In order to understand the meaning of our life together in public, we have to come to grips with a series of distinctions. This is something that Americans used to understand very well, so much so that it is still deep in our DNA. But decades of progressivist propaganda — ladled over the tops of government school children’s head — have taken their toll, and so we need to make a concerted effort to return.
There are three jurisdictions that were created directly by God. In American parlance, they are three governments. For the Reformers, they were “estates.” For Abraham Kuyper, they were spheres. I am simplifying here, but these three are family government, civil government, and church government.
All three of these governments have dealings and interactions with one another, and all three have an external aspect and an internal aspect. The external aspect is what we might call God’s temporal kingdom. The internal aspect — the soul, the conscience, the invisible things — are God’s spiritual kingdom. God’s temporal kingdom extends across all three governments — the family has a temporal aspect, the civil society has a temporal aspect, and the church has a temporal aspect. To define the two kingdoms as the church on the one hand and civil society on the other is way too simple, and doesn’t come close to answering all the questions that immediately pop up.
Throw into the mix other governments or spheres that are man-made, not God-ordained. That doesn’t make them bad, just not as important. They can range from ham radio meetings and quilting clubs, on one end, to universities on the other. They too are under the law of Christ — even though they don’t have a founding charter from Christ.
Another distinction has to be explained in the midst of all this. The common modern understanding of the secular and sacred divide comes in here. For moderns, secular is tantamount to godless. But in the older understanding, the secular realm was as much under the authority of Christ as anything else was. How could it not be? Jesus is Lord of the secular.
Actually this is not what the Reformers meant by “estates.” The estates on the continent were (1) the ecclesiastics, (2) nobility, and (3) free imperial towns.
Tim, I am not contesting that (words can be used in different ways), but Luther used “three hierarchies” or “three estates” to refer to church, magistrate, and home.