Digging Deeper: Military Service and the Two Kingdoms

By Steven Hokana
Military service is an important topic. Historically, it lets us look at global conflicts and their impact today. The military is a place nations leverage to defend their right to exist. But considering  the military as a vocation is personal. It may be  a part of your family history, or perhaps you're thinking about it because someone else close to you is serving or has served. If a military career is something you are pondering, then you might wonder where it fits into the kingdom of God.  

As Christians we serve in two kingdoms (sometimes referred to as two realms). They are often referred to as the "Kingdom of the Right" and "Kingdom of the Left."  There are a ton of Bible passages that illustrate the two kingdoms. The most popular and succinct is Jesus speaking in Matthew 22:21: "'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.'"

Understanding the Two Kingdoms

The Kingdom of the Right is the authority and rule of the Christian Church. The Lord God is its Head. The Kingdom of the Right is where we find authority to forgive and retain sins. It is in this realm that the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood in the bread and wine reside. In this kingdom is the regenerative, re-creative power of God's Word combined with water to make Holy Baptism. The Kingdom of the Right is supreme. It reigns over all persons, rulers, philosophies, principalities, and governments. If a conflict occurs between the two kingdoms, we are called to always obey the Kingdom of the Right. "One must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

The Kingdom of the Left flows from the Kingdom of the Right. Here God gives humanity the right to rule. But it comes with responsibilities. The Left can never subordinate the Right. The Left is responsible to allow the Gospel to spread unfettered. The Left is given authority to punish crimes, wage war, and protect its citizens, which is where military service as a vocation comes into play.

Exploring the Military as a Vocation

When exploring whether a vocation is "right" or "wrong," it is always important to look outside ourselves for answers. So search the Scriptures, ask your pastor and Christian teachers, bring it before the Lord in prayer, and always consult your parents.

As baptized children of God in Christ, we always consult Holy Scripture. In the pages of the Bible we find the record book of God's plan of salvation. We read about our sinful condition and our desperate need for a Savior. We know with confidence that Christ's redemption on the Cross is totally free, and we stand now before God as both a sinner and a saint, totally and completely free by the blood of Jesus.

When you thumb through the Bible you may be surprised to discover that Scripture is also where we can find examples of those who served in a type of military vocation. . In Genesis there is an exciting account of Father Abraham taking up arms to rescue and protect his own (Genesis 14). Moses, in many respects, was a commanding general protecting and defending the children of Israel from the Egyptian army, while at the same time leading them through an unfriendly desert. Joshua tells of the strategic plans God gave to the children of Israel to defeat kings and take the land. In Judges, we observe God in His grace calling up warriors to protect Israel. Of the fifteen judges, many take on a military role. Although they were flawed like we are and in need of redemption, they protected God's people in a military manner. When time permits, please read about Gideon, Deborah, and Samson. Whew!  This is in just the first seven books of the Bible.

There is not enough space in this short article to lay out the events and writings of David the "warrior king."  He had God-given skills to kill Goliath, evade the army of Saul, survive rebellion, and all the while he remained as the, "apple of God's eye" (Psalm 17:8). David, the ancient ancestor in the lineage of Christ, was truly a warrior poet who despite his failings was loved deeply by the Lord. It is this warrior who the Lord used to bring to us the depth and beauty of the psalms.

In the New Testament we have the interactions of Jesus and the apostles with Roman authorities, especially centurions. The first encounter is of Jesus healing the centurion's servant in Matthew 8:5-13. There is a similar account in Luke 7:1-10. Jesus' encounter with this Roman soldier is fascinating. Despite the Romans being conquerors of the region, Jesus does not harshly condemn him as either an unclean heathen or one serving in uniform. Jesus elevates and holds high the centurion's faith. In the book of Acts you read of centurions such as Cornelius and Julius. In total there are an amazing seven references in the Bible to these military commanders of the Roman army. They were leaders, some were men of great faith, and all were used as an instrument to further the kingdom of God.

Seeking out the guidance of your pastor is always a good idea. They have seen much in ministry and have an understanding of God's will and how we as children of God live a sanctified life. Prayer is a way to invite Jesus into the decision-making process. In the words of Matthew 7:7: "'Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.'"

When we consult our parents, we are reflecting the spirit of the Law in enacting the full force of the Fourth Commandment to "honor your father and mother."

Luther's Take on Military Service

Let me point you in the direction of one more source of counsel. Martin Luther wrote pastorally concerning the vocation of military service.  He was approached by a military commander looking for pastoral guidance. Captain Assa von Kram was in turmoil over whether he was doing God's will by serving in a vocation that calls for violence and bloodshed for the protection of his country and its people. Luther responded  with a pastoral and theological heart. Thus, the tract, "Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved" was published. You can read it in its entirety here.

And this is where some additional understanding of Luther's Two Kingdom doctrine is helpful. Using Romans 13 as the backbone of his tract Luther wrote, "This is why God honors the sword so highly that he says that he himself has instituted it (Romans 13:1) and does not want men to say or think that they have invented it or instituted it. For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man's hand, but God's."

Luther affirms the calling of a soldier with three points: 1. Serving in the military is God created and intended to punish evil, 2. the military is intended by God to protect the good, and 3. military service is intended by God to preserve peace.

Luther makes clear the depth of sin and how it can corrupt institutions created by God. He is the first to tell you the military calling can be abused but misuse does not make it invalid. Luther discusses how a person serving in the military must execute his God-given office. Luther writes about the role of government, self-defense, and civil war. The Reformer answers three questions:

1. If one's own government is evil and wicked, do we, who serve in the military, have a responsibility to rebel?  Luther says, "No.

2. Do nations have a right for self-defense?  Luther says, "Yes." However, Luther goes on to warn against putting hope and confidence in the causes of nations.  Luther always wants us to put our hope and confidence in God and in His Son Jesus.

3. Can a Christian in the military suppress a rebellion against one's own nation (civil war)?  The answer is a cautious, "Yes."  Luther believes rulers are instituted by God, and answerable to God for their behaviors and actions.

Putting It All Together

As we navigate through both Kingdoms, let us be mindful and thankful. Be aware of the issues facing our nation. We must be well read, active citizens of the Kingdom of the Left. Be an informed voter. Just as you know the beliefs and teachings of your Church, know also the issues, know the candidates and support causes that allow the Gospel to grow. Second, be thankful. God has given us a great and wonderful country where we can live in peace and prosperity. He gives this out of fatherly divine goodness. Jesus is the Lord of both Kingdoms.

So is military service right for you in light of what we've covered? It is a wonderful, challenging, and fulfilling vocation, blessed by God and deeply appreciated by our nation. Service to God and country will definitely challenge you. At the same time, the military can bring out the very best in your physical strength and character. Knowing where it fits into the two Kingdoms can be a great source of counsel and comfort. Most importantly, though, remember the benefits of the Cross that you are continually receiving through God's gifts of Word and Sacrament. Be assured that Christ is for you, whether you serve in uniform or not.  

Chaplain Steven Hokana serves as the assistant director of ministry to the Armed Forces for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS).

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