Two Kingdoms & Separation From the World—a Defense

The essence of Anabaptism, and our most defining belief, is probably the doctrine of the two kingdoms, or the related doctrine of “separation from the world.” Basically all our distinctive beliefs flow from this doctrine, which was also held by the early church up until Constantine.

In this article, I will give a defense for this doctrine. (For a description rather than a defense, see instead my article on Anabaptist two-kingdom theology.)

Defining the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms

In essence, the two-kingdom concept is that Jesus has inaugurated on earth a heavenly nation that demands our exclusive loyalties. The concept of separation from the world is that Christians must remain apart from the workings and mindsets of earthly nations and societies.

The two-kingdom concept entails these points:

  1. We become Christians by transferring our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. For Christians, this nation takes the place of earthly nations and loyalties.
  2. Earthly nations and their governments are God’s servants, a necessary evil intended to maintain peace for non-Christians.
  3. God’s Kingdom and its citizens cannot mix with earthly government—the two are incompatible in their values, interests, expectations, and commands.
  4. Thus, Christians are ambassadors to their earthly nation, respecting it and praying for it always, obeying it wherever possible, while giving full service to God’s nation as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

As I’ll show, this view is taught in the New Testament and was taught by the early church before Constantine.

King and Kingdom

First, it’s important to note how central the King and Kingdom concepts are to the gospel message.

First, Jesus’ main title throughout the New Testament is “Christ,” which is the Greek word for “Messiah.” Both words mean “anointed,” and they were used to signify God’s chosen king, the king of Israel. It was foretold throughout the New Testament that this king would return autonomy to Israel. The New Testament even announces explicitly that Jesus is King.1Matt 2:2, 21:5 25:34, 27:11, John 1:49, 1 Tim 6:14-15, Rev 17:14, 19:16 In the New Testament, Jesus’ identity as Christ, a King, is at least as prominent as his identity as Savior. This concept by itself suggests the centrality of the Kingdom of God to Jesus’ ministry.

Furthermore, the Kingdom of God, also called the Kingdom of Heaven,2Note that Matthew tends to use “the kingdom of heaven” and Luke tends to use “the kingdom of God,” even when retelling the same teachings of Jesus. Luke probably used “the kingdom of God” because it would be more familiar with his Gentile audience. is ubiquitous throughout the New Testament. It is Jesus’ first message (Matt 4:17). It’s constantly the subject of Jesus’ parables and teachings. It was Jesus’ subject after he died and rose (Acts 1:3). In fact, the gospel is called the gospel of the kingdom (Matt 4:23, 24:14, Luke 8:1). Since the Kingdom is so central to the message of the New Testament, we should expect it to define Christianity.

Nonresistance

Also, I’d like to draw attention to one other doctrine that hugely affects the doctrine of the two kingdoms. The doctrine of nonresistance holds that Christians are not to do violence or injury to anyone, even in self-defense.

Neither doctrine really works without the other, and each doctrine supports the other. After all, if Christians were to be involved in every level of earthly government, how could we refrain from doing violence? And if Christians weren’t supposed to be peaceful, we would soon be stamped out of every nation as enemies of the peace, if we also refused to join with the government.

It’s important to note how these doctrines interface, because the two-kingdom concept can often seem ambiguous. It’s a very nuanced position; hence, the evidence for it can easily be read wrongly. However, the evidence for nonresistance is very strong in both Scripture and the early church. So when you consider the doctrine of the two kingdoms, be sure to consider it alongside the doctrine of nonresistance, which helps it make considerably more sense. I’ll be bringing up the connections between the two doctrines throughout this article.

We become Christians by transferring our allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

Scripture gives us several reasons to believe that we become Christians by a transfer of allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

First, since the main message of Jesus is the Kingdom of God, it would seem strange if our primary relationship with him wasn’t one of allegiance. And indeed, the language used of matters of salvation shows that allegiance has a great deal to do with our salvation. Scripture teaches that we are saved through faith in Christ, and the Greek word translated “faith” means “allegiance” in many contexts. In fact, the Greek word translated “repentance” also indicates a change of loyalties.3For example, Josephus, writing near this time, tells of a story where he told a rebel leader to, literally, “repent and believe” in him. He meant that the leader must turn from his other purpose and be loyal to Josephus. Furthermore, the “gospel” itself is the good news that Jesus is King. This Greek word translated “gospel” often indicates the proclamation of a ruler taking his kingdom. Such an event would naturally require citizens to decide whether to declare allegiance to the new king.

Second, Scripture straightforwardly speaks of salvation as including a change of allegiance:

  • God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13 ESV). We were in one domain, but now are in another kingdom.4This is not just about Jewish Christians, since the Kingdom is mentioned in books written to Gentile Christians. Also note Col 4:11, where Paul lists “the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God” (ESV), suggesting that there were others working for the Kingdom rather than just Jews.
  • Gentile Christians were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” but have now been made “fellow citizens with the saints” through Christ (Ephesians 2:12, 19).
  • Christians have received a Kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).
  • Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).
  • Jesus confirms that the obedient enter the Kingdom of God: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
  • To a scribe who showed an understanding of what God expects from his people, Jesus said that he was “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
  • Revelation speaks of Jesus as “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev 1:5–6).
  • Peter says that Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Those who came out of darkness into light belong to this nation.

The Kingdom of God is the same entity as Old Testament Israel.

This should be enough evidence, but I’ll offer another indication that salvation includes a change of allegiance.

The Kingdom of God is a continuation of Old Testament Israel, under a new covenant. This means that, just as Old Testament saints modeled their loyalty to God by being a member of God’s nation, Israel; we model our loyalty by being a member of God’s nation, the Kingdom of Heaven.

What evidence indicates that the Kingdom of God is the same entity as Israel? First, the term “Christ” or “Messiah” communicated this message to Jesus’ first-century hearers—those terms were used of a future King of Israel. Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, make up Jesus’ people. He’s our Christ, so thus we’re members of the true nation of Israel.

Second, the very concept of the “Kingdom of God” indicates this. When Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, everyone recognized that he was, or was claiming to be, the “King of Israel/King of the Jews.”5Mark 15:2, 15:32, John 1:49, 12:13, 19:3, 19:21 While Jesus chose to use slightly different language (probably so as not to reinforce the idea that he was King of the land area of Israel, since he was King of the spiritual Israel), he didn’t correct their terminology, since it was literally correct.

Thirdly, and even more directly, Paul makes clear in Romans 9–11 that Christians make up the true Israel. He says

  • That not all Israelites were true Israelites: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Romans 9:6–7)
  • That only those Israelites chosen by grace were true Israelites: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. . . . So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” (11:2, 5)
  • Israelites who were not true were cut off like branches, and Gentiles who were true were grafted in in their place: “some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (11:17).

Finally, there are other passages in the New Testament that suggest this very thing:

  • In Ephesians, Paul describes this very transaction of bringing Gentiles into Israel: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:12–19)
  • Jesus, speaking of a Gentile, said that many non-Jews would join the Kingdom, while many who were at the time “sons of the kingdom” would be thrown out: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:10-12)

Thus, the New Testament clearly teaches that one aspect of salvation is to be brought into the Kingdom of God, which is Israel under the New Covenant. Christians are now members of the nation that originated as the Old Testament nation of Israel.

For Christians, this nation takes the place of earthly nations and loyalties.

When a Christian transfers his allegiance to the Kingdom of God, he ceases to give loyalty to his earthly nation. Before I support this claim with evidence from Scripture and historical Christianity, it’s worthwhile to note that this is what we should expect, given the previous information:

  • Throughout Scripture, Israel (the past form of the Kingdom) is contrasted with the “nations” or “Gentiles.” The Greek word behind these terms is ethnos, which indicates a nation or people group. The story of Israel was the story of God working with one nation, and keeping them from becoming like the other nations. So God’s people have always been a nation to the exclusion of other nations. (Of course, there has always been a way for individuals of every nation under heaven to become part of God’s people.)
  • The previously-mentioned concepts of “king” and “kingdom” clearly indicate that the Kingdom of God is a replacement for other nations. Jesus could have said that he was setting up a new “religion” or a new way of worshiping God. Instead, he set up a Kingdom. If he hadn’t intended Christianity to take the place of our national loyalties, it would be surprising that he’d used that term.

Before assessing further evidence that Christianity takes the place of earthly loyalties, it’s important to lay some groundwork.

The Kingdom of God is the present reality of Christians on earth, but it will not be present in its fullness until Jesus returns.

If the Kingdom of God were a future reality, as many Christians believe, then it might not demand our exclusive present loyalties. However, Scripture teaches that the Kingdom is present, although it won’t be present in its fullness until Jesus returns. Here are a few indications of that.

First, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he says that the Kingdom of God is “at hand,” or approaching very near (Matt 4:17). It would be strange for him to say that if it weren’t going to come for another two thousand years or more. Of course, he taught his disciples to pray that the Kingdom of God would come (Matt 6:10), so it hasn’t fully arrived, but also he told the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28). So, during Jesus’ ministry, the Kingdom of God was at least imminent, if not present. Jesus promised that the Kingdom would be present before all who had heard him had died.6Matt 16:28, Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27 There’s disagreement as to which event he meant by that (the transfiguration, the ascension, Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem), but since all those who heard him have since died, the Kingdom must be present by now.

Furthermore, Jesus told parables that demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is present during the church age. In Matthew 13, Jesus says that wheat and weeds, which are good and evil people, will both be in the Kingdom until the judgment at the end of the age. He also compares the Kingdom to a net which draws in both good and bad fish to be judged at the end of the age.

Also, note that Hebrews teaches a present Kingdom:

[N]ow he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:26–28)

If the Kingdom that cannot be shaken “may remain” when God shakes “the things that have been made,” then the Kingdom exists alongside the things that have been made but are “shakeable,” yet the Kingdom will last even after judgment day.

Scripture also often refers to the Kingdom as a future reality that is not yet fully present. However, the passages cited above show that the Kingdom is present now in some sense.

Note that the Kingdom of God is not just a spiritual reality in our hearts. Scripture never confines the work of the Kingdom to our individual private lives.

Since the Kingdom of God is a present reality that redefines our lives, it makes sense that loyalty to the Kingdom would clash with our other loyalties. However, there are further reasons to believe that the Kingdom of God must be the sole object of a Christian’s patriotism.

The Kingdom Has All the Earmarks of a Nation

I note in passing that this Kingdom is a legitimate replacement for a nation, since it has all that’s needed for a nation: its own King (Jesus), laws (apostolic teachings), governing body (the church), capital (heaven), mission (spreading across the world), and economic system (sharing and almsgiving).

This view goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. Tertullian, for example, says,

But as for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven. You have your own registers, your own calendar; you have nothing to do with the joys of the world; nay, you are called to the very opposite, for “the world shall rejoice, but ye shall mourn.” (Tertullian, The Chaplet 13)

Now that I’ve laid the groundwork for understanding this clash of loyalties, I’ll offer more direct evidence that the Kingdom of God takes the place of earthly loyalties.

Jesus is our King in place of, rather than alongside, earthly rulers.

The historical context of Jesus’ preaching shows that allegiance to the Kingdom of God takes the place of allegiance to earthly nations. Jesus’ followers ascribed to him many terms that were frequently applied to Caesar—Lord, Savior, Son of God, God, and Gospel.

As mentioned before, the apostles also called him Christ, which indicated a king foretold to rule all nations. In a first-century context, it was clear that Jesus’ followers considered him a replacement for their allegiance to Caesar. He was even put to death on the charge that he was a king to the exclusion of Caesar (though of course there were other reasons why he was accused in the first place).

Earthly nations and their governments are proctored by spiritual beings, from which we are transferred.

But what makes it so necessary that we transfer our earthly loyalties to the Kingdom of God? This section will answer that question, in part, as well as provide evidence for the exclusive demands of the Kingdom.

One significant part of the story of salvation is that Jesus triumphs over all the powers that have authority over us, bringing us out from under their dominion:

  • In saving us, Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col 2:11-15).
  • We formerly followed “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2)
  • We are no longer under the “elemental spirits of the world” (Gal 4:3-9, Col 2:8, 20)

The powers mentioned in these contexts are immaterial entities, not themselves nations.7Note the way Irenaeus speaks of these beings: “And who can enumerate one by one all the remaining objects which have been constituted by the power of God, and are governed by His wisdom? or who can search out the greatness of that God who made them? And what can be told of those existences which are above heaven, and which do not pass away, such as Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, and Powers innumerable?” (Against Heresies 2.30.3) However, the New Testament speaks of them in terms that are used of nations—like “rulers,” “principalities,” “authorities,” etc. Why is that?

Biblical scholars have (comparatively) recently rediscovered a fact of Israelite cosmology that’s present in Scripture: God assigned each nation to be ruled by a spiritual being, and these spiritual beings are currently in rebellion against God.

In Deuteronomy, this is stated clearly:

When the Most High divided the nations,
When He scattered the sons of Adam,
He set the boundaries of the nations
By the number of God’s angels.8This translation uses the Greek Septuagint. The Hebrew text says “according to the number of the sons of God,” which is a term for spiritual beings.
For the Lord’s portion became the people of Jacob;
The allotment of His inheritance is Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:8-9, Orthodox Study Bible)

Early Christians such as Clement and Irenaeus interpreted this text plainly, as a statement that God placed humanity, except for his chosen people, under the authority of spiritual beings. Clement even applies this passage to the church, the new Israel.9For thus it is written, “When the Most High divided the nations, when He scattered the sons of Adam, He fixed the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. His people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, and Israel the lot of His inheritance.” And in another place [the Scripture] saith, “Behold, the Lord taketh unto Himself a nation out of the midst of the nations, as a man takes the first-fruits of his threshing-floor; and from that nation shall come forth the Most Holy.” Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness . . . (1 Clement 29-30)

Irenaeus:

Now in this passage he does not only declare to them God as the Creator of the world, no Jews being present, but that He did also make one race of men to dwell upon all the earth; as also Moses declared: “When the Most High divided the nations, as He scattered the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the nations after the number of the angels of God;” but  that people which believes in God is not now under the power of angels, but under the Lord’s [rule]. “For His people Jacob was made the portion of the Lord, Israel the cord of His inheritance.” (Against Heresies, 3.12.9)

However, the nations worshiped their own spiritual beings as gods, and those beings accepted that worship, which put them in rebellion against God. However, God chose to be the one and only God of Abraham and his descendants.

So that’s why the spiritual powers that held us in bondage are spoken of in terms of government—some of these powers are actually influencing the governments of this world. However, God’s Kingdom is not proctored by anyone outside of the Trinity—Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God, is our King, and we have no mediator other than him.

Tertullian describes the view of early Christianity that the nations of this world are enemies of God:

all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God; that through them punishments have been determined against God’s servants; through them, too, penalties prepared for the impious are ignored. (Tertullian, On Idolatry 18)

Earthly governments rightfully rule their subjects, because God gave them that right. But these governments and the spiritual beings behind them are in rebellion against the one who gave them their authority.

As quoted before, Peter says that Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation [ethnos], a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Since we have been set apart as a nation/people for God’s own possession, how can we be part of someone else’s nation?

It’s not a contradiction to say that government is God’s servant and enemy

In this section, I’ll address a possible objection. How do we reconcile the two seemingly opposing claims, that the government is God’s servant and also at times our enemy? This seems like a contradiction—wouldn’t that be an indication that we’re wrongly interpreting one or the other of these passages?

A simple analogy will show that this is not a contradiction, but instead fit perfectly into the two-kingdom concept. Consider this example, which is not at all intended to endorse U.S. imperialism:

A U.S. citizen lives in a South American nation that’s ruled by a government that the U.S. has put in place. However, there are anti-American leanings among government officials, and they are acting rebellious. The U.S. government advises their citizens in this nation

  • To obey the government of the South American nation, since it was put in place to protect U.S. citizens. After all, it is still functioning to punish criminals.
  • To pay any taxes and duties, since that nation has a right to collect them.
  • However, they should continue to obey all U.S. laws, and disobey any laws that would cause them to disobey U.S. laws.
  • This nation is an enemy, and they should speak out against the anti-American sentiment in this nation.

For me, as a U.S. citizen, this is precisely the place I’m in. I’m loyal to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. However, God has put the U.S. government in place for human good, even though earthly governments are not being loyal to God.

The one difference between this analogy and the place of a Christian is that our government, since it is higher and nobler than the U.S. government, commands us not to harm any individual in our earthly nation. The U.S. government has nothing to fear from me—I’ll obey every law that I can conscientiously obey, and I’ll never resist the government with subversion or violence.

Thus, the best explanation of these two facts is the two-kingdom concept.

The early Christians’ nation was the Kingdom of God

The final evidence that I’ll offer to demonstrate the exclusive demands of the Kingdom of God is that this was the view of the earliest Christians. Throughout the next several sections, I’ll be offering further quotations to support this claim, but here are two which suggest the exclusivity of the Kingdom.

Wherefore we have no country on earth, that we may despise earthly possessions. (Clement of Alexandria, Instructor 3.8)

Celsus also urges us to “take office in the government of the country, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.” But we recognise in each state the existence of another national organization, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches. (Origen, Against Celsus 8.75)

Earthly nations and their governments are God’s servants.

As I said in a previous section, Christians recognize that earthly nations have a right to exist—God gives them that right. God has set earthly nations in place over their land areas, and we should respect and obey whatever nation is functioning as the owner of the land area we happen to be in. Jesus, of course, is over all authorities on earth, and when he returns, all kingdoms will become his (Rev 1:5, 11:15).

The New Testament is clear that we should obey the earthly nations that we find ourselves in (Romans 13:1–7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13–17). We should also honor our leaders (1 Peter 2:17) and pray for them (1 Tim 2:1–4). Jesus tells us that we should pay taxes (Matt 22:21). In a later section, I’ll look into what obedience to the government implies.

Earthly governments are a necessary evil intended to maintain peace among non-citizens of God’s Kingdom until Jesus’ return.

So far, I’ve shown that the Kingdom of God serves as a replacement for earthly nations, and later in this article I’ll argue that point further. However, not everyone belongs to the Kingdom, and it is against Christian principles to force people to join it. So there remain many people who aren’t part of the Kingdom. What remains for them? Scripture says,

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. . . . he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:3–4)

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Pet 2:13–14)

Irenaeus attests that the early church also believed that earthly government’s main role is to keep “some degree of justice” among ungodly humanity:

For since man, by departing from God, reached such a pitch of fury as even to look upon his brother as his enemy, and engaged without fear in every kind of restless conduct, and murder, and avarice; God imposed upon mankind the fear of man, as they did not acknowledge the fear of God, in order that, being subjected to the authority of men, and kept under restraint by their laws, they might attain to some degree of justice, and exercise mutual forbearance through dread of the sword suspended full in their view, as the apostle says: “For he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, the avenger for wrath upon him who does evil.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.24.2)

Thus, other nations need to exist in order to serve those who aren’t Christians—and with violence, if necessary.

Scripture and the universal witness of the early church is very clear—Christians may not use violence. We answer violence with love, and return good for evil.

However, there are violent people out there. Unfortunately, violent people would disrupt society if there were no government. So God authorizes governments to use violence in order to keep violence from getting out of hand. The governments return evil with evil, in order to maintain some sort of peace. It should go without saying that Christians cannot participate in these activities of the government. God authorizes us to return good for evil. God authorizes governments to return evil for evil.

God intends the governments as a necessary evil. When I say “necessary evil,” I don’t literally mean an evil that must necessarily exist; I mean an evil that is less bad than whatever alternatives are consistent with the way God chooses to interact with the world.

The government is intended to help non-Christians and to make the world more peaceful so that we can spread the gospel. But earthly government as it must necessarily exist in this age isn’t part of God’s ideal for humanity. And in the long run, we can, through our peaceful methods, actually effect more good than the government can.

Note that even though we aren’t part of the worldly system, we obey their laws in order not to come under the condemnation of that government, and in order to set a good example to non-believers.10Note that Jesus wouldn’t have had to pay the temple tax, but he did so “not to give offense” (Matt 17:24-30).

God is willing to work with “necessary evils”

In this section, I’ll address a possible objection. If God ordains something, how can it be a necessary evil?

Remember that what I mean by “necessary evil” is an evil that is less bad than whatever alternatives are consistent with the way God chooses to interact with the world. My definition is consistent with this one from Wiktionary: “An unfavorable thing that must be done or accepted, especially because the available alternative courses of action or inaction would be worse.”

I myself am an idealist. I don’t like to think that there’s any such thing as a sufficient reason to allow an evil. However, if I disputed that God would ever choose a necessary evil, I would have no answer to the problem of evil—why does God allow evil to exist at all?

The reason for this necessary evil is the same as the reasons for many others—God works with people where they are. For example, he gave Israel a human king, even though he himself was Israel’s true King:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. . . .” (1 Sam 8:4–7)

God instituted this method of government even though it wasn’t his ideal. And even further in history, God had also instituted the Old Testament Law as a pragmatism rather than an ideal.

Similarly, since God loves even the people who don’t accept him (Matt 5:44–45), he temporarily gives them earthly governments for their protection, even though his ultimate wish is that they would enter his Kingdom.

A Christian therefore finds himself within the jurisdiction of two nations. He cannot give loyalty to both, and the two nations cannot be joined.

My primary citizenship is in heaven, and my full allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. However, I live within the land area of the United States and I am also a citizen here. That is also the position of every other Christian.

So how do those two citizenships interact? How much allegiance can we give to each nation?

In this section and the next, I’ll show that a Christian cannot give allegiance to an earthly nation, because earthly governments are antithetical to Christianity. Of course, if earthly governments are antithetical to Christianity, this also entails that there can never be a state church.

These nations are incompatible in their values, interests, expectations, and commands.

Why are God’s nation and our earthly nation antithetical? Very simply, the things they reach for are incompatible. As the KJV says, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). If I want to go to Brazil, and you want to go to Estonia, we won’t be traveling together for much of our journey.

Incompatible Values:

The kingdoms of this world were put in place by God, but since they are proctored by spiritual beings who are in rebellion against God, their values are not compatible with his. Some of the things they value are actually bad, and some of them are simply given a misplaced value. For example, Jesus says,

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles [ethnos, nations] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt 6:31–33)

So in some cases, the nations actually value good things, but because they don’t feel secure unless they have them, they value these things too highly. The nations don’t seek first the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s Kingdom values love, peace, almsgiving, and doesn’t require anyone to enter, except by their free will.

Earthly nations value power, wealth, fame, ambition, pomp, and they forcibly subject everyone within their boundaries.

Earthly governments try to maximize their possessions. They try to gain mastery over other nations and to increase their wealth. But Jesus warns us against wealth, and instead tells us to give to others rather than to build up treasures on earth. Lactantius and Origen point out the incompatibilities of value:

For it is impossible for him who has surrounded himself with royal pomp, or loaded himself with riches, either to enter upon or to persevere in these difficulties [the heavenly way]. (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6.4)

Those who are ambitious of ruling we reject; but we constrain those who, through excess of modesty, are not easily induced to take a public charge in the Church of God. And those who rule over us well are under the constraining influence of the great King, whom we believe to be the Son of God, God the Word. And if those who govern in the Church, and are called rulers of the divine nation—that is, the Church—rule well, they rule in accordance with the divine commands, and never suffer themselves to be led astray by worldly policy. And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God—for the salvation of men. (Origen, Against Celsus 8.75)

Incompatible Interests:

Christians are fellow-citizens with all other Christians, regardless of location. We love both neighbor and enemy, so we help people, regardless of nation or ethnicity. We see all humanity as candidates for being persuaded to join our nation.

Earthly nations value their national interests above other nations. They value the citizens of their earthly government above the citizens of other earthly governments. They would be glad to build an empire for themselves.

Tertullian and Lactantius point out the incompatibilities of interests:

But as those in whom all ardour in the pursuit of glory and honour is dead, we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings; nor is there aught more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state. We acknowledge one all-embracing commonwealth—the world. We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theatre, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offence at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures?  If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight. (Tertullian, Apology 38)

[W]hat are the interests of our country, but the inconveniences of another state or nation?—that is, to extend the boundaries which are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state, to improve the revenues,—all which things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues: for, in the first place, the union of human society is taken away, innocence is taken away, the abstaining from the property of another is taken away; lastly, justice itself is taken away, which is unable to bear the tearing asunder of the human race, and wherever arms have glittered, must be banished and exterminated from thence. . . . For how can a man be just who injures, who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? And they who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things: for they are ignorant of what this being serviceable is, who think nothing useful, nothing advantageous, but that which can be held by the hand; and this alone cannot be held, because it may be snatched away. (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6.6)

Incompatible Expectations:

As previous sections have shown, Christ’s Kingdom demands to be the object of our patriotism and primary allegiance. Only if a loyalty doesn’t conflict with that allegiance can we give loyalty elsewhere (also see Matt 10:37).

However, earthly nations demand that they instead must be the object of our patriotism and primary allegiance. Fortunately, there has recently been an exception to this—some modern nations are willing to allow us (in most cases) to give allegiance to Christ’s Kingdom instead.

Incompatible Commands:

Christ’s Kingdom commands us never to return evil for evil, and instead to practice nonresistance. We are commanded not to swear oaths, and instead to be honest (Matt 5:33–37).

Earthly nations command many of their citizens to commit acts of coercion and violence. For example, they expect many of their citizens to render military service and to be willing to kill the nation’s enemies, which Christians cannot do. How could I kill a Christian, a member of my primary nation, at the request of my secondary nation? And how could I kill a non-Christian, who I hope Christ will save? Earthly nations also require such services as jury duty, where jurors must judge other people, sometimes even condemning them for crimes for which they will be put to death. And, of course, governments have police forces.

Earthly nations have also, for most of history, required their citizens to take oaths. They also disseminate propaganda and command their officials to deceive other nations when necessary.

We Are Told to Remain Separate From the World

How can we compromise the values, interests, expectations, and commands of the Kingdom of God? Are we even Christians anymore if we aren’t true to the Kingdom in these areas?

This is not just my assessment. Scripture is also very clear that these incompatibilities exist. I began by describing the incompatibilities, so as to accent what Scripture says about Christian involvement in earthly societies. What does Scripture say about this?

First, one very prominent theme in the New Testament is that Christians are to be separate from the world:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. (1 John 2:15-16)

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? . . . Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing (2 Cor 6:14-17)

If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19)

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:14)

The New Testament uses “world” to mean many different things. Some of them are morally neutral—for example, when “the world” just means “the earth.” However, in its negative context, it’s a condemnation of earthly societies which are not loyal to our heavenly King.

So if we are to remain separate from the world, we should remain apart from earthly nations. They are called “the kingdoms/nations of this world” (Matt 4:8, Luke 12:30, Rev 11:15, 16:14).11Note also that Jesus contrasts the Kingdom of Heaven with earthly values in John 18:36. The spiritual powers under which we were enslaved before coming to the Kingdom are also “of the world” (Gal 4:3, Col 2:8, 20). Remember that these powers are closely tied to earthly governments.

We Can’t Serve Two Masters

Scripture also highlights the incompatibility between Christianity and earthly nations when Jesus makes it clear that no one can serve two masters:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt 6:24)

In the parable of the sower, Jesus also speaks of a type of ground in which “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matt 13:22).

These sayings are actually about money, not nations. However, they apply to earthly nations as well. After all, money is inextricably linked to the systems and kingdoms of the world, and these nations also seek after wealth and economic domination. Thus, the general principle applies. Your Christianity won’t be likely to survive if you care about the things the nations care about or if you render to them all the service that they expect of citizens.

Tertullian also applies this principle to the relationship between God and earthly government:

There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Cæsar.

Tertullian continues by pointing out that, since the Old Testament saints went to war, one could argue that Christians could serve in the military. But for New Testament saints, violence is no longer allowed, so this precludes Christianity from mixing with government.

And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? (Tertullian, On Idolatry 19)

How, I ask you, could you be loyal to two masters or nations, when they don’t desire the same things? You’ll be loyal to either one or the other—or you’ll risk being a “lukewarm” Christian who doesn’t fit anywhere (see Rev 3:16).

Earthly governments are always spoken of in the third person.

The incompatibility between Christianity and earthly nations also appears in the way the New Testament writers refer to the government. One little-noticed fact is that the  New Testament writers always refer to governments as though they’re a reality that we need to cope with, not something we can join up with or change. You can see this in the passages quoted in this article. Also see Matthew 10:17–23.

The New Testament writers never speak of nations in the first person, like calling them “our” nation or “our” king. That’s because we can only be loyal to one nation.

No Command to Allegiance

Nowhere does the New Testament suggest that we should give any allegiance to an earthly nation. Nowhere do the apostles model any allegiance to an earthly nation. These facts also indicate the incompatibility of Christianity with government.

Paul did take advantage of his Roman citizenship,12Acts 16:37, 21:39, 22:25 but he never hinted that he had any loyalty to an earthly nation. He called Israelites his brothers, and longed for their salvation, but he gave his loyalty to Christ and the heavenly nation of Israel rather than to the earthly nation of Israel.

“God and country” politics are found nowhere in the New Testament, unless by “country” you mean the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here’s a possible objection—doesn’t obedience suggest allegiance? When Anabaptists explain the two-kingdom concept, probably the first passages we hear quoted to us to refute our view are two passages that we often quote to ourselves as an integral part of understanding our view. Because they come up so often, I will quote them in full:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1–7)

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Pet 2:13–17)

Do these passages suggest that we should be loyal to earthly governments? No.

Those of us who hold to the two-kingdom view interpret these passages literally and seriously. We obey the government, as I’ve already said. We respect it as being instituted by God, as I’ve already said. We do not resist the government, as I’ve already said. We pay taxes, just as Jesus commanded.

Why are these passages, which are so central to the two-kingdom concept, used as an argument against us? I suggest that it’s because when we say that earthly government is not good, they believe that we’re saying that we shouldn’t obey the government.

I suggest that that’s because they implicitly believe that one should be loyal to and obey good authorities, but be disloyal to and disobey evil authorities. To them, if it’s true that we shouldn’t be loyal to the government because it’s a necessary evil, the natural implication is that we should also disobey it. So when Romans 13 tells us to obey the government, that fact seems to disprove the idea that we shouldn’t give loyalty to our earthly government.

But the idea that citizens have the right to resist an evil government is an Enlightenment idea that isn’t found in the New Testament. We believe that one should obey even the most evil governments, whenever we can do that without being disloyal to Christ. In fact, Paul wrote Romans 13 while under a government that was far more evil than most governments we experience today. Thus, the fact that we should obey the government is not at all a strike against our view.

Nonresistance

Finally, the clearest New Testament fact that shows the incompatibility of the Kingdom of God and earthly nations is probably the command to nonresistance. I’ve touched on this point before, but it is worth repeating—it is so well-documented. There is virtually no room for question on this: Christians may not use violence.

In the New Testament, we are frequently told that we may not do violence, but never told that we may do violence. However, the New Testament in two places says that the government may do violence, and never says that it may not do violence. How can Christians take part in earthly government, when that government is necessarily tied to violence?

God authorized the state to do violence, but never authorized us to take part in the state’s violence. Jesus said that if his kingdom were of the world, his servants would fight (John 18:36). Instead, his Kingdom is from heaven, and our values differ from those of earthly nations. While they protect their interests through violence and coercion, we show love even to those who would like to kill us. When Peter tried to defend Jesus’ life, Jesus told him to put it away, and he even healed the person Peter injured.

The pre-Nicene Christians are in full agreement with this interpretation of the New Testament. Only when the Roman Empire became friendly to Christianity did this change.

The two nations a Christian finds himself in are radically different. Earthly nations win through violence. Jesus’ Kingdom wins through love. We cannot mix the two.

Conclusion

To recap the points I’ve made in this section:

  • The Kingdom of God and the nations of this world are incompatible in their values, interests, expectations, and commands.
  • We are told to remain separate from the world, which includes the nations of the world.
  • We can’t serve two masters; our loyalty to God must take precedence over everything else.
  • The New Testament writers always speak of earthly governments as a foreign reality.
  • The New Testament writers never command us to give allegiance to an earthly government.
  • We cannot partake in the violence that necessarily defines earthly nations.

It would seem very strange, given all these points, that we could still offer allegiance to an earthly nation or take part in the workings of an earthly government.

The only thing that remains compatible is that the Kingdom of God calls us to obey earthly nations whenever possible. If earthly nations are willing to accept the service of model citizens who only insist on prioritizing their citizenship in God’s peaceful nation, there won’t be a conflict with the government. But conflicts often happen nonetheless, when society pressures us to join their ways.

Christians are ambassadors to their earthly nation, respecting it and praying for it always, obeying it wherever possible.

Earthly governments are not completely bad, or God wouldn’t give them authority. Governments do at least bring some order to the world, which would be a far more violent place if anarchy reigned. Thus, Christians respect and pray for their rulers, who are servants of God and who have rightful authority over their citizens.

As Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, quoted above, show, we must obey the earthly governments we find ourselves under. Note that 1 Peter 2 urges us to act as a separate nation, being ambassadors who obey laws in order to set a good example:13Paul also tells us to aid in reconciling the world to God, being ambassadors for Christ: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:18-20)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, . . . Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles [KJV: strangers and pilgrims] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles [ethnos, nations] honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet 2:9-12)

This New Testament principle was lived out by the early Christians, who also obediently served their earthly nations, with prayer and respect, as the quotations at this footnote make abundantly clear.14to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 17)

when his sovereignty was in a prosperous position, and when affairs were turning out according to his wish, he [Decius] oppressed those holy men who interceded with God on behalf of his peace and his welfare. And consequently, persecuting them, he persecuted also the prayers offered in his own behalf. (Dionysius, Epistle 11—to Hermammon)

Consider that every command of the emperor which does not offend God has proceeded from God Himself; and execute it in love as well as in fear, and with all cheerfulness. (Theonas, Bishop of Alexandria, to Lucianus, the Chief Chamberlain 2)

(In reply, we need only state) a well-known fact, that we acknowledge the fealty of Romans to the emperors. No conspiracy has ever broken out from our body: no Cæsar’s blood has ever fixed a stain upon us, in the senate or even in the palace; no assumption of the purple has ever in any of the provinces been affected by us. (Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.17)

To the emperor, therefore, we render such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him; regarding him as the human being next to God who from God has received all his power, and is less than God alone. And this will be according to his own desires. For thus—as less only than the true God—he is greater than all besides. (Tertullian, To Scapula 2)

For who are more deserving to obtain the things they ask, than those who, like us, pray for your government, that you may, as is most equitable, receive the kingdom, son from father, and that your empire may receive increase and addition, all men becoming subject to your sway? And this is also for our advantage, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, and may ourselves readily perform all that is commanded us. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 37)

Even the government that persecuted them was given this respect.15Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish. . . . But we merely, you say, flatter the emperor, and feign these prayers of ours to escape persecution. . . . Learn from them that a large benevolence is enjoined upon us, even so far as to supplicate God for our enemies, and to beseech blessings on our persecutors. Who, then, are greater enemies and persecutors of Christians, than the very parties with treason against whom we are charged? Nay, even in terms, and most clearly, the Scripture says, “Pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you.” For when there is disturbance in the empire, if the commotion is felt by its other members, surely we too, though we are not thought to be given to disorder, are to be found in some place or other which the calamity affects. (Tertullian, Apology 30-31)

When to obey and when not to obey

Because of the two nations’ contradictory values and commands, they will necessarily require contradictory behavior from us at times. When obedience to God’s kingdom conflicts with obedience to earthly kingdoms, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Most Christians that I’ve interacted with agree with this principle. However, I’ve also met those who say, “But what about Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?” They point out that these passages tell us to respect and obey the government, and these passages don’t list any exceptions. Since these passages don’t explicitly spell out what to do when the two kingdoms conflict, shouldn’t we just take them literally and obey the government, no exceptions? For example if they ask us to go to war, shouldn’t we go to war?

Well, no. First of all, most people would agree that there are certainly times when we shouldn’t obey the government. What if a governing authority commanded us to murder helpless children? To commit adultery? To rape a woman or child? In cases like those, should we obey?

But more to the point, Acts 5:29 shows, as stated above, that when there’s a conflict, we need to obey God, not the government. But is this a contradiction with Romans 13? No.

To understand the way these passages interact, remember that the New Testament is not intended to be a legally precise text. When reading what the New Testament authors write, we should consider what an ordinary person would mean if they said that same thing.

Here’s an example. My wife and I go out to eat one evening, and I leave my oldest daughter in charge. I tell my younger children to obey her, because I placed her in authority. What if, after I leave, she tells them to do something that is consistent with the commands I’ve given them in other ways? They should obey, of course! There’s no conflict there.

But what if my daughter tells her siblings to do something that I’ve commanded them not to do? Should they obey her, just because I didn’t list any exceptions when I put her in charge?

Obviously not. My daughter’s authority comes from me, not herself! So when our commands conflict, my children should obey me. But in other cases, they should listen to her.

So these passages don’t contradict the Scriptural principle that we should obey God rather than men when men’s laws contradict God’s laws. But note that we can’t just decide that we can disobey the government for anything that God isn’t very clear about—because God makes it quite clear that we should obey them. Note that this leaves no room for Christians to violently resist a bad government.16Note this passage by Tertullian, where he suggests that Christians who revolt aren’t real Christians: “Hippias is put to death laying plots against the state: no Christian ever attempted such a thing in behalf of his brethren, even when persecution was scattering them abroad with every atrocity. But it will be said that some of us, too, depart from the rules of our discipline. In that case, however, we count them no longer Christians” (Tertullian, Apology 46)

What if governments overstep their boundaries?

I’ve said that we can’t revolt against our earthly government. Of course, a revolt in which we’d use force is wrong, since violence is out of bounds for a Christian. But I believe that even a peaceful revolt is outside of a Christian’s toolset—we are supposed to obey the government whenever possible, and if they commanded us to stop revolting (which they would) we would have to stop.

However, many Christians raise an objection to the two-kingdom view by appealing again to our favorite passages, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. These passages say that God gave governments certain duties—the main duty being to praise good and punish evil. Non-Kingdom Christians argue that if a government does the opposite, then it’s not obeying God, and they are being false to their reason for existing.

If their argument stopped there, I would agree. Unfair governments aren’t being true to their reason for existing. However, the argument continues: Since the government isn’t obeying God, we should revolt or at least participate in civil disobedience, and bring the government back into line.

I hope you can see that this conclusion is not from the passages quoted in support of it! No passage in the New Testament suggests that Christians should resist dysfunctional governments. I believe that their conclusion comes from the implicit belief, previously mentioned, that one should be loyal to and obey good authorities, but be disloyal to and disobey evil authorities.

But that belief is not Scriptural. In fact, Paul wrote Romans 13 probably during the time of one of the most unjust emperors ever—Nero. Yet Paul asked the Romans to respect and obey him. Is our government worse than the brutal Roman Empire? Is our president worse than the brutal Nero? Certainly not. Thus, there is no exception for us—we need to respect and obey the government, no matter how good or bad the government is.

God placed these governments in charge. Nowhere in Scripture does he say that our obedience to an authority depends on our evaluation of that authority’s justice. If they do something unjust, that’s not surprising. Given the things that the nations of this world value, it’s surprising that more injustice doesn’t happen. If one government is especially atrocious, we’re always welcome to go live under another government (Matt 10:23). And our peaceful, upright lives, in which we do good for our neighbor and our enemy, will do much more good than violent uprising.

In fact, Jesus told his followers, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matt 23:2-3 ESV). He went on in that chapter to declare woe to them, but because they were leaders over the people, he said to obey them. So the only place where we should disobey government, that I can see, is where obeying their laws would keep us from obeying Christ’s commands.

Would this entail obeying Nazis?

The two-kingdom position may sound like it would enable terrible injustices. What if we lived under Nazi Germany, for example?

  • Would we need to turn Jews over to the government, if the government commanded that? We never need to be complicit in anyone else’s crimes by helping them to oppress people. If we took part in oppressing people, we would be disloyal to God’s Kingdom and its values.
  • Would we just need to stand there doing nothing while the government committed atrocities? Living the Kingdom life is not doing nothing. We can accomplish more good through love, patience, self-sacrifice, and prayers than anyone can do through violence or civil disobedience.

The early Christians were horribly persecuted by the government, both by emperors considered “good” and “bad.” The Christians wrote to the government, asking for the persecution to stop. But they didn’t stop respecting and obeying their authorities, except in areas that conflicted with God’s law.

And if injustices remain, God, who placed the government in charge, will most certainly straighten things out when Jesus returns. We don’t have that authority, but we can trust the God who does.

Our Options

Thus, when these two kingdoms require contradictory things, one of the following must occur:

  1. the earthly nation exempts the Christian from that requirement,
  2. the earthly nation persecutes the Christian, or
  3. the Christian returns his allegiance to the earthly nation and obeys it.

The option that we do not have is to obey the earthly nation but still claim to have given our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. What kind of allegiance is it when we prioritize another nation’s commands?

The early Christians agreed that we must obey God rather than the government, when they conflict:

Constancy is a virtue; not that we resist those who injure us, for we must yield to these; . . . but that when men command us to act in opposition to the law of God, and in opposition to justice, we should be deterred by no threats or punishments from preferring the command of God to the command of man. (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes 6.17)

As there are, then, generally two laws presented to us, the one being the law of nature, of which God would be the legislator, and the other being the written law of cities, it is a proper thing, when the written law is not opposed to that of God, for the citizens not to abandon it under pretext of foreign customs; but when the law of nature, that is, the law of God, commands what is opposed to the written law, observe whether reason will not tell us to bid a long farewell to the written code, and to the desire of its legislators, and to give ourselves up to the legislator God, and to choose a life agreeable to His word, although in doing so it may be necessary to encounter dangers, and countless labours, and even death and dishonour. For when there are some laws in harmony with the will of God, which are opposed to others which are in force in cities, and when it is impracticable to please God (and those who administer laws of the kind referred to), it would be absurd to contemn those acts by means of which we may please the Creator of all things, and to select those by which we shall become displeasing to God, though we may satisfy unholy laws, and those who love them. But since it is reasonable in other matters to prefer the law of nature, which is the law of God, before the written law, which has been enacted by men in a spirit of opposition to the law of God, why should we not do this still more in the case of those laws which relate to God? (Origen, Against Celsus 5.37)

Christians give full service to God’s nation as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

One implication of the two-kingdom concept is that Christians must obey the laws of their heavenly nation. That’s just how nations work. But does God’s Kingdom actually have laws?

After his resurrection, Jesus told his apostles to spread the gospel and to teach their followers to obey his commands (Matt 28:20). These commands are necessary for us to remain saved and within the kingdom of God; for evidence of that, you can see this article on faith and works. Note that in his letters, Paul lists sins that, if we practice them, we will not inherit the Kingdom of God.171 Cor 6:9-10, Gal 5:21, Eph 5:5

Just as we remain citizens in good standing with respect to our earthly nations by obeying their laws, that’s part of how we remain in our heavenly nation. The difference is that if we do break Jesus’ laws, we have only to confess our sins and repent, and he will forgive us. But if we do not repent, we will eventually be returned to the domain of Satan until we do repent (1 Cor 5:5).

We use everything earthly nations can give us for God’s Kingdom.

I’ll conclude my description and defense of the two-kingdom concept by looking at another aspect of our relationship to the world. Even though we are not of the world, we do live in the world. Money may be tied up in the systems of the world, but I have some money. And as a U.S. citizen, I have certain rights from a kingdom of this world. How, then, should we use the opportunities that we have through being in worldly societies?

I suggest that we should use whatever we have for God’s Kingdom. Paul, for example, used his Roman citizenship for the gospel’s sake.18Acts 16:37, 21:39, 22:25 And Jesus tells us to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). The things that the world gives us, if they aren’t evil in themselves, can be used—if we seek first the Kingdom of God.

However, money and citizenship rights are in the rightful domain of the government, so if the government takes them away, we should not be surprised, nor should we complain. And it should go without saying, but it usually doesn’t—if we ever take advantage of an earthly right by actually disobeying God’s Kingdom, such as if we take someone to court, we are in the wrong.

Implications

When I present the two-kingdom concept to non-Kingdom Christians, they sometimes feel that they’re pretty much in agreement with me. After all, these Christians believe that Jesus is King, that Christians are part of the Kingdom of God, that their primary allegiance is given to Jesus, and so on. They just disagree with some of the other things that I say. Why is that?

That’s because the biggest difference between the two-kingdom view and the view that most Christians hold is the practical implications of the view. Not only do we believe that Christianity is a nation apart from earthly nations—we believe that we should live as though we are only ambassadors from a foreign country.

These truths from Scripture have serious practical implications. And our beliefs mean nothing unless our actions are consistent with our beliefs. How can we say that we love each other if all we do is selfish? And how can we say we belong to one nation if we’re giving our attention to another one?

Separation from the World

That’s why the Anabaptists, who have traditionally believed in the two-kingdom view, have also traditionally held to “separation from the world.” The doctrine of separation from the world means that we try not to be drawn into the mindsets and workings of earthly societies. Instead, we invest our time and energy in a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, a kingdom which is the only path through which justice can come to the earth.

Sometimes distinctive Anabaptist practices, like wearing plain clothes, are often held up as the most notable examples of separation from the world. However, there are far more important practices that flow from the two-kingdom concept.

Implications of the Two-Kingdom View

If we believe that we belong to a heavenly nation to the exclusion of earthly nations, as Scripture teaches us, that suggests certain actions on our part. Here are some of the ways the two-kingdom view works out in separation from the world:

  • Our patriotism goes to the Kingdom of God rather than our earthly nation.
  • We serve as enemy-loving, peaceful soldiers of Christ, but cannot serve in the violent militaries of the world.
  • We forgive people rather than sue them or press charges.
  • Disagreements between Christians go through the church rather than through the government’s judicial system.
  • We serve the church rather than holding public offices (unless we can hold that office without either endorsing violence, judging anyone, swearing oaths, or expressing allegiance to the earthly nation).
  • We effect change though living the Kingdom life rather than relying on voting, lobbying, and public office.
  • We don’t say the pledge of allegiance or participate in singing the national anthem.

Early Christians and Government

The two-kingdom view and its implications are not just confined to Anabaptist Christians. The pre-Nicene church held to essentially this view, as I’ve shown throughout this article. However, their relationship with government was a bit more complicated than that of the traditional Anabaptists is. This section discusses the early Christian relationship with government.

Christians today argue passionately that we should use our influence to make sure that governments pass legislation that’s friendly to Christianity and Christian values. But this view is a pragmatic one that’s not based in Scripture.

The New Testament gives no hint that we should influence governments and their decisions—we are told to be subject to their decisions and offer supplication for them, not to them. Of course, there weren’t democratic societies then, but people could still influence the government. Yet Origen spoke disparagingly of such tactics:

Moreover, we are to despise ingratiating ourselves with kings or any other men, not only if their favour is to be won by murders, licentiousness, or deeds of cruelty, but even if it involves impiety towards God, or any servile expressions of flattery and obsequiousness, which things are unworthy of brave and high-principled men, who aim at joining with their other virtues that highest of virtues, patience and fortitude. (Origen, Against Celsus 8.65)

It’s true that the early Christians did make requests to the government—but as far as I’m aware, the only thing they requested from governments was to be left in peace and no longer persecuted. They certainly spoke out against the evils of Roman society, but they didn’t lobby for the government to change those evils.

Christians in government

There were Christians who served in public offices during the early years of Christianity. But this was never considered an ideal thing. No Christian writers wrote in praise of this, and some condemned it. Tertullian, for example, pointed out the perils of being a Christian in government:

Yes, and the Cæsars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Cæsars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Cæsars. (Tertullian, Apology 21)

Hence arose, very lately, a dispute whether a servant of God should take the administration of any dignity or power, if he be able, whether by some special grace, or by adroitness, to keep himself intact from every species of idolatry; after the example that both Joseph and Daniel, clean from idolatry, administered both dignity and power in the livery and purple of the prefecture of entire Egypt or Babylonia. And so let us grant that it is possible for any one to succeed in moving, in whatsoever office, under the mere name of the office, neither sacrificing nor lending his authority to sacrifices; not farming out victims; not assigning to others the care of temples; not looking after their tributes; not giving spectacles at his own or the public charge, or presiding over the giving them; making proclamation or edict for no solemnity; not even taking oaths: moreover (what comes under the head of power), neither sitting in judgment on any one’s life or character, for you might bear with his judging about money; neither condemning nor fore-condemning; binding no one, imprisoning or torturing no one—if it is credible that all this is possible. (Tertullian, On Idolatry 17)

Lactantius also gave reasons why it was good that there wasn’t a Christian government. In the following quotation, he predicts what would happen if Christians had control of their own government:

For when He [God] might have bestowed upon His people both riches and kingdoms, as He had before given them to the Jews, whose successors and posterity we are; on this account He would have them live under the power and government of others, lest, being corrupted by the happiness of prosperity, they should glide into luxury and despise the precepts of God; as those ancestors of ours, who, ofttimes enervated by these earthly and frail goods, departed from discipline and burst the bonds of the law. Therefore He foresaw how far He would afford rest to His worshippers if they should keep His commandments, and yet correct them if they did not obey His precepts. Therefore, lest they should be as much corrupted by ease as their fathers had been by indulgence, it was His will that they should be oppressed by those in whose power He placed them, that He may both confirm them when wavering, and renew them to fortitude when corrupted, and try and prove them when faithful. For how can a general prove the valour of his soldiers, unless he shall have an enemy? And yet there arises an adversary to him against his will, because he is mortal, and is able to be conquered; but because God cannot be opposed, He Himself stirs up adversaries to His name, not to fight against God Himself, but against His soldiers, that He may either prove the devotedness and fidelity of His servants, or may strengthen them, until He corrects their wasting discipline by the stripes of affliction. (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes 5.23)

His predictions, of course, have become sadly true in “Christian” nations of the West.19It seems that Lactantius, too, ceased being concerned about this later in his life when he allied himself with Constantine and wrote in favor of military service in “Epitome of the Divine Institutes” written some length of time after this original work.

Objections

In this section, I’ll discuss some objections that don’t fit under previous points.

Why would God wait to judge the kingdoms of the world?

Why would God leave the kingdoms of this world in place, when he’s already established the ideal Kingdom? For the same reason that God has not yet ended all evil. God leaves the kingdoms of this world there because he’s giving people time to choose to join his Kingdom. While he waits for people to repent, they can at least have the protection from violence that their kingdoms can offer them.

Christian government has done a lot of good.

Christians have done a lot of good for the world by teaming up with the Roman Empire and with other nations later. The world is far more peaceful and just than it previously was. However, do we know that more souls have been saved through the Christians’ compromise with the world? It seems that in nations that have had “Christian” governments, Christianity is on the decline today.

I’ve heard it argued that teaming up with the Roman Empire kept Christianity from going extinct whenever invaders like the Turks swept through. But this is just false. The power of the Roman Empire wasn’t enough to stamp out Christianity—it grew as it was being persecuted. The nonresistant, Kingdom-believing Anabaptists grew like a weed while being brutally persecuted.

I suggest that if the Christians had remained as they were, they would not have been driven out when Muslim invaders arrived—only the earthly government would have been driven out. The peaceful Christians would have remained spread all through the Muslim world. They would still be persecuted, but they would have begun making huge numbers of converts from their new oppressors. Instead, their terrible choice to team up with government has lead them to be mostly driven out of places where they were once numerous. Only today, in the face of much persecution, is Christianity making a comeback in many of those areas.

Conclusion

I conclude that Scripture and the pre-Nicene church teach the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and I leave you with these issues to wrestle with:

  • If Jesus is your king, how can you give allegiance to another nation?
  • Governments are a necessary evil, but that doesn’t mean we should participate in them.
  • God authorized the state to do violence, but never authorized us to take part in the state’s violence.
  • 1
    Matt 2:2, 21:5 25:34, 27:11, John 1:49, 1 Tim 6:14-15, Rev 17:14, 19:16
  • 2
    Note that Matthew tends to use “the kingdom of heaven” and Luke tends to use “the kingdom of God,” even when retelling the same teachings of Jesus. Luke probably used “the kingdom of God” because it would be more familiar with his Gentile audience.
  • 3
    For example, Josephus, writing near this time, tells of a story where he told a rebel leader to, literally, “repent and believe” in him. He meant that the leader must turn from his other purpose and be loyal to Josephus.
  • 4
    This is not just about Jewish Christians, since the Kingdom is mentioned in books written to Gentile Christians. Also note Col 4:11, where Paul lists “the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God” (ESV), suggesting that there were others working for the Kingdom rather than just Jews.
  • 5
    Mark 15:2, 15:32, John 1:49, 12:13, 19:3, 19:21
  • 6
    Matt 16:28, Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27
  • 7
    Note the way Irenaeus speaks of these beings: “And who can enumerate one by one all the remaining objects which have been constituted by the power of God, and are governed by His wisdom? or who can search out the greatness of that God who made them? And what can be told of those existences which are above heaven, and which do not pass away, such as Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, and Powers innumerable?” (Against Heresies 2.30.3)
  • 8
    This translation uses the Greek Septuagint. The Hebrew text says “according to the number of the sons of God,” which is a term for spiritual beings.
  • 9
    For thus it is written, “When the Most High divided the nations, when He scattered the sons of Adam, He fixed the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. His people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, and Israel the lot of His inheritance.” And in another place [the Scripture] saith, “Behold, the Lord taketh unto Himself a nation out of the midst of the nations, as a man takes the first-fruits of his threshing-floor; and from that nation shall come forth the Most Holy.” Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness . . . (1 Clement 29-30)

    Irenaeus:

    Now in this passage he does not only declare to them God as the Creator of the world, no Jews being present, but that He did also make one race of men to dwell upon all the earth; as also Moses declared: “When the Most High divided the nations, as He scattered the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the nations after the number of the angels of God;” but  that people which believes in God is not now under the power of angels, but under the Lord’s [rule]. “For His people Jacob was made the portion of the Lord, Israel the cord of His inheritance.” (Against Heresies, 3.12.9)
  • 10
    Note that Jesus wouldn’t have had to pay the temple tax, but he did so “not to give offense” (Matt 17:24-30).
  • 11
    Note also that Jesus contrasts the Kingdom of Heaven with earthly values in John 18:36.
  • 12
    Acts 16:37, 21:39, 22:25
  • 13
    Paul also tells us to aid in reconciling the world to God, being ambassadors for Christ: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:18-20)
  • 14
    to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 17)

    when his sovereignty was in a prosperous position, and when affairs were turning out according to his wish, he [Decius] oppressed those holy men who interceded with God on behalf of his peace and his welfare. And consequently, persecuting them, he persecuted also the prayers offered in his own behalf. (Dionysius, Epistle 11—to Hermammon)

    Consider that every command of the emperor which does not offend God has proceeded from God Himself; and execute it in love as well as in fear, and with all cheerfulness. (Theonas, Bishop of Alexandria, to Lucianus, the Chief Chamberlain 2)

    (In reply, we need only state) a well-known fact, that we acknowledge the fealty of Romans to the emperors. No conspiracy has ever broken out from our body: no Cæsar’s blood has ever fixed a stain upon us, in the senate or even in the palace; no assumption of the purple has ever in any of the provinces been affected by us. (Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.17)

    To the emperor, therefore, we render such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him; regarding him as the human being next to God who from God has received all his power, and is less than God alone. And this will be according to his own desires. For thus—as less only than the true God—he is greater than all besides. (Tertullian, To Scapula 2)

    For who are more deserving to obtain the things they ask, than those who, like us, pray for your government, that you may, as is most equitable, receive the kingdom, son from father, and that your empire may receive increase and addition, all men becoming subject to your sway? And this is also for our advantage, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, and may ourselves readily perform all that is commanded us. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 37)
  • 15
    Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish. . . . But we merely, you say, flatter the emperor, and feign these prayers of ours to escape persecution. . . . Learn from them that a large benevolence is enjoined upon us, even so far as to supplicate God for our enemies, and to beseech blessings on our persecutors. Who, then, are greater enemies and persecutors of Christians, than the very parties with treason against whom we are charged? Nay, even in terms, and most clearly, the Scripture says, “Pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you.” For when there is disturbance in the empire, if the commotion is felt by its other members, surely we too, though we are not thought to be given to disorder, are to be found in some place or other which the calamity affects. (Tertullian, Apology 30-31)
  • 16
    Note this passage by Tertullian, where he suggests that Christians who revolt aren’t real Christians: “Hippias is put to death laying plots against the state: no Christian ever attempted such a thing in behalf of his brethren, even when persecution was scattering them abroad with every atrocity. But it will be said that some of us, too, depart from the rules of our discipline. In that case, however, we count them no longer Christians” (Tertullian, Apology 46)
  • 17
    1 Cor 6:9-10, Gal 5:21, Eph 5:5
  • 18
    Acts 16:37, 21:39, 22:25
  • 19
    It seems that Lactantius, too, ceased being concerned about this later in his life when he allied himself with Constantine and wrote in favor of military service in “Epitome of the Divine Institutes” written some length of time after this original work.

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