Properly understanding two-kingdom theology (from an Anabaptist perspective)

There are at least three possible versions of two-kingdom theology. Dwight Gingrich recently had a discussion thread on Facebook where he offered the following three views:

(1) Government is commanded by God to use the sword to punish evil, so that evil will be curbed in the world. By virtue of God’s command, government has both the right and the responsibility to use the sword, in much the same way that God’s servant the nation of Israel did before Christ came. God requires government officials to use the sword, and to use it with justice and mercy, and he will judge them accordingly. Government officials can be Christians while bearing the sword, provided they use it rightly and only in their role as civil servants. Therefore, Christians bear witness to government by (a) admonishing them to use the sword with justice and mercy and (b) calling individual members of government to choose to follow Jesus.

(2) Government is commanded by God to use the sword to punish evil, so that evil will be curbed in the world. By virtue of God’s command, government has both the right and the responsibility to use the sword, in much the same way that God’s servant the nation of Israel did before Christ came. God requires government officials to use the sword, and to use it with justice and mercy, and he will judge them accordingly, though as sinners. Jesus calls all who follow him to lay down the sword, so it is not fitting for a Christian to fill any government office requiring sword-bearing. Therefore, Christians bear witness to government by (a) admonishing them to use the sword with justice and mercy and (b) calling individual members of government to choose to follow Jesus, thus laying down the sword.

(3) God uses sword-bearing governments to punish evil, so that evil will be curbed in the world. All human governments since the Fall naturally use the sword, and God sovereignly sets up and deposes governments as his servants, just as he did with pagan nations before Christ came. In times past God overlooked the use of the sword, but now he calls all men everywhere to repent. Therefore, no government today can claim divine right to bear the sword, even though God establishes them for his purposes and we should not try to overthrow them. All government officials will be judged by God for using the sword, with a more severe punishment for those who have not used the sword with justice and mercy. Therefore, Christians bear witness to government by (a) admonishing them refrain from unjust and unmerciful use of the sword and (b) calling individual members of government to choose to follow Jesus, thus laying down the sword.

My position is closest to #2, with maybe a few tweaks, and with maybe a few tweaks to #1 to more clearly exclude it. I assume #1 is basically the Lutheran two-kingdom theology, which basically splits the man and says he can biblically operate by one ethic when in the government and by another ethic in the church or in his private life. #1 says, “Government officials can be Christians while bearing the sword” – Denying this could be taken as denying that any government officials (or soldiers) are Christians. I would tweak it by saying, “Government officials can biblically be Christians while bearing the sword”, or, “It is biblical for Christians to bear the sword while in government or in the military” – in which case I think it is clearer and easier to reject.

I think God has a lot of grace for human misunderstanding if the Christian is sincerely seeking and trying to follow Christ, so while a Christian who is in government and bearing the sword is doing something outside the perfect will of Christ for his life, I wouldn’t say he is living in sin by doing so. But it is inconsistent with the ethics of the New Testament that Christians are called to follow, and a Christian who comes to the correct nonresistant understanding of the Scriptures through the guidance of the Holy Spirit should not violate his conscience by bearing the sword – in that case it would be sin (whatsoever is not of faith is sin).

I believe government has both the right and the responsibility to use the sword. But I would hesitate to say “in much the same way that God’s servant the nation of Israel did before Christ came” until I know exactly what I am saying by that. I don’t believe the civil penalties of OT law are for government to use today, nor do I think government should persecute people who don’t worship God. In the NT era, where church and state ought to be separate, government should not bind people’s consciences to follow a specific religion, and should allow people to freely choose to follow Christ and worship Him. With those caveats in mind, government should operate according to God’s moral law, which is in general what Israel did. God instituted his moral law to provide order for society and to convict unbelievers of sin; while Christians are not under the law, the New Testament still indicates that the moral law is useful for unbelievers. And I would add that in the NT era, government should not only follow the OT moral law, but it should also respect the natural rights of its citizens, which are based on the fact that all men are created equal and have value in God’s sight. So rights like the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, etc., should all be upheld by a just and moral government in the NT era.

I don’t think unsaved members of government will be judged positively for using the sword with justice – they will be lost, and all of their “righteous” deeds will be like filthy rags, and will have no relevance. However, they may experience more severe punishment if they used the sword cruelly and unjustly.

I mostly agree with the following statement from #2: “Christians bear witness to government by (a) admonishing them to use the sword with justice and mercy and (b) calling individual members of government to choose to follow Jesus, thus laying down the sword.” In (a), they admonish the government as an institution; in (b), they witness to individuals, whether in or out of government. But I would add that (b) should be the focus; (a) should be secondary. And if a Christian institution, like a local church or a denomination, speaks out in admonition of government, they should generally do so by pointing out areas for government to exercise mercy, without speaking directly to other areas where the use of the sword comes into play. I think it’s okay for individual Christians to support/approve of the use of the sword in justice, but this should be done without excessive enthusiasm or a gung-ho cowboy attitude, if you know what I mean.

For example: I think Christians, including churches, can call for the government to help alleviate the refugee crisis, including by welcoming refugees to America. This should be done circumspectly, with respect for government’s legitimate role of protecting national security, and so carefully screening refugees is fine; but I don’t believe it is good for Christians to react with fear to refugees and hunker down in Fortress America either. Or for another example: I think it was probably good and right for the United States to exercise the sword justly in the strike on Osama bin Laden in 2011. It was legitimate and it was just. But I don’t think Christians should metaphorically celebrate in the streets about it, nor should churches put out a statement expressing approval of it.

The view taken in position #3, or perhaps even more radical positions where the government is illegitimate or inherently evil because of its use of force, and where it might be merely used by God but not ordained by God, runs into problems with Paul in Romans 13. His comments on government as appointed by God for good, not bearing the sword in vain, go well beyond the mere idea that God can use evil men for his purposes, in my opinion. And the underlying view that God himself is nonviolent and merely overlooked OT violence – and that the judgment represented by the sword of government goes against God’s character – runs into problems with the Old Testament evidence that God commanded war on Israel’s enemies and judgment on evildoers both in and outside of Israel, and various verses that speak of God’s wrath and his character as a “man of war” – not to mention the future return of Christ at the head of the heavenly armies to judge evil men and rule the world with a rod of iron.

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On Refugees: A Plea for Compassion

(I wrote this a few months ago on another site. Re-producing for this site).

Reading discussions of various political issues, I am occasionally reminded that an American-centered worldview is not synonymous with a Christian worldview – nor is even a “conservative” worldview, necessarily. Not every position that might be considered “conservative” – or that is based on the mantra of “America First” – is compatible with a truly Christian worldview, which I consider essential to being right.

There is an enormous, unprecedented refugee crisis in the world today, affecting over 60 million people. In Syria alone, over 11 million out of a population of 22 million have been displaced or killed.

And yet, many professing Christians here in America would rather prioritize their own material comfort and safety, putting up literal and metaphorical walls to keep out these people who are fleeing terrorism. They are seen as a threat and a burden.

This should not be so. Instead, this is an opportunity. An opportunity to carry out Christ’s commands to love our neighbors, especially “the least of these,” and as James said, to minister to widows and orphans, which is essential to true religion. (I am a passionate pro-lifer and we conservatives do a great job on compassionately opposing abortion, but we should also consider how the same principles of compassion, the sanctity of life and the value of every human being, also apply to the refugee crisis). An opportunity to witness to lost souls (many of whom were trapped in repressive regimes with little opportunity to hear the Gospel), and to show the love of Christ to rest of the watching world – how the love of Christ transcends borders and cultures, and casts out fear.

The command to “be not afraid” is one of the most repeated instructions in the Bible. It is certainly legitimate to have concerns and to expect the government to practice prudence. But many of the concerns that have been raised (economic, legal, religious, and security-related) are based on misconceptions, and the fears are overstated.

First, the fact is that the U.S. screening process is one of the strongest in the world – thorough and very strenuous. The likelihood of being killed by a terrorist attack from a refugee in the United States has been calculated at 1 in 3.6 billion.

No refugee, of the three million admitted through the resettlement program since the late 1970s, has committed an act of terrorism within our borders.

Of the domestic terrorist attacks inspired by extremist Islam since 2001, 70% of them were committed by U.S. citizens. In the same time period, about as many people were killed by white supremacist terror attacks as by radical Islamist attacks, and more were killed by dog attacks.

And even if the concerns and fears weren’t overstated or based on misconceptions, the command would still apply. “Be not afraid”, not because there is nothing to fear, but because God says, “I am with you.”

Putting America first over being disciples of Christ is great folly for Christians. To me, it’s astonishing and sad to see so many putting their own fears ahead of helping those who are desperately in need. Please, open your hearts and have compassion for the strangers.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Mr. Beaver was asked if the lion Aslan – the Christ-figure of the stories – is safe. He replied, “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” What’s true of Christ is also true of the Christian life. Safety is fine, and reasonable actions can be taken for protection; but safety can never be the main concern if we are following Christ.

This thought-provoking blogpost by an acquaintance of mine really hits hard:

If we truly loved, as Christ loved us, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not we should let refugees into our nation. People’s lives are at stake, and we could do something about it. Many of these people aren’t walking in relationship with the Father, and we could show them how.

Instead, we are afraid of losing our freedoms or being blown up in our own land. As “disciples of Christ,” we are arguing over statistic numbers while thousands are ending up dead.

Can you really call yourself a follower of Christ and refuse refugees?

Don’t Cut Foreign Aid

I’m on board with a lot of the cuts in the proposed budget. I can support cutting out, for example, the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for National and Community Service. I can support cutting the Essential Air Service program. I can support cutting the funding for Meals on Wheels, if the funding really isn’t helping proportionately to the amount that is being contributed. (But I don’t object to the funding if it’s effective, however). In general, I can agree with the argument of this Commentary piece – that “[i]f that which Democrats say they value is of real worth, it—like Big Bird—can survive the tempestuousness of the marketplace.” I support the cuts to the United Nations, especially the climate change initiatives.

But I do have a problem with one area targeted for cuts. That is the across-the-board cuts to foreign aid. As Max Boot notes, it looks as though this budget proposal conveniently uses cuts to foreign aid to offset some of the increase in defense spending – even though there isn’t enough to make up for it. Boot futher lists several countries that receive significant funding and points out how those countries (Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, etc.) are important to our foreign policy. Foreign aid spending and the State Department play a vital role in maintaining American power and helping countries to do things that we might otherwise have to do ourselves with our own military. Over 120 retired generals signed a letter urging Congress to avoid cutting the State Department and the aid budget.

There is something else to think about here as well, something near and dear to me: the opinion of Christian leaders, especially those involved in international development and poverty relief. Foreign aid can be instrumental not only in matters directly related to security, but also in saving lives, eradicating diseases, and protecting religious freedom, which are good in and of themselves and thus deserve serious consideration before cutting any of those efforts, but also, those things promote stability and engender good will for the United States and thus promote American interests abroad as well. Over 100 Christian leaders have signed a letter urging Congress not to cut these programs. Signees include Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who prayed at the inauguration, Leith Anderson (president of the National Association of Evangelicals), Rich Stearns (president of World Vision), Samuel Rodriguez (who also spoke at the inauguration), Rev. Eugene Cho, Dr. O. Alan Noble, Michael W. Smith, Brandon Heath, and Matt Maher. They argued:

At a time when we’re especially security conscious, the International Affairs Budget is crucial to demonstrating our values to the world, building friendships with other nations, and lowering security risks around the world.

With just 1 percent of our nation’s budget, the International Affairs Budget has helped alleviate the suffering of millions; drastically cutting the number of people living in extreme poverty in half, stopping the spread of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDs and Ebola, and nearly eliminating polio. Additionally, it promotes freedom and human rights, protecting religious freedom for millions around the world.

As followers of Christ, it is our moral responsibility to urge you to support and protect the International Affairs Budget, and avoid disproportionate cuts to these vital programs that ensure that our country continues to be the “shining city upon a hill.”

That shining city on a hill is what I’d like to continue to be as well.

Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is now chairman of an organization called Hope through Healing Hands, wrote an article in Christianity Today also arguing that foreign aid should not be cut. He notes that, while the global church does help, “the burden is too great.” Millions require clinical care, need bed nets to prevent malaria infection, suffer from malnutrition, etc. He says:

But because these programs are less than one percent of the budget, it is analogous to getting a haircut when we need emergency surgery. We support a balanced budget, but to do so will require deep cuts in the mandatory spending that account for two-thirds of federal spending—not much smaller discretionary accounts like foreign assistance, which represents less than two-thirds of one percent of the budget. For less than a penny on the dollar, we provide the critical safety net for people around the globe who live on less than a dollar a day… As a nation, our leadership in health and development assistance is first and foremost a moral issue… Economists and historians posit that when countries fail economically, they become breeding grounds for terrorism and conflict… For Christians, such aid also aligns with our convictions to care for the poor and support a culture of life. From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures compel us to care for the marginalized—to care for the widow, the orphan, and the refugee…

So he says foreign aid “can be a win-win for America and the world.”

I agree.

Roy, Douthat, McArdle on GOP healthcare plan

Avik Roy and Ross Douthat were the first two guys I thought to check in order to learn more about the GOP health care plan. (Roy is, of course, well known as a health care wonk, and Douthat is my favorite columnist). Like many others, their reaction is negative.

Here is Avik Roy’s article at Forbes. He mentions that the best part of the bill is its overhaul of Medicaid, but criticizes other parts, such as its failure to repeal most of Obamacare’s insurance regulations because Republicans decided to pass the bill using reconciliation, which can only be used for taxes and spending; the flat tax credit, which creates a disincentive that traps people below the poverty line; the high threshold for phasing out the tax credit, etc. Best quote is at the end:

Expanding subsidies for high earners, and cutting health coverage off from the working poor: it sounds like a left-wing caricature of mustache-twirling, top-hatted Republican fat cats. But not today.

Ross Douthat had a series of tweets that I feel are worth mentioning. First, this:

Then, this series:

He also re-tweeted a decently fair-minded explanation of what Paul Ryan might be thinking – almost, but not quite, a defense – from a surprising source, Matthew Yglesias at Vox.

Finally, Megan McArdle at Bloomberg takes apart the plan – it’s basically Obamacare lite, among other problems – and provides a rather funny line, if you’re in the mood for snark:

I must point out that it’s actually quite clear what problem this bill solves: the problem of Republican legislators who want to tell their base that they repealed Obamacare, just like they promised. Tada!

She also points out that, since it’s not likely to work, the GOP would own any ensuing failures; no longer could they point to Obama and the Democrats as the problem.

As it stands, I’m inclined to doubt it should be passed. Something should be done, but not anything. It needs to be something good; something with enough bipartisan support to pass both the House and Senate. Something that won’t simply get repealed when the Democrats inevitably win an election and return to power. We can’t just keep passing the health care yo-yo back and forth every four or eight years. And it needs to be something that won’t let the Democrats credibly declare the “conservative” plan a failure and therefore show the need for single payer health care.

If I were the GOP leaders, I would seriously consider dropping the philosophical opposition to a mandate as a sort of litmus test for any reform, and begin to tout a plan like Switzerland’s. Republicans get to lower government health care spending, and transform the system from an employer-based system to a private, individual, consumer-driven market, while the mandate, regulations on insurers, and goal of universal coverage could be what entices enough Democrats to support it. That might be a way to get 60 votes in the Senate and change the system for the long term (and avoid single payer).

If that’s not possible, perhaps just go with Cassidy-Collins for the “federalist compromise.”

Why I like Madam Secretary

No, not that Madam Secretary. The other one. The TV show.

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Madam Secretary, which is in the middle of its third season, is about a highly capable former CIA analyst who gets pulled out of private life to become the Secretary of State. She has a few kids and a strong marriage with her husband, who is a theology professor and also an important character on the show, so the responsibilities and pressures of dealing with family and teenagers add to her job of dealing with the many diplomatic crises that arise in her job.

I’m aware that many conservatives have approached the show with a lot of skepticism (or not approached it at all, simply rejecting it) due to understandable suspicions that the show was intended as propaganda for the failed Hillary Clinton presidential race. In my opinion, while the show has liberal leanings, it’s not very good propaganda for Hillary herself, if it was intended as such. I suspect that the creators saw the backdrop of the Hillary campaign as an environment that would create more interest in their show.

About the only parallels between Clinton and Secretary Elizabeth McCord are that both are women and have blond hair. Secretary McCord is extremely competent, is relatively young for a political figure and quite good-looking, has a loving and stable marriage (though they must work through occasional conflicts) that is quite different from what we imagine the Clintons’ marriage to be, has kids in high school and college, is not politically ambitious and did not previously hold political office, and is highly honest and ethical. If there is supposed to be some kind of relationship between the two, the only kind I can imagine is a clear contrast.

So with that said, why do I like the show?

If you’re a political junkie looking for a good Washington-based political drama, what are you to do? You could try Veep, which as I understand it, is a comedy-drama with plenty of cynicism and snark. You could try Scandal, or the (short-lived) State of Affairs. These shows offer cynical, conspiratorial, and above all salacious views of the affairs of Washington D.C. Or you could double down on all three with House of Cards. Now I’m sure HoC is a well-acted, engaging show – perhaps one of the best on television, from what I’ve heard. And I’ve watched shows with quite a bit of objectionable content, and will probably continue doing so – I’ve watched five seasons of Homeland and one or two of The Americans. But I don’t want to watch too many of those, and from what I’ve seen in reviews and a little Wikipedia skimming, HoC might have little to nothing in the way of virtue – it’s all about the engrossing story, no matter how evil Frank Underwood and the other characters are.

The above shows have basically “cornered the market on snark” as this article in the Toronto Sun puts it. By contrast, Madam Secretary is merely edgy; it only dips its toe in the salacious waters, so to speak.

Conservatives may often find hints of conservatism in the snarkiness and cynicism about government and politicians, as in Veep or HoC. It can line up with conservative anti-government, anti-establishment impulses. We shouldn’t kid ourselves and think Hollywood liberals are producing an actual conservative show, however. (And I think it’s a little pathetic to find little hints of conservative principles in this or that show and proclaim that show to be “conservative”). This is a time of deep anti-institutional feeling across the political spectrum, so liberals also enjoy these shows; in fact, social liberalism is deeply anti-institutional, as they want to tear down old institutions and social mores in the name of progress. Now, as a conservative, I believe in limited government. But this is not the same as viewing all government (and all politicians) as evil (see Romans 13, for Christian readers). So I will suggest this: while an amount of cynicism and snark can reinforce a healthy skepticism of government, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the need for, and possibility of, leaders with integrity and ethics. Government is slow and inefficient, and there are lots of power-grabbers and toadies looking to advance their careers (and Madam Secretary certainly shows this). But there are also people like us: people with moral principles who are trying to do the right thing. You don’t have to be a liberal to think that the State Department, for instance, can be a force for good in the world. Like any branch of government, it carries potential for both good and evil.

Madam Secretary suggests that with a little more common sense, Washington could be better than it is now. It suggests that when faced with challenging issues, people in Washington should remember and apply their moral principles – and it suggests that it is possible for people to do that (instead of the black hole of evil and/or cluelessness that is Washington in other shows).

This is not to say that Secretary McCord is perfect. Even the best public officials have limited influence and don’t always do the right thing. And I think the show tries to get this right, as there are tough calls and tragic mistakes that the imperfect heroes face from time to time. The characters have to decide in every episode how to best exercise military power and apply diplomatic pressure, and in general use America’s influence for good in the world (although often, the chief of staff Russell Jackson is more interested in using it in a way that will aid the re-election of the President).

The show also shows the McCords struggling with the demands of work and their relationships with each other.

Madam Secretary isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a conservative show. But Hollywood is not conservative, and at this stage at least, no one in Hollywood is going to create a conservative political heroine – it’s just not a socially acceptable thing to do in Hollywood. So conservatives are going to disagree and roll their eyes at some of the conversations and decisions that get made in the moderate-to-liberal presidency. But often Elizabeth’s political leanings aren’t very clear, and in my opinion, they’re not especially alienating even when they are. The show also sometimes resolves conflicts too simplistically and occasionally can make McCord almost a diplomatic savior; but this impulse is generally restrained and these quibbles don’t stop me from enjoying and recommending the show.

Problem in North Carolina

Kay Hagan was one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators coming into this election cycle, and Republicans sensed a great opportunity to take a seat away from the Democrats. Yet Thom Tillis, the Republican nominee, hasn’t been able to take advantage and pull ahead. In fact, Hagan has managed to maintain a small but steady lead – including in a new poll by Marist/NBC News that has her leading 44-40%, and a Yougov poll that shows her with a 46-45% lead (when include “leaners”). Hagan had a negative public approval rating in July, with 40% approving and 50% disapproving, and although that has improved somewhat for her, she’s still in negative territory. She’s been helped a lot by mistakes from Tillis. The speaker of the state House of Representatives has had subpar fundraising – caused in part by a summer spent distracted with problems in the state legislature. The legislature itself is pretty unpopular, so being a member of it doesn’t help Tillis. There is still a month left, so we’ll see if Tillis can close the gap before election day.

Abbott leads Davis by double digits in Texas race

A new poll by Rasmussen Reports shows Gregg Abbott leading Wendy Davis 51%-40% in the race for Texas governor. There’s still a month to go but it looks like Texas will remain solidly Republican this round. Abbott has been working to win more Hispanic voters this cycle, so we’ll see how that plays out. The GOP will probably need to start attracting more minorities, especially Hispanics, in the future to maintain control of Texas and give them a better chance at winning other states including potential swing states like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.

Davis is best known for filibustering late-term abortion restrictions in the Texas legislature, which propelled her into a star on the left. In the typical procedure that she defended, the abortionist reaches into the uterus with a long toothed clamp, grasps body parts of the developing fetus and literally rips them off and out of the uterus, finishing with the head which is crushed before pulling it out. How a person can vehemently defend such barbaric actions and be hailed for it is beyond me. She deserves to be absolutely crushed in this election, and I wish Abbott the best in this last month.