How Many Kingdoms? Contributions from the NT
We have all heard the mantra by now. Week after week, in pulpit after pulpit, Christians are being called to renew the world that they live in. Called to “renew” or “redeem” everything from governmental structures to the very way we play sports. Leaving aside the fact that this call is often times very confusing from a purely pragmatic standpoint, we ought to consider how massive the theological presuppositions are behind such statements. Yes, this call sounds nice and yes, you are largely looked at as unorthodox if you disagree but I doubt that the very pages of the New Testament would concur with this now universally accepted one-kingdom dogma. As such it is my purpose in this post to survey what contributions the NT makes to the one-kingdom v. two-kingdom debate.
In Jesus death, burial and resurrection he brought about the “new covenant.” In Luke 22:20 we read, “And likewise [he took] the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” This establishment of the new covenant, also further confirmed in Hebrews 8:13, points to an end of the Israelite theocracy, an end to the one-kingdom framework. This is because the new covenant is made with the church. It is made with those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, not a particular ethnicity that resides in given geopolitical boundaries. It is the church that is to follow the commands of Jesus. It is the church that is to be like Christ. That is, after all, who the counterparty is in this new covenant relationship.
It is because of this new covenant reality that the one-kingdom position is so curious. No doubt, there are a number of societal realms in which both believer and non-believer alike inhabit. They are shared institutions if you will. These shared institutions find their root in the Noahic covenant, as I outlined in a previous post. But if there is a shared cultural task between believer and non-believer, why the relentless push to Christianize every sphere of society when it was God himself who created certain spheres of society to operate under a shared mandate? The establishment of the new covenant provides the church with a special spiritual mandate but that mandate almost certainly cannot include areas of shared cultural responsibility.
To trace the line of thinking more directly: The shared cultural mandate was established by the Noahic covenant, temporarily set aside by the Mosaic covenant, then reestablished in the new covenant as God covenants with a non-geopolitical entity, the church. This means that the days of mixing religion with national entities and governmental bodies is over.
What’s more is that this reality seems to be affirmed by certain NT commands. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul instructs believers to obey civil magistrates in spite of the fact that they are clearly pagan. Similar refrains are found in other places throughout both the Pauline and Petrine corpus (1 Timothy 2:1-4; 1 Peter 2:13-18). It is hard to imagine Paul being so cozy with pagan rulers if he ascribed to one-kingdom thinking. Additionally, Paul seems to suggest that Christians ought not to judge unbelievers in the same way that those inside the church are judged (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). If Christians are meant to, “strive for the consolidation of power in organizations that aim at applying Christian principles to society,” as neo-Calvinist Herman Dooeywerd once put it, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how it would be possible to follow Paul’s mandate in 1 Corinthians 5, for such consolidation of power similarly demands a consolidation of Christian judgment in these various institutions.
Another crucial text demands consideration in this matter. In John 18:36, Jesus answers Pilate in stating, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” If church history has shown us one thing, it is that those who do not heed Jesus’ words in this text, fall into most grievous errors. Jesus unequivocally and doubly states that his kingdom is not of this world (Read: My kingdom is not brought about by Christianizing society).
Some will surely object at this point by pointing to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5:10) and saying that Jesus commands us to ask that God’s heavenly kingdom be transposed on the earth. True, he does. But under close scrutiny, this objection holds little weight. When we consider how God’s will is “done” in heaven, we have to picture heavenly realities such as lack of sin, worship, the glory of God, etc. These realities only seem biblically feasible in the event that God himself brings about the kingdom. It is something of his doing, not his creatures. To even suggest that we are to be active in bringing about these heavenly kingdom realities strikes me not only as an incredible burden that is nowhere found in the NT but also as a remarkable hubris.
I would suggest that the best reading of Lord’s Prayer is to see verses 9-10 as a request to bring about something that only God himself can do at the end of the age. It is a request to bring about that final moment in history when God does meld his heavenly will with the physical earthly realm. Yet still note that it is God who brings about this reality. Verses 11-13, then supply requests that we, as his children, need in order to be sustained up to that point in time. So in effect: God, bring about the heavenly realities on earth, but in the mean time sustain us in the following ways.
As discussed in previous posts this one-kingdom v. two-kingdom discussion is a complex issue. And as we have seen today, the NT is not silent on the matter.
After all, we have all heard the mantra now. Week after week, in pulpit after pulpit, Christians are being called to renew the world that they live in.
But if we listen to the pages of the New Testament, they seem to tell us otherwise.