This question is being discussed continually these days, and not without reason. We are living in a time of great upheaval, both politically and ecclesially, and it is common for people in such times to step back and ask themselves, what exactly should we be doing here?
When it comes to Christians, at least as represented in the blogosphere, we have begun to ask ourselves the question found in the title to this post more frequently and fervently. And we have also begun to articulate very different answers.
You have the answer of neo-Anabaptists, who say that the church is called to form counter-cultural communities, living out a vision of pacifistic social justice. You have the answer of Westminster West, suggesting the church’s role is simply to preach Law and Gospel, and administer the sacraments, and that Christian faith has nothing to contribute to broader pursuits in society. And you have the answer of Radical Orthodoxy and other groups which suggest the institutional church’s role is to direct all of society.
What might the political theology and ecclesiology of the magisterial Reformers say to this question? I think their first response would be to divide the question, or ask a counter-query: What is the church you are talking about?
When we ask “what is the church’s mission?” are we referring to the institutional church, constituted as a visible fellowship surrounding the sacraments and the elders of the church? Or are we referring to the corpus christianorum, Kuyper’s “organic church”, the sum total of all believers as they exist in the world?
It seems to me that, if we are speaking about the institutional church, the Westminster West approach might be best on a general level. That is, it seems the institutional church’s mission should be to do what it is best equipped to do: preach, teach, baptize, celebrate the eucharist, and give general guidance to parishioners (including, if necessary, discipline of sorts, as well as general direction in how to live as a Christian in the world). If we are speaking about the organic church, then it seems that the best answer is Kuyper’s approach: each Christian should seek to do their work to the glory of the triune God revealed in Christ, and for the common good. They should seek, by the grace of God, to reorder their little corner of the fallen world, so that it reflects God’s original creative intentions, for it is this reordering that is God’s redemptive intention. Grace, after all, is meant to perfect nature. Arguably, too, the anabaptists and the Radical Orthodox preserve this point: both are concerned to stress that the Christian live his whole life in submission to Jesus as Lord, and to see all of reality in the light of the triune God’s creative love. This leads quite directly into a Kuyperian approach, if these views are shorn of their political and theological errors.
All of this is another way of saying: the answer to our major question should be inflected along the lines of vocation. Those given to spend most of their time ordering visible fellowships (i.e., pastors), should spend their time doing things that only pastors can do: expositing the scriptures, shepherding parishioners according to general scriptural principles and prudence, leading public worship. Those who have been called to spend most of their time outside the institutional church should do what they are called to.
Conflating these two leads to crusader churches, Amish ghettoes, and lots of other mistakes. Preserving the distinction, on the other hand, gives us an institutional church devoted to excellence in being what it is, and Christian men and women doing their work in the world to the glory of Christ and for the good of their neighbours.
There is one major objection I can see to this perspective: the office of deacons. In this office we seem to have an institution in the visible church which is devoted to things outside the realm of preaching and sacramental activity. But I think it would be at least possible to argue that the office of deacon was created in the early church for strictly prudential reasons. That is, while human society in general, and the magistrate as representative of that society in particular, have a moral obligation to help the poor, unsurprisingly in many cases they do not. Because the corpus christianorum‘s mission is to restore nature, and this is inclusive of restoring the poor to a place within human society, the earliest members of that corpus determined a wise way to deal with this problem (especially the problem as it manifested within the corpus) was to create members of visible fellowships that would have a dedicated responsibility to address this situation. It might be at least arguable that in a society where these conditions were not present, the office would not need to be present. That is, if the corpus christianorum (or even just the society, or the state) were taking care of the poor sufficiently, the visible assemblies of the church would not need to.
Another objection to the above position might be: does this imply clergy can never speak of specific political or cultural issues? I think the answer is that they may, but then again, it would be a matter of prudence as to when these things should be done. For clergymen who are not trained on the specific issues that they might wish to speak on, their course of action should be restraint: only speak as far as you are trained to do so. When it comes to moral instruction, this might mean sticking to more general principles of morality and prudence presented in scripture and the created order, and leaving more particular judgments to people whose calling it is to determine such things.