Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: Journalism and sphere sovereignty

Paul Tillich

When the Christian journalist reports the verifiable facts of a given situation, the reaction and action to that reporting is for another calling to make (unless one has been called to be an opinion writer). That is, the journalist has one responsibility: That of accurately reporting the facts of an event in such a way that the truth of the event will emerge. If, as Christians, we believe that all of life is religious under the sovereign beneficence of a creator God, and if we believe that all humans are incurable religious and that all of life is shaped by an “ultimate concern”which Ps. 139 teaches us is total and inescapable (cf, Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology), then everything we write has a divine aspect to it and we are accountable to our Lord for our reporting.

John CalvinAbraham Kuyper

Critical to this understanding of the distinct calling of journalism is the biblical doctrine of “sphere sovereignty” (or “subsidiarity”). We learn of this doctrine through the writings of many theologians, but particularly John Calvin in the 16th century who argued that human society was made up of social “spheres,” or “classes,” or “groups” (Commentary on Ephesians). Johannes Althusius (Politics Methodically Digested) noted what he called the Biblical “associations in consociation.” In the 19th century, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper (Lectures in Calvinism) gave us the term “sphere sovereignty,” and today, Gordon Spykman (Society, State and Schools) has written of social “structural pluralism.” All of these terms mean

Gordon Spykman

basically the same thing.

Most of the writing on sphere sovereignty deals with the relationship of the state to mediating organizations or realms or social groups, such as church, labor/business, family, and community organizations. But the ramifications of the theology of sphere sovereignty apply to all social relationships. And I think this wonderful biblical teaching has profound and liberating consequences for Christian journalists.
What is the theology of sphere sovereignty or structural pluralism? It is this. Each sphere of life has its own creation integrity from God. Each has its own distinct responsibilities and competencies, and each sphere stands equal but separate to other spheres of life. The Scriptures warn against “mixing” in the Old and New Testaments (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9-11; Gen. 1:27; Rom. 1:26-27; 2 Cor. 6:14-18). What God has distinguished and created distinct, we ought not to conflate or confuse. These spheres of society arise out of the complex life of humankind, each having its own task to perform, its own mandate entrusted to it by God.

Christians believe in an all encompassing created order, designed and governed by a sovereign God. This created order includes many societal communities and their abiding norms, such as communities for education, worship, civil justice, agriculture, economy and labor, marriage and family, artistic expression, journalism, etc. We Christians are to affirm and respect these creational boundaries, and historical differentiations. All these spheres (except the Church) have developed in an organic way out of the normal divinely supervised life of humanity.

The Bible teaches that no one area of life is sovereign over another. Each sphere has its own created integrity and laws inherent in that particular sphere. In Matt. 22:21, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” the Greek word translated “give” means “give what is due.” That is, the taxes are part of the internal arrangement or structure of the relationship between the parties involved. Government deserves its taxes. Furthermore, more is taught in this verse than just differentiation of responsibilities and duties. Our Lord is also teaching obedience to the laws, ordinances and commandments of one sphere. Thus there is not only integrity of each social sphere but required obeisance from the Christian subject. If we want to live successfully in the realm we must follow the rules of that realm. We must give honor, respect along with obeisance to the leaders of that sphere. To come back to Matt. 22:21, not to give to Caesar what is rightfully Caesar’s, i.e., taxes, is a sin.

In dealing with sphere sovereignty, there is always the danger of the silo of separation which might tear apart the fabric of human community which is critical to the flourishing of the individual. But a proper understanding of sphere sovereignty leads not to tearing but mending and strengthening the social fabric as it gives dignity and honor to each calling of life (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 2:3; 6:18; 1 Peter 2:11-12).

In Genesis 1:11, we read of God saying, “Let the land produce vegetation according to their various kinds. And it was so.” This is the first instance of separate “kinds” on earth, although God had previously “separated” light from darkness (vss. 3-5), sky from earth (vss. 6-8), and land from water (vss. 9-10). God henceforth created everything “after its own kind” (Gen. 1:12, 21, 24-25; 6:20; 7:14; Lev. 11:14-29; Deut. 14:13-18). Now while the biblical concept of “kind” is somewhat elusive, it is clear that the word means separate “forms,” “groups” or “divisions.” And thus, diversity must be acknowledged and appreciated for it is inherent in the very creation of the world. The Hebrew word for “create” connotes a special, exclusive and deliberate divine creativity. Moses, in Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy mentions independent classes (i.e., grass, herbs, trees, birds, sea monsters, domestic animals, reptiles, wild beasts), each following their own order of fruitfulness. This “after its own kind” creation is critical in understanding economics and productivity. Jacob could rely on sheep breeding sheep (and not chickens) as he sought to accumulate wealth in Genesis 30. In fact, Jacob used the reality of separate animal kinds as he mated his sheep flock.

Other Biblical passages teaching separate and distinct spheres of life include Ephesians 5, where in the household passage, Paul teaches that the different God-given norms for family life and economic life should be recognized, and thus a family does not properly function like a business or labor union or church or community organization or state. It is a self-contained, separate and distinct social sphere created by God with its own rules, regulations and commandments and purposes.

In 1 Timothy 3, we see differentiation in the church — separate church offices (Acts 6).

1 Cor. 12 we see the various distinct but equal parts of the church body functioning as a whole, including church offices.

So what does all this sphere sovereignty and differentiation stuff have to do with the theory or practice of journalism? Here is my initial take on this question.

1) Christian journalists should not confuse or conflate the calling of journalism with the calling of evangelism, counseling or missionary or pastoral work. There is a prescribed, customary way of doing journalism (that might be flux at any given time). There are professional methodologies which help journalists present the truth of a given event or situation so that consumers of that report can make accurate and useful decisions for their life. And these methodologies are properly constructed inside the sphere of journalism.

2) An understanding of biblical sphere sovereignty would compel Christian journalists to resist with all their might another sphere’s intrusion into the journalistic sphere. That is, Christian journalists should be on the front lines of freedom of the press issues in order to beat back government control of the dissemination of factual news or to hide relevant factual information from the people it is created to serve.

3) Sphere sovereignty would teach us that there are rules and procedures for journalism that will be unique to journalism. Indeed, there will be procedures and customs that separate various “kinds” of journalism from each other. That is, advocacy journalism from so-called straight reporting. And this is the way it should be. Also, one writes for a particular audience in a particular way that would not be appropriate for another particular audience. So the Christian journalist must not only know the purpose of his writing but also the audience for his writing.

4) Sphere sovereignty would teach us that the sphere of journalism is as important as the sphere of the church or school or government. Indeed, sphere sovereignty teaches that each sphere of human endeavor is ordained by God to function harmoniously in human society for the common good of humanity. Each sphere is a high calling.

5) Sphere sovereignty teaches us that what are appropriate goals, guidelines and conduct in another sphere are not necessary appropriate in the sphere of journalism. And that those called to the sphere of journalism are the ones to decide what is customary and proper for this sphere. So Christian journalists should resist those outside the sphere when the outsiders attempt to direct and control the activities inside the calling of journalism. There is a unique ordained function that journalists fulfill and they risk failure by allowing outsiders to distract them from that function.


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