The Church and the Exercise of Non-Ecclesiastical Power

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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.

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It is one thing for  an institution to take a position on some concern in the society or culture after a review and decision  by a governing body. It is quite another for  leaders of a committee or institution to speak for the institution about a concern when they have not been authorized to do so and when the institution has not spoken through it's elected and authorized body. They certainly have the right to speak for themselves, but not for all members of the institution unless authorized to do so.

Informing the church body on social and political issues is a special task of the deacons, but I've never seen it performed.  And I regret not doing it when personally I had the privilege and the responsibility of that office some years ago.  The author should write again and create a fire under the diaconate to take up this task and to do it ethically well!

Dick Berends

Holt, MI

You make a good point.  I think, though, that when a congregation begins to speak out on issues when members in local congregations have not taken the time and have not been encouraged to ask themselves and each other what authentic Christian discipleship might look like where these issues are concerned, the denomination is asking for trouble.  We have to do much more locallly to encourage each other to discern what discipleship in politics, scholarship, personal finance, personal consumption, law enforcement, sports, entertainment, etc.  should look like. 

 Karl, Thanks for putting your thoughts out there on a very important topic. Much harder said than done. To have our Deacons out there 'representing' us on these matters hardly seems feasable to me. Though as Christians we are encouraged to be "like minded", in the real world, it isn't happening. Are we to follow the CRC's lead on 'political' issues? Our Deacon's? Our own? We can spend all day (and night!) as an institution, church, etc... trying to reconcile all these topical issues with the Bible & never come into anything approaching complete agreement. Though the CRC's take as of late in my opinion has been more on the side of compassion when it comes to social justice issues, the environment, etc... I don't believe my deacons are in lock step with the CRC and my congregation certainly isn't (yet???). Never is it more evident than when a presidential election is in the offing. Not looking forward to 2015! God help us.

 

Participant

This is good advice.  It's true that Kuyper's spheres are not independent circles.  They do overlap one another, however they do so in a very minimal way.  Where the spheres do overlap the Church should be ready to stand against (or support) the Government, the Academy and other institutions. Your 'hippocratic' approach should be especially heeded when the Institutional Church wades into issues in which good Christians can reach opposing, mutually exclusive conclusions (i.e. social justice & environmental policies).

Community Builder

The Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons does charge deacons to "[b]e prophetic critics of the waste, injustice, and selfishness in our society."

The church CANNOT make decisions outside its proper sphere, for outside its proper sphere it has no authority to make decisions.  The Church cannot and does not decide what the nation's economic policy is, or whether immigration policy should be this or that.  The church (with the exception of wholly owned subsidiary institutions like the seminary or Calvin College) also does not make decisions regarding what a school will or will not teach.

But, as you say, the church cannot help but exercise influence.  Decisions we make regarding what we will or won't invest pension funds in have an impact on - influence - markets.  Building in one place or not another, and the type of building constructed affect property values and other architecture in the neighborhood even if unintentionally.  Zoning issues come into play and the congregations will understandably attempt to influence those, too.  So if we are striving for some purity of spheres in which none of them influence one another, you are surely correct to point out its impossibility, but then, neither Kuyper nor those who have striven to implement his thought on the subject would advocate such a thing.  You are, in other words, creating a bit of a straw man by eliding concepts ("decide" and "influence" which are distinct).

But I would say that the church MAY NOT say "Thus saith the Lord" when the Lord has not spoken.  When it comes to running the economy, the Bible enjoins us to care for the downtrodden - and also says if they won't work, let them not eat.  Can the church, as institution, definitively say that the Lord saith support (or don't support) the latest Farm bill?  It seems to me, the word of the Lord on that question is not clear.  If we nevertheless presume to declare that the Lord says one or the other, we take the Lord's name in vain.  In my opinion, the CRCNA has far too frequently crossed that line in recent years, even through majority votes at synods, claiming the Lord has spoken clearly and specifically on questions that are in fact unclear and uncertain with regards to the Lord's word.

We should also bear in mind that, both within the church and outside it, when she speaks as institution the ordinary presumption is that she is always in some fashion prefacing its statements with "thus saith the Lord."  If we don't mean to say that, we must be extremely intentional and direct in explaining that we are not.  We should be extremely cautious regardless - not because it's such a terrible thing to vote one way or another on this bill or the other one, but because it is a terrible thing to take the Lord's name in vain.

Sphere Sovereinty to me indicates that members of the CRC church must get involved in the other areas in order to influence society.  For education, we do that by establishing schools, with labour we do that by suppoerting Christian Labour associations, in politics and social justice we do that by supporting various groups who wrestle with the situation. If the results of these deliberations indicate that churches should manage their affairs differently, by going green etc. so be it! However many churches do not have such a model and they are stuck with getting the church leadership to pronounce various concerns properly dealt with in other ways.  Perhaps it is time for the church leadership to be more vocal about the members actually getting involved with Christian organizations and groups dealing with the issues to help us all understand our world better.

Community Builder

Hi Karl,

We cannot even get our congregations to talk politics civily after worship in the parking lot.  How do you expect us to act politically and all this is done in the name of the church order and being reformed?

Larry

Community Builder

I would encourage your congregation to read and study together Richard Mouw's book "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World" (IVP Books, second edition, 2010).

I must say that overall I am really impressed with this blog.It is easy to see that you are impassioned about your writing.