Last week I wrote a piece on transformationalism, drawing from the Scottish theologian James Bannerman (1807 -1868). The basic gist was that the mission of the church is one of gospel proclamation.
The church is no substitute for Christ, or the Spirit, or for immediate union with Christ. Rather, our role as the church-in relation to the world-is to bear witness to the saving power of Christ, to exercise the appointed means whereby the Spirit redeems and sanctifies, and to join in one body for mutual fellowship and support those who have been joined to Christ.
The blog post generated a fair amount of conversation, including a rejoinder from Bill Evans (an ARP minister and professor at Erskine College). I’m grateful for the irenic nature and thoughtfulness of Evans’ post. His concern is that Bannerman’s ecclesiology leaves no room for a wholistic ministry like we see in the gospels where Christ gives us a model and a mandate for caring for the poor. To that end, Evans ends his piece with a direct question for me: “How do you reconcile this particular understanding of the ‘spirituality of the church’ with the Church’s historic and proper commitment to diaconal ministry?”
Good question. I’m not usually able to participate in internet volleys (and may not be able to do much more with this exchange in the days ahead), but since I have benefited from Evans’ writings in the past and since he has offered a fair-minded critique, I thought it worthwhile to venture a response. Let me attempt an answer by making three observations.
1. It’s worth noting that I never used the phrase “spirituality of the church,” nor did I quote Bannerman as using it. This may sound like a pedantic point, but it’s not insignificant. I don’t object to the phrase, if used judiciously, but for some people “spirituality of the church” entails a certain view of slavery and the Old South or complete unwillingness to ever address current events. In my understanding, the spirituality of the church is meant to safeguard the sufficiency of Scripture. We the church, we do not know everything about everything. On a number of issues, the church should be silent, not because individual Christians may not have important convictions or something to add to the discussion, but because we have no right to speak authoritatively where the Scripture has not spoken. In recent years, we’ve had debates at our General Synod (RCA) on the Dream Act, the farm bill, an embargo to Cuba, minimum wage legislation, and what the proper magazine capacity is for firearms in the United States. The church is neither equipped to weigh in on such specific political matters, nor does it have the authority to do so. I didn’t think I was talking about any of this in my previous post, but if this what one means by the spirituality of the church, I’m happy to affirm it.
2. I am wholeheartedly in favor of a strong diaconal ministry. We have an excellent diaconate at University Reformed Church. They work hard behind the scenes to care for the hurting and walk with church members through financial difficulties and a variety of other concerns. It is very much spiritual work. The New Testament is absolutely clear about the necessity of the church to care for the poor.
The question, however, is whether the church has an obligation to care for the poor outside of the church. Evans cites John Calvin as a positive example of one who did not relegate social welfare to the state but embraced it as the responsibility of the church. The implication is that a Reformed understanding of a very broad diaconal ministry cannot be squared with the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. But this fails to consider the differences between Calvin’s Geneva and ministry in our cities. The entire city of Geneva was Calvin’s parish (or more precisely, that of the Company of Pastors). The citizens of Geneva were de facto citizens of the church, which is why they could be disciplined for failing to attend services, or for Catholic behavior, or for a variety of immoralities. The diaconal ministry in Geneva did not extend physical relief to any who were not also under the spiritual authority of the church. When Evans quotes from Calvin’s sermon on Acts 6:1-3 to the effect that “it was given to the deacons to offer the cup when the people came to the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ” he makes the very point I’m trying to make. Yes, the deacons’ care for the poor was deeply spiritual work, but it was directed toward members of the church (i.e., those who partake of the Supper).
Of course, none of this means there is some prohibition against caring for the unbelieving poor (see Gal. 6:10). What it does suggest is that the church’s obligation is not to feed the entire world or be the social welfare agency for the city but to care for the poor in her own body.
3. Although Bannerman insists that the state and the church are distinct institutions designed for different purposes, he still allows that at times they will overlap in their responsibilities. The church may be “limited, in its primary object, to promoting the spiritual interests of the Christian community,” but that doesn’t mean there are not “secondary objects” related to the “temporal and social wellbeing of society” (The Church of Christ, 98-99). Our church, for example, supports the city rescue mission, a crisis pregnancy center, and a local arts ministry. We run a large ESL program, and we’ve worked in the past to tutor in the public school and help single moms get on their feet. In all these ministries, we hope to make gospel proclamation a priority–either by praying for open doors to talk about Jesus or to adorn the gospel with good works. Being involved in the community and engaged with non-Christians is not the special province of transformationalists. I don’t believe that our diaconate has the responsibility to provide for the needs of the poor in East Lansing, but as we have opportunity we will do good, especially as it enables us to fulfill our primary purpose of gathering and perfecting Christ’s sheep.