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What Kuyper Really Said about the Church and Politics

In North America’s politically-charged and polarized culture today, a perennial complaint one often hears whenever church bodies or agencies speak publically on social issues is that the church ought to concern itself with the Gospel and leave political or social involvement to lay Christians. If the institutional church supports the pro-life movement, invariably someone with left-leaning ideas will object. Likewise, if the institutional church recruits members to advocate for Creation stewardship, others will complain that the Gospel is being given short shrift.

For Reformed Christians, these objections are sometimes accompanied by appeals to Abraham Kuyper’s theory of Sphere Sovereignty. Kuyper’s argument in 1880 was that God created the world with the potential for human culture to develop various distinct but interrelated aspects. The three most basic of these are the family, the state, and the church but Kuyper clearly envisioned more. The key for Kuyper was that each sphere operated according to its own inner logic and for its own God-intended purpose in society. The family exists for the nurturing of children. The state exists for the restraint of evil through the exercise of justice. The church exists for the worship of God and the redemption of rebellious human beings. Thus, a family should not function as if it were the state. And the state should not function as if it were a business. And the church should not function as if it were a bowling league.

In addition to these distinctions, Kuyper also introduced an important distinction for thinking about the church’s relationship to the rest of the world. Kuyper argued that the church exists in two modes of being. On the one hand, the church exists in the world as an institution, as the gathered people of God under ordained leadership. But, on the other hand, the church exists as an organism, as the people of God spread throughout the world in the everyday course of life. And, Kuyper argued, each mode of the church’s existence has its own relationship to the world. The institutional church has an indirect relationship to the world because it is the organic church that has a direct relationship to the world.

What all of these Kuyperian distinctions mean, at a basic level, is that the institutional church’s role is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments to convert and disciple people while it is the responsibility of ordinary, everyday Christians to speak out publically about social and political issues. The institutional church, it is sometimes explained, oversteps its boundaries or abandons its area of expertise when it attempts to speak publically on social or political matters, especially at the level of specific governmental policy.

With these appeals to the thought of Abraham Kuyper, therefore, one can see how objections can arise whenever the institutional church appears to make statements or engage in advocacy which publically support social justice causes. “Let the church preach the Gospel and let Christians engage in the public square!” is the cry.

I find these debates which claim the authority of Abraham Kuyper for keeping the institutional church out of social issues unfortunate. Not unfortunate because we don’t need serious debate – we do! What is unfortunate is the oversimplification of Abraham Kuyper’s thought that drives a wedge between the institutional church and its role in the public square. If all we had of Kuyper’s thought on these matters was what I’ve presented above, the end result of such logic would be the self-marginalization of the church in society. Rather, Kuyper’s vision of the church pushes the institutional church into deep engagement with the issues of the world. Let me offer two suggestions for how we can be more faithful to the thought of Abraham Kuyper.

First, Kuyper believed that the institutional church must take its historical and cultural context seriously. The whole point of Kuyper’s thought is that the institutional church is a dialogue partner in the marketplace of civic institutions on important social and political matters (race, colonization, the de-segregation of society, slavery, for example). There is significant nuance in Kuyper’s thought that makes an ironclad separation between the institutional church and the important political debates in society simply unfaithful to his thought-world. Kuyper envisioned a church – institution and all – that was deeply embedded in and responsible to its context. His distinctions – at the time – were intended to free the church from governmental manipulation as well as an over-reliance on the clergy. He wanted to liberate the laity and set the church free for a robust engagement with the world.

But the second way in which we misunderstand Kuyper is when we fail to have as comprehensive a vision of the Gospel as Kuyper himself had. It is abundantly true that Kuyper argues that the institutional church’s primary role is to preach the Gospel. But because that Gospel is utterly comprehensive, so its proclamation must be equally comprehensive, too. Kuyper’s distinction between the two modes of the church (institution vs. organism) wasn’t intended to hermetically seal off the church from the world but, rather, to equip the church to more faithfully and effectively play its role in God's creation.

Kuyper demanded that the institutional church’s proclamation of the Gospel be world-wide, concerned with all of Creation. The institutional church’s field of interest must be as wide as God’s redemptive interest, which is “all things,” wider than what we typically understand to be “ecclesial,” “religious,” or “spiritual.” The light of the Gospel must address and illumine every part of Creation.

True, it is beyond the institutional church’s specialization to demand particular political policies be adopted. But if the institutional church fails to address the social and political issues of the day, the institutional church fails to be the incarnational presence of Jesus in the world, never moving into the neighbourhood as Jesus did (John 1:14, The Message). The institutional church’s proclamation of the Gospel, Kuyper would say today, must extend beyond its own life and ministry and address the material historical and cultural factors of our time and place.

Why are we so hesitant to allow the institutional church a Gospel-inspired public voice today? Sure, part of the answer lies in the errors, abuses, and shortsightedness of the institutional church in history. But also, it seems to me, another part of the answer lies in the stories we tell ourselves. Nick Wolterstorff has said that “Over and over the church, when confronted by social realities that are unjust but that it prefers not to change, retreats into spirituality.” That is, as Christians today, part of the story we tell ourselves is that Christianity is about spirituality and morality rather than public or political life. If we read Kuyper through these North American presuppositions, we will undoubtedly mis-read him. Kuyper’s insistence on the contextualized proclamation of the comprehensive Word of God by the institutional church reminds us that the life, ministry, and witness of the church must continually be incarnated in time and space, culture and society. If the Gospel is to be proclaimed, it must address the social and political issues of our common life together. Otherwise, the good news isn’t a relevant announcement of what God is doing in the world.

We would also do well to remember that the institutional church’s proclamation is made up of both what is said and what is not said. If the institutional church were to remain silent about all the important issues facing the human community today, that silence would communicate something incorrect about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The gospel proclaimed by the institutional church shapes us today and shapes the next generation tomorrow and also creates the realities we live in, the laws we enact, and the doctrines we formulate.

An understanding of Kuyper’s thought which results in the institutional church being gagged when it comes to socio-political concerns for justice and public decency is a theological fiction. The gospel is not limited in scope to the “spiritual” or the “inner-subjective.” For the institutional church’s proclamation to remain faithful in our time and place, it must comprehensively engage all of life, right down to its material socio-political details.

This can only happen when the institutional church’s proclamation of the Gospel shows the way of Jesus in the nitty-gritty of life in the world, even if that means pointing out instances of historical (and on-going) wrongs. If the institutional church fails to contextualize the comprehensive Word of God in the here and now then it fails to be the ambassador of Jesus Christ in the world and allows the norms of the fallen world to dictate the terms by which its life, ministry, and witness are practiced. We need a better discussion today about important social and political issues. We won’t have that discussion if Kuyper’s thought is used to narrow the discussion partners.

[Image: Flickr user Bert Kommerij]


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