King of Heaven and Earth

Christianity and Politics V: On God’s “Two Kingdoms”

Note: This is Part 5 of an ongoing series. See Part 1,  Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

A Wall of Separation

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the Federal government from making any laws “respecting an establishment of religion” meant that there was, and must be in America, an absolute “wall of separation between Church & State.”

Although Jefferson was only referring to establishment on the Federal level, which is indeed prohibited in the First Amendment, his phrase has come to represent for many Americans something much more expansive. It has, in fact, become a commonplace to indicate that the State can have nothing whatsoever to do with God or even the basic moral truths found in the Bible. Such an understanding has become predominant even among many Christians. But is it correct?

Separating church and state is extremely important. It is thoroughly biblical to do so, and the best thinkers in the Christian tradition have recognized the importance of doing so, although in a way very different from the modern conception of Jefferson’s wall of separation. There is a sense in which church and state must be absolutely separate and a sense in which they cannot be thought of separately at all. Each has its own unique realm of authority that must be preserved from unwarranted intrusion from the other, while neither can be sealed off completely from the other.

However, to adequately address the relationship between church and state we have to back up. The broader historical-theological concept into which the discussion of church and state falls is that of God’s “two kingdoms.” At its most basic level, the classic Protestant two kingdoms doctrine means that God rules over his spiritual kingdom, the church, in one way, and rules over the world outside the church in a different way. This is sometimes taken (wrongly) almost as if God doesn’t rule over the world outside the church at all, but it should not be understood in that way.

In this article I will introduce the doctrine of God’s two kingdoms, and then I will more briefly focus on how this idea illuminates the relationship between church and state. I’ll also explain some key biblical texts that deal with these difficult (and often fraught) relationships. The goal is to help Christians understand the divine purposes for each realm.

Defining the Two Kingdoms

As Brad Littlejohn puts it, for classical Protestant thinkers: “The two kingdoms were not two institutions or even two domains of the world, but two ways in which the kingship of Christ made itself felt in the life of each and every believer.” Referring to Christ’s comprehensive reign over all things Abraham Kuyper famously wrote that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” All fine and good, but what does this mean precisely? For example, if Jesus is king over all things should church and state be merged, with the officers of the church ruling the state as well? Should the state rule over the church? Is there another way that such realms should be related? The classic Protestant doctrine of the two kingdoms helps answer these very questions.

This is not an exhaustive historical survey, so I’ll simply quote from John Calvin to illustrate this historical strand of thought:

The former [the spiritual government] has its seat within the soul, the latter [the temporal government] only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside . . . . The question . . . though not very obscure, or perplexing in itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the external forum, and the forum of conscience.

Though it is sometimes mistakenly taken as such, Calvin’s point (which is representative of classic Protestant thinking on the whole) is not that there is one realm in which Christ rules (the spiritual realm) and another with which he has nothing to do (a non-spiritual realm), but rather that the Christian always lives simultaneously in both worlds. And it is also the case that Christ rules over both worlds, though his rule looks different according to the specific nature of each realm (for the sake of clarity and consistency I will refer to the “spiritual” and “external” kingdoms in the rest of this article).

Christ rules over the spiritual realm, or kingdom, by his word. In this kingdom the consciences of believers may only be bound insofar as Scripture itself binds them, and the focus of this kingdom is eternal salvation and the spiritual well-being of the saints. The spiritual kingdom is the sum total of believers and their children.

Does this mean the external realm, or kingdom, is a moral free for all? Not at all. Christ also rules over that realm, although in a fundamentally different way. The charter of the external kingdom is not the Bible (strictly speaking) though the Bible informs life in the civil kingdom. The charter for the external kingdom is derived in different ways from the imprint of God’s law in nature, the human conscience, the voice of tradition, human law and history, and more.

Properly separating the spiritual kingdom from the external kingdom that encompasses everything outside of the spiritual is vital. The spiritual kingdom, God’s saving work in the lives of his people, must be distinguished from everything earthly and temporal. Distinguishing, however, is not the same thing as radically separating or divorcing. My leaf blower’s engine requires a precise blend of oil and gasoline to operate. Oil is not gasoline; they are distinguished. But my engine will not run without both; they cannot be radically separated. The same is true of God’s two kingdoms.

The Two Kingdoms in Scripture

So far I’ve only been giving definitions and explanations. Now we must turn to Scripture. The focus in this section will be on a variety of texts that show us the distinction between God’s two kingdoms.

The Spiritual Kingdom

God is king over all things. Of this there is no dispute: “The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land” (Ps 10:16); “For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm” (Ps 47:7)!

In Jesus’s earthly ministry he also proclaims his Father’s dominion over all things, for example, teaching his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). But something unique and vital is introduced into Christ’s preaching of God’s kingdom. He proclaims that the kingdom of God is “at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), indicating that it is in some way not yet present. Why does Jesus speak this way? The short and simple answer is that when Jesus refers to the kingdom of God he is referring to the final form of God’s kingdom, which is the saving kingdom that he ushers into the world through his perfect life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection.  That is to say: Jesus is not referring with the phrase “kingdom of God” to God’s universal kingship over all things in a generic sense, but to the kingdom that will be manifest in the salvation he accomplishes and then pours out on his people. It is a “spiritual” kingdom, though it has profound implications for how its citizens live in this world.

The spiritual nature of the “kingdom of God” announced, and then enacted, by Christ is clear in numerous places in the New Testament. Consider, for example, John 18:36:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

In what sense is Jesus’ kingdom “not of this world?” Precisely in this: it is not a human political-military regime, one with armies that advance through statecraft or force of arms. It advances, rather through the proclamation of the gospel, as Jesus taught in the parable of the sower, which is about the “word of the kingdom” (Matt 13:19):

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matt 13:23)

The kingdom advances as more and more are brought into it by receiving the implanted word in true faith (James 1:21).

In a another context (Luke 17:20–21) Jesus,

being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.

The saving kingdom of God, contrary to the expectations of the Pharisees (and many others: see John 6:15; even the apostles after the resurrection: Acts 1:6–8), can not be observed outwardly in the way that earthly kingdoms can be seen with their cities, fortifications, armies, coinage, administration, and so on. The kingdom Christ came to inaugurate is not that kind of kingdom: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Now this must not be misunderstood as saying that the kingdom of God has no impact on this world. It is, rather, a recognition that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual; it is the saving reign of Christ rescuing sinners from spiritual death and condemnation for their sin and bringing them into the possession of eternal life. This is why believers can be described as currently reigning in Christ’s kingdom even in the midst of the most intense suffering and outward hostility. Revelation 5:10, for example, speaks of believers as “a kingdom and priests to our God” reigning with him on the earth, but as simultaneously partners “in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” alongside of John the apostle (Rev 1:9 [emphasis added]).

This is a major theme in the New Testament, but two additional examples will have to suffice. The apostle Paul, echoing Christ’s teaching writes in Romans 14:17 that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This is the same kingdom he also says “does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Cor 4:20). However, this power in context (chs. 1–4) is clearly God’s power manifest in the preaching of Christ as crucified for sinners (1 Cor 1:23–24; 2:1–5)

In sum, the kingdom of God, as we encounter it in the New Testament is the final form of God’s kingdom, centered on Christ’s saving work on the cross. It is a spiritual, not an earthly kingdom. It advances as the church fulfills the Great Commission (Matt 28:26–20).

The External Kingdom

If the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, pertaining to the salvation of sinners, rather than an earthly and external kingdom, does that mean that everything outside the scope of this kingdom is outside of God’s sovereign dominion? This is not at all the case, though the very texts I discussed in the previous section lead many to believe this to be so.

Whether we use the precise language of “external kingdom” or not is not the most important thing. Theologians throughout the ages have described the same reality in a variety of ways. What matters is the substance of the thing: the external kingdom refers to God’s rule over all things outside the scope of the saving kingdom described in the previous section. Though the precise wording of “kingdom” is not applied to God’s dominion over these creaturely realities in the New Testament it is nonetheless clear that God does rule over them. But he rules over them differently than he rules over his spiritual kingdom.

Describing this external realm or kingdom is in some ways more difficult, because the Bible isn’t primarily about this realm, though it does address it. For example, the natural world was made by God to display his own majesty and glory:

Psalm 19:1–4: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Human realms such as the artistic, musical, literary, and architectural are clearly valuable as well. Though used for purposes of biblical worship (especially in the tabernacle and temple) all of these skills had to be developed and nurtured in the men who would one day use them in God’s explicit service.

But more important for our purposes is the external realm of politics and the state. While I will go into much more detail about the New Testament teaching on the state in subsequent articles, becoming a Christian–entering the spiritual kingdom of God–does not mean that one is thereby released from responsibilities toward the governing officials, nor that one has thereby entered into a morally neutral realm. The state has real authority over its people. However, the state is not a law unto itself. Governing officials themselves are under God’s authority. Put most simply, the state is that manifestation of the external kingdom meant for the welfare of the world. God’s original purposes for the world have not been abrogated: it must be ruled over and ordered.

Church and State

The relationship between church and state is one of the most difficult questions when it comes to distinguishing what belongs in one or other of the two kingdoms. I certainly won’t end debate on this here, but I can make a few comments on one of the main sources of confusion about the proper relationship between church and state, namely Matthew 22: 15–22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Many read this text as proving a form of the separation of church and state much like that advocated by Thomas Jefferson: matters of state have to do only with Caesar and thus have nothing to do with God. The civil magistrate is a law unto himself and questions of state must be hermetically sealed off from divine truth. Though a common misconception, this understanding is false, for it misses what is most ultimate in this passage: Jesus relativizes the power of the state. What belongs to Caesar? Management of the state, yes, but nothing more. What belongs to God? The very life of the believer. Caesar’s authority is delegated and narrowly circumscribed. He does not have absolute authority over the lives of Christians, who owe their supreme loyalty to God alone. He does not have absolute authority over the world either, which belongs to God. He is merely a “servant” and “minister” under God’s own supreme kingship over the kingdoms of this world (Rom 13:1–7).


So many difficulties (including the vexed question of Christianity and politics) would be easier to solve if Christians could rightly separate, without radically divorcing the two kingdoms. External, earthly matters like economics, warfare, the family, education, art, science, and more, do not advance the saving kingdom of God in Christ. That kingdom advances solely through the gospel work of the church. But the former matters are not worthless or sub-Christian simply because they fall into the realm of the external kingdom. Far from it: in their own distinctive way each aspect of the creational work of the external kingdom brings glory to God, is good in its own right, and most importantly, is a manifestation of the order and rule seen in God’s own lordship over this world. That includes even political order, which God has established, and which is to be carried out according to his intention (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17; etc.). What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.