Kingdom of God and Secular Government

May 6, 2019

What Governments Are Not: The Kingdom of God and Secular Government

(This is part one of a multi-part series that IRD will publish throughout the week of May 6-12)

Christianity does not offer a ready-made politics that can be read off the pages of scripture. This is both the blessing and challenge of Christianity’s relationship to politics. Whereas Islam and Judaism present a more unified and coherent relationship to the political order, Christianity never sits neatly with any political regime. And this is as it should be. The Kingdom of God which is inaugurated by Jesus Christ and shall be brought to completion upon his second coming cannot subsumed or absorbed by any political or social order because the laws of man, our governments, and our societies will ever only be a faint shadow of the goodness, justice, and love that defines the Kingdom of God.

What I am offering here is not a fully orbed Christian politics, but a series of fundamental theological principles that ground a Christian view of government and politics. They are general but absolutely essential for understanding how the Christian faith understands politics and its role in broader life of society.

What Governments Are Not: The Kingdom of God and Secular Government

The most important gift that Christianity has given politics is the gift of realizing what governments are not. Government is not the Kingdom of God.

The starting point and end point of all discussion by Christians about the nature of politics and government is the kingdom of God. God is the creator of all things, he is the ruler of all things, he has made known this rule through Israel and has inaugurated his final rule in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who now reigns at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to bring his rule to completion through the judgment and the establishment of his kingdom for eternity. He will judge all the nations. All wrongs shall be righted, all persons of all nations shall worship and enjoy a level of fellowship together unimpeded by human weakness and sin.

Christians and all persons, for that matter, live between two overlapping ages. The old age trapped in sin and death will be replaced with the new age that was begun in the life of Jesus. King Jesus rules his own people now in a special way, even as he rules all the nations in another way. Christians are first and foremost members of his Kingdom and rule. They are “strangers and aliens” (1 Pet. 2:11) wherever they find themselves because their “citizenship is in heaven” (Phlp 3:20). Some would have us thinking this citizenship places us at odds with our government and society, but this is simplistic and wrong. Our heavenly citizenship and loyalty to Jesus above all drives us to a deeper sense of responsibility, commitment, and suffering on behalf of our country even as it places a definite limit on the extent of our loyalty. Paul invoked his citizenship and gave honor to those in authority even as he plainly stated his primary allegiance to Christ.

But that is not the final word on politics. God has provided a provisional regime of judgment to preserve peace, justice, and order until his return. This is the fundamental role of government as we await the return and consummation of history. There will be no government in the New Heavens and the New Earth. God governs creation, and human community, through His providential care of all things. He causes the sun to rise and set, He feeds the birds, and He provides for the peace and flourishing of human beings through political rulers which he establishes. Protestants have referred to political rule as a part of God’s “common grace.” This grace is distinct from inward regenerating grace that brings about our conversion and regeneration. It is external and deals with the order of human communities, not the human heart. A properly evangelical theology, then, will have something to say about politics. “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical,” writes Oliver O’Donovan, “Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin – their own sin and others.”[1]

For Christians all government must be secular government. Secular government, that is government of “this age” (the Latin term saeculum), in distinction from the contemporary usage which stresses government indifferent or hostile towards religion, will pass away in the age when King Jesus returns. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus a new age was inaugurated, but the old age did not pass away but persists so that we now live in two overlapping ages. In this paradigm government could be likened to a babysitter who keeps the house in order but departs when the parents return. Government is, therefore, responsible to God to maintain peace, order, and justice.

[1] Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3.

2 Responses to What Governments Are Not: The Kingdom of God and Secular Government

  1. David says:

    The only form of government to come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition was divine right monarchy. This was rejected by the Founders of the US who looked to the pagan democracies of Greece and the pagan Roman Republic for inspiration. Even to this day, British coins are inscribed with “Elizabeth II, Reg. [Regina, Queen], D. G. [Dei Gratia, by the grace of God]. I am certain many monarchies, both past and present, would object to the notion that all governments must be secular. “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:17.

    • Rebecca says:

      If you do a net search on founding documents and primary source documents you should come up with many of them written by authors from ancient times to modern, which were known and used by the Founders. They did not rely on one or two ancient Greek or Roman documents to create this country. The main ancient book they used is the Bible. They also used many other books based on the Bible, like Blackstone’s Commentaries. They used Blackstone many times more than the ancient pagans.

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