A Kingdom in Confusion
Should Christians weigh in on the hot issues in our society or should we just stick to living quiet lives and witnessing to the Christ by our good deeds? What about pastors? Maybe pastors should keep out of the culture wars and just stick to the business of the church. Recently Christians have been arguing among themselves over the role of the church in the cultural debates of our day. Some are saying that Christians, or at least the church leadership, ought not to take a position on the issues or seek to influence the laws of the country. This is seen as being beyond the mission statement of the church, and that converting people to Christ is the only effective way to bring about real change in a land. Others believe it is an obligation of the church to “speak truth to power,” or that the church should advocate for a “Christian nation.” Many of the debates and divisions in the church over the role of Christians in society stem from confusion over the definition of the kingdom of God. Poor definitions create frustrating conflicts. How we conceive of the kingdom of God in relation to the church and the state will determine our positions on the role of each of these institutions. Until we have a clear understanding of how the kingdom of Christ manifests itself in this age, there will be ongoing disagreements among believers over a Christian’s proper duties in relation to the church, the state, and society. With a right understanding of the kingdom of God, Christians can practice holistic holiness by being ambassadors for Christ, pleasing God in every area of life, and making a difference in the world.
It is understandable that there is confusion over the kingdom of God, since the Bible uses a variety of expressions when talking about the kingdom of God. The Bible’s use of terminology is not as consistent as that of a systematic theologian. Terms such as “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are sometimes used interchangeably (compare Matt. 13:31-33 with Luke 13:18-21). Various phrases are used to describe the kingdom such as “the kingdom of heaven is like” (Matt. 13:31, 44, 45, 47), “may be compared to” (Matt. 22:2), “is at hand” (Matt. 10:7; Mark 1:15), “is not of this world” (John 18:36), or “is in your midst” (Luke 17:8). People can “enter the kingdom” (John 3:5), are “not far from the kingdom” (Mark 12:34), “belong to the kingdom” (Luke 19:14), “recline at the table in the kingdom” (Matt. 8:11), or have the kingdom “taken away from” them (Matt. 21:43). Since people are not quite sure what the kingdom of God is they might equate the kingdom of God with the church, salvation, or some kind of spiritual reign. Our Reformed confession statements are not particularly helpful in this discussion, as they make scant reference to the kingdom of God. As we define the kingdom of God we could first start with three views of the kingdom that are common.
The Church: The first view is that the kingdom of God is seen to be exclusively the church. This is the default understanding of many people. The church was founded upon Simon Peter, and he was given the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:18-19). These keys have historically been defined as the power of the church leadership over the formal admission or excommunication of members from the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 Of the Church does in fact state, “the visible church … is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In this definition praying for the “kingdom to come” means seeing the church grow throughout the world. The exhortation to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) means to work for the advancement of the church in the world. Ecclesiastical affairs are then the only true kingdom affairs. Everything else is secular, hence the creation of the sacred-secular dichotomy. In this paradigm church and society live and move in different spheres, and the church keeps to its narrow domain of worship and gospel proclamation.
The Saved: The second view understands that the kingdom of God correlates exclusively to salvation. Some who reject the church definition of the kingdom argue instead for a more narrower definition of the kingdom as consisting of the regenerate people within the church. It is the spiritual and invisible church instead of the public and visible church. This conception of the kingdom is probably derived from those verses where to “enter the kingdom” correlates with being saved. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “unless he is born again” he cannot “see the kingdom” or “enter the kingdom” (John 3:3, 5). Jesus was referring to the spiritual regeneration that causes an entrance into the kingdom of salvation. Salvation was likewise in view when Paul says in Colossians 1:13-14, “He [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In this definition the kingdom of God could be considered primarily a spiritual reign of Christ over a redeemed person, a “redemptive reign” over a saved individual. Seeking the kingdom then means to either lead people to salvation or more fully obey Christ’s will for your life (sanctification). Christ’s reign and lordship is limited in a moral sphere inside the hearts of his redeemed people. Salvation is truly one expression of Christ’s kingdom but it does not constitute the entirety of his kingdom.
Spiritual Realm: A third view is that the realm of the kingdom of God is only in a spiritual realm. The spiritual kingdom exists either in heaven, in the Spirit, or in the future. Either way the kingdom does not now exist on earth in any concrete fashion. The key verse used to support this view is when Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 19:36). Throughout the history of the church dualistic tendencies have always created a dichotomy between the material and the spiritual. Gnostic or neo-Platonic philosophy conceives of reality as consisting of an inferior material realm and a superior non-material sphere. Within this paradigm truly spiritually minded people seek “the things above” (Colossians 3:1)and don’t get weighed down with the “cares of the world” (Matt. 13:22). This leads either to rampant mysticism or a complete disengagement from society and its “worldly” concerns. If the kingdom is only in the future then Christians are primarily waiting it out in this age until Christ returns to establish his kingdom on the earth. The pejorative adage, “so heavenly-minded of no earthly good” has been applied to this type of perspective.
A simple and more comprehensive definition of the kingdom of God is that it is Christ’s righteous reign over the world during this age. The kingdom of God ushered in by Christ fulfils the Old Testament hope that God would set up a blessed kingdom that prevails over all the nations in the earth. A composition of a kingdom requires the person of a king, the place of his reign, and the power of his authority. All of these exists within Christ’s reign. All Christians agree that Christ is the person of the king. At his ascension to heaven Jesus was anointed as the Lord and took his seat next to God the Father on the throne in heaven. The Scriptures are clear that his rule began at the point of his enthronement in heaven (Ps. 2, 110; Acts 2:33-36; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:19-22; Phi. 2:9-10; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3-13; Rev. 1:5; 2:27; 5:5-14). His reign is righteous due to his holy character, and Jesus Christ invites people to receive blessings from his reign and be conduits of his good deeds. The question of the place of his reign is complex for it involves the matters of the scope of his reign and the subjects of his reign. Are only Christians subjects and citizens in Christ’s kingdom? Where do non-believers fit within the kingdom of Christ? If the kingdom of God refers only to the visible church or just saved people, then should we conclude that Christ does not rule over the wider society and civil governments?
The question of the power of Christ’s authority creates more divisions. Many hold that Christ’s authority and power is limited to the redemption of individuals, whereas others rightfully point out that many passages mention that God has “put everything in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8),“all authority in heaven and earth” was given to Christ (Matt. 28:18), and that Christ sits at the right hand of God till all his “enemies are your footstool” (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:13). These statements are all-inclusive in their scope of authority. However, given how much evil exists in the world it is quite understandable if people conclude either that Christ is not already reigning or that he has limited power in this age. Even the writer of the book of Hebrews, after asserting that God left nothing outside of Christ’s control, recognises, “At present, we do not yet see everything put under him” (Heb. 2:8). However, the existence of injustice in this world has never been a justification for denying the rule of God over the world.
The kingdom of God was ushered in at the incarnation of Jesus, was inaugurated at his ascension, and will be consummated at his return. This progression in the unfolding of the kingdom is commonly called the “already—not yet” dynamic of the kingdom. The kingdom is already here among us, and we await its final fulfilment when Christ returns. Thus we exist in a dialectic where we live in the context of a sinful world yet are citizens of a righteous kingdom. Though things don’t always appear to be under the control of a righteous and sovereign King, we trust that Christ is in fact ruling everything in this world. While living through the incomplete nature of his reign, we look forward to the ultimate manifestation of Christ’s reign when he returns and God and believers have dominion over a new heavens and new earth without sin.
The church is the other key factor which can be simply defined as Christ’s redeemed people. The church is the people of God who publicly confess Christ as Lord and Saviour and seek to worship and obey him. The church is the most important component of the kingdom, but the kingdom is far greater than the church. The church is primarily a spiritual organisation in that its Head is Christ and it is called to manifest the reality of Christ to the outside world. Through the gospel sinners enter in a saving relationship and covenant with Christ. Those who are regenerated by the Spirit belong to the body of Christ and are spiritually joined to all believers in past, present, and future. The church as an organisation with officers, sacraments, members, and duties exists for the purpose of proclaiming God’s word for the salvation and edification of people. Within his church God has set aside certain men (ministers) whose calling in life is to preach the gospel and make disciples of all peoples, but that is not the primary purpose of all Christians. The primary purpose of all Christians is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” (WSC Q&A #1), which takes place through living by faith and obeying God’s word. This will entail applying Christ’s word to all of life, discipling family and church members, and sharing the gospel and God’s truth with outsiders. For most church members their main vocations in life will consist of their earthly employments, family responsibilities, and interactions with the community. All of these duties are legitimate expressions of seeking and manifesting the kingdom of God in this world.
Questions about the relationship of the church and the state have plagued the church ever since Jesus was on the earth. The key questions are how does Christ’s kingdom relate to the church and the world, and how do the church and state relate to each other? By virtue of his ascension and coronation as the Christ, Jesus has become the Head of the church and the King of all kingdoms. This does not necessitate a political theocracy. Within Christ’s kingdom, the church and state are two distinct entities that should not be conflated. Christ’s immortal words, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21), has established indelibly the distinction between the two institutions. The church has its own sphere of human officers, doctrine, and members. The state has its own human leaders, laws, and citizens. Christ the Savior relates to his church through the gospel and his covenant of “steadfast love and faithfulness.” Christ the King relates to the world through his reign of “righteousness and justice.” Both entities will interact with the other, and one can be a member of both. The authority of one should not extend to the other, yet Christ has authority over both. The church and its members should obey upright laws from rulers, but the state should not dictate how the church is to function. The church as an institution has no legal authority over the governance of the state, yet it does have the ability to influence the state through public statements or direct involvement by Christian citizens. There will be blessings and judgments on the church and the state depending on the extent of their obedience or disobedience to Christ’s rule.
On the surface, things are simple when church and state enjoy a congenial relationship. When the relationship becomes adversarial, things become complicated. Much of the New Testament depicts a context in which the state is at odds with the purposes of the church. In spite of government or religious opposition church leaders are to continue with the Great Commission of spreading the good news of the gospel of the kingdom. Believers are to continue to meet, worship, and testify to Christ irrespective of the civil authority’s disposition. When the government is opposed to the church, whenever possible, Christians ought to influence the government to return it to a more favourable disposition. By God’s grace, throughout history rulers who became Christians sometimes ushered in seasons of favour and prosperity for Christians and the church. When rulers persecute Christians and hinder the gospel they are placing themselves in danger of incurring Christ’s wrath.
As citizens of a land and as members of the church, Christians are to conduct every aspect of their life in accordance with God’s revealed will. Christian citizens should worship the Lord every Lord’s day, love family and church members, and fulfil their work and civic duties in accordance with God’s law. Government officials who are Christians will submit to the leadership of the church with respect to worship, conduct, and doctrine. While at work in the government they will seek to enact policy that is consistent with revelation from the Bible. Since the gospel is not at odds with the moral law, it is entirely appropriate for governments to enact policy that meets the “general equity” of the moral law even if the specific dictates and punishments of the Old Testament law are not replicated [see Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 Of the Law of God].People who are opposed to religion will naturally resist any attempts by Christians to “impose their morality” on other people in society. Some Christians in like manner object to civil laws mirroring biblical truth on the basis that no civil law can actually make a person good. However, civil laws are not meant to internally transform a person but externally curtail bad conduct through the power of punishment. Society is better preserved by governments limiting the free exercise of human corruption. Also, since Christ has been anointed the King of Kings, leaders of nations have been warned about the consequences of not heeding his law (Ps. 2:10-12). In fact, all people will be held accountable for all their deeds knowing that one day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord” (Isa 45:23; Phil. 2:10).
In our present day, the leaders of the church must continue their primary mission of preaching the gospel and making mature disciples. What involvement can a Christian minister have with the wider societal issues of our day? Whilst the pulpit should not merely function as a tool to push a political party or policy initiatives, there are certain moral issues that confront Christians in their lives that must be addressed from the Scriptures. Disciples of Christ must obey all aspects of God’s word in the context of this world, and it is the sacred duty of pastors to instruct the people of the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). It is not only appropriate, but necessary, for a minister, when the occasion requires it and the Scriptures address it to speak into the following issues as they manifest themselves in our culture:
- The essential and immutable nature of human beings as created in God’s image as either males or females.
- The equality of all races descended from Adam and Eve without discriminating against or privileging any particular race or colour.
- Biblical ethics on human sexuality, particularly what actions are considered sexually immoral— fornication, homosexuality, incest, rape.
- The biblical definition of marriage— exclusively one male-one female, adultery, divorce.
- Issues of when life begins and ends (abortion, euthanasia).
- The exclusive claim of Christianity and the gospel to salvation vis-a-vis other world religions. (apologetics).
Ministers and leaders in a church can teach and preach on these subjects, write essays, conduct interviews, attend events that promote these causes, etc. without having violated their ecclesiastical callings. Some ministers hold the view, however, that though they uphold historically biblical positions on these issues, they will refrain from speaking about them lest it jeopardizes an opportunity to share the gospel. The appeal is made that Paul sought to only “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2), therefore Christian ministers must narrowly focus on the message of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. There is no incompatibility of preaching the gospel and addressing moral issues. In order to proclaim a gospel of the forgiveness of sin, ministers must be able to teach the Law which identifies sin. Secondly, believers need to be able to know and follow God’s standards for a life pleasing to God. As Christians lead a godly life distinct from the values of the world, they will adorn the gospel of Christ and be a beacon for those looking to escape the darkness.
As citizens of a land, it is within the rights of Christians to speak to societal issues and participate in the politics. Christians always ought to offer the gospel to their neighbours that they too may be reconciled to God through Christ. Part of the testifying to the truth of the good news of the kingdom is that the One who died on the cross for sins is the One who sits on a throne of justice. In spite of the sinfulness of our age we recognise that Christ is enthroned as Lord over all things. As the old hymn says, “This is my Father’s world…though the wrong seems oft so strong, he is the ruler yet.” We must continue to pray for Christ’s kingdom to come with more conversions of sinners and a greater preservation of righteousness in a society. Ministers must teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and Christians of all stripes are required to glorify God in all areas of life, and yes, also when you go into the voting booth.
– Andrew Matthews