A Primer on Theocracies

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A number of years ago, John Piper was being given some grief for having anything to do with me, and he was handling some hot grounders on the subject. In one Q & A, the topic came up (and I think the issue was something federal-visiony), and so he answered the question. He said that he thought I was mistaken on some of these things “but they were the kind of mistakes you would expect a Presbyterian to make.”

That is what I call an exquisite jab, and so naturally I must have remembered it in case I ever had the opportunity to repurpose it. Now that Russell Moore has written on why theocracy is so terrible, I think I have my opportunity. This is a significant mistake, but it is the kind of mistake you might expect a Baptist to make.

Now please note that I am not saying that all Baptists make this mistake, but rather that this is the kind of mistake that kind of cuts with a certain kind of Baptist grain. Now I say this with a good deal of sympathy with the Baptists on this. I fully understand why any historically-informed Baptist, overhearing us talk about our theocratic plans—“won’t it be great?—might notice that his left eye was starting to twitch. In the great experiment of Reformation Christendom, Baptists were sometime treated like a rented mule, and so theocracy talk has been known to give them the jim jams. I get that. But take the very worst Reformation-era inimical-to-Baptists civil order and compare it to what we have going here right this very minute. 50 million unborn children slaughtered? Marriage made into a cartoon travesty by Supreme Court rulings? David has slain his hundreds; Saul his tens of millions.

So with all my sympathies cordially extended, and with all my religious liberty convictions acting as simpatico as they know how, I still have to say that Moore’s article was a frightful muddle.

A Primer on Theocracies:

This is a subject that is fraught with gigantic historical confusions, and so I am somewhat intimidated. I mean, it looks like a difficult task—like walking across a small lake of extra-sticky butterscotch syrup in oversized snowshoes. And so I ask for your thoughtful prayers—that I would be able to navigate this, and that I would be lucid as I seek to answer the hard questions. Like one hard question might be, “Why did you want to walk across a butterscotch lake in snowshoes in the first place?”

It’s a calling, all right?

Allow me to begin with a few basic explanations to help us get oriented, and then I would like to go on to interact with some of the specific points Moore made in his article.

First, theocracy is inescapable. Every society is theocratic, every society has a god of the system. The ethical expectations governing the members of that society are generated by the god of the system, and dissenters are clubbed in accordance with the divine will. In Islamic republics, this god is Allah, in secular democracies it is Demos, in Alabama it is Football. There is no such thing as a society with the great god Vacuum at the top. Any society that had no arche to hold it together would—for that reason—not hold together. Every society has an ultimate point of cohesion, and that point of cohesion, whatever it is, necessarily has religious value.

Second, working the other way, every social value has to be grounded (or not), justified (or not), in a worldview. If Christians commend a certain course of action to the larger society, and that larger society stares back at us and asks why, what do we say in response? All the ultimate ethical answers to questions that a society faces are answers that have to answer the two basic worldview questions—why? and who says?  Societies don’t get to say, “just because.”

Third, we certainly have to deal with the popular connotations of the word theocracy, the sense of the word that Moore assumes throughout his article. By theocracy he means evil theocracies, with everything being made worse because it is being done in the name of God. Stealing and pillage is bad enough without being done under the aegis of Heaven. We are here confronted with the Iran of the ayatollahs, or the predations of the Spanish Inquisition. But what word should we use for those who, in the name of Jesus, fought to outlaw the slave trade, or overturn Roe, or restore a rightful definition of marriage? If it is done in the name of Christ, it is theocratic. If we ditch the authority of Christ (in order to avoid being called theocratic), we then have no answer when the inevitable why? and who says? questions come. We must as Americans protect religious liberty. Why? Who says?

And fourth, we must carefully distinguish theocracy, which is inescapable, from ecclesiocracy, rule by clerics, which is entirely escapable, and which should be escaped. In a Christian republic, the church would be a separate and distinct institution from the state. But the separation of church and state (an honored Christian position) is not the same thing as separating God and state, or morality and state, or ultimate questions from state. When you do that, for the sake of combating evil ecclesiocracies, you create a situation where we can no longer ban abortion mills on the basis of something that God said to Moses. This is because Agnosticism is now the official religion, and who’s to say? So when we remove a word from God, we are on our own. And when we go out on our own . . . well, fifty million and counting.

Last, the negative connotation for theocracy comes about in two ways. Either men establish an idol as the god of their system, and the outworking of this is consistent with the evil idolatry, or they establish the name of the true God but in such a way as to enable them to rule in His name without acknowledging His practical authority. I agree with Moore that both of these options are evil. But unlike Moore I don’t believe they are the only theocratic options.

Into the Weeds:

And now, turning to some of Moore’s assertions, the points will be a little more scattershot. I am going to quote Moore at a number of places and then give just a brief response. This might give the appearance of heckling, but that is not my intent. The mistake Moore is making here is a very common one, and it is the reason why our efforts at robust cultural engagement are so lame and halting.

“Theocracies are awful and abusive, not only because they oppress human beings but because they also blaspheme God.”

I assume Moore is saying here that the evil theocracies commit is blasphemous because it is done in the name of God. When that is the case, amen. But what about when someone liberates human beings from oppression in the name of God? Has that ever happened? If it has, are we allowed to talk about it?

“That’s true, but it also is true of every theocracy.”

Moore is saying that every theocracy is a kleptocracy. Right, but take it a step further. Every government is a kleptocracy. The only way to restrain the unlimited greed of politicians is when they acknowledge that thou shalt not steal is a moral injunction that applies to them as well as to us.

“God rules and reigns through his Word, and his Word tells us that now is the time of God’s patience, when all people everywhere are called to repent of sin and find mercy in Christ (2 Pet. 3:9-10).”

Great. What if one of those people who repents is the king? We are instructed to pray “for kings, and for all that are in authority [because God] will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:2–4). So you pray for the king, and God gives you an opportunity to witness to him, and then—worst case scenario!—he believes. And then in the following week, since you are now discipling him, he turns and asks you what Christ would have him do about all the abortion mills. Or the slave markets. Or the sacrifices to Zeus in the public square. What do you say and why?

“Does God intend to rule the entire universe, with his will done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10)? Yes, but this kingdom is found in Jesus Christ, not apart from him. Jesus is the one anointed to rule over the cosmos, and anyone else who claims this is a pretender to the throne.”

Yes, the magistrate who claims the place of Christ is a pretender to the throne. That is exactly the problem. A thousand amens here. But when there is no God above the state, the state is God. When there is no Christ above the state, the state is Christ. This is a fallen world, and so when the magistrate formally acknowledges the authority of Christ, he may well do so in sinful ways. “I want . . . I mean Aslan wants, some more nuts.” That really is a problem. But how do we fix that problem by telling evil men that they are accountable to absolutely no one above them? Above them, only sky. When theocracies are rejected in principle, then might not civil rulers begin to think that they are the ones who are ruling the cosmos?

“Jesus himself has told us that in this time between his kingdom’s inauguration and his kingdom’s fulfillment, he is gathering a church of redeemed people, making a clear distinction between the church and the world (1 Cor. 5:12-13).”

Yes, there must always be a clear distinction between the church and the world. But a church that cannot echo John the Baptist, telling the magistrate that it “is not lawful for you to have her,” is a church that has lost that distinctiveness. Church and state are distinct governments, but they are operating in the same world, and the people they deal with must of necessity overlap.

“Our call to the world at this point, Jesus tells us, is not to uproot the “weeds” in the garden (Matt. 13:29).”

So was the slave trade just a “weed?” Were the Clapham Saints wrong to pull it up? Should Christians in North America today repudiate all efforts at broad racial reconciliation? Shouldn’t we just preach the gospel?

“Jesus told us to beware those who claim messianic authority between his first and second comings. He will come to us the next time not through some person or committee claiming authority from God, but with obvious, indisputable, and unrivaled glory in the eastern skies. What is hidden now, seen only by faith, will be revealed then, perceived by sight.”

Right. But until He comes again in glory, how are we supposed to be salt and light? And may we invoke the name of the one who told us to be salt and light?

“Those who claim earthly rule now by divine appointment are, according to Jesus and his apostles, frauds.”

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1).

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good . . . for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4).

“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2:13–15).

Were Paul and Peter frauds? Obviously not, and so we really must reject all facile statements like this. If magistrates are God’s deacons, and they are, and magistrates can become Christians, and they can, then we need more than nebulous bromides when they start asking us questions.

“That’s true whether they are seeking a murderous rule over a nation, or whether in a more benign setting they are trying to use God’s Word to snuggle up to the local powers-that-be by promising a ‘Thus saith the Lord’ in exchange for a place at the table. This is a claim to speak where God has not spoken. God has made clear, repeatedly, what he thinks of such (Ezek. 34:7-10).”

But there are more alternatives than these. There are more choices than murderous rule or benign corruption. Right? If those are the only two options, then Wilberforce was either a murderous thug or he was in it for the “influence” it gave him. Which was it? What if someone says Thus saith the Lord, and then they quote Him accurately. Suppose all the Christian leaders of the United States told the president, and the Congress, and the Supreme Court, that the abortion carnage was an offense against Most High Himself, not to mention His Son Jesus Christ, and that we had filled up a reservoir of wrath for ourselves and for our children by our acquiescence in this great iniquity. What then?

“Violent and authoritarian regimes claim to speak for God so that they cannot be questioned for their morality or their competence. They wish to use God’s glory and God’s authority without God.”

True. And when you have men like that, who dare use the name of the living God to cover their iniquity, what do you think such men will do when you insist upon a system where they answer to no one but themselves? If these men want to do without God’s practical authority have we fixed anything by insisting that they banish God from the civil realm altogether? Why does Moore’s opposition to these men give them everything they want? They want godless government, so why are we arguing for godless or atheocratic government?

“When you hear a preacher on television tell you some ‘secret revelation’ that God has made known to him or her, watch your wallet. Behind that, there’s usually a ploy for your money or your power.”

We don’t live in Moore’s idea of a theocracy now, but I have not noticed any indications that I would be safe to stop guarding my wallet. Congress is in session, there is no fear of God before their eyes, and so all reasonable men should place the highest priority on guarding their wallets.

“Behind all of that is idolatry, the worship of the gods of this age: financial gain or political power or sexual pleasure.”

But if idolatry is bad, and we should reject the idea that rulers may be idolaters, doesn’t this mean that the rulers must acknowledge the true and living God? How is this not theocratic? Is there such a thing as a secular repudiation of idolatry? How is this possible when secularism is one of the great idols of our age?

“God has told us how to come into his rule: by following the self-sacrificial way of the crucified Christ. That entails a call to carry the gospel to the nations, not to subdue them for our own gain.”

The commission was not to “carry the gospel to” all the nations. Moore changes the wording of the Great Commission here. The command was to disciple the nations, baptizing them and teaching them obedience. This means obedience to Jesus, and it does not mean conformity to the pale ethical shadows cast by the talking heads of NPR. Of course we are not to do any of this for our own gain, but we are supposed to do it.

“That entails a call to consciences to hear and to receive the gospel, not to run over consciences with threats of death or of loss of money.”

Now let’s ask a few questions about this “not running over consciences.” Respect for individual conscience is itself a religious value. Some religions respect it, but many do not. Let us say that we have successfully repudiated any attempt to appeal to the will of any God as we make our decisions as a society. If that is the case, then why should we respect individual conscience? Why is religious liberty valuable or important? It is certainly important in Christian theology, but we have agreed not to drag that in. Why don’t we just tell the Little Sisters of the Poor that we have collectively decided that it High time they made their peace with contraception and abortion coverage? We cannot allow their imperious and theocratic tendencies to skew our secular ideals of acceptable insurance coverage. Who do they think they are?

“Theocracies are terrible, because the god behind them is the root of all the horrors of the present age: a depraved humanity pretending to be divine.”

What is actually terrible is confused thinking about theocracies. Look carefully at what Moore says here — “the god behind them.” But all governments have a god behind them. All governments rest upon some ultimate authority. That ultimate authority will either be the true and living God or that authority will be an idol. We must reject the idolatrous option out of hand, for we are Christians.

But when we have acknowledged the true and living God, as we must do, we are not yet home free. As Moore points out, terrible things can be done in the name of the true religion. In fact, the true religion did the very worst thing that has ever been done by any human governing authority, and that was the crucifixion of the Son of God.

So yes, theocracies can do awful things. The solution is for prophets to confront them with an open Bible. The solution is not for prophets to tell the godless authorities that they may (or must) throw all the Bible’s away, and govern us according to their own mendacious lusts. It may be just me, but I can see that going wrong somehow.