Tag Archives: Anabaptism

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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