Charles Hodge on the Role of the Church in Public Life

The Biblical Expositor and Presbyterian Review, July 1859, pp. 607–618.

In this article, Hodge takes to task James Henley Thornwell’s spiritualization of the church. In doing so, he makes the same argument that P. J. Hoedemaker would later make – that the church has the task to speak truth regarding affairs both public and private, to proclaim as the church God’s Word and Law in the public arena.

R. R. Read, M. D., (ruling elder,) offered a paper, commending the African Colonization enterprise.

It was moved to lay the paper on the table; but the Assembly refused to do so by a vote of 88 ayes to 160 noes. The question then being on the adoption of Dr. Read’s paper, Rev. Dr. Thornwell said, That the ground upon which he voted to lay these resolutions on the table, was the conservation of a great principle upon which he had acted, and which he deemed of immense importance to the church of Christ. The church of God, said he, is exclusively a spiritual organisation, and possesses none but spiritual power. It was her mission to promote the glory of God and the salvation of men from the curse of the law. She had nothing to do with the voluntary associations of men for various civil and social purposes that wore outside of her pale. Ever since he had been a member of the church, he had believed this, and contended for this, and had steadily resisted associating this church with outside organisations. The Lord Jesus Christ had never given his church a commission to be identified with them. It was the church’s great aim to deliver men from sin, and death, and hell. She had no mission to care for the things, and to become entangled with the kingdoms and the policy of this world. The question of colonization is a question of worldly policy. It is a question upon the merits of which he wished not to speak. But no man will say that Jesus Christ has given to his ministry a commission to attend to the colonization of races, or to attend to the arrest of the slave trade, nor to the mere physical comforts of man. It is not the business of the church to build asylums for the insane and the blind. The church deals with men as men,as fallen sinners, standing in need of salvation; not as citizens of the commonwealth, or philanthropists, or members of society. Her mission is to bring men to the cross, to reconcile them to God through the blood of the Lamb, to imbue them with the spirit of the divine Master, and thence send them forth to perform their social duties, to manage society, and perform the functions that pertain to their social and civil relations. The church has no right, no authority, to league herself with any of the institutions of the state, or such as have for their object mere secular enterprises. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s;” but let the church of God lend her energies directly to the accomplishment of her own high and glorious mission. She deals with the great interests of immortality! The blessings she sheds upon the earth and upon the temporal interests of men are incidental; and, although incalculable, are subsidiary to the higher aims of the church. He was willing that church members should cooperate with this Colonization Society, and other societies for philanthropic objects, if they see proper to do so. He was willing that they should try to do good through any agencies that their consciences may approve; but he wished the church, as such, to keep herself to her specific work. As a church of Christ, he desired her to know neither rich nor poor, high nor low, bond nor free—to know neither East nor West, North nor South. “Let the dead bury their dead, but follow thou me,” was the mandate of our Lord to his church; and the very moment you undertake to implicate this church with any of the powers of the earth, you endanger her efficiency. At this very General Assembly, we have declined identifying ourselves even with the American Presbyterian Historical Society. We had voted it out; we had voted out the temperance societies, and he would have the Assembly vote out all the societies of this world, and keep to her proper sphere, and let the societies keep to theirs, and do good in their own way, without asking the church’s cooperation. It is this principle that he deemed absolutely indispensable to the church’s purity and success in her peculiar mission.

To this view the church has been steadily coming up; and in consequence, what a spectacle does she this hour present to the country and to the world! She stands preeminent the great conservative power of this land; the great bond of union and witness for the truth—directly interfering with no temporal interests, but blessing and protecting all, whilst she aims only at the glory of her God in the salvation of the souls of the people. And why does our beloved Zion stand thus “the beauty of the land”? It is because the only voice she utters is the word of God; because no voice is heard in her councils but his; and because her only guide is the pillar of cloud by day, and of fire by night. He gloried in the position of this church.

He was once once attended by a young gentleman, a native of Great Britain, through the Tower of London; and we passed through the long apartments and corridors, in which were deposited the trophies which England’s prowess had won in her many wars. As my companion pointed me, with becoming patriotic pride, to these trophies that attested his country’s triumphs, said Dr. Thornwell, I raised myself to the fullest height my stature would permit, and replied, “Your country has carried on two wars with mine, but I see no trophies here won from American valour.” Let our church lend herself, in the name of her Lord, and in his strength, and in her own proper sphere, to her own mission, and her enemies will never rejoice over trophies won from her. Sir, the salt that is to save this country is the church of Christ—a church that does not mix up with any political party, or any issues aside from her direct mission.

It was, on motion, resolved to refer the paper of Dr. Read to the Committee on Bills and Overtures, to report thereon.

On motion of Rev. Mr. Mann, Overture No. 28, on the subject of Colonization, was taken up. On the motion to adopt it, Rev. Dr. A. S. MacMaster said he felt disposed to meet the question on its merits, and could not let this overture pass in its present shape without comment. If the Colonization Society be a good thing, or if it be a bad thing, let us say the one or the other. He considered the plea, that had been so eloquently made, that the church should never commend anything good because it was not strictly spiritual or ecclesiastical, as both preposterous and restrictive of the church’s legitimate duties.

He referred to the fact that for four-score years the Presbyterian church had always borne testimony in favour of good enterprises, even when not strictly spiritual. He alluded to the part borne by our church in the Revolutionary struggle of our country, and to her frequent testimonies in favour of the liberties and independence of our country. He cited cases to prove that it had been the uniform practice of this church to commend philanthropic enterprises; and contended that one so strictly missionary as this, was peculiarly entitled to her sympathy and encouragement.

Rev. Dr. McGill offered as an amendment, “That it is sufficient to refer to the past action of the General Assembly, in her frequent recommendations of the Colonisation Society.”

Rev. Dr. Thornwell said all he wished to do was to set his opinions in a true light. He thought it would hardly be denied that—1st. The church is a kingdom not of this world. 2d. That her authority is only ministerial and declarative. 3d. That the power which is given to the church is to be exercised for spiritual ends only. If the church will keep within her own bounds, she will be an agency that will purify and bless the world; but if she goes beyond her proper sphere, she will not only fail to accomplish her mission, but will do mischief. Like the ocean, she purifies even by her agitation, whilst acting within her bounds and banks; but like the ocean, too, if she break beyond them, nothing can be more destructive or desolating. Let the church work on at the very foundations of moral and spiritual influences, which are the foundations of society; let her do her appropriate and appointed work, and she will sanctify the world. But let her go out of her sphere, and affect interference with the temporalities of men, and she will fail. Whenever she forgets that her mission is to bring men to the cross, and to salvation, she comes down from her high vantage ground. Whenever the church speaks at all, she must speak in the name of the Lord; and she must speak what the Lord bids her. Show me, said he, that the Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the church to engage in the business of transferring men from one place to another and I will yield, and unite in the effort. But until you convince me that this is the business that the Head of the church has committed to her, I must earnestly resist any proposal to identify her with such business. Dr. Thornwell concluded by moving to lay the report of the Committee on Bills and Overtures on the table, to take up a paper which he read. The motion of Dr. Thornwell prevailed by a count of sixty-four to fifty-four.

Dr. B. M. Smith moved to lay Dr. Thornwell’s paper on the table, which was done.  .

We all know and admit that a vote of the Assembly does not always express even the settled conviction of that body itself. Such votes are often given hastily, without due consideration, or from motives not affecting the principle involved in the case decided. At the end of the session, to avoid discussion, or to save time, things are often passed, or passed over, which, under other circumstances, would have met a different fate. It is also to be considered that all who vote for a particular measure, do not commonly do so for the same reasons. A vote to lay a resolution on the table is not decisive evidence that those who joined it, sanctioned the arguments of the speakers by whom the measure was advocated. The sixty- four members who voted to lay the overture on Colonisation on the table, are not to be presumed, for example, all to agree with Dr. Thornwell. And if they did, sixty-four is a small portion of an Assembly counting some three hundred members. These remarks are made with the obvious purpose to prevent the hasty assumption that the General Assembly gave its sanction to the new and startling doctrine on the church, which Dr. Thornwell so eloquently advocated.

The world is governed by ideas. The triteness of this remark is only a proof of its importance. It is wonderful also how ideas percolate; how they silently diffuse themselves, as heat, or electricity, until they animate the mass of society, and manifest themselves in the most unexpected quarters. They often lie dormant, as it were, in the public mind, until some practical measure, some foregone conclusion or purpose as to a definite mode of action, calls them into notice. If they suit the occasion, if they answer a cherished purpose, and give to the intellect a satisfactory reason for what the will has determined upon, they are adopted with avidity. The history of every community will suggest abundant illustrations to every reader of the truth of this remark.

Great evils were long experienced in England from Erastianism. The intimate union of the church and state, and the consequent subjection of the former to the latter, led to all manner of corruptions and oppressions. To escape these evils, one class of the Puritans went to the opposite extreme. They represented the visible church as a purely spiritual body, consisting of the regenerated, united by special covenant for the worship of God, and mutual watch and care. This is Owen’s idea. He says, believers are the matter of the church, and the covenant is the form. No one, therefore, is a member of the church but one, who giving satisfactory evidence of regeneration, voluntarily and personally professes his faith, and enters into a church covenant with a number of fellow-believers. All else are of the world, in no way amenable to the church or subject to its control. The sole object of church organization is the worship of God and the exercise of discipline; and consequently its sole prerogative in to provide for divine worship and to receive and exclude members. This leads to the distinction between the church and the parish. The former is the covenanted body of believers; the latter, the whole body of the community united in the maintenance of the ordinances of religion. There are two principles involved in this theory, the one, that each body of believers united by covenant for worship and discipline is a complete church, and independent of all others; and the other, that the church in a purely spiritual body having for its sole object the worship of God and the fellowship and purity of believers. The effects of this theory we see in the progress of development in New England. The church, there, is what Napoleon’s army would be were it disbanded into independent companies, each acting by, and for itself; this is the effect of Independency; or what these countries would be, if every village were a separate sovereignty. The effect of the other principle, relating to the nature and design of the church, is utter inefficiency. Who ever heard of the church saying or doing anything in New England. It is muzzled, manacled and fettered. It exists there in spite of the theory, in the spiritual union and fellowship of the people of God, but they have no means of organic action, and according to the prevalent notion, no right to act as an organic whole, nor to act even in its disjoint members, except for the purposes indicated above. If they have even to ordain a man to the ministry, found a seminary, send out missionaries, or do anything however intimately connected with Christ’s kingdom, they must go out of the church organisation to do it. The most desperate evils may prevail in the form of heresies or immoralities, the church as such can do nothing, and does nothing. We give full credit to the devotion of individual Christians in New England, and to the energy of their combined action in their voluntary associations of different kinds. But these are very poor substitutes for the natural and divinely appointed organs of church action. Experience is teaching a sad lesson on this subject.

Of the two principles involved in this form of Puritanism, the Independent element has had no access to our church. There is no susceptibility in our system of impression from that source. The two systems are antagonistic and repellent. They are incapable of combination. With regard to the other element, however, relating to the nature and prerogatives of the church, the case is far different. That element has long been silently diffusing itself through our whole body. It affects our modes of thought, our expressions, and our ecclesiastical action. With us, in common parlance, the church is the body of those who profess to be regenerated; to join the church is to come to the Lord’s table. Our Book declares that all baptized persons are members of the church, and yet we constantly talk of such persons joining the church when they come to the Lord’s Supper. Personal and voluntary profession of saving faith is regarded as the condition of church membership. The church has no right of discipline except over such professors. And now the doctrine is advanced by one of the very foremost men of our whole communion, that the church is in such sense a spiritual body that she has no right even to recommend a benevolent society. She must confine herself to a purely spiritual vocation. She cannot denounce evil or patronize good out of her pale. It is not her business to attend “to the colonization of races, or to the arrest of the slave trade,” or to any thing else but the immediate spiritual affairs of men.

There is always a half truth in every error. It is true that the church is not of this world; that it is not as such concerned in the affairs of the world; that it has nothing to do with politics, commerce, or agriculture, or any secular enterprise as such. All this follows from our theory of the church, as logically and freely as from the Puritan doctrine. There is no necessity to manacle the church to keep her hands off of politics.

In strong contrast with this whole Puritan doctrine is that idea of the church which is the life of our system, which has revealed itself in act in every period of our history. It is, that while the true church, or body of Christ, the Ἰσραὴλ κατὰ πνεῶμα consists of the true people of God, yet by divine ordinance the children of believers are to be regarded and treated as included within its pale, and consecrated to God in baptism, and therefore, in the sight of men, all baptized persons, in the language of our Book, are members of the church, and under its watch and care.

This, of course, as remarked above, does not imply that they are all to be admitted to the Lord’s table, any more than that they are all to be admitted to the ministry or eldership. God has prescribed the qualifications which the church is to require of those whom she receives to full communion or to office. Still, baptized persons are members of the visible church, until they renounce their birthright or are excommunicated, and consequently subject to its government or discipline. This body constitutes one whole, so that one part is subject to a larger, and the larger to the whole. To the church, in this sense, is committed not merely the work of public worship and exercising discipline, not simply or exclusively to exhort men to repentance and faith, but to assert, maintain, and propagate the truth. And by the truth, is to be understood the word of God, and all it contains, as the rule of faith and practice. This is the great prerogative and duty of the church. Her divine commission is, “Go, teach all nations.” From this it follows: 1. That she has the right to preach the gospel. This is the first, most important, and pressing of her duties; and in the discharge of this duty, she ordains ministers and sends forth missionaries. Hence your Boards of Foreign and Domestic Missions, and of Church Extension. 2. She has the right to administer discipline, which is one of the divinely appointed means of preserving the truth. 3. The right to educate. If she is to teach all nations, she must train up teachers; she must prepare the minds of men to receive the truth, and she must communicate that truth by all the means at her command. Hence your schools, colleges, and theological seminaries; hence also your educational institutions among the heathen, and your establishments for printing and distributing Bibles, tracts, and religious books. On this foundation rest your Boards of Education and Publication. 4. It follows from the great commission of the church, that it is her prerogative and duty to testify for the truth and law of God, wherever she can make her voice heard; not only to her own people, but to kings and rulers, to Jews and Gentiles. It is her duty not only to announce the truth, but to apply it to particular cases and persons; that is, she is bound to instruct, rebuke, and exhort, with all long-suffering. She is called of God to set forth and enjoin upon the consciences of men the relative duties of parents and children, of magistrates and people, of masters and slaves. If parents neglect their duties, she is called upon by her Divine commission to instruct and exhort them. If magistrates transcend the limits of their authority, and trespass on the Divine law, she is bound to raise her voice in remonstrance and warning. She has nothing to do with the state, in the exercise of its discretion within its own sphere; and therefore has no right to meddle with questions of policy, foreign or domestic. She has nothing to do with tariffs, or banks, or internal improvements. We say, with Dr. Thornwell, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let Caesar attend to his own affairs. But if Caesar undertakes to meddle with the affairs of God; if the state pass any laws contrary to the law of God, then it is the duty of the church, to whom God has committed the great work of asserting and maintaining his truth and will, to protect and remonstrate. If the state not only violates the Sabbath, but makes it a condition to holding office, that others should violate it; or if it legalises piracy, or concubinage, or polygamy; if it prohibits the worship of God, or the free use of the means of salvation; if, in short, it does anything directly contrary to the law of God, the church is bound to make that law known, and set it home upon the conscience of all concerned.

In many of our states, there are in force laws relating to marriage and divorce, in open conflict with the word of God. We hold that it is the duty of the church of every denomination, in those states, to tell their legislators, that while they have the right to legislate about matters of property and civil rights at their discretion, under the constitution, they have no right to separate those whom God has joined together, or make that lawful which God has declared to be unlawful.

A few years since, Dr. Thornwell preached an elaborate sermon, setting forth what he believed to be the true teaching of the word of God on the subject of slavery. What he had a right to do, and was bound to do as a minister of the gospel, the church has the right and obligation to do. If, on the one hand, Northern brethren would abstain from teaching, on that and other subjects, what God does not teach; and if, on the other hand, Southern brethren would clearly assert, in their capacity of ministers and a church, what they fully believe God does teach, great good and God’s blessing, we doubt not, would be the result. They are as much bound to teach the truth on this subject, as a church, as they are bound to do it as ministers; and they are surely as much bound to teach the law of God respecting the duties of masters and slaves, as they are to teach what God says of the duty of parents and children, of saints and sinners. There is a great temptation to adopt theories which free us from painful responsibilities; but we are satisfied that the brethren must, on reflection, be convinced that the duty to testify to the truth, to make it known, and to press it upon the hearts and consciences of men, is as much obligatory on the church, in her aggregate capacity, as on her individual pastors. Her Confession and Catechisms are an admirable summary of that testimony; but she is no more to be satisfied with them, than the ministry is to be satisfied with reading the Confession of Faith, Sabbath after Sabbath, to the people.

The principle which defines and limits the prerogative and duty of the church in all such cases, seems to us perfectly plain. She has nothing to do as a church with secular affairs, with questions of politics or state policy. Her duty is to announce and enforce by moral means the law of God. If at any time, as may well happen, a given question assumes both a moral and political bearing, as for example, the slave-trade, then the duty of the church is limited to setting forth the law of God on the subject. It is not her office to argue the question in its bearing on the civil or secular interests of the community, but simply to declare in her official capacity what God has said on the subject. To adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like administering 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. It is obvious that the same principle is applicable to ministers. They profane the pulpit when they preach politics, or turn the sacred desk into a rostrum for lectures on secular affairs. But they are only faithful to their vows when they proclaim the truth of God and apply his law to all matters whether of private manners or laws of the state. The whole history of the Presbyterian church in Europe and America is instinct with this spirit. The Presbyterians of Scotland told the government that it had no right to establish Popery or Prelacy, and that they would not submit to it. Our fathers of the Revolution took sides with the country in the struggle for independence, and protested against the acts of the British Government tending to the introduction of Episcopacy. Before the Revolution the old Synod remonstrated with the authorities in Virginia, for their persecuting laws. In 1830 the General Assembly raised its voice against the persecution of Christians in Switzerland. It has, over and over, remonstrated with the Government of this country on the laws enjoining the carrying and distribution of the mails on Sunday. While admitting that the Bible does not forbid slaveholding, it has borne its testimony in the most explicit terms against the iniquity of many slave laws. It has many times enjoined on the conscience of the people the duty of instructing the coloured population of our land, and patronised the establishment of schools for that purpose. It has never been afraid to denounce what God forbids, or to proclaim in all ears what God commands. This is her prerogative and this is her duty. With the Colonization Society, as a commercial enterprize, or as a mere benevolent institution she has nothing to do; but as a means designed and adapted to promote the progress of the gospel in Africa, she has over and over commended it to the favour of the people. It is only on the assumption that Presbyterians, neither in this country nor in Europe, have ever understood their own system, that the principle advocated by Dr. Thornwell can be admitted. Presbyterians have always held that the church is bound to hold forth in the face of all men the truth and law of God, to testify against all infractions of that law by rulers or people, to lend her countenance and support to all means, within and without her jurisdiction, which she believes to be designed and wisely adapted to promote the glory and kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. This our church has always done, and we pray God, she may continue to do even to the end.