The Spirituality of the Church vs. the Prophetic Mission of the Church in the American Reformed and Presbyterian Tradition

Examples of systemic racism abound. Beginning in Colonial America, laws were passed explicitly to benefit the newly created category “white” at the expense of the newly created “negro and mulatto,” and such laws were carried on into the new republic. The ensuing Antebellum system of race-based chattel slavery is an obvious example of systemic or institutionalized racism—I would hope this is immediately clear. But we could go on from there to provide hundreds of examples from the abandonment of post-emancipation Reconstruction, to share cropping and penal slavery, Jim Crow laws, “ghettoizing” in the North, race-steering, redlining by the Federal Housing Administration, the racialized application of the GI Bill, the “legal” theft of land from Black farmers, the post-Civil Rights criminalization campaign, the “Southern Strategy,” the “Law and Order” movement, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, employment and wage discrimination, the ongoing retrenchment of civil rights legal reforms, and on and on and on. To find these examples simply requires us to care enough to look.

So, how about the Church?

While many examples could be given (and I have elsewhere), in this post I would like to focus on the peculiarly American Reformed and Presbyterian doctrine that Dr. Alan D. Strange has called the “narrow spirituality of the church” (NSoC), leading to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has described as an “other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” This “narrow” doctrine is not the so-called “Spirituality of the Church” (SoC) found in the writing and practice of the original Reformed churches. It is a distinctly American interpretation, crafted to coincide not only with the American experiment of government itself, but more importantly with the deep moral conflicts which arose between the stated “Christian” beliefs and ethics of America’s founders and the irreligious and immoral policies that shaped American culture and government from its colonial beginnings.

I believe the Belgic Confession of Faith (1559), particularly Article 30, gets to the heart of the original conception of the SoC:

We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors chastened and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to Timothy.

That is, the Church is not the State, but accomplishes its Biblically prescribed goals through spiritual means and governs its members by the same, entreating all men everywhere to enter into this voluntary, spiritual, union by means of Word, Sacrament, and service. The State, on the other hand, is granted the sword, and as the diakonos (Rom. 13:4) of God rewards the good and punishes the evil by carnal means, for the well ordering of secular society and the protection of the Church and its ministries.

In contrast, the “narrow” American interpretation of spirituality serves effectively to muzzle the prophetic and declarative voice of the Church as it seeks to fulfill its role in the wider society, viz., declaring the will of God to both rulers and citizens, calling to repentance, rebuking, and exhorting according to the Law of the eternal King, though never usurping the State’s carnal means. Further, NSoC proponents, in their effort to stave off the specter of the so-called “social gospel,” increasingly narrowed the scope of the Church’s legitimate work in society to include only gospel preaching and sacrament administration, an anemic mission foreign even to their Reformation forebears. This Narrow Spirituality of the Church serves as a perfect example of systemic racism within the Church, leading to indifference to social disparities, hostility toward racial justice advocates, continued church segregation, and the ongoing racial maldistribution of power throughout Christian institutions.

NSoC and American Slavery

J. H. Thornwell

This “narrow spirituality” is most closely associated with the teaching of Presbyterian minister James Henley Thornwell, an ardent apologist for the Southern institution of slavery. Thornwell was deeply involved in the national debate over slavery and between Old and New School American Presbyterians. In 1851 he authored a report commissioned by the Synod of South Carolina, “The Church and Slavery,” unanimously adopted by the Synod. In it, Thornwell argued from his view of the Spirituality of the Church to conclude that the Church had no right to condemn slavery as sin. We read:

The relation of the Church to Slavery cannot be definitely settled without an adequate apprehension of the nature and office of the Church itself. What, then, is the Church? It is not, as we fear too many are disposed to regard it, a moral institute of universal good, whose business it is to wage war upon every form of human ill, whether social, civil, political or moral, and to patronize every expedient which a romantic benevolence may suggest as likely to contribute to human comfort, or to mitigate the inconveniences of life. We freely grant, and sincerely rejoice in the truth, that the healthful operations of the Church, in its own appropriate sphere, react upon all the interests of man, and contribute to the progress and prosperity of society; but we are far from admitting either that it is the purpose of God, that, under the present dispensation of religion, all ill shall be banished from this sublunary state, and earth be converted into a paradise; or, that the proper end of the Church is the direct promotion of universal good. It has no commission to construct society afresh, to adjust its elements in different proportions, to rearrange the distribution of its classes, or to change the forms of its political constitutions. […] The problems, which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the Church has no right directly to solve. She must leave them to the Providence of God, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and cherish. (pp. 382-383)

[…] Slavery may evidently be contemplated in various aspects—as a social arrangement, involving a distinction of classes, like Oriental caste, or European gradation of ranks; as a civil relation, involving rights and obligations corresponding to its own nature; as a political condition, bearing upon the prosperity, happiness and growth of communities. In any or in all of these aspects, it may be opposed upon considerations of policy and prudence—as the despotism of Asia, the aristocracy of Europe, or the free institutions of America are opposed—without the imputation of sin upon the nature of the relation itself. The members of the Church, as citizens and as men, have the same right to judge of the expediency or inexpediency of introducing and perpetuating in their own soil this institution, as any other element of their social economy. But they transcend their sphere, and bring reproach upon the Scriptures as a rule of faith, when they go beyond these political considerations, and condemn Slavery as essentially repugnant to the will of God. (p. 387)

Hyperbole and misrepresentation aside, this accurately represents the Southern view of the mission and commission of the Church, granting no right for the Church to condemn what they believed to be merely a civil, political, and social institution. Even Old School Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (who was no abolitionist) objected to this narrow doctrine when Thornwell sought to quell any discussion of slavery during the 1859 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Hodge objected as follows:

There is a great temptation to adopt theories which free us from painful responsibilities […]To adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to the kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like one who administers chloroform to a man to prevent his doing mischief. We pray God that this poison may be dashed away, before it has reduced the church to a state of inanition, and delivered her bound hand and foot into the power of the world. (p. 111)

C. Mather and G. Whitefield

To be sure, this “narrow spirituality” had developed around the institution of slavery very early in American history, presumably as a means to square worldly political and economic exploits with claims of Christian verity. New England Puritan Cotton Mather, writing a plea for the conversion of slaves in 1706, expressed the developing dichotomy between interest in the Gospel salvation of the “negro’s” soul and indifference toward his outward, civil, circumstances:

The greatest Kindness that can be done to any Man is to make a Christian of him. Your Negroes are immediately Raised unto an astonishing Felicity, when you have Christianized them. They are become amiable spectacles, & such as the Angels of God would gladly repair unto the Windows of Heaven to look upon. Tho’ they remain your Servants, yet they are become the Children of God. Tho’ they are to enjoy no Earthly Goods, but the small Allowance that your Justice and Bounty shall see proper for them, yet they are become Heirs of God, and Joint-Heirs with the Lord Jesus Christ. Tho’ they are your Vassals, and must with a profound subjection wait upon you, yet the Angels of God now take them under their Guardianship, and vouchsafe to tend upon them. Oh! what have you done for them ! Happy Masters, who are Instrumental to raise their Servants thus from the Dust, and make them objects for the Nobles of Heaven to take Notice of! But it will not be long before you and they come at length to be together in the Heavenly City.

[…] Christianity directs a Slave, upon his embracing the Law of the Redeemer, to satisfy himself, That he is the Lords Free-man, tho’ he continues a Slave. (“The Negro Christianized,” pp. 12-13, 16-17)

Throughout the piece, Mather assured his readers that the conversion entreated would have no effect on the “negroes” civil circumstances, nor his bondage. Owners should not worry about loss of property, for while possibly incompatible with the Law of God, the State had made no pronouncement on manumission for Christianized slaves.

We see the same just a few decades later in the writing of celebrated evangelist and Anglican Cleric, George Whitefield. While likewise an ardent advocate for the conversion of slaves, Whitefield nevertheless made clear that the question of slavery’s legality was not the province of the Church to answer, nor a matter of the Gospel, but a question for the civil magistrate.

Whether it be lawful for christians to buy slaves, and thereby encourage the nations from whence they are brought to be at perpetual war with each other, I shall not take upon me to determine[…]. (The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, M.A. [London, 1771], IV, 29)

But he would nevertheless successfully advocate for its legalization in the colony of Georgia. In his appeal to the Georgian trustees, he writes,

I am determined, that, not one of [my slaves] shall ever be allowed to work at the Orphan House till it can be done in a legal manner, and with the approbation of the Honourable Trustees. My chief aim in writing this is to inform you, that, I am as willing as ever to do all I can for Georgia and the Orphan House, if either a limited use of negroes is approved of, or some more indentured servants be sent from England. If not, I cannot promise to keep any large family, or cultivate the plantation in any considerable manner. (Luke Tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield [London: Hodder and Stoughton], II, 209)

His goal and commission, after all, was to save souls, not bodies:

Your present and past bad usage of them [‘negroes’], however ill-designed, may thus far do them good, as to break their wills, increase the sense of their natural misery, and consequently better dispose their minds to accept the redemption wrought out for them by the death and obedience of Jesus Christ. (The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, M.A. [London, 1771], IV, 32)

NSoC and Civil Rights

Although slavery itself would ultimately be abolished in the United States, the Narrow Spirituality of the Church would live on. After the failure of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow legislation, the same view of the mission of the Church was used to justify segregation, both through active support and quiet indifference; again, segregation was considered only a “civil” and “social” arrangement, outside the appropriate “sphere” of the Church’s voice of condemnation.

J. G. Machen

Presbyterian theologian, professor, and founder of both Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen, would also champion this “narrow” understanding. Though born nearly twenty years after Thornwell’s death, Machen championed Thornwell’s social and theological conservatism in the face of growing liberalism, modernism, and the counterfeit social gospel of, e.g., Walter Rauschenbusch’s theological progeny. As a Southern Presbyterian transplant to Princeton, Machen bristled at the brewing “civil rights” advocacy of some members and professors in the Northern church. “It is true some of them are ‘sticklers’ for the civil rights of negroes,” he wrote as a thirty-year-old professor at Princeton,

[…]it always makes me intensely angry to hear people talking glibly about equal civil rights of negroes when in many parts of the South those equal rights would mean that every legislator and every judge would be a savage of a type and the white men would be more unsafe in parts of this country than in the most parts of the world where at least the protection of his home government is to some extent with him. (“Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 5 October 1913.)

In language directly hearkening back to Thornwell’s “The Church and Slavery”—and with equal hyperbole and misrepresentation—Machen made his narrow understanding of the mission of the Church quite clear:

You cannot expect from a true Christian church an official pronouncement upon the political and social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ. (“The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age,” 1933)

Less than thirty years following Machen, this exact sentiment was used to justify the seeming paralysis of the White Church as African Americans took matters into their own hands, organizing and executing public demonstrations for the advancement of civil rights. In fact, it was ministers and laymen of this very sentiment of whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

[…] In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

And this is exactly what we see in Thornwell and Machen’s conservative NSoC heirs. Presbyterian literature of the time explicitly bore this out.

The Southern Presbyterian Journal

The Southern Presbyterian Journal, created largely in response to the formation of the “liberal” Federal Council of Churches, helped carry the banner of Mather, Whitefield, Thornwell, and Machen into the Civil Rights era.

L. Nelson Bell—father in law of Billy Graham and first editor of Christianity Today—wrote an article in the first edition of the Journal explaining why he and others had created it. The central issue was the perceived abandonment of the Scriptures (the “disease”) by the Federal Council and its ensuing foray into topics thought to be outside the scope and mission of the Church.

One of the symptoms of the underlying disease is misapprehension as to the mission of the Church. The Federal Council has caused confusion and resentment by constant meddling, in the name of the Church, in economic, political, social and racial matters, and in the affairs of State. (“Why?,” p. 3)

Bell would himself go on to write and publish many defenses of Southern segregation in the Journal. One article in particular serves as a perfect example of this “narrow spirituality” in practice. In the article, “Christ Our Peace in Race Relations” (1945), Rev. William C. Robinson wrote a critical response to the Federal Council’s “Recommendations For Action” on race relations. We read,

The Message to the Churches issued in January, 1945 by the Federal Council’s Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, however, contains Recommendations For Action on race relations with which I cannot wholly concur. After properly speaking against race prejudice this program continues thus:

“The churches should not only support all efforts to wipe out discriminations against minority groups, but they should also deliberately arrange co-operative programs in which racial barriers are broken down. We recommend active support by the churches of legislation:

Providing for a permanent Federal Fair Employment Practices Commission;

Providing for the repeal of poll tax and other discriminatory laws;

Providing for housing projects without discriminatory practices and other measures designed to advance the well-being and constitutional rights of Negroes and other underprivileged groups.”

We dissent from this program presented by the Federal Council of Churches in its pamphlet A Message To The Churches, page 15, for several reasons. First and foremost it is not rooted in Christ nor grounded in the Holy Spirit. There is nothing said here about redemption or regeneration.

[…] Some of us favor repealing the poll taxes by state action. Others favor the Federal Government forcing this step upon the states, and still others favor maintaining the poll tax. Shall the Church commit herself to the opinion of one portion of her children against the opinions of the other two portions?

If, in accord with the Federal Council’s Recommendation For Action, the churches “support all efforts to wipe out discriminations” whether these efforts be wise or foolish the amalgamation of the races may be expected to ensue. In human relations Calvinism recognizes only those distinctions which God has made, while Modernism seeks to erase all distinctions. […] God who has appointed the bounds of our several habitations has given the churches no commission to wipe out the color line. He has commissioned us to preach the Gospel of His love to all nations. (p. 7)

For Thornwell, Machen, Bell, and Robinson, the Church was not commissioned to speak to such matters; Christians could legitimately disagree on such things as race-based chattel slavery, segregation, and poll taxes. The Church was to focus on the Gospel, regeneration, and “love.” Again, all else “are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

M. H. Smith

Almost twenty years later, co-founder and first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Rev. Morton H. Smith, wrote a hearty defense of segregation in Machen’s journal, The Presbyterian Guardian, during the height of the Civil Rights movement. In it, he likewise emphasized the distinction between the private, individual imperative of non-discrimination over and against the “cultural pattern” to which the Church has no authority to speak.

No court or church can legislate our feelings toward our fellow man. Only as we receive the gift of love planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit will we be able to love our neighbor as we ought, whatever the cultural pattern. May God grant us each a growth in grace and love, so that we each may manifest this love to our fellowman, unto the glory of our God. (“The Racial Problem Facing America,” p. 128)

Further, in his book published by the PCA Steering Committee, How is the Gold Become Dim!, Smith lists multiple reasons for the abandonment of the PCUS and the formation of the PCA, including an objection to the former’s call for immediate implementation the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The [PCUS] report comes to the conclusion that the Church should lead in the matter of integration. It is debatable whether this conclusion can really be based in Scripture. As one looks at the stance of the Southern Presbyterians towards slavery issue a century before, one finds that the Church restrained from getting into social issues, and trying to decide such issues, because the Bible itself did not do so. The fact is that God segregated Israel from the Canaanites. It is debatable as to whether the Church should get into the matter of trying to change that particular pattern, and branding one form of culture as sinful as opposed to another.

Like with Thornwell before him, Smith’s Narrow Spirituality of the Church barred the Church from such meddling. On the same page, he sums up nicely the specious argument of his forebears, concealing it the congenial language of Sola Scriptura:

Again in pressing the matter of fair treatment between races, the subjective standard of man’s thought is made the measure rather than the Scripture. “Whatever injures or prevents the growth of human personality is contrary to the law of love.” It is interesting to observe that the law of love now is the law to be obeyed. This has no specific reference in the Bible, but is the law which “seeks the welfare and happiness of all people.” Here we see a bald humanism coming forward as the ultimate goal of man’s moral conduct. (p. 153)

The Presbyterian Guardian

To be sure, this NSoC sentiment was not limited to just a couple theologians, but quite frankly appears to have been the norm among conservatives. For example, noted Presbyterian professor E.J. Young would write the following in response to the Presbyterian Guardian’s 1964 discussion on Civil Rights:

I am troubled by the great amount of space devoted to the question of civil rights and race relations in the latest issue of the Guardian. These are not the paramount issues before the church today. In the dense fog of obfuscation which the liberal press has succeeded in raising even true Christians may lose sight of the church’s central purpose. That central purpose is the preaching of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture makes clear that a Christian should do good unto all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith. He who preaches the gospel in its fulness (including the obligations of Christians to others) is doing more for Negro and White than can possibly be accomplished by any method which in giving rights to one may take them away from another. (October, 1964, p. 131)

And theologian and founder of Christian Reconstructionism, Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, responded similarly:

The test of the Reformed faith is theocentric, in terms of the sovereignty of God and the infallible Word. The test of modernistic faith is always drawn from humanitarian ethics, and the current test is race, not Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, The Presbyterian Guardian has of late been busy citing one or another of the humanitarian and liberal shibboleths as “tests” rather than the Word and the Confession. Was it for this that Machen fought? (p. 131)

Regrettably, such discussions are in fact not that for which “Machen fought.” (For more from the Guardian, see HERE.)

The Prophetic Tradition Exposes the NSoC Tradition

Meanwhile, a very different understanding of the mission and role of the Church had grown up in the United States. From the time African Americans began forming their own churches and denominations in the 18th century—due to abuse, violence, persecution, and egregious violations of the Communion of the Saints—they consistently rejected this narrow spirituality view, and for what should be very obvious reasons. The hypocrisy of the American Church was never lost on African Americans, whether slave or free, nor the spuriousness of their truncated “gospel.”

In his autobiography, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, Presbyterian Rev. Peter Randolph (1825 – 1897) writes,

MANY say the Negroes receive religious education—that Sabbath worship is instituted for them as for others, and were it not for slavery, they would die in their sins—that really, the institution of slavery is a benevolent missionary enterprise. Yes, they are preached to, and I will give my readers some faint glimpses of these preachers, and their doctrines and practices.

After describing the anemic message of the men who preached to the slaves, their hypocritical actions, their segregated churches, and their prowess with a strap of bull hide, Rev. Randolph concluded:

The like of this is the preaching, and these are the men that spread the Gospel among the slaves. Ah! such a Gospel had better be buried in oblivion, for it makes more heathens than Christians. Such preachers ought to be forbidden by the laws of the land ever to mock again at the blessed religion of Jesus, which was sent as a light to the world. […] After such preaching, let no one say that the slaves have the Gospel of Jesus preached to them. (See, “Rev. Peter Randolph: The ‘Gospel’ of the Slave Master and the ‘Benevolence’ of Slavery”)

But none, to my lights, have expressed the grave hypocrisy resulting from Narrow Spirituality better than Frederick Douglas:

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,—sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,—leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. (Life of an American Slave [1845])

The African American Church and the NSoC

African American believers and churches had seen the Narrow Spirituality of the Church (NSoC) at work in their own lives, granting cover to their oppressors, allowing their oppressors to live free of the Church’s condemnation. White churches simply did not see it as within the sphere of the Church to “meddle” in such political and economic matters. They were only commissioned to preach the “gospel” and administer the sacraments. Again, in the words of Dr. Martin King quoted above, “those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” Those who held all the power—whether social, political, legal, economic, or ecclesial—also believed the Church had no commission from God to question, let alone discipline, their own civic practices, especially when it came to slavery.

On the other hand, the powerless who suffered under the White man’s “Christian” governance had no difficulty seeing the Biblical mandate for Church action on behalf of the oppressed, nor trouble seeing its mandated rebuke of the oppressor. And not only was this their studied Biblical conviction, it was also a matter of pure necessity—survival even. To be frank, African Americans needed the Church in a way that most White Americans, both then and now, have little tactile comprehension of.

Who else was to speak for them? Where would their poor go for relief? Where could they meet for safety? Where could their homeless find shelter? Where and with whom could they organize? What other organization in the social atmosphere of race-based slavery and Jim Crow had any interest in defending their rights before kings and hostile citizens? As such, W. E. B. Du Bois describes a church community at the turn to the 20th century far removed from the Narrow Spirituality of Southern conservatives:

The Negro church of today is the social centre of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of African character. Take a typical church in a small Virginia town: it is the ‘First Baptist’[…]. This building is the central club-house of a community of a thousand or more Negroes. Various organizations meet here,—the church proper, the Sunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women’s societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services. Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic centre is a religious centre of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell, and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday after the crops are laid by; and few indeed of the community have the hardihood to withstand conversion. Back of this more formal religion, the Church often stands as a real conserver of morals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Good and Right.

Thus one can see in the Negro church to-day, reproduced in microcosm, all the great world from which the Negro is cut off by color-prejudice and social condition. (“Of the Fathers”)

The Presbyterian African American Witness

Lest we be tempted to think otherwise, even conservative Calvinist African American ministers refused to limit the mission of the Church or the scope of its Gospel to Southern standards. Presbyterian minister Rev. Francis J. Grimke (1857 – 1937), supplied the following rebuke from the floor of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1888; a speech quite contrary to Thornwell’s address in 1859:

It is important, it seems to me, not only in dealing with race prejudice, but in dealing with every other evil, that Christian men and women should understand, that Christianity is not clay in the hands of the world-spirit to be moulded by it; but is itself to be the moulder of public sentiment and everything else. It isn’t the meal, but is the leaven put into the meal that is to leaven the whole lump. It is salt—not salt that has lost its savor, but the salt of the earth that is intended to arrest corruption, to put an end to the forces that mean moral decay, that tend to break down the tissues of the spiritual life, and to degenerate into festering sores of race prejudice and all the other brood of evils that grow out of it. The mission of the church, of Christian men and women is to mould, not be moulded by encircling influences of evil. To the shame of the millions of white Christians in this land, the brother in black is still a social and religious outcast. (The Works of Francis Grimke, p. 471)

A sound Gospel preacher as well as an ardent social agitator, Grimke called the Church to militancy against racial prejudice:

Where are the forty million professing Christians in this land? The so-called Christian Church, that ought to have the greatest influence in moulding public sentiment in the right direction; that ought to be the greatest militant force against evil (and what greater evil is there than race prejudice?) is resting on its arms, is doing nothing, or comparatively nothing to arrest the evil and to lift up the true standard of brotherhood. (p. 613)

The fact that in Christian America, in this land that is rolling up its church members by the millions, race prejudice has gone on steadily increasing, is a standing indictment of the white Christianity of this land—an indictment that ought to bring the blush of shame to the faces of the men and women, who are responsible for it, whose silence, whose quiet acquiescence, whose cowardice, or worse whose active cooperation, have made it possible. The first thing for the church to do, I say, is to wake up to the fact that it can do something. (p. 464)

The fact is, the Southern conservative proponents of the Narrow Spirituality of the Church never did wake up to this fact; not in Grimke’s lifetime, nor in the Civil Rights era that would follow.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, another conservative Presbyterian minister, in fact a minister in J. Gresham Machen’s own denomination, Rev. C. Herbert Oliver also upbraided the Church for its participation in segregation, opposition to integration, and ahistorical and non-Calvinistic commitment to the NSoC. He concluded his brilliant article in the July-August 1964 issue of The Presbyterian Guardian with a final plea to his White brothers in the Church:

It is always the duty of God’s people to be a light to the world. There are no considerations that can relieve us of this responsibility. Too often one hears from the white minister such sentiments as, “I know what ought to be done, but if I try to do anything I’ll get put out of my church and they will get an extremist.” This approach does not relieve the minister of his obligation to do what he knows he ought to do.

Nor is the honor of the church upheld by silence in the face of injustice, nor is the true church preserved by failure to do what it knows to be right. The church in Germany did not save itself by its silence in the face of Hitler’s budding inhumanities, but it might have saved Germany if it had preached without fear the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness in the church and in the state. We cannot preserve the church. That is God’s responsibility. Our task is to do what God requires of us—to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (p. 94)

Where Do We Stand Now?

Sadly, in an interview published nearly 50 years later (June 25, 2013), Rev. Oliver reports that not much had substantially changed over the intervening years:

I’ve also not seen any basic racial changes for the better in the church. I’m sorry to say that, but I ran into the same racism in the PCUSA church as I found in the OPC. When I graduated from seminary, there was no place for me to serve. There were plenty of churches that were vacant, but none of them would call me. It was understood by the higher-ups in the church that there was no future for me being called to a white church. That’s when the call came to me to serve in Maine, and I accepted that and went there and served. But the racial divide in America is still as strong as it was in the 40’s and 50’s. Just more polite, but it is no less real, no less firm, and no less impregnable. (“Grace Through Hardship”)

I would suggest, especially within conservative evangelicalism, Presbyterianism in particular, that the continued, even growing, commitment to a Narrow Spirituality of the Church has contributed much to this lack of change. When slavery passed, the NSoC lived on and became an ecclesial shield for legal and de facto Jim Crow; when Jim Crow passed, the NSoC lived on and continued to serve the same function for color-blind systemic racism as it had for slavery, muzzling the American Church’s prophetic voice in the face of continued church segregation, vast and disturbing social and economic disparities, and encouraging harsh opposition to racial justice efforts.

And as it stands today, we continue to hear and read the same appeal to Narrow Spirituality from those who have taken up the offensive against so-called “social justice.” Pastor John MacArthur wrote in his discontinued series on Social Justice and the Gospel that,

[O]ccasionally a new threat to the simplicity or clarity of the gospel seems to erupt with stunning force and suddenness. The current controversy over “social justice” and racism is an example of that. (“Is the Controversy over ‘Social Justice’ Really Necessary?”)

The message of social justice diverts attention from Christ and the cross. It turns our hearts and minds from things above to things on this earth. It obscures the promise of forgiveness for hopeless sinners by telling people they are hapless victims of other people’s misdeeds. (“The Injustice of Social Justice”)

Jerry Falwell, Jr., former president of Liberty University, also gave a nod to the NSoC while defending his own support of Donald Trump in a recent interview:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me. (“Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’”)

And the most typical NSoC arguments continue to come from Reformed and Presbyterian folks like, e.g., Westminster Seminary Professor R. Scott Clark. Clark writes,

Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day. Social issues do intrude into the visible church in the NT but none of the Apostles prescribed social or civil remedies for them. They never commented on Nero’s abuses or upon Claudius’ policies. In the NT, Christians are taught how to think about their place in the world but they are never exhorted to flee the world into monasteries nor are they instructed how to transform it. […] The church, as a visible institution, as the embassy of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, has no social agenda for the wider civil and cultural world.(“The Gospel is not Social”)

Christians have the freedom to participate in civil life, to seek equity, to seek protection from abuse and prejudice (especially in the public, tax-funded sphere). I doubt that the visible, institutional church has any mandate to speak to these issues. There is simply no clear or compelling evidence in the New Testament to support the claim that the visible church must campaign for social justice. (“Racism and the Second Use of the Law”)

And Machen biographer and OPC historian D. G. Hart writes much the same:

Christian teaching on salvation transcends the politics and economics, which likely explains why Paul had so little to say about the social injustice of the Roman Empire. Christianity is an otherworldly faith because Christians await the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns. (“Wrestling Match Over the Resurrection”)

Can we say again with Dr. King, “I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular” (“Letter From Birmingham Jail”)?

In direct contradiction to the above claims, Dr. King appears prescient with words written over 55 years ago:

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are. (“Letter From Birmingham Jail”)


The Narrow Spirituality of the Church view is a perfect example of systemic racism in the Church, regardless of existence or lack of intentional prejudice (though there is certainly plenty). As professor Allan G. Johnson often points out, social systems often work through paths of least resistance. One may hate racism and make it his daily ambition to love all indiscriminately yet nevertheless operate within social systems—including theological traditions and ecclesiastical patterns—that further reinforce well-worn paths, continuing a racialized system that has accorded advantage and disadvantage along the very same color-lines for centuries. And how could we truly expect otherwise? Four hundred years of legal and de facto marginalization for the very sake of exploitation is bound to have borne much rotten modern fruit.

The Narrow Spirituality of the Church view is an American interpretation, unknown to our European Reformed and Presbyterian forebears. It was forged to accommodate and absorb the deep moral conflicts which arose between the stated Christian beliefs and ethics of America’s founders and the irreligious and immoral policies that shaped American culture and government from its colonial beginnings. The doctrine came to its acme in the defense of race-based chattel slavery, shielded the institution of Jim Crow from the voice of the Church, and continues to run cover for indifference to social disparities, hostility toward racial justice advocates, continued church segregation, and the ongoing racial maldistribution of power throughout Christian institutions. It is a doctrine crafted for exploitation and has only ever served the socially, politically, economically, and ecclesiastically enfranchised.

Further, it is a doctrine that has always been foreign to the Black Church in the United States—whether conservative Calvinist Presbyterian or liberal. In fact, it is a doctrine that literally condemns the work of the Black Church during slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement as sinfully outside the scope of the Church’s mission. It is not surprising that many White Christians are still unable to answer whether such abolitionist and protest movements were even justifiable.

In short, the Narrow Spirituality of the Church is a Procrustean Bed created by those who, as a people group, have never needed the Church to be anything but a Gospel preacher and Sacrament administrator. It must either disjoint or amputate its historically disenfranchised victims in order to offer warmth and comfort within its fabricated boundaries. Even now the NSoC must retroactively condemn the churches of Bryan, Allen, Wright, the Gloucesters, Williams, Paul, Hains, Cook, Bowels, Scott, Gibbs, Randolph, Grimke, Oliver, and every African American church captured by Du Bois’ description.

Is it any wonder that White churches continue to be White? Is it any wonder that people of color point to the Reformed and Presbyterian churches as among the most hostile to their cause?

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One thought on “The Spirituality of the Church vs. the Prophetic Mission of the Church in the American Reformed and Presbyterian Tradition

  1. hashimwarren August 3, 2021 / 9:12 am

    This is fascinating to compare how the same debate played out in my tradition, the Restoration Movement. Alexander Campbell was personally against slavery, but thought it was a divisive social issue that the church shouldn’t ruin its unity over.

    Liked by 1 person

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