I should begin by expressing my considerable appreciation for the ministry of Kevin DeYoung, a Michigan pastor and Gospel Coalition blogger, whose books, articles, and blog posts generally demonstrate remarkable insight, faithfulness, and good sense. While I think I disagree with him in this particular instance, my response here is more in the form of a query.
DeYoung’s foray into the debate over transformationalism and Two-Kingdoms theology involves what I take to be a resounding affirmation of a particular understanding of the spirituality of the church and its mission. Using this quote from the nineteenth-century Scottish Free Church theologian James Bannerman as his point of departure, DeYoung argues that the church is to be about “the work of conversion and sanctification and preparation for heaven.” DeYoung adds, “If Bannerman is right, Christ’s ministry in the world was to save sinners, bring them into fellowship with one another, and see them safely through to their heavenly home,” and he concludes “that Bannerman’s doctrine of the church makes more eminent sense, and is more plainly biblical, than contemporary notions whereby the church is called upon to be something it cannot be and do something it cannot do.”
Some of the responses to DeYoung’s post focused on the question of Bannerman’s social and cultural location and how much his particular take on the spirituality of the church may have been influenced by it. For example, in a comment on the Gospel Coalition site Thabiti Anyabwile wondered whether the relationship of church and state in Bannerman’s own day might have conditioned his perspective, and in a later comment on the same site Anthony Bradley wondered if Bannerman’s economic privilege (Bannerman was a Scottish clergyman’s son who married very, very well) had a similar effect. Those are good questions to ask, and the fact that they are posed from an African-American perspective is significant, but my concern here is different.
Simply put, what is the relationship between this emphasis on the “spirituality of the church” and the historic Christian (and, I might add, Reformed) concern for diaconal ministry, and does such an understanding of the spirituality of the church really have any place for this concern?
Historically, Christians have seen in the Mosaic Law, the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, and in Jesus’ own wholistic ministry both the mandate and model for diaconal ministry and the care of the poor. They have taken the Apostle Paul seriously when he said, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
Elsie Anne McKee, in her books John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving (1984) and Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today (1989), has demonstrated that diaconal ministry and the care of the poor were an emphasis in Calvin’s Geneva and in the early Reformed tradition. McKee makes two points that are particularly important for the current discussion. First, in contrast to Lutherans and Zwinglians, who were willing to delegate such social welfare efforts to the state, for “the Calvinist Reformed tradition, though, the ecclesiastical ministry of charity in the early church was intended as the pattern for the church throughout time” (McKee, Diakonia, 70). Second, such diaconal ministry was considered not merely temporal but also spiritual, and here she quotes from a sermon of Calvin on Acts 6:1-3 to particularly good effect.
We see how they are strictly commanded to walk as before God, to think about the fact that their office was not secular or worldly but in fact a spiritual task. For this reason it was given to the deacons to offer the cup when the people came to the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who had the responsibility of the poor were there joined with the ministers of the Word of God, in order that they might be recognized as having a task in the Church, and they themselves might recognize that they must walk uprightly, as if to say: “We are no longer our own, but we must dedicate ourselves wholly to the service of God (quoted in McKee, Diakonia, 71).
In light of this, I can’t help but wonder what is driving these overly spiritualized conceptions of the church’s ministry. Why has this spiritual vs. temporal dichotomy (which as we have seen is open to question) gotten so much traction? I have noticed that those who speak in these terms often evince a laudable concern to protect the church from agendas and distractions that are inconsistent with the church’s fundamental mission. The real question here is the nature of that mission. I can think of at least two historical developments that have made it easier for some to emphasize the “spiritual” at the expense of the temporal.
First, as McKee notes there is the fact that during and after the Second Great Awakening a good deal of the church’s diaconal efforts were shifted to voluntary societies, or what we would now call “parachurch organizations.” This development has been explored by Charles Foster in his Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790-1837 (1960). Thus it became more possible for people to think of the church itself without reference to such diaconal ministries. Again, McKee puts it well: “Usually churches encouraged their members to be morally conscientious, but Christians participated in the reform movements as individuals, and the precise connection between church membership and diakonia was rarely given adequate theological expression” (McKee, Diakonia, 89).
Second, there is the dramatic expansion of the role of the State in the twentieth century, as many social welfare needs that were formerly addressed by religious organizations are now met by various governmental programs. Under such circumstances, the pressing need for diaconal ministries is, in some contexts at least, less obvious and a church devoid of such ministries is more thinkable.
So, my question for Kevin DeYoung stands: How do you reconcile this particular understanding of the “spirituality of the church” with the Church’s historic and proper commitment to diaconal ministry?