I should say some more about sphere sovereignty: first, because some CanRC readers have defended sphere sovereignty in reaction to my previous article;[i] second, readers (from Canada and Australia) have referred me to video links of Canadian Baptist ministers whose promotion of sphere sovereignty, the readers say, is making inroads in CanRC churches; and third, there are Christian bloggers who advocate it in relation to so-called resistance theory. What I will focus on here is the lack of a Scriptural basis for sphere sovereignty and some dangers associated with this construct.
The lack of Scriptural basis for sphere sovereignty
You may recall that ‘sphere sovereignty’ is the idea, attributed to Abraham Kuyper, that society consists of independent spheres created by God—such as the family, church, school, business, politics, etc.—each with its own unique authority and rules. Each sphere or terrain is said to be directly responsible to God and should not intrude into or seek to rule over another sphere. Each sphere is to develop its own rules and authority structures based on Biblical principles unique to that sphere, and the authority of one sphere should not intrude into that of another sphere. For example, the sphere of government should not reach into the sphere of the family or church.
The trouble is that despite attempts by Kuyper and others to base this construct convincingly on God’s Word no clear Scriptural justification for it has been forthcoming. As Schilder said:
“We are left in a fog. The same applies to the followers of Dr. A. Kuyper. For years and years they talked of nothing but ‘God’s honor in all spheres of life’, and the more scholarly ones among them constantly echoed Kuyper in speaking about ‘sphere sovereignty’. Every sphere of life then had its own sovereign. But often they got no further than the repetition of this slogan. No wonder, for Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those ‘sovereigns’ in all those ‘spheres’ might be. One single Sovereign – that is something we can accept and understand. But as soon as one begins to speak about ‘sovereigns’ in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.”[ii]
Hence, when our forebears after the Liberation of 1944 established the GPV (Reformed Political League), they had a strong aversion to Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty because there just did not seem to be a sound Scriptural basis for it. Moreover, it smacked too much of the ‘theological-academic thought constructions’ that characterised the Anti-Revolutionary Party from which they broke away following that Church Liberation.
This lack of Scriptural basis is highlighted by John Boersma in his book Political-Economic Activity to the Honour of God.[iii] Referring to an extensive study by Prof. K Veling he says:
“As to scriptural justification for this theory, Veling finds that ‘the defenders of sphere sovereignty themselves are restrained in their reference to the Bible’. The major reference is to the creation history of Gen. 1 where it is stated that God created everything according to ‘its nature’. Veling, however, notes that critics have repeatedly pointed out that it ‘is quite a leap from the creation of separate kinds of plants and animals to the uniqueness of societal structures’. Other specific references are found to be even less supportive.
Kuyper sought to found the principle of sphere sovereignty in creation. Veling, however, suggests that is stretching the point. Kuyper cannot, according to Veling, have meant that all the societal ‘spheres’ were already found in creation since many human societal structures were only established in the course of history. The principle of sphere sovereignty is said, by Kuyper, to be a creation ordinance because ‘God maintains and rules his creation according to sphere sovereignty’. This reasoning, however, Veling dismisses as, ‘’nothing other than speculative’. He concludes, therefore, that convincing biblical arguments to support the concept of sphere sovereignty are absent. This conclusion was supported during the interviews; none of those interviewed could adduce scriptural grounds to support the principle.”
The well-known Piet Jongeling—reformed author (also of children’s books as Piet Prins), journalist and politician—is critical of sphere sovereignty, particularly because it emphasises the need for those in each sphere to develop that sphere’s own unique sovereign laws. In the process, they tend to deviate from the confessions in developing their own sphere-related confessions. The sphere sovereignty proponents restricted the church’s confessions to the sphere of the church. Yet we believe that the confessions apply everywhere.
Consider, for example, the threefold office given to Christians (Lord’s Day 12). It applies not just to our position in church but to our position in every area of life, as Paul shows in all his letters. Take his letter to the Romans. It illustrates our sin and misery, redemption and sanctification, which applies to our whole life, and in the midst of this Paul comes with the need to submit to the authorities (Romans 13). In his other letters Paul writes about clothing, hairstyles, marriage, behaviour of rich and poor, wage relationships, swearing oaths and dozens of other things that pertain not just to one but to the various areas (‘spheres’) of life.
Jongeling adds that when a child is baptised, the congregation prays that he (she) may grow up to “valiantly fight and overcome sin, the devil and his whole dominion”. “His whole dominion…” (not just one ‘sphere’ but everywhere). The idea that each ‘sphere’, e.g. politics, has its own confession is, he adds, unsustainable. A political party cannot do better than to maintain and apply the church’s confession. We’re not talking here about a program of aims, but about the foundation, the basis, the confession of the party. What we confess, for example, in Lord’s Days 34-52 (which explains the Ten Commandments and the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer) is, says Jongeling, essential also for the area of politics. Indeed, God’s Word and hence our Three Forms of Unity apply to all avenues of life.[iv]
Rev Joh Francke, also critical of ‘sphere sovereignty’ because of its lack of Scriptural basis, says: If we want to form a Scriptural conception of ‘Christian society’, we must base it clearly on God’s Word. And if we look what God’s Word has to say then we see:
- That for all people without distinction, both before and after the Fall, there is only one area or ‘sphere’ of life and work, viz. this our habitable world (Ps. 115:16);
- That to all people without distinction there is the calling by God to work together with their neighbour to God’s glory (Gen. 1:26, 28);
- That after the fall, however, there are two kinds of human seed on the earth: woman’s seed and serpent’s seed (Gen. 3:15); people who are born of God (Jn. 1:13) and people who are of the devil (Jn. 8:44); children of light and children of darkness (Ephesians 5:8); holy and unholy; righteous and godless;
- That there is no fellowship (koinonia) between these two “groups” (2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Cor. 10:20b; 1 Tim. 5:22b), since there is no “common” goal (the glory of God and neighbour’s salvation), no “common” love (to God and neighbour), no “common” hope (of the fulfillment of all God’s promises in the coming of Jesus Christ), etc.;
- That as a result there are two ways to use creation, two ways to cultivate the earth, two ways to work with its material, two directions in which to be motivated, two ways to strive, two kinds of fellowship (that which is with the Holy Spirit and that which is with the evil spirit), two kinds of gathering (that of the church as the congregation of the faithful and that of the congregation of evildoers), etc.;
- That these “two-kinds” are completely mutually exclusive, since the opposition (the “anti-thesis”) has been set by God himself as “enmity” (Gen. 3:15), and God Himself maintains it and stimulates it in and through His Word ministry and its effect in believing or not believing that Word (John 6:60, 66, 68; 1 Cor. 1:18; compare 2 Cor. 2:16);
- Although there is no fellowship (koinonia) between the two “seeds,” they must be here on earth together, here remain together (sun-ousia), whereby there is often a working together in one place (office, factory, etc.) and a working together on an object, so that for the eye there is equality between the form of labour and the product of labour, but with two kinds of intent (purpose).[v]
Of course, there are different offices, authorities, tasks, positions within society. However, the Bible does not carve society up into different spheres, each with its own ‘sovereign’, but it says there’s one Sovereign – God – and there’s one ‘sphere’: this earth. And there are two ways to work on and with this earth and in society: in covenant faithfulness to God or in covenant disobedience to God (in the service of the devil).
Some dangers of sphere sovereignty
Sphere sovereignty led to the idea that each sphere should have its own sphere-associated creed. This led to the Three Forms of Unity being applied only to the ‘church-sphere’ while other reformed institutions dropped the Three Forms of Unity and developed creeds ‘sovereign’ to their own distinct spheres.
This notion of the ‘sovereignty’ of each sphere led to a focus on developing natural principles associated with the characteristics of that sphere. In the process the confessions were ditched or, at best, weakened.
Br H Ballast has shown from history some examples of how this happened:
“Just prior to the Liberation many of our grandparents and great grandparents were withheld from the Lord’s Table—or suspended from their office if they happened to be a deacon or an elder—simply because they didn’t want to accept erroneous synod decisions. However, if the person who suspended the brother and the brother who was suspended met again at the local ARP committee meeting, they were fully endorsed and accepted. Why? Because politics was a different sphere to that of the Church! They were two different circles and they hardly interrelated. The result was that in politics a person could be recognised as a brother and a great asset to the work in God’s kingdom but on Sundays he failed the test and was withheld from Holy Supper.
Another bad outcome of this Sphere Sovereignty concept was that it blurred the antithesis. In effect it diminished or denied the overarching authority of ALL of Scripture to ALL of life. Thereby the barriers to worldly living were broken down and a worldly culture began to develop within the churches. For example, within the sphere of art and recreation principles were interpreted differently than within the church. It was argued that when it came to art and recreation a person entered a different sphere or area with its own dynamics, principles and guidelines, and Scripture was moderated and adapted to the possibilities and objectives of Art.
Prof Schilder summarised the situation of those days with these words: ‘All spheres are sovereign within themselves with the result that people can do what they like, set their own parameters within that sphere and, consequently, the respective church councils have got to keep their mouths shut because of the sovereignty which exists in that sphere’. In other words, the view in those days was that a consistory only has authority within its own sphere and not outside of it.”
Br Ballast concludes:
“Kingdom work cannot be carved up in spheres, each with its own parameters. If a person is not fit for kingdom work in church, because he subscribes to unscriptural doctrines, he is not fit for kingdom work in politics either, because life is one and God’s law is one. He who sins against one of those laws, sins against them all! We cannot affiliate ourselves with a person in politics if he does not want to affiliate himself with us in church and say: “We can do kingdom work in politics but not in church”.
Sometimes it is argued that the confessional basis is too narrow and too exclusive. However, the opposite is true! A confessional basis creates a broad and all-encompassing basis for political action because it includes all of Scripture on which those confessions are based.”[vi]
Let’s be clear: sphere sovereignty is a philosophical idea that is not clearly based on Scripture. Yet a whole philosophical construction has been built upon it, and we’ve seen some of the sad consequences. Let’s be alert to the dangers. When we hear people defend particular actions on the basis of sphere sovereignty, or speak about those with a particular function as ‘overreaching their (sovereignty) sphere’, we do well to be particularly cautious, testing each claim carefully on the basis of Scripture and confession.
[ii] Klaas Schilder, Christ and Culture, Lucerna CRTS publication, Hamilton, 2016, p. 16.
[iii] John Boersma, Political-Economic Activity to the Honour of God, Premier Publishing, Winnipeg, 1999, pp. 63-64.
[iv] P Jongeling, Terwille van het Koninkrijk, Stichting Gereformeerd Gezinsblad, Groningen, 1956, pp. 99ff.
[v] Joh Francke, De Kerk en het Sociale Vraagstuk, Groenendijk, Rotterdam, 1954, p. 203ff.
[vi] Reformed Politics – Important lessons H Ballast – Defence of the Truth