Submitting and Constraining: the Believer’s Relationship to the State – part 1

I have the privilege of going through the “Truth Project” – a worldview training course created by Focus on the Family (see link) – as part of faculty development at the school where I teach.  It has been very illuminating and has consistently made deep connections with ideas I have pondered and embraced in the past.

This week the lesson was on politics.  Since having children I have become increasingly interested in politics (perhaps because I have more of a vested interest in the future direction of the country) and I have sought to form political beliefs in the light of Scripture.  Though Scripture has little to say directly about the specific political issues of the day, it does provide clear and firm principles about the relationship between God, citizens, the Church, and the state that can (and should) be applied to any political debate.

One of these principles is what philosopher Abraham Kyper calls “spheres of sovereignty.”  The concept is that God has designed into the social order distinct domains – the chief ones being the state, Church, and family – that should be governed separately and independently.  No sphere should usurp power and control in the other spheres.  One biblical example of this is in 2 Chronicles 26, which records the history of the reign of King Uzziah.  He is described as a king who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” and the Lord blessed him with success for most of his 50-plus years righteous reign.  However, as his power grew, so did his pride, which led him to ignore the religious order established by God and by-pass the priests to burn incense in the Temple himself.  A cadre of priests bravely confront him, risking their lives lest he be provoked to wrath, saying that he has been unfaithful in usurping  God-ordained role of the priests and should leave the Temple immediately.  He does respond in anger, like people in power are prone to do when their authority is challenged, but before he has a chance to act on it the Lord strikes him with leprosy, which afflicts him for the rest of his life.

What did Uzziah do wrong?  Wasn’t burning incense in the temple a good thing to do?  His sin was to assert pridefully his authority in the sphere of the state into the sphere of the Church, held by the priesthood.  If the power of the state is allowed to expand into other domains, there is no limit on the destruction in can wrought on its citizens.  King Saul was rejected by God as king for the same reason when he impatiently offered burnt offerings (again a “good thing”) after a military victory instead of waiting for Samuel, the priest/prophet, to come and do so.

The Lord has established both the state and the church as essential institutions for maintaining social order, each having its own role, purpose, and authority.  Overlapping these spheres can lead to all sorts of disasterous social dysfunctions.  In my next post on politics I will apply this principle to the current homosexual marriage debate.

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One comment on “Submitting and Constraining: the Believer’s Relationship to the State – part 1

  1. Adam says:

    Sphere sovereignty has been applied a number of ways, especially with reference to gay marriage. Interested to see how you keep these spheres distinct while hashing that one out.

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