Christian, Get Involved

One of the more pernicious misrepresentations of the distinction between the eternal and temporal spheres of Christ’s kingdom, which Calvin called the “twofold kingdom” (Institutes, 3.19.15), is that it counsels or leads Christians to withdraw from society (e.g., politics). Nothing could be farther from the truth. It may be that there are advocates of a “two kingdoms” approach to Christ and culture who advocate some sort of Anabaptist-inspired withdrawal from culture and politics but such a withdrawal is not inherent in the Reformation idea of Christ’s twofold kingdom. It was certainly not inherent in Martin Luther’s idea of the two kingdoms nor was it inherent in Calvin’s doctrine of the twofold kingdom. Indeed, the Reformed churches condemned the Anabaptist doctrine of communal property and withdrawal from the political life of society. Article 40 of the 1559 French Confession is typical:

We hold, then, that we must obey their laws and statutes, pay customs, taxes, and other dues, and bear the yoke of subjection with a good and free will, even if they are unbelievers, provided that the sovereign empire of God remain intact. Therefore we detest all those who would like to reject authority, to establish community and confusion of property, and overthrow the order of justice.

The 1561 Belgic Confession (art. 36 as revised by the URCNA) says the same.

The Reformation Of Vocation

One of the ways in which the confessional Protestants (i.e., the Lutheran and Reformed) were and remain distinct from the Anabaptist traditions is our doctrine of vocation. The Anabaptists tended toward mysticism (influenced by various medieval mystical traditions), moralism (i.e., they rejected the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sol fide), and the Reformation doctrine of vocation.

In the Eastern and Western Churches before the Reformation (and in Roman and Eastern Churches after the Reformation) only one class of people was said to have a vocation or “the vocation”: priests. In the Reformation, however, we recovered the doctrine of vocation. We relearned the proper distinction between sacred and secular. We re-learned that secular does not mean “evil” or “corrupt.” Calvin reflected this understanding when he wrote about the secular vocation of the magistrate to preserve order. Because God’s kingdom is twofold, eternal and temporal, there are good, divinely-ordained secular vocations outside the visible church and outside the sphere that Calvin designated as “sacred.”

This means that plumbing, policing, teaching, carpentry, banking, and all sorts of vocations are proper and good for God’s people. Public service and even political service are good, just, useful, and valid vocations for Christians.

The Cul-De-Sac Of Anabaptism And Pietism

It was, Luther wrote, that there are (as he put it) two kingdoms, the left hand and the right, in which the Christian serves God that Christians may and should serve in politics. This was contra the Anabaptist view that Christians ought to withdraw from secular society and especially politics. According to the Anabaptists, political involvement was considered especially corrupting.

Because the Christian lives in a twofold kingdom, he has responsibilities to each sphere. E.g., a Christian mayor of a sixteenth-century city-state (e.g., Zürich or Geneva) has one responsibility insofar as he is private citizen and another responsibility insofar as he is a public official. Thus, as mayor, a Christian might be despised and spitefully used as a private person (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:28; NKJV) but, insofar as he is acting in his public capacity as mayor he has an obligation to the whole community. Thus, were the Ottomans threatening to invade a city, the Mayor may not, on behalf of the community, turn the other cheek.

Because the Anabaptists did not make the distinction between the two spheres, because they did not accept the distinction between the sacred and the secular, they called for Christians to withdraw from secular, public life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, another powerful movement pushed Christians out of public life: pietism. Scholars of pietism identify several marks of pietism, including intense spiritual activity and social engagement, but that engagement was not political engagement. The Pietists tended to focus on the private and the subjective (what is happening in my soul) as distinct from the public and the objective (what is happening in the world around me).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, American Evangelical Christianity was deeply influenced by pietism and then, at the turn of the 19th century, as a sort of bridge between the First and Second Great Awakenings, by the Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. Today, most evangelical Christians are much more influenced by the Anabaptist movements and the Pietist movement than they are by Reformation theology, piety, and practice. The influence of these movements has often led American Christians to withdraw from public life as something beneath the Christian.

The Secular Vocation Renewed

Under a proper understanding of the twofold kingdom, however, Christians ought to be engaged in secular politics. It is not beneath them. It is not “unclean,” as it were. Involvement in politics, particularly local politics, does not defile a Christian. Because God’s kingdom is twofold, because it has two spheres, secular vocations such as politics are good and honorable vocations.

After all, someone is going to set policy for the local schools. Why should not Christians be involved in that process? Christians are commanded by God to pay taxes (see Rom 13:1–7). Thus, they are already involved in civil life. Why should not Christians speak up civilly, calmly, and graciously about what public entities are doing with those tax dollars?

Someone is going to serve as mayor of your community. Christians who are willing to learn how to govern well—simply being a Christian is not an automatic qualifier for public office—should get involved in their communities. Those who serve in public office do need to have certain skills and a willingness to learn and lead.

Sean Moore is a great example of a Reformed Christian who saw a need and got involved in public life. He is not trying to turn his suburb into a theocracy but he is bringing to public life his convictions about nature, about humanity, etc. He earned the trust of his community and now he is mayor.

Wendell Talley is a P&R Christian in Iowa who has been appointed to the Iowa Commission on Civil Rights. This is another example of rolling up one’s sleeves and fulfilling one’s vocation and loving one’s neighbor, even when one’s neighbor may see the world in a very different way.

Caveat: public service is difficult. It means joining a political party and working one’s way up the ranks. It means attending meetings in the evening. It may mean running initially for rather inglorious positions to demonstrate to the party that one is willing to serve and to do well. It might take years in order to earn the support of the party (and its financial supporters) to run for city council. It involves negotiating difficult issues with people who look at the world very differently from the way Christians interpret the world. Nevertheless, public service, whether on school boards, city councils, county boards, or as mayor or sheriff is a valuable way to love one’s neighbor.

One reason American schools and school boards seem to have lost their minds is that they have been targeted by sexually radical activists. The introduction of pornographic books into grade-school and public libraries was not an accident. It is part of a program of cultural subversion. The Drag Queen Story hour program is specifically targeting small and medium-sized towns on the Plains and in the South in order to break down cultural and social resistance to the expressive-individualist (e.g., trans) agenda.

My hometown, Lincoln, Neb. was once governed by the country-club Republican set. Even the Democrats were relatively socially conservative. No more. Despite the fact that Lincoln is one of the most churched towns in America, the city council appears to be dominated by social “progressives” determined to foist upon the city (a university and state-government town to be sure, so there are institutional impulses in this direction) a fairly radical social-sexual ethic. Should employers be required by law to hire those whom they do not regard as fit to maintain the well-being of their business and community (e.g., trans persons)? Were I a business owner in Lincoln, I would not want to be required by law (and thus subject to a regime of fines and other compulsions) to be forced to employ someone whom I regard as suffering from a severe mental illness.

Lincoln and cities across the USA need Christians willing to do the hard work of joining, organizing, and campaigning in order to protect basic civil liberties (e.g., religious freedom, freedom of association, free speech, and a free press) and bedrock concepts such as private property.

Why Get Involved?

Politics is pre-eminently a realm of nature (not grace). Christians ought to become involved in politics because they believe that there is such a thing as nature.

To be sure, Christians also believe in and (should) practice grace and graciousness is something sorely needed in American politics just now. The new left in American politics has made it a religion. It is a legal religion and even a viscous religion. They are conducting a sort of ironic holy war. Consider the effect of being convicted (e.g., on social media) of a “sin” against the latest critical theory (e.g., sex or race). What follows the “sin” is not forgiveness and reconciliation but vituperative condemnation and self-righteous self-congratulation. It is a religious ritual.

Everyone, whether they know it or not, has an eschatology, i.e., an idea of how they expect the future to go and the world to end. Many in American politics today (on the right and the left) are animated by a utopian eschatology. American politics desperately needs people who understand that politics is just one aspect of life. It is an important aspect but it is not a religion. By its nature, politics deals with less-than ultimate issues. Those for whom politics is religion (e.g., Marxists), however, turn every issue into an ultimate issue because their politics are fueled by a utopian eschatology. The same might be said of the theocrats and theonomists who populate some concerns of right-wing politics.

American politics, at all levels, needs people who understand that there will be no earthly utopia and that the quest for earthly utopias has led to great evil in the world (e.g., attempted genocides and the murder of something like one hundred million people in the 20th century alone).

Nature is an essential category here because Christians understand that God has a nature and that he has instituted a natural order. Politics is increasingly dominated by those who think that “nature” is nothing but a made up category, a convention, a “construct,” to be deconstructed. Christians know that the two sexes are biological and psychological realities and not mere constructs. In other words, all things being equal, orthodox Christians are more likely to be in touch with objective reality. They at least have the potential to be sane. Those who think that biological sex is a mere construct are necessarily out of touch with objective world of universal sense experience.

Christians Not The Visible Church

One distinction that needs to be very clear, in order to prevent or clarify confusion, is between the Christian as a citizen of the civil state, or groups of Christians operating as citizens, and the visible, institutional church. Too often, when Christians think about getting involved in cultural or political enterprises, they assume that it must be through the visible, institutional church. That is a bad assumption and the desire to use the visible church as an agent of political or social activism is unwarranted and unnecessary.

Christ did not institute the visible church as an agent of a social or political agenda. He instituted his visible church to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and to use church discipline. In short, Christ gave to his visible church the keys of the eternal kingdom, not the keys to the temporal kingdom.

Christian, pray for your magistrate, pay your taxes, and give serious thought to serving your neighbor by working for better roads, schools, and policies that lead to liberty, justice and a quiet, peaceful community in which to serve God and love one’s neighbor.

©R.Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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7 comments

  1. Christians know that the two sexes are biological and psychological realities and not mere constructs. In other words, all things being equal, orthodox Christians are more likely to be in touch with objective reality. They at least have the potential to be sane. Those who think that biological sex is a mere construct are necessarily out of touch with objective world of universal sense experience.

    Sounds like it’s time for Christian nationalism.

    • Walt,

      I assume that you are writing with tongue in cheek but to be perfectly clear: no.

      This is one of the problems in this discussion. The Anabaptists, be they theonomists or Mennonites, can’t tell whether they want to take over the world or flee from it.

      Why don’t we simply fulfill our vocation in it?

  2. I know a handful of devout PCA and Anglican Christians who don’t care about nor do they get involved with politics/related temporal issues. I’ve rejoined that too many of those in said spheres “care” very much about believers…and are hell-bent on robbing us of our faith-based freedoms, all the while mocking us and our God. I’ve added that it’s wise to stay informed and vigilant (forgetting to cite Matthew 10:16).

    It’s one thing to recite the Chrantra (Christian mantra) that Heaven is our true home and we’re just passing through…but it’s another to take a lifelong VACATION from worldly realities instead of “fulfilling our vocation” on this terrestrial ball.

    • Laura,

      FWIW, my goal is to encourage Christians as individuals and groups (not as organized churches) to engage the culture and even politics but it’s not my goal to bind the consciences of Christians. I can’t say “you must engage culture/politics.” I don’t have warrant from God’s Word for such an exhortation. The proper category here is wisdom not “must” or law.

      I intend to write more about this and I want to say that there are lots of ways for Christians to fulfill secular vocations that make a difference in the world. Being a good plumber, charging a fair price, and treating customers like image bearers is a fulfilling one’s vocation in the world. Rather than talking about Christian plumbing why not just be a good plumber? Wouldn’t be great is the community knew that when they call Joe, who is a Christian, that he will do good work at a fair price and maybe even at odd hours because he wants to serve?

  3. >>>>American politics, at all levels, needs people who understand that there will be no earthly utopia and that the quest for earthly utopias has led to great evil in the world (e.g., attempted genocides and the murder of something like one hundred million people in the 20th century alone).<<<<

    This paragraph is reason enough to become informed and participate in our republic. Christian participation in our government (voting, corresponding with elected officials, holding elected office, etc.) is a check against evil that has only been available for the last 246 years of human history.

  4. Being an independent sub-contractor (commercial and residential) I can’t agree enough with you, Dr. Clark. The goal of any Christian in the workforce, and in the place they live, is to be the best you can be in the service of Christ and the service of man. It’s pretty humbling stuff, really.

  5. This is helpful, Dr. Clark. I wish I heard more people in the “Two Kingdoms” community saying things like this. You’re obviously a major leader in that movement. People in that movement are going to listen to you, and should.

    Moving from abstract principles to practical reality — what you wrote here is key: “Caveat: public service is difficult. It means joining a political party and working one’s way up the ranks. It means attending meetings in the evening. It may mean running initially for rather inglorious positions to demonstrate to the party that one is willing to serve and to do well. It might take years in order to earn the support of the party (and its financial supporters) to run for city council. It involves negotiating difficult issues with people who look at the world very differently from the way Christians interpret the world. Nevertheless, public service, whether on school boards, city councils, county boards, or as mayor or sheriff is a valuable way to love one’s neighbor.”

    (One caution — I fully agree with your point about the importance of joining and becoming involved in the political parties, but as I’m sure you know, in most states, city councils and school boards are nonpartisan positions. In liberal parts of the country, that sometimes means conservatives have a chance of getting elected to city and school positions who normally couldn’t be elected as Republicans, and then using their experience in those posts to run long-shot campaigns for higher office that sometimes succeed. The reverse is also true, and more common, with Democrats running for city councils and school boards because they know they can’t get elected to a position where they would have to file as a Democrat. At least one current cabinet secretary, a former Democratic governor, began his career in a strongly Republican area of his state by running for and winning a nonpartisan city council race, becoming a successful local leader, and moving on to higher state and federal office despite being a Democrat in a Republican area.)

    I don’t know if the deceased Congressman Paul Henry, a former Calvin College professor and son of Carl F.H. Henry, ever wrote on this subject, but what you wrote in that paragraph echoes things he said on a fairly regular basis in church circles. Decades ago (meaning the 1970s and 1980s), he liked to point out that many of the same approaches to “getting involved” in the church world also apply to politics.

    What did he mean by that? His point was that Christians, due to our emphasis on unpaid volunteer service, have an advantage over unbelievers because we’re used to working without pay for a cause about which we care deeply, and joining and holding office in organizations where almost everybody at all levels of leadership is unpaid, and motivated by commitment to a cause rather than financial considerations.

    I’m not sure his point about a Christian attitude toward volunteer unpaid work giving Christians an advantage over unbelievers still applies today as much as it did back when he was alive. Liberal activists have created an entire network of volunteer-based organizations, and unlike the 1950s and 1960s (the era in which Henry was growing up and going to graduate school) most of those liberal organizations are completely secular, rather than being “social gospel” groups that are part of or closely tied to liberal church groups.

    But Congressman Henry’s oft-stated point still applies that if people are going to be successful in politics, “working one’s way up the ranks,” “running initially for rather inglorious positions to demonstrate to the party that one is willing to serve and to do well,” and taking many years rather than expecting quick results, all of which you also pointed out, still are essential.

    Full disclosure: my father and Congressmen Henry knew each other well despite my father being a very blunt-spoken unbeliever. There’s not much point in repeating private conversations between my father and Congressman Henry, who have both been dead for years, but Henry credited my father with saving one of his early campaigns for a lower-level office when my father gave him some very direct (and knowing my father, probably rather profane) warnings that he was spending far too much time on principles and theory and not doing the hard work of practical politics needed to win his race.

    America political life has changed tremendously in the three decades since Congressman Henry’s death and it’s probably impossible to know for sure where he would stand today on a number of issues. He was aware of my conversion and my decision to transfer to Calvin College, and offered (through my father) to introduce me to Carl F.H. Henry, an offer which I still regret not following up on. From what I was told, he was extremely surprised that I had become a hard-right Calvinist, but we were no longer in contact by the late 1980s after my father lost some political battles, was forced out of politics, and went into private business.

    However, I think Congressman Henry’s warnings to church circles on the need for people who are interested in politics to be willing to do a lot of behind-the-scenes unpaid, unheralded, and (often) quite inglorious work are important to remember. Far too many conservatives today howl and scream about “career politicians,” which isn’t entirely wrong, but can become an excuse for not doing the hard work necessary to become qualified for political leadership. Time in the chair counts. Training counts. Experience counts. People in the church world know that — churches that put unqualified, untrained, and untested people into church leadership very quickly find out why that’s a bad idea — and the importance of being faithful in small things before being entrusted with greater things is a biblical principle with direct relevance to secular politics as well as church life.

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