Have you ever read the book of Daniel and marveled at how four godly Israelites—Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—served effectively in the court of pagan kings? These remarkable men didn’t shun civil service in Babylon and Persia, yet they didn’t see pagan empires as their true home or lose hope that God would return them to their promised land (Dan. 9).
God has called us to live a similar sort of life in our own societies. As New Testament “exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11), Christians should reject the temptations of both quietism and triumphalism. A two-kingdoms doctrine provides a helpful theological anchor to keep us from falling into either of these extremes. It enables believers to affirm both the goodness of participating in political affairs and their identity as heavenly citizens who are pilgrims in this world.
Quietism is the tendency to dismiss political affairs as thoroughly evil and to avoid participating in them as much as possible. According to quietists, believers should focus their energy on Christian communities and beware of mixing with the world.
The quietist temptation is understandable. Politics is often sordid, governments perpetrate countless evils, and immersion in political affairs carries spiritual dangers. Yet quietism encounters numerous biblical objections. God instituted civil government for the good of human society, to promote justice and peace (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–14; 1 Tim. 2:2). The New Testament describes several political officials who come to faith (Luke 19:1–10; Acts 10), and the apostles never instructed them to resign their positions.
Christians should reject the temptations of both quietism and triumphalism. A two-kingdoms doctrine provides a helpful theological anchor to keep us from falling into either of these extremes.
All earthly activities and institutions are deeply corrupted by sin, but this doesn’t make them illegitimate or off-limits for believers. Political affairs are no exception. Christians aren’t obligated to be engaged in politics just as Christians aren’t obligated to be musicians or scientists. But as being a musician or scientist is an honorable way for a Christian to serve his neighbors, so too is political engagement.
Triumphalism is the tendency to make political affairs central to the Christian life. It’s a mindset that views most or all of life through the lens of culture wars—a fight that, according to the triumphalist, God has commissioned Christians to win. Triumphalism views the church as an agent for uniting and mobilizing Christians around a political agenda.
The triumphalist temptation is also understandable. Evil government policies do much harm and dishonor God. Yet triumphalism is fundamentally foreign to New Testament Christianity.
God hasn’t called Christians to triumph in this life, but in the life to come. Christ calls his people not to exercise dominion over others, but to serve them (Mark 10:42–45). Rather than seeking and anticipating success in this world, Christians should ready themselves for suffering and persecution: the Christian life is one of self-denial and cross-bearing (Matt. 16:24–26). While Christians may enjoy citizenship in earthly communities, their most precious identity is citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20). They’re sojourners and exiles in their political societies (1 Pet. 2:11), for their true home is elsewhere. Triumphalism forgets that Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world and thus that Christians are in this world but not of it (John 17:14; 18:36). Christ has established his church not to mobilize believers for political action but to exercise the keys of his heavenly kingdom (Matt. 16:18–19).
Rejecting quietism and triumphalism doesn’t solve every question about Christianity and politics, but it sets important boundaries for Christian participation in political affairs. A Reformational two-kingdoms doctrine is a biblical and historically rooted way to explain those boundaries.
The doctrine, as expressed by John Calvin and brought to maturity by later European Reformed and Scottish Presbyterian theologians, teaches that God through his Son rules all things, but he rules them in a twofold way. God preserves this fallen world, upholding the natural order and human societies, despite their deep sinfulness. He gives sunshine and rain to all people and raises up civil governments and other human institutions to promote a measure of justice, peace, and prosperity. But God has also promised and accomplished a way of salvation, calling a chosen people out of their sinful idolatry. He has established the church as the new-covenant community, into which he gathers believers and nourishes them unto everlasting life in the new creation.
Rejecting quietism and triumphalism doesn’t solve every question about Christianity and politics, but it sets important boundaries for Christian participation in political affairs.
Some early Reformed theologians referred to this as a distinction between God’s civil and spiritual rule, or between his kingdom of power and kingdom of grace. Another way to think of it is as a distinction between God’s common grace (toward all creation) and his special or saving grace (toward his redeemed people). The distinction reflects the difference between God’s faithfulness to his universal promise of preservation in the post-flood covenant with Noah (Gen. 8:21–9:17) and his faithfulness to the promises of the new covenant, by which he gathers Christians unto salvation. While I don’t endorse everything the earlier theologians said about the two kingdoms, I believe these basic ideas are profoundly correct.
Contra quietism, two-kingdoms doctrine says political institutions are God-ordained and therefore legitimate. By participating in them, Christians promote God’s common-grace preservation of human society. Contra triumphalism, two-kingdoms doctrine says those political institutions are temporal and provisional, meant to serve limited purposes in this present age.
Daniel and his friends sought the peace of Babylon (Jer. 29:7), but they never thought they could make Babylon a new Jerusalem. To steer a middle path between quietism and triumphalism today, Christians likewise need to affirm that politics is both legitimate and provisional. Politics can be important without being of ultimate importance. And, so, Christians’ true spiritual unity lies not in national identity or political allegiance, but in their union with Christ and inheritance in a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28).