Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Much Maligned Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church

Overture 19 and the Spirituality of the Church

(What is below was written at the request of the Editor and published by the PCANews in 2003 with regard to an overture before the PCA General Assembly asking that the church court to endorse the "Marriage Amendment" to the Constitution. It seems yet relevant today and for that reason is published here.)

Charles Hodge
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church met in Philadelphia in 1861 and sealed its division with the passage of the infamous Gardiner Spring Resolutions. Spring’s second resolution declared that:

This General Assembly…do hereby acknowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage, the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions under our noble Constitution: and to this Constitution in all its provisions, requirements, and principles, we profess unabated loyalty…(as cited in E.T Thompson, Presbyterians in the South).

James Henley Thornwell
With the adoption of that resolution the General Assembly decided that the lawful government of all the people and all the states of what had been the United States was the government in Washington, D.C. and that both all Christians, and the Church herself, were obligated to support this government. Fifty-seven commissioners, led by Dr. Charles Hodge, protested this action as outside the Church’s competency and authority. But the direction was set, and the church divided in two, a breach that would not be healed until 1983, when the two major branches of Presbyterianism, both of which had walked far down the road of theological liberalism, found their way back to each other in reunion.

Now some Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America are turning out overtures to General Assembly that, though not so momentous and radical as the Gardiner Spring Resolutions, partake of the same spirit of asking the Church to make pronouncements on political questions of our time. Last year the Assembly narrowly adopted a study committee’s paper that declared that it is a violation of Biblical teaching for women to serve in military roles that might expose them to combat.

This year Philadelphia Presbytery comes to the Assembly, asking that General Assembly endorse a particular proposed amendment to the United States Constitution, the Marriage Amendment, which declares that:

Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and woman. Neither this Constitution or  (sic) the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.

What I propose to do is not to enter into a discussion of whether the proposed amendment is a good amendment to the Constitution. I will happily discuss that, as well as listen to the opinions of legislators, attorneys, constitutional scholars, and ordinary fellow citizens, in a forum in which I participate as a citizen, not as a minister of the gospel. Moreover, I do not intend to discuss whether marriage is intended to be a relationship between a man and a woman only. I will assume that all who read this take that as perfectly clear in the Bible.

What I will address is the propriety of the General Assembly’s endorsing a particular amendment to the Constitution. Here I argue that it is improper for a Church Court to do so and that the matter of endorsing, supporting, and voting for particular legislation is best left to the consciences of individual Christians, acting as citizens.

I cannot find the slightest evidence that the Lord Jesus, or His Apostles, or the Apostolic Church would have ever made pronouncements on such matters. The silence of the New Testament must surely be an embarrassment to those who ask the Assembly for pronouncements on the political and social issues of our day. That there were issues that Jesus and the Apostles could have engaged cannot be doubted. What is significant is that they did not do so. The one example we have of the meeting of a General Assembly in the New Testament (Acts 15) shows the Assembly taking up matters of missions policy, church unity, and Christian behavior and making a decision that was binding only on the churches. Moreover the New Testament’s teaching on the role of the citizen in relationship to the State (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17) presumes a pagan state, the Roman Empire, and counsels submission, not protest, except when obedience to the State requires the Christian to do what God forbids or not to do what God requires, narrowly construed (Acts 5:29). And what is the Church’s responsibility beyond teaching the Apostolic doctrine of citizenship? It is to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings…for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2: 1,2). It seems that we make prayers for the government to give us conditions in which we, as God’s people, may conduct our lives in ways that allow us to promote the gospel and please God.

We have not only the loud silence of our Lord and His Apostles on social and political subjects, but also His positive commissioning of His Church: “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” (Mathew 28: 19,20). For the accomplishment of this mission, He, who has all authority in heaven and on earth, has given to His Church the awesome power of the keys of the kingdom, by which the Church binds and looses (Matthew 16:19), forgives and withholds forgiveness of sins (John 20: 22,23). Our Lord could have, had He intended to do so, given the Church explicit or implicit instructions to speak out on the issues of the day. But He chose, rather, to focus the Church on her spiritual mission, a mission that no other institution or person on earth can pursue and accomplish, a mission of far greater significance and impact than expressing opinions on the political questions of the day.

Our Westminster Confession of Faith states:

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, it they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

The Confession’s statement creates a strong presumption against the Church’s making pronouncements to the government, and that in a time when the government was constitutionally Christian and Protestant. That is, the Confession teaches that the Church should be reticent to speak even though she is speaking to the Christian government of a Christian people. How much more careful should she be to declare her opinion in a pluralistic context more like ancient Rome than 17th century Britain?

Further, the Church blurs her identity, weakens her authority, and obscures her message and mission when she gives in to the Siren song of speaking out on political-social issues. The temptation is great. We think the world wants the Church to show its relevance by speaking out on the issues of the day. We think that we can speak “prophetic words” to our society. As a matter of fact the Church is most the Church, exercises the greatest authority, is most relevant, and speaks most clearly when she, with determination and confidence, goes about the ministry of Word and sacrament, refusing to be deterred or distracted by the affairs of the day.

The Church might well, in today’s context, state once again clearly for herself and her members the Biblical teaching on marriage as a monogamous heterosexual relationship. She might (and I say might) send to the government a statement to the effect that marriage is an institution God has ordained for all people, not just believers, and that marriage, which pertains to all, is of a monogamous and heterosexual nature. But I cannot imagine a situation in which it would be proper for the Church, acting as the divine institution to which has been committed “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God,” to endorse any particular piece of legislation.

If the Assembly speaks to endorse the Marriage Amendment, she will try to speak as a Church to her members and for her members to the society and the government. But there are good reasons that PCA members may decline to support the amendment. Some may believe that it is unwise in these times to tamper with the Constitution at all. They are against non-traditional marriage, but they are also against all amendments to the Constitution. Others may think that society’s best interests would be served by some regulation of non-monogamous, non-heterosexual relationships, which do exist de facto, even though they believe and wish that there were no such relationships. Others may be convinced on their theory of government that the regulation of marriage is not a matter for the Federal government at all, but only for the States, and thus would oppose Federal intrusion by way of a Constitutional amendment. One need not agree with any of these positions to agree that one can be a good Christian and member in good standing of the PCA and hold them. Yet the Assembly’s endorsement of the amendment intends to instruct them as citizens on the matter of support of the amendment and to speak for them to the government on the matter. In fact the only reason the Women in Combat Paper and the resolution to endorse this amendment, if passed, do not create crises for the unity of the Church is because of our theory of Assembly pronouncements, which holds them to be the statements of the opinions of particular Assemblies without Constitutional force.

Here are four grounds not to vote for overture 19: (1) It lacks Dominical or Apostolic precedent and contradicts the positive mission given by Christ to His Church. (2) It is discouraged by the Confession. (3) It tends to distract the Church from what she is called to do and what she alone can do. (4) It tends to create a crisis of conscience for loyal church members who do not agree.

I was a newly ordained young pup of a minister in 1973 when I attended the Synod of Florida. I sat through debates on the Synod’s endorsement of Caesar Chavez to organize farm workers in Florida and on a petition to the President to pardon Viet Nam draft dodgers who had gone to other countries. I thought the substance of the resolutions adopted by Synod wrong. More important, I thought the Synod had no business considering such things. Had the substance of resolutions been compatible with my political sympathies, I still would have voted against them. For me it was not that my conservative political instincts were being gored, but that the principle of the spirituality of the church was being gored.  What a relief it was in December of that year to sit in the General Assembly of what was to be the PCA, knowing that our founding leaders had declared the doctrine of the spirituality of the Church as one of the reasons for our existence. I’d like again to sit in Assemblies confident that the mainstream majority of the Presbyterian Church, prior to the precedent breaking adoption of the Gardner Spring Resolutions, was right when it insisted that the Church is a spiritual institution with neither the competence nor authority to make political pronouncements, but with something far more important to do.


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