Take a deep breath because this installment may require multiple readings, but I promise it’s worth your effort. In 1880, Abraham Kuyper (pronounced kie-per) delivered a public address at the inauguration of the Free University in Amsterdam which he entitled “Sphere Sovereignty.” The basic idea is this: Jesus Christ is sovereign over all. Underneath his total sovereignty, Christ has instituted various spheres of human society and established the boundaries (or spheres) of their authority, responsibilities, and competence. In this post, I’m going to apply Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty to our topic of the three governments directly instituted by God.
The family government possesses authority and competence within its prescribed sphere. The same is true with the civil government and the church. Sphere sovereignty, therefore, is concerned with the relationships between these human governments. Although Sphere Sovereignty isn’t a perfect system (no system truly is perfect a world of fallen human beings), we can gather several valuable inferences and applications from Kuyper’s thought.
WHEN SPHERES COLLIDE
In an earlier post in this series on the governments, I made the case that parents, not the state, have the authority and right to teach and discipline their children. Several of you wrote me and asked an important question: “Do parents have a right to subject their children to so-called “gender reassignment surgeries.” Sadly, of course, many states in our nation grant the legal right for parents to do so. In a saner society, the government would legally prevent parents from doing so. Why? Sphere Sovereignty. Parents do not have the right to mutilate their children’s bodies. In such a case, the government is not transgressing the boundary (sphere) of the parent’s authority. Rather, the parent is transgressing the civil and criminal laws which the government is required by God to enforce.
In other words, these spheres (family, state, church) cannot be isolated from one another. Instead, they all bear a responsibility to one another. The church cannot act in any way it pleases, nor can the family or the state. Let me give two more examples.
Christians (especially Roman Catholics) have long taught a social doctrine called “subsidiarity.” The idea is that the responsibility to provide for human flourishing subsides at the most basic unit where it can naturally be exercised. Larger social units should only step in when smaller social units cannot provide solutions.
For instance, if a person is physically unable to work in order to support themselves it does not immediately fall to the federal government to give assistance. Rather, the individual’s nuclear family is the first line of defense. They have a greater responsibility, a greater knowledge of the needs, and a greater motivation to assist than the federal government. If the nuclear family is unable to assist, the need then moves to the next largest social unit, the extended family/church, then the town, then the county, then the state, and so on. But the further you get from that smaller unit competence falls as does motivation and accountability. This is why a government can “lose” $6 Billion but families don’t.
If you and I want to see greater health in our nation, we must reassert the family as a sovereign sphere of responsibility and authority. We have to break the mentality that Washington, D.C. is responsible for solving our problems. We need a greater appreciation for the responsibilities entrusted to each of these governments.
Generally speaking, the church is to honor the civil magistrate. We are to be a good-faith member of society. We are not to be scofflaws. We pray for and submit to police officers as well as other government officials. We believe every single word of Romans 13:1-2:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)
But we also know that the Apostle Paul, who wrote those words constantly disobeyed the governing authorities when they demanded disobedience to Christ. Paul, along with many of the apostles, were fugitives who regularly angered the civil magistrates by their preaching. So, all-things-even, Romans 13:1-2 always applies as a general rule. But, there are some demands from the civil government that the church cannot obey. Just as we believe every word of Romans 13:1-2, we also believe every word of Mark 12:17:
17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:17)
Go back, for a moment, to March 13, 2020. I was standing in the parking lot of our church with several men who had gathered for a workday. We were spreading mulch and discussing whether we ought to have worship service the coming Sunday. The COVID-19 virus was making headlines, and it wasn’t hours before all of civilization around the globe came to a halt. In those first couple weeks, our church tried its best to honor the civil magistrate’s authority in asking us to all stay home. However, after several weeks it became clear that our church could begin meeting again without presenting a grave health threat to congregants. We began meeting outside and then moved indoors. We did all of this even while civil magistrates continued to ban or place draconian limitations on gatherings. It was an act, albeit a mild act, of civil disobedience. We didn’t shout and post about it. We didn’t protest outside of the county offices. We simply felt that Christ’s commands to gather and worship outweighed the guidance of the local magistrates. Some Christians may disagree with our course of action. There is certainly room for Christian liberty and freedom of conscience. We showed patience within our own congregation with those who were not yet comfortable gathering. All this is to say that two spheres of authority collided: the church and the state, and we could not honor both equally.
Each of these examples demonstrates both the reality as well as the limits of “spheres” of governmental sovereignty. As Christians, we have a responsibility to understand the three governments directly instituted by God (family, state, ecclesiastical) and their boundaries. We need to know what God has required of the family, the state, and the church. We need boldness to tell the state what it can and cannot do. We need conviction to live under the authorities which God has prescribed.