Politics, the Church, and Getting Our Story StraightAugust 9, 2023
In the last several years, we have seen a resurgence of interest among Christians in political theology. On the whole, I believe this has been a good thing intellectually. I’m less certain this has been a good thing ecclesiastically.
We need smart, well-read Christians talking about natural law, the magisterial Reformers, Enlightenment philosophy, and American history. We need experts weighing in on the differences between classic liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, progressivism, and post-liberalism. Having done my doctoral work on John Witherspoon, I am personally very interested in reading about Locke and the Founders, in analyzing the Declaration and the Constitution, and in examining what political principles we can glean from the Bible and from the wisdom of the church through the ages. More Christians reading deeply and thinking carefully about political theology is a welcome development.
Okay, you’re wondering, so where’s the “but”?
The “but” is about political theology that supplants the centrality of the church. This can happen by deliberate conviction (the political theology calls for it), but it can also happen by the sheer weight of interest in politics. The issue isn’t merely idolatry (“You are too concerned about politics!”). The bigger issue is when Christians—and pastors worst of all—make the church intellectually, affectionally, and teleologically subservient to the world of politics and nation-states, instead of the other way around.
A Little Help from the Larger Catechism
Let me get at this concern in a roundabout way by highlighting a great section from the Westminster Larger Catechism. Question 191 asks, “What do we pray for in the second petition [of the Lord’s Prayer]?” Here’s the answer:
In the second petition, (which is, Thy Kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrates; that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him for ever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.
Notice three things about this answer.
First, the Catechism understands “Thy Kingdom come” to be about sin, salvation, and the church. The Westminster divines do not understand the petition to be about general human flourishing or about national renewal. The focus of the prayer is on the propagation of the gospel, the conversion of the lost, the health of the church, the destruction of the devil, and the renovation of our hearts. More on this ecclesial focus in a moment.
Second, the Catechism is not unconcerned with the political realm. The middle of the answer expresses a hope that the church would be “countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrates.” The church never operates in a cultural or societal vacuum. The church’s work is made more difficult when the civil magistrates do not allow it to be established and to minister unmolested. That’s what is meant by “countenanced.”
As for the other verb, the word “maintained” likely implies state support for the church through the system of parish taxation that operated in England in the seventeenth century. I don’t believe that system is necessary, or, in a much larger and more pluralistic society, wise or feasible. I affirm the theological instincts evidenced in the Adopting Act of 1729 where American Presbyterians distanced themselves from the civil magistrate’s involvement in the church. At the same time, I do want the civil magistrate to maintain the rule of law and the free exercise of religion so that the church can flourish. Christians are right to be involved in these issues and concerned when the governing authorities are increasingly hostile to the church.
Third, even with a view of church and state that is more seventeenth century than eighteenth century (or twenty-first, for that matter), the Catechism’s prayer is still explicitly ecclesial in focus instead of political.
Theologians have often talked about the kingdom of God in three different ways. First, there is the regnum potentiae, the kingdom of power. This is the dominion of Jesus Christ over the universe, the providential and judicial administration of all things which Christ exercises by virtue of being the eternal Son of God. Second, we can speak of the regnum gratiae, the kingdom of grace. This refers to Christ’s reign over his saved people, the spiritual kingship which Christ exercises by virtue of being our Mediator and the head of the church. Finally, there is the regnum gloriae, the kingdom of glory. This is Christ’s dominion in the age to come. The kingdom of glory is the kingdom of grace made perfect and complete.
Now look at the phrase “kingdom of power” in the last line of the Catechism’s answer. We pray “that [Christ] would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.” Notice the ecclesial logic. The “these ends” have to do with the proclamation of the gospel, the saving of the lost, and the edification of the saints. In other words, Christ rules over all things for the good of the church. The kingdom of power is subservient in purpose to the kingdom of grace (giving way to the kingdom of glory), not the other way around.
J. G. Vos makes this point powerfully in The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary. First, he talks about what really destroys Satan’s kingdom:
Many people are deceived into thinking that the general progress of human civilization, general education and culture, science and invention, and economic and social progress and organization can restrain or destroy Satan’s kingdom. All these things can fit in with Satan’s kingdom as much as with God’s kingdom. Only the gospel of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, really destroys Satan’s kingdom. (551)
Several pages later, he comes back to the threefold distinction of the kingdom:
We pray for the extension and continuance of the kingdom of grace, the hastening of the kingdom of glory, and the success of the kingdom of power for its appointed ends. Note that the kingdom of power is not an end in itself, but a means to the furtherance of the kingdom of grace and the hastening of the kingdom of glory. (557)
To be sure, we will be salt and light in a dark and decaying world, but the prayer the Westminster divines would have us pray is for God to so rule over the world for the sake of the church.
Vos is exactly right (and the Larger Catechism before him). The kingdom story we are telling (or should be telling) is not the story of Christ saving his people so that they can transform the culture or reclaim a nation. Instead, the story is of Christ so ruling over the nations of the world that the church might be built up. The church is the thing, not because politics and magistrates and nations don’t matter, but because gospel preaching, gospel officers, gospel ordinances and the renovation of the heart matter more—and matter for eternity.
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