by Dr. Gene Edward Veith
How can we as Lutherans live in but not succumb to the culture?
Christians these days talk a lot about “culture wars,” “cultural engagement,” and “cultural ministry.” So it’s important to realize that Lutherans have an approach to culture and to cultural issues that is quite different from that of other theologies.
Lutherans believe in the doctrine of the two kingdoms. God reigns in His spiritual kingdom, which He establishes by His Word and Sacraments, consisting of everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ. This kingdom, often called the kingdom of God’s right hand, indicating its special favor with God, will last forever in the eternal life that He has prepared for His children.
But God has another kingdom. He also reigns in the world He created and in the human societies that He has ordained. God rules this kingdom by His laws, both the natural lawsthat He built into the universe and the moral laws that He inscribed onto the human heart. Thus, He providentially governs the physical world—to the point of caring for each sparrow that falls to the ground (Matt. 10:29)—and also human societies. He gives food for the animals of the wild (Psalm 104), and He also gives daily provisions for Christian and non-Christian alike (Matt. 5:45). Furthermore, God established human institutions, such as marriage and parenthood, in the estate of the family (Gen. 2:18–25) and the estate of earthly governments (Romans 13).
God also governs His temporal kingdom by working through human beings, that is, through vocation. (Technically, only Christians have vocations—callings from God—since only Christians have been called by the Gospel, but God also works similarly through non-believers in their various offices and stations in life.) God feeds us through farmers, protects us through police officers and heals us through doctors. He calls us to love and serve our neighbors in the estates that He ordained: the household (including the family and the work families do to support themselves), the church (pastors, laypeople) and the state (rulers, subjects and citizens).
A Lutheran approach to culture
First of all, God already rules in the secular world. It isn’t a matter, as some Christians say, of winning the world for Christ or bringing the country under God’s law or Christianizing the culture. God already reigns in the culture. He governs even those who do not know Him. He is present—but hidden—in the world and in all of His creation, sustaining all of existence and taking care of believers and non-believers alike.
Second, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms. They have an eternal citizenship in God’s spiritual kingdom. But God also assigns Christians vocations, where they are to live out their faith in the world (1 Cor. 7:17). Christians have families, jobs and citizenship, each of which is an arena for loving and serving their neighbors.
Lutheran teachings about culture
Should Christians get involved in politics and other worldly activities? The Church must preach the Gospel, not politics, just as the state must attend to earthly government, not tell churches what to preach. We must be on guard lest we confuse the two kingdoms and mingle them with each other. But individual Christians have a God-given vocation as citizens. Thus, they should perform the duties of citizenship, which in our country includes voting, com-munity involvement, and—yes—participating in politics.
Should Christians listen to secular music, read books by non-Christians or watch non-theological movies and television shows? Works of art are governed by aesthetic principles that are part of God’s creation. God creates works of meaning and beauty through the vocation of artists to whom He has given talent. A good work of art can glorify God through its artistic qualities even though it never mentions Him.
Does this mean that anything goes, that any earthly ruler has God’s authority or that any work of art is suitable for Christians to enjoy? Not at all, though some Lutherans have misinterpreted the two kingdoms in this way.
Remember that God rules His left-hand kingdom, among other ways, by His moral law. Societal practices that violate that moral law—for example, abortion—violate God’s will, and Christians are right to exercise their citizenship to battle such evil. Art that tempts Christians to sin—such as work that is pornographic—must be avoided.
The devil tries to usurp and undermine both kingdoms. With his claim to be the “prince of this world” (Eph. 2:2), he wreaks havoc in families, the economic order and cultures. He especially targets God’s spiritual kingdom, attempting to undermine the Church and destroy people’s faith by creating heresies, false doctrines and unbelief. That means Christians have to battle Satan on both fronts.
Christianity, a function of the spiritual kingdom, does not require one particular kind of government and can exist under monarchies, aristocracies or democracies. Thus, there can be Christians of many different political parties, holding many different political philosophies. Understanding the reality of sin, they will tend to be leery of utopias and states that claim divine status for themselves (such as Rome’s divinized emperors, modern totalitarian states that attempt to take the place of religions and cultural idolatry of every kind).
Many Christians feel they must have nothing to do with the worldly culture outside of the Church. Others want to conquer that culture and bring it under God’s authority. Still others think the Church should follow the culture’s lead, getting rid of doctrines, moral teachings and practices that do not conform to the norms of the prevailing culture.
Lutherans disagree. God calls us into the culture to live out our faith in our vocations. The world is already under God’s authority, whether it knows it or not. The Church is part of God’s spiritual kingdom and so must never be enslaved to the culture.
Christians should see culture as a creation and a gift from God, even as they work to make it better. This is because Christians are citizens of two kingdoms that have one King.
Did You Know? Vocation, noun. from the latin vocare, meaning “to call” or “calling.”
Order Dr. Veith’s book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life at www.crossway.org.
About the Author: Dr. Gene Edward Veith serves as provost at Patrick Henry College.