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Spheres of Authority

When Government Steps Out of Its Jurisdiction

Many cop shows and movies carry this story line. A big city federal agent shows up to a small-town crime scene. He waves his badge and tells the small-town sheriff that he is in charge now. The rest of the movie uses the tension between the small-town sheriff and the big city agent for added drama. Each claim, “this is my jurisdiction.”

This tension illustrates an important factor of the biblical doctrine of Spheres of Authority. It is a derived doctrine from multiple places in scripture. It is best known from the mouth of the Apostle Peter. “We must obey God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Scripture describes four spheres explicitly—the individual, the family, government and church. When each of these God-ordained institutions operates according to God’s design, the result is harmony, flourishing, and justice. When any one sphere over-reaches, the result is abuse. When any one sphere abdicates, the result is chaotic neglect.

Up until March 2020, few of us have had to deal with this doctrine at a church level. All of us have had to deal with it at an individual level. With governors across the country exercise emergency powers, many churches have faced restrictions and lockdowns. It has forced us all to come to terms with this doctrine and how to apply it. When do we say to the government, “This is not your jurisdiction”?

Overview of Spheres of Authority

Let me give you an overview of the doctrine of Spheres of Authority. I want to focus on Family, Church, and government. God has given each sphere specific responsibilities that it has not given the other two. God has given the family the privilege and responsibility of procreation, health, provision, nurture, education and spiritual instruction (Genesis 1:26-28; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Ephesians 5:22-6:4; 1 Timothy 5:8). The head of the family are the parents. The head of the marriage is the husband. The government and the church do not have this jurisdiction.

God has given the church the privilege and responsibility of doctrine, practice, and governance (Matthew 16:18, 1 Timothy, Titus). Christ is the head of the Church (Ephesians 1:21-22). The leadership of the church is delegated by Christ to elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20:28). The family and the government do not have that jurisdiction.

God has given the government the privilege and ministry of protection, economic order, civic order, justice, and defense (Exodus 18, 2 Samuel 23:1-6, Psalm 72, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Christ is still head of all governments (Revelation 1:7). When they operate in submission to him, they will operate under the guidelines of the ten commandments. Families and churches do not have jurisdiction over government.

Naturally, individuals are involved in all three spheres and at times one individual can be a leader in all three. A mayor could be a parent and a deacon at a church. But, the jurisdictions are separate.

Historical Precedent

Examples flow through the Bible over these issues. Pharaoh commanded the midwives of Egypt to kill the male babies (Exodus 18). They refused. Saul wrongly took the authority of priest (1 Samuel 13). So did Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego disobeyed Babylonian rulers over matters of dietary laws, bowing to false idols, and private prayer (Daniel 1, 3, 6). The Apostles continued to preach when various rulers forbade them (Acts 5, Acts 20:23).

History is riddled with the carnage of the violation of these doctrines. Rulers have put to death Christians. Christian rulers have put to death heretics (according to their view). The state has mandated certain forms and policies (in the 1600s, the English Parliament demanded universal use the Book of Common Prayer). Wars were fought, millions have been killed.

The framers of the Constitution saw the devastation of this and had grown to understand the concept of Spheres of Authority. They imbedded it into the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion. While American rights play second to heavenly responsibilities, it is nonetheless proper at times to stand on these American rights. Paul used his Roman rights for personal protection so he could continue on preaching the Gospel (Acts 16, 21, 26).

Overlapping Concern

It is important to note, that these spheres have some overlapping concern. The government has concern and authority over a family in matters of crimes. If a parent physically abuses a child, the state has authority to uphold justice and intervene and even punish. The same could be said in the church. The church shares concern over the emotional and spiritual well-being of the victim of abuse. In these cases, there would be cooperation of all three spheres.

Public Health and the Government

It can be argued that public health is also a shared concern. At some level we accept that. But, when there is a public health crisis the government should work with the church in cooperation, not place the church in subjection. If there are not justifiable and verifiable grounds, the government has no right to interfere with the doctrine, practice, and polity of the church. If the government exercises its power in this way, the church may disobey the government in order to obey God. Different churches and locations use their best judgment in when and how to do this. If a church chooses to comply with governing mandates because they believe the mandates are in the interest of the public good, it is cooperating with the government, not obeying the government.

This is the point we are at with the new restrictions on singing and in-person gatherings. The Bible commands churches to sing together in the corporate gathering. (Ephesians 5:18-21, Colossians 3:16). Since we have already been co-operating with state mandates on masks and social distancing, we do not see a health threat to our people. Masks are effective. We have had no spread of COVID 19 from our gatherings. There is more than one aspect to health. Spiritual, social, and emotional health are also important. Physical health is directly tied to these others. Our counseling center has a long wait list of people outside our church who are suffering as a result of the pandemic and restrictions. We can still counsel our people quickly. But restricting the other kinds of ministry person-to-person will have further negative effects.

The Individual’s Sphere

The state does not have jurisdiction over what ministry you do in your home or how many people you do it with. The Bible gives each believer numerous commands to love one another in the church or community. Many of these require in-person contact. Many can be fulfilled without in-person contact. You, like the government, share concern for people’s physical health. So, you should consider risks and act accordingly. It may be prudent to limit personal ministry or growth group to phone, zoom, or outside visits for a time. But that is the judgment of the individual not the government. The government has the resources to provide reasonable and scientific guidelines (not saying it always uses them well) for public health. You are free to use and abide by them. But, it is in cooperation with the government, not in subjection to it in your home for the purpose of ministry.

There are many other areas where this applies, and time does not allow us to explore all of them. For now, this will help you understand your role and responsibility in these areas. The right attitude is imbedded in 1 Timothy 2:1-2: pray for rulers, and seek to live peaceful lives in godliness so that we may keep proclaiming Christ.

It is important to know what your God-given jurisdiction is, and when to say, “I must obey God rather than men.”

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