What is the Kingdom of God?
“My kingdom is not of this world.”
-Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate (Jn 18:36)
The kingdom of God is God’s twofold way of preserving and saving God’s creation. God’s kingdom is social justice and forgiveness of sins working together in Christ Jesus to bring about God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus’ central purpose in his preaching, healing, death and resurrection was to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Yet when we hear the word “kingdom,” it is understandable to think of human kingdoms that spanned large geographic areas with often violent forms of hierarchy holding them together. However, God’s kingdom is not like human kingdoms. It does not define a geographic land or space, and it functions in the opposite direction of human hierarchies. After arguing with one another about who was greatest in God’s kingdom, Jesus said to his disciplines, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28).
What, then, is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is the field or presence of God’s reign, power, influence, or governance. To be sure, this is a spiritual reign that does not directly compete with human agency, although God’s kingdom often conflicts with our agency and dramatically interrupts it. Although scripture recounts many instances of God’s dramatic interventions in human history, the scriptures also speak of a God Who likes to act through hidden means. Sometimes God can act through unknown forces of human history, and sometimes through the moral law written on the human heart. Most importantly, God has hidden God’s kingdom in the crucified man from Nazareth, the one who was for others.
The Two Hands of God’s Kingdom
To be more specific, God’s reign has two distinct sides or aspects: 1) the side of the Law with the limiting of injustice in society, and 2) the side of the Gospel, which is the ministry of forgiveness and eternal life in the church community. Another way of thinking about these two sides is in terms of our vertical and horizontal relationships. The left hand of God’s kingdom concerns our horizontal relationships with other human beings (coram hominibus), whereas the right hand of God’s kingdom concerns our relationship to God (coram Deo). These two hands point to and mutually support one another, even as they must never be confused.
The left hand of God’s kingdom includes the institutional church and its bylaws, as well as just laws in secular government, healthy family systems, and other forms of human society that limit injustice and provide structure for positive human relationships. The left hand of God’s kingdom advances whenever governments enact just laws, and when social movements overcome injustice and evil in society. The left hand of God’s kingdom was at work when, for example, president Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard in order to enforce school desegregation in 1957, and it was at work when the non-violent method of the civil rights movement disobeyed unjust laws to put pressure on legislators for racial equality.
The right hand of God’s kingdom refers to the “church” in a spiritual sense that differs from the institutional church. In this sense, the “church” refers to the spiritual community of the faithful, which scripture identifies with Christ’s body (1 Cor 12:12–14; Eph 4:1–16). This is a great mystery: Christ’s risen body, the sacrament of holy communion, and the church-community are all the “body of Christ,” even if they seem very different. Unlike other human communities, the church-community is neither a voluntary association nor a racial, national, or cultural identity. It is a new humanity generated by the Word of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and among its signs are repentance and the proclamation of God’s Word of forgiveness. The right hand of God’s kingdom advances one baptism at a time.
Two Kinds of Justice
The reason it is necessary to make this distinction in God’s kingdom is because of the two different kinds of righteousness or justice that one finds in scripture. Although we often find the term “righteousness” in the Bible, the same term can also be translated as “justice.” On the one hand, “righteousness” or “justice” means what we do or fail to do. This is an ordinary and intuitive meaning. We are called to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly argued that justice is nothing but love with legs. How can we say we love our neighbor if we do not respond to their material needs? So righteousness or justice in this sense is about what we do or fail to do.
Yet scripture also teaches another kind of righteousness or justice that has nothing to do with our works or effort. The same author who writes, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn 3:18), also writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). This is the righteousness or justice of the Gospel, which is donated or given to us on account of Christ by faith and apart from the law (Rom 3:28). In this sense, a person is “justified” because Christ has given his life as a ransom for us, to be received by faith alone. Justification happens to a person when they are baptized and cling to this baptism by faith, when they receive comfort by absolution, when they hear a sermon that proclaims Christ crucified and risen for them, and when they trust the sacrament of holy communion to give exactly what it says: forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28).
The Political and the Spiritual
We may think of these two aspects of God’s kingdom as the political and the spiritual. “Political” is not meant here in the sense of partisan opposition or of favoring either the Republican or Democratic parties. It is meant in the older sense of how the polis or public society is governed and functions. Secular government has its own mandate from God as one aspect of the left hand of God’s kingdom. While Christians are counseled to yield to secular government (Rom 13), Christians must disobey secular government when commanded to sin (Acts 5:29).
It is important to point out that the “two hands of God’s kingdom” is not the same thing as the separation of church and state. In the United States, the separation of church and state refers to an institutional separation wherein the secular government is constitutionally prohibited from favoring or inhibiting any particular religious view. Historically, the Lutheran church has never had a definitive position on whether secular government should advocate for the care of religion, and Lutheranism has existed more or less comfortably in societies ranging from pluralistic democracies to monarchies with a state religion. For those who would like to learn more about the history of the separation of church and state and its difficulties in the legal decisions and public policy of the United States, I would recommend Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy by the late Ronald Thiemann, former dean and Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School.
In his book On Secular Authority, Martin Luther argued that it is always necessary for secular governments, even monarchies with a state religion, to respect the religious conscience of individuals and never exercise compulsion in religious matters. Although the majority of modern Lutherans follow this historic teaching, the German Lutheran territories immediately after the Reformation, like many other territories, engaged in persecutions of Anabaptists largely because they mistakenly associated them with the violent revolutions of Thomas Müntzer. We all share historical culpability for the wrongs of the past and present, and it is important to acknowledge these wrongs and work to prevent them from happening in the future.
The separation of church and state can be interpreted and applied in the more open form of permitting religious views to be expressed in public policy debates without favoring any particular religion, while always protecting minority rights and consciences, or in the more secularizing view of prohibiting religious views from influencing public policy altogether. While the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as an institution, tends to be more politically progressive, the majority of Lutherans of all political persuasions tend to favor a more open understanding of the institutional separation of church and state.
This is why the Lutheran church is often political in its preaching, even while it is not theocratic. Political preaching simply means shining the light of God’s Word on our political life: are we acting justly and loving our neighbor both in our private lives and in our public policy? Lutheran preaching is not theocratic, however, in the sense that it does not advocate the control of government by the church. Secular governors must rely on the counsel of expertise to govern most effectively, and the church as an institution does not have expertise in the areas of government that are needed. However, because the mandate of the church is to proclaim God’s Word, the church must also bear witness to the mandate of secular government, to remind it of its purpose and the goals it should be seeking. The Lutheran church accepts a wide range of possible political means for achieving various goals, but it does not accept debate about whether the government should be seeking justice and the general welfare of all people, including immigrants and non-citizens. The Lutheran church bears firm witness to the mandate of government to protect and provide justice and care of all peoples.
For these reasons, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has issued numerous social statements over the last thirty years. These social statements can be found below.