A Lamp unto Our Feet

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Biblical conviction and simplicity still speak to power.

Kathy Vandergrift’s and Doug Vande Griend’s contributions on the role of the church in addressing societal issues are intriguing. Their differing perspectives help us think through how God’s people should disciple the nations (Matt. 28:19).

Some argue that the institutional church should never speak out on political issues. I hope you’re not one of them. Abortion, for example, is clearly a political issue. So is the use of nuclear weapons. I hope we can agree that these are politicized issues that, nevertheless, our churches should address—as they have.

Vandergrift urges the institutional church to step up and address governments and other community leaders on important issues. She says the church needs to add a strong biblical voice to the many others advocating for the public good in our respective democracies.

Vande Griend, however, cautions that we need to respect the God-given boundaries of the institutional church within our differentiated society. The church as institution has neither the authority nor the know-how to speak out on divisive issues, and doing so may well fragment or polarize our church(es).

I’ll leave it to you, reader, to mull this over. Both authors do us a real service in giving us a common framework in which to discuss this.

Personally I believe that the institutional church can and should speak out on any number of significant societal issues. But we need to take Vande Griend’s warnings to heart: don’t say more than we should, don’t pretend to speak for all, and don’t get in over our heads. The institutional church is a worshiping community, not a public soapbox or a think tank of refined social analysis.

When Abraham Kuyper posited sphere sovereignty, he also posited sphere universality—the interweaving of the many spheres of life. I take this to mean that the institutional church must proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ within its walls but also beyond them.

It must do so in keeping with its own area of authority and insight: clearly and boldly proclaiming biblical principles and leaving the specific working out of those principles to others. It must speak confessionally and only confessionally, meaning that it should only speak to power if and when we can “testify together” with one voice.

On some societal issues we should say lots, because Scripture and the confessions (including our contemporary testimony) say lots. On others we should say little or stay mum altogether—because Scripture and our confessions are silent or because we are too divided in our opinions.

Our denomination should not push specific policies, political agendas, or programs. Let’s let the church as organism sort that out. But as a confessing community, let’s communicate clearly and succinctly what is preached regularly from our pulpits.

Our denomination has received appreciative responses from politicians and bureaucrats because, unencumbered by party politics, we could clearly place our finger on the heart of an issue by allowing the light of Scripture to illumine it. Biblical conviction and simplicity still speak to power.

My sincere appreciation to both authors! I hope you will find them as instructive as I have.

And let’s keep talking.

About the Author

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.

See comments (2)


Let's expand this discussion, by extracting one of the specific examples you bring up, Bob: that of abortion.  You probably don't have to probe to far to decide I'm a "politically conservative" person (although I do hate that kind of categorizing), which would suggest I'd want my institutional church to speak out boldly about abortion.  Well, I do in some respects, but only in keeping with both the ideas of sphere sovereignty and sphere universality.  I want my institutional church to opine and declare as to the "non-political dimensions" of abortion (and there are plenty), but frankly not as to particular pending bills (legislation), which are more complex than meets the eye, especially for churchmen/women eyes.  Let's flesh this out.  Should the institutional church boldy proclaim to all the world (government included) that God wove us in our mother's wombs before birth, that he knew us before conception, that we are unique creatures in God's greater creation and image bearers of God himself?  Certainly?  Should the institutional church even proclaim that to abort is to kill, even murder, God's image bearers?  Again certainly.  And it should also proclaim many other things as well, including about the role of parents and children as to the matter of abortion.

But if the Oregon House of Representatives, or the US Senate, should introduce a bill that relates to abortion, should the institutional church "takes sides" and advocate "yea" or "nay" or even tell its members to vote "yea" or "nay?"  I'd say absolutely not.  That bill will be complicated indeed, filled with fudgy language, probably titled in a deceptive way, and contain compromises that are the normal give and take of all proposed legislation.  The members of my church's council, the delegates to my classes, and their delegates to synod (the governing bodies in the institutional CRC), were not chosen/delegated because of their ability to analytically slice and dice the nuances of a 100 or so page bill (even a 5 or 10 page bill) with a marketing name that contains the many gives and takes that it undoubtedly contains.

I have testified quite a number of times to the Oregon legislature and a couple of times to federal commissions.  I can't imagine my pastor (who is a really, really good pastor) doing what needed to be done on those occasions.  Not even close.  And that is why -- or at least one of the reasons why -- the institutional church should proclaim what it should proclaim about abortion but not say/do what it should not say/do about legislatiion that involves abortion.

When I testified to government legislative committees and commissions, I did not do so in behalf of my institutional church but I certainly did so in behalf of the church universal.  When I worked with Oregon Right to Life, I worked with other lawyers and non-lawyers who made it their job to be political. A side benefit of working in behalf of the church universal is that I worked alongside other Christians who were Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Assemblies of God and others.  Real life was given to the concept of the church universal.  And our "institutional boundaries" became softer -- to all of us.

Now in my testimony, I could have come to conclusions that other Christians (including in my own local CRC) disagreed with.  That certainly happens, even if we all agree on everything stated above about God's creation of us, how he wove us in our mother's womb, etc.  I might have concluded that the compromise represented by the bill in question was one that should be "tolerated" while other Christians might argue we should never compromise (to which I might say, BTW, "then you will never find proposed legislation you can support and in so doing you will effectively allow all law to be written by others").  Or we might have substantive disagreements about what government should and should not do even if we fully otherwise agree about the relationship between God and unborn babies.

You say, Bob, that "Abortion ... is clearly a political issue."  Respectfully, that statement isn't precise enough to be helpful in this discussion.  That can be said of anything.  The word "Abortion" in that sentence can be replaced with pretty much anything: farming, health care, war, leisure, wage regulation, land use, government power, the internet, Facebook, stay-at-home parents, taxes, parks, building codes, immigration, drivers licenses, etc, etc, etc.  All of these are (that is, they also involve) political issues.  And all of these also are (that is, they also involve) moral or ethical or theological issues.  Scripture says something relevant to all these issues, and yet does not fully give us all the answers to all dimensions of any of them.  There is really no such thing as an issue that does not in some way involve the political.  And there really is no such thing as an issue that does not in some way involve moral, ethical, and theological (etc) issues, issues to which Scripture speaks about in some detail and at some level, which issues are proper fodder in some of their dimensions for the pulpit, and sometimes for the institutional church to take a unified stand on (as we do in our confessions).  Again, the ideas of sphere sovereignty and sphere universality provide some pretty good answers here.  The institutional church should say some things, and take some positions, as to "some dimensions" of pretty much all issues, but not as to "some other dimensions" of them.

Finally, Christians who specialize in the "square inch" of life that is institutional church should, obviously, be collaberating with other Christians who specialize in the "square inch" that is law or government (or many other things).  I've asked my pastors for advice (usually, the meaning of certain texts, but otherwise as well) about matters political.  The idea of sphere sovereignty doesn't prohibit that and the idea of sphere universality affirms the need for it.  Which means this: just because the intitutional church didn't proclaim or take a stand on a particular something, that doesn't mean the Church of Jesus Christ (the one professed in the Apostles Creed) didn't.  Assuming otherwise is a mistake we too often make.  And when we make that mistake, we usually push to replace poorer judgment for better judgment, and we unnecessarily encourage high walls of denominational separation (division within the holy catholic church).

Abortion is not a 'political issue', it is a moral issue.  It involves the murder of innocent, defenceless babies, i.e. not merely a 'political issue'.