A Biblical Civil Government – Is It a Theocracy?

Share Two Edges of the Sword Post:

It is important that we don’t get lost in the theological weeds in these latest blog postings, and I have a feeling that may be the case. So, I want to take a brief moment to restate the big-picture into which our constitutional republic fits and why it is so important to always remember and live in light of this fact.

Our 3-fold eternal purpose (Genesis 1:26-28 – to bear God’s image, rule over the earth, and be fruitful and multiply), influences everything we do as Christians. Those three activities are why we are here, and always living in light of them is crucial.

Bearing God’s image is achieved only by experiencing the gospel of the grace of God in our lives, and ruling over the earth comes as a result of that experience. Therefore, knowing how the civil government, the family, and the church—the three institutions designed by God to achieve that rule—are to function is absolutely necessary.  We are currently looking at the civil government. 

We saw that the biblical nation that is our model for civil government in the Bible is the constitutional republic, as expressed by the Hebrew Republic. The question we are addressing is which of today’s two political expressions of that system, pluralism or theocracy, most corresponds to the biblical one? I want to look at the characteristics of each and try to discover the answer to that question, for it is our ability to follow God’s law in the Bible that will ultimately determine our continued success as a nation. Let’s first look at a theocracy

The characteristics of a political theocracy

1. Culture. The culture of a theocratic nation is an outworking of the worship of its recognized, official, national god. A nation’s culture is always its religion externalized, whether that religion is mandated formally or not. The naturally passive culture in India is a demonstration of Hinduism (nirvana is the ultimate goal—the release from individual existence), the militant culture of Muslim countries is the manifestation of Islam and the Koran. Latin American is expressive of the mystical, magic, sacramentalism of Catholicism, while the historical industry and hard work of the West is a result of the Protestantism of the Reformation.

2. Law. Without apology, the laws of a theocratic nation reflect the law code of its religion. All laws are an expression of an ultimate authority source. It has been said, “You can’t legislate morality,” but all laws (legislation) represent the morality of someone’s religion. Law, by definition, is morality. Sharia law is the law code of Islam, and to agitate for Sharia law in America is, knowingly or unknowingly, to push to make America a Muslim theocracy.

Our laws reflect the god of our land, but we are watching them change as we change from a de facto (in reality, experiential, “in fact”) Christian nation, based on Christian law, to one that is more consistent with the encroaching religion of secular humanism. We are not a de jure (legal, official) theocracy, but definitely, according to the Constitution, an official, pluralistic nation. The battle rages in America between various gods, with the final winner still not yet defined. The victor will be determined by the one whose laws are ultimately followed.

3. Exclusivity. In a theocracy, other religions are not given equal footing–there is no pluralism–and ultimately, other religions are not tolerated, and, historically, often even persecuted. This  is true of the theocracies in the Arab world as the state religion of Islam persecutes Christians and followers of other religions.

4. Liberty of conscience. Historically, religion is seen as a necessary, unifying force in the theocratic nation, so participation is mandatory, not by choice. There has been no liberty of conscience in theocracies down through the ages. Augustine, in the 5th century and eventually the Reformers in the 16th, forced baptisms for all within the geographical boundaries of their theocratic nations. They used Jesus’ statement, “Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled,’” (Luke 14:23) to justify their actions. One’s religion was not questioned because it was not a choice but a matter of the nation in which one was born.

5. Power of coercion. The power of the state is used to enforce the requirements of the religion. So, historically, in a theocratic nation, there was a union of the national religion and the power of the state. There was really no distinction. The state’s power to compel was used to enforce not only the law code of the state religion but also whatever the state religion defined as “doctrinal purity.”

To our ears, the majority of these characteristics are primitive, highly objectionable, and downright terrible! We unconsciously compare them to the de facto, Christianized version of pluralism we have experienced, immediately rejecting such a theocracy like that out of hand. What kind of historical record have these theocracies  left us? 

When Abraham entered the promised land it was inhabited by the “Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites,” These were the people groups of the land of Canaan, and they each had their own god. As the Israelites interacted with these people to expel them from the land they all saw the battles that ensued as ultimately battles between gods. 

Notice that the Israelites’ God is referred to in scripture as the “LORD, God of Israel.” So, Israel was a theocratic nation, just as were all the nations of antiquity. Their god and their king were inseparably joined.

Later, in New Testament times, Rome also was a theocratic nation. Although other religions were tolerated, the gods of those religions were a part of a legalized, registered pantheon of accepted gods in Rome, who must all bow to Caesar as the supreme god. Remember the cries by the Jews at Jesus’ crucifixion, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15), a specific rejection of the Lord, God of Israel, as king. Christians were unwilling to do this, hence the persecutions of the first few centuries A.D.

Beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine in 312, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, and the Christian faith was wedded to the State for the first time. Constantine became the head of the church; Rome became a “Christian nation,” all its citizens became “Christians” overnight, other religions became illegal, and the unbroken, historical string of theocratic governments continued. 

Even the reformers—Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and Knox—continued to follow this theocratic model of civil government after the Reformation, with the state even enforcing the doctrinal beliefs of the de jure state religion of each particular nation (Switzerland, Germany, Scotland).

The Puritan colonists extended the tradition to our shores in America. In 1630 in Boston, the Puritans, under Governor John Winthrop, became the most self-consciously biblical people in history. They had turned to the Bible in search of moral and political order. Their Body of Liberties (1641) served as their political charter, and that charter was biblical to the core, even citing specific Bible verses to justify its laws. 

Governor John Winthrop had hoped that Massachusetts Bay would serve the whole world as “a city on a hill,” a bright beacon of biblical Christianity that would persuade men to construct a biblical civil order in their lands. But his vision did not come to fruition.

Why not? Was it because of their practice of “theocracy?” Next week we will look at the other possibility for a constitutional republic: religious pluralism. Is that the answer?

Share Two Edges of the Sword Post:
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jerry Buccola says:

    Splendid review Robert!

    And I liked the 3 purposes for our life here. We are saved for purpose not just to be saved. Of the 4 or 5 evangelical churches that we have attended over 40 years, none taught purpose, except you. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *