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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