Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Word and Deed" v. "Spirituality of the Church"?

The more I have reflected on D. G. Hart and John Muether's observations on the PCA's history, the more I have wanted to comment on one small point.

In their final paragraph, Hart and Muether appear to set "word and deed ministry" and the "spirituality of the church" in opposition when they write, "The Presbyterian Journal evolved into World magazine, and 'word and deed ministry' has begun to eclipse the 'spirituality of the church' in the vocabulary of the PCA. These are signs that the denomination may be more eager to locate itself on the cutting edge of culture reformation than to foster a coherently Reformed and Presbyterian identity." The question I wanted to raise was this: does "word and deed ministry" necessarily violate the "spirituality of the church"?

I think the clear answer to this is "no"--having a strong interest as a local church, presbytery, or even a denomination in serving the poor, working for justice, developing communities does not necessarily violate the spiritual nature of the church. If so, then our churches as churches should not have sent teams of workers to assist with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina; people should have gone as private individuals to work in relief efforts run by the state. But this logic seems to be mistaken, if for no other reason than Matthew 25:40.

Further, southern Presbyterians such as John L. Girardeau--who held strongly to the spirituality of the church--developed thorough biblical rationales for diaconates whose task would be to care for the poor and suffering. In this, southern Presbyterians were simply following after Calvin, who observed that deacons' responsibilities were "to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor" (Institutes, 4.3.9). [For more on this, see Elsie McKee, Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today (Eerdmans, 1989).] If Girardeau (and Calvin for that matter) could urge a strong word and deed ministry through the structures and officers of the church, then it seems unlikely that such could be a violation of the spirituality of the church.

Finally, the question comes about what is "spiritual." Is caring for someone's body as well as their soul spiritual activity? I would suggest that, in fact, it is--when deed ministry facilitates the proclamation of Gospel word, then such is spiritual activity that is worthy of the church's notice and support. Such ministry furthers the spiritual mission of the church by bringing Gospel transformation to people who are struggling with real life problems that are spiritual at root.

Indeed, I would suggest that such a spiritual mission--this word and deed ministry--is part of the best of the Reformed tradition, all the way back to Calvin himself.


Nathan said...

Skip Stout observes in his new book that "Spirituality of the Church" was an antebellum doctrine that was a code-word for upholding slavery. Any thoughts?

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Nathan: often spirituality was a code-word for non-interference with slavery, but it also appeared in a number of other contexts. For an overview of those, you may want to look at my *Robert Lewis Dabney,* pp.93-4. sml

Nathan said...

Thanks for the tip--I will check that out.

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