I recently read somewhere, in a document that also declares Two-Kingdoms theology “outside orthodoxy” actually, that Kuyperian theology is what “most of us (in the Dutch Reformed tradition) grew up with and use to interpret scripture.” But as the punchline of a popular meme says, “Well yes, but actually no.” Since I was as recipient of this document and am included in this “most of us,” I can speak with some confidence on this matter.
Yes, we might have called it Kuyperian, and it descended from it, but actually no, most of us grew up with a neo-Kuyperian transformationalism and a special Dutch Reformed brand of American Evangelicalism. Neo-Kuyperianism, in short, asserts that Christ’s lordship must be manifested in every aspect of life, in every institution, and in every discipline. The entire culture then must be transformed into the kingdom of God and Christians must work toward this complete transformation until the Lordship of Christ over everything is realized. So, we became culture warriors championing a theology of glory and overrealizing our collective eschatology, expecting our eschatological hope to be manifested in the here and now.
Most of us grew up hearing sermons encouraging this cultural warfare and had our battle plans prepared for us by the formally assembled church. We fought for the removal of offensive television shows and movies, signed petitions, joined boycotts and protests, distributed Christian business directories, displayed our stances on hot-button issues on church signs, and rallied around politicians who we hoped would put Christianity on top. To be clear, individual Christians are certainly free to participate in these kinds of activities, but this is not what the institutional church should be involved in as it gathers in God’s presence corporately on the Lord’s Day.
When these things are the primary messages and pursuits the world hears and sees from the church, we do more harm than good to the church’s witness. David VanDrunen recently said, “We should strive as far as we can to give no offense to our non-Christian neighbors except the Gospel itself.” This is helpful advice because one thing we tend to do is conflate our Christianity with a particular sociopolitical party line, potentially creating an offense that is by-and-large unrelated to the Gospel.
Nothing was ever truly gained by the culture wars we fought, but we did often lose something. We often lost the Gospel itself -or at best relegated it to a supporting a role. This largely went unnoticed because the tendency is to just assume we all know the message of the Gospel and to move on, focusing more on living in a morally upstanding way. But some noticed. When some recognized that the Gospel had become secondary and Word and Sacraments no longer foremost, they sought out churches where the Gospel was still central.
But I’m convinced that there are many who ended up in Gospel-centered churches simply because of conservatism. These people left their churches or denominations for one reason or another, perhaps the politics were starting to shift from right to left or the causes were not quite lining up with their cultural sensibilities anymore – but they didn’t leave for the most important reason: The Gospel was no longer being proclaimed. For these the culture fight is still primary, the Gospel secondary or “a given,” and religious and political conservatism paramount. Such a person could get quite agitated when a pastor resolves only to preach Christ, doesn’t tackle sociopolitical issues from the pulpit, will not counsel the congregation in the fight for Christian cultural dominance, chooses not to lead the charge of defiance against a politician or party, and refuses to endorse one political candidate over another.
Consider this hypothetical situation: What if, in this past year filled with unmatched tensions, some people insisted that this was the most critical time in recent history for the church to stand up and lead the fight over certain social, cultural, and political causes? But what if some pastors, understanding the proper biblical role of the institutional church, knowing what the message of the church should be, and also recognizing that there might be some differences of opinion within the congregation on these matters, just continued to preach Christ, administer sacraments, shepherd the flock, and bring words of comfort and hope to weary sinners? I suppose things might come to a head and something would most likely have to give.
This thing that “most of us grew up with,” our special brand of Dutch-Reformed-American-Evangelical-Transformationalism will probably go on for a while and continue to appear relevant and successful – but I wonder what its fruit will be. Will it produce Gospel-driven Christians or right-winged soldiers? Will we see sinners brought to Christ through this war for the cultural supremacy? In my observation it’s just pushing people further away. In my opinion “what most of us grew up with” was often more harmful than helpful and its continuation will just continue to do harm.
The remedy is the Church simply being the Church, relying on the ordinary means of grace, doing what it was commissioned to do by Christ himself; ministering through the God-appointed means of Word and Sacraments, making disciples, practicing church discipline, feeding His sheep, and shepherding His flock. These happen to be major points of emphasis in Two-Kingdoms theology.
Several years ago a pastor of mine said this in a sermon, “If we don’t build hospitals someone else will, if we don’t build schools someone else will, if we don’t do much for social or political change someone else will – but if we don’t preach the Gospel NO ONE WILL!”* I choke up a little thinking about this word, not only because I miss the preaching of this pastor and miss him dearly, but because it strikes at the heart of the matter: The Gospel alone brings salvation, the Gospel is what we constantly need, and the Church is the only institution commissioned with bringing this Gospel to the world while continually feeding its living members with it. The Church, entrusted with this task, should be a place where all kinds of people who might otherwise be divided can, as J. Gresham Machen wrote, “unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the cross.” –Christianity and Liberalism. Eerdmans, 1987, p. 180.
*this is probably not the exact quote, to the best of my knowledge it is very close and I don’t think he’d mind if I got it slightly wrong.