Posted On October 31, 2021

Sphere Sovereignty: The Relationship Between the Church, Society, and the Christian

by | Oct 31, 2021 | Christian Liberty, Featured

Abraham Kuyper once famously remarked, “There is not a square inch in the whole of creation over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!””[i] Down through the ages, the nations have constantly raged against Jesus Christ in an effort to overthrow His rule and claim to absolute sovereignty. Their goal has long been to throw off the yoke of Christ’s rule and to establish their own rule and absolute sovereignty (Psalm 2). The goal of godless men throughout the ages has been to replace Christ’s all-sovereign claim of “Mine!” with the globalist and atheistic claim of “Ours!”

In the last two years, this rage has been exerted in a new and peculiar manner in the West: specifically, in an overt persecution of the Church during a time of global pandemic. The Western Church has seen a new and focused type of persecution in the form of forced church closures, fines, and in some cases, the imprisonment of pastors.[ii] While the western church is not yet being persecuted by a “hard” tyranny at the barrel of a gun, it is most certainly suffering under a rapidly evolving and insidious form of “soft” tyranny. The Western Church presently finds herself under attack from governments who have adopted a rabid form of globalism, which seeks to establish the state, rather than the Church, as the pillar and ground of the truth. Day by day, the sovereignty of God is derided by the ruling class, and an army of so-called “experts” and “fact-checkers” seek to control, establish, and—in many cases—re-define what is true.

The Western Church presently finds itself in a watershed moment. It now struggles for freedom from globalist, tyrannical, and secular forces, which overtly make known their hate for God and wish to cast off all forms of His rule and reign in society. During such hostility and pressure, there have sadly been far too many Christian leaders who have succumbed to Nebuchadnezzar’s tyrannical concert and bowed down under the pressure to obey the state without question. Many have dressed their behavior in Christian lingo and so led entire congregations to follow grossly unbiblical mandates. There are others who, while having not yet bowed down, have indicated a willingness to unquestioningly yield to the authority of the state no matter what. Recently, a well-known Christian radio host stated, “If the government tells me to put pinwheels on the side my head every time I go to Publix, I’m going to put pinwheels on the side of my head.”[iii] This quote was not merely said in jest, as the host went on to argue that this was the correct and historic position of the Church. But is this actually a healthy, historically accurate, or biblical relationship between church and state? In this short essay, I will argue that it is not. Sadly, there is immense confusion on this issue today, resulting in similar attitudes among many Christians in the west. However, these views that will bear devastating results if they are not rebuked and refuted.

Importance of Sphere Sovereignty

Lord Acton once famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[iv] The doctrine of total depravity confirms this statement to be one of profound truth. So, how are we then to live in a world where various forms of corrupt power constantly clash with Christian values?  What are we to do when the demands of the state are in conflict with our consciences and Biblical convictions? More appropriate to the scope of this essay, it should be asked: how do we resolve the tension between the authority of the Church and the authority of the state? When should the Church respectfully submit and obey God-ordained civil authorities, and when must the Church engage in civil disobedience?

The best answer to this question is found in a right understanding of what Abraham Kuyper labeled “sphere sovereignty.”[v] According to this theory, Christ alone possesses complete sovereignty over all things (Matthew 28:18). But while Christ alone possesses complete sovereignty, He has delegated sovereignty to different entities to exercise in their particular spheres.

Kuyper speaks of life being “divided into spheres, each with its own sovereignty.”[vi] The three most well-known spheres of sovereignty are the Church, the state, and the family. Each of these spheres of sovereignty has been given roles and responsibilities by God with each sphere having sovereignty over its area of jurisdiction. Jonathan Leeman, in a helpful essay on the Church and state, writes:

“God has given the power of the sword to governments and the power of the keys to churches, and he intends for them to work separately but cooperatively toward the greater end of worship. Governments should employ the sword in order to protect life, enable the cultural mandate, and provide a platform for the work of the church…Churches should exercise the keys of the kingdom in order to testify to King Jesus, his message, and his people. They are witnesses of the age to come. To summarize the relationship between church and state in a sentence, we could say, God has given the power of the sword to governments and the power of the keys to churches, and he intends for them to work separately but cooperatively toward the greater end of worship.”[vii]

According to Romans 13, civil authorities derive their authority from God. They do not possess a self-derived sovereignty, nor are they a law unto themselves. In fact, they would have absolutely no authority if it did not first come from God (John 19:11). They are not to be a terror to good works, but rather, a terror to evil, as defined by God’s standards.

When functioning properly within its sphere of sovereignty, the civil government is God’s deacon—an armed servant of God that upholds, protects, and executes justice in a particular jurisdiction. The civil government has thus been given the unique stewardship of sovereignty over a nation’s justice system. This means they hold a responsibility to prosecute criminals and execute sentences for law-breaking up to and including the death penalty. On the other hand, when the state becomes a terror to good works and permits, approves, or sanctions evil, then it is no longer legitimately operating within its sphere of sovereignty.

The moment a government begins terrorizing good and approving or sanctioning evil, it has unlawfully overstepped the boundaries of its sovereignty. It is vital to remember Kuyper’s words when it comes to sovereignty—that there is not one square inch over which Christ does not say ‘mine!’ When governments begin overstepping their rightful spheres, even if seemingly well-intended, they, in essence, set themselves up as the supreme authority in the place of God. When this happens, all manner of tyranny may result.

Recently, many Christians have asserted that government overreach during the time of global pandemic is understandable, temporary, and acceptable since it is meant well. The words of C.S. Lewis stand as a firm rebuttal to such an idea:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”[viii] 

Over the last two years, the Church has had to wrestle with whether the state has the right to mandate masks during worship, forbid singing during worship services, limit attendance for worship, and soon, it will wrestle with whether or not vaccine mandates are a legitimate barrier to entry for worship services. Some have argued that such mandates must be followed because the state has good intentions and is trying to protect the civil good. Others have argued that such mandates are an encroachment upon the Lordship of Christ over the Church. The answer to the dilemma lies with reclaiming the boundaries of sphere sovereignty.

The state does not get to dictate to the Church how, when, or where it can worship. Jesus Christ, not Caesar, is Lord of the Church. The notion that if the government told every member to wear pinwheels on their head, they must be obeyed or Romans 13:2 is being violated, is preposterous! Why? Because the government possesses no authority to dictate the manner in which the Church worships. The power of the keys is given to the Church and, consequently, falls under the Church’s sphere of sovereignty, not the sovereignty of the state. It is Christ who dictates how, when, and where His Church worships Him.

Pastor Steve Richardson from Ontario Canada rightly notes that the churches who are relinquishing the power of the keys to the state are paving the way for apostate state churches. He writes of these churches:

“They give lip service to the authority of Jesus Christ but honour instead the dictates of the premier. They gather when they’re allowed and how they are allowed. They sing if allowed to sing and stop when told to stop. They excommunicate, too, but now they do it upon the authority of the premier rather than on the authority of King Jesus. How do I know? If vaccines are required they will require vaccinations. If masks are required they require masks.  If 10 are allowed they will turn away the 11th. And this will not stop…because the principles that once governed the Church have already been given up.”[ix]

This is a dreadful state of affairs indeed. But it is a state of affairs that I believe is correctable if men are willing to humble themselves, reflect on their failings, and repent. What would repentance and healthy correction look like in our present times? It would be churches opening their doors wide for all in defiance of tyrannical closures. It would be defying forced compliance with mask mandates when they violate consciences. Generally, it would be the Church standing upon the sovereignty of her Lord come what may, rather than cowering before bureaucratic bullies who are on the wrong side of history.

When the state crosses the lawful boundaries of their sovereignty, even if some argue it to be well-meaning, it remains a Christian duty to resist their advances, because such an overstep is an encroachment upon the sovereignty of Christ Himself. Such resistance is not a violation of Romans 13; it is actually an affirmation and upholding of it. It is the Church asserting that all authority comes from God, is delegated, not self-derived, and has boundaries that must be kept.

The Church Militant

In closing, it must be resolved how the Church should deal with the present state of affairs. This is no small matter, and the decisions that Christian leaders make in the years ahead will be of monumental significance. The relationship between church and state today is immensely unhealthy and misunderstood. The state has grossly overstepped its God-given boundaries, and the Church has largely failed in its witness as the pillar and ground of the truth.

There is a great need for the Church to correct course and renew resistance against the ongoing tyranny it faces. The Church must repent for its cowardice and resolve to once again stand upon the ultimate sovereignty of Christ. Jesus Christ, not Caesar, is Lord.

Kuyper once stated, “Deus Christus or Divus Augustus[x] will be the shibboleth that will determine the fate of the world.”[xi] Sadly, the Church of our day has given far too much authority and sovereignty to the state that it never was meant to possess.

The choice before us today is simple: will we stand for the Lordship and absolute sovereignty of Christ? Or will we stand by while Caesar runs roughshod over the Church with endless governmental overreaches and abuses, far exceeding the sphere of sovereignty God has granted to the state? Will we choose disaster? Or will we choose dominion?

Will we choose to bow to Nebuchadnezzar and all the increasing power of statists? Or will we bow to the Lord Jesus Christ alone? Will we desire the praise and approval of men, and so justify our obedience to the state’s abuse of the Church out of a so-called “love for neighbor?” Or will we exercise proper dominion in our sphere of sovereignty and answer with Peter, John, and the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than man.”

The Church must stand up and say “NO!” to mask mandates, “NO!” to vaccine mandates, “NO!” to singing bans, and “NO!” to attendance limits. Why? Because these matters fall entirely outside the state’s sphere of sovereignty and the state has no biblical right to dictate these matters to the Church. 

The choice is ours. The Church can continue in its present course of compromise and apostasy. It can continue to claim love for neighbor, all the while dishonoring God by giving over the rightful authority of the Church to the state. Or, the Church can exercise dominion in the sphere of sovereignty given by God, say no to tyranny, and by so doing, turn the world upside down once again. It can choose to be salt and light in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation and carry on with the great commission. The choice is simple: pinwheels, or resistance; dominion or disaster; obedience or apostasy; Christ or Caesar. The call of Christ to the Church of our day is this: Choose this day whom you will serve.

References:

[i] Quote from Kuyper’s inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University, 1880.

[ii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/tim-stephens-fairview-baptist-church-arrest-1.6029078; https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/pastor-james-coates-covid19-chruch-gracelife-1.5959163; https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/cwn/2021/july/canadian-church-shut-down-for-in-person-services-fined-for-contempt-pastor-says-jesus-is-worth-it; https://thefederalist.com/2020/08/05/l-a-threatens-john-macarthur-and-his-church-with-fines-arrest-for-holding-services/

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KzOD_sWZ3o

[iv] Lord Acton, Letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.

[v] https://reformationalpublishingproject.com/pdf_books/Scanned_Books_PDF/SphereSovereignty_English.pdf

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-relationship-of-church-and-state/

[viii] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock

[ix] https://canadarevival.blogspot.com/2021/05/paul-carter-on-covid-19-non-compliant.html

[x] Christ is Lord or Caesar is Lord

[xi] https://reformationalpublishingproject.com/pdf_books/Scanned_Books_PDF/SphereSovereignty_English.pdf

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