Empowered Witness ForewordFebruary 6, 2024
In the summer of 2023, at the General Assembly in Memphis, Tennessee, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. As a part of the commemoration, commissioners were given a professionally produced replica of a document titled A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ throughout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The document dates from 1973 and was issued at the founding of the PCA (then called the National Presbyterian Church). The Message to All Churches was named and written as a conscious echo of a previous document. In 1861, James Henley Thornwell issued his Address to All Churches of Christ at the founding of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA). In fact, the PCA deliberately began as a denomination (in Birmingham, Alabama) on December 4, 1973, because the PCCSA had its beginning (in Augusta, Georgia) on December 4, 1861.
These origins continue to be a source of celebration for some and a source of embarrassment for others. The fact is that the PCA saw itself at its founding—and still sees itself today, in some respects—as a continuing church, as the faithful and orthodox branch of the Southern Presbyterian denomination. And make no mistake, the legacy of Southern Presbyterianism is complex. Take Thornwell, for example. Should he be remembered as a gifted educator, preacher, and writer, as the most influential theologian and churchman of his era? Or should he be remembered as a man who defended slavery and helped give birth to the Confederacy? Undoubtedly, he was all the above.
Because of Thornwell’s complicated personal history, Christians in recent decades have been largely dismissive of one of his most strongly held convictions. The first point in Thornwell’s inaugural address from 1861 was to explain and defend the spirituality of the church. For most hearers today—including Bible-believing Presbyterians and other conservative Christians—the spirituality of the church means one thing: a wrongheaded and shameful defense of slavery. And it’s true, Thornwell and other Presbyterians used the doctrine to support the “peculiar institution” in the South. But it would be a mistake to think the doctrine of the spirituality of the church began in antebellum America as a convenient way to avoid taking a hard look at slavery. The explicit doctrine goes back at least to the Second Book of Discipline (1578) in Scotland, and in seed form it goes back further than that. Even in America, Thornwell was far from the only one to defend the spirituality of the church. Charles Hodge, to cite one important example, believed in a version of the spirituality of the church, even as he took issue with how Thornwell applied the doctrine.
When the PCA began in 1973, it announced its continuing allegiance to the spirituality of the church. Here is how the Message to All Churches puts it:
We believe the Church in its visible aspect is still essentially a spiritual organism. As such, its authority, motivation and power come from Christ, the Head, who is seated at the right hand of God. He has given us His rulebook for the Church, namely, the Word of God written. We understand the task of the Church to be primarily declarative and ministerial, not legislative or magisterial. It is our duty to set forth what He has given us in His Word and not to devise our own message or legislate our own laws.1
This is a good summary of the spirituality of the church. The nature of church power is ministerial and declarative. This means all church power—whether exercised by the whole body, pronounced from the pulpit, or bound up in representative officers—must be in service to Christ (ministerial) and involves stating and enforcing the Word of God (declarative). The church does not have the competence, nor the authority, to make pronouncements on every matter that might matter to men and women. The aims of the church are first and foremost spiritual and eternal. Through most of Reformed history, the spirituality of the church has not entailed a silence on all political matters but rather a commitment to the uniqueness of the church’s mission and a principled conviction that the eternal concerns of the church should not be swallowed up by the temporal concerns of the state.
For all these reasons—and many others you will read about in the pages ahead—I am thankful for this book. Alan Strange has marshaled his considerable expertise in this area to write an accessible introduction to the spirituality of the church. Several years ago, I began urging Alan and Crossway to get together and make this book a reality. Now it is finally here; I pray the book finds a wide audience. With admirable skill, Alan shows how the spirituality of the church has been used (and abused) throughout history. But more than that, he also makes a compelling case for employing the doctrine in the church today. Don’t let the size of the volume fool you. Empowered Witness is a learned and important book. While the spirituality of the church will not answer every question pertaining to politics or cultural engagement, it is a historic and biblical doctrine, and we neglect it to our peril.
1 Message to All Churches, PCA Historical Center, December 7, 1973, https://www.pcahistory .org/.
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Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, North Carolina and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.
This content was originally published on Westminster Theological Seminary