Should the government be able to say who can (e.g., the vaccinated) and who cannot (e.g., the unvaccinated) attend church? Should the government be able to tell the Christian school that only vaccinated teachers may be permitted to teach? As a result of governmental mandates relating to the pandemic, one hears voices advocating that Christians should take a stand against what is perceived as government ‘over-reach’ and, linked to this, one hears the term ‘sphere sovereignty’ being used.
Back in the 1800s the highly influential Christian theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper coined this idea of sphere sovereignty. He was concerned about governments becoming too powerful and muscling their way into all areas of life, and therefore Kuyper promoted the idea that the governments, as well as every other ‘sphere’ (e.g., the family and the church), should each restrict itself to its own sphere. Each sphere was said to have its own ‘sovereign’ authority structure and way of doing things that was unique to that sphere. Others have built on Kuyper’s ‘sphere sovereignty’, identifying a host of other spheres such as education, journalism, economics, unions, chess clubs, sports, drama, health and so on.
Connected to this was the idea that we, Christians, had to conquer each sphere for Christ. Each sphere or group, it was said, should develop its own authority and laws in submission to God and based on the distinctive features of that sphere. That might sound great but what happened was that, in trying to develop each sphere’s own unique character, laws were developed that departed from God’s Word. More about that in a moment.
Kuyper did try to give some Biblical basis to his notion of sphere sovereignty. He referred to Genesis 1 which speaks of God creating everything according to its kind. But as Schilder points out, there’s a lot of difference between ‘kind’ and ‘sphere’. Kind in Genesis 1 refers to created things: trees, fish, elephants, people, etc. They don’t live in their own separate ‘sphere’ but Scripture says that they all reproduce and live in accordance with their own kind, in accordance with the nature God has given them. Kuyper also referred to 1 Corinthians 15:23 which speaks of each being resurrected “in his own order”. Kuyper turned the word ‘order’ into ‘sphere’ but Paul actually refers to the order relating to the resurrection from the dead: first Christ, then those at His return who belong to Him, then comes the end.[i]
Other supporters of sphere sovereignty have appealed to Genesis 2 and Ephesians 6 to ‘demonstrate’ that the family is a sphere with its own ‘sovereign’ and distinctly separate authority structure, but a close study of these texts does not support this. There is no clear demarcation line between church and family in the sense that the family would be governed independent of the church with its own unique norms. Both are to be subservient to God and have a responsibility to one another.
That word ‘sovereignty’ also raises questions. We know that God, who rules all creation, is sovereign. But is there an own separate sovereignty for each ‘sphere’? People have tried to develop these but what we ended up getting was that, in the different spheres, laws were developed in relation to each sphere. For example, in the sphere of agriculture the ‘laws of nature’ were said to rule sovereignly; in academia the law of logic; in the area of faith the person is sovereign; in the sphere of knowledge, truth is sovereign, etc. Too often what happened was that instead of God being sovereign we got something else, something that in effect compromised the clear norms of God’s Word. Yet God’s norms apply wherever the Lord has placed us: government, church, family, book club, sports group, etc. The commandments of the Lord are to be ‘sovereign’ in every so-called ‘sphere’ of life; and the confessions of the church, which the sphere sovereignty people wanted to restrict to the church, apply to all facets of life.
Ed Helder points out that, “developments of sphere sovereignty led to the idea that each sphere should have its own creed”. The Three Forms of Unity were then considered to be Church-only creeds, so the ‘non-denominational’ Christian schools in Canada gradually abandoned the Three Forms of Unity, the Christian Labour Association of Canada did the same, and all soon lost their Reformed character. “This all was based on the Sphere Sovereignty dogma that no ecclesiastical creed may ever be used as the basis in another sphere!”[ii]
Hence this notion of the ‘sovereignty’ of each sphere has been used as an excuse not to apply the confessions where one should. Around the time of the Church Liberation of 1944, two of the greatest developers of sphere sovereignty, Profs D H Vollenhoven and H Dooyeweerd, were rightly very critical of the way in which faithful ministers and others were kicked out of the church by synod. However, they did not liberate themselves from what had become a false federation of churches because, as academics of the Free University, they were in a different ‘sphere’ than the ecclesiastical ‘sphere’ of the church. Their confession about the church and the need to join the true church was ignored because of ‘sphere sovereignty’.[iii]
(Dis)obedience and sphere sovereignty
Today we’re seeing this notion of sphere sovereignty being used to disobey government mandates. The proponents suggest we’re not obliged to heed the government in this or that because (it is perceived to be) going outside its sphere of sovereignty. It should limit itself, they say, to exercising justice, maintaining peace and defending society against aggressors from without (warfare) and from within (murderers, rapists, robbers, etc.). Hence, they argue, for the government to demand that people be vaccinated is to overreach their sphere of justice by reaching into the sphere of health, the church, business and other spheres. If it were, for example, to require church-goers to be vaccinated, it would encroach on the sphere of the church. Demanding that teachers be vaccinated before they can teach would be to overreach into the sphere of schools. They point to Scripture to restrict the task of the government to justice and national defence but then suggest that when the government overreaches that defined area, we need not heed its directives.
However, whilst it’s true that the government bears the sword to execute justice and prevent evil, it’s surely not limited to that. It’s also there so “that everything be conducted … in good order” and its task “includes the protection of the church and its ministry” (BCF:36). Moreover, Israel as church nation had many laws not restricted to justice and warfare, including laws that kept lepers outside the temple and city. Consider also the laws Calvin persuaded the City Council to introduce in Geneva so that not only in church but also in society things would be done decently and orderly. Men were not allowed to wear long hair; women were not to wear too much gold and silver; clothing manufacturers were not to introduce new fashions without the city council’s approval; etc.[iv] As for matters pertaining to health, when the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) ravaged Europe in the late Middle Ages through to the 1700s, various laws relating to quarantining those infected were introduced and enforced.[v] The government is there to promote the welfare of society. It must do so in subservience to God, in accordance with the moral laws of God’s Word, just as we all are called to live according to those laws.
But even if did exceed its defined ‘sphere’ of authority, that would not necessarily mean that Christians shouldn’t obey. Scripture clearly shows that we are to love, honour and obey the government (Romans 13, BCF:36, LD 39). [vi] The very careful and highly regarded Scripture exegete, Prof S Greijdanus, concludes that there is only one ground for disobeying the government, namely, when it commands or forbids something that is contrary to God’s Word. For we must obey God more than men (Acts 4:19) even if we suffer loss, damage, punishment or even death.[vii]
So it was that Moses’ parents and the midwives of that time disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to drown the baby boys. Daniel disobeyed Darius’s decree to worship only him for 30 days. His three friends disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to bow before the golden image. The magi, in obedience to the Lord, disobeyed Herod’s instruction to tell him where the new-born king was. The apostles disobeyed rulers who forbade them to preach, because Christ had mandated them to proclaim the gospel. All these, and others, disobeyed the authorities because God had commanded otherwise.
Now we need to be careful that texts are not manipulated to construct arguments for disobeying the government. I recently heard of a sermon in which a minister questioned whether we could obey the government if it were to prohibit ‘antivaxxers’ from attending church services. He reasoned that “the church is Christ made visible” and, since Jesus said, “Come to Me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” the “Me” in this text is also the church. Since the unvaccinated are among those who “labour and are heavy laden” they must be permitted to come to church in obedience to Christ’s call. However, such reasoning is surely flawed. Although the church is to speak the Word of God, a careful exegesis of the texts to which the speaker referred does not appear to support this conclusion of attributing Jesus’ words to the church. So we need to be careful with our exposition of Scripture. Meanwhile, we thank our gracious God that a law forbidding the unvaccinated brothers and sisters from attending church has not been legislated and we pray that the Lord would graciously spare us from such a law.
To conclude: if the government’s requirements are not in clear contravention of God’s Word, should we then not obey; even if we think the government overreaches? If it has not been clearly demonstrated (despite claims to the contrary) that Covid vaccinations are contrary to God’s Word, would it not mean that institutions such as our schools, aged care home and special needs home—all of which God has graciously given us—should obey governmental mandates with regards to staff vaccinations, restrictions on attendance, mask wearing and other measures aimed at safeguarding lives and promoting the physical well-being of one another and society in general? We may not like aspects of particular mandates but surely here, too, the command to love God, to trust that He has all things in His fatherly hands (LD 9), and to “show all honour, love and faithfulness” to all those in authority (LD 39) applies also in the current circumstances. He is the only sovereign over all the universe and has the heart of rulers in the palm of His hand. In that comfort let us obey our rulers and heed Christ’s injunction to pray for “all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim 2:1-2). The time may well come that we must encourage one another to disobey in order to remain faithful to God. That time is surely not now.
[i] K Schilder, “Wat zijn toch ‘terrainen’ en ‘kringen’? (a series of three articles repudiating sphere sovereignty), De Reformatie, 1947, pp. 154/5, 162, 170/1.
[ii] Ed Helder, “Discussion on the Philosophy or Theory of Sphere Sovereignty”, unpublished notes, 2022. For other bad outcomes of this theory see Reformed Politics – Important lessons H Ballast – Defence of the Truth
[iii] Rudolf van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, Inheritance Pub., Neerlandia, 1990, p. 372.
[iv] P A de Rover, Calvin: the Giant of Noyon, Pro Ecclesia Publishers, Armadale WA, 2022.
[v] See, for example, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year which shows how the magistrates obligated two people to watch each house door of infected people to make sure they didn’t leave the house to infect others.
[vi] See also “… it pleases God to govern us by their hand” – Defence of the Truth
[vii] S Greijdanus, “Houding ten aanzien van overheidsmaatregelingen”, De Reformatie, 1947, p. 379.