Avital question before the United Presbyterian Church is whether or not the church, as a corporate body, should involve herself in economic, social, and political affairs. Many of its leaders, by precept and example, have already given an affirmative answer to this question, and much of their activity is concerned with civil affairs. The church has become involved through pronouncements, through appeals to political pressures, and through lobbies in Washington. Other denominations could be cited as examples, but this article discusses only the situation within the United Presbyterian Church. So far as Presbyterians are concerned, the elders are responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church. The very term “ruling elder” indicates an active role in governing the church.
In the United Presbyterian Church, a manual entitled Consider Your Ministry has been produced to help in governing the church. The second chapter defines the mission of the Church; its thrust is that the Church should be planted “in the middle of life with its everyday decisions.” No one would seriously deny that the individual Christian must relate his Christian convictions to the society of which he is a part in the economic, social, and political life about him. He must live out his Christianity in every phase of life, showing that he is salt and light in an unbelieving world. Nor is the right of the pulpit to speak out according to moral, ethical, and Christian principles in question. But Chapter II declares these things are also the responsibility of the corporate congregation. If the thesis of this chapter is true, then a session should involve the congregation “in the jobs men do to earn a living, in the power structures of the social order, in the decisions of politics, in the relationships of persons with one another as neighbors and members of various groups and clubs” (pp. 18, 19).
A paragraph on page 21 indicates the type of guidance a session should provide for the congregation:
But there are also things that the congregation as a corporate body can do; there are ways for the congregation itself to accept its being sent out into the world. A congregation may provide forums for the exploring of crucial issues, or it may conduct a survey of housing or job opportunities for minority groups, or it may establish an agency to meet the recreational needs of youth. It may deal forthrightly with some corruption of justice or even press for the passage or repeal of some law.
According to this, the session has the responsibility as a session to set up forums for every social, economic, and political issue of the day; to survey the community for housing and job opportunities for minority groups. But it is to do much more since the 1963 General Assembly passed this recommendation:
The 175th General Assembly … alerts the church to other pressing metropolitan problems including methods of metropolitan government, mass transportation, equitable representation in state legislatures, suburban residential segregation, and chronic poverty of segments of our population [Minutes of General Assembly, Part I, p. 326].
This means that sessions must lead their congregations in a study of methods of metropolitan government and inform all cities of the nation what is the best type of metropolitan government. They must study mass transportation and inform, among others, the leaders of the city in which they live how to overcome traffic problems and how best to transport the working population to and from work. They must inform their state capitals as to what is an equitable representation in state legislatures. And they must come up with the solution to such poverty as may exist in certain segments of our population.
Since the congregation speaks as a Christian congregation, the assumption must be made that it knows the mind of Christ concerning metropolitan government, mass transportation, equitable representation, and so on. It must be able to declare to the various governing bodies: “Thus saith the Lord.”
But to continue, sessions must be ready to send out members of the congregation to various cities, here and abroad, so that they can adequately study methods of metropolitan government. The problem of mass transportation has already cost millions of dollars, and still it remains unsolved. Must the church spend more millions, or does church affiliation equip individuals with greater knowledge and competence? Must the congregation engage political experts to help determine equitable representation in federal, state, and local government? And who can estimate the cost of eliminating chronic poverty? These are but a small fraction of the economic, social, and political problems about which the General Assembly, through its Committee of Church and Society, has already issued statements and made pronouncements.
But is this the mission of the Church? Does such a program square with the teachings of Christ, with the Scriptures, with the history and traditions of the Church, with the constitution of the United Presbyterian Church, and with reason and logic?
Caesar’s Kingdom And God’s
Even a superficial reading of Christ’s words reveals that he did not interfere with civil affairs. This disappointed the Pharisees, who were looking for a political messiah. And in order to entangle Jesus in the political and economic situation of their day, they asked him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gave a classic answer that is timeless for the Church: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Christ definitely distinguishes between Caesar’s kingdom and God’s. There is a clear distinction between temporal kingdoms and the kingdom of heaven. The jurisdiction of the state and that of the Church differ. Jesus never concerned himself about Caesar’s affairs. Job opportunities, methods of metropolitan government, mass transportation, equitable representation in legislatures are plainly problems for Caesar and not for the Church. And let us not forget that the economic, social, and political problems of Christ’s day were just as serious as they are today, if not more so.
That Jesus refused to involve himself or the Church in economic situations even when they involved justice is borne out by Luke 12:13, 14. One of his followers said, “Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.” The brother was evidently cheating this follower of Christ out of his rightful inheritance. Here Christ had the opportunity to exercise justice and see that there was an equal distribution of wealth. But Christ refused to enter into a sphere that fell outside his divine calling. There are some church committees that feel that one of the functions of the Church is to bring about an equal distribution of wealth which they call justice. Yet Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). What right has any court of the Church to cast the Saviour into a political role by involving his Church in civil affairs?
Most church pronouncements have to do with the material welfare of men. Now suppose someone would come and say to the Church: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, nor what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on” (Matt. 6:25). One can readily imagine that a committee on social action would vehemently attack him. Yet these were the words of Christ to the Church in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Lordship Of Christ
The modern-day Church justifies her invasion of economic, social, and political spheres on the ground of the Lordship of Christ. Is not Christ the Lord of all life? Then modern theologians, like the Roman Catholic theologians, proceed from the Lordship of Christ to the lordship of the Church over all facets of life. Christ forbids the Church to enter into the sphere of Caesar. If the Church really takes the Lordship of Christ seriously, then she must listen to him as he defines the separate jurisdictions of state and church, as he declares that his kingdom is not of this world, as he maintains that he is not a divider of wealth, as he limits the Church to spiritual weapons. If the Church is not hypocritical in declaring the Lordship of Christ, she must follow both his example and his teachings.
In the Scriptures we find that the apostles followed the same principles as their Lord. They were interested in establishing a spiritual kingdom and refused to become involved in secular affairs. The Apostle Paul declared: “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:7). The sixth chapter of the Book of Acts describes an incident that arose about the distribution of charity. The apostles said to the Church: “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables” (v. 3). So they asked for the appointment of seven laymen to handle this business and stated: “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (v. 4). Now if the apostles felt that prayer and preaching were of such supreme importance that they could spare no time for the distribution of charity, what would they say to denominational leaders of our time who seek to solve the problem of metropolitan government and mass transportation? The apostles knew that prayer and preaching the Gospel would bring a thousandfold greater benefit to mankind than even feeding and clothing the poor.
Calvin in commenting on this incident calls attention to the preoccupation of the Roman Catholic Church with secular business. He said: “They entangled themselves in divers businesses, which they were scarce able to overcome, though every one of them had had ten heads.” If denominational leaders are going to solve all the secular problems they have taken upon themselves in this complex society, it would appear that they should be multiheaded.
The whole emphasis of the Book of Acts and of the Epistles is upon the preaching of salvation, the sanctification of believers, and the application of the Gospel in daily life according to the law of love. The apostles did not seek to reform society by external and political means; they used only the persuasive power of the Gospel. It was their conviction that the Gospel, and not legislative acts, would transform society. They did not discuss or become involved in economic, social, and political affairs, even though the society of their day was in a sadder state than ours.
Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the early Church knew that it was very important for the Church to adhere strictly to the Gospel, realizing that, should she become involved in non-ecclesiastical, controversial issues, those who opposed the position she took would question her competence to speak on ecclesiastical subjects.
During the Middle Ages the Church left the Gospel and entered into economic, social, and political spheres. By means of canon law the Church forbade the use of interest, fixed the amount of wages, and attempted to control the price of goods. The result was a period of poverty and stagnation. Society became corrupt because the Church neglected her spiritual weapons. Surely the example of the Middle Ages is sufficient to warn us against the folly of the Church’s interfering in fields outside her God-given jurisdiction.
The Reformation brought the Church back to the preaching of the Gospel. Both Luther and Calvin confined the Church to spiritual functions. One of the first things Calvin did in organizing the new Protestant church in Geneva was to set up two groups: one he called the “Consistory”—this was composed of five ministers and twelve lay elders; the other he called the “Company of Pastors”—this was composed solely of ministers. Concerning the Consistory the constitution stated, “All this is to be done in such a way that the ministers have no civil jurisdiction and wield only the spiritual sword of the Word of God, as St. Paul commands them.” The Consistory (which was the forerunner of what we know as the session) could reprove according to the Word of God. The severest punishment it could mete out was excommunication. It was denied any civil jurisdiction.
The ecclesiastical body, known as the “Company of Pastors,” had in its constitution that the pastor’s duty was “to preach the Word of God, to instruct, to admonish, to exhort and reprove in public and in private, to administer the sacraments, and, with the Consistory, to pronounce the ecclesiastical censures.”
It is commonly thought that Calvin and the ministers of Geneva dominated the civil affairs of that city. That is contrary to the facts, as original records recently discovered and translated prove. Calvin himself wrote: “I know well that the impious everywhere cry out that I aspire with an insatiable passion to political influence, and yet I keep myself so strongly separated from all public affairs, that each day I hear people discoursing upon subjects of which I have not the least knowledge. The government has recourse to my counsels only in grave affairs, when it is irresolute or incapable of deciding by itself” (letter to Zurich in 1555).
According to an eminent Swiss historian, Anedee Roget: “We do not know that the Council ever consulted the Church for any subject in the offing, nor the assembly of ministers, nor the Consistory, a mixed body.” Common sense tells us that the Reformation would never have proceeded from Geneva if the church had occupied herself with the civil affairs of Geneva. It was because the Geneva church concentrated on the Gospel that she came to have such an international influence.
John Knox and the Westminster Divines carried out the same policy and practice. Their belief found expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which forms part of the United Presbyterian constitution. Chapter XXXI, Section IV, reads:
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, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
Many of the doctrines of the Westminster Confession were debated for weeks and months, but there was 100 per cent agreement on this section, which passed without debate. The Westminster Divines knew the damage the Roman Catholic Church brought upon Christianity by presuming to “intermeddle with civil affairs” and sought to safeguard the Presbyterian Church from such a proved folly.
Every time the Presbyterian Church as a corporate body becomes involved in economic, social, and political affairs, she transgresses both the word and the spirit of the constitution that elders and ministers sacredly vow to uphold.
Advice From John Witherspoon
When the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. was formed in Philadelphia in 1789, it adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith with its proviso that there would be no “intermeddl[ing] with civil affairs.” One of the leading spirits in the formation of that church was Dr. John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. He separated his duties as a citizen from those of a minister. In a sermon he stated:
The other direction I would offer upon this subject is, that ministers take care to avoid officiously intermeddling in civil matters. A minister should be separated and set apart for his own work; he should be consecrated to his office.… But it is still more sinful and dangerous, for them to desire or claim direction of such matters as fall within the province of the civil magistrate. When our blessed Saviour says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he plainly intimates to his disciples that they have no title to intermeddle with state affairs.
From 1789 to 1912 the Presbyterian Church kept out of the civil sphere, except for the slavery question. During this time it had its greatest influence and strength. During the nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville made these discerning comments in comparing the effect of religion in America with that in Europe: “There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.… They [clergy] keep aloof from parties and from public affairs” (Democracy in America, I, 314, 315). In other words, it was not by interfering in civil affairs and not by political pressures that the Presbyterian Church became such a powerful influence for moral good but by keeping strictly to her spiritual sphere and by employing the persuasive power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
From the year 1912 we find the beginning of an encroachment into civil affairs by the Presbyterian Church, chiefly through the influence of a united effort on the part of major denominations and centering in the Federal Council of Churches. It is obvious from history that in proportion to her engrossment with economic, social, and political matters, the spiritual and moral influence of the Church waned. The moral corruption and spiritual poverty of our day certainly stem in great measure from the neglect of the Church to carry out her spiritual mission. The social gospel has proved to be ineffective in lifting up the moral standards of our nation.
If the church as a corporate body should follow through with the economic, social, and political programs presented by the United Presbyterian General Assembly’s Committee of Church and Society, she would find herself in opposition to the teachings of Christ and the apostles; she would ignore the lessons of history; she would despise the finest traditions of the Presbyterian Church and violate the constitution its elders and ministers have vowed to uphold.
Surely it is against all reason and logic that the congregation or the Church as a whole should enter into a program that can only prove divisive and weaken the spiritual witness of the Church. The program advocated is divisive. The Church has been known as an institution that proclaims the infallible truth of God, but when she issues pronouncements in fields outside her sphere, this can only bring shame, confusion, and disillusionment.
The great need of today is for the Church to be the Church and to manifest the spiritual power with which God has endowed her. Our people have a spiritual hunger; they desire the Bread of Life, not secular pronouncements. And if the Church proclaims the Bread of Life, she will, as has been proved in the past, so transform society that many of the prevalent social ills will disappear. She will infuse such virtues into society as to elevate all phases of human life. The mission of the Church is to redeem souls by the Gospel of salvation, and only as she redeems individuals will society be redeemed.
J. Howard Pew is a distinguished Christian layman and is active in many evangelical causes. He is the president of the Board of Trustees of the United Presbyterian Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors ofChristianity Today.He also serves as an elder in the Ardmore Presbyterian Church, Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
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