) but broadly conceived as securing social justice in this world especially for the poor and oppressed. The church should indeed preach that our goal as Christians should be not only to work to provide for us and ours but also to help those who have need (Eph. 4:28). The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the judgment of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25) make clear that the needy, especially needy Christians, merit our aid as we are able to render it.

Certainly, our business ethics must have the glory of God and the welfare of our neighbor at heart and never simply focus on the “bottom line” of the world, the mere accumulation of wealth. We address for the Christian life much of what concerned Newbigin, King, and others, but not in explicit political ways: we do not preach that justice means that the church (or even individual Christians) must support a certain minimum wage, tax bill, or the like. The pulpit can properly call neither for conservative nor liberal political measures to be adopted by the civil magistrate, though we always preach the obligation of all men to love God and neighbor in practical ways.

In Part 3 of his book, Estelle examines the primary mission of the church as it relates to the Kingdom of God (KOG), as it is developed confessionally, and the outplaying of the church’s mission historically. With respect to the relationship of the church to the KOG, Estelle acknowledges that while most have seen the kingdom as more extensive than the church, “nevertheless, the church is the sole institution on earth for carrying out the goals of the KOG” (283). He examines Calvin, Vos, and current writers on this question, critiquing social gospelers and others who fail to see that because the KOG realizes its fulfillment eschatologically, the true mission of the church is to prepare its members for that future realization.

In the confessional and historical chapters, Estelle deals with the teachings of Westminster, both in its original and disestablishment (American) forms, highlighting the church’s mission and spiritual character. In both forms the Westminster Confession of Faith notes that the church is not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth” (WCF 31.4, amended; 31.5, unamended). The doctrine of that spiritual character is often termed “the spirituality of the church,” which Estelle shows in all its sides, good and bad (the latter being used in the defense of chattel slavery in America). He thus looks at the relevant nineteenth century Presbyterian Church (in the USA) Old School theologians (Thornwell, Robinson, Hodge, Peck, et al.) as they dealt with the question of the spirituality of the church.

Finally, in Part 4, Estelle looks at what is fundamental to all of this—the nature of church power. Over against the Roman Catholic claim that church power is magisterial and legislative, Presbyterians believe it to be ministerial and declarative. The power of the church is exercised in lowliness, in servant form (ministerial: seen in the servanthood of our Lord, the foot-washer). Presbyterians also view church power as moral and suasive, contrasted with civil power, which is legal and coercive. Church power is never coercive, with officers lording it over the flock; rather, it is declarative of the Word of God.

All this is to say that the nature, and limits, of the power of the church define it as the institution that it is, a spiritual one, seen in its exercise of the keys, over against a civil institution (the state), whose power is that of the sword, or a biological institution (the family), whose power is symbolized by the rod. Estelle explores all of this by looking at the nature of Christ’s kingship as that which is exercised particularly in and over the church and how that has played out from matters diverse as the nineteenth century debate about church boards in the PCUSA and the twentieth century dispute about women in combat in the OPC. All in all, Estelle addresses the need for the church to mind its own (spiritual) business, chronicling when he thinks it was and was not successful in pursuing its true mission.

As noted, this is an apt book for the times. Rather than simply decrying these dark days with the “O tempora! O mores!” of a Cicero contra Catiline, Estelle calls upon the church to recapture her mission, to mind its spiritual business, and to give herself unstintingly to that for which her Lord has called her. The differences that I would have with this fine book would be those that I have already expressed elsewhere relating to contemporary two-kingdom approaches. I think that such approaches tend to draw the distinctions well between the institutional church and other institutions (like the state) but come up short in showing us how faith is integrated with life (accounting for diversity but not unity; both must be accounted for).

Also, while I think that Joseph and Daniel do furnish us with many good patterns to follow in an often hostile culture, surely the church that now operates, considering the finished work of Christ and the globalization of the gospel message, must impact the world in a way that ethnic Israel before entering and then in her land never could. Another way of putting it—while wilderness wanderings may be evocative, and certainly descriptive of our Christian experience now in a measure, they do not exhaust our present reality of taking all captive to the obedience of Christ. It seems that a fair reading of Western history shows that the gospel has transformed many lives that have impacted the world about it. Again, though, these are minor criticisms of a very good book.

I think, while the contemporary two-kingdom model offers much that is helpful, it is not the best strategy in encouraging others to recapture a right view of the church’s mission. I am elsewhere currently arguing for something like what Dr. Estelle calls for—a revival of a balanced spirituality of the church doctrine—that I call “mere spirituality” (with apologies to C.S. Lewis). This “mere spirituality” approach calls for all the Reformed, whether two-kingdom advocates, transformational partisans of the right or left, establishmentarians, etc. to recognize what the calling of the institutional church truly is, however they may differ as to questions of Christ and culture, public or political theology, and the like. I want all parties at the Reformed table, even if they disagree with each other politically and on the relationship of faith and the world, to agree that the church is the church, along the lines that Estelle and I seek to define it, in terms of its primary mission and true spirituality.

The book by Metaxas stands in sharp contrast to Estelle’s. While there is much in Metaxas with which many confessional Christians would agree—he calls for pulpit opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, for instance—there is much else that he calls for respecting the “need” of the institutional church to be explicitly political that is, at best, uncertain, on a charitable reading. For instance, take Metaxas’s curious call that we must not only fight “for justice,” which could mean many things, but that the church must also attempt to see “that our government enacts the will of the people” (77). The best reading of that is problematic for the institutional church—how does the church know “the will of the people” and, in any case, if such could be ascertained, why would it be the church’s business to seek to have the government enact it? What is really going on here? Throughout the book one has the sense that something that is not being made explicit lies beneath the surface and is Metaxas’s “real reason” for writing this volume.

How would seeing to it “that our government enacts the will of the people” work in a monarchy or an oligarchy, which are biblically legitimate forms of civil governments, and, in any case, under which God’s people have lived or currently live? I guess Metaxas would reply that his letter is to the American church, and since we have a republic here, it is the church’s responsibility to see that the government of the republic enacts the will of the people, even though it is arguable that simply “enacting the will of the people” is how a republic is properly to work. Many would say that historically, electing the best persons and letting them vote accordingly is how a republic is to be governed; admittedly, a republic does not classically mesh with the democratic populism that has come, not only in the days of William Jennings Bryan but also more lately, to characterize the United States.

One suspects, given Metaxas’s known public commitments and actions regarding former President Trump, that enacting the will of the people may have something to do with the church speaking up in the case of a defective election result so that the “real decision” of the people may be followed. How the church is supposed to ascertain such and why it is the church’s calling even to attempt to do so and to proclaim the “real winner” of an election is never disclosed. It is hard to think that Trumpism does not lurk in the back of his insistence that the church needs to step up and stop dodging its political obligations. Not only did an overwhelming number of evangelicals vote for Trump in two elections, but also many evangelicals have spoken of Trump in near-messianic terms, with Pentecostal and charismatic leaders especially referring to him as “anointed” or using like religious metaphors. In some quarters, it is hard to imagine how the American evangelical church could be any more open and supportive of Trump than it has been.

Metaxas’s point of departure throughout his call for the American church not to be politically silent is his analogy of the present church in this country with the German state church of the 1930’s. Metaxas believes that the failure of the German church to confront National Socialism and Hitler parallels the modern church in its failure to confront abortion, same-sex marriage, and fluid genderism, as well as more directly political matters like COVID-governmental overreach, the thwarted will of the people (in elections and the like, presumably), etc. In fact, it seems to me that many evangelical churches have spoken out about matters garnering wide Christian agreement like same-sex marriage and also in the areas in which many of us who take an Old School Presbyterian view of the spirituality of the church would find transgressive on the part of the institutional church: one need only think here of the widespread open support/advocacy of Trump in the pulpits and narthexes of many confessional churches. To be sure, this sort of thing has characterized certain charismatic or Pentecostal churches even more than any Reformed ones, thankfully, but Metaxas writes as if what he laments the lack of afflicts the whole American church.

Much could be said here about the church in Germany in the 1930s and particularly about the hetero-orthodox theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who Metaxas takes as paradigmatic, interestingly so given Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the attempt to assassinate Hitler. Metaxas has elsewhere, in his biography on Bonhoeffer, wrongly constructed him as some sort of evangelical, which he decidedly was not, and wants to read our current history as replaying the history of Germany in the time leading up to and during the “thousand-year reign” of Hitler, which was mercifully cut short after twelve years. No historian worthy of the name ever thinks that history simply “repeats itself,” though patterns might recur. Even if one wishes to paint the present presidential administration (and perhaps the Democratic Congress along with it) as Hitlerian in some fashion, it is hardly the case that the evangelical church is silent today as was the Lutheran church in Germany. Many evangelical Christians and churches make their views known: 81% voted for Trump in 2016 (and more in 2020), many regularly, in fact, speak out against matters to which they object in the public square.

Strangely, though Metaxas addresses abortion often, he fails to note that Dobbs recently overturned Roe, returning the question of abortion legislation to the states. Was this an expression of the “will of the people” or not? That is hard to gauge, as many people, certainly those on the left, are stirred up to defend abortion more vigorously than ever. Frankly, the church should not care what public opinion is on matters like murder or same-sex marriage but proclaim “thus saith the Lord” with possible political consequences secondary to the moral truths of the Scriptures. The church should never be silent about preaching “the whole counsel of God.” At the same time, it should be silent about directly political matters like “who really won the 2020 election,” best COVID protocols, term limits, etc. Christians of the same confession may differ about a variety of political matters, while all would agree that same-sex marriage violates God’s pattern for marriage.

Metaxas is not wrong that the church should speak prophetically to the nation. We ought to proclaim to all about us not only the gospel but also the law in all three of its uses. The second use of the law furnishes civil society with a legal pattern. Thus, the church can call upon the magistrate to rule righteously, even in accordance with natural law, if he refuses to hear biblical law, since the latter is fundamental to the former. The church has a proper place in calling all men everywhere to repent and believe. The church as church, however, is to distinguish itself from the world; at the same time, it is to give itself to the world. Only in this way can the “mere spirituality” that ought to characterize the church, regardless of where it is in the world, shine forth and draw all men to Christ, the only light and hope of the world. Estelle is right about the primary mission of the church, and Metaxas is wrong in promoting the further politicization of the church. The last thing that we need more of in a society and culture in which pervasive politicization threatens to swamp us and sink us beneath its secularistic waves is more of the same. Instead, we need the church to carry out its primary mission of proclaiming the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the good news that the world truly needs.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of First Orthodox Presbyterian Church of South Holland, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, January, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: January 2023

Historical Adam

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