Sphere Sovereignty and Contextual Application

SphereSovereignty

So far as I am aware, this basic concept was first expressed in a manner similar to this by Abraham Kuyper.

God established three societal institutions: family, church, and state. Each of these three institutions have sovereignty (under God) over their own sphere (or jurisdiction). They inevitably overlap, but if the leaders of one sphere attempt to exert authority over another sphere, that is tyranny. As I read it, the 1st Amendment says nothing more than that the State has no jurisdiction over the Church. In matters of civil government the Church must heed the State’s authority, and in matters of religion the State must heed the Church’s authority.

Legislation is the act of applying a morality to governmental issues. Morality is the application of a god’s character to human affairs. How God’s character applies to matters of state is somewhat different than how God’s character applies to matters of religion and family. All law is contextual and cannot be discerned correctly if torn from the situation of its application.

If a YHWH-worshiper sacrificed to an idol this was worthy of the death penalty (“church sphere”); if a Moabite did so the same did not apply. If the Moabite became a sojourner with Israel, however, in that case, “For the [religious] assembly”, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you….” (Numbers 15:15)

Now, in the scope of time, God will hold the “Moabite” responsible for not worshiping Him, but that is God’s prerogative, not ours.

How do we know this was relative to the religious assembly? Context. The entire chapter is about worship regulations, and the immediately preceding sentence says, “And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do.”

So Ruth the Moabitess was constrained by this passage, but her sister, Orpah, was not.

Theology Like Jazz?

Theology is first the activity of thinking and talking about God,[1] and second the applicable product of that activity. We might say, then, that theology is musing about God that enables us to ascertain how He wants us to live in the time and place where we dwell. But this is somewhat puzzling because there is a vast disparity among communities of thoughtful believers in terms of how they walk out their understanding of God’s character.

Perhaps it would be helpful to note that there are multiple faithful communities of Christian understanding and practice who prioritize adherence to biblical instruction, while emphasizing differing aspects of scripture. All of these communities might be described as “faithful,” even though all are also to some degree “faithless,” again in a variety of ways. Recognizing that this reality has persisted across history, I propose that the Bible may serve faith and mission best when it generates a dialogue among faithful readers from varying perspectives.

What if interpretation were understood to function in light of relational fact: all who call upon Jesus as Savior/Messiah share a single identity and primary purpose, but reflect a different utility within the over-arching Body of Christ?[2] Thus conceived, interpretation would provoke a lively interchange among interpreters who speak from the particularities of their unique gifts and experiences, and we might begin to celebrate the contribution of each distinct community. None of whom might be said to faithfully reflect the infinite image of God on their own, but all of whom may highlight a particular facet of His image, which the world is certain to be in desperate need of observing and experiencing.

Old Testament scholar, Daniel Hawk, writes:

As in the musical work, so in interpretation. Strongly held convictions may be fervently expressed, not as a means of bending other voices to a single, agreed-upon melody, but rather as an expression of distinct voices in a complex conversation that becomes greater than the sum of its parts….

Christian interpretation, in other words, is both determined and improvisational, not unlike jazz. Jazz integrates diverse melodies into a holistic musical experience that values the voice of each musician as a necessary component of the unified musical enterprise. Jazz requires that musicians listen carefully to the other musicians in the ensemble and follow the flow of the musical conversation. When this is done well, the result is a unified musical work, which nevertheless preserves the distinct voices in the ensemble….[3]

Undoubtedly, this way of walking might be (and has been) abused and taken too far. However, it seems to me that this practice, if held in conjunction with the foundational conviction that the Word of God expressed in all of Scripture functions as the primary expression of God’s ultimate authority, continuing to instruct the redeemed of every generation, will yield abundant fruit in the lives of God’s people. After all, the best jazz musicians are those who know the laws of music so intimately they are enabled to bend them in a harmonious and melodic manner, consistent with the spirit of music, and in unified relationship with the efforts of the gathered community of musicians.

While the Bible points to God’s ideals, it also describes Christ-like accommodations to sinful brokenness.[4] And, indeed, as Elmer Martens has reminded us,[5] Christ empowered the Christian community to “bind” or “loose” (Matt. 18:15-20), which means that any given Christian community may be more restrictive or more permissive than the exacting expression of Scripture itself. Given that the Holy Spirit has been given to the entire body of Christ, not all community decisions will be universally adopted by all other communities of faith.[6] May we be a people shaped by God’s Word, and committed to relational exegesis and application in concert with other communities of God’s people across both history and geography.

As we forge colonies of heaven in the midst of the surrounding cultures of despair, may God’s word guide us in the shaping of a biblical culture for our time and place. May the watching world say, “What kind of god is this, who gives these people in our midst such wisdom and joy?”[7] And may they discover that it is not a god, but the God who inhabits us and is our Wisdom.


[1] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), pp. xi-xii.

[2] 1 Corinthians 12

[3] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019), 201-203.

[4] Exodus. 21:1-6; Deuteronomy 15:11-18; Mark 14:7

[5] Elmer A. Martens, “Moving from Scripture to Doctrine,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 15.1 (2005): 77–103.

[6] this is one reason why reason must precede tradition in the interpretational hierarchy of scripture, reason, and tradition

[7] Cf., Deuteronomy 4:5-8