In Soviet Russia in the 1930s, a Moscow opera singer named Tischkovsky began a promising career as a tenor, performing the lead roles in operas across Russia. As Tischkovsky’s prospects brightened, a government official approached him and suggested that the singer invite Sasha Andropov as a guest to one of his parties.
As Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, relates the story, “It was understood, but not stated, that Andropov was a KGB informant. The official would never ask the singer to inform the authorities if his friends made a joke about Stalin; that would be crude. No, [Tischkovsky] was invited to join the system, to stay prosperous and live a lie by pretending Andropov was just another opera lover.”
Faced with the choice to collude with the Russian government and betray his beloved arts community or lose his career, Tischkovsky chose to defy the government. He let the Soviet official know that though he was grateful for his career, he could not invite Andropov to his next party.
Soon the opera singer’s musical appearances were canceled, his career stalled, and his family descended into poverty.
Doriani tells the story to illustrate that social institutions, such as the government, sometimes intrude on other areas of life, such as the arts. When one institution, or sphere, dictates areas of life outside its bounds, Christians have the opportunity to push back against the injustices they see.
The work of Dutch pastor, civil servant, educator, and social reformer Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century offered a framework to help Christians think biblically about social reforms.
Kuyper believed that public institutions have influence in their particular spheres, and societies should not allow one sphere to exert too much influence over other spheres. Each sphere has authority over its responsibilities.
Kuyper first presented his sphere sovereignty concept in 1880 at the opening of the Free University of Amsterdam. But during a series of lectures delivered at Princeton University in 1898, Kuyper expounded on the sphere sovereignty ideas in English.
“The University exercises scientific dominion; the Academy of fine arts is possessed of art power; the guild exercised a technical dominion; the trades-union rules over labor — and each of these spheres or corporations is conscious of the power of exclusive independent judgment and authoritative action, within its proper sphere of operation,” he said.
Kuyper believed that public institutions have influence in their particular spheres, and societies should not allow one sphere to exert too much influence over other spheres.
Behind these spheres is the sphere of family, and looming large behind the sphere of family is the individual with a natural authority granted to him by God alone.
Because of sin and the lust for power, institutions attempt to exert undue control over other spheres. In the case of Soviet Russia in the 1930s, it was the government controlling every other sphere of life. Some sphere overlap is natural. For instance, Doriani said, the government has an interest in regulating safety conditions at a workplace or ensuring a hiking club does not wander near a volcano.
But sometimes an institution can overstep its authority. When believers want to bring about social reform, they can expect to encounter pushback from other spheres that stand to lose from the reforms. But when Christians push back against intruding spheres at work, they have the chance to bring about real social change.
“There are certain core values any Christian can grasp — love, justice, faithfulness,” Doriani said. “We need to mentor and train people in their spheres so that doctors, restauranteurs, bankers, and builders who are believers can find these principles and share them with others.”
Pastors play a role by teaching and discipling believers to understand the unique positions they have in their workplaces to change culture and society.
Principles of Workplace Reform
While most American Christians will not endure pressures to accommodate KGB informants, the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” forces believers to consider how they can put their faith into practice by loving their neighbors.
The arena where believers have the most opportunities to love neighbors, according to Doriani, is the workplace. Work is the forum where individuals have the most skill, training, and resources. This is also where people spend the most time.
Doriani believes there are four P’s to workplace reform: principle — a big idea that can make the world a better place; passion — the inward power to promote the cause and withstand opposition; position — the credentials and formal or informal authority someone has to obtain resources and allies in the reform; and perseverance — a willingness to endure.
Perseverance is particularly important because, like Tischkovsky, believers can expect to encounter resistance when they push back against intruding spheres.
As for Tischkovsky, through the help of friends in the arts communities in France and the United States, he and his family managed to escape Russia. When they arrived in the United States, the opera singer abandoned his Russian surname in favor of his Italian-sounding stage name, “Doriani.” Dan Doriani is his grandson.
Though not yet a believer when he committed his act of resistance, Doriani’s grandfather wanted to live in truth.
Many spheres of life have pressures that make social reform difficult. Still, believers can love their neighbors by pushing back against unjust societal pressures and working for reforms that help society.
With a little imagination, believers can find opportunities to let their faith bring change.
ILLUSTRATION BY Raymond Biesinge