Biblical pictures of Israel in exile present a striking contrast that resembles our situation today:
By the waters of Babylon,Psalm 137:1–3
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,Jeremiah 29:4–6
to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters;
take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage,
that they may bear sons and daughters;
multiply there, and do not decrease.
On the one hand, faithful Hebrews in Babylon wept and hung up their lyres in the midst of antagonistic pagan captors. On the other hand, Jeremiah commands God’s exiles in Babylon to actively participate in activities such as building houses, planting gardens, enjoying marriage, and bearing children.
In many ways, this contrast represents the challenge Christians have today as “sojourners and exile” (1 Pet 2:11): How do we live faithfully in our world while avoiding religious syncretism and the idolatry of the pagan nations in which we live?
Throughout church history, Christians have typically adopted one of three answers to this question, and it is helpful for us to evaluate these answers as we seek to navigate as Christians in culture today.
The first is the approach that came to characterize the sixteenth-century Anabaptists who rejected any political involvement, including holding public office or going to war. Today, this finds its clearest representation in groups like the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, among others.
There has been a rise in recent years of a group identified as Neo-Anabaptists, who continue to perpetuate the radical separation of their namesake. Authors such as John Howard Yoder and Stanly Hauerwas represent this group.
There is much to commend and learn from the radical separatist approach. The greatest strength is its recognition of inherent corruption in the world’s system and its insistence upon complete separation from the world. However, some of its advocates have extended these principles to include all parts of human culture without distinction, leading groups like the Amish toward an extreme isolationism and some Neo-Anabaptists toward a sort of liberal socialism. They fail to recognize the reality of common grace in the world and all of the biblical commands regarding how Christians should relate to unbelieving society.
A second approach is a transformationalist posture. This position appeals to the redemption motif in Scripture, namely that God desires to redeem all of his creation and that the church is already involved in that process through cultural redemption. This, transformationalists argue, is a continuation of the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 that was interrupted by the Fall, and thus the Great Commission is essentially a continuation of that original mandate this side of the cross.
Consequently, this view argues that Christians and their churches should be active in the world, seeking to transform that world. Christ is Lord of all, they argue, and thus it is the mission of churches to assert that lordship in all realms of life. Churches should be active in governmental affairs, in cultural endeavors, and in feeding the poor and pursuing social justice in the world, extending Christ’s rule over all of these aspects of society.
Those defending this position typically classify themselves as Reformed followers of John Calvin through the thinking of Abraham Kuyper. However, many other Reformed theologians insist that transformationalists have departed from the teachings of both Calvin and Kuyper, which is why the monikers “Neo-Calvinist” or “Neo-Kuyperian” are used to describe them. Popular defenders of variations of the transformationalist position include Cornelius Plantinga, Albert Wolters, and Michael Goheen. It has essentially become the default Evangelical position, as articulated by Russell Moore inThe Kingdom of Christ.
The strength of this model is that it recognizes the inherent goodness of God’s original creation as well as the blessing from God for people to be active in his world, cultivating what he has given us and actively living out our beliefs in every sphere of life. We Christians should do good to all people, we should work hard in the vocations to which God has called us, we should rear children who love and obey God, we should stand up against injustice when we see it, and we should be engaged in politics to help restrain evil in this world.
The problem is that in Scripture, the motivation and aim for these activities is never rooted in cultural redemption, dominion, or societal transformation. Scripture never places the weight of trying to do what Adam failed to do upon us. Christ is the Second Adam, and he has been given all authority. We live and work in this present age out of a response to what Christ has accomplished, looking forward to that day when he will complete it—when he will completely destroy his enemies and take dominion over all.
Further, transformationalism extends the church’s mission beyond what Christ mandated. The church’s mission, as Christ clearly articulated in Matthew 28:18–20, is to make disciples. The church is never commanded to redeem anything; rather, the church makes disciples by proclaiming the gospel, baptizing new believers, and teaching them to observe Christ’s commandments.
A final problem is that in order to reach the goal of wholesale societal transformation, Christians inevitably have to compromise in order to get into positions of power and influence. What results, in the words of Andy Crouch, is “a rise in cultural transformation of a different sort—the transformation of the church into the culture’s image.”
A third approach, two kingdom theology, is essentially built on two ideas: natural law and a clear distinction between redemptive and non-redemptive social spheres. The first idea is built on the conviction that moral norms are inscribed on the hearts of all men. These norms are the basis for common society of which both believers and unbelievers are members. They are not salvific in any way but rather provide for human peace even among the unregenerate.
This general civic realm is not all that exists, however, since there also exists salvific revelation beyond this common natural law; two-kingdom advocates sharply distinguish between believers and unbelievers and also between the ecclesiastical government and the civic government. Believers are governed, not only by natural law, but also by a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, his person, and his works.
A Christian, therefore, has dual membership in both kingdoms and thus submits himself to both governments, each of which has been created by God to order the world. These two kingdoms rule their respective spheres separately and do not overlap. Christians, as members of both kingdoms, operate fully under the laws of each. As members of the heavenly kingdom, a Christian submits to the Word of God; as a member of the earthly kingdom, he submits to human laws inasmuch as they reflect the eternal moral law of God.
Historically, seeds of this view were first articulated by Augustine and later more fully developed in the Reformation by Martin Luther and John Calvin. Two kingdom theology today is expressed in the writings of men like Michael Horton, D. G. Hart, and David VanDrunen.
The two kingdom approach avoids the triumphalism and mission drift that can sometimes characterize transformationalism. It has no aspirations to transform society, but rather claims to have a more realistic understanding of the fallenness of the world. It also protects the regular, God-ordained operations of the church governed by explicit biblical commands. So while Christians can and should be actively involved in the civic realm, the church itself is limited only to those matters expressly prescribed in Scripture.
The two kingdom approach has come under criticism, however. First, this view can give the impression that God has no place in the public sphere. Despite Luther’s insistence that God ordained and rules through both kingdoms, a sharp distinction between them may lead Christians to fail to recognize the necessity to do all to God’s glory, even outside the gatherings of the church. Separation of church and state may very easily become separation of Christianity from life. Second, the idea of natural law sometimes gives the impression of a neutral middle ground between believers and unbelievers. Thus, while the two kingdom approach preserves a distinction between kingdoms, the antithesis may be blurred with the idea of natural law.
What is apparent from this brief survey is that each of these historic positions has strengths and weaknesses when compared with Scripture. I do believe that the two kingdom approach is closest to what Scripture teaches, provided we recognize that every aspect of what we do even in cultural spheres—including politics, education, and the arts—flows out of a life of sanctification. We ought to be holy in all of our conduct, and the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to progressively sanctify that conduct each day. Churches ought to make disciples who then live out their Christian beliefs in every sphere of life.
Perhaps the best New Testament posture for Christians who are in the world but not of the world is found in 1 Peter 1:17–18:
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.