When the CRCNA wants to speak on “issues” such as race relations, justice, environment, for example, voices of caution and concern are always raised about whether the church may speak on issues such as these which are not within the church’s realm of expertise or responsibility. We are influenced by our beloved forefather, Abraham Kuyper, who taught us about “sphere sovereignty.” The creation of church committees or task forces or agencies to address such issues makes us even more uncomfortable.
Our discomfort is a good thing, too. The church’s expertise is not unlimited after all; moreover we come from a solid history of keeping political and ecclesiastical activity separate. The church as institution, we say, should not meddle in business or schools or government, and likewise no business or government has the right to meddle in the church! Seems clear to us!
A pastor telling his parishioners how to vote? Wrong, we say. The church telling the government how to run the economy? Wrong again. Certainly Christians need to be involved in their societies, need to vote, need to help shape policy and campaign and run for office. Absolutely. That is the activity of the church as organism, the living breathing Body of Christ at work in the world for his purposes. But the church as institution has no business, we say, in advising about politics. That’s a whole different matter, and the church (whether denomination or congregation) must attend to business within its own sphere. CRC church order specifically says that the structures of governance of the denomination must deal only with ecclesiastical matters (except by way of careful exception). (See Church Order Art. 28 in Peter Borgdorff’s Manual of CRC Government, 2008, p. 123; and also Henry DeMoor’s Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary, pp 156-159)
Yes, but…. There’s another chapter to the story. Denominations ARE institutions, and as such they are endlessly intertwined with other institutions in the culture. And they DO exercise influence and, yes, POWER, whether they want to or not. And whether they are even aware of it or not. Denominations and congregations are part of the economy, and the education system, and part of the labor force, and the building trades, and traffic patterns, and consumer behavior patterns, and on and on. Their retirement funds are part of the stock market and the banking business. Their parking lots affect neighborhoods and the community dynamics around them. And each and every decision made by the congregation or the denomination has ripple effects OUTSIDE the ecclesiastical sphere! And these ripple effects are rarely morally neutral!
So to say that the church as institution MAY NOT make decisions outside its proper sphere is to pretend to a possibility that does not exist. There are (unintended) impacts and they are not negligible! To close our eyes to this is to be irresponsible. To pretend that we can limit our agendas to ecclesiastical business is disobedience. We are failing to live out our calling as kingdom agents. Perhaps the first rule of good medical practice should be the church’s starting place as well – first of all to do no harm. That’s a good humble place to begin. If we bent every effort to making sure that our life as an institution in society had only minimal unintended negative side effects – just trying to ensure THAT would demand our best efforts and our constant vigilance. Let’s not be naïve. We know that sin will taint our efforts even when we are most committed to following Jesus. We MUST make sure that our institutions accept responsibility for the unintended non-ecclesiastical negative side-effects of our ecclesiastical decisions.