Two Kingdoms: Living In A Land Not Our Own
The theological movement holding to natural law and the two kingdoms, in various forms, has been a topic of much controversy in recent years. In many blogs across the internet, much vitriol has been spewed and much more heat than light has been the product of these discussions, on both sides. It is not my intent here to address all of the relevant issues, nor is it my intent to try to be a definitive voice for all the proponents of the natural law/two kingdom theology (NL2K). Here I am simply going to address a critique of NL2K that I have both heard and seen from a number of sources which I believe to be an unfair critique.
John Frame, in the preface to his book The Escondido Theology, states that NL2K advocates assert, or are at least sympathetic toward, a number of rather dubious claims including the following:
● The Christian has no biblical mandate to seek changes in the social, cultural, or political order.
● Divine sovereignty typically eliminates the need for human responsibility.
In chapter 1 of the same book he goes on to describe nine characteristics of NL2K theology. One of which strikes a very similar tone:
2. A radicalization of the Reformation two-kingdoms view, leading to separation of church and culture, and church and state, so that it is wrong for believers to seek changes in society;
In his pamphlet The General Equity Of The Law Of God, Leonard Coppes, a local Orthodox Presbyterian minister, writes the following:
“Today some reformed believers are challenging this general equity principle. They may argue that since Old Testament judicial law is kingdom law it only applies to kingdom citizens and then only when they are engaged in kingdom activities. When they are working outside the kingdom in the secular realm, they are not bound to practice kingdom law but they should follow natural law (God’s law revealed in and through nature). They no longer live ‘in God’s household’ when they are working, etc., outside His Kingdom (the church and family).”
It is not my desire, at this point, to thoroughly address either Frame’s book or Coppes’ pamphlet. There is much to say regarding these pieces of writing, and time does not permit such an address at this point. I was simply struck by the similarities of their criticisms. Put another way, by a person I had the pleasure of talking to at a recent reformed conference, it boils down to this criticism of NL2K: “[NL2K advocates] believe that Christians are only to be Christians on Sunday and not the rest of the week.”
This view portrays NL2K advocates as being two-faced, almost duplicitous (if I may use that term). We live one way in the kingdom of God, and we live another way in the common kingdom. This is not the position of any NL2K proponent that I know of. NL2K advocates a position that understands the nuances of being dual citizens, a citizen of heaven and a citizen in an earthly kingdom, both kingdoms having Christ as King (in separate ways). Our heavenly calling is always the final authority in our decisions. To suggest anything but this is either misguided or simply dishonest. Our identity as Christian is the supreme and most authoritative part of our identity. We are Christians to the core of our beings. This cannot be stated enough: we never deny our identity as Christians; we are not only Christians on Sunday.
How we, as Christians, interact in the world is a different story entirely. We are pilgrims and sojourners in a land not our own. We await the consummation of all things and the return of Christ. We are citizens of Heaven and we are living in a type of exile awaiting our inheritance. We can learn something of what it means to live in exile from the old testament by seeing how Israel was to live in exile. Jeremiah is a book written to God’s people in Babylonian exile. This exile was understood to be temporary, but they were still commanded to be good citizens while in Babylon:
“Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29.6-7)
Israel, God’s covenant people, to whom the Law of God was given on Sinai, found themselves in captivity in Babylon. Yet God commanded them to be good citizens and seek the prosperity of the cities of their captivity! This exilic people were called to be as salt and light amidst the pagans. Not separate from them, not seeking to dominate them and change them, but to dwell among them, to prosper and seek the well being of the cities of Babylon in which they dwelt. They were also called to be ready to leave when the time came. We see a wonderful picture of this type of living in the story of Daniel. Daniel, the prophet of God, excelled in the education of the Chaldeans and earned the trust of the kings of Babylon because of his wisdom. And though he was above reproach among the Babylonians, while he embraced their customs and their culture, he never forsook his God. He would not worship their false gods, and he would not give up the worship of his God.
Understanding how to live as a soujourner in twenty-first century America is the task before most of us reading this. Toward this end, understanding how Israel, how men like Daniel, lived in exile can be instructive for us. The reality of our situation is that America is a pluralistic society. I am not convinced this is a bad thing. There are many things that we can learn from other cultures, both positively and negatively. Positively, we can appreciate the beauty and goodness in things like the arts, sciences, humanities, etc.. Today, unlike ever before, we can enjoy a wide variety of food and luxuries found in other cultures. As citizens of this world, we should find the beauty in all of these gifts and thank God for them. Though the eyes of the pagans in our midst of are closed to the full extent, there is beauty and good in many things they do and we should, we must, praise our God for it when we encounter it. Negatively, we also learn from the pagans through our homesickness. We are Christians, and we worship the true God and we find ourselves in the midst of pagans who hate the true God. While we are commanded to love them and serve them, and this does include proclaiming the gospel and evangelizing them, this clash of cultures will also at times be a clash over competing loves. We will not always be treated justly, but we must love anyway. When we suffer for our God, we continually learn that we are meant for a different world. Colliding with the idolatry of the pagans shows us that we are still living in a land not our own.
The details of how this all works in the civic and political spheres are a bit more complex. Should a Christian vote Republican? Democrat? Libertarian? Other? Abstain from voting entirely? When faced with a candidate that is pro-choice versus a candidate who wants to expand bombing of civilians in another country, a candidate that supports same-sex marriage versus a candidate that wants to arm rebels who have a reputation for killing Christians, a candidate that winks at corruption in government versus a candidate that winks at the exploitation of the less fortunate among us, which lesser of evil does the Christian vote for? Is it wrong for a Christian to support legislation that would lower the number of abortions that has a chance of passing instead of holding out for total abolition? Life is not simply black and white. Politics are messy and usually (always?) involve accepting something less than utopian. Exercising your civic duty in the common kingdom requires prayer and wisdom.
In light of this complexity, the proponents of NL2K do not advocate that the Christian run and hide. They expect that Christians will listen to the Word of God and apply that wisdom in the most appropriate way, though Christians often will not entirely agree on what that is. The church is to remain silent on these issues, lest they bind the conscience of the Christian to vote this way, or that way. The Westminster Confession is clear on this liberty of conscience:
“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2)
In his recent post for Patheos, Reverend Brian Lee addressed the complexity of being a Christian during election season. His concluding thoughts were a helpful summary of what I have been trying to say:
“Therefore, the church should be mindful of its members' dual citizenship, and differing degrees of clarity on how God's law shall be applied in different aspects of their lives. God's law is not multifaceted. It is one and simple and true. But our grasp of it, and our application of it to our neighbors in particular times and places, is finite and variable.
Yet while the church is bound and limited in what she may teach, the individual Christian is free. She may engage in politics, may lobby for pro-life causes, may hold civil office. But the church may not compel her to do so.”
A Christian living in America has a very large responsibility. They are to work at their vocation to the best of their ability, as unto the Lord. This does not mean that they will be the best at their job, nor does it mean they have to find some special “Christian” way of doing their job. It means they should do their best and glorify God by doing so. The Christian in America also must exercise wisdom in how they engage the civic and political sphere. They are called to seek the good of their society, while never forsaking their highest calling, to be faithful to their God. This is not an easy task, but it was never intended to be. NL2K does not mean we retreat from society and let it go to hell, it means that we seek the best for whatever society we find ourselves in, we live at peace with all men inasmuch as it depends on us, we lead quiet lives, and we seek out the welfare of our neighbors; it means we learn to live in this kingdom, while being able to come home to our heavenly kingdom on Sundays. We do all of this while being nothing less than Christian