Monday, August 18, 2014

Is It A Paradox To Be A Christian Engaged In Politics?

Can Christians be simultaneously committed to Jesus Christ and to the fallen and broken structures of our culture? The Christ and culture in paradox paradigm would say, “yes!” After all, we are all fallen human beings and cannot escape our broken world. In Martin Luther's thinking this was due to the fact that Christians are simul justus et peccator--simultaneously just and sinner. So what then does this mean for Christian involvement in politics?

In two of my previous posts, I addressed H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigms and began to ask how Christians are to relate to their culture, especially in regards to politics. First we looked at "Christ transforming culture" then at "Christ against culture." Finding neither one of these 100% satisfactory, I then asked the question of whether the "Christ and culture in paradox" model might be the balance I find in the Scriptures. So let's have a look and see just what this model proposes and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Perhaps the best way to define this paradigm is that it proposes that Christians can and should be simultaneously committed to Christ and the governmental structure--paradoxically holding to the separation of Church and State as two realms that are mutually exclusive, while believing that both realms are divinely instituted by God to govern in harmony with each other. Niebuhr often referred to people in this camp as "Dualists," who keep Christ and Culture separate while being a part of both. He gives Martin Luther as an example of this way of thinking, and, indeed, among Lutherans it is known as Two Kingdoms Theology.

This lengthy quotation by C. H. Little explains this view quite nicely:

“We Lutherans should honor the State as an institution of God for the regulation of the outward affairs of men, that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives here upon earth. God has given us this institution “for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well” [1 Peter 2:14]. And for the execution of this purpose God has bestowed upon it the sword. The State has authority from God to employ force where this is necessary for the accomplishment of its ends.

The Church also is a Divine institution, but its realm is quite different from that of the State. It is limited to spiritual affairs. It touches matters which the State cannot reach -- religion, conscience, the thoughts and intents of the heart. God has entrusted it with the means of grace and has laid upon it the obligation to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. The Church’s work is in a word evangelization. The Church has no sword but the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. She employs no force, but uses only the persuasive power of the Word. Church and State observing their appropriate spheres should dwell together in harmony. But the Reformed conception of the Church as a theocracy is strong; and the idea that people may be made righteous by governmental agencies has found a lodging even among Lutherans. And especially when some issue, like prohibition, comes to the front, representing itself as a moral issue, we find Lutheran bodies joining them in bombarding the government in the name of the Church to enact such legislation. They seem to think that the chief duty of the Church is to reform the world and set it right. They fail to realize that the Church in thus seeking to invade the province of the State is removing the only guarantee that the State may not someday reverse the process and invade the sphere of the Church by endeavoring to regulate its internal affairs.” (From Disputed Doctrines [Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board,1933], pp. 88-90.)

The "Christ and culture paradox" or Two Kingdoms Doctrine seems like a good solution at this point, since it realizes that there will always be sin in government (because government is made up of sinful human beings), and that the Church is a presence of God's grace in the world that will effect change. Though it realizes the tension between our faith and sinful politics, it "looks only for resolution between the tensions" at Christ's return. Until then we are dual citizens who need to respect the sovereignty of both realms.

However, I, among others, believe that this model tends to separate Christian faith and the world in which we live. Operating within this model, Christians could tend towards viewing their convictions as personal and not work towards change in the world, allowing the political world to run by its own rules. Mr. Little describes the Church’s role as Word and Sacrament, but wouldn’t that include bringing the reality of those truths to bear upon our world, including the structures that control our everyday lives. It was because of the Gospel that men like William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to change the laws of England against slavery. John Wesley preached numerous sermons that called for the Gospel to call into question unjust laws and work for their transformation. We are whole people—not dual people. How can we serve two masters?

While I agree that Christians cannot and should not use force to evangelize, nor look to political structures and answers for transforming our world into the coming Kingdom of God, I do believe that the Church has a responsibility to be a light to the nations in such a way that “they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven” (see Matthew 5:14-16).

In Luther’s day, both politics and the Church looked very different than they do in our present context. Kings and Popes still ruled. The common people had little to no voice in the workings of either institution. So, I ask my Lutheran friends how living in a republic with voter responsibilities and rights plays out in the current workings of the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. I personally don’t see it as the best solution, but I would enjoy hearing from you on just how a Christian is to engage the culture—particularly politics.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 


  1. If the Lutheran Two-Kingdom model was a stand alone model, I certainly could see your concerns, however, within the Two-Kingdoms is the doctrine of vocation. Every person has multiple vocations in which they serve God and man. For instance, I am a Christian, church elder, father, son, husband, uncle, nephew, employee, manager, citizen, constituent, etc. Being that I am a Christian, I am called, through my vocation, to perform my vocational duties to the glory of God. Therefore using your above reference, God worked through William Wilberforce through his vocation (politician) to help abolish slavery. Bringing this home, I as a Lutheran, can be actively involved in politics. I can campaign, run for office, support issues financially, write my congressman, etc all to the glory of God as it is well within my vocation as Christian, citizen and constituent. Here is a good reference for the Lutheran Doctrine of Vocation...

  2. Thanks for weighing in Jonathan! One thing for sure, you constantly keep my mind sharp by making me examine more evidence from a different angle. Thank you for that! It is what I want this blog to be about. Keep it coming. I read the article you sent, as well as "Vocation: Fruit of the Liturgy" found at I found both insightful and useful for rounding out the Two Kingdoms teaching of Luther rather than the flattened out version Niebuhr presented (I don't want to give away too much, but in my next post I'm going to be offering a criticism of Niebuhr's models altogether). However, I do see something missing from the materials that I have seen heretofore and that is this: How does the church collective work as Christ's body to change corrupt structures within government and transform them if possible? I get that the doctrine of vocation offers this possibility to individuals, but does this frame-work allow for a larger movement. It would appear from Little's article that the Church should leave state alone unless it wants the State meddling in the Church's affairs. Am I getting an accurate picture of this?

  3. "I do see something missing from the materials that I have seen heretofore and that is this: How does the church collective work as Christ's body to change corrupt structures within government and transform them if possible?"

    May I ask, transform them into what? Possibly, do you mean reform them? Because if we transform them into anything other than the governments instituted by God himself ,in order to enforce the first use of the law, then we are in danger of transforming them into the church. Which they should never be. But if we reform them back into truly enforcing the laws that God has given us; then we are living out some of our vocations the way, I believe, God has intended for us. So to bring this back full circle, the Right hand kingdom of the Church is governed like a church(for believers), not a society that includes believers and unbelievers alike.The left hand kingdom of the government is governed by the government for believers and unbelievers alike, not for believers only. Make sense? Things always sound better in my head than when I write them out

  4. Thank you for your comments, David. If you will permit me to answer your brief question through a rather long string of verses, I feel that it would best reflect how I'm arriving at my understanding of transformation. I am still struggling to fully understand the 2 kingdoms, and much of my reasoning for looking for a different model is that I just don't see the world bifurcated in this way. Christians are the church. The church is not an institution (this is not to say that it isn't a body). The church is called to be salt and light in the world--I believe that this would include the political structures and governments (Matthew 5:13-16). We are also to pray and live according to the Lord's Prayer "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Numerous verses throughout the Scripture point to the call of believers to fight to help those who cannot defend themselves--widows, orphans, immigrants, etc. (Proverbs 31:9; Psalm 82:3; Isaiah 1:17; among others). James 1:27 indicates that this is not a calling for specific believers (or a vocation) this is the call to all believers. We follow our master in challenging the religious and political norms that are contrary to the Gospel. Paul talks about demolishing strongholds and every thought that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). This means speaking out and speaking into the structures and institutions that perpetuate injustice and sin. Love of neighbor means that we may need to call our laws to task, call our congressmen and state representatives on the carpet over wrong thinking and acting. Perhaps to your mind all of this would simply describe reformation, but see the church's call as one of transformation not simply reformation. The Gospel transforms lives, it doesn't just reform them. C.S. Lewis stated that, "Christ didn't come to make bad people good, He came to make dead people live."

    I realize that our leaders and governing authorities are placed here by God to govern both Christians and non-Christians; therefore, we shouldn't be pushing for a Christendom model. That would almost push towards Niebuhr's Christ of culture model, believing that government can be the vehicle of religion. I don't believe that. I believe that true Christianity will always butt up against political structure and earthly kingdoms. But rather than retreat to the quietism of privatized Christianity, I feel that we are called to go out as sheep among wolves and work to transform hearts and minds with the power of the Gospel. Maybe this gels with the Two Kingdom doctrine and I just haven't been reading it correctly.