Sphere sovereignty is an important concept within Reformed Christianity. This concept recognizes three primary spheres in this world—the family, the church, and the state. The family refers to parents and their children. The church refers to the visible membership of the body of Christ. And the state refers to the institution of civil justice, or government.
Key to the concept of sphere sovereignty is that no sphere is sovereign over another. The spheres certainly relate to one another, but they have different roles that should not be confused. The family is not the church, the church is not the state, and the state is not the family. Neither does the state run the family, the family run the church, nor the church run the state (and vice-versa).
The Relation of the Spheres
So how are the spheres to relate? Family, it must be said, precedes both state and church. The family came first in creation, and it takes a group of families to make a church or state. However, families are to an extent still under the authority of both the state and the church. All families are subject to the state for criminal misbehavior, as the state should protect the life, property, and liberties of all families. Christian families are subject to the church for spiritual misbehavior, which brings church discipline.
The state and the church should mutually respect one another and should not interfere with one another. The state should not interfere with the church’s obligation to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, and the church should not interfere with the state’s obligation to execute civil justice. That being said, the state is still subject to God and should make laws respecting moral justice. In the case of the United States, the church and state have been separated. The state is not to make laws respecting a particular religion. (The First Amendment particularly limits the national government, namely “Congress.” This has been misconstrued to also apply to the states.)
In the modern world, the state is unfortunately always vying for greater power. As seen in the United States, the state has sought to usurp the roles of both the family and the church—thus seeking to become an all-encompassing institution. The best example of this is state education, where the state seeks to provide the worldview and ethical instruction that belong to the family and the church. However, various welfare programs can also be seen as usurping the family and church, as financial provision is something the family does through obligation and the church through charity.
Seeing that God did not design the state to function like the church or family, it is no surprise that such an endeavor has been entirely disastrous. Consequently, the state has weakened both the family and the church in America. Not only is church attendance decreasing among younger generations, but the family unit is in shambles. Divorce and fatherlessness plague this nation.
The Proper Sphere of Education
The greatest violation of sphere sovereignty today is in the area of education. Throughout history, both the state and the church have claimed responsibility for the role of educating children. However, both of these spheres are mistaken. The responsibility of educating children is a task God has given to parents. Parents have direct authority over their children, as seen in the 5th commandment for children to honor their father and mother. Parents are commanded to teach their children the ways of the Lord (Deut 6:7; Eph 6:4). While schools are not forbidden by Scripture, they must be understood as an extension of parental authority.
The church also has an educational role, seen primarily in its preaching responsibility. However, the church is not the primary educator of children. The church is to equip and aid parents to carry out the educational responsibility of their children. Churches can still have influence over free-market schools, though they should not run them directly. Rather, church leaders and members can run such schools in a separate capacity as individuals, and parents are free to extend their parental authority by sending their children there. However, such schools should always be voluntary and never compulsory, as in the case of modern state schools. Such compulsion violates the rights of the family to freely school their children as they choose.
The state is not the educator of children. In fact, unlike the church, God has not given the state any role in a child’s education. That the state is the instrument of civil justice means the state should protect its citizens’ ability to educate. The state should therefore protect families, children, and schools from criminal behavior.
Ironically, though the state is given no responsibility by God to educate children, it is the state that is the greatest threat to the parental responsibility in this task. Over the past 200 years, the majority of Western countries have become dominated by monopolistic and compulsory state school systems. In the case of America, our government has been forcing children to attend public schools since the 1850s (and even earlier in the Massachusetts colony). Thankfully, the state allows parents to opt out of state schools, but they are still forced to pay for government schools through compulsory taxations (which includes local, state, and federal taxes).
The state has thus usurped the God-given parental responsibility to educate children. Though God has given parents the right to extend their authority to a school, this should be a free choice and not something parents are coerced into. That a state would seek to fulfill the parental responsibility in such an important task says much about the goal of the modern state—and that goal is to control the future generations by indoctrinating them into subservience to the state. It should not surprise us that the rise in state-controlled education has coincided with the ever-increasing size of the welfare-warfare state.
Sadly, the error of state intervention in education has its roots in church history. Martin Luther established state schools in Germany, Calvin in Geneva, and the Puritans in New England. They thought they were doing a good thing by educating all citizens in Christianity. However, this practice has no basis in Scripture. So Christians set up the model for state education that would wreak havoc on society once it became controlled by unbelievers. Granted, modern state school systems are much more centralized and powerful than earlier Christians could have ever imagined. But the church provided the model nonetheless.
Is the State Better Equipped to Educate?
The primary argument behind compulsory state education is that some parents are unfit to educate their children. Some parents do not have the money or they do not have the ability to make educational decisions for their children. Due to the negligence of some parents, the state should therefore run education. However, this claim is entirely fallacious, resting on the assumption that the state is better equipped than parents to provide an education.
Here we will turn to the 19th century theologian Robert Lewis Dabney, who pointed out that though parents are fallen and imperfect, “the supreme authority must be placed somewhere.” And God has indicated that “no place is so safe for it as in the hands of the parent, who has the supreme love for the child and the superior opportunity.” Yes, many parents neglect and pervert the power—“And does the State never neglect and pervert its powers? With the lessons of history to teach us the horrible and almost universal abuses of power in the hands of civil rulers, that question is conclusive. In the case of an unjust or godless State, the evil would be universal and sweeping. Doubtless God has deposited the duty in the safest place” (p. 292).
It is clear that the state poses a much greater danger in controlling education than leaving the task to imperfect parents. Bad parents can ruin their kids. But a bad government can ruin an entire nation. It is better to leave parenting and education up to parents (as God intended it) and knowing that some will do it poorly than to have the state trying to do something it was never intended to do in the first place—and for all children. Children do not belong to the state as Plato taught. Such a concept is sheer despotism.
Dabney concludes his argument by invoking sphere sovereignty—“God has immediately and authoritatively instituted three organisms for man on earth, the State, the visible Church, and the Family, and these are co-ordinate in rights and mutual independence. The State or Church has no more right to invade the parental sphere than the parent to invade theirs” (p. 292). Again we see that the essential problem with the American school system is its confusing the spheres of the state and family, with the state usurping the family’s role.
Instead of providing education, the state ought to be ensuring freedom for parents to educate their children as they see fit. As Dabney says, “God designed the State to be the organ for securing secular justice” (p. 293). The state, along with the church, ought to “recognize the parent as the educating power.” The state can encourage education by “holding the impartial shield of legal protection over all property which may be devoted to education,” but it should not provide that education. Recognizing the proper sphere for education—the family—would solve many of the problems inherent to our current educational system. It would make families stronger, the state weaker, and America a better place to live.
Robert L. Dabney, “Secularized Education,” in Discussions, vol 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), p. 289.