…In the absence of rivals or challenges to its authority, the reach of the modern state will not and cannot be checked. It will expand to fill the void left by the absence of intermediate institutions like the family, local communities, and the Church. It will take it upon itself to make decisions for us that it has no business making. The many intermediate institutions that kept the state at bay were noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterful “Democracy in America,” and he warned what would happen if those institutions ever gave way to the state. Well now they are.
That’s why our first response to this government encroachment must be a recovery of what it means to be the Church. The last few years of Chuck Colson’s ministry were marked by an increased concern about the rampant individualism that characterizes so much of American Christianity. One of the last pieces he wrote for “Christianity Today” touched on this problem.
Not only is it a theological impossibility—for as Luther put it, “he who would find Christ must first find the church”—this individualism leaves the state as the sole decider of the really big questions, such as, in this instance, the definition of “religious freedom” and even the definition of “religious institution.”
Another part of the response is becoming acquainted with the Christian teaching about the relationship of the state to the rest of society. These include subsidiarity, a product of Catholic social teaching, which holds that “functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible.” Sphere sovereignty, articulated by Abraham Kuyper, teaches “that each sphere . . . of life has its own direct responsibilities and authority or competence.”
While there are differences between the two, each emphasizes the social over the individual and insists on giving families, communities, and churches the freedom to perform their God-given functions.
But all of this assumes, of course, that Christians see themselves not as individual believers but as part of something together, where the whole will be larger than the sum of its individual parts—even large enough to keep Leviathan in his place.