The Church Has A Twofold Mission And Three Marks And Ending Payday Lenders Is None Of Them

Just before our Lord Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he gave the visible, institutional church as twofold mission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18b–20; ESV). The twofold mission of the church is to reach the nations and to disciple the reached. In the Reformation, as the the Reformed Churches corrected the abuses that had developed in the preceding centuries, they articulated the mission of the church in terms of three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (Belgic Confession, art. 29). Nevertheless, over the last two millennia, as the church serves the risen Savior between his ascension and his return, she has often lost site of the mission and the marks of the church. It is a great temptation for Christians to demand the visible, institutional church to address whatever social ills that concern them most. The question here is not whether Christians should engage the many ills that confront society nor is it whether Christians should engage the culture. The question is how and whether the visible, institutional church is authorized by her Lord to do these things? My case is this: there is simply no evidence that Christ ever intended the visible, institutional church to address the question of predatory lending. Search the internet for the phrase “the church needs to address” and the sentence is completed in any number of ways: mental health, race relations, bioethics, sex etc. Right now, judging by the results produced by Google’s algorithm, “mental health” seems to be cause ju jour.

The Presenting Symptom

The question of payday loans arises because of a tweet today by Christianity Today news editor, Daniel Silliman calling attention to the efforts by black churches in Texas to oppose the spread of predatory payday lenders in predominantly black communities. The story appears in a publication named The Texas Standard, which is affiliated with public radio in Texas. It chronicles the effort by pastors of black churches, who banded together and mobilized the congregations, to lobby the Dallas city council to support legislation to restrict so-called “pay day lenders.”  Again, the practices of the pay day lenders and many other issues besides are topics worthy of discussion and concern. The question is this: has the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned the visible, institutional church to speak to such issues? Had the church such a mandate one would think that it would be splashed across the pages of the New Testament but it simply is not. The absence of any such divine command or authorization is striking.

To address the exegetical elephant in the room. It is true that our Lord himself entered the temple, overturn the tables of the money lenders and he did drive them out of the temple (Matt 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; John 2:13–22). Did he thereby implicitly authorize the visible church to regulate predatory lending? Dallas is a great American city but we may not reasonably argue that it is the Lord’s temple. Did the human gospel writers preserve that episode for us with the intent of authorizing the church to regulate the financial industry? Did the Holy Spirit inspire the gospel writers to that end? If so, the churches around Wall Street have been grossly negligent. To ask those questions is to answer them. The Spirit inspired the gospels and the gospel writers recorded that narrative as part of a larger narrative about Jesus of Nazareth. He cleansed the Temple because he is the Holy One of Israel (Ps 78:41–42; Isaiah 5:18ff; 12:6; 17:7). He was illustrating how corrupt the visible church had become and what he would do by his death. He was demonstrating that Jesus is the temple, that he would die and that on the third day he would be raised. He was illustrating the end of the types and shadows and the coming reality that his church would become, by virtue of union with him his temple (1 Peter 4:14; 1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:14–16; Eph 2:21). If we may use the cleansing of the temple to justify using the visible church as an instrument to achieve the policy goal of restricting pay day lenders then what shall we do with Jesus walking on water (Matt 14:22-33)? Is that an implicit call for the church to regulate environmental policy? Is the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 14:1–28) grounds for the church to regulate mental health policy? Is the woman the issue of blood (Matt 9:20–22) grounds for the church to regulate public health policy? Of course not. Such inferences are gross abuses of Holy Scripture. They are not far, however, from the way the old theological liberals used Scripture. They made it, as J. Gresham Machen said, a wax nose to be twisted this way and that to justify whatever they would.

The Commission

What we do see in Scripture is a very limited mandate for the visible, institutional church. In case this way of speaking of church is unfamiliar, what I mean is this: the church may be considered in two aspects, as the visible, institutional church and as invisible, i.e., those believers in all times and all places ordinarily found in some visible, organized expression of the true church. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) spoke of the church as organization and as organism. Christians as individual believers or in groups, acting not on behalf of the visible church but as Christian citizens of the secular state are free to organize and to advocate for policies that they believe to be beneficial to society. The church considered, however, as an organization founded by our Lord Jesus Christ and explicitly commissioned to reach and teach and explicitly chartered by him to administer the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:13–20), the preaching of the holy gospel and the administration of the holy sacraments (Heidelberg 82, 83). Christ explicitly instituted church discipline (Matt 18:15–20). We see the apostolic church using this key (1 Cor chapters 5 and 6). We have the example of our Lord’s sending of the twelve to preach (Mark 3:14) and the great commission (Matt 28:18–20). The visible church is clearly and unequivocally commissioned to do these things. We see the apostolic church, through the book of Acts and in the epistles fulfilling this mandate. The Apostles preached the gospel everywhere as it began to spread from Judea, to Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8), as our Lord commanded them and us to do. Nowhere do see a command for the visible church to regulate public health or finances. Such things are beyond the charter and competence of the visible church.

The Marks

The late medieval church was deeply corrupt. Reformation was a difficult and messy business. Even where the Reformation was adopted in the sixteenth century it was not always clear to Christians where they ought to attend services and with which church they ought to united. Thus, the Reformed churches spoke of the marks of the true church. The Reformed confess that there are two main competitors to the true church: the false church  and sects (Belgic Confession, art. 29). The false church was and remains the Roman communion. They arrogates authority and power to herself that she does not have. She claims to have a bishop whom she claims to be the universal vicar of Christ on the earth. She claims to have authority to add five sacraments to the two instituted by Christ. She claims to be able to sell indulgences (still!) to remit purgatory for the living and the dead. She claims to have a priesthood with the authority and power to perform memorial sacrifices that turn away God’s wrath. These claims demonstrate that she is a false church. The Reformed churches also faced a plague of sects that developed, which confused their members and brought the Reformation into disrepute.

“Sect” was one of the ways the Reformed and Lutheran churches referred to the Anabaptists, the spiritualists, and to the anti-Trinitarian rationalists. Considered together, scholars speak of these as the “radical reformation.” The judgement of the Reformed churches was (and is) that though they were radical they were no part of the Reformation.

To alleviate confusion the Reformed churches distinguished three indicators (marks) of the true church. The first is the pure preaching of the gospel. Neither Rome nor the Radicals preached the pure gospel of salvation by unconditional divine favor alone (sola gratia), through knowledge, assent, and heartfelt trust alone (sola fide). They preached salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. They added man-made laws to God’s law and thereby burdened Christian consciences. They took the eyes of believers away from Christ and his finished work and aimed them at their own performance of the law as part of their salvation.

The second mark is the pure administration of the sacraments. Rome added five false sacraments and corrupted the two that Christ instituted. She made the sacraments into magic, whereby anyone who is baptized was said to be initially justified and magically given new life. She made the Lord’s Supper into a memorial sacrifice made daily to turn away the wrath of God, thereby adding to the work of Christ and turning the Lord’s Supper into a blasphemy (Heidelberg 80). Some of the Radicals corrupted the sacrament of baptism by restricting it to those only who are able to make a profession of faith. They radically separated the Old and New Testaments and suggested that the covenant of grace was not really present under Abraham or Moses and that God’s revealed will to include children outwardly in the covenant of grace had changed in the New Testament. The Reformed churches denounced that revision as a corruption of the sacrament of baptism (Belgic Confession art. 34).

The third mark is the use of church discipline. Our Lord Jesus instituted a process to help a believer when he found to be in sin and if he resists correction. According to Jesus, we ought to love each other enough to correct one another and even, should it come to that, to put them out of the visible church in the hope that the Lord will use that process to convict them of their sin and to bring them to new life and to true faith in Jesus. No congregation does this perfectly but either a church has discipline or it does not. Absent this mark, there is no true church.

Historically, the church has barely been able to observe these three marks let alone do all the other things people think it should.

The Twofold Kingdom

One of the great breakthroughs of the Reformation was to recognize that Christ is Lord over all things, which Kuyper expressed famously, in his Lectures on Calvinism, by declaring, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Amen. The Protestant Reformers recognized, however, that Christ, who is Lord over all, administers his kingdom in two spheres. Kuyper himself spoke of three spheres (family, church, and state). Calvin spoke of a “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen), the sacred and the secular. Luther, of course, spoke of two kingdoms.

In this space I have argued for several years that we ought to take up Calvin’s language of a “twofold kingdom,” mutatis mutandis, i.e., recognizing that we disagree with the Medieval and Reformation notion of a state-church. The distinction between the two spheres of Christ’s administration of the world is a distinction that has largely been lost in the Modern period but if we recover it and put it to use here it will help Christians to fulfill their vocation to be good citizens, to engage the culture and it will help the church to fulfill its mission and retain the marks.

When we realize that society belongs to the sphere of Christ’s general providence and the church belongs to Christ’s special (i.e., saving) providence we have categories that help us to understand how to think about our engagement with culture and our social concerns.

This is not a brief for pay day lenders. By any definition they clearly usurious in their practices. So are credit card companies. Apparently, if the article is to be believed (something a critical reader may not simply assume) there are payday lenders in Texas who are super usurious in their lending practices. They are predatory. Nevertheless, Christians may we disagree over whether or how to address them. Does the church as an institution have authority to speak to these things? When a minister is ordained to his office, is he vested with authority to speak on behalf of Christ to what businesses should he allowed to operate, to zoning, and related issues? No. He is ordained to the ministry of Word and sacrament. He is ordained to preach the law and the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to help the elders administer discipline.

Surely, insofar as the sermon requires the minister to apply the Word to the congregation, he may speak to a broad variety of moral and ethical issues as they arise naturally from a given passage but he must always be certain that he has authority to say, “thus says the Lord.” He is not free the burden the conscience of the Christian with his policy preferences and personal opinions.

Again, Christians are free to join together as individuals to address any number of issues but the visible, institutional church has a very specific twofold commission and three marks and she is bound by the Chief Shepherd to see to that mission and to those marks.


The Reformation happened for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that the church became so entangled with the civil government and secular world generally that the two, the secular and the sacred, became practically indistinguishable. The church regularly acted in a magisterial capacity and abused its divinely-given offices and authority. It trampled the liberties of Christians and bound consciences. Much of Luther’s early work was to re-assert the biblical distinction between the two spheres and to reclaim The Freedom of the Christian (1520).

The church is frequently tempted to step out of her lane, to speak to issues of concern about which it has no divine mandate. Christians are frequently tempted to try to use the visible church as a lever to try to achieve social goals but when we do we corrupt the mission and the marks and thus destroy, were it possible, the very institution they seek to use to achieve their societal goals.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Would the same reasoning and conclusion hold true for the church (as an institution/organization) supporting a group like the Alliance for Defending Freedom? ADF does good work, but it seems out of the purview of the church’s mission.

    • Perhaps. It might depend on the circumstances. If a congregation retained the services of ADF or found themselves in a court case with ADF representing them, that might be one thing. “Supporting” is vague. The church as an institution has a natural interest in religious liberty. The church retains an accountant and others to provide services. I don’t know if the ADF can be retained in that way or if the church would have to find another avenue for legal counsel. I do think that congregations would be wise to retain counsel before they need it.

      As a general rule, I think that diaconal/benevolent offerings ought to go to church members and to ecclesiastical causes. Thus, I think Christians ought to support pro-life groups et al but I doubt that the church, as an institution should be doing that or supporting the Salvation Army.

  2. Here’s a rabbit trail for you. You mention the commission of the church. Why didn’t the authors of the Westminster standards address that commission? Any idea? It would have saved us many a headache! I can’t speak to the other confessions. Maybe Ursinus said something I’m not aware of. Thanks.

    • Hi Keith,

      We live, think, and speak in the wake of the great missionary movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Westminster Divines did not. They were conscious of the mission of the church but, frankly, they were in the midst of Christendom, where most of the known world was considered at least nominally Christian. There was some awareness of the new world. Exploration had begun and some migration had begun but the divines were in the midst of the a civil war. They weren’t strategizing how to reach the world. They were strategizing about how to keep the English (and Scots) church from the Papists and the burgeoning Anglo-Catholics, Remonstrants, Socinians (and arguably from the Baptists).

  3. Perhaps I’m overly simplistic, but it takes a serious and consuming commitment to maintain the 2-fold mission of the church and the 3 marks (simply look at the churches in Revelation), or the epistles. As I look over American evangelicalism, and the churches which profess to some degree the confessional standards, it has not done so, but has often been diverted into missions that are foreign to its calling, albeit often morally commendable. O, that we would reform our worship, embrace our mission, and steadfastly maintain the 3 marks, seeking first the Kingdom.

  4. Thanks for another helpful article, Dr. Clark. On Keith K’s question of Westminster Confession and the commission of the church, I like to point folks to WCF 25.3: “Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.” This is the church’s commission – the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, by the ministry of the ordinary means of grace, as blessed by the sovereign Spirit.

  5. Try rewriting this article by replacing Pay Day Loans with Abortion on Demand. What do you think?

  6. I am a Southern Baptist, and I thoroughly enjoy, and am blessed by, your blog. Reading your words has made me ponder if I am living in obedience to God by congregating with a local Southern Baptist fellowship, however. I fear that I may be sinning by doing so, and when I reflect on Romans 14:23, I need to consider that reality.

    Can you provide some thoughts or links, perhaps, that might help me better address this within my own heart and within my family? If you don’t have time, then I completely understand. Thank you again for your faithfulness to proclaim the Word.

Comments are closed.