Last year, during the Canadian federal election campaign I started thinking about my place in the grand scheme of politics and democracy. This week, as the final days and hours of the US election campaign began to point to a Trump presidency those questions started creeping into my conscience again. Of course this time around I didn’t get a vote but as the world’s biggest economy the decisions of the US electorate have a significant impact on us all.
The gospel in just three words is “Jesus is Lord”. I don’t know any Christians who would disagree with that statement. In fact it is as close to a universal statement of faith that exists in the Christian church. No matter your denomination, Catholic, Protestant, Conservative Evangelical or Progressive, we can all agree that Jesus is Lord.
But in our hyper individualized culture this whole concept of lordship is problematic. Wikipedia defines lord as an appellation for a person or deity who has authority, control, or power over others acting like a master, a chief, or a ruler. By making the statement Jesus is Lord, we are simultaneously submitting ourselves to his authority and rejecting all other individuals and institutions that would seek authority over us.
The democratic process is at its core a game of pick your lord. Every four years the American public is given the opportunity to decide who their lord will be but if Jesus is Lord, then your government is not. The question becomes then, what to do when government and social norms do not align with the Lordship of Christ?
Two Kingdoms Doctrine
Martin Luther was one of the first reformers to champion the separation of church and state and so was also one of the first church leaders since Constantine to wrestle with this question. Before Luther the church was the state so any question of lordship was moot. So when faced with difficult questions about how a Christian should behave as a citizen under the lordship of both a secular government and the lordship of Jesus Luther had to make a compromise. Luther’s compromise made it possible for reformers to retain citizenship in their home countries but would eventually prove to be fatal to the true Lordship of Christ.
What Luther said has become known as the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Again, according to Wikipedia the doctrine states that, God rules the worldly or left-hand kingdom through secular government, by means of law [i.e., the sword or compulsion] and in the heavenly or right-hand kingdom through the gospel of grace. The fatal flaw in this argument should be obvious to anyone who has felt the law of the land precludes them from living out their faith. If God rules the world through secular government what happens when that government contradicts your understanding of the Lordship of Christ?
Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms was developed under a feudal government system and worked well for the kings and lords of the middle-ages. They were able to use it to claim divine authority over vast realms of humanity while functioning in ways that directly contradicted gospel teaching. Romans 13 became a favourite passage of the ruling class as a way to remind the peasants of their place in the world and prevented large scale rebellion.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. [Romans 13:1-5]
But Romans 13 was not written as an instruction manual for how the faithful should live under a “Christian” government. The entire book of Romans, and most of the New Testament for that matter, was written from a prison cell and directed to a minority people without any political power or authority. The New Testament gives no advice to Christians on how to hold on to political power. The doctrine of the two kingdoms therefore is flawed from the beginning. Any biblical instruction on ruler ship is found in the Old Testament and under the old covenant that has been made obsolete by the reign of Jesus.
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. [Hebrews 8:13]
To say therefore that God holds authority over the worldly, left-hand kingdom through law and compulsion assumes that the rulers are godly and returns the Christian to the authority of the Old Testament. We know that is simply not the case but as if that weren’t enough to discredit the doctrine of the two kingdoms it completely falls apart when it is applied to a democratic society.
The Authority of God
In His infinite love for humankind God has given us the ability to say no to Him. It’s called free will and it is the bed rock of God’s relationship with us. For love to exist there must be the possibility of rejection. No one knows this better than God. The entire story of humanity is the story of love and rejection.
Democracy hands the power of ruler ship, through the free will of the people, to whomever appeals to the broadest segment of society. God’s will is therefore lovingly submitted to the will of the people and God’s authority over the worldly kingdom is muted. Humans do as they please and God is pushed to the margins of society. How then is God’s sovereignty manifest in the world?
Hans Beck was a Swiss Brethen Anabaptist who wrote in response to Luther, his own version of two kingdoms doctrine in 1541.
There are two different kingdoms on earth—namely, the kingdom of this world and the peaceful kingdom of Christ. These two kingdoms cannot share or have communion with each other.
While Luther tried to develop the two kingdoms doctrine as a way appease the church as the primary governing authority of the day, Beck immediately saw the flaw in Luther’s logic and destroyed it by saying simply that the two kingdoms could never coexist. Beck went on to state:
The people in the kingdom of this world are born of the flesh, are earthly and carnally minded. The people in the kingdom of Christ are reborn of the Holy Spirit, live according to the Spirit, and are spiritually minded. The people in the kingdom of the world are equipped for fighting with carnal weapons—spear, sword, armor, guns and powder. The people in Christ’s kingdom are equipped with spiritual weapons—the armor of God, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit to fight against the devil, the world, and their own flesh, together with all that arises against God and his Word.
According to Beck, the people of the kingdom of Christ stand apart from the kingdoms of the world. While Luther was trying to appease the authorities in order to retain his German citizenship, Beck was renouncing his Swiss citizenship in order to remain loyal to Christ.
Citizens and Ambassadors
So the question now is where do Christians fit in a democratic society? Is there a moral obligation for the church to seek political power, or at least attempt to influence those in authority for the good of mankind? Or as Beck would have it, do we write civil society off as inherently evil and withdraw completely?
The apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church that was immersed in a wealthy culture of excess. A culture predicated on power, money and sex.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [2 Corinthians 5:18-20]
Paul appears to be saying that the kingdom of heaven can only be achieved through reconciliation with God and His will that this reconciliation comes through Christ. It is therefore the job of the church to be ambassadors of His kingdom in the world. By using the imagery and terminology of ambassadorship Paul at once implies that our citizenship is not of this world. An ambassador is not a citizen of the country or member of the society in which he resides.
When Christ-followers take on the identity of an ambassador the two kingdoms doctrine takes on a new and more plausible meaning for our modern democratic society. As a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom we reside in the world as ambassadors of a spiritual kingdom. The job of an ambassador is to lobby on behalf of their home country, and to a limited degree even participate in without conforming to the culture in which they are placed. This worldly kingdom is not our home, living here is our job.
Jesus laid out the parameters of our job at the end of his time on earth.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20]
Ambassadors are not part of the society in which they reside they do not make policy and the do not enforce laws. They lobby and promote the interests of their king. As Christ’s ambassadors we are called to lobby on behalf of Jesus and the things he cares about. He opened His earthly ministry by proclaiming “good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed”. [Luke 4:18]. He preached love for enemies, healed the sick, and gave dignity to foreigners. And then he gave his life in the ultimate act of submission and sacrifice.
On November 8, 2016 the world held its breath while the United States, the world’s largest economy, strongest army and most culturally influential society democratically elected a man and a party whose policies and rhetoric threaten to set social policy back to the 1950s. This man openly opposes immigration, social security, health care, environmental protectionism, and banking regulations aimed at protecting the interests of the working poor. By some accounts four out of five evangelical Christians voted for him. They felt that his stance on certain moral issues like abortion and gay rights was in line enough with their faith that they could look the other way on the ones that clearly aren’t. They felt that to vote for the other candidate would have been to compromise their convictions too much. What they failed to recognize is that as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven their job is not to make decisions in the worldly kingdom but to lobby for change.
I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have voted, (although that is one option open to ambassadors). The sad fact is that no matter who they voted for they had to make a compromise because as ambassadors we have failed in our duty to lobby on behalf of our king.
Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine fails to translate in a modern democracy. Beck’s version is an isolationist fantasy that only works for the Amish or a survivalist cult. In order to be “in the world but not of the world” [John 17:16] we must become better lobbyists and better ambassadors. We must learn to speak truth to power on behalf of our king. We must influence culture without conforming to it. We cannot be afraid to call our brothers and sisters out on their hypocrisy and their compromise. That is our job as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven. If Christ-followers do our job well there is no telling how our influence might grow.
Jesus is Lord!