The Two Kingdoms:
Understanding the doctrine of The Two Kingdoms is foundationally important for the Christian to properly engage political & social issues. The failure to understand and live out the distinction by the blending of the two has caused more social unrest than anything else.
When Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews, he replied by saying, My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33,36). The principle behind this statement has been the starting point of a long series of attempts to define the relation between Christians and the world. Do Christians have a right to self-defense or civil disobedience when God calls us to live peaceable lives? Can they sue their neighbors when God calls us to turn the other cheek? Can they serve in the army when God commands us not to kill and to love our enemy? Is it ever legitimate for Christians to take part in a plan to overthrow the government when God wants us to honor & submit to the governing authorities? Should we speak out publicly on social issues and/or should our church ever align itself with a particular political party or position (i.e. Democrat or Republican, on matters like abortion, gay marriage, gambling, the legalization of marijuana, etc)?
It isn’t GCF’s intention to directly answer any of these questions (most of them have no simple answer). But there are guiding biblical principles to help us & our church think through these issues and to come to a decision. Many Christian thinkers of the past have attempted to articulate a systematized Christian ethic on some of these issues based on biblical principles (i.e. Aquinas’ Just War Theory in his Summa Theologica and Augustine’s The City of God). But Luther’s distinction between The Two Kingdoms (or the two reigns of God: the earthly or left-hand kingdom and the heavenly or right-hand kingdom) in his work On Secular Authority has been one of the most concise & helpful approaches to the dilemma.
Luther’s Two Kingdom doctrine basically aims to do three things (taken from Lutheran Church of Australia’s The Two Kingdoms):
- to help Christians live as God’s people in a fallen and sinful world. It says that you do not need to renounce the world and live in a monastery in order to be holy, for the world is God’s world and it is good, in spite of human sin, because God created it good and plans to restore it.
- to make it clear that although God is love and rules his church by love and forgiveness, he cannot rule the unbelieving world by love but needs the force of the law to prevent wicked people from destroying the world and its order, and hurting others.
- to guide the church in its relations with the world, especially government, so that it understands its mission in the world to preach the gospel and to pray for all people in authority, as well as its responsibility to speak out against government whenever necessary. (The Two Kingdoms Doctrine does not call for a separation of church and state so much as it does for a proper distinction between them.)
In a nutshell, the doctrine of The Two Kingdoms teaches that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules the world in two ways. He rules all people, Christians and non-Christians, in his earthly kingdom through the agency of secular government, hence through the law (i.e. by means of the sword or force). Conversely, he rules all Christians in his spiritual kingdom (the church) with his right-hand through the gospel (i.e. by the means of redemptive love & grace).
Some Key Biblical Texts:
Like most Christian doctrines, the term “Two Kingdoms” is not found in the Bible, but we do believe the Scriptures lay out for us the principles that help shape The Two Kingdoms doctrine. Here are some of those passages...
All lawful authority has been established by God & is to be honored:
- Jesus himself teaches this when he says to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who condemned him to death: ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above’ (John 19:11).
- Government has been given the right to use the power of the sword to coerce obedience & punish evil (Gen 9:6; Ex. 21:14).
- The two classical texts that deal with the God-given authority of the state are Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13,14. When Paul says in Romans 13:1, “There is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God…” he is stating that secular government has been established by God.
- Christians are to urge governments to fulfill their proper role. They are to pray for, obey, and yet watch over civil governments (1 Tim. 2:1-4; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), reminding them that God ordained them to rule, protect, and keep order for all but not to oppress.
The question of unlawful authority:
- Obedience to all forms of human government is never absolute but always limited and conditional. If it means disobedience to God, our allegiance to God must come first (Acts 5:29).
Some more text which support The Two Kingdoms doctrine:
- “…Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s…” (Matt 22:21-22).
- Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33,36). Although we live in the world, our true commonwealth is in heaven (Phil 3:19). Since we are in the world but not of the world, we must not let the world squeeze us into its mold (Rom 12:2). Peter can say that we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11) because we are on a journey to our heavenly homeland (Heb 11:13-16).
- Although on earth we are subject to the laws of the land, we are called to freely follow the example of Jesus who did not seek revenge, but willingly suffered injustice and oppression (1 Peter 2:18-25). So in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls us to forgo our rights, to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile (Matt 5:10,11; 38-43).
- A brief look at John the Baptist’s social teaching is very helpful. John answered several questions that people asked him in relation to their vocation. To the tax collectors John said: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldier he replied: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14). The significance of this text is that nowhere does John say that the people of God cannot engage in ordinary secular jobs. In fact, it is significant that it is precisely tax collectors & soldiers who are singled out for special mention, since these people were involved in two of the most questionable occupations at the time of Jesus. The only qualification that John makes is that the work we do must be honest and lawful.
Conclusion: (Taken from the Lutheran Church of Australia’s The Two Kingdoms)
Luther’s distinction between The Two Kingdoms helps Christians to understand how they can live by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time be responsible citizens in this world until he comes again. For when he returns there will be no longer two kingdoms but only the one kingdom—the kingdom of glory and grace, which for now is hidden in Christ and known only to faith.
The Problem – Blending to Two Kingdoms:
As stated above, the failure to understand and live out the distinction between the two kingdoms by the blending of the two has caused more social unrest than anything else.
When the state begins to govern the doctrine & practice of religious institutions oppression and the loss of religious freedom follows. When the church begins to govern the state & mandate a particular faith oppression and loss of personal freedom follows. Examples:
- State over Church – Church of England resulting Colonial America (i.e. Separatists, Pilgrims); Roman Empire’s persecution of Christian; Islamic Nations (Islamic state law from the Qur'an) – such as Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc…
- Church over State – Roman Empire mandating Christianity (Christendom) which led to the Crusades; Spanish Inquisitions; Calvin’s Geneva - the burning of Servetus; Roger Williams excommunicated out of Massachusetts by the Puritans, Sweden has made all anti-homosexual speech a criminal offense (including sermons or Bible readings that condemn homosexual behavior) – Canada may soon follow; etc…
The Answer – Living out the Gospel:
So, on this side of the New Heaven & the New Earth (God’s perfected Kingdom), how do we live in the balance? How do we properly & effectively live in both kingdoms without blending them?
We remember the distinction and purpose of The Two Kingdoms (Kingdom of God as redemptive & eternal; Kingdom of Man as governing & temporal) and we rely on the Gospel because it teaches/enables us to effectively live in both. The Gospel brings sinners into the Kingdom of God through conversion, not through coercion. As Christians, we must be careful not to fall in the same trap of apathy as of our Christian forgoers have unfortunately falling into by depending upon the state to advance the Kingdom of God by aiding the efforts of the church.
Let’s use abortion as an example: Since Pro-Life is such a politically charged word, many Christians categorize abortion as an issue that primarily belongs in the political arena. And because of this many Christians let themselves off too easy when we categorize abortion (or homosexuality, or prostitution, unjust war, environmental issues, etc…) as simply political issues. The reason why I think we do this is once we whittle issues like abortion down to just a just political issue all we have to do to appease our conscience is vote “Pro-Life” because that’s all we think we can do. Therefore the vast majority of Christians fight abortion simply by voting and a smaller percentage fights abortion by picketing as well as voting. Is this really how Christians, who understand the distinction between The Two Kingdoms, should primarily fight this issue? Is this/has this been effective? Abortion is not mainly a problem of political policies, is it? First and foremost, it’s a human atrocity and abomination unto the Lord, so it’s clearly an issue of sin. Since when does the church use to the government to advance the Gospel and resist sin? Sound familiar? Oh yeah, the 4th century Christians did it this way which brought about that wonderful church of Rome; which in return brought about the Dark Ages and one of the most complacent, aphetic, non-missional periods the church has ever been in!
If the church is going to fight cultural sin issues – like abortion – we cannot and should not do it (primarily) through the government! For years now, the Christian Right has been trying mandate Christian principles/ethics through political policies and laws; and I think they’re going about trying to fight the issue of abortion (and other cultural sins) completely backwards. We seem to be focusing all of our attention on the governmental policies and laws that will do nothing but try mandate people to do something they do not want to do. That doesn’t sound like the principles of freedom our country (the Kingdom of Man) was founded upon. But as Gospel-believing Christians, whose hearts have been radically changed by the Gospel to love righteousness & justice rather than hate it, shouldn’t we go about trying to transform our cultural the same way we were?
What our culture needs is a heart change….they need the Gospel. And on issues like abortion, our culture needs to be reasoned with and made aware of the atrocity they continue to ignore. And the reasoning I’m speaking of isn’t holding picket signs up for the hurt, confused, & distraught young ladies to see as the go in & out the abortion clinics. And the reasoning I’m speaking of isn’t just voting for a so-called “pro-life” candidate who can’t change the laws anyway! First, we need to understand both sides of the issues. Why do people want abortions? What makes them feel as if they have to have one? …and so. Then we need to compassionately, yet clearly, make a rational defense for human life beginning in the womb to our co-workers, our neighbors, classmates and family members. We need to be supporting local agencies that promote life, resist abortion, and offer help to pregnant unwed mothers. The movement for ridding abortion from our country needs to happen in our home, in our neighborhood, in our city, then in our country. If the masses change, their opinion on political policies will change as well. And then our governing officials will line up with what the masses vote for!
Some good articles concerning Christianity & Politics:
Beyond Culture Wars, by Michael Horton
Christians & Political Action, an Interview with Michael Cromartie
Religion & Politics, A Roundtable Discussion with William Bennett, Michael Horton, Os Guinness, Cal Thomas, & Jim Wallis
Also, be sure to check these helpful books:
Also, here some of my other posts on Politics.