With the U.S. Presidential elections about to take place and there being so much confusion regarding whether or not a Christian can vote for a Mormon, this explanation of the Biblical Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms may prove helpful for many Christians as they head to the polls.
When Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews, he replied by saying, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:33,36). This statement has been the starting point of a long series of attempts to define the relation between Christians and the world, and indeed the church and the world. Do Christians have a right to self defence or civil disobedience? Can they sue their neighbours? Can they serve in the army when God commands us not to kill and Christ commands us to love the enemy? Can Christians take an oath in a court of law when Christ forbids all swearing? Is it ever legitimate for Christians to take part in a plan to overthrow the government? Should our church speak out publicly on social issues? Should our church ever align itself with a particular political party or position (eg on matters like a treaty with the indigenous people of this land, aboriginal reconciliation, the republic debate, gambling, the legalisation of prostitution etc)? It is not our intention to directly answer any of these questions for some of them have no simple answer. But there are guiding principles to help us and our church think through these issues and to come to a decision.
One of these guiding principles is Luther’s distinction between the two kingdoms (or the two reigns) of God: the earthly or left-hand kingdom and the heavenly or right- hand kingdom. It basically aims to do three things:
• to help Christians live as God’s people in a fallen and sinful world. It says that you do not need to renounce the world and live in a monastery in order to be holy, for the world is God’s world and it is good, in spite of human sin, because God created it good.
• to make it clear that although God is love and rules his church by love and for- giveness, he cannot rule the unbelieving world by love but needs the force of the law to prevent wicked people from destroying the world and its order, and hurting others.
• to guide the church in its relations with the world, especially government, so that it understands its mission in the world to preach the gospel and to pray for all people in authority, as well as its responsibility to speak out against government whenever necessary. The two kingdoms doctrine does not call for a separation of church and state but for a proper distinction between them.
In a nutshell the doctrine of the two kingdoms and two reigns of God teaches that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules the world in two ways. He rules all people, Christians and non-Christians, in his earthly kingdom through the agency of secular government, hence through the law (ie by means of the sword or force). Conversely, he rules all Christians in his spiritual kingdom (and hence the church) with his right hand through the gospel (ie by the means of grace). This will be explained in more detail later.
Lutherans have been criticised for holding this teaching because many people, both inside and outside the church, believe that the doctrine of God’s two kingdoms/reigns makes the Lutheran church socially and politically inactive. However, it is our belief (and here we follow Luther) that the two kingdoms doctrine, properly understood, does not discourage the church or its members from active involvement in the world, but rather clarifies their distinctive role and frees them for effective service in the secular realm (the left-hand kingdom).
The distinction between the two kingdoms is really only a corollary of the proper distinction between law and gospel. Both are distinctively Lutheran and foundational for Christian ethics.
Key biblical texts
What is the biblical basis of the claim that God rules the earthly kingdom through the agency of secular government? According to the New Testament, all lawful authority has been established by God. Jesus himself teaches this when he says to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who condemned him to death: ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above’ (John 19:11). Government has been given the right to use the power of the sword to coerce obedience and punish evil (Gen 9:6 ; Exod 21:14).
The two classical texts that deal with the God-given authority of the state are Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13,14. Earthly authority goes beyond the state to include parents (Eph 6:1-4) as well as others in positions of responsibility (eg pastors and teachers). When Luther explains the fourth commandment in his Large Catechism he says that the primary locus of authority resides with parents, and that all other human authority derives from that. From that point of view, the authority of the state has its source in the authority vested in parents. When Paul then in Romans 13:1 says: ‘There is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God’, he is stating that secular government has been established by God. Luther simply points out that God establishes it in the fourth commandment.
If all lawful authority has been established by God and has his approval, what of unlawful authority? Here we must remember that the New Testament also knows of the demonisation of the state as powerfully portrayed by the beast in Revelation 13, which presents a situation that is the exact opposite of Romans 13. The unlawful authority of the demonic state is most evident in the absolute claims made on body and soul by the satanic forces behind totalitarian regimes. Here the church must refuse obedience, in line with Peter’s principle in Acts 5:29, even if that means martyrdom, for obedience here would amount to idolatry. Martyrs and confessors of the church in all ages have never forgotten the words of Psalm 119:46: ‘I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame’.
Obedience to all forms of human government is never absolute but always limited and conditional. If it means disobedience to God, our allegiance to God must come first (Acts 5:29). When Jesus commands us to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, the implication is that God has the right to claim us in our totality because we bear his image (Matt 22:21-22).
Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33,36). Although we live in the world, our true commonwealth is in heaven (Phil 3:19). Since we are in the world but not of the world, we must not let the world squeeze us into its mould (Rom 12:2). Peter can say that we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11) because we are on a journey to our heavenly homeland (Heb 11:13-16). Although on earth we are subject to the laws of the land, we are called to freely follow the example of Jesus who did not seek revenge, but willingly suffered injustice and oppression (1 Peter 2:18-25). So in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls us to forgo our rights, to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile (Matt 5:10,11; 38-43).
The final text we need to consider takes up what is called John the Baptist’s social teaching. The prophet John answered several questions that people asked him in relation to their vocation. To the tax collectors John said: Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Soldiers also asked him what they should do. He replied: Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages (Luke 3:10-14). The significance of this text is that nowhere does John say that the people of God cannot engage in ordinary secular jobs. In fact it is significant that it is precisely tax collectors and soldiers who are singled out for special mention, since these people were involved in two of the most questionable occupations at the time of Jesus. The only qualification that John makes, and that the church has always made, is that the work we do must be honest and lawful. On the strength of John’s social teaching and the New Testament generally, we cannot agree with the Anabaptists of Luther’s day and other such sects today who claim that Christians cannot serve as soldiers and cannot be involved in certain other secular activities. Scripture teaches that we serve God by serving our neighbour in our vocation and places of responsibility in the world.
Luther’s distinction between the two kingdoms and two reigns of God helps Christians to understand how they can live by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time be responsible citizens in this world until he comes again. For when he returns there will be no longer two kingdoms but only the one kingdom—the kingdom of glory and grace, which for now is hidden in Christ and known only to faith.
Luther and the Confessions
Strictly speaking, neither the term ‘two kingdoms’ nor ‘two reigns’ is used in the Lutheran Confessions, yet both terms have become deeply embedded in Lutheran theology. Therefore we will use them both. The theology lying behind the terms however is thoroughly confessional. Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession states that ‘all government and all established rule and laws were instituted by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices and engage in all manner of civil affairs’ (such as serving as soldiers, buying and selling, taking oaths where required, owning property, getting married etc). The article also states that ‘the gospel does not overthrow civil authority, the state, and marriage but requires that all these be kept as true divine orders’ (sometimes called orders of creation), unless to do so would mean disobeying God (Acts 5:29).
Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession makes it clear that ecclesiastical and civil power are not to be confused. Each has its own mandate. The church has its commission to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. It should not interfere with civil government or try to tell civil rulers how they should govern. For Christ says that his kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18:33,36), and when asked to settle a legal dispute he replied: ‘Who made me judge or an arbiter between you?’ (Luke 12:14). On the other hand, in a participatory democracy like ours, both Christians and the church have the right and duty to express their opinion.
It is important to realise that the problem facing the church at the time of the Reform- ation is the opposite to that of our own day. The culture of the Middle Ages was Christian and church and state were mixed up together with no clear distinction between them so that bishops spent more time administering civil affairs than looking after the church, and conversely the state often put pressure on the churches to forgo their doctrinal differences in the interests of political stability. Indeed, the whole Reformation cannot be properly understood if it is divorced from its political context.
In our day the problem is different. Under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, the church in the western world (and certainly the Lutheran church) has lost its credibility as a public institution and like religion generally has simply been relegated to the private inner world of individual experience.
The idea of the two kingdoms originally comes from St Augustine, one of the great theologians of the western church. He developed the idea in order to defend the church against the criticism that it was to blame for the fall of the Roman empire because it refused to participate in the state religion. He said that there are two cities or two kingdoms: the kingdom of God (the heavenly city) and the kingdom of Satan (the earthly city). Christians belong to the kingdom of God and unbelievers to the kingdom of Satan. These two will continue to be locked in conflict until the end of the world when the kingdom of God will prevail and the kingdom of Satan will be destroyed.
Luther initially accepted this dualism but later rejected the idea that the world is to be identified with the kingdom of Satan. He rightly insisted that the world is God’s world and that Satan is at work in both the earthly kingdom (to destroy law and order) as well as in the heavenly kingdom (to stop people believing in Christ and the gospel). God uses the resources of his two kingdoms and two reigns to bring about his defeat.
Let us repeat, in the two kingdoms doctrine, the two kingdoms are not the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, but the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. It is wrong to identify God with the former and Satan with the later. The fact is that God and Satan are both at work in both kingdoms. Once Luther recognised this, he began to gradually reconceive the whole idea of the two kingdoms, putting it on a sound scriptural basis, as he wrestled with various social and political problems of the day.
God rules in two ways
While all creation belongs to God, he rules the world using two different forms of government: the secular and the spiritual. God’s secular government (reign) is related to the left-hand kingdom or earthly realm. This embraces all people who live in God’s world, whether they believe in him or not. God’s spiritual government (reign), on the other hand, is related to his right-hand kingdom or heavenly realm. This comprises all those who believe in Christ and live under his lordship.
God rules the left-hand realm through earthly government. The way God rules in this realm is through law (both natural law and positive law) and reason. Earthly govern- ment here is wider than the three arms of government in western democracy. It includes those structures of society that are essential for its preservation and good order, such as marriage and family, work and property, trade, commerce and economics. In other words, God rules the world through social and political institutions.
God rules the right-hand realm through the means of grace. Here he uses his word rather than reason, gospel rather than law, mercy rather than coercion. The highest authority—indeed the only authority—in this realm is the word of God, not the edict of kings, the decrees of parliaments, or the judgments of courts.
Different hands for different work
The two different hands or ways God uses to rule the world correspond to the distinction between law and gospel. He uses the law, as we have seen, in his left- hand to maintain order and peace in society, to protect life and property, to curb gross sin and evil, to punish wrongdoing and promote the good.
On the other hand, God uses the gospel in his right-hand to nurture those who believe in Christ. It is through the gospel that he forgives sins, comforts troubled consciences, and builds his people up in love for good works. He does this through baptism, the preached word, absolution, and the Lord’s supper.
We should note that the law also plays a role in the right-hand kingdom, but here the law has only penultimate authority and is used in the service of the gospel. The law is proclaimed to Christians to expose their sin and to make them despair of any attempt to become or remain right with God on the basis of our own efforts. Here God uses the law to lead people to seek mercy and forgiveness in Christ. This is called the theological use of the law and is held to be the main use of the law in Lutheran theology. The law also has a didactic role to play (the so-called third use of the law) where it teaches Christians the good works that God wants them to do for the neighbour.
One of the reasons why Luther developed the doctrine of the two kingdoms is because he had to combat the false belief in the Roman church that both swords (temporal and spiritual) belonged to Peter, and hence to the pope. Luther held that each of God’s hands has its own work and that one hand must not interfere with the other. To put it simply, bishops and pastors should attend to running the church and exercising their authority in spiritual things. They should not be trying to run the country or using their office to gain personal benefit or special privileges denied to others. On the other hand, rulers and politicians should stick to running the country and not meddle in ecclesiastical matters.
The unity of the two reigns
The important thing to note is that God has two hands and that he is the ruler of both realms. What differs is the way he rules. He has not abandoned his world to evil. He can even use an unjust government to serve his purposes by maintaining law and order.
The same God stands behind both the secular and spiritual government and is present in them. If this is not understood we end up with the dualistic idea that God only rules over the church and abandons the world to operate according to its own independent and autonomous principles. This misunderstanding, common in the nineteenth century, gave rise to trenchant criticism of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. But the criticism was misplaced. Luther was never guilty of dualism. He never held that the political and economic spheres (we could also include the scientific and technological spheres) are autonomous and independent. Rather, he taught that all spheres of human endeavour and the people who work in them are subject to the sovereign authority of God.
However, when the state intervenes in the affairs of the church and tries to change its doctrine and practice for political ends, the outcome is calamitous. Here we only have to think of the great distress caused by king Frederick Wilhelm III who attempted to force the union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia, in the early part of the nineteenth century, in the interests of greater political stability. This was the event that caused the first Lutherans to emigrate to Australia under the leadership of Pastor Kavel. Perhaps this profoundly negative experience of government is a significant reason why Lutherans in this country have been tended to be suspicious of government and politically disengaged. This attitude was reinforced by the unjust persecution of some Lutherans by the authorities during the second world war.
Different but mutually dependent
We said earlier that the two reigns of God are different. He rules through the secular government with the sword to restrain evil and coerce obedience. But in the church God rules without force through his word (especially the gospel) to forgive the sins of all who repent and believe. God’s spiritual reign in Christ is not the same as his earthly reign in the world. God rules over all people as creator and preserver, but Christians also live under his spiritual reign. Because God reigns over the earthly realm through the law, Christians in secular government should not seek to legislate according to the teachings of Christ (for only Christians acknowledge Christ’s authority) but according to natural law, common law, reason, learned opinion and the collective wisdom of the ages. Luther reminds us that Moses and the OT also offer much wisdom on the topic of government that could be profitably read by rulers. The Ten Commandments (Exod 20 and Deut 5) are consistent with natural law since they are written on the hearts of all people (Romans 2).
The two reigns of God are also mutually dependent and serve each other. This has implications for the relation between church and state. The church needs Caesar to ensure it is able to worship God and preach the gospel freely and without interference. Likewise, the secular government needs the prayers and intercessions of the church (whether it realises it or not) to do its job properly. In fact the church is commanded to pray for all people in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2).
Christians lead double lives—but hopefully not in the hypocritical sense! They are citizens of two kingdoms, but they do not have two masters. God alone has absolute claim on us (Matt 6:24), and when the state becomes tyrannical (as it does when it adopts a totalitarian ideology), it exceeds its God-given bounds. Then we are freed from our obligation to obey it for it is no longer a state under God but has usurped divine authority and is answerable to no-one but itself (Acts 5:29). In such a case, to submit to the authority of the state is a greater sin than to resist. Where to draw the line will sometimes be hard to determine. We need to remember that when Paul calls Christians to honour the emperor as supreme (1 Peter 2:13) and to pray for all who are in positions of power (1 Tim 2:1,2), he was well aware that many of these rulers were not kindly disposed to the church. A quick reading of the Acts of the Apostles will confirm this.
The tension between love and justice
There will always be some tensions and ambiguities in the interaction between God’s two kingdoms. When does a Christian act according to the Sermon on the Mount (suffer injustice, turn the other cheek), and when does a Christian resort to secular power (the civil justice system) to redress injustice and injury?
One way of approaching this dilemma that Luther came up with is to make a distinction between person and office. In their private life Christians generally follow the example of Christ by suffering injustice and forgiving those who wrong them, but if they hold a public office then in their vocation they must act according to the duties of that office. A judge who is a Christian (to take a simple example) will have to sentence a convicted criminal, even if he/she feels compassionate towards that person—although one would hope that any judge will always temper justice with mercy. But in private life, if that same judge is wronged or suffers an injustice, especially if it is because he/she is a Christian, they will not seek revenge but will be willing to forgive for Christ’s sake. To take another example, Christians who serve in the armed forces can be reassured that if they have to kill the enemy in battle, they are not breaking the fifth commandment (‘You shall not kill’) for God has authorised governments to defend their citizens against an aggressor by means of force (Luke 3:14). However, in civilian life, when they are not acting with the authority of their office, this commandment also applies to soldiers just as it does to everyone else.
We need to make it quite clear that Luther’s distinction between person and office in no way countenances or supports a double standard of morality: one for private life and the other for public life. Christians are always called to act with integrity and should never do anything that they would be ashamed of doing before God. What Luther’s distinction does is to provide a framework for understanding why Christians in certain situations (ie when acting in an ‘official’ capacity) are called to act contrary to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
Luther’s distinction between person and office is not the end of the story. While I may decide not to seek legal redress or compensation for myself as the victim of a wrong- doing, the injustice or crime that I suffered may have consequences for my neighbour (which includes spouse and children), and indeed for the wider community. In this case I may be compelled out of love for the common good, not out of spiteful vindictiveness, to seek to bring the perpetrator to justice. This at least is Luther’s position. He always puts concern for other people ahead of concern for oneself.
What is the task of the church?
The task of the church is to preach the gospel and make disciples through baptism and catechesis, to absolve the penitent of their sins and teach the way of salvation, to pray for all people, especially for those in government and positions of authority (1 Tim 2:1–3), to minister with the means of grace, and to discipline wayward sinners. The gospel is the true treasure of the church and the church alone has the mandate to preach it.
The task of the church is always spiritual although this may have political implications. It is not called to develop and implement policies for a more just and equitable society, to feed the hungry or take care of the poor, although Christians individually will do all they can to alleviate suffering and hardship wherever it occurs. Again, the church has no mandate to broker deals between the government and indigenous Australians, or to form a political party or put up candidates for office— although Christians individually can belong to a party and stand for office.
Yet the church is passionately concerned about policies in all areas of public life and should be actively involved in advising governments in all issues of social importance. It also has every right to speak out on any issue whenever it believes that the rights of the poor and the marginalised are being neglected or that the government is corrupt and guilty of gross injustice. This is part of the church’s spiritual mandate, its mission, and if it neglects this wider public duty to be the conscience of the nation, it will only have itself to blame if the world relegates it to the private realm and ignores its message as irrelevant to everyday life.
The church’s task is to proclaim the gospel. Yet, at the same time, it must exercise a watching brief. It must uphold the rights of the poor, and speak out against injustice, oppression, racism, and abuse of power wherever it occurs. It must see to it that the sanctity of all human life is respected, from the unborn through to the aged, including the sick and the disabled. The church is called to be a leaven in society, the salt of the earth, a city set on a hill (Matt 5:13–16). It is to be the conscience of society and must raise its prophetic voice wherever there is injustice, oppression, and corruption on the part of those in positions of responsibility. It must hold governments and institutions accountable to the public, and ultimately to God.
Separation of church and state: yes or no?
One common misunderstanding that must be resisted today is the belief that the separation of church and state is demanded by Luther’s doctrine of God’s two kingdoms and two reigns. It would be more correct to say that church and state must be clearly distinguished but not separated. It is true that church and state each has its own area of competence and responsibility. The truth of the argument for separation is this: The secular government must not interfere with the proclamation of the gospel, and conversely the church must not use the agency of the state to try to promote the gospel or Christianise society.
The argument for the separation of church and state has been often used to justify the church’s non-involvement in the political and economic affairs of the country. The church, it is argued, simply belongs to the private religious realm and should not interfere in the affairs of state. However, we have seen that the church’s mandate has a social and political dimension. The church must exercise its prophetic role or risk being ignored completely. This of course is even more difficult today in our pluralist world where the voice of the Christian churches must compete with the voices of other world religions and numerous ideologies.
Sometimes Luther’s doctrine of God’s two kingdoms and two reigns is confused with the New Testament teaching about the two ages (aeons), the old and the new. There the new age, which was inaugurated by Christ, is God’s hidden rule in the hearts of believers through faith, while the old age refers to the rule of sin and Satan. While believers already now share in Christ’s victory over the old age, they also remain trapped in the great battle between the old and the new that rages within them, between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of Christ (ie the kingdom of God inaugurated by Christ). This battle will not cease this side of the grave because Christians themselves, although new creatures, are constantly struggling against the old self-centred nature. Only when Christ returns and banishes sin and Satan forever will the old age disappear and the new age emerge for all to see. Until then the new remains hidden under the old and is perceived only with the eyes of faith.
It is a common misunderstanding to identify the old age with the secular realm (left- hand kingdom) and the new age with the spiritual realm (the right-hand kingdom). This is the same as identifying the kingdom of Satan with the world and the kingdom of God with the church. However, the kingdom of God in the realm of redemption is God’s rule in the hearts of his people. But this rule is always contested by Satan who sets up a counter-kingdom to try to draw believers back under his power. This battle rages in all Christians and therefore cuts across the kingdom on the right as well as the kingdom on the left. While it is true that the unbelievers live only in the old age just as they live only in the secular kingdom, Christians live in both ages and also in both kingdoms. For the daily battle against sin and Satan confronts them not only in the spiritual realm but also in the secular realm.
In the two kingdoms doctrine, God’s earthly reign refers to his sovereign rule over the whole creation, and God’s spiritual reign refers to his gracious rule in the hearts of believers through Christ. God’s spiritual reign has to do with Christ’s reign in the realm of redemption. The distinction between the two kingdoms therefore comes down to a distinction between the way God rules over creation, and the way he rules over the realm of redemption in the church. It corresponds to the distinction between creation and redemption. However, we should not equate God’s kingdom/reign on the left with ‘care’ and that on the right with ‘redemption’, for God’s care is not only for the world but also for the church, just as redemption is not restricted to the spiritual realm but includes creation.
In the nineteenth century we find two common misunderstandings of Luther’s doctrine of God’s two kingdoms and two reigns. They are significant because they influenced the way Luther’s doctrine was understood in the twentieth century.
• After the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, Lutherans re-evaluated Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine. A Christian’s public life was seen to be quite separate from his or her private life. Under the influence of Kant, Luther’s teaching was reduced to an ethical dualism. Religion was relegated to the private inner world of individual experience. The church no longer had a public role to play as it did at the time of the Reformation. That largely has been the situation that has prevailed up to the present.
• The nineteenth century, in contrast to Luther, taught the autonomy and independ- ence of all areas of secular life. The political, economic, and scientific areas were each thought to be governed by its own inalienable law that was established by God. They were no longer subject to any external moral norms. This is going far beyond what Luther ever intended. It is true that he wanted to create space for the state to exist independently of the church in all its secularity. However, Luther never tired of emphasising that God was Lord of both kingdoms and that there was nothing in the left-hand kingdom that was not subject to his moral law.
There are two main objections to the doctrine of the two kingdoms.
Objection 1: The lordship of Christ
The first objection is that the doctrine limits the claim of Jesus Christ to be lord of all areas of life within the world. How do we respond to that? To begin with, Lutheran theology does distinguish between the spiritual and the secular (and hence between the sacred and the profane) because it distinguishes between law and gospel. It is true that Luther too, in a certain sense, can say that secular life stands under the lordship of Christ, just Paul in Colossians can say that Christ is lord not only of the church but also of the world. The limitation for Luther however is that Christ is not lord within the orders as such (ie is not Lord of the various vocations and stations in life in the sense that they must conform to some particular Christian pattern) but only within the people who serve as priests within these orders. (This is the connection between the priesthood of the baptised and vocation.) Thus the secular kingdom does not stand under the lordship of Christ in the same way that the kingdom of Christ or the church does. For the lordship of Christ still remains hidden under the form of this world. The fact that the orders (eg the state, marriage and family, the economy, trade and commerce, international alliances etc) do not stand under the lordship of Christ, but are formed and shaped according to reason, does not mean that they are not subject to the will and command of God—in this case that life is preserved. We will return to this topic in the final section.
Objection 2: Hitler and the Nazis
The second objection comes out of the German experience of the Hitler years and the Jewish holocaust. Most branches of the Lutheran church in Germany, initially at least, supported Hitler and hailed him as the God-sent saviour to rescue the nation from the crippling effects of the great depression. However, even when German Christians knew the truth about Hitler’s program of ethnic cleansing and his ‘relocation’ of Jews to the death camps, only relatively few voices were raised in protest. Most bishops went along with Hitler. This perhaps is the most compelling reason why critics of the two kingdoms doctrine claim it must be given up. In its most simplistic form, the logic of the argument is that Luther is indirectly to blame for Hitler, for without his idea of the two kingdoms, the German Christians would not have felt it necessary to give unconditional allegiance to the government—and so the holocaust would not have happened.
How are we to respond to this objection? First, it is true that the churches in Germany (except for the Confessing Church, which actively opposed the Nazis) badly misjudged the situation and its lack of action was inexcusable. However, we categorically reject the argument that Luther was to blame for the murder of the Jews because the church, in supporting Hitler, was simply acting according to the doctrine of the two kingdoms and obeying lawful government. It is not the doctrine that was at fault but the way it was interpreted. As we have seen, the two kingdoms doctrine does not relieve the church of its duty to speak out against injustice.
Given the way the doctrine was misunderstood in the nineteenth century, the support for National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s was almost inevitable. It also explains the reluctance of the German church to speak out against the Nazi party, for it was believed that all human authority was ordained by God, and Hitler was hailed as the saviour of the German nation. The fundamental error here was a failure to understand that, although the natural orders and structures of society are given by God, they can become demonised, as in the case of the Nazi state and totalitarianism generally. It is noteworthy that once the vulnerability of the orders (such as government) to subversive demonic attack was recognised, the term ‘orders of creation’ fell out of favour and in its place theologians spoke of the ‘orders of preservation’.
A necessary distinction
The criticisms that have been levelled at the doctrine of God’s two kingdoms and two reigns often proceed from the perception that it prevents the church from being socially and politically active. As we have seen, if this is the case, it is not the fault of the doctrine but the way it has been interpreted. The LCA in its statement, Reflection on the Two Kingdoms and Social Ethics, has tried to clarify the interrelation between secular and spiritual government and clear up some misunderstandings. Error occurs when the two kingdoms are separated rather than distinguished. It is as Jesus said: His kingdom does not belong to this world, but it is in the world, just as Christians are called to be not of the world but in the world (John 17:15-19).
The doctrine of the two kingdoms does not prevent the church from playing an active role in society, but it does clarify that the church’s real mission is not in the realm of law and politics, but in the realm of the gospel. It also frees the Christian to be engaged in the secular realm, without being swept away by secularism or the illusion of utopianism. It makes it clear that the kingdom of God, in the sense of God’s spiritual rule in the hearts of his people through the word, is not an earthly entity and cannot be established on earth by means of social action. Most of all,the doctrineof God’s two kingdoms/reigns prevents the gospel from being turned into an ideology, a political principle, or a legal requirement. Ultimately, this is the most important reason why the Lutheran church today still hangs on to Luther’s two kingdom teaching: to keep the gospel pure and to prevent it from being turned into a law.
Lutherans reject the idea, common in Protestant churches, that there is only one kingdom and one government and that Christ is sovereign Lord in both the temporal and spiritual realms. This may sound perfectly correct. Why should Lutherans object to the lordship of Christ within the orders? What is at stake here however is an important but subtle distinction between God and Christ, or more particularly, between what Luther calls Christ’s strange work and his proper work. His strange work is his law work; his proper work is his gospel-work. Christ also preaches the law, and in that sense he also rules over the political realm. But that is not his proper work, it is not the reason he came (John 3:17). He did not come as lawgiver and judge, but he came as the saviour of sinners.
To say then that Christ is the sovereign Lord of the temporal realm (ie of the political, economic, and social world) and that these structures must therefore conform to his teaching rather than to reason, is to misunderstand his mission and the nature of his lordship. Christ is our Lord not because he has sovereign power to command our unswerving loyalty and obedience. That he has such power we do not deny. But according to the New Testament he shows his lordship not in commanding obedience but in freeing us from captivity to other lords and tyrants who held us in their clutches. He is our Lord because he has saved us from the powers of darkness, has defeated our enemies (the usual suspects: sin, death, Satan—and the law!) and now protects us from them by his almighty power. That is his proper work, his gospel-work as distinct from his strange penultimate law-work. Unless these are carefully distinguished, we will end up confusing law and gospel, and hence the two kingdoms.
As we have seen, the New Testament teaches that God rules this world in two ways and will do so for as long as it lasts. Until Christ comes again and establishes a uni- versal lordship, his reign on earth is known and confessed only by the church and is to be understood within the context of the theology of the cross. For now it remains a hidden lordship, visible only to the eyes of faith (Col 3:1-4). Obedience to him is the obedience of faith, and this cannot be coerced with the law. Christ’s lordship in this world is still hidden under the cross and it will only become visible when he returns in power and glory and faith gives way to sight. Then every knee will bow and every tongue confess what the church has always believed and confessed: That Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:9-11).
Lutheran Church of Australia: Commission on Social and Bioethical Questions
THE TWO 'KINGDOMS'
Approved by the CSBQ, 2001