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The Two Kingdoms of God

Posted by thethousandmarch on September 4, 2013 at 8:10 PM

With a military strike on Syria likely imminent I’ve seen a number of Christians saying that Christians should not support any military action because Jesus wouldn’t support military action. I however do not believe this is a good interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. But before I get going on this let me say that this is not a post on whether or not it is politically wise to attack Syria; this is a discussion of whether it is ever morally acceptable to use force. This leads me to Martin Luther’s concept of the two Kingdoms, which he called the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. Those titles, specifically the later one can be confusing, because it may imply that God is only in control of one of those Kingdoms. This is not however the case, God rules both Kingdoms but does so in different ways.


The Kingdom of Man is corrupted; it is temporal and will one day be destroyed. Yet in the meantime God rules this Kingdom with common grace, which means the blessing of his rule fall on all people – the just and the unjust. This Kingdom is governed by law, and order is maintained through force/coercion, and social obligations which we perform out of motivations of the desire for rewards and the fear of civil and social punishment (social punishment includes such things as shame, and loss of one’s position in a community). God uses civil institutions such as government and even religious institutions such as the institutional church to maintain social order, which, though imperfect, is better than chaos (for most people). This is what Paul is speaking about when he says in Romans 13:


Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.


The Kingdom of God was present on this Earth before the coming of Jesus, but those who were meant to represent it had failed at their task. Jesus as the Christ fulfilled the mission of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, etc. It was/is Jesus’ mission to establish and complete the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is perfect and eternal; it is ruled by grace and love. In the first stage of his mission Jesus established this Kingdom as spiritual. He did not attempt to overthrow the temporal Roman government as his followers expected; he did not restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). He had no temporal political agenda and the only challenge he presented to Rome was against Rome’s claim upon the spiritual realm. A Christian could submit to the civil rule of Rome, but could not submit to the spiritual claim that Caesar was Lord. Only Jesus Christ is Lord.


It is very clear that in regards to the Kingdom of God there is never any justification for our use of force. But does this mean Jesus was a pacifist? If you read the Bible and come away thinking God is a pacifist then I don’t know what Bible you’re reading. The Kingdom of God will one day be physical. Jesus will redeem the Kingdom of Man creating a new heavens and earth, where his perfect reign will be fully established and will rule forever. When this occurs the enemies of God will be thrown out of his creation by force.


In regards to religious and personal attacks Jesus certainly teaches that we should respond in a non-violent manner. But does this mean there is never any justification for the use of force? Non-violence as a tool used by otherwise powerless people for responding to injustice, and the non-violence a follower of Jesus practices as a sign of God’s Kingdom are not the same thing. One is a civil action, the other is physical sign of a spiritual reality; one seeks to change the temporal state of affairs, the other is a taste of a future that will come only when Christ returns. As a tool for civil change non-violence only works when used against people who in some way care about the individual rights of the people they are hurting and can therefore be made to feel ashamed of their actions. In regards to the Kingdom of God, temporal civil change is irrelevant. Jesus said in John 18:36 “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Our mission as the Church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom; it is not to transform this world. Does this mean we don’t care about temporal injustice?

A Christian does not live solely in the spiritual Kingdom of God; a Christian lives in the temporal, physical Kingdom of Man as well. As good citizens, which we are instructed to be, we must be engaged in this world. In the Kingdom of Man we must uphold the law; we must participate in the building of a safe and just society. The law is in part summed up by this command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). In this we can join with all like-minded people to make this world a better place. So though we live as signs of the Kingdom to come, as loving neighbors we must sometimes use force to protect our neighbor. Though we must forgive those who harm us personally we also recognize our society’s need to maintain order which includes arresting and punishing lawbreakers. This is what the police are for. If we accept that there is a place for police in our society, we must accept that there’s a place for soldiers. Certainly there have been many unjust wars and most military action is merely an exercise of might makes right. Yet, just because power is abused does not mean there is not a need for governments to maintain order, punish lawbreakers, and defend the rights and property of people.


I don’t think this concept of the two Kingdoms is perfect, but I do think it is helpful model. For a Christian there is certainly overlap. Yet we must make some distinctions, even if they are somewhat artificial. When we confuse the two Kingdoms we can start to think that our earthly kingdom is God’s Kingdom and that our national interests are God’s interests, we can start to think that everything is Christ’s Kingdom and that we are physically building it whenever we engage socially and civilly with others. I think that either way is dangerous and Luther helps us find our place in both Kingdoms.


Categories: The Kingdom of God, Politics