Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in Today’s World

By Eugene Brueggemann

          All of us have a stake in the interface between religion and politics. Some of us support the agenda of the religious right, which stands for traditional values like opposition to homosexual behavior, for love of country and opposition to the slippery slope of secularism. Others of us emphasize equally biblical values like concern for the poor and social justice and view with alarm the erosion of the wall that traditionally separates the institutions of church and state in American public life. As citizens we have a voice in advancing these causes through political action. As Christians we attempt to do it in a way that honors Christ’s words and example and maintains the unity we have in him.

          What does Lutheran teaching and practice provide by way of guidance for the involvement of 21st century American Lutherans in political life? How does Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms apply in today’s world?

Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms

          The Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms grew out of the fertile theological/political soil of the Reformation. Ever since the reign of Emperor Constantine the churches in both the East and the West had both accommodated themselves to and struggled against secular authority. It was Emperor Constantine, after all, who convened the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 in an effort to bring religious and hence political unity to the empire after the last-gasp religious persecutions of Emperor Diocletian. Constantine and his successors ruled the Catholic Church in the Eastern regions of the Roman empire. This form of church governance is called Caesaropapism, that is, the emperor is the pope. This joined-at-the-hip relationship of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the state came to a bloody end in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917.

          The Roman (or Western) Catholic Church was governed by popes who claimed that they had supreme authority in both the temporal and spiritual kingdoms. This claim was routinely tested and occasionally defied by secular princes who wanted to have control of the church in their realms. The “shoot-out at the OK corral” in this medieval contest was won by Pope Gregory VII when he dethroned King Henry IV, who was leading a movement to depose the pope. In order to keep his throne King Henry did penance by standing barefoot in the snow at Canossa, petitioning the pope to absolve him.

          The popes were actually secular princes, ruling territory (the papal states—a remnant of which is Vatican City), commanding armies and playing the game of power politics with other European powers. The intertwining of the temporal and spiritual authority was most egregious in the purchase of bishoprics by princes, who then ruled their territories as both temporal and spiritual rulers. These important positions were for sale and an important source of income for the Vatican and an important symptom of the spiritual rot so endemic there. The price for papal permission to grant a third bishopric to Albert of Brandenburg was allowing the sale of indulgences in Germany, half of the proceeds going to repay Albert for his purchase of the Archbishopric of Mainz and half to the pope for completing the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, thus setting the stage for the posting of the 95 Theses by an obscure Augustinian monk named Martin Luther.

          Luther and the evangelical confessors who stood with him insisted that the Scriptures were the only source and norm of doctrine with the gospel-centered Bible, not the pope, as the final authority in defining doctrine and shaping the church’s mission and ministry. The doctrine of the two kingdoms was one of many doctrines that emerged from this Copernican revolution in theology.

          The biblical origins of the Two Kingdom doctrine are epitomized by the parting words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 28, the testimony of Jesus before Pilate in John 18 and the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 13. In Matthew 28 Jesus asserts, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In John 18 he responds to the charges that he is presenting himself as a King of the Jews and hence a rival to Roman power. He answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” St. Paul taught that “every person [should] be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment.” (One can only imagine how the Roman Christians puzzled over those words when Paul was beheaded under Emperor Nero.) The Fourth Commandment was the center of catechetical instruction on this point.

          The two kingdom doctrine can be summarized like this: Jesus, at the right hand of God, rules over all the earth. On the one hand (his right hand) he rules over the church through his word and Spirit. On the other hand (his left hand) he rules over the world through the agencies of government. That Jesus’ followers are not supposed to blindly obey every governing authority was illustrated very early in the history of the Jesus movement when Peter and John refused to cease and desist from testifying about the risen Lord and said when put on trial, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Later on Peter and Paul and the host of martyrs who followed made the same choice and, like Jesus, gave no resistance to the unjust government that decreed their execution. Also, like Jesus, they refused to give encouragement to any armed movement to overthrow the government.

          Edmund Schlink in The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions summarizes the Lutheran position on temporal and spiritual authority, especially in Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology: (1) The function but not the concrete form of both authorities is revealed in God’s word. (2) God demands of every person obedience to both authorities when that can be done without sin. (3) The ecclesiastical and civil offices must not be intermingled but differentiated. (4) The limit of obedience to each of the two offices is God’s commandment. (5) In the mingling of civil authority and ecclesiastical authority the tyranny of Satan’s kingdom invades both of them. But this does not preclude the possibility that a prince or a bishop serve as God’s servant in both kingdoms (a necessary concession to 16th century realities and an ongoing problem thereafter).

The Practice of the Lutheran Churches since the Reformation

          The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is not the same as the American principle of the separation of church and state, which has its roots in the Enlightenment. We might like to think that it gave theological underpinning for that principle, but the truth is that the Reformers and their successors did not see it that way. Luther famously and, one might argue, regrettably asked the civil authorities in the German states that embraced the Reformation to assume the governance of the evangelical churches in the absence of the bishops who had remained faithful to Rome. He reminded them that they were called by God to rule and that in the situation at hand they should serve as “emergency bishops.” The emergency lasted for centuries. In a parallel case King Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England. The tension between church and state authority that prevailed throughout the Middle Ages in Western Europe came to an end in Protestant lands with decidedly mixed results. Secular rulers functioned as final authorities in both the Left and Right Hands of God in their jurisdictions. The state church came into being. The churches were dependent on the state for support. The church authorities were beholden to the state. The state expected and got passive obedience for its national objectives from the churches.

          Two disastrous results of this failed experiment in the application of the doctrine of two kingdoms come to mind. One was the forced merger of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia under Frederick the Great in 1817. The other, more consequential result was the participation of the Lutheran churches in Hitler’s Third Reich. Church authorities mostly capitulated to the demands of the National Socialists, who rode to power on, among other things, the promise to restore old-fashioned German and Christian virtues to the demoralized society that was the Weimar Republic. The Right Hand of God was put in the service of the Left Hand of God. German nationalism and the superiority of the Nordic race was incorporated into the church’s message to the world. The “deutsche Christen” (German Christians) were as uncritical of Hitler’s agenda as were the Hitler Youth. This rendered them impotent and mute in the face of the unfolding horrors of the Third Reich. There were notable exceptions, thank God, like the Confessing Church and the men who subscribed the Barmen Declaration, but their resistance to National Socialism stands in stark contrast to the passivity of the vast majority of Christian lay people and their spiritual leaders. The activist role of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was exceptional and controversial then and now.

An Old Doctrine for Today’s World

          Which brings us to contemporary America and the place of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in shaping the consciences of Lutherans who want to fulfill their calling as Christian citizens in a republic “of the people, by the people and for the people,” where the people elect the men and women who rule them as servants of Christ’s Kingdom of the Left.

          To begin with, the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms rules out the legitimacy of a theocracy—even a republican (note the small “r”)—theocracy. To call America a Christian nation from its inception is true only in the sense that it was settled by an overwhelming majority of Christians, who in writing a constitution for a new nation were determined not to recreate the European model of a Christian state on these shores. Jews and atheists were a minority who enjoyed the rights and privileges of the secular constitution. The American experiment was explicitly designed to avoid the religious conflicts that had plagued Europe and even some of the American colonies.

          While no one of any significance is calling for the establishment of a Christian theocracy in America today, there are many Christians who believe that the government should legislate and govern in a way that conforms to Christian values as these are defined by a strong and vocal segment of the Christian community. To make that happen, they either have to form a Christian party (like the Christian Democrats in Italy and Germany) or work to control the agenda of an existing party, which is what appears to be happening today in the Republican Party. There is no conflict with the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in this effort, as long as it is the work of individual Christians. Problems emerge when it becomes the action agenda, as opposed to the teaching agenda, of the church.

          The church, speaking with the authority of Christ as the kingdom of his right hand, has the undoubted duty of preaching and teaching the word of God. Its primary witness consists of the gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which has the power to forgive the sins that the proclamation and experience of the law exposes. Its “law” words certainly include judgments on moral and ethical issues facing the nation. Because we are a divided church, the judgments thus spoken will not be uniform. Even a cacophony of witnesses is better than none. The churches seek to persuade the public of the rightness of their positions on such matters as abortion, capital punishment, health care, peace and justice, even the unrestricted right to own guns.

          The churches also have the duty to inspire and train men and women for public service. Politics is no more a dirty business than coaching a football team. To support Christian politicians in their vocation is a religious duty, such support always contingent on how faithful they are to the word and will of the Lord Christ who rules secular society through his kingdom of the left.

          No one should question that the church’s preaching and teaching should influence attitudes and actions in the political life of the nation, the Left Hand of God. But for the church as church, whether it be a denomination, a congregation or a loose confederation of congregations to get actively involved in party politics is to abdicate or compromise the unique and imperative responsibilities as the Kingdom of the Right. The mission of the church is not to create a kingdom of this world. Militant Islam is trying to do that very thing; we do not want to go there.

          How about political pastors like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? They have been directly and actively involved in party politics. Do they fall between the cracks of the categories of the right and left hands of God because they do not speak and act officially as ministers of a church or denomination? Perhaps. There is an Episcopal senator from Missouri (Danforth) and several decades ago there was an LCMS congressman from Ohio who fit the category of ordained ministers actively serving as servants of the kingdom of the left.. A Roman Catholic priest served as a congressman until the Pope ordered him to stop. We would say that ordination does not disqualify from governmental service, with the caveat that they not present themselves as speaking for the church.

          Until the presidential election of 1960 there was a strong majority who believed that a Catholic candidate was unacceptable because of the powerful influence of the Roman hierarchy, which could use spiritual discipline to force conformance to Catholic teaching. (Remember the bishops who would not commune John Kerry in 2004?) John Kennedy convinced the Baptists in Houston that he would not let the bishops control his decisions and actions. He meant it and was elected. In a curious historical turnaround, the same Baptist preachers are now hard at work to elect candidates and pass laws that conform to their position on public issues.

          Is that wrong? Not until and unless these churches, as churches, move from advocacy of issues to involvement in political action. We are seeing a lot of that today. There are religious leaders in America today who are singing the siren song of Christian nationalism. They would like to transform the GOP into God’s Own Party. The reality is that men like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard and other church leaders (whom the confessors would define as bishops) have moved beyond advocacy for an agenda to direct political action. They do not see themselves as merely Christian citizens working within the system (that is, the kingdom of the left), but as power brokers who would control the system. In cases like these, they are moving the church out of the column of the Right Hand of God’s governance into the column of the Left Hand of God. They are leftists of an unintended sort.

          When the kingdom of the left intrudes on the kingdom of the right, engaging in protest is certainly a legitimate work of the church and its leaders. We Lutherans have experienced precious little of that here. The actions of Nebraska in WW I in outlawing Lutheran schools because they were instructing in German and the actions of Arkansas in disallowing the use of wine in the Eucharist during the Prohibition era come to mind. More recently and more seriously were attempts to intimidate and penalize churches in the South for advocating and agitating for civil rights. Civil disobedience was certainly an appropriate response from the churches and their leaders. Making it a crime to feed and clothe and house illegal immigrants is a more contemporary illustration of laws of the kingdom of the left infringing on the mission and ministry of the kingdom of the right.

          The Kirchenkampf in Nazi Germany was between the churches and the government and also between different camps in the German church. Passive obedience to government edicts was the drilled-in response of most German Christians. The church leaders who insisted that the government had no business limiting the preaching/teaching witness of the church were persecuted. The choice was between preaching a false gospel of racial purity and national destiny and remaining faithful to the Lord and his word.

          We have had nothing like that here, of course, but there are subtle and not-so-subtle pressures on the church to support the government in times of war and refrain from criticizing it from the vantage of the word of God. It will be interesting to see how the government makes out in threatening to divest that Episcopal Church in Pasadena of their tax-exempt status for their preacher’s strong advocacy of peace just before the last election.

          Today’s world is very different from the world of the Reformation. The powers that be (the left hand of God) look very different in a constitutional democracy than they did in the era of the divine right of kings. But in 21st century America as in first century Rome or 16th century Germany ultimate authority to govern comes from God. In America today the penultimate authority is the vote of the citizens acting under the authority of the constitution. The legal doctrine of the separation of church and state helps to maintain the distinction between the right and left hand kingdoms of God, although it is not identical with it..

          Whether American Lutherans are Republicans or Democrats, ELCA, LCMS, or whatever, it falls on them particularly to distinguish between the work of the right and left hands of God. It is, after all, a confessional position that distinguishes us from many Protestant groups. Witnessing to the word of God in addressing the great moral issues of the day in pulpits, classrooms, and national assemblies is essential as well as legitimate. Individual members may certainly enter the political arena with the blessing of the church. But for the church or its officeholders to enter that same arena as church violates the biblical distinction between the two kingdoms, and it compromises and undermines the mission and ministry assigned to us by our gracious Lord.

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