A few years ago I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on Karl Barth at Princeton Seminary.  In one unforgettable moment, George Harinck, history professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, explained the difference between the way members of his church (a confessionally conservative Reformed body) and the students of Barth responded to the Nazi occupation.  Consistent with the Barmen Declaration, the Barthians told Hitler to take his hands off of God’s church.  “But our church’s leaders,” related Harinck, “told Hitler to take his hands off of God’s world.”

Professor Harinck belongs to the Reformed Churches—Liberated, a continuing body of the denomination led by Abraham Kuyper.  This remark stayed with me and has haunted me as I try to think through the relationship of Christ and culture.  Where it has clear exegetical warrant, the church speaks authoritatively for God, in Christ’s name, to all of the principalities and powers in this present age.  Christ is Lord of all, not just the church, and his universal claims are to be proclaimed to the world as well as to be embraced and obeyed by those who are called by his name.

I was reminded of Harinck’s provocative comment while reading an interesting volley over the “spirituality of the church” in the blogosphere.  The concern was raised by someone I respect that this doctrine—more generally identified as “two kingdoms”—led to the toleration if not outright encouragement of slavery and segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS).

Like the “two kingdoms” distinction advanced by Luther and Calvin, the “spirituality of the church” refers to its distinct calling in the world.  When I affirm “two kingdoms,” I have in mind the Great Commission issued by our Lord, which mandates that the church preach his Word, administer the sacraments, and preserve the discipline and unity of the body through its officers.  As the Westminster Confession puts the matter, “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” (31.4).

According to the caricature at least, a “two kingdoms” view separates the believer’s life in the church from his or her life in the world.  Anthony Bradley is a conservative Reformed and African-American theologian. In his dialogue with Carl Trueman and others, he raised some pretty important questions about whether such a “dualistic” perspective was precisely what kept the Presbyterian Church in the South from opposing slavery and then segregation.

This is a hugely important issue, especially since the sins of our fathers are still with us and our own Reformed and Presbyterian denominations do not seem yet to reflect the diversity that anticipates the worshipping throng in Revelation 5:9.

So I’ll offer a few brief comments as a pushback to this charge.

First, it is implausible to suggest that the “spirituality of the church” (or “two kingdoms”) was the glue that held together the southern Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in their common defense of slavery.  Slavery held them together.  Their views on the matter were argued on the basis of racist doctrines and tortured appeals to slavery in biblical times, as if it were anything like modern slavery that depended on kidnapping, murder, theft, and numerous other sins identified in Scripture as capital offenses.

Second, even if we could accept the caricature of the “spirituality” or “two kingdoms” approach as dualistic, this would only mean that the church refused to address the evil because it was a political matter.  In actual fact, though, the church itself was segregated—often more so than society at large.

Third, Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern.  I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere.   Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel.  Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors.  Assimilating Christ to culture is the sort of thing that the spirituality of the church is especially designed to guard against.

Fourth, it is “guilt-by-association” to argue that because such views on slavery and race were held by people who also spoke of the “spirituality of the church,” the latter view is implicated.  One has to show that the doctrine actually supported racism.  Yet it is very easy to argue that the theological architects of apartheid in South Africa thought they were implementing the transformative vision of Abraham Kuyper.  In fact, they had some support for it in Kuyper’s own writings.  When South Africa’s largest Reformed body confessed apartheid to be heresy, the explanation of its development was linked directly to the Kuyperian movement.  In his biography of Kuyper, James Bratt relates that the Dutch leader did not favor the emerging Afrikaner nationalism.  Nevertheless, many of his ideas were applied:

Key leaders in the Reformed churches in South Africa would work their way to Amesterdam to study at the Free University, and they would have considerable impact in shaping Afrikaner thought and identity in the 1920s and 1930s. They magnified the suggestion Kuyper had taken up from S. J. Du Toit that Afrikaners had a holy calling in their land. They savored the biblical warrant that Kuyper gave to the pluriformity of human cultures, giving the Tower of Babel episode normative status for human history and interrelationships. Most crucially, they adapted philosopher H. J. Stoker’s addition of the volk to the sovereign ‘spheres’ ordained of God. With that, Romantic sociology and European racism received a warrant beyond appeal–and quite beyond what Kuyper had accorded them. The results were startling: a system of separate organization based on race instead of religious confession….

This was a radical reversal of the inter-racial Reformed churches and missions that went all the way back to the time of the Synod of Dort (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 295-96).

So, from a “two kingdoms” perspective, Southern Presbyterians like Dabney and Thornwell and the Afrikaner architects of apartheid were driven by cultural prejudice over Scripture and by a vision of creating a “Christian” (code for “white”) culture.  Any view of the relation between Christ and culture can be abused—including a “two kingdoms” approach.  It would be easier to blame our tradition’s complicity with social sin on a group or party that held a particular doctrine.  But the issue here is racism, pure and simple.  And it is still with us.

Now let’s imagine ourselves back in the 1850s.  What would a “two kingdoms” or “spirituality of the church” doctrine lead one to do?

First, it would lead the church to exercise its spiritual function—specifically, the ministry of the keys (opening and shutting the kingdom of heaven in Christ’s name).

This would be done by preaching the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery.  There is no Christian liberty to disobey God’s commands and he has commanded clearly that he hates kidnapping, theft, and murder—sins on which the modern slave trade and slave-holding thrived.  Even Christian families were separated from each other for the economic gain of white Christians.  There is no comparison between this form of slavery and the largely debt-based indentured servitude of ancient societies.

Further exercising the keys, churches committed to the spirituality doctrine would have disciplined members and especially officers who held slaves or shared in the traffic of slaves.  It would have been as natural for a church embracing its spiritual mission to do this as it would have been in the case of members and officers participating in a chain of whorehouses.  After the customary steps, the discipline would take the form of excommunication for the unrepentant.  Dr. Dabney was held in high esteem after the Civil War as a minister and professor, as he continued to defend slavery as an honorable institution.  What would have happened if the church had in fact exercised its spiritual vocation?

Second, there is nothing in the “two kingdoms” or “spirituality” doctrine to keep the church from declaring to the civil powers directly what it proclaims to the world from the pulpit.

Recall the judicious language of the Confession above: “…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.”  It is hard to conceive of a greater example of a “case extraordinary.”  Today denominations offer solemn declarations on all sorts of matters that are not addressed in Scripture and should, therefore, be left to Christian liberty.  The church has no authority to determine the details of public policy, but it does have the authority—indeed, the obligation—to declare God’s condemnation of public as well as private sin.

Third, the church is not only the people of God gathered, but the people of God scattered into the world as parents, children, neighbors, and citizens.

Imagine what might have happened if the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) had fulfilled its spiritual mandate in the first two ways I’ve mentioned.  Wouldn’t the members be shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson?

Some Southern Presbyterians who held a “spirituality” view (such as B. B. Warfield’s father and grandfather) did oppose slavery on theological grounds.  In fact, his maternal grandfather did so as chairman of the Republican Convention that re-elected Abraham Lincoln, in opposition to his nephew, former Vice President of the United States and a Confederate general.  B. B. Warfield himself shared his father’s pro-abolition and “two kingdom” views and, at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote one of the most moving pleas for integration.  What if the church had been unified on the Word of God touching this crucial matter?

So to return to Professor Harinck’s arresting point:  Anyone who affirms the “two kingdoms” acknowledges Christ as the Lord of both.  Even through pagan rulers, Christ exercises his worldwide dominion.  We tell the principalities and powers not only that the church belongs to Christ, but that ultimately the world belongs to him as well and will not tolerate indefinitely the injustices of this age.  We address Caesar with confidence where the one greater than Caesar has spoken.  And yet addressing the magistrate in his or her public office can be done only “in cases extraordinary,” and “by humble petition.”  In any case, we encourage Caesar in his defense of justice and punishment of evil-doers.  More than this, we announce a law to which everyone is bound and a gospel by which even Neros may be reconciled to God and those they’ve offended.

To lodge the authority of the church in the mission that Jesus assigned to it seems restrictive and ineffective in transforming the world only if we forget that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  Are the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline inconsequential in this great battle between the powers of this present evil age and the reign of Christ?  Or are churches powerless against the evil one precisely to the extent that they fail to fulfill their sacred mission?  The history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the racisms that still haunt our society teach us just how sorely we need the state and the church to carry out their distinct but often cobelligerent callings—the one as God’s minister of temporal justice and the latter as the ministry of everlasting life.