Jesus Christ is, right now, King of kings and Lord of lords. Though for many Christians the last 150 years of dispensationalist thinking may have obscured it, this is a staggeringly clear teaching of the New Testament. Furthermore, he is king not simply by virtue of being God (“the glory that I had with [the Father] before the world existed,” John 17:5), but because of his resurrection triumph and ascension. He is king as the incarnate Messiah. He achieved his throne by his cross.
This teaching is sometimes called “the mediatorial kingship of Christ,” and for much of the history of Christendom it was viewed as a basic part of the Gospel. Oliver O’Donovan points out that relationship of Jesus’ kingship to the kingdoms of the world was not “sacred” vs. “secular,” but “eternal” vs. “secular” (understood as temporary, limited to this world).
The ancients, like Constantine and Clovis, understood this; and in many modern mission contexts the kingship of Christ seems to resound much more than it does for Westerners. There is a great king. His kingship surpasses the wildest imaginings of any earthly ruler. Because of his righteousness God overturned even the judgment of death for him. He must be reckoned with.
My own small denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, traces its roots to a splinter group of Scottish “Covenanters” who maintained the political implications of Christ’s kingship long after the majority of their countrymen had given up. They asserted the kingship of Christ over nations and church, in more and less praiseworthy ways. Their American heirs have argued for two centuries over the use of this doctrine. Today we officially (and rightly, I think) have embraced a minimal prescription: we urge our members to vote only for those who uphold “Christian principles of civil government,” and maintain that no political allegiance outranks allegiance to Christ. In the meantime, an outside organization, the National Reform Association, has carried the banner of “National Confessionalism,” the idea that the US Constitution should be amended to include a reference to the kingship of Christ – best explained in this book.
(The high water mark of the National Confessionalist was during the American Civil War, when leaders of the National Reform Association gained a private hearing with President Lincoln, who sympathized but ultimately declined to further their goal. In the event, Lincoln did enact another one of their major platforms, emancipation. Later in the 19th century the Association, along with the RPCNA, became active in other areas, especially the Temperance Movement, and arguably lapsed into Social Gospel thinking. WWI knocked the feet from under turn-of-the-century Christian optimism, and the Association tumbled with it. By the late 20th century its magazine, The Christian Statesman, had become a soapbox for theonomists more than anything else. I was an enthusiastic subscriber at age 15.)
In my mind, National Confessionalism is a laudable application of the mediatorial kingship of Christ, but it is not by any stretch the sum of political application of Christ’s kingship, nor is political application the only application. After all, Christ is head over everything for the Church (Ephesians 1:22). The state is one institution among many that must shut its mouth before the cross and the throne of Jesus (Isaiah 52:15). In coming posts I hope to tackle a few of the ways the rule of Jesus Christ bears on personal sanctification, on the visible Church – starting with my own denomination, on the fine arts (I’ll be enlisting some help here), and on schools and schooling. I may go further afield as well. The question is simply this: what meaning does the Gospel of Jesus Christ, prophet, priest, and king, have for these institutions?