The Role of the Church in Society: Two Perspectives

My local church council shouldn’t tell me which political candidates to vote for.
Sphere Sovereignty: Engaging All Square Inches of Life in the Right Way

by Doug Vande Griend

How would you react if your local church council told you

  • which political candidates to vote for in an upcoming election?
  • to tell your legislators to vote against House Bill 2642 and for Senate Bill 954?
  • not to use Roundup® weed killer at home because doing so mistreats God’s creation?
  • that your child may play baseball but not football because football causes injuries and encourages aggressiveness?

Or what if the school board told you not to exceed 200 cows on your dairy farm to avoid damaging the ecosystem and lobbied the state legislature to enact that limit into law?

Or what if your city’s mayor told you to become Roman Catholic because it was the only true church?

Or what if your employer told you to give your children two years of piano lessons because of their musical gifts?

Confronted with any of the above scenarios, I would ask two questions—hopefully with grace: “What makes you an authority on this?” and “What business is this of yours anyway?” If you understand why I’d ask those questions, you have a sense for an oddly named social doctrine called sphere sovereignty.

The core idea within sphere sovereignty is not exclusively Reformed, although the phrase did come to us from Abraham Kuyper. Sphere sovereignty has to do with differentiation in society, something James Skillen talks about in his book The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square. It says the societal structures we call government, family, business, church (as institution), school, individual, and so on, are differentiated institutional spheres within society.

Differentiated Spheres
As history progressed, greater societal differentiation developed, each differentiated sphere deriving from its unique character and purpose (1) an area of authority or competency, that is, the scope of concern where it claims the right to “tell others what to do”; (2) an area of responsibility or jurisdiction, that is, the duty to act, particularly if something amiss happens in its sphere; and (3) governance structure, that is, particular protocols for how an institution within the sphere applies its authority or competence to the area of its jurisdiction.

For example, if a pastor spouts heresy from the pulpit, the sphere of the institutional church, acting through its governance structure (in the CRC, the council), has the authority and responsibility to respond. The school and government should not.

In reality, the authority or responsibility of multiple spheres often intersect. For example, had that heretical pastor also seriously abused a parishioner, action might be expected from

  • the (institutional) church, which might remove the pastor;
  • the government, which might criminally prosecute the pastor;
  • the abused individual, who might consider civil action; and
  • the family of the victim (spouse, parents, children), who might support and advise.

Individual people always engage in multiple spheres. A local judge (government sphere) may have a husband and children (family sphere) and sometimes volunteer in her child’s classroom (school sphere). Within those spheres, her responsibility varies. She would wield great power as a sentencing judge, but only have partnership authority with her husband as to household matters. And when volunteering as an aide to the teacher of her child’s classroom, she’d be appropriately subordinate.

Violations of sphere sovereignty boundaries result in varying degrees of harm. If your child’s teacher directs your daughter to brush her teeth four times a day, not much harm would result. But when government and institutional church joined forces to ignore their sphere boundaries in the 16th century, many Christians, including Guido de Bres, were put to death. No doubt de Bres opposed the institutional church demanding doctrinal adherence by threat of death and the government’s requirement that all be Roman Catholic.

The United States’ founding fathers thought a lot about sphere sovereignty, even if they never used the phrase. Their special focus was defining boundaries for the state (government) and creating a structure to execute government’s authority (the Constitution). By properly bounding the government, they also allowed for other spheres to properly exist, thereby creating political pluralism.

Institutional Church
The CRC needs to consider its own sphere boundaries as an institutional church. We may all agree that the organic church (all believers) is called to engage every square inch of God’s creation, but that doesn’t mean each institutional church must—or should.

My local church council shouldn’t tell me which political candidates to vote for. Nor should it set a limit on my dairy herd or demand I not use Roundup®. Nor should classis or synod (derived from local councils) tell us who is right and who is wrong about climate change. Nor should a CRC agency (ultimately derived from local councils as well) tell the government that the CRC opposes the House Farm Bill and supports the Senate version. The CRC, an institutional church, should stop acting beyond its sphere boundaries.

But who says so? you might ask. How can we know the CRC’s boundaries are so limited?

In three ways. The first is by checking for competency. Delegates to classis and synod aren’t chosen for competency in law, political theory, economics, climate physics, or dairying. Half of synod’s delegates have degrees in theology and experience in pastoring churches. These are good degrees and valuable experiences, but they create competency in only some square inches of life.

Second is to check your general sense for jurisdiction. Should we not feel invaded, for example, if our denomination decides which version of the Farm Bill should pass and lobbies for that in our institutional church’s name? We are responsible to engage political matters, individually and working with others in parties and advocacy groups, but which of us have given our political proxy to the denomination? Do we want visitors to our churches to have to review denominationally issued political positions before deciding to become members?

Third is to check our own longstanding rules. Our Church Order says, in Article 26, “The assemblies of the church are the council, the classis, and the synod,” and then in Article 28(a), “These assemblies shall transact ecclesiastical matters only, and shall deal with them in an ecclesiastical manner.” I suppose Article 28(a) could have been a bit more detailed, but until 25 years or so ago, who in the CRC would have dreamt they’d be competing with their denomination’s lobbying on political issues?

People instinctively want their perspectives, whatever the topic, to prevail over those of others. But that want can be sinful. An appropriate sense of humility should restrain us from trying to “lord it over” others (Church Order, Art. 85). May we pray for that sense of humility.

  The Ecology of Kingdom Witness

by Kathy Vandergrift

The distinction between the church as institute and the church as organism is a useful gift from the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, a giant in Reformed social thought and a former prime minister of the Netherlands. The church as organism refers to the body of Christ, which lives out its faith every day, everywhere, and in every way. The church as institute refers to organized churches—defined by doctrines, liturgies, church programs, and church rules, from local churches to global denominations.

While the organic church is called to claim “every square inch for Christ,” to use another favorite Kuyperian concept, the institutional church has a more specific role in the larger kingdom vision. The boundaries of that role come under question when societal issues need attention. May the instituted church speak out on societal issues, especially contentious ones? Should it? If so, how? And when? Is this activity only for individuals and groups within the organic church?

There is no easy rule to follow. The distinction between these two aspects of Christ’s one church is helpful when it is used to advance renewal of God’s world. It can also be misused to stifle Christian witness in our society.

In my experience, misuse results from misinterpretation, such as making an “either-or” choice between the organic and institutional church, or ignoring an equal emphasis on the interdependence of the two. In addition, our context is different; if Kuyper were alive today, I suspect he would formulate yet another version of this “square inch” concept, which evolved along with his highly effective social movement.

Preventing misuse and strengthening kingdom connections are two keys to resolving the stalemates that often develop when this concept is used to block emerging social justice initiatives.

“Both-and” instead of “either-or.” In Kuyper’s day, gatherings within the institutional church, such as Bible studies, men’s societies, young people’s meetings, and even sermons included research and robust deliberation about how Christians should engage and shape their society. James Bratt’s biography of Kuyper, entitled Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, tells an inspiring story of Christian witness in society. By comparison, engagement with societal issues in the Christian Reformed Church in North America is anemic.

Discernment is a shared responsibility of the institutional and organic church. When the distinction between them is used to shut down discussion of societal issues in the gathered church, it contributes to the low capacity of members to bring a well-informed Reformed witness in public affairs. Making space for robust discussion about what the Bible means when it calls us to do justice and care for creation is a major need in the CRC today.

Interdependence. The institutional church exists to enable the organic church; they are interdependent. Current applications of Kuyper’s concept in the CRC tend to isolate the church behind a protective wall. One motive is to keep it pure. Another may be withdrawal from society. Both hinder an effective witness by the denomination in today’s context.

When local congregations welcome and help migrant workers who are suffering harm from unjust immigration laws, the church needs to act in solidarity with its members to seek justice and change in the laws. If Christian Reformed churches preach about care for creation as a biblical calling, credibility requires also speaking about societal practices that are causing the most harm to God’s world. The church speaks differently than scientists, farmers, migrants, or politicians; it adds a unique voice to public discussions that shape our society.

Silence speaks loudly. Silence is not neutral. The institutional church cannot avoid being part of society. Too often in history, silence by the church became complicity with unjust social structures and practices. While the church no longer has a privileged position in society, a fact that limits the influence of church proclamations, it can have a positive impact by speaking with credibility from a servant position out of concern for the common good.

To speak publicly or not to speak: both are choices. Making wise choices requires broad engagement in a process of discernment that draws out the strengths and skills of church institute and organism.

Stronger kingdom connections. In today’s language, Kuyper might have used the concept of the social ecology of the kingdom. The emphasis in ecology is on connectivity between parts that have different functions and roles within a system that recognizes its interdependence.

Note the focus on joints in the description of the body of Christ in Ephesians 4:15. A networked church makes connections across organizational boundaries, enabling both the gathered and scattered church to engage culture within a shared context. Effective Christian witness today requires a stronger focus on connectivity rather than on dissecting the body of Christ into its parts. We can only imagine, for example, how Kuyper would use the potential of today’s social media to mobilize people for action.

Fear of becoming enmeshed in partisan politics is a legitimate caution. Churches have, rightly and wrongly, been labeled “liberals at prayer” or “the Christian Right.” Political partisanship, right or left, damages the credibility of Christian public witness. Silence can also be partisan, and it can damage our public witness. A greater danger today, however, is that political illiteracy leaves church members vulnerable to the kind of political demagoguery that is eroding democracy in Canada and the United States.

Making space in the gathered church for deliberation and discernment is important in our context for two reasons. The church is one place where deeper values intersect with current trends, in contrast to the short-term pragmatism of most public discussion. The church also brings together voices from different segments of society who are increasingly polarized as the gap between the interests of elites and the rest of society widens in North America.

Worship and just social relations. Throughout Scripture there is a strong link between worship and just social relations. The prophets warned worshipers that if they wanted God to accept their praise they should leave the temple, repair social ills, and then come back. One of the few times Jesus showed anger was in his response to exploitative trade just outside the sanctuary, and he rebuked the Pharisees for inconsistency between practice and worship words.

True worship and integrity unite the gathered and scattered church in the pursuit of just social relationships and creation care in the context within which we worship.

About the Authors

Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.

Doug Vande Griend is engaged in the private practice of law and has done work in various capacities for a number of nonprofit organizations. He is a member of Sunnyslope CRC in Salem, Oregon.

See comments (14)

Comments

This is a good discussion to have, though the articles are a bit too brief and too narrowly focused on Abraham Kuyper, in my opinion. Though important, he is only one influential theologian in our tradition. A broader discussion should involve Calvin's views on the 2 Kingdoms and so forth  as well as, obviously, the scriptures.

Kirk: I quite agree with you.  This and other articles like it are subject to a word limit of 1100.  I understand the need for the limit but still a word limit also limits topic elements that can be discussed and how much can be said about each element.

My local church (Sunnyslope CRC in Salem) sent to Classis Columbia, which in turn sent to Synod 2012, Overture 3, which asked that a study be done as to this question (sphere sovereignty), given the existence of Church Order Article 28 (which restricts the activities of our assemblies to that which is "ecclesiastical") and the recent increased denominational involvement in matters political.  The Advisory Committee to which Overture 3 was assigned recommended its rejection but the floor of synod overturned that recommendation, which suggested to me that CRC members want this discussed and are not comfortable with recent trend of the denomination turning political advocate.  Unfortunately, the one week of synodical time had come to an end when the floor overturned the committee recommendation, resulting in the overture being referred to the Task Force on Restructure (which seems to have simply ignored it).

I think there needs to be focused discussion on this (by a study committee) as well as general discussion about it (among CRC members and churches).  The constraints of sphere sovereignty (as well as its mandates) were the ordinary stuff of catechetical and CSI Christian school education when I was a kid, and the concept was regarded as a given for how the CRC operated.  Thus, the CRC never became a "Moral Majority" kind of "politically conservative" denomination decades ago like others did, despite the dominance of political conservatism within the CRC membership. 

Not that CRC members stayed away from politics.  They didn't, being quite aware of the "not one square inch" mandate.  But CRC members did not seek for their institutional church to be their personal political megaphone, nor a blessing of their personally taken political position.  Today is otherwise -- at least at the denominational level and seemingly for the sake of some who take strong left of center political positions -- although I don't think with the blessing of most CRC members.

Doug I agree, I am one of these members who will not seek for my institutional Churchto be my institutional megaphone. The Church,s role is to recognize our brokeness, and to proclaimJESUS for the salvation of our souls. When we exit the worship service, refreshed, we walk into that great mission field. For the political aspect, our denomination is a member of the Evangelical fellowship league, we need to become more invoved with them as fellow Christans. I am afraid that just as my United Church brothers and sisters complain, that the social gospel playes the first Fiddle at the expense of the message of sin and salvation. Hans Visser

This is a good start on seeing the difference in two approaches to the relationship of the Christian in living in the world around him.  The important essence of the difference in the two approaches is the assumption of the first that there ought to be freedom of decision, and the freedom to disagree on priorities, methods, and process in living the christian life outside of the walls of the institutional church.  The assumption of the second writer is that those who have power or ascendancy in the institutions of the church ought to be able to state certain environmental, scientific, social policy, and political statements on behalf of the members of the church, which presumably require its members to agree.  

I agree with Doug's position.  While scripture definately obligates christians to care for the widow and the orphan, and the church ought to preach that and teach it, scripture does not give the method, process and political party that must carry it out.   Ironically, for some social welfare policies, the political party that actually enacts the legislation is the one you would expect would be least likely to do so.  You can check history to see that this is so.  

In other cases, churches have been embarassed by policy statements made completely outside their expertise, and sometimes outside of anyone's expertise.   The message of the gospel is the task of the church, and Satan loves nothing more than to divert this, or to make it a neglected sideline.    

This is an interesting discussion and I thank both authors for their insights. I agree with Doug and the supportive comments of Hans V and John Z. I wonder if we should look at the Catholic Encyclicals and see how do they fit into this dicussion. Kathy has been involved in the political process and maybe she can comment if "Catholic Church positions" have any impact on government policy.

On the CRC front I have always wondered about the pronouncements of the "Centre for Dialog with thr Government". Those pronouncements are not vetted by a Consistory or a Classis or Synod, probably because the Church Order might rule them out of order.

Thank you Doug and Kathy for two thought provoking articles.  One of you operates, I think, with a broader view of the institutuional church and one of you with a narrower view. You both agree that the primary task of the church is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.  I am curious how both of you or anyone who reads this would respond to my observation that CRC history could be used to support both.  For example in 1973 we adopted a prolife position on abortion an issue which is both ecclesiastical and political, both institututional and organic.  In 1977,1939, and 2006  we adopted a position on war. Both political and organic. Similarly we have adopted positions on capital punishment, lodge membership and creation care.  Were these decisions a proper exercise of sphere sovereignty in your views?

Larry: Responding to your questions, I would suggest first that perhaps all questions in life involve both ecclesiatial dimensions AND political dimensions. The institutional church (I'll call it the I-Church) should (or at least may) proclaim in behalf of all its members as to the former but not the latter, while the organic/universal church (I'll call that the OU-church) should tackle both, and perhaps especially the latter. In other words, just because the "abortion question" involves all sorts of dimensions, that doesn't mean that the I-Church must avoid proclaiming anything about abortion to avoid inappropriate involvement in political matters.
 
Let's get specific as to the abortion example.  Certainly, the I-Church has and should publically oppose murder, not because its trying to create certain words in a proposed statute being considered by the legislature, but because so opposing condemns an immoral act that Scripture forbids.  Whether government prohibits murder or not, the I-Church should pronounce and proclaim that murder is sinful and evil.  As well, the I-Church may/should prounounce in behalf of all its members that abortion is murder, because Scripture informs the I-Church us as to that.  Again, proclaiming that does not amount to political lobbying.
 
But when particular proposed legislation is being consider by the state or federal legislatures, the I-Church is ill-equipped to either analyze or proclaim about that.  Whether they are local council members, delegates to Classis, or delegates to Synod, the authorized representatives of the I-Church (the I-Church governance structure, in the CRC at least) were chosen/designated to consider ecclesiastical matters, but not legal matters.  Proposed legislation is a legal matter.

Let's take what might be the simplest of proposed abortion laws, which is included in what your post references from CRC history: the Human Life Amendment.  While the I-Church might legitimately proclaim that pre-born babies are people made in the image of God and that to kill a pre-born baby is to murder an image bearer of God himself, it is quite another matter to advocate for a particular proposal for amending the US Constitution.  A quick check with Wikipedia (Human Life Amendment) will show there were 330 proposals of different "human life amendments" back when that was being considered. Even if the different proposals didn't seem at first blush to have been so different, they in fact were dramatically different.  Even if theologians couldn't see the differences, lawyers would.  Constitutional lawyers would see even more of them. There was a great difference of opinion among "pro-lifers" as to what a a human life amendment should provide for, even even if they all agreed that the constitution should be amended in some way to protect government protection to the pre-born.
 
Would I favor the I-Church proclaiming in behalf of all its members that government should remember that pre-born people are people, image bearers of God himself?  Yes.  Would I favor the I-Church proclaiming in behalf of all its members that Congress and the States should adopt the Hogan version of a Human Life Amendment, as opposed to the Whitehurst version, or the Burke version, or the Scott version?  No.  Of course that doesn't mean that OU-Church should not have been doing the latter.  It certainly should have (and I'm sure it was).
 
In years past, I served in multiple positions for Oregon Right to Life.  In that capacity, I wasn't at all hesitant to decide and proclaim as to matters that the I-Church shouldn't proclaim about.  On the other hand, those decisions and proclamations were made having the background of a constitutional lawyer and after analyzing the particular legal/political questions in depth.  When Oregon Right to Life came to a decision, when it sent representatives (me and others) to the Oregon legislature to testify before legislative committees, it needed much more specialized expertise than I imagine would ever exist in the I-Church, whether at the council, classis, or synodical levels.
 
The political matters our I-Church (the CRC, via OSJ) are now proclaiming about are many times more complicated than a Human Life Amendment.  As just one example, OSJ has lobbied in favor of the Senate version of the recent Agriculture bill and against the House version.  Both bills were very long (one version of the House bill is 959 pages) and not at all easy reads. I thought OSJ was absolutely wrong in what it lobbied for.  The House bill corrected inadvertantly created problems in the SNAP (food stamps) program that allowed individuals and states to siphon funds for those who wouldn't otherwise qualify if means tested, created dependency for some people without need, and helped address the bloated federal budget by eliminating spending that created these bad effects in the first place.  Yet OSJ lobbied against it.  In mind view, the I-Church, including the CRCNA in particular, simply lacks the expertise to proclaim about competing Agriculture bills in the US congress.  There was not even one lawyer on staff to help OSJ decide to lobby for the Senate bill.
 
The Ag Bill example illustrates the competency problem, but also brings up the "jurisdiction" question.  Article 28 of the CRCNA church order constrains the authoritative bodies of the CRC (our I-Church), they being council, classis and synod, from dealing with matters other than ecclesiatisal and from dealing with them other than in an ecclesiastical way.  No doubt this church order article results from the CRC's decades long respect for the boundaries of sphere sovereignty.  Given that rather explicit constraint, why are we lobbying for the Senate Ag Bill and against the House Ag Bill? Should anyone have to decide whether to compete with the CRC I-Church as to matters political when they decide to join it (or stay in it)?  I would hope not.  And Article 28 of the CO says not.  At a minimum, shouldn't the CRC I-Church have to eliminate the constraints of Article 28, by amending the church order, before making the decision to lobby for and against competing versions of the US Agriculture bill?

Finally, there is a perspective problem when the I-Church turns political.  The I-Church, because of its nature, focuses on viewing life in a certain way.  If a landlord's tenant can't pay the rent, the appropriate response of the I-Church might be to counsel the landlord to consider forgiving the tenant's obligation, pointing to a number of passages in Scripture that speak to person-to-person relationships.  The I-Church is very involved in the person-to-person relationships of its members.  It preaches from this perspective every week.  It gives counsel from that perspective in specific real life instances.  And all of that is good.

But the perspective of government simply is (must be) different.  When government makes, enforces and adjudicates rules for its citizens, it's job is to provide and maintain operating rules for create fences to require and curtail the actions of it citizens in a certain way and toward a certain end.  And those rules must apply to all equally.  Those who do their occupational lives in the context of the I-Church will not (should not) apply the same perspective to many real life issues that those who do their occupational lives in the context of law and government.  This is one of the reasons the I-Church lacks competency in matters legal and political (vice versa would be true as well).  A judge should provide a judgment in favor of the landlord who sues to evict his tenant for not paying rent.  If the judge tells the landlord to turn the other cheek, he is not understanding the role government play in society, nor the reason government must play that role in the way it must play it, to the great damage of all (including, ironically, the tenant).


I'm curious which sphere food pantrys would fit into in Doug's description of this system.

Kris: I would suggest that doing food pantries is quite clearly 'within the sphere' of the I-Church (institutional church), at least as the sphere of the I-Church is understood and defined in the CRC tradition.  The CRCNA denominational bylaws (not the bylaws for the BOT but the bylaws for the corporation that is the CRCNA) explicitly refer to "doing mercy" as one of the tasks of the CRCNA (that is, the I-Church).  Of significance, those bylaws do not refer to "doing justice."   In fact, the word "justice" does not occur even once in the CRCNA bylaws.  Certainly, there is nothing the those bylaws that could be used to support the political lobbying activity now conducted by the CRCNA.

Admittedly, it is less clear exactly where "doing mercy" exceeds the sphere boundary of the I-Church.  For example, World Renew does lots of mercy but its activities are extensive and get complicated, and probably include activity other tha "doing mercy." In total, the activity of World Renew probably exceeds the sphere boundary for the I-Church.  The same can be said for other organizations like AJS (Association for a More Just Society).  Which is probably why World Renew was created as a separate corporation the governing body of which was its own board of directors (not synod).  And which is probably why World Renew receives no ministry shares.  Those who were involved in the creation of World Renew understood, I suspect, that its activities would exceed the appropriately regarded boundaries of the I-Church known as the CRCNA.

Another example of the I-Church being involved in "launching" an effort that exceeds the I-Church's boundaries is Christian Legal Society.  Two CRC pastors from the Chicago area "began" Christian Legal Society in 1963, but they didn't seek to have the organization be a part of the I-Church, thankfully (can you imagine how much less effective a "Christian Reformed Legal Society" would be?).  I would suggest too that if World Renew were not its own corporation but merely a true agency of the CRCNA (and received ministry shares), it would not be as much a force for good as it is today.

Both World Renew and Christian Legal Society illustrate another important point: when an instance of the I-Church (like the CRC or Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or PCA) attempts to keep an effort that should be an effort of the OU-Church instead of the I-Church, it tends to squelch the effect of that effort by constraining it to the walls (limitations) of the denomination that created it.  Christian Legal Society would have been almost totally ineffective if it was merely an agency of the CRCNA.  World Renew is increasingly finding it necessary and appropriate that it look way beyond a CRC constituency to maximize the work it can do.  Other similar examples are everywhere in the "CRC Community" (Christian Schools, Hope Haven, Elim, ...).

Most, I think something like 90%, of World Renew's community development work is implemented by institutional churches overseas. Are these churches overstepping their bounds as an institutional church? Or does this concept only apply to North American churches? Or does the sphere depend on a particular institutional church's bylaws not including bylaws of its other boards and agencies? It seems like the institute/organism doctrine is applied in an arbitrary way around the CRC so I don't find it very practical. But if others find it is helpful for them to understand the work of the church I guess that is fine too.

   

Kris: I have no idea what these other churches are doing overseas.  You say "community development work" but I have no details about anything at all.

Moreover, as understood in the Reformed tradition, sphere sovereignty boundaries are related to to the degree to evolution (small "e") of societal differentiation that has occurred in any particular society.  Thus, in OT Israel, "government" (or what passed for that) included the I-Church (or what passed for that) plus a number of other spheres.  In Abraham's day, the family (patriarchal authority) was pretty much the only sphere in existence.  More than other traditions, the Reformed tradition recognizes the reality of historical development.  Out of that development, at least in the western world, we have, at least in the Reformed tradition but other western world traditions as well, developed the idea of sphere sovereignty for the modern world.  (We would also say it was long overdue, and that Guido de Bres and many other Calvinists were burned to death because the Roman Catholic tradition lacked an understanding of sphere sovereignty rules).

Applied to your immediate question here, I would suggest that in some parts of the world, societal differentiation has not evolved (again, small "e") past the patriarchy form of Abraham's day.  Thus, sphere sovereignty rules may be different in different parts of the world.  Certainly, many parts of the Islamic world suffer from a badly underdeveloped sense of sphere sovereignty, resulting in all kinds of bad results.

As to your question about :bylaws," I would suggest that the writing of bylaws represents, among other things, an attempt by those creating (or changing) an organization to define what that organization does and doesn't do.  It imposes obligations to "do certain stuff" on the organization (its officers and agents) and provides for fences that constrain the activity of the organization (its officers and agents).  Why?  So that folks who join the organization (or continue it in) -- that is, members -- have a way to know what that organization does (and doesn't do).

Now it is quite possible that an organization creates bylaws (as well as articles of incorporation and other rules, like the CRC church order) that are ill-conceived, or that exceed sphere boundaries for an organization of that sort.  For example, if the (articles and) bylaws of a local CRC church provided that one of its purposes was to build nuclear power plants, I would suggest that church has made a mistake (so would the IRS, by the way), that a council of elders and deacons in a local CRC church should not be mandated with the task of building nuclear power plants, and even if members of that church were pro-nuclear power, they ought take those aspirations and inclinations elsewhere, and the bylaws of the local church should be amended to reflect more appropriate sphere boundaries.

But do understand that articles, bylaws, and other organizational rules are also a covenant between those in authority in a particular organization and the members of that organization.  Thus, if the articles, bylaws, or other rules (like the CRC church order) contrain the activities of an organization, a breach of covenant occurs when those in authority in that organization engage the organization in activities beyond that constraint, that is, beyond the the fence established by the articles, bylaws or other rules.

The CRCNA (as a denomination) has articles, bylaws and other rules (the CRC Church Order) and all of those establish, as a covenant with CRC members, a constraining fence for the CRCCNA.  Whether or not those rules accurately trace sphere sovereignty boundaries for an institution of its kind, those rules are still a covenant between office-holders and members.  I happen to think that the CRCNA rules (articles, bylaws and Church Order) do a pretty good job of reflecting sphere sovereignty boundaries for the I-Church, as generally understood in the Reformed tradition, for the CRCNA as a denomination.  What dismays me is the increasing disregard for those rules, especially when it comes to the activity of political lobbying.  In my mind, engaging in that activity represents a breach of the covenant made with CRC members.  Should the denomination -- even if done by the BOT or Synod -- decide to build a nuclear power plant, it would be breaching its rules (and therefor break covenant) with members as well.  On the other hand, if the denomination first changed its rules (by amending the articles, bylaws and church order) to allow for nuclear power plant building, then it would be keeping covenant with members, although it would be departing from the role of the I-Church according to sphere sovereignty rules as they are understood in the Reformed tradition.

By the way, I favor nuclear power (as does James Hansen) but would very much oppose the CRCNA deciding to either build nuclear power plants or lobby to have the government build nuclear power plants.  And if the BOT or Synod changed the CRCNA articles, bylaws, and church order rules to allow the denomination to build nuclear power plants, I probably leave the CRC, preferring to be a member of a I-Church that only does ecclesiastical things.  Still, I would favor nuclear power and perhaps advocate for that -- but I would not try to use the apparatus of my I-Church (its money and reputation) to do that.

Since Kathy was subject to the same space limitations as was Doug, I am sure she, too, would welcome the opportunity to expand on her condensed perspective. I thought I detected in her piece a desire for the Christian community to be more engaged with the social issues of our day, but to be so from a Christian perspective. Because we live in a pluralistic society we can no longer assume that voices outside the institutional church represent a Christian perspective on any given issue. With academia and much of the media seemingly reluctant to give a faith-based point of view the exposure it deserves, churches may have become the venue of last resort to introduce low-information voters to the information they need to make informed voting decisions. I hear Kathy offer a passionate plea for churches to facilitate discussion and dialogue on a wider range of issues than what may be the usual Sunday school fare. Our local church provides access to the Calvin January Series. While sparsely attended, they offer opportunities for exposure to people who are experts in their field, and who may be able to expand our social and political horizons.

 

On the other hand, it was not an accident that Abraham Kuyper spent a great deal of energy promoting Christian alternatives to secularized education. I can easily imagine Doug responding to the above paragraph with a perceptive question about why it would have to be the local church that attempts to broaden the academic horizons of low-information voters, and why not instead the local Christian school. After all, chances are that it says something in the organizational by-laws of the school to be engaged in education. 

John: Your imagination about how I might respond is pretty good. :-)  On the other hand, I would have no problem -- and indeed would encourage -- the I-Church to advocate (I don't mean that word politically) for Christian perspective thinking as to all things in our lives.  My local church showed and had town hall type discussion, for the benefit of members and the community, the "How Shall We Then Live" films (by Francis Schaeffer) back in the 1970's, largely because of my encouragement.

Nor would I oppose the I-Church telling its members and others in the congregation, from the pulpit even, that election time is coming, that important issues for everyone are involved, or even to name a really important issue that might be on the ballot (e.g., a referendum about gay marriage or tax limits or whatever).

Nor would I oppose the pastor, off the pulpit, discussing with members and others his/her own views about particular political issues, and how he/she arrives at those views.  The proviso here, besides being off-pulpit, would be that the pastors would not squelch others in the church from freely expressing their views as well.  The bottom line point would be that no one could reasonably walk away with the idea that this or that view was the unstated official view of that local I-Church and that if you didn't view certain political issues that way, you were on the outside.  Nor should it be that members or others have cause to start seeing their local I-Church as a political debate society.  To the extent the I-Church becomes something else, it discontinues being I-Church.

Relating to Kris Van Engen's comments, I would also regard sphere sovereignty boundaries as fewer and lower in institutionally undeveloped societies.  It might be, for example, that in certain parts of Kenya, the local I-Church is the only organization of any kind in existence.  Well, I might then favor that local I-Church being the organization through which theology, politics, science, education and everything else -- probably excepting family -- was communally done.  I've often thought that the reason Calvin College was church owned had quite a bit to do with the lack of institutional differentiation in a small, exclusively Dutch immigrant society at its relatively early stages of institutional development in a new continent.  And because that society's institutional differention evolved (small 'e' again), Dordt, Trinity, Redeemer, King's, Kuyper and ICS are structured quite differently.

Very interesting discussion. Due to different circumstances, I did not receive a formal education, but I have experienced and tasted life. So I vieuw this discussion in a more practical lite. The following direction of our denomination, where the pew sitters seem to have very little input in. In 2001 the C.R.C. with 10 0ther denominations, including the United Church of Canada,s Rev Bill Phipps who made the statement, " I dont believe JESUS was GOD",organized KAIROS, A social action group for faithfull action for ecological justice and human rights. In 2009 KAIROS send a delegation of 16 delegates and flew over the Alberta oilsands, next our major newspapers reported "Churches adopt policy on oilsands,"

church leaders totally out of there realm of expertice. I tried unsuccesfully to bring the issue of membership in KAIROS to classis A.B.south. I love and have bin invoved in the work of C.R.W.R.C. now World renew, and the Canadian foods grains bank, a organization started by our Mennonite brothers. My wife Lena and I have bin so blessed to witness these organizations operate in Africa, Bangladesh, and India, helping with water management and Agricultural production. But as I have mentioned previously, the church,s role is to proclaim JESUS, even at our little service in Taber,s senior Home, sing with the seneors, including some with dementia, "JESUS loves me" and see their tears, then we are thankfull, that,s what the church teaches, broken people JESUS loves me.then we go out into the world and show JESUS love, induvidually and togrther with christian organizations.Blessings Hans Visser.

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