I imagine, dear reader, that you and I were both distressed to see Secretary Clinton, as a candidate for the presidency, standing in the pulpit of a Christian congregation during this past election cycle but were we upset for the same reasons? Here is a test: would you have been offended to see Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump behind a pulpit? If you answer no, then I think that we do not agree on principle. If your objection to seeing Secretary Clinton in a pulpit was based on your objection to her political philosophy and policy aims, then I suspect that we do not agree about the nature and threefold mission of the visible, institutional church. Let us conduct a thought experiment. Based upon your reading of the New Testament, can you imagine Nero in the pulpit of a Christian congregation? You might object, “But that is not a fair example. Nero was a rank pagan, flagrantly sexually immoral, and a vicious persecutor of the church.” That is all true. Let us change the terms a bit. Let us imagine that, by the mysterious grace of God, Nero, like Saul of Tarsus (who also persecuted the church) was converted to the Christian faith and that he was in the pulpit of the congregation in Rome not as a lay reader of Scripture nor as a ruling elder but to solicit the support of the church for an urban renewal program—remember it was Nero who set fire to a neighborhood (because he wanted to re-develop it) and Nero who blamed the Christians for the fire. What if Nero was in the pulpit to solicit funds for poverty relief? I would oppose it still for the following reasons:
First, in the New Testament, our Lord himself made for us a very clear distinction between Caesar and God. When the Pharisees sent their disciples and the Herodians together—a remarkable scene indeed because they were mortal enemies united only by their desire to get rid of Jesus—to “entangle” Jesus (Matt 22:15; ESV) in his words, they gave him what they regarded as an impossible riddle: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They attempted to put him on the horns of a dilemma. Were he to say yes, then he is a traitor to the Jews. Were he to say no, he is a traitor to Caesar. Scripture says,
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matt 22:17–22; ESV).
His opponents marveled because our Lord was not placed in a dilemma. Our Lord, however, did not accept the premise of the question. He knew that believers live in what Calvin later called a “twofold kingdom” (Institutes, 3.19.15). He also knew, as the Apostle Paul wrote,
…there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1–7; ESV).
God rules over all things but he distinguishes his rule in two spheres or two cities. Our Lord and his apostle knew that Caesar, whether Clinton or Trump, is God’s minister in the civil sphere of God’s twofold kingdom. Therefore it is right to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Obviously, a coin is not absolutely or originally Caesar’s. Neither Jesus nor Paul were Manichean. They did not think or imply that there are two equally ultimate principles in the universe and that coins and taxes belong to Caesar as a competing deity. Such is the theology of Star Wars not Scripture. No, when our Lord “give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s” he was acknowledging a providential order to things. God, who owns all, has assigned some things to be given to Caesar and some things only to himself.
We see this distinction in operation when Paul says, in Philippians 3:20, ” But our citizenship is in heaven.” This verse does not imply that we do not also have an earthly citizenship. He also said that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27–29). He did not have to choose between them. Both are true simultaneously. He exercised his Roman citizenship when he appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:8–12). He exercised his heavenly citizenship in the visible, institutional church.
Caesar would not be found in the pulpit of a first-century Christian church because he represented another city in God’s kingdom. He is not a minister in the Kingdom of God. Paul did not give policy advice to Caesar, even when he had opportunity to do, because he was not ordained to minister in the civil sphere of God’s kingdom but in the spiritual sphere.
About this point in the discussion someone will characterize this understanding of Scripture and this application of Calvin’s duplex regimen as “dualistic.” Was Jesus a “dualist”? Was Paul? They both clearly distinguished between two spheres or two cities in God’s kingdom. I have already unequivocally rejected ontological or cosmological dualism. There are not two cosmic principles. Being does not exist on a scale, with God at the top (all being) and us on the bottom (less being). There are, however, biblical distinctions to be made. Scripture distinguishes between body and soul. Our Lord said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Any theory that makes Jesus of Nazareth a “dualist” is a poor theory. We need to be biblical in the way we think about these things.
It has also been argued to me that the Kingdom of God touches everything. All Christians are kingdom citizens and everywhere they go is God’s kingdom and everything they do is kingdom work. The problem is that, if we trace out what the New Testament actually says about the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven,” the way we have often spoken of the kingdom since the middle of the 20th century does not accord well with the biblical usage. Yes God’s kingdom touches everything but God’s kingdom is twofold. Therefore it does not touch everything in the same way nor to the same end. All Christians are kingdom citizens and everywhere they go is God’s kingdom but God’s kingdom is twofold. Therefore we must distinguish in what sense we are using the word “kingdom.” Is everything that Christians do “kingdom work”? Not in the sense in which that phrase has often been used since the mid-20th century (or slightly before). If we are speaking about the twofold kingdom, then perhaps.
When Secretary Clinton or any other politician takes to the pulpit to stump for votes or to address civil policy it is a confusion of the two cities in God’s sovereign, providential rule over all things. The visible, institutional church, as the embassy of God’s kingdom on the earth, has been commissioned to do three things:
- Preach the gospel purely;
- Administer the sacraments purely;
- Administer church discipline.
I take these categories, as formed above, from Belgic Confession (1561) art. 29:
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.
The Belgic, however, was following Scripture closely. Our Lord commissioned his visible, institutional church to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15; Matt 28:20). He commanded her to administer the two sacraments that he instituted: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 28:19; Luke 22:19–20). He ordained church discipline (Matt 18:15–20). The first two can be done purely because they are relatively objective. Either the good news about Jesus is being preached or it is not. The sacraments likewise can be administered purely. Either Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are being practiced as instituted or they are not, e.g., the addition of five false sacraments is a corruption of the sacraments. Either church discipline is being practiced or it is not (e.g., as in the mainline Protestant churches, where they only persons ever disciplined are those who still believe the historic Christian faith).
This is the threefold mission of the earthly, institutional embassy of the kingdom of God on the earth. A politician ginning up resentment against his opponent or attempting to persuade the congregation to support this or that social policy does not meet these tests. It is not the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, nor the administration of discipline.
So far we have been considering the church as organization. If we think of the church as organism, i.e., if we think about her members, who are citizens in God’s twofold kingdom, then we should encourage them as citizens and Christians to engage the social questions of the day but they do so as individuals and not on behalf of the visible, institutional church. If Christians want to form an organization and invite candidates to address them, great! Give to Caesar what it is Caesar’s. Invoke your rights as a citizen but we have no example or precept in holy Scripture of turning the visible, institutional church into an embassy for Caesar’s kingdom. When we gather for public worship, we do not gather as citizens of the earthly city but as citizens of the heavenly city. We each have our own history and culture and we do not escape it but, as citizens of a twofold kingdom, we do transcend the earthly city when we are exercising our heavenly citizenship.
Church history tells us that the visible church has rarely minded her business. She has only periodically focused on her threefold divine mission. By the end of the 4th century she was well on her way to becoming an agent of Caesar’s kingdom. She remained so until the Reformers re-asserted the relative independence of the church from the state but even in the Reformation that principle was worked out very imperfectly. As Abraham Kuyper argued, the state that can put to death religious heretics can also persecute the orthodox and so it has. It is also true that the principle of the spirituality of the church has been abused to justify great wickedness (e.g., chattel slavery and man-stealing) yet the abuse of a true principle does not invalidate the principle. We should banish the abuse not the principle.
Let Christians resist the impulse to draft the visible, institutional church for a social agenda, however laudatory and beneficial it may be. Let Christians energetically engage God’s world as citizens of a twofold kingdom. We do not have to choose between social engagement and a spiritual institutional church. We can and should have both, for the benefit of the earthly city and for the purity and peace of the embassy of the kingdom of heaven.
—Thank to Justin Esposito for his editorial help with this essay.