Whatever Happened to Sphere Sovereignty?
June 12, 2011
Updated July 3, 2018
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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.
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I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I too think the CRCNA has over stepped it's bounds in many of the areas you mention. But there are also some worries I have. First, I'm not so sure the Kuyper a lot of people mention is the 'real' Kuyper, this is not an attack on your use of Kuyper, just an observation. One central aspect of Kuyper's doctrine of the church that we often miss is the centrality of the church as institution. If there is no true church (as defined by the Belgic Confession), then the transformative work neo-Calvinists/'Kuyperians' tend to emphasize cannot properly work, according to Kuyper. We need to be continuously made light and salty (to borrow biblical metaphors) in order to be salt and light to the world, and this occurs in the church (you seem to be getting at this point in your post). Second, there is a strange obsession we in the CRCNA have with Kuyper. Kuyper is a relatively minor figure in the history of reformed thought, and yet he gets much more prominence over the likes of Calvin, Witsius, Turretin, Owen, Edwards, etc. I think it may be helpful for the CRCNA to reclaim more of its reformed heritage beyond Kuyper and the dutch reformers. The Synod of Dordt was not just a collection of dutch reformers but also reformers from around Europe. Third, why should we hold to sphere sovereignty? This in many ways is tied to my last point, why should we choose Kuyper's sphere sovereignty over other and different reformed models? Sphere sovereignty, or anything like it, is something the confessions remain silent about. It thus has no binding for professing members or pastors in the CRCNA, and this seems correct to me. I don't think it is something Scripture clearly teaches and is debatable. Fourth, I'm not so sure Kuyper saw as clean a cut between spheres as you make him out to. And even if he does, I'm not sure that I would find his bifurcations plausible and non-arbitrary.
To end on a good note, I think you are right when you mention that, "[t]his [the church stepping outside its bounds] 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." The church is the body of God guided by the Scriptures and our confessions and is thus confined to what the Scriptures and confessions speak to.
One of the casualties in the ever expanding denominational structures and ministries has been the local church's ability and/or willingness to staff adequately on the local level to reach their own communities with the transforming gospel of Christ. I have heard again and again, that we (local congregation) have to pay 100% or our denominational ministry shares before we can consider funding and staffing a new local ministry oportunity. I have even sat in a congregational meeting to decide to daughter a congregation or not, and heard people speak against that because that congregation did not pay 100% of the denominational ministry causes. Of course that approach is short sighted as all congregations could pay all their ministry shares and keep shrinking locally until that 100% amounts to nothing. I tend to agree that the growing blending of the local institutional church's core calling with the glocal calling of Christians in all "spheres" is creating array of difficulties as to oversight and accountability. What would it look like if a local church discipled people to know and follow Christ and then encouraged them to get behind some Christian citizen organizations where ever they find them, even giving them a recommended list. Also if my historical memory is correct, having Calvin College as our CRC College, is not Kuyperian, but it is Calvinist as in Geneva in his day.
I have been delegated to one synod (2009) and there were certainly discussions of financial and structural matters that were miles over my head (and I read the agenda) , and yet we were called on to vote on these matters. The banner article may be saying there are crucial matter at stake, however, I am afraid only a few in the CRC actually grasp what the incremental changes entail at any one synod. Keep learning I guess. This over extention (if that is what it is) also is precluding the necessary time needed to actually deliberate among a large group of new acquaintances called delegates. Lord have mercy and guide Synod!
Very well said. This message needs to be reiterated as much as possible.
The Confession reminds us the church has only 3 tasks: preach / administer sacraments / practice discipline. If the church does this properly, Christians will live lives of gratitude working in all of these different spheres.
I'm quite late to this discussion, but the green covered Banner containing the Editorial that essentially "takes sides" on Climate Change was cold water in my face, causing me to take a closer look at all that has developed, denominationally speaking, in the past ten years or so. Woah!
Like Terry Grey, I too am wondering what happened to our concept of "sphere sovereignty?" Certainly, as Noah points out, its a bit arbitrary that we should use this principle to align the jurisdiction of our spheres. He says "why should we choose Kuyper's sphere sovereignty over other and different reformed models?" One answer to that, among others, is that it works well, and other models don't work well.
Mind you, there are other answers too, but breaking down the human task into "spheres" or "jurisdictions" is pretty much the only historical alternative to a "single sphere authority," also known as totalitarianism, dictatorship, centrism, and a bunch of other words.
The middle ages saw a perpetual battle between two spheres (king and pope), but the theory underlying the claim of both was that whoever was in control, they controlled everyone and everything about everyone. It was not until the Reformation, which I started in England long before Luther was born (the Reformation being, essentially, a back-to-reading-the-Bible movement, which did start in England), that the idea of multiple spheres of authority was introduced. Each sphere of authority (juridiction if you will) was NOT to be dominated by a mega-authority like crown or pope. That simple idea was the key.
If Noah wants to look more broadly than just Kuyper, who he perceives as a minor historical figure, I might suggest looking at John Locke, whose opposed the status quo thinking of his time that regarded the crown as an all-powerful heir of Adam. (This idea promoted in Locke's time by Robert Filmer -- see Locke's First Treatise of Govenment). Locke suggested instead (see beginning of Second Treatise) that the crown is not the all powerful heir of Adam, and that the authority of the king must be distinguished from that of a master over slave (business), husband over wife (family), etc. A bit rudimentary, but "sphere sovereignty" none the less, many years before Kuyper was born. And yes, John Locke was a devout Calvinist from a devout Calvinist family.
The real world implementation of Locke's thinking, first in the defining of govermental authority in the United States, and then in quite a number of modern democracies thereafter (England and Canada included), are incredibly strong evidence, proof in the pudding if you will, about how well sphere sovereignty works. Where can you find more political freedom, yet more prosperity, than in those countries who avoided totalitarianism by implementing what we know of as sphere sovereignty?
Exactly why does sphere sovereignty work so good? It has to do with human limitation and competency. An illustrative case in point is this church denomination, right now. A Creation Stewardship Task Force Report is just out, a long report to Synod which mirrors the Banner Editor's position taken on global warming. The global warming question is, practically speaking, as infinitely a complex a set of scienctific, economic, and political questions as has ever existed. So why would it be that a church denomination is comptetent to speak for all of its members as to the answers on all of these questions? Think about the competency issue. One-half of the 188 synodical delegates in 2012 will be pastors. Fine occupation, but this great men and women have no particular education, experience or anything else that makes them qualified to decide for all CRC members what this task force wants those synodical delegates to decide. I could go on about the Hope Equals project (World Missions project examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), adopting the UN Millenium Goals, so much of what "social justice" is about, etc. In each of these cases, the denomination acts incompetently because it is acting outside is sphere, which also means it is acting outside its expertise.
So yes, I'm a "sphere sovereignty" fan. For both principle and pragmatic reasons (getting principle right usually results in practical advantage). From my vantage point, the denomination is rather quickly deciding it likes the Roman Catholic model in which the heirarchy of the church speaks for all its members on whatever subject it chooses. I'm a Calvinist, preferring a reformed model for defining the proper tasks for my church. My question is whether enough of those Calvinists remain in the CRC to reverse the trend toward the Roman Catholic model.
I know this. The time is now, not tomorrow. Once beauracracies get big enough (and the CRC's is, to support its ever growing claim of sphere authority, competent or not), the sheer inertia of that development can make if very difficult--simply as an internal politics matter-to reverse.
Why is this article in Diability section? I don’t see the link disability concerns. No big deal just curious,
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