Over the past several weeks, I have shown how Scripture describes the rule of God in two ways, in terms of his sovereign universal rule over all things, and in terms of his redemptive rule over his chosen people. I’ve made the argument that the union of these two “kingdoms” will not take place until Jesus, the God/man King/priest, comes again.
What does this mean, then, for people of God living in this present age, i.e., Christians? Even more specifically, what does this mean for local New Testament churches? Once again, carefully considering how the New Testament describes churches and individual Christians as they relate to the world around them and categories we might call “culture” will help present an accurate picture of how we should conduct ourselves in this age in which there is a distinction between the two kingdoms.
First, as believers in Jesus Christ, Christians are subjects in the redemptive rule of God (Phil 3:20). We are “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19), and as such, we are set apart from the unbelieving people of this world. Christians are “not of the world” just as Jesus is “not of the world” (John 15:19; 17:14, 16). Jesus said that this world hates him, because he “testif[ies] about it that its works are evil” (Jn 7:7). Galatians 1:4 calls this world the “present evil age.” Second Corinthians 4:4 identifies the “god of this world” as one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” this one who Ephesians 2:2 calls “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
This is why Peter describes our current situation as “the time of your exile” (1 Pet 1:17), and specifically calls us “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11). John commands Christians, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 Jn 2:15), and Paul insists that Christians “do not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2).
This recognition should engender within Christians a healthy distrust in the beliefs, values, and cultural pursuits of the unbelieving world around them. Since culture—that is, systems of behavior that characterize a particular society—necessarily result from the dominant worldview, beliefs, and values of that society, it should not be surprising that much of the cultural activity of a thoroughly pagan society would be expressions of those sinful values.
Christians in the first through third centuries recognized this. They couldn’t help but recognize their status as exiles because they were increasingly persecuted for their faith. Yet something happened in the fourth century that led God’s people to forget that they were sojourners and exiles. In 313, the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Now, of course, that was a good thing. We Christians should never desire persecution. But then in 392, emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman empire and outlawed all other religions. In essence, the church and state eventually united, forming what many call “Christendom,” and church leaders literally wanted to turn the empire into a theocracy like Israel, climaxing in the Holy Roman Empire. This was an attempt to “redeem culture,” to unite the common kingdom with the redemptive kingdom into one unified kingdom.
The problem is that God never intended for this kind of union for the present age. Now, many good things came as a result of that union—much of the cultural production that came out of Christendom, for example, the art and literature and music, contain values and morals that are noble and good. Nevertheless, this union of the church with the broader culture not only created a lot of nominal Christianity, it also lulled true Christians into forgetting that they were exiles.
The Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, argued against the church/state union by articulating a two kingdom theology, but they were unable to completely disentangle themselves from socio-political ties during their lives. The Church of England especially, as their name indicates, maintained a close union between Church and state. It really wasn’t until the early Baptists in England, and a few groups prior to Baptists, that we find a clear articulation of the need to recover a separation between church and state—a Baptist distinctive. This emphasis of the separation of church and state influenced the founding of the United States of America as well, but nevertheless, the effects of Christendom can still be observed today, for good and for ill. How many Christians today consider themselves sojourners and exiles? How many Christians recognize that their citizenship is in another kingdom and that they are currently living in world hostile to them and their way of life? How many Christians consider themselves distinct from the unbelieving people around them?