Morton Smith on “Christ’s Commission to the Church”

politicspreachers.jpgUnless you have been vacationing in an Amish community for the last few months, you will have noticed that America is once again gearing up for a Presidential election, and inevitably questions regarding the nature of the relationship between the church and the political process will be raised. Inevitably many churches, both liberal and conservative, will do all they can to see that a party or a candidate is elected, including handing out voter guides, preaching blatantly political messages, or even inviting candidates to occupy their pulpits. Some denominations have become so politicized that the docket of their General Assemblies reads more like the agenda of a political party than a court of the church. But is this right?

Please note that I am not questioning whether Christians, as citizens, should be involved in the political process, nor am I saying that the preachers may not preach what the word teaches regarding moral issues that sometimes become political issues as well (for instance, condemning abortion from the Word is not preaching politics). Rather I am asking should the church, as an institution, be about the mission of advancing the cause of political parties and candidates? Is that part of the great commission? Old School Presbyterians have historically answered this question with a resounding “NO” and have stated that to do so violates the doctrine of the Spirituality of Church that states that the church has been granted no right to meddle in political matters concerning the state. James Thornwell, for instance, wrote in a paragraph that has become part of the PCA Book of Church Order, that:

“The power of the Church is exclusively spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The constitution of the Church derives from divine revelation; the constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events. The Church has no right to construct or modify a government for the State, and the State has no right to frame a creed or polity for the Church. They are as planets moving in concentric orbits: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).”

Therefore the church needs to be clear on what matters fall under its commission and which do not, and not attempt to muddle the two. Morton Smith in his Systematic theology did an excellent job in outlining what observing the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church consists of and wisely counsels Old School Presbyterian Churches to avoid any activity which will detract from the primary duty to preach and teach the Word of God.

“Before leaving the teaching of Christ regarding the Church, we should examine his commission delivered tothe Church after his resurrection. Bannerman says, “The chief end of the Church is to be in this world what Christ himself was, to do in it what he did, to carry on to final success the great work for which he came from heaven.” This concept of the purpose of the Church is found in various passages. It is a central theme of the high priestly prayer of Jesus. Among the first words that he spoke to his disciples after the resurrection were these, “As the Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.” In particular we find the great commission of Jesus recorded in Matthew 28:18–20, “ Jesus spake unto them, saying: All authority hath been given unto Me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I Commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

There is a twofold work for the Church to accomplish. It is the gathering of the elect through the preaching of the Word, and then the instruction of those thus gathered in the full teaching of the Word. In other words the mission of the Church is to evangelize the lost, and then to teach the whole counsel of God to those who have been evangelized. We see the Church in Acts also ministering to her poor, but ultimately this was to the end that they could be taught the faith. This and this alone is the mission of the Church. R. B. Kuiper says,

‘The church’s task is to teach and preach the Word of God. Whatever else it may properly do is subordinate and subsidiary to that task. This is its supreme task.” He concludes his chapter on this subject by saying: Just because the preaching of the Word is so great a task the church must devote itself to it alone. For the church to undertake other activities, not indissolubly bound up with this one, is a colossal blunder, because it inevitably results in neglect of its proper task. Let not the church degenerate into a social club. Let not the church go into the entertainment business. Let not the church take sides on such aspects of economics, politics, or natural science as are not dealt with in the Word of God. And let the church be content to teach special, not general revelation. Let the church be the church.’

We may add further that since this was the only task given to the Church by her King, the Church should confine herself to carrying out this task and this task alone.” [Morton Smith, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press: Greenville SC]

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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7 Responses to Morton Smith on “Christ’s Commission to the Church”

  1. Kyle says:


    I recently discovered your blog and am happy to have done so! Lots of good material here.

    Question on this: Does the Church have right or authority to speak to the State regarding certain social concerns on which the Word of God is clear? Of course, the two obvious ones these days are abortion and homosexual relationships, but certainly Scripture speaks to more than these.

    To be clear, I don’t mean that the Church should be in the business of promoting a particular political party or legislative bill or economic policy, but rather to compose something like a memorial and present it to the State for consideration?

  2. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Kyle,

    Commenting on section 31.4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith which states, “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” A.A. Hodge wrote, “Synods and councils have no right whatever to intermeddle with any affair which concerns the commonwealth; and they have no right to presume to give advice to, or to attempt to influence, the officers of the civil government in their action as civil officers, except
    (1) in extraordinary cases, where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned, by the way of humble petition, or
    (2) by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

    Therefore, we have a duty, when the State intermeddles with the affairs of the church, which would be the case when it presumed to tell us what we may or may not preach and teach, who God’s people may and may not call as their minister, or who we may or may not admit to the supper. We see for instance the Apostles clearly refusing to obey the orders of the Sanhedrin to stop preaching the gospel of Christ Crucified, and answering them in no uncertain terms: “”We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) In British history, the King’s government attempted to command the church in all of the above regards and both the Puritans and the Scots Presbyterians refused to comply with their instructions and sometimes complained against the actions of the state that overstepped their power by way of petition.

    On other occasions, it is possible that the Magistrate might ask the church for official advice on a matter, at which time we should be willing to give an answer, however in our own times those instances are few and far between.

    However, it is now FAR more common for the church to offer advice to the state on non-ecclesiastical matters when it has NOT been asked for advice. For instance, churches now regularly send petitions to the state advising them on subjects such as immigration, big tobacco, welfare and other “entitlement” programs, supreme court appointments, foreign policy, etc. all of which constitutes the most grievous intermeddling. In turn, as we have told the state how to legislate, in many countries the state is now presuming to tell us what to preach.

    Both sides have grievously blurred God-given lines demarcating their proper spheres and the mission of the church has suffered and will continue to suffer as a result.

  3. The difference I see is that the Church has no right to tell you who to vote for anymore then it has to comment on tax laws and things like that which are out their purview. The church however can and must speak prophetically upon issues like abortion, slavery, and other things which are within its boundries of responsibility.

  4. Zrim says:

    Speaking as one with conventionally conservative conclusions on them, what is meant that issues like abortion and homosexuality are “obvious”? Why are these the only two those of us in “conservative” Presbyterian circles talk about in such ways? Why are we free from being accused of having pet issues when we speak like moral-political activists on these two sacred cows? Why do abortion and homosexuality fall within the purview but issues revolving around taxes and war are somehow hands-off? Is it a function of being arbitrary and selective about what our hobby horses are, or what particularly bothers?

    When it comes to abortion, is what is obvious that the better question is “who gets to decide” (read: state’s rights), or are we all doing the usual, populist question, “may she or mayn’t she”? To this moral-federalist believer, the problem with Roe was that it took the power to decide from states. Is that what you mean, or are we helping to perpetuate the moralistic agenda by assuming the “may/’nt she” question, which one moralist side won in 1973 and which the other moralist side wants to see reversed? Though I am in no way in favor of we Presbyterians furthering any political cause and implying it is the cause of heaven, it sure would be at least refreshing to see some of us realize Roe’s real problem instead of assuming the underlying moralism of the whole debate.

    It seems disengenuous to say the least that social/cultural/political issues specific to “abortion and homosexuality are clear and obvious,” but that the bevy of other issues in the world are somehow gray. Falwell invoked something akin to the SOTC during civil rights, but the Moral Majority only proved how flase it was and that what he really meant was that he wanted the cultural status quo to remian so.

    The only honest answer is that ALL of these things are equally shot through with moral and ethical dimensions; that it would only be fair to take them all on if we are going to address even one or two (what’s that about breaking one Law is equal to breaking them all?); that if we really believe in the SOTC we have nothing to say about any of it, since to take it all on would simply break the back of the Church, to say nothing of keeping Her from Her sole and simple mission of holding out the Gospel for the making and maintaining believers; that, contra Liberalism and Liberal-Conservatism, we must admit that Her mission is not all “moral or ethical” but spiritual; that we have all we need in natural law to argue secular policy. We are no more the slaves of cultural rightists than we are leftists. I wonder how much we really believe that when we casually say that “abortion and homosexuality are obvious.”

    Just as theonomists are Reformed versions of Methodists, such banter betrays Conservative versions of Liberalism.

  5. Kyle says:


    Thanks for the response. So, the Church qua Church is not to intermeddle in the affairs of the State. Do you think the OPC erred when it made this petition to President Clinton? I suppose also we might distinguish the responsibilities of Christians as members of the Church and as citizens of the State.


    All I meant by my phraseology is that it is obvious from the Word of God that abortion and homosexual behavior are sinful. Not all other important and controversial subjects are necessarily as clear. I think, for example, that there are many good arguments against the justice of the Iraq War, but Scripture does not unilaterally prohibit war, so the Iraq War is not “obvious” in the same sense. Now, whether this means that any of these issues are under the purview of the Church is another matter, which is why I asked my question. I also should clarify that I do not mean “federal government” by “State.” “State” indicates whatever government, so my question is meant regardless of the difference in the American system between the powers of the states and the powers of the federal government.

    As a federalist in my own politics, I agree that a (perhaps the) general problem with American government is the shift away from the rights of the states toward greater centralization of authority in Washington. That said, with regard to the specific issue of abortion, I do believe the federal government is constitutionally obligated per Amendment XIV, Section 1 to protect the lives of unborn children, as persons. Neither the states, nor the federal government, may constitutionally (or morally!) continue to allow for abortion on demand.

    I’m afraid, however, that this is beginning to go afield of the topic at hand. . . .

  6. Kyle says:

    The link I embedded in my comment appears not to have worked. Here is the URL:

  7. Matt says:

    I think Zrim is putting his finger on one of the problems in the way we think about ‘church spirituality’!

    As much as I think homosexuality and abortion are wrong, sinful, and bad for society….*how* anti on these things does one need to be? Must I participate in every pro-life rally that comes through town? Must I not vote for a candidate simply because he’s wishy-washy on the abortion question?

    Or what about education? Am I sending my kids to the flames if I send them to public schools? I know of a situation recently where a pastor was essentially forced out of a church….and it all started because his wife asked for prayer at the weekly prayer meeting for wisdom as to handling their children’s education. She announced the she was not physically able to home school any longer and no affordable Christian school option seemed available!

    To hear some Reformed Christians talk on these topics, one almost gets the sense that these are ‘do or die’ issues….the 4th, 5th, and 6th marks of the church…..’extraordinary cases’ (per WCF 31.4).

    IOW, I don’t think it’s enough to simply have a list of things we can tell the government and things should not meddle in…..and yet that’s often the way SOTC gets defined.

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