Word from the Center Digest: Friday, April 12

Martin Luther Meets Thomas Jefferson . . . or Does He?

by Jordan McKinley

Have you heard one of your friends or family claim that Martin Luther’s now famous “two kingdoms” doctrine was the basis for church and state?

It’s not uncommon for people to make that claim that Luther’s doctrine was one of the early philosophies that later developed into what is popularly known as the separation of church and state (an idea that isn’t located in America’s founding documents!)? So, if someone has tried to convince you of this, hold up!

Here are two things to note: (1) The concept of a radical distinction between church and state actually comes from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, where Jefferson attempted to interpret the First Amendment for a group of men concerned about the lack of specificity regarding religious freedom in the Constitution.

(2) The “two kingdoms,” on the other hand, are a way in which God has ordered church and society so that the proclamation of the Word is not impeded and that justice is secured throughout the world to assist in the first endeavor. So, you see, church and state and the two kingdoms are quite different!

Think of it this way: God institutes the kingdom of the left hand, or the secular realm, for the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of those who obey those in authority. St. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” With these words, St. Paul reminds us that God gives human authority for the sake of keeping the peace.

But this is all in service of God’s right-hand kingdom, the kingdom of the Church. In this realm, God’s commands make disciples through Baptism, teaching the Word (Matt. 28:19-20) and the administration of the Sacrament of the Altar (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). These are the chief tasks of those given spiritual authority. To sum up, the Church is instituted that saving faith may be created and sustained among guilty sinners in need of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation won by Christ on the cross and distributed through the means of grace. (That’s us!)

Where there is peace and good government, the right-hand kingdom is able freely to obey the Lord’s commands. But when the two kingdoms come into conflict, it is incumbent upon us as Christians to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). This is why we are to pray for peace and good government in the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, not simply for our own sake, but for the sake of those who do not yet know Christ and His saving work. While many secularists might see these two realms in conflict with one another, we as Christians boldly confess that the Lord, who institutes both kingdoms, does so for the sake of saving men’s souls.

Remember that friend or family member who tried to convince you that the idea of church and state stemmed from the two kingdoms? Is he coming to Easter at your house? Is she meeting you for supper next week? Have that conversation again, and this time, feel free to clarify the differentiation.

Together with your friend, you might even peruse the Table of Duties in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, especially the sections dealing with bishops, pastors, and preachers, what the hearers owe their pastors, of civil government, and of citizens. Here, Luther lays out several short Bible passages for Christians to consider for their particular vocation or calling in life.

Two-kingdom theology can be a source of unending discussion, all pointing to a gracious God who has ordered church and society so that the proclamation of the Word is not impeded and that justice is secured throughout the world to assist in the first endeavor. Now that you’re ready, let’s get talking!

The Rev. Jordan McKinley is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Vallonia, Ind.

Be Informed

Dig into a Bible study by the Rev. Jay DeBier that explains how, because of our citizenship in the kingdom of God (the right-hand kingdom), we are free to live to His glory in the earthly kingdom (the left-hand kingdom), which is also His!

Be Equipped

Listen to the Rev. Dr. Gregory Seltz explain what the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty is and how it will speak for people of faith to those who make our laws and set opinion.

Be Encouraged

“Christians, therefore, live in two kingdoms. In one, they hear the Gospel and experience the love of God in Christ. In the other, they experience—and obey—the law. . . . [Luther’s] two-kingdom doctrine does not require rigid separation of church and state. Neither institution should interfere with the unique responsibilities of the other, but when each carries out its own divinely given purpose, it also supports the other’s work.” – Rev. Dr. Cameron MacKenzie, professor and chairman of historical theology, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.  

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