Distinguishing Spheres Affirms Christ’s Lordship Over All Things (Part 1)

It is repeatedly argued (especially on social media) that unless one affirms that Christ exercises his dominion over all of life in the same way then one has denied Christ’s Lordship. Of course this way of arguing assumes what it has to prove (begging the question). It is simply untrue that to distinguish spheres is to deny Christ’s Lordship.

Christ On His Twofold Kingdom

After all, Christians have been distinguishing spheres under Christ’s Lordship for a very long time. Jesus himself said,

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:36–38)

If we consider this passage for just a moment we can see that our Lord was declaring that he is indeed a king. Pilate drew the correct inference, “So you are a king?” Christ is King! He is king over all things but he administers his kingdom in two distinct spheres. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” If we take this sentence absolutely, then we would be Manichaeans, who theorized about two competing principles in the universe, good and evil. This is Star Wars theology. Jesus was not a Star Wars theologian. He was not saying there are realms over which is he not king. He was saying, however, that his kingdom is not of, from, or finding its source in this world (ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου). Christ’s kingdom is from, of, or finds its source in the will of God—it is heavenly or eschatological.

Because Christ’s kingdom is not sourced in this world but, as it were, broke into history with Christ its king (Mark 1:15), he was not about trying to establish an earthly kingdom. That is why he did not send his servants to fight. That is why he had told Peter to put up his sword (John 18:11). Did that make Christ disinterested in this world? Did it make him passive or a Pietist, as the epithets tend to go in the online debate? Hardly. First, he applied God’s holy moral law to and for the citizens of his kingdom (e.g., Matt chapters 5–7).

In so doing, however, he also established spheres in his kingdom. When he gave the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:13–20) to Peter as a confessing apostle and thence to the visible church, he did not give those same keys to Caesar, to whom he commanded only that we render to him what is his (Matt 22:21) (i.e., taxes). He did not give to the church dominion over civil life. The Donation of Constantine (post-750) was a fraud.

Consider our Lord’s language, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Certain things are, in a sense, Caesar’s, whose picture was on the Roman coin. Does that mean Christ is absolutely excluded from dominion over taxes and Caesar? In saying this, was Christ teaching Manichaeism? He was not, but this is our choice: Manichaeism or two spheres in Christ’s kingdom.1

Manichaeism is anti-Christ. There are not two competing gods or forces, or one force with two principles in the world. The God who is one in three persons spoke into nothing and by the sovereign power of his Word created all things. He alone is the sovereign Lord and King over all things. But that one kingdom—Christ’s kingdom—exists, or is administered, in two distinct spheres.

Paul On Christ’s Twofold Kingdom

The apostle Paul understood our Lord to teach that there are two spheres in his kingdom. He demonstrated this in explaining why Christians ought to bear with one another, why they ought to be gracious and kind, and particularly why those who are strong in the faith ought to bear with those who are “weak in the faith” (ἀσθενοῦντα τῇ πίστει; Rom 14:1) with respect to eating meat offered to idols. The exercise of my Christian liberty must not come at the expense of one of Christ’s little ones because “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).

Paul was writing to members of the visible church in the capital of the empire. Some of them were employees of the empire. Others had been exiled by the previous empire for being Jewish. They were very conscious of what it meant to be a Roman citizen, but they needed to learn, as we all do, what it means to live in a twofold kingdom. In Romans 14:17 Paul was distinguishing the spiritual and sacred aspect of the kingdom from the temporal, secular, or general aspect of the kingdom. He was not excluding, absolutely, eating and drinking from the kingdom. After all, we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper and that is one of the keys of the kingdom.

In defending his ministry to the visible church in Corinth, Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Cor 4:20). Clearly, in a sense, the kingdom of God does consist in talk, since the apostle was writing (i.e., talking to the Corinthian church and thereby communicating to them about the nature of the kingdom), but it does not consist in the sort of talk in which Paul’s foolish opponents were engaged. The power to which he referred was not Caesar’s power but Christ’s, which he exercises by the Spirit, in the church.

According to Paul, the kingdom is something that is inherited, that is, it is given (1 Cor 6:9–10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5). It is not earned by us. We were translated into the kingdom (Col 1:13). It was earned for us. Who receives it? Those who believe. Those who show themselves to be unbelievers by their impenitent sin cannot inherit the kingdom. The very notion of being translated into the kingdom implies two spheres since, inasmuch as we were under the general providence of God even before we believed, we were in the kingdom in the general sense. Again, our choice is Mani or Christ and we dare not choose Mani.

We know that, for Paul, Christ is ruling now. He tells us so:

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:24–28)

Christ is able to “deliver” the kingdom to his Father because the kingdom has been given to him. It is his. The kingdom is universal in scope. He rules and will destroy “every rule, and every authority and power.” He is reigning now because he must reign “until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

This means that when Caesar executed the apostle Paul on the Appian Way outside of Rome, Christ was reigning. Permitting the martyrdom of St Paul was part of Christ’s administration of his kingdom. Caesar did Jesus’ will. The persecutions of Christians by Decius and Diocletian were also part of his exercise of dominion. He was exercising his dominion when Galerius issued the decree of toleration in AD 311 and he has been exercising his dominion over all things ever since and he will until he returns in power and glory.

In Colossians 4:10–17, Paul gives a list of “fellow workers in the kingdom”: Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus who is called Justus, and Epaphras, among others. Where were they working—in “the kingdom”? They were working in the visible, institutional church. Does this exclude God’s kingdom from the secular, those areas we have in common from unbelievers? Not at all, but we should note how both our Lord and Paul typically spoke. According to some, that way of speaking is “Pietist” or “passive.”2 Paul was very active in the kingdom, but I should like to see any evidence that any part of his ministry was social-cultural transformation.

How did Christ call us into the kingdom or translate us into his kingdom? According to Paul it was through the ministry of the gospel (1 Thess 2:12–13).

For what sort of kingdom was Paul hoping? Writing from jail (apparently, unlike some modern figures, Jesus likes his heroes in captivity), Paul wrote, “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim 4:17–18). The Holy Spirit-ual aspect of Christ’s kingdom is so significant that, according to Paul, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul knew about the other aspect of his citizenship.3 He invoked his Roman citizenship strategically (e.g., after Roman authorities had beaten him), and he wrote about what it entails (e.g., Romans 13:1–7). We pay our taxes, even the most onerous and punitive taxes. We pray for kings (1 Tim 2:2). Peter reminds us to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:13, 17).

Next time we will consider what Augustine has to teach us about recognizing and living in two cities.

notes

  1. From the entry s.v., Mani in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: “From our extant sources it would seem that Mani (c. 216–276) was born near Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire; that he began his own special teaching in 240; that opposition from the Zoroastrians forced him into exile in India, and that he propagated his teaching rapidly by preaching far and wide in the E[ast]. . . . Mani’s system was a radical offshoot of the Gnostic traditions of E. Persia. . . . Mani transformed the cramped, ritualist views of the Judaeo-Christian sect in which he had been brought up into a coherent body of Gnostic dogma, uncompromisingly dualistic, consequential, and deeply conscious of having ‘unveiled’ truths of universal validity. It was based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness.” F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1033.
  2. The irony of this way of speaking is that social change was one of the driving forces behind the Pietist movement. Those who make social transformation of the essence of the kingdom have more in common with the Pietists and their grandchildren, the Social Gospellers of the early 20th century such as Walter Rauschenbusch (See RSC, “The Gospel Is Not Social”).
  3. For more on Paul’s view of the twofold citizenship of believers, see RSC, “Paul’s Twofold Citizenship And Ours.”

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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7 comments

  1. Thank you for this encouraging and valuable work! A must read! I came away thinking; “if God is for us who can be against us?”

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