Are the culture warriors and the two kingdoms types talking past each other?
People are worried about the two kingdoms doctrine for all sorts of reasons. Some fear that it is a Trojan horse for liberal politics. Others worry that it panders to conservative politics. Some think its basic goal is to free Christians from the authority of Scripture. Others fear that it is an excuse for Presbyterian tyranny and even theocratic control over the state. (Note: I am not making this up; I have heard all of these concerns expressly stated.)
Sometimes I think it would be well worth organizing a conference and fully funding the attendees just to be able to get these people with opposite and contradictory concerns in the same room together, so that they could sort out just how it is that the nefarious two kingdoms doctrine might possibly do all of these things at once. (Alas, I don’t have the money. But if I was Bill Gates I would most certainly do this.)
In addition to all of these concerns about the two kingdoms doctrine, I wonder if part of the disconnect between the “two kingdoms types” and the “culture war” types boils down to a disconnect between those who are focused on ends, and those who are more concerned about means. Let me try to explain.
Culture warriors tend to have their minds fixed on one object: preserving or restoring American politics and culture on the basis of what they regard as its Christian foundation. They operate at the level of desired ends and on accomplishing those ends whatever the cost. America should protect the unborn and it is not doing that. We can offer no compromise on the issue of abortion until it is completely outlawed. Sexual immorality is tearing apart the fabric of this country. We can offer no compromise on marriage until the traditional form is wholeheartedly upheld as the law of the land. America is jettisoning its Christian foundations. We need to labor hard and long until every American understands why our prosperity is based on Christianity and on nothing else.
Two kingdoms types, on the other hand, are more worried about the manner with which Christians engage politics, and they fear that the church has become so politicized, and Christians so willing to embrace the ruthlessness of politics, that it is obscuring or bringing slander upon the gospel. They operate at the level of means, and are unwilling to pollute the function of the church or the virtue of Christians in order to achieve desired political ends. Christians should communicate a devotion to justice for both mothers and their unborn children regardless of whether or not the law permits abortion. Christians should reach out to those practicing homosexuality or other sexual sins with the gospel and a spirit of love regardless of whether or not they are able to persuade the country that homosexuality should not be promoted or marriage compromised. Christians should be more worried about whether or not America acts justly than whether or not it professes Christian truth.
To be sure, culture warriors care about means as well. They do not justify violence and they recognize that the church needs to be clear that its primary task is to preach the gospel. On the other hand, two kingdoms advocates share many of the same goals as the culture warriors. They want America to remember its foundations in Christianity and natural law, and they desire to see the success of the pro-life cause, as well as the defense of traditional marriage.
But to the two kingdoms types, the culture warriors seem to be so devoted to winning that they have lost all perspective. They are entirely oblivious of the way in which they have blended their own political interests and strategies with the Christian faith, and they simply do not appreciate the way in which this tarnishes the gospel in the eyes of unbelievers. In short, they lack a concern for virtue.
And to the culture warriors, the two kingdoms advocates seem to be so oblivious to the role Christianity has played in making America great, and to the importance of culture for life and for the Christian witness, that they are in danger of jettisoning the whole Christian project. They are so focused on achieving respect and good will that they are willing to water down the teachings of Scripture. They do not understand the way the gospel shapes our world view for all of life. In short, they lack a concern for truth.
I don’t know if I am on to something here or not. Perhaps my faithful readers could let me know. I know I’m making generalizations, but I hope both sides can recognize themselves in these caricatures. I am at least trying to summarize the positions in a way that is fair.
But if I am on to something, then does it not follow that we should be concerned about both ends and means, that we should be devoted both to virtue and truth? Why have we developed understandings of the nature of Christian obedience that are so out of balance? As the two kingdoms types might say, why does it seem like Christian culture warriors fail to understand the call on Christians to witness to the love and mercy of Christ? As the culture warriors might say, why does it seem like the two kingdoms types have no appreciation for the lordship of Christ over all of life?
It seems to me that the approach of the Apostle Paul helps keep the concerns of both sides in perspective. As he writes in Colossians 1, Jesus is lord of all things in heaven and on earth, and nothing exists apart from him. And as he puts it in Ephesians 1, Christ has ascended to reign over every authority both in this age and in the age to come. But as Paul goes on to say in Colossians 3, Christians serve the one in whom all things exist by conforming themselves to his image, putting off the vices of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, while putting on the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And as he indicates in Ephesians 5-6, these virtues apply, along with the basic call to sacrificial service, to every area of life, including the family and economic, social, and political arrangements such as slavery.
There is a way forward here. In my view the call of the New Testament is actually quite clear about what we as Christians are required to do. But somehow many of us are missing this in our arguments with one another. We are talking past each other. Perhaps we all need to listen more, talk less, and pay closer attention to the message of Scripture. It is the authority of Scripture, after all, that we all seem to agree on.