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Does the Two-Kingdoms Distinction Necessarily Lead to Apathy and Indifference Toward Social Issues?

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Guest post from the Reverend Ken Jones, Pastor of Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, Florida) and Co-Host of White Horse Inn.


Recently Dr. Anthony Bradley—a good friend and co-author with me—(we both contributed chapters to Glory Road and he was the general editor of a book to which I contributed a chapter) offered a rather scathing indictment against the so-called “two-kingdoms” position, sparked by a statement by Carl Trueman in support of the view.  Before offering my opinion, I will first offer Trueman’s statement and then Dr. Bradley’s indictment:
In short, they (Christians) will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.  Christianity makes a difference through the lives of the individual Christians pursuing their civic callings as Christians, not through the political posturing and lobbying of the church.

Anthony Bradley responded on his Facebook page:
Friends, if you ever wonder why Presbyterians turned a blind eye to Black suffering during slavery and sat on the sidelines during the Civil Rights Movement, it’s the position stated above.  This sounds good on paper, but if the church has no social witness, history demonstrates that ‘individual Christians’ will simply remain individualistic….

He allows for hyperbole in asserting, “Presbyterians turned a blind eye to Black suffering …”. (After all, slavery and related issues led to significant splits within the Presbyterian Church as early as 1857.)  Furthermore, Presbyterians (theologically liberal though they may have been) such as William Sloan Coffin and Eugene Carson Blake were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.

But my concern is not to defend the smattering of Presbyterian voices of opposition to slavery and segregation.  The issue for me is whether or not “two kingdoms” thinking necessarily results in apathy and non-involvement on these matters.

Let me offer three observations.

First, Presbyterians were not the only evangelicals that used the “spirituality of the church” as the basis for not voicing opposition to slavery or segregation.  E. V. Hill once quipped, “The civil rights marches and protests of the ‘60s may not have been necessary if Billy Graham had spoken out against racial segregation in the ‘50s.”  To his credit, Jerry Falwell publicly acknowledged in the ‘70s that he and other conservative Baptists were wrong in not publicly denouncing racial segregation.  Most notably, in 1960 the all black National Baptist Convention president refused to make the Civil Rights Movement a part of the convention’s platform, which led to the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention the following year.

That brings me to a second observation.  All institutional non-involvement did not lead to group apathy or individuals on the sidelines.  I grew up in a National Baptist church during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.  While our church did not side with the progressives, many individuals within our church (including the pastor) partnered with groups such as the NAACP, SCLC, and other local and national organizations that were fighting for change.  Our church called racial segregation a sin and members were challenged as citizens to make their voices heard.  Congressman John Lewis of Georgia is a good example.  He was a licensed Baptist preacher from a conservative Baptist church who marched and participated in freedom rides and the March on Washington.  He did so not in the name of his church but as an individual working with other individuals and organizations on the front line.

Here’s my final point.  In my estimation, it is healthy and helpful to revisit some of the church’s missteps on these critical issues of social justice.  Fear of being labeled with the social gospel tag caused inertia on the part of many evangelicals, both black and white.  Some may have done so while claiming fidelity to “two kingdoms,” I don’t know.  But it is precisely for the sake of theological integrity that I think the world can benefit from a clear and consistent “two kingdoms” perspective.  In other words, consistent “two kingdoms” thinking allows one to engage the issues of the day and become co-belligerents with people without religious convictions, all for the sake of justice, without compromise and without confusion.  It would be wrong to assume that Southern Presbyterian indifference or apathy toward Black suffering during slavery and the civil rights struggles was a natural and logical consequence of “two kingdoms” thinking.  That would be similar to assuming that the apartheid of South Africa was a natural and logical consequence of the Kuyperian Calvinism that it professed to follow.

If one wants to debate the merits or demerits of “two kingdoms,” there’s room for that.  It is a stretch, however, to blame the church's sins of social justice on a “two kingdom” theology when there were (and are) plenty of Christians--from many different perspectives--who share the blame.

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  • Guest - Daniel

    But what you have not disputed is that the Presbyterian apathy toward slavery (not apathy, actually, as many Presbyterians were quite pro-slavery) is consistent with this "spirituality of the church" stance. If I live wickedly, inconsistent with the good doctrine I profess, I am to be blamed. But if I live wickedly, consistent with my doctrine, we have to look at the doctrine (without letting me off the hook). To say that other people did wrong too, or that sometimes people ignored their doctrine and did right, does not help your case! Your most interesting point is your last one, that (if I understand correctly) you can simply leave religion out when it comes to ethics. If that is an accurate portrayal of Two Kingdoms theology, then Two Kingdoms theology is vile. BTW, not all Presbyterians were apathetic toward slavery. The Covenanters (today's Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) denounced it as loudly as they could, from at least the first decade of the 19th century.

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  • Daniel, I would suggest that you are not arguing against a two kingdoms perspective, but rather against a caricature of the same.

    As to the larger issue addressed by Ken, I would point out that it is a mistake to use either antebellum slavery or reactions to the civil rights movement as a measure of the virtues of either two kingdoms or transformationalist approaches. Frankly, in those eras, pretty much everyone in given regions, regardless of theological nuance, came down on the wrong side. Finding a white churchman (or a non-churchman, for that matter) in the deep south on the right side of the slavery issue is a sadly daunting task. Dissent was nearly nonexistent after around 1825, and not tolerated if it occurred. A primary lesson of this needs to be the difficulty that we all face in making sure that Scripture addresses us in ways that correct our deeply ingrained cultural biases. That devout men of earlier ages were so blind should warn and humble us.

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  • Guest - Joel

    Daniel, I'd just point out that even William Symington approved of a doctrine of the spirituality of the church in Messiah the Prince. See chapter five. Your post sounds as though the entire concept is wrong, even if you only disagree with Horton's iteration of it.

    I am impressed with RP pastor Alexander McLeod's handling of a call of a church that had many slaveholders. He refused to take the call unless those slaveholders in the congregation would be disciplined. Surely that insistence on church discipline is something everyone in this discussion could advocate.

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  • Guest - Felicia Murphy

    Forget about slavery, we have social issues now! How about what should Christians in California do about their elementary age kids and the new " the transgendered can use whatever bathroom they want" law?! Wake up Christians! Your religious freedom is slipping away! Stop voting for the political party that thinks ONE MILLION abortions a year is okay! Be "salt and light" like God tells us to. And to answer the question, yes, that teaching and our sin nature we're stuck with will make us apathetic if we aren't careful!

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  • There is an advantage that comes from 2K theology, it counters the position of those Transformationalists who want to take dominion over society in the name of Christ. IMO, the degree of that dominion comes in 3 categories that reside on the same continuum: Theonomy, Constantinianism, and Christian Paternalism. Each seeks an unnecessary intrusion on the lives of nonChristians in society for each seeks to do more, and sometimes other, than work for justice. Each seeks to use society as a supplemental disciplinary arm of the Church and thus seeks to eliminate the space that society allows for those who cannot be in good standing with the Church. And despite the advantage that 2Kers have here, even some of them seek some degree of Christian dominion over society. In addition, we might ask if 2K theology is emphatic enough on the need to work against social injustices.

    There is an advantage to the transformationalists. In trying to change society, they are more likely to be standing with those who are oppressed, they give credibility to the Church and the Gospel it preaches, and they are preaching, to the complicit and to those who oppress, the Gospel of repentance. However, some transformationalists are into taking dominion and do so without addressing social injustices. In addition, some transformationalists, while rightly criticizing some 2Kers for not preaching the Gospel of Repentance against the ism of their pet cause, often support other isms that are just as oppressive. For example, Martin Luther King preached against racism, economic injustice, and militarism and he saw them as being inextricably linked. How many Transformationalists today who so rightly battle today's racism either turn a blind eye to or are supportive of the economic classism produced by neoliberal capitalism or our country's rampant militarism, both of which are as pervasive in our society as racism?

    Seeing that 2Kers and Transformationalists have both constructive criticisms to offer to the other as well as weaknesses and thus the need to listen to the other group, we need to enter corrective relationships that are symbiotic. That is we need to go to each other for correction. And the more emphatic our expressions of correction, the stronger appeal we should make for correction by others.

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  • Guest - Alberto


    I hope you see my post because I have a question about Baptists in the South, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Southern Seminary. I know, or at least have heard, that the SBC was formed in part because of its support for slavery in the Civil War. So I wonder what of the role of men from the SBC and Southern Seminary like James P. Boyce? Are there any good resources you can recommend that touch upon southern churches and slavery?

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  • Guest - Nicholas

    Those who reject the Biblical distinction between the Two Kingdoms will fall into the errors of either Theonomy or the Social Gospel if they are consistent.

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  • Guest - Paul Swift

    Bless you, Nicholas! Concise, comprehensive, and true. Having spent an inordinate proportion of my life under both errors until being led out into freedom and light, I can wholeheartedly concur.

    Not only does that pair of errors misread the covenants, it also binds the conscience where it should not, which inevitably opens the door, as always, to legalism yielding self-righteousness or despair. If Pastor preaches a sermon on the human evils of racism which culminates in a call to solve the problem by joining organization X, those motivated to join will either look down on those who do not or, if their efforts fail, despair of God's sovereignty; and all will--this is never mentioned--during their time in X, need to abandon their prior convictions that the church's next big mission is ending child trafficking, global warming, nuclear proliferation, the war in Afghanistan, the lack of war in Syria, the MIC, the takeover of the Reds/Blues/Greens, increased/decreased taxation, Facebook, Walmart, and reality TV (excluding Duck Dynasty).

    By way of contrast, a well-defined Two Kingdoms model actually produces people who will do exactly what they were created and re-created to do, with a full heart of gratitude yielding perseverance and excellence, with far more lasting and extensive results (Eph. 2:10). Their motivation will be rooted in essential doctrine and thus not stymied by every passing breeze. If I am told to start doing 10 things that will make me less a racist or abortionist, I might do them very well and remain an insufferable Pharisee; but if I have learned by word and example that my and my neighbors' eternal welfare is found only in a gospel which is inextricably tied to an absolute unity of humanity marked with an ineradicable image of God, I must increasingly have the motivation and discernment to apply such truth in the world around me, "for it is impossible for those who are ingrafted into Christ by true faith not to bring forth the fruit of gratitude." (HC Q/A 64.)

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  • [...] Does the Two-Kingdoms Distinction Necessarily Lead to Apathy and Indifference Toward Social Issues? by Ken Jones on September 6 [...]

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