Article: Luther and the Two Kingdoms?

If you are a devotee of Lutheran theology, then you probably have read about Martin Luther’s doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms.” If you are “in the know,” then you already understand there is fierce discussion on whether this is a good doctrine or it needs to die once and for all.

For those of you who have not heard of the doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms” …no, this isn’t a prequel to the Lord of the Rings novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, however it is Martin Luther’s undeveloped thesis about the difference between God’s (spiritual) Kingdom and the earthly kingdom or realm.  To put it a different way, the difference between what is doing inside our hearts and the visible signs of authority in the world like the government and even church structure that keep people “in line”. Both are given by God but both are separate, distinct and needed. See diagram below.

Luther insists that it is vitally important not to confuse or combine the two kingdoms. Through the Gospel (the good news of Jesus love) God rules His “spiritual kingdom” and forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies.

At the same time God does not abolish the “earthly kingdom” with its ability to rule with power, the sword and laws.

Luther points out that any attempt to “rule the world” with the Gospel (the spiritual kingdom) is a “double error”, carrying a “double penalty”. If the world was ruled by the “spiritual kingdom” the Gospel would be destroyed and the gospel would become a new law to take the place of the old (human) law.  As a result, humans would make Christ into another Moses (a prophet bringing laws rather than the Son of God brining freedom from the law.)

To quote Luther, “What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked, under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” (On Secular Authority)

Also… “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live a godly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would not live long.” (On Secular Authority)

Both kingdoms are needed in this world and they need to remain separate. If the “spiritual kingdom” is commingled with the “earthly kingdom” the message of the gospel will be diminished if not corrupted. If the “earthly kingdom” commingled with the “spiritual kingdom” the same thing would occur. It makes no difference who makes the first move at co-opting the other, the good news of Jesus Christ would be compromised.

Why is this important? Back in 1954, Senator Lyndon Johnson proposed the “Johnson Amendment” for the tax code that keeps nonprofit organizations (like churches) from engaging in political activities. This was an uncontroversial amendment at the time and passed without discussion.

Just recently, an executive order was issued that attempts to water down the Johnson Amendment and directs the Department of the Treasury that “churches should not be found guilty of implied endorsements where secular organizations would not be.”

In other words, there is a subtle invitation of the “earthly kingdom” for the “spiritual kingdom” to move closer without impunity. Luther warns against such coziness.

When a Christian church completely identifies with one political party or another, they have lost their way. The Church of Jesus Christ belongs to God alone. Yes, the church should speak up (through the lens of the gospel and God’s expectations for holy living) but should never identify itself with a specific party even if individuals do so.

The Christian Church in America is not oppressed or discriminated against. Churches in China, Pakistan and many other places are.

The National Council of Churches of which the ELCA is a part of recently issued a statement. Here is a portion of that statement:

“Churches should and do speak truth to power. But, churches should not be intervening in political campaigns, endorsing or opposing candidates, or forming political parties. That would be dangerous both for the integrity of houses of worship and our democracy. 

 Despite this new executive order, we urge churches and clergy not to fall prey to the false notion they are victims of discrimination because they receive tax-exempt status in return for staying out of political campaigns. We affirm the role of the churches in proclaiming the power of God through Jesus Christ, preaching with a prophetic voice that both names God as the source of all salvation and holds the state accountable in the service of the common good.”

 Lots to think about, I know. This is a reminder for the church (not individuals) that we should speak up about injustice of all kinds, inequality of all kinds and abuse of power in the name of Jesus Christ but that the church will never be an “arm” of one political party or another.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben



6 thoughts on “Article: Luther and the Two Kingdoms?

  1. Hi Pastor Ben…….very interesting topic, I was not aware of Luther’s two kingdom’s doctrine so hope to read more about it. Your last paragraph where you mention that the church (not individuals) should speak up against injustice, inequality, abuse of power… you mean the church at large (Synod)? Would this mean an official statement of some sort from the church at large? Since the church is made up of individuals would not their perspective enter into it? It seems to me that all of these actions are fed through one’s prism of understanding and political leaning. All of this is good food for thought as usual from you. Much appreciated!

    1. Hi Mona,
      Thanks! The last sentence is meant to serve as a reminder to the church and not individuals that the church should speak up about all sorts of things– but not be “in the pocket” of one political party or another. And yes, individuals should speak up too, but they also have the ability to align themselves with a political party if they wish, the church should not! God bless! Pr. Ben

  2. “When a Christian church completely identifies with one political party or another, they have lost their way. The Church of Jesus Christ belongs to God alone. Yes, the church should speak up (through the lens of the gospel and God’s expectations for holy living) but should never identify itself with a specific party even if individuals do so.”

    I certainly agree with the above statement, but I think that there are some who don’t.

  3. I have been thinking about this post and the follow-ups discussing what it means to be welcoming. It is not really a secret that Lutherans in the US have divided themselves, more or less along political lines, into two major synods. Having spent significant amounts of time in both LCMS and ELCA churches and schools, it has been my experience that both synods find ways to signal what they consider to be the virtuous side of different political issues. The thing that I find troubling, is that many times these issues revolve around secular policies, on which well intentioned Christians could have opposing opinions without compromising their “Lutheraness”. One thing I have personally experienced, and also seen other people experience, is coming into church, opening up the bulletin, getting ticked off about the way something was phrased, or support for a particular political policy was signaled, and then not being focused during the opening hymn and confession. I have many memories of my mom with a pen out “correcting” the bulletin before church :). These days it does’t bother me as much, but I do get concerned sometimes about church members, or visitors, in the minority on certain issues feeling like they are unwelcome or can’t speak up.

    1. Hi Pete,
      Thanks for your thoughtful reflection. Some Lutherans disavow the two Kingdoms “theory” today. It is interesting to note that the two major Lutheran bodies acknowledge the same core documents (The Book of Concord and the Bible) yet interpret the very same words in very different ways. I believe the church still needs to clearly define who the gospel of Christ is for. I know that sounds odd because it is for all people. We know that intellectually but the church has neglected (or worse) “the least of these” for various reasons which we know all too well. Everyone should have a voice or feel comfortable speaking up as far as I am concerned with one caveat– that one doesn’t speak against another or a group of people. If a person comes to church seeking Jesus, they should without fear of judgment.

      Thanks again! I really appreciate that you took the time to respond!
      God bless,
      Pr. Ben

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