Sphere Sovereignty: The Family
In our circles of friends, we all have those who are more competitive than others. Some of us are laid back and easy going, but there are some of us who just have this innate need to go one step further, to finish ahead of the rest. But actually, I think each one of us are pretty competitive, just in different areas. Maybe you don’t care about having the fastest mile, but you’re as self-driven as they come and always trying some new harebrained idea.
Competition is generally a good thing. It keeps us moving. It pushes you into trying just 1% harder today than you did yesterday. Competition among friends urges you to push the boundary of your best.
But there are other kinds of competition. What about when there’s more at stake than bragging rights? What do you do when you come across competing interests? What do you do if you’re going out for a new job along with a few other people? What do you do when one party tells another what they can and can’t do? What happens when the family, the church, and the state have competing interests? Who gets to decide how a family orders itself? How a church worships and ordains leadership? How the government fulfills its responsibilities?
It might not surprise you that we would not be the first Christians to ask these questions. We’re not even the first people to ask these questions. When the Jews were living in exile in Babylon and then Persia, they were forced to reckon with a religious identity in a foreign land. “How do we worship God in the midst of a people who would vehemently disagree with us on the nature of God and how to worship him?” That impacted the way they ordered their families, because for the Jews, their religion was finely woven into every area of their lives. How would they relate to a government, and an empire, that would never demand worship of the one, true God of all their people?
The doctrine of “sphere sovereignty” is a great help in this matter. That name may not be very old, but the ideas are quite ancient and can be traced directly to the Scriptures. Before sphere sovereignty, you had versions of it like “two-kingdom” theology, where everything was divided between the kingdom of God, or the church, and everything else. The doctrine of sphere sovereignty argues that there are three primary spheres with authority invested in each of them by God. The spheres must interact with each other, but none can undermine the authority of another. The three spheres are the family, the church, and civil government, which could be a democracy, parliament, an emperor, or a king. Each of these spheres are directly addressed in the Scriptures and are given responsibilities and authority over those within its sphere. This is the benefit of sphere sovereignty. God is a God of order, not chaos, which is the purpose of investing authority at various levels.
Sphere sovereignty is not a political theory, like conservatism or liberalism. Sphere sovereignty comes from a distinctly biblical understanding of an ordered universe as created by God. You can see the roots of sphere sovereignty at creation, and you see the importance of recognizing these three important spheres throughout redemptive history. This morning, we’re going to see how the Scripture organizes one of these spheres, where spiritual authority lies in that sphere.
But first, it might be good to get a grasp on this word “authority”. It’s one of those words that can make people cringe if they have a certain understanding of the word. In a lowercase “L” liberal society, we value personal autonomy and independence. No one here wants to give any of that up. It’s not a contradiction to hold to some conservative principles when it comes to the place of institutions and human nature while simultaneously valuing a high level of personal freedom. But we must understand that what makes human flourishing possible, this side of Revelation 22, is a rightly ordered authority, not the absence of authority.
Scripture, in no few words, does not advocate either anarchy or tyranny. God created the cosmos from chaos, two Greek words that respectively mean “order” and “disorder”. Anarchy is the absence of divinely appointed authority, and tyranny is the outcome of the centralization of earthly authority. There will, absolutely, be a one-world-order one day, but until Christ has put all of his enemies under his feet and hands the kingdom over to the Father, no earthly power is capable of handling that kind of authority without destroying the people under that authority.
We’re not going to do justice to any of the three spheres in one day, so we’re going to focus on the foundation of the spheres, the place where God has vested the most authority—the family. The family must be rightly ordered if we are to hope for a righty ordered society, not just a church and a government. God gives universal truths about the family early in Scripture, and then he gives some specific commands concerning the relationship of the family and the church. In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging on the church and civil government, to kind-of play catchup. I think the best way to do these three spheres justice is to give them their own space.
Scripture begins by placing the primary authority over an individual at the family level. It’s quite telling that God did not give Adam a friend, a roommate, or a child to care for. God spoke everything into existence, except the man, so it would have been no more taxing on God to create an entire civilization at once. But God instead, in his divine wisdom, created a husband and a wife.
He gave that husband and wife responsibility. They would exercise dominion not over each other but over everything else. In creation, you have complete equality between man and woman. But there is a difference. When it was still only Adam, we’re told, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” (Gen. 2:18). Still, Adam is not given a friend, a roommate, or a child, but a helper.
Being a “helper” is not a subordinate position taken on its own. The Hebrew word is ezer, and several times, God is called the ezer, or the helper, of his people. So it is not in the nature of the woman herself that we find a lesser being than the man. When it comes to her relationship to the world, she is on equal footing. When it comes to her standing before God, she is on equal footing.
We find a special responsibility in the man only because of the order of creation, not because of any incompetence in the woman. When the apostle Paul is giving instructions on church order in 1 Timothy 2, he says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (vv.12-13). The point for now is that Paul bases his doctrine of the church not in the inherent ability of either the man or the woman but in the order in which God created them both. Creation will be the root doctrine of much of how we understand the authority of each of these spheres. The order of creation is a centering truth for the believer. It will serve as a sort-of living parable throughout the family, the church, and government.
And that order of creation has application in the family. Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:22-27).
In no sense do we see male headship in the family as tyrannical. Husbands and fathers do not have an autocrat or despot as their model but Jesus Christ, who died for us. Anything less than him fails to live up to the standard set before us. So when we see husbands abuse and leave their wives, we rightly doubt any confession of faith they may have made. We rightly tell the woman to seek shelter elsewhere. The church sacrifices to protect her and the children. In the same vein, when we see wives abuse and leave their husbands, we call her to repentance and reconciliation, as we would a husband.
But there are godly men out there who work regular jobs, who understand the home is their responsibility, who teach their kids, and who volunteer in the church. And those men should be supported by other godly men and women. There are godly women out there who practice a quiet piety, who support their husbands, who raise their kids, and who give of their time and other resources in the church. And those women should be supported by other godly men and women.
There is no call for mutual submission here, where the wife submits to her husband and a husband submits to his wife, though that’s a common misconception. We have turned the very idea of submission into something despicable and hated, when it was Christ, in his flesh, who submitted to the will of the Father in order to purchase our salvation. Wives and mothers model the very behavior that won our salvation. That’s precisely why Paul can say that by a wife’s example, some husbands may come to know the Lord (1 Cor. 7:16).
Headship and submission are good things when both are held in the proper relation. The relationship of a husband and a wife is supposed to be unlike any other relationship in all of creation. It is supposed to be an image of God’s love for his people. We should not turn male headship into permission for abuse, and we should not turn female submission into a lower class of citizen. Shortly after Paul commends wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives, he writes, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Whether you are a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, you are playing a part in presenting the gospel to the world simply by having Christ at the center of your marriage.
This is increasingly true when the average age of marriage is increasing. So young people, do not postpone marriage out of principle. Don’t think your career matters more than the single most important institution in human history. Don’t think your 20s are just about finding your true self, whatever that means. Don’t fall for the popular misconception that youth is wasted in marriage. When Jesus is reinforcing the creation mandate for the family in Matthew 19, his disciples begin to think that marriage is just too difficult and should be avoided. Sound familiar? “The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given (Matthew 19:10-11). Marriage is not the special calling; singleness is the special, rare calling. Apart from a calling from God, seek a godly spouse. If you’re single, glorify God in your calling. If you’re married, glorify God in your calling.
Not all marriages include children, but most do. Those men and women who are barren or struggle with infertility have a difficult calling in life, but the One who called you to it is capable of preserving you within that calling. And those difficult, often tragic, circumstances simply confirm the fact that marriage is designed to include children. The (painful) exceptions prove the rule.
The cultural mandate of Genesis 1 includes children. Children should never be excluded from the plans of a married couple. God opens and closes the womb, no doubt, but in principle, no Christian marriage should deny that children are a blessing designed to come from marriage. That doesn’t outright negate any kind of family planning, because that’s wholly different from telling God, “No, thanks.”
It’s no coincidence that in Matthew 19, immediately after the discussion about marriage, people brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. We do not hinder children in marriage, and we do not hinder children in coming to Christ. The family and the church are intertwined in ways we may not notice at first. Children are welcome to participate in the life of the church, even if they are not yet believers, in the same way an unbelieving spouse is welcome to participate in certain facets of the life of the church.
We read it all the time, but for good reason. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the standard-bearer passage when it comes to the responsibility of parents to raise their children to know the Lord. It says,
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The family bears the brunt of the responsibility in discipling children. That’s clear from the references to sitting in your house, walking with children throughout the day, laying down, rising up. Those are familiar and familial duties. Parents and anyone raising children should seek to make the Scriptures as familiar to your children as their favorite YouTube videos. Family discipleship should be a natural part of life, not an exceptional part.
You don’t have to spend an hour every evening reading the Bible to your children, but do you read any? Do you memorize any part of it? Do you try? How many of us can say the ten commandments right now from memory? At the book exhibit in the lobby, there are catechisms for free, called “Truth and Grace”. They include simple questions and answers, the Lord’s Prayer, the ten commandments, the creeds, and more, all in one place. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel. We aren’t the first people to see the need to have some help in training our children to know the Lord.
The book of Proverbs was quite literally written as a father giving instruction to his son. It opens by saying, “Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Prov. 1:8-9).
The Scriptures are full of wisdom when it comes to teaching your children. Not only does the Bible command teaching your children, but the Bible models it, as well.
Having said that, don’t fool yourself into thinking that salvation is your responsibility. Salvation is of the Lord, not mom and dad. Teach them, fulfill your parental duty, and leave salvation to the strong arm of God. That’s not permission to give them an option about worship and discipleship, but it is to remind us that we don’t act as God in our families.
As Baptists, we know that baptism is not salvific, that it doesn’t cause salvation, but we often act like it does. We gotta get them baptized before high school, before they go off to college, we say. It’s subtle, and well-intentioned, but baptism is not a magic charm that keeps people from falling away. We do not baptize out of fear or concern but out of obedience. In the same way that circumcision was the sign and seal of the old covenant, Paul says so the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is the sign and seal of the new covenant. Baptism follows the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Baptism apart from being taught all that Christ commanded is how people get a false sense of security. Baptize out of fear, and you might very well be the millstone around their neck. You don’t baptize your children just to hedge your bets.
Instead, we should disciple children, nurture them in the Lord, and tell them that baptism is something that a true disciple does in order to show the church their confession of faith, and that baptism serves as a single, one-time event that reminds you throughout your life of your death to sin and life in Christ. Believe me, these children are quite capable of understanding that.
Ezekiel writes, “The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die” (18:1-4).
The Israelites had developed this theology that children will be responsible for the sins of their parents, and God tells the people to think again. The fathers eat the grapes, and the children taste the sourness, that’s the metaphor. There are consequences for our sins across generations, of course, but you are no more responsible for your child’s sins than your children are responsible for your sins.
Bridge Between Two Worlds
The family, rightly ordered, is the cornerstone of any society, even in ways that the church and government are not. This institution is only fractured and restructured to serve its own destruction. A husband’s first responsibility is his wife, and a wife’s first responsibility is her husband. A husband loves his wife by leading her into deeper discipleship in the Lord, and a wife loves her husband by submitting to godly leadership. So husbands, be a husband worth submitting to. Wives, be a wife worth leading. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 1, live a life worthy of your calling.
As parents, we work together as families to nurture our children in the Lord. There’s nothing wrong with seeking their happiness, as any good parent would do. But happiness is not holiness When he’s teaching the crowd about the goodness of God, Jesus says, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:9-10). A good parent is joyful in seeing their children happy.
But how much more important is holiness than happiness! There is no command to make your children happy; there are plenty of commands to raise them to fear the Lord. Children aren’t pushed away from the faith when mom and dad didn’t make them happy; they’re pushed away when mom and dad are different people at home than they are at church.
It is no small thing that Jesus teaches us to pray to God as our Father. Our Father knows what we need before we ask him. He loves us and provides for us. Though it was less common for the Jews to call God Father, many Psalms and some of the prophets speak of God as if he were a loving, caring, and present father.
When Jesus is praying to his Father in his high priestly prayer of John 17, he ends by saying, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). The Father loves the Son, and that eternal, perfect Trinitarian love, he has shared with us through the Son, by sending him to give himself as the payment for our debt of sin. God absorbed the debt we owed him into himself so that he might be glorified and that we might know the love the Father, Son, and Spirit share within themselves.
The family is an imperfect, yet sufficient glimpse of that love. So it is no small matter to protect the family, raise up godly husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, and train children in the things of God.
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