Sphere Sovereignty Principle

Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States in 1993.  People throughout America discussed Clinton’s political philosophy and their perception of his moral qualities.   A widely known television preacher expressed grave concerns about Clinton’s ability to lead the nation.  At one point I remember the preacher saying, “What will become of the kingdom of God now.” I could understand why so many people were discussing Clinton’s political philosophy, but couldn’t understand why anyone would think that the kingdom of God would come to an end because Bill Clinton became president.  Did the preacher think Clinton’s presidency was equal to the coronation as the king of God’s kingdom? If he had mistaken the United States for the kingdom of God, he may not understand and embrace the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion.

Religious and civil life in the United States of America appears to be very similar to the biblical descriptive history during the period of the Judges.  Religious worship was suited to what every man thought was right in his own eyes.  Civil life was in a state of confusion because the nation failed in its understanding of the principle of confederation and the principle of monarchy.  A culture consists of people who have some connection to the secular and the sacred, the church and the state.  God’s people must be the instruments of reformation, first in the church and then in the state.  Jonathan Edwards summarized his understanding of the church/state relationship.

The civil authorities having nothing to do with matters ecclesiastical, with those things which relate to conscience and eternal salvation or with any matter religious as religious, is reconcilable still with their having to do with some matters that, in some sense, concern religion.  For although they have to do with nothing but civil affairs, and although their business extends no further than the civil interests of the people, yet by reason of the profession of religion. . . many things become civil which otherwise would not…  Thus it is for the civil interest of a people not to be disturbed in their public assembling for divine worship, that is, it is for the general peace, profit, and pleasure of ‘em in this world.  (Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 3, p. 418)

However, if the church has no interest in civil life, then the church has no interest in obeying all that Christ has commanded.  Jesus said that God’s people are the, “the salt of the earth and the Light of the world.”  The public square does not exclude ethics.  If we pretend that the law of God is outdated, we make mockery of God and His inspired Word, for Jesus said, “Whoever, therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).  God’s people cannot be the instruments of God’s graceful gospel, unless they embrace the full counsel of God and reject false religion.  If they embrace the full counsel of God and reject false religion, they must be interested in the civil affairs of the culture.

The culture in Israel during the period of the Judges reminds me of any city in this country at the beginning of the 21st century.  “The highways were deserted, and the travelers walked along the byways” (Judges 5:6).  The conditions in Israel were such that travel was disrupted because of the robbers that roamed the land.  Village life ceased in Israel (Judges 5:7).  There was a disruption of normal life.  Shops were closed, crops had to be abandoned, and there was a general economic depression, because small villages were unprotected from the ravaging Canaanites.  This is a description of the state/church in Israel during the period of the Judges; it is similar to our present state of cultural chaos in this country.  The chaos, confusion, and apostasy in Israel was not the people merely disobeying the rules, it was the dismissal of fundamental principles.  Any culture especially a culture influenced by Christians, whether it is to a greater or lesser degree a Christian culture, must have one God that is the supreme monarch.

The history of the United States reveals a long list of presidents and preachers who fail to understand the sphere sovereignty principle between the church and the state. John Calvin referred to it as the “twofold government” under the kingdom of God.  I will summarize the principle with this simple illustration. A man who was least inclined to follow Christianity was Thomas Jefferson. (He denied the miracles of Christ.) However, he was a man inclined to provide good civic leadership.  A man that was a professing Christian and originally identified with a conservative denomination (Southern Baptist) was Jimmy Carter. However, he is often identified as one of the worst presidents in recent history. Time would fail me to give examples of presidents who identified with religions that were/are not remotely kin to evangelicalism. The evangelical church needs to get busy cleaning its own house, and then it may have a reformative influence on the secular culture. The sphere sovereignty principle is not the church over the state or the state over the church, but both are included in the kingdom of God.

2 thoughts on “Sphere Sovereignty Principle

  1. Thank you for the interesting read, Martin. But in the most heterogeneous culture the world has ever seen, how is it that we could could hope to establish what Kuyper could not? Our nation is already highly pillarized (and heading toward balkanization, in my opinion). Is a United States led by pastors and statesmen who have even heard of, much less adhere to, sphere sovereignty a realistic expectation?

    Or was your intention simply to bid individual believers heed God’s commands as understood by Calvinist orthodoxy?


    1. To answer your question, “no” I do not believe an understanding of the sphere sovereignty principle is a realistic expectation in this anti-intellectual season. Rushdoony clarifies: “The idea of sphere laws is basic to Christian orthodoxy and to an understanding of Western history. The concept is also termed sphere sovereignty, not an altogether designation, since sovereignty is not ascribed to the spheres but to God and His law.” The Southern Presbyterian theologian, R. L. Dabney described the proper sphere of civil government. “The proper object of it [civil government] is, in general to secure to man his life, liberty, and property, i.e., his secular rights” (Dabney’s Systematic Theology). The other sphere, the church, has responsibility for man’s intellectual and spiritual life. During this election season evangelicals are confused about the relationship of the church to the state.


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