I read with great interest the editorial by Bob DeMoor and Gayla Postma in the June 2011 Banner about denominational governance. I appreciate the history and perspective and wholeheartedly endorse the conclusion that perhaps we go back to a less business-like model of governing the church and one that gets "back to what has worked very well for more than 500 years: a Presbyterian/Reformed way of doing church that keeps us all praying, planning, and participating."
Perhaps the only thing I disagreed with was the seemingly token line that everyone seems to be using — "It is neither possible nor desirable to turn back the clock to pre-1980." I'm not sure I see why not. That would mean neglecting 470 years of what worked well.
A question not addressed by the editorial that is part of the problem is the scope of the work of the church today — a scope that puts too much work on the plate of denominational ministries and prevents church assemblies (ministers, elders, and deacons) from really being qualified to do the work that they are supposed to do in overseeing the church's ministry.
We in the Christian Reformed Church of North America are proud of our Kuyperian heritage. We make much of connection with the "all of life" vision of the Dutch theologian, journalist, and statesman, Abraham Kuyper. I think that we can rightly claim the much of the worldview and "all of life" transforming vision that has now captivated large segments of American evangelicalism is due to the CRC's influence. But today the transformationalism that we see as an implication of a Biblical worldview sometimes seems hardly distinct from political activism or social gospelism. And, even worse, the church as church (by which I mean the narrowly defined institutional church in contrast to all Christians) seems to want to take on all aspects of this "all of life" vision as its own work.
The transformationalism of Kuyper was the work of Christians engaged with the world, not the narrowly defined work of the church. A close look at Kuyper's thought not only includes transformationalism and common grace, which we readily espouse today, but it also includes the notions of antithesis and sphere sovereignty. Whereas common grace stresses the common ground we have with all people by virtue of creation and our common bearing of God's image, antithesis stresses the fundamental religious difference between believers and unbelievers and between Biblical engagement of God's creation in all areas of life and worldiness. Common grace without antithesis is merely making friends of the world.
But I want to focus on sphere sovereignty. Kuyper understood that there are a variety of God-created societal structures such as family, church, state, school and academy, business and labor, journalism and media, recreation and the arts, charitable groups, medicine, etc. In other words each of the major areas of human activity are distinct spheres with their own unique ways of operation. Sphere sovereignty is the idea that the various God-created societal structures are directly accountable to God in their “sphere.” When one societal structure meddles in the affairs of another it is violating “sphere sovereignty” and preventing the God-ordained operation and accountability of the particular sphere. In other words, these societal structures are not merely instruments of the church or of the state, but they are God-created entities each with their own responsibilities.
We recognize the separation of church and state. The Christian school movement denies the controlling role of the state in the education sphere (and even the controlling role of the church). Most people recognize the unique role of parents in raising children over against the involvement of the church or the state. So we have in our society a dim recognition of the notion of sphere sovereignty.
So part of the problem in the CRCNA today is that the church has stepped outside of its bounds in a variety of ways. This leads to confusion about the task of the church and forces ministers, elders, and deacons in church assemblies to act on matters outside of the "narrow" confines of Scripture and Confession. Leaning toward a business model of church governance is itself a violation of sphere sovereignty. What works in the business world is not always good for
I conclude with several examples of where I think the principle of sphere sovereignty is compromised in our denominational governance. Any governance re-structuring should take these observations into
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. Relief and development are not the work of the church! It is the work of Christians, of course, (and humanity in general). I suggest that the reason World Missions and CRWRC and, even now it appears, the denomination and CRWRC, have had such a difficult time over the past several decades is because we are acting contrary to Creational Law (sort of like trying to jump off a cliff and not expect gravity to bring us down). CRWRC is a fantastic Christian organization doing fantastic things for the kingdom of God, but it is the work of Christians, not the church as church. Current pressures to allow CRWRC to function differently from other agencies in terms of governance are a symptom of this. Cut CRWRC loose from the church. It doesn't get any ministry share dollars anyway. It can still have a constitution and by-laws rooted in the Reformed confessions. It can still have a board that is made up of CRCNA members. It can still have a close connection with the churches in terms of volunteers and financial support. Let's get the church out of this business. It will help the church and it will help CRWRC.
Calvin College. Just as Christian schools in our tradition are not parochial, neither should liberal arts higher education be. Some argue that the connections with the church would erode if Calvin College were not owned and operated and governed by the CRCNA. We have examples to the contrary with Dordt, Trinity, and Redeemer. For all practical purposes Calvin College is self-governed. And what do ministers and elders and deacons know about higher education or the specifics of biology or economics or nursing etc. as disciplines? Again, let's cut Calvin College loose. It can still have a constitution and by-laws rooted in the Reformed confessions. It can still have a board that is made up of CRCNA members. It's board can take the necessary steps that its professor adhere to its adopted faith commitments. It can still have a close connection with the churches in terms of financial support and enrollment.
Global Warming Debate. Synod 2010 spent an inordinate amount of time discussing global warming with one delegate attempting to debunk some of the claims held by the majority of climate scientists today. This was due in part to an action by the Board of Trustees in adopting a statement that acknowledged the claims of that majority. Both of these were violations of sphere sovereignty. Synods and boards of the church have no competence to adjudicate the scientific debate or, for that matter, policy questions surrounding it. The church as church can declare God's Word concerning earth-keeping, creation care, stewardship, etc. (and it has done so in our Contemporary Testimony, and, thankfully, the final recommendation from Synod 2010 focused on these declarations). If a fuller study of Scripture and Confession is
needed, the church can tackle that, but the church should leave scientific questions to the scientists, economic questions to economists, policy issues to the politicians.
Evolution Debate. Another sphere sovereignty compromise was last year's overture concerning Declaration F concerning the evolution of the human body. The CRCNA had violated sphere sovereignty in passing judgment on a technical biology question--let the Christian biologists do that. What does Synod know about evolutionary biology? Synod can
and should declare what the Scriptures and Confessions teach. Synod 2010 in removing Declaration F confined itself to judgments as to the teaching of Scripture and the Confessions. This year's issue, because it is more Biblically and theologically oriented, is within the purview of the church as church.
Office of Social Justice. Social justice is not the work of the church! It is the work of the civil magistrate! Should Christians be concerned about public justice? Of course! Should Christians band together in the interest of social causes? Absolutely! They might even make common cause with unbelievers in the interest of justice. But the church and its assemblies and agencies should not. This sounds so strange to us because we fail to distinguish between church as
institution, governed by ministers, elders, and deacons, according to God's Word and church as organism consisting of all believers in their various callings, one of which is to pursue justice. Let's leave the good work to groups of Christians, even Reformed Christians, such as the Association for Public Justice or other associations of Christians concerned about these matters outside the sphere of the church. They too can have a constitution and by-laws rooted in the Reformed confessions. They too can still have a board that is made up of CRCNA members. Justice within the church is another matter. Of course, this is not "public" justice, it is a matter of church discipline. Issues such as racial reconciliation in the church, poverty among fellow believers, disabilities and accessibility questions in the church, etc. must be taken up within the church. There is no room for injustice in the church and, of course, it is within the sphere of the church to deal with such matters.
So, indeed, let's turn the clock back a few decades. Let's go back to the days when the work of the church was differentiated from the work of the kingdom. Churches in the Reformed tradition in the past have understood clearly the narrow confines of the church's work. We have distinguished between the church as organism and the church as
institution. We have recognized the spirituality of the church and that its authority is limited to spiritual concerns. We have common ground based on the Scriptures and our Confessions, but when we step outside our God-ordained sphere we bring all sorts of human opinion and disagreements sometimes emerge, disagreements that cannot be adjudicated by Scripture or Confession. A church that removes sphere-sovereignty-violating matters from its concern perhaps will be
easier to govern using the genius of Presbyterian and Reformed church governance embodied in our Confessions and Church Order.