All the King’s Horses (and All the King’s Men)

A beloved professor (now sainted) of Concordia Seminary used to regale us with stories from his first call into the pastoral ministry in London, England. Amidst those stories was one where he joined the crowd along the streets and watched the procession of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It’s not really a big deal (especially for an American), but to know someone who literally watched one of the most historic events of the 20th century somehow made it more significant to me.

Fast forward to 2023, and the words have officially changed back to “God save the King.” But someone at church casually asked me if I watched the coronation, and I laughed out loud. Umm … no. No, I couldn’t think of anything less interesting to me than that. However, the inquirer was asking because they were struck by how religious the ceremony was. Say what you will about me as a scoffing, cynical American who’d rather starve to death than pledge fealty to a monarch, but I had to admit the point: the deep, rich history of England’s ceremonialism has for centuries been based on their belief that the monarchy is blessed and authorized by God, and it’s kind of nice to see that recognized again.

I can’t get that idea out of my head. Oh don’t worry, I am still vehemently opposed to any sort of theocratic governance in the civil realm (even if it is “Christian”). But the overt religiosity of England’s stiff upper lips reflects a biblical truth:

All earthly rulers are tools of the Almighty.

Lutheran theology holds a very sophisticated doctrine of “The Two Kingdoms” which has continually paved the way for some interesting expressions and debate for God’s people—wherever they may live. In essence, the doctrine holds that God operates in the “Kingdom of the Right” and the “Kingdom of the Left.” Don’t think political right and left, but rather imagine your right hand and left hand being opposite to each other yet still attached to the same body. In the right-hand kingdom—the church—God operates with the gospel: there in the mystical body of his Son Jesus Christ is the means of grace, life, salvation, forgiveness of sins, etc. There in the right-hand there is no distinction of class or race or country—all are one in Christ (see Gal. 3:28). On the other hand (on the left-hand), even the wicked ruler of a temporal land has his authority from God (Rom. 13; see also John 19:11). Still, we are commanded to pray for those rulers (1 Tim. 2) in order that “we live peaceful and quiet lives in al godliness and holiness.” Even Cyrus the Persian was called the “anointed,” the “shepherd” of God (Is. 44:28; 45:1). But there is no gospel in the left-hand kingdom. There is only law, and if you break the law you should be afraid of punishment. No forgiveness. Punishment. Forgiveness is literally and truly and by design only found in the church. Period.

Getting that wrong not only mixes law and gospel and perverts the Word of God, but it leads to a political world view that has killed, oppressed, and manipulated hundreds of millions of people throughout history. In other words, looking to an earthly king (proverbial or literal) for salvation is a road that leads straight to hell. His job is not to save you. His job is not to feed you. His job is not to bail out your failing bank system or auto industry. His job is to punish evildoers and collect taxes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important job—without government there is chaos and lawlessness, and we should pray for good government. But a government you trust is a government that will betray you. (Just ask any German citizen in the decades following the Treaty of Versailles.)

Back to Charles III, I am perfectly content with (and maybe even encouraged by) the religiosity of the ceremony. God put Charles on the throne. Just understand that within such acknowledgement there is no grace. Only law.

Our own anti-monarchical system in the USA has from time to time been plagued with the same Manifest Destiny that perverts and subverts the proper distinction between the left-hand and the right-hand kingdoms. But the horse is easy to fall off in either direction: either you believe that God has some special blessings for us (“God shed his grace on thee,” anyone?) or you believe that trust in God should be taken off the money. 

Both are wrong, at least if you’re Lutheran. It’s a paradox that must always be held in tension. This is getting long, so I’ll summarize it as succinctly as I can:

  • God anoints all governments, all rulers, and all authorities—good, evil, and everything in between. They are designed to make and maintain law and order.
  • God anoints the church to give forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

DO NOT get those confused. 

“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Psalm 146:3)