Sunday, May 12, 2013

Citizens Of God's Two Kingdoms


Citizens of Two Kingdoms: Applying the Reformation Two Kingdoms Theology to the Malaysian context


Election fever is boiling over. You can see it in campaign banners fluttering in the wind. You can hear it in passionate ceramah from aspiring candidates and resounding cheers from their supporters. You can feel it in the SMS’es, Facebook updates and tweets that assail your digital devices. On May 5, Malaysian citizens from all walks of life thronged to polling stations around the country to exercise their much-anticipated duty to vote for their representatives in Parliament and state governments.

In the midst of such unprecedented excitement over the 13th general election, some Christians have expressed concern when pastors or priests seem to make fun of the government or endorse a particular political party. “Don’t politicize the pulpit”, they say. “Whatever happened to separation of church and state? The body of Christ must always remain united. If leaders take sides in a highly polarized election, how could they bring healing and reconciliation after the dust has settled?”

Other believers take seriously the preacher’s task to speak up and take sides against blatant injustice. “Did Jesus pull punches against the corrupt leaders of His day?” they ask. “Confronting the powers require us to name people or parties for their unjust practices. Sure, the pulpit can be a place to tell people whom to vote for without selling out to partisanship! The church cannot remain neutral.”

Therefore it is timely for us to consider afresh the complex relationship between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, and indeed the church and the world.

When Pontius 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). The “kingdom of God” is central to the preaching of Jesus and the storyline of the Scriptures (Matthew 4:17). It has political as well as religious connotations. Religiously, it is the kingdom of God; politically, it is the kingdom of God. The rule of God over the entire world and all who live in it was established when He created all things according to His good purposes. But our sinful rebellion to dethrone God and exert our own autonomy resulted in deep alienation from Him, from each other and from the natural order. When Jesus heralded the coming of the Kingdom, it was good news indeed because, in and through Him, the rule of God became a present reality on earth. His reign was realized through our redemption from sin into a covenant relationship with God, gathering us into a Spirit-gifted community (also known as the church) and would culminate in the renewal of the entire cosmos.

In a real sense, the kingdom has arrived and present in the midst of gathered believers (Matthew 13:16-17, Luke 17:20-21). But the kingdom is also yet to come in its fullness (Matthew 25:34). One day, the King will return to usher in His healing justice so that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord (Revelation 11:15). Meanwhile, the reign of God is like a seed – its hidden life grows into maturity and produces good fruit even in the midst of hostile opposition (Matt. 4:26-29; 13:36-42). As followers of Jesus, we live in the already/not yet tension of God’s kingdom within earthly nations of the world. We are citizens of two kingdoms.

But how do we navigate the complexities inherent in our dual citizenships?

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

During the Reformation, Luther steered a path between two conflicting tendencies: to confuse the two kingdoms and to divorce the two kingdoms. On one hand, Pope Boniface VIII taught that both spiritual and temporal swords are under the control of the Roman Church. The spiritual sword is wielded by the priests while the temporal sword by the hands of kings and soldiers as their subordinates (Unam Sanctum). On the other hand, some radical Anabaptist groups rejected any Christian involvement in society and sought to escape from it by forming separatist communes. For them, Christians should never bear the secular sword. In contrast, the Magisterial Reformers insisted that Christians should be involved in the world. Since every believer is a “priest”, each person has been called to serve God fully in their secular work. But the secular sword should be distinguished from the spiritual means by which the gospel should reach the world.

In the Reformation “two kingdoms” theology, all of creation belongs to God but He rules the world with two different forms of government – the earthly realm in which all people live is governed through law/reason and the spiritual realm in which Christians are ruled by the gospel/special revelation. There are different hands for different work. God uses social and political institutions (“left hand”) to maintain order and peace, to punish wrongdoing and promote the common good in society. He expands the spiritual kingdom through preaching of the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit (“right hand”) to forgive sins and nurture the church for good works. The two reigns of God have mutually dependent but different tasks – the state needs the prayers and intercessions of the church while the church needs the state to maintain social order so that the gospel may preached without hindrance (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Recent theologians who favor the “two kingdoms” model look upon Christian attempts to ‘redeem society’ or ‘transform the nation’ with deep suspicion. For example, David VanDrunen argues that the normative standards for our cultural activities are, in general, “not distinctively Christian”. We expect the same requirements of honesty, integrity and excellence from both Christian and non-Christian parliamentarians. Car repair and dentistry are general human activities rather than uniquely Christian ones. There is no ‘Christian politics’ any more than there is ‘Christian plumbing’.

VanDrunen recognizes that Scripture tells us crucial things about the big picture of all human disciplines (including public governance) and our motivation for doing them (out of love, faith and obedience to God). But when it comes to the technical details of education, engineering and business, there is plenty of room for liberty so we should not impose unnecessary pressure on others to develop a ‘Christian’ way of carrying out these activities. For example, our faith does not change how algebra is taught. When it comes to public governance, the state should not intervene by trying to change the doctrines and practices of the church for political mileage. Neither should believers in government seek to legislate according to specific Christian beliefs which others do not consider as authoritative, but according to natural law, reason and shared ethics.

Applications in the Malaysian Context  

How then shall we apply these insights from the “two kingdoms” framework to our contemporary context in Malaysia?

Firstly, our recognition of two distinct kingdoms cautions us against triumphalism and unrealistic expectations from our efforts in social transformation. In the heat of a campaign, some believers may be tempted to claim ‘divine inspiration’ that a predicted electoral victory for their favored candidate to be a ‘miracle of God’. Sometimes, warfare language may be employed to claim divine promise of deliverance in the midst of a ‘vast army’ of political opponents. The “two kingdoms” model reminds us that politics is a matter of the temporal, provisional and common kingdom shared by all. It should not be exalted as a means for bringing the redemptive kingdom of God on earth. Everything is politics, but politics is not everything.

Secondly, the “two kingdoms” framework encourages persuasion using natural law, common ethics or reason in our public discourse. This is possible since God’s moral law is universally written in the hearts and conscience of humanity. We should not be surprised to find non-believers displaying courage, integrity and compassion greater than ours. In the temporal kingdom, we do not make our case by merely quoting Bible verses for support. In a pluralistic society, we need to commend biblical values in an informed and winsome manner for the common good of all citizens. Luther made an important distinction between a person and her office in keeping with the law/gospel distinction. For example, a Christian individual generally follows the Sermon on the Mount by forgiving those who wrong her. But if she holds a public office as a judge, then she will have to sentence a convicted criminal out of love for the wider community. In her ‘official’ capacity, she carries out the mandate given to the state as part of her vocation (the law) even though personally, she does not seek revenge but forgives her enemies (the gospel).

Thirdly, the ‘two kingdoms’ model clarifies that the main mandate of the church is to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. The redemptive kingdom is uniquely established through faithful ministry of the Word and the sacraments. It should not be reduced to a passing ideological fad. While the church has an active and prophetic role in society, her primary mission is not in the realm of law and politics. Preachers should not be expected to pontificate on party affiliations, voting strategies and details of public policy from the pulpit. Believers may legitimately disagree about how to prioritize issues such as cost of living, road congestion, taxes, tolls and economic stability when casting their votes.

The real challenge comes when we consider public policies which involve moral issues that are addressed by Scripture such as corruption. In VanDrunen’s judgment, the church must teach “all that the Scripture says about such topics as moral issues but should be silent about such topics as concrete political or public policy issues.” For example, the Bible is clear that stealing and oppressing the poor are grievous sins before God. When the preacher speaks out against such practices, it would have concrete political implications. But believers must make discretionary judgments in order to decide how to apply the clear teaching of Scripture to our particular situation. Some Christians may refuse to vote for Barisan Nasional because of public scandals involving government officials. Other believers may decide to vote for the ruling coalition. Perhaps, there is no viable alternative on the ballot. Perhaps, they discern a more effective approach to reform from within instead of a change in administration. Their different judgments on how to combat corruption stem from the same commitment to biblical teaching. One approach may be definitely wiser than the other, but Scripture itself does not promote one side over the other as the Christian position. Neither should we.

Concluding Remarks

Although there are precious insights to be gleaned from the ‘two kingdoms’ model, critics have also pointed out that it underestimates the impact of sin on society and put too much trust in common grace to uphold the ‘secular’ function of the state. Our socio-political structures are often not innocently neutral, but institutional embodiments of our corporate idols – be it economic prosperity, ethnic supremacy or military strength. These worldviews need to be challenged by the gospel of Christ’s kingdom. For example, the ‘two kingdoms’ model was sometimes blamed for a form of social quietism amongst German Lutherans that allowed the Nazi movement to rise unchallenged in the 1930s.

Yes, the Bible is not a comprehensive handbook for everything, but it does speak powerfully on a wide range of economic, cultural and socio-political issues. Racial reconciliation is a profoundly difficult and urgent task that confronts our nation after the 13th general election. It presents the diverse Christian community in Malaysia with an opportunity to demonstrate how the gospel transcends ethnic barriers the way it did for the early church (Acts 13). Theologian Peter Rowans wrote, “In Malaysia, the church has the task of not only proclaiming the message of reconciliation to all Malaysians, but of embodying the concrete implications of that message in its community life, so that Malaysians of all races and sections of the community can look at a local church and see the gospel fleshed out in a racially reconciled group of people who can work, worship and witness together.” Perhaps the most politically significant action we can take is to be true to who are – as God’s reconciled and reconciling community bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ in all of life by overcoming sectarian hatred and ethnic distrust.

1. For more details, see Vaughan Roberts’ “God’s Big Picture” and Graeme Goldsworthy’s “Gospel and Kingdom”

2. Reconciliation is a central theme in theology of mission. Check out Peter Rowans’ “Proclaiming the Peacemaker: The Malaysian church as agent of reconciliation in a multicultural society”.   

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