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Many years ago, I heard a well-known preacher claim that duties never conflict. I am older now and willing to question that premise. The truth is, ultimate duties do sometimes conflict with subordinate duties. In these days of lockdowns and vaccines, the dilemma of duties highlights the challenge of making wise, biblical decisions.

Because we live in a fallen, and therefore a very imperfect, world, life does not always fall into simple categories of black and white, and making decisions can therefore become complicated. What authority does civil government have when it comes to the privacy of my home? When are members to submit to their leaders and when are church leaders overstepping their legitimate sphere? What authority, if any, does the government have over a local church?

Sometimes, answers are fairly straightforward. For example, parents have the biblical right and responsibility to discipline their children. At the same time, I think we would all agree that the government has the responsibility and the right to protect children from abusive parents. Elders have the right to call the church to gather and to do the Great Commission, but church leaders have no right to command church members to cut their grass. The local church has the right to gather and to worship in accordance with Scripture, but no right to refuse to comply with city building codes.

But what about recent (and, likely, future) lockdowns with their blanket restrictions on church gatherings? Are there legitimate grounds for non-compliance? Thinking rightly about this requires us to wrestle with the concept of “sphere sovereignty.” To do so, we need to put on our proverbial thinking caps and secure them tightly.

The Bible places great emphasis upon self-government and God holds each person accountable for how he or she responds to his self-revealed law. Yet the Bible also recognises three God-given spheres of government: family government (Genesis 1:26–28; Ephesians 5:22–6:4; Deuteronomy 6:4–9); civil government (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1–7); and church government (Matthew 16:18–19; 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 12:12–27; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–15; Hebrews 13:7, 17). None of these has exclusive or absolute authority. Each has the God-given right to govern within its God-appointed sphere, and each is to respect the others’ “sphere.” In an ideal world, these three spheres would interact without fear or favour and certainly without tension. No sphere would trespass upon another. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and therefore points of conflict occasionally arise. We therefore need to think rightly about each sphere.

Family Government

When God established the family, he gave it sovereignty to rule, under God, within its assigned domain. He set the parameters for what constitutes a marriage: a natural born man and a natural born woman uniting in a consummated covenantal relationship (Genesis 2:23–25). This has implications for our understanding of marriage.

Ordinarily, a father will give his daughter to a man in marriage. While counsel might be sought from others, the decision is ultimately an individual and family matter (Genesis 24:29–59). Government in this area is given to family. This means that civil government does not establish marriage. Marriage is outside its sphere of authority.

At the same time, however, since family is a part of society, there will be areas of overlap with other spheres, including the legitimate sphere of government. For example, civil government has the right and responsibility to protect young girls from being child-brides. However, if government outlaws intercultural marriage, or approves same sex marriage, it has overstepped its sphere and should rightfully be ignored.

Family also has the God-given responsibility for the welfare—including the educational welfare—of its children. Government has no right to demand attendance at its educational institutions. When my wife and I chose to home-school our children, South African law required us to register as home-schoolers. We completed the form, submitted it, and never heard a word in response. By registering, we sought to alleviate unnecessary tension. However, had the education department prohibited us from home-schooling, we would not have complied. Our children’s education was our responsibility, not civil government’s. We would have responded, “This far, and no further.”

The point is that God has given family a “sovereign sphere”: the right and responsibility for self-rule. But since this sphere interacts with the spheres of civil government and church, life can sometimes get interesting.

Church Government

The local church has appointed authority from Jesus Christ to rule its “household” (1 Timothy 3:14–16). The local church has authority to determine its doctrine, its mode of discipline, and its duties without needing approval from civil government or family. Jesus makes that clear in Matthew 16:18–20 and 18:15–20.

The local church’s appointed leaders exercise authority and church members are commanded to submit to those leaders (Hebrews 13:17). But the congregation also has God-given authority and is the final court of appeal. Biblical church government is best described as elder-led congregationalism. In cases of doctrine, the elders, with the congregation, are responsible for what is taught and practiced, whether the civil government approves or not.

The Roman government opposed the church’s rejection of emperor worship and subsequently persecuted Christians because they refused to countenance the government’s usurpation of their right to be ruled by the truth of Christ. But the early Christians would not yield because civil government had no authority to interfere with or determine its worship.

Likewise, the home has no right to usurp the authority of the local church. Suppose a teenager, living at home with his parents, joins membership of a local church. Over time, he falls away in rebellion against the Lord. Eventually, having exercised its congregational authority, the church excommunicates him. Suppose that his parents resist, claiming that, since he is their son, the church has no authority to hold him to account. Suppose they threaten to sue the church, claiming that how he lives is their business, not the church’s. Responding righteously, that church would acknowledge parental authority while also recognising that, as a member of the church, their son’s lifestyle is its business. The local church’s sphere of authority does not trump parental authority in the home, but nor does it relinquish authority in its realm. In this case, the son’s behaviour requires that the local church discipline the him while not interfering with how his parents interact with him in the sphere of their home.

Once again, as you can see, sphere authority becomes quite complicated.

The local church is responsible to address sin among its members. Some sins are crimes (house-breaking) and some are not (fornication). Both require confrontation and, in cases of persistent non-repentance, excommunication. But the former is a crime, which will, in most cases, require the involvement of civil government. If a church member commits a crime, civil government’s authority must be respected. While civil government and many families do not consider fornication a sin, the church does and therefore must take a stand, regardless of the agreement or disagreement of families, politicians, and judges.

Civil Government

Having addressed family government and local church government, what does the Bible say about God’s assignment of authority to the sphere of civil government?

Romans 13:1–7 is perhaps the go-to passage when it comes to the sphere sovereignty of civil government. This passage reveals at least four things: first, the legitimacy of civil government (that God has established it); second, the God-appointed role of civil government; third, the warning not to resist its authority (for ultimately to resist is to resist God); and, fourth, our responsibility to obey, respect, and support God-appointed civil government.

On the surface, this text appears straightforward: We are to obey the authority of civil government simply because God says so. But as you dig into the text, things get a little more complicated.

Clearly, the major responsibility of civil government is to maintain law and order and to punish evildoers (v. 3). In this scripturally limited way, civil government “is God’s servant for your good” (v. 4). As government rules in its God-appointed sphere, it functions as God’s servant so that the godly have no need to fear (v. 4). Indeed, if both government and the governed do what is commanded, everyone will be happy as the government is honoured (vv. 5–7) and the governed can live in harmony without harassment as they do God’s will in their spheres of responsibility (v. 3; see also 1 Timothy 2:1–4).

But what about governments that overreach with their authority? What about governments that do not rule righteously and do not act as a terror to evildoers? What about governments that act as a terror to righteous living?

Christians often argue that, since Nero was emperor when Paul wrote Romans, there is clearly no scriptural warrant for civil disobedience. After all, if a crazed, immoral, murderous tyrant like Nero was, in Paul’s mind, a legitimate authority figure, then surely every law by every government is to be unquestionably obeyed. This is a wrongheaded assumption for at least three reasons.

First, Paul’s instruction concerns the institution of government, not any particular government or governor. In fact, this text mandates the kind of government that God expects: one that serves him (vv. 4, 6). The text describes government as God intends it to be. It is the kind of government that arises when society is impacted by the gospel, not by emperor-worship. There is no textual support for the conclusion that Paul was commending the government of Nero.

Second, Paul’s description of civil government flies in the face of Nero’s government. Though he sometimes punished evil works, Nero (at his worst) was equally a terror to good works. (Ask any Christian mauled by Nero’s wild animals!) He used the sword of capital punishment to kill political and religious rivals as well as those guilty of evil deeds.

Third, Nero can hardly be described as “God’s servant for” the “good” of the Christians in Rome (v. 4). This passage does not address God’s providence in using evil for his good purposes (Romans 8:28–30; Daniel). We are well aware that God turns evil intentions for his good purpose (e.g. Genesis 50:20). But this is notPaul’s argument here. Rather, he is establishing the principle of the authority of legitimate government operating within the realm of God’s revealed precepts. It is only when there is compliance to these precepts that civil government is operating for the “good” of society.

We can conclude that, while Paul was not endorsing Nero’s rule, he was stating that civil government has a legitimate sphere of authority. Properly exercised, that authority helps, rather than hinders, those who do good. In other words, when government “stays in its lane,” unnecessary collisions with other spheres can be avoided.

A properly functioning civil government will benefit the church, not hinder it (see also 1 Timothy 2:1–4). When the local church properly functions within its God-appointed sphere, and when civil government properly functions within its God-given sphere, there will wonderful harmony. Sadly, this is not always the case.

What’s the Point?

Because the three spheres of authority (that is, the three God assigned institutions of human government) do not exist in isolation, there are times when they intersect. Because we live in a fallen world, intersection frequently produces tension. The COVID-19 pandemic is Exhibit A. We therefore need to think biblically about how to respond to actualities (e.g. lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, mask mandates, etc.) and possibilities (e.g. vaccine mandates, future lockdowns, etc.). So, there is a point to everything I have said above.

We don’t have the luxury of mere theoretical musings, nor can we simply shrug our shoulders and acquiesce to every policy that comes from President or Parliament. Neither can we afford to engage in emotive and populous, and often irresponsible, sloganeering. Rather, we should recognise that we live in an extraordinary time, which provides us with the extraordinary opportunity to think. We need to set our minds to Scripture to understand revealed principles of sphere sovereignty and sphere limitations. Let me illustrate.

Suppose government mandated the church to not preach the gospel, or to affirm same sex marriage. We would unanimously push back, affirming before God that we should resist such an unbiblical order. Scripture addresses these matters so clearly that only the belligerent would dare debate. But the questions of masks, limitation on gatherings, social distancing, and vaccinations are not as clear. In the absence of chapter-and-verse proof texts, we need to think through and apply principles in a wise and winsome way. What a providential opportunity to search the Scriptures to scripturally test our traditions. We should utilise this opportunity to exercise calm discernment and to think carefully before responding. We must be aware of causing unnecessary harm and confusion if we simply react.

It is important to recognise that, for all of us, there will come a point where we say, “This far and no further.” Each of us will reach a point at which we will feel biblically compelled to disobey what we deem to be an illegitimate encroachment of one sphere of authority into another. Even Christians who argue that churches should comply with every government lockdown mandate would likely resist vaccine mandates. Thinking Christians would no doubt resist a government mandate that only vaccinated persons could attend a church service. The same Christians would likely resist a similar mandate from church elders. Rightly so. The choice to vaccinate or not to vaccinate is a deeply personal and family decision, which cannot be mandated by civil or church government.

Again, in one sphere or another, eventually each of us will recognise that a legitimate sphere of authority has overstepped and so will feel duty-bound before the Lord to rightly resist. No sphere of authority, outside of Scripture, is absolute.

But my appeal is that we also recognise the need to guard the unity of the local church, as well as the unity of the wider church. As we discuss and deliberate these important matters, we must do so charitably, being conscious of each other’s conscience. Brotherly respect demands that we tread carefully in these matters. We dare not cause Christ’s little ones to stumble. We must patiently listen, respectfully respond, wisely interact, and, if necessary, honourably disagree. Brothers and sisters, that is the ultimate point.