Two-Kingdoms Pastoring [part 3]

Brad Litttlejohn
This is the third in a series exploring the theology of Two Kingdoms across a variety of topics. The first article can be found here, and the second here Editor

It's tough being a pastor. I know because I've never dared try, but I've watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised--he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture. In the privacy of one-on-one counseling, he may have a whole audience second-guessing him, but he will certainly second-guess himself: does this erring soul need to be comforted with the promises of the gospel, or jarred out of complacency with a reminder of God's judgment against sinners? One wrong move may be a matter of spiritual life and death. 

Faced with this dilemma, many pastors, in our circles at least, make it their aim to "say nothing but what the Bible says." In one sense this is not only laudable but necessary: the Bible is the authoritative guide for both faith and practice, and the final standard for adjudicating any doctrinal question. But obviously a pastor cannot get very far in the task of pastoring without going beyond Scripture--if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation, and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address home mortgages or gay marriage or online pornography as such--obviously, it does address debt and sexuality and lust, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

"Saying nothing what the Bible says," then, can take two forms. Either the minister, fearing to bind consciences beyond the Word by any specific application, avoids as much as possible in the pulpit the pressing social and cultural concerns of the day with which his congregation wrestles the other six days of the week, and confines himself primarily to theological lectures in lieu of sermons, or to vague platitudes when it comes to ethical matters. Or else the minister, convinced that the Bible really does speak to everything, proceeds to read the concerns of the day--gun control, home mortgages, or healthcare policy--straight into the biblical text, closing with a thunderous "Thus saith the Lord!" (Presumably all those who disagree with the application are blinded by sin.)

In pastoral counseling, "the Bible only" has often come to mean something like the "nouthetic counseling" approach, in which the complexities of human psychology and the details of particular circumstances are all filtered out and the struggling soul is told only "confess and repent of your rebellion against God." All this in the name of protecting Christian liberty.

It should be clear at this point that the challenge here is not simply to police the boundary between the "church" as a "spiritual kingdom" and politics as the "civil kingdom." To be sure, great political and social questions add a whole new level of complexity which makes it difficult to bring Scripture directly to bear on them. But even if the pastor studiously avoids offering any guidance on political questions, the problem remains. For no man is an island, and our sins generally have a social and cultural dimension. In other words, they are the complex interplay of what flows from our wicked hearts and what we encounter in and imbibe from the world around us. This milieu, again, differs in key ways from ancient Israel or first-century Palestine, and the pastor will have to rely on a well-informed judgment of his context, and a well-developed sense of prudence, if he is to rightly apply the Word to the lives of his flock. If "Christian liberty" or the division of the "two kingdoms" restricts the pastor from ever speaking beyond the words of Scripture, then clearly it will restrict him from pastoring at all.

Perhaps the solution to this dilemma is to recognize that the pastor himself has a foot in both kingdoms, and I don't just mean in the sense that he has to pay his taxes, and is an officer at the local Rotary Club down the road (though these are significant enough points). Even as a pastor, he has a foot in both. For he speaks for God, but he also speaks as Joe Smith, white boy from rural Indiana who spent a few years in the Navy and then as a salesman before going to seminary. He speaks to each of his congregants as to a sanctified child of God being formed in the image of Christ, but he also speaks to them as mothers, as husbands, as daughters-in-law, as jobholders, voters, cinema-goers. At every point he is navigating the intersection of their vertical dimension--their life in God--and their horizontal dimension--their life in the world. If he tries to worry about only the latter, he becomes a social gospeller with nothing to offer but narrow-minded recommendations for how to make the world a better place. If he tries to worry about only the former, he risks leaving his flock with little concrete guidance in the trials of life.

Clearly, he must do both, and attempting to draw some artificial line between "spiritual" and "civil" areas of life will not help the problem much. But he must remember that while these two are never separate, they are always distinct. The minister may and indeed must make prudential application of Scripture to the real-world challenges of his flock, but he must make sure that both he and they know that there is probably a fair bit of Joe Smith's midwestern biases coloring that judgment, and they themselves must, like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see whether these things be true. 

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at