Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Questioning the Spheres

One possible response to my claim that goal of educating children is to develop skillful worshipers is that such work is the work of the church. This type of training is presumably the responsibility of pastors in their care for the souls of their people. Christian schools or even parents who take on this task would thereby be overstepping their bounds and encroaching on the work of the church. This objection stems from a certain understanding of the “governments” by which God rules the world. Let me explain.

It is a prominent understanding in Reformed Christian education that God has established four primary “governments” on earth: self, civil, family, and ecclesiastical. Each of these spheres has all the essential characteristics of a “government,” which are, according to Gary Demar, “sovereignty (legitimacy to rule: Romans 13:1), representation (accountability to the rule of another: Exodus 18:17-23), law (a moral code by which to rule: Romans 13:4), jurisdiction (authority to enforce sanctions in the name of the ruler: 1 Peter 2:13-14), and continuity (stability and longevity of government: Deuteronomy 28)” (God and Government 198).

Each of these characteristics of a “government” distinguishes each of the governments established by God. Accordingly, each of these governments has its own jurisdiction and must not encroach upon that of any of the others. Thus, the civil government must not assume responsibility for education because that does not lie in its sphere of responsibility. Families must not administer the sacraments because they are not authorized to do so. Though there is certainly interaction among these spheres, a Biblical society must maintain a separation of church and state and family.

Indeed, there is no essential priority among the spheres. The authority figure within each one gets his or her orders from Scripture and answers directly to God. (Many advocates of this scheme, however, strongly imply the superiority of the family as the cornerstone of society.) Thus, the hierarchy consists of God at the top, mediating His rule through Jesus by His Word, ruling over three essentially equal institutions: the family, the church, and the state.

The responsibility of educating children, according to this paradigm, belongs in the sphere of the family. Most advocates require parents to be directly involved in the education of their children, whether by homeschooling or by delegating the actual tasks of teaching to a Christian day school. The school then acts in loco parentis and works along side the parents in their duty. Nonetheless, education is primarily the responsibility of the family.

This construction, while clean and helpful, deserves close scrutiny. It is helpful for us to make distinctions among the different roles and responsibilities God has placed on men in history. But its very cleanness gives me reservations and questions about the particulars. I do not want to misrepresent this widely-held opinion because I simply want suggest improvements to the reality rather than lob stones as fantasies. What follows is a rather disjointed list of reservations about the basis of this tidy construction and about how it is playing out in real life.

First, it seems to me that the governments theory tends to a diminished view of the institutional church. It tends relegate to the church “spiritual” activities. Plainly, the church’s most important activity is its work of worship around God’s throne on the Lord’s Day. But it would also stand to reason that the church has a role in training all of its members in participating in that worship in a skillful way.

On the same note, it seems to me that Scripture places a sort of priority upon the institution of the church in Jesus’ rule in the world. The sanctuary is in the middle of the world, and the river flows out of the throne of God for the healing of the nations. Though this is not the place to articulate exactly how that priority works out in particulars, the flow of history makes clear that the sanctuary is the center, beginning in the Garden and ending in the City.

Of course, throughout history, churches have taken this role seriously and have been actively involved in starting and/or overseeing schools for the education of God’s children. Elders, who have been examined and sanctioned by Christ’s church as able teachers, are best able to construct a curriculum that equips children first to become skillful worshipers and second to fulfill the calling God has placed on their lives.

Against Christianity by Peter Leithart Second, and closely related to my first reservation, is what seems to be an improper understanding of the nature of Christianity. Presumably, the church should deal with “spiritual” matters, and the family and state deal with the other matters. The proper principles that guide decisions made in all these matters presumably fall under the umbrella of “Christianity.” Christianity has thus been reduced simply to a transcendent philosophy, a system of ideas and thought that must be incorporated to every area of life. An heavy emphasis on “worldview” thinking feeds this mindset.

But Christianity is not merely an -ism. Christendom is civilization with its own distinctive history, stories, music (styles, lyrics, and songs), culture, and government. She is a nation of a peculiar priestly people. Her Anointed King is Jesus, Yahweh of Hosts. He sits at the right hand of the Father ruling the earth until all His enemies are under His feet. He administers His kingdom by His Spirit, who fills His people. And He is beautifying His bride until she has no more wrinkles or blemishes so that He may one day present her to His Father.

This is no mere “spiritual” or “invisible” body. Jesus’ kingdom has real, physical people. His baptized communion of saints is governed by real, human elders. This body enjoys communion, the eucharist, with her Savior and thereby mystically receives Jesus week by week. As a kingdom of priests, Jesus’ body is a servant to the world, taking to the world what it has been given her in the sanctuary: peace, forgiveness, hospitality, food, wisdom. She is in the service of the world and takes on herself its burdens and filth. Her very suffering brings life to the world.

In history, this body in not always beautiful and a times is down right shameful. Yet, this body here on earth is the justified body of Christ for whom Jesus died. And the work of education must be a work that trains the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, imperfect as they are, to conquer the world through glorious worship. Clearly, this training includes much more than just intellectual rigor (though, of course, it does include that).

Because the historical, institutional church is inextricably linked to the entirety of Christ’s kingdom, removing from its jurisdiction certain tasks and relegating them to the family or the state diminishes its role. Though the church does not carry out the specific functions of the family or the state, it does have the responsibility of ensuring that they are carried out properly. As the light of the world, the church makes sure the world runs properly.

Third, I caution against an overemphasis on the role of the family. Anyone who knows me knows that I take my role as a father very seriously. Yet a recent emphasis in some circles on patriarchalism is unhealthy and unbiblical. One of the many results of loyalty to Jesus is a redefinition of even the most basic categories of the family (Matt. 12:46-50; Luke 14:26).

I am not advocating an abdication of the roles of father and mother. Rather, I suggest that parents view their primary relationship with their children as that of brothers and sisters, whom they are discipling and training, above that of daughters and sons, whom they are feeding and “educating.” Having a structured family life, a home life of order and liturgy, does not serve primarily to establish order and obedience (though it does do that); rather, such structure accomplishes the primary task of training habits and affections for worshiping God around His throne. Like a graced bootcamp.

At the very least, the church should provide oversight and accountability to parents as they raise and train their children to ensure that they train God’s children in the right way.

Fourth, Christ’s position as king over the world, ruling with a rod of iron until His last enemy is under His feet, has strong “political” implications. Suffice it to say here that a hierarchiless, flat construction overly simplifies the way in which Jesus, in part by means of His church, is King of kings. As the Savior of the world, Jesus is a greater, occasionally rival, Caesar.

Fifth, I suggest that sequestering the family from the state too completely is overly simplistic. Again, neat, clean systematized categories tends to oversimplification and ignoring of certain Biblical data. John Frame in his “Toward a Theology of the State” suggests that what we think of as the “state” or the “civil government” should actually be viewed as an extension or outgrowth of the family. Even if we are not to accept his premise completely, I suggest that we allow Frame’s handling of the Scriptural texts to qualify descriptions of watertight spheres.

Finally, my personal observation of how this construction of governments is actually executed in reality is that certain vital tasks just are not being accomplished. I can’t say how systemic my personal observations are, but it seems to me that some of the tasks that God considers to be most important are being neglected and being crowded out by other priorities. Perhaps the fault of this neglect lies elsewhere, but I suggest that at least in part these faults are a result of the paradigm.

If skillful worship requires a knowledge of Scripture, then believers must have a curriculum in which they learn the Bible. The more thorough a worshiper’s knowledge of Scriptural data, the more completely he or she is able to enter into Lord’s Day worship. So, in what sphere is a methodical teaching of the facts, types, and flow of Scripture? Whose responsibility is it? The church? Fathers? The Christian school? The danger of the current paradigm is that representatives of each sphere are able to disavow the responsibility.

When the focus is on worship, the Christian school, in the sphere of the family, tends to demur from specific training. Presumably, that is for the church.

If skillful worship necessitates beautiful music that includes skillfully played instruments, then believers must have a way to develop those skills. Spirit worship is glorious and musical. Spiritual music is instrumental. So, in what sphere is the development of vocal and instrumental skills? Whose responsibility is it? The church? The family? The Christian school?

Government schools have bands.

My primary concern is the fact that in some of the areas that apply most directly to the training of skillful worshipers, the tasks are just not getting done. Disavowing the responsibility will not solve the problem. Perhaps, realigning our understanding of the roles and responsibilities that God has placed on certain institutions may be a first step to a solution.

Once again, most of the reservations are meant to qualify the conventional paradigm so that its categories are less watertight. As in most of life and theology, there are fuzzy edges, and our categories must be able to take these into account.

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