Theocracy Is Not the Enemy of Pluralism


A liberal acquaintance told me recently that while he generally dislikes evangelicals, he doesn’t find me to be as bad as the rest: “At least you don’t rant about wanting to establish a theocracy!” I decided to accept what he said as a compliment, even though I regretted not coming clean with him about theocracy.

Truth be told, my wife and I do belong to a pro-theocracy organization. Indeed, we attend its meetings every week. In those gatherings, we learn about what it means to support a theocracy, and we sing songs that are meant to strengthen our theocratic commitments. The organization I am referring to, of course, is our local church.

Theocracy literally means “the rule of God,” and Christians believe that while our churches do have human leaders, those leaders know that they are directly accountable to God for what they think and do. They keep reminding us that we Christians belong to “the kingdom of God,” which means that our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus, whom we often refer to as “ruling” over us.

The idea of the church as a theocracy, however, is part of a much larger theocratic picture. The universe itself in all its complex glory is a theocracy. The Jewish community’s shabbat prayer captures well the Bible’s theocratic perspective when it begins with “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe.”

Everything that exists is under God’s rule. It is this theocratic arrangement—defining the very nature of reality—that gives believers meaning and hope in our lives. But does that mean that believers like me should try to turn the United States into a theocracy? I think not. God does not want me to force my theocratic understanding of reality on others. What God wants from people is that they freely offer their obedience to his will.

I do not serve God’s purposes in the world by trying to impose “Christian” laws on people against their own values and convictions. I should not want everything that I consider to be sinful to be made illegal. For example, although I don’t like the blasphemous language that I hear all too frequently while watching Netflix these days, I am not inclined to call for laws banning these expressions.

That does not mean that I should withdraw into a live-and-let-live posture, content to wait for Jesus to return. The Bible makes it clear that God wants me to be active in the society where he has placed me.

The apostle Peter puts the mandate this way: “Live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).

Peter is echoing the admonition God gave through Jeremiah when the people of Israel were exiled in the pagan city of Babylon: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). In addition to witnessing to others about the power of the gospel, we can join them in working for God-glorifying social goals.

I am grateful for the opportunity to live in a pluralistic society where I can learn from people with whom I seriously disagree about religious beliefs, public policy, and moral lifestyles. For one thing, I can learn about the mistakes and misdeeds that Christians like me have made in the past—and still make today—about important matters. In genuinely engaging others on these matters, I often find effective ways to partner with them for the common good.

Historically, American evangelicals have gone back and forth between two ways of relating to the larger culture. In my youth during the 1950s, we evangelicals had a reputation for being “apolitical.” We liked to sing patriotic songs, and preachers regularly reminded us that we had a Christian obligation to show up as voters on election days. But we typically did not actively engage in political advocacy.

To be an evangelical citizen was to mostly cast our votes for Republican candidates and pray for God’s blessing on the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. In all of this, we were passive about politics—grateful that we enjoyed the freedoms of a nation that was “under God.”

Things changed around 1980 with the emergence of the New Christian Right, led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Evangelicals became aggressively political, working for candidates who promoted what we saw as godly causes, often explicitly guided by the theocratic project of returning to the vision of a “Christian America.”

Thus, we have either distanced ourselves from active involvement in the political system or worked to take it over. Either we were a cognitive minority content to sing, as we did in my youth, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through”—or we proclaimed ourselves to be a “moral majority,” boldly belting out “Shine, Jesus, shine / Fill this land with the Father’s glory.”

There is, of course, a third option, one desperately needed today in our increasingly polarized society: an evangelical willingness to labor patiently alongside others—persons of other faiths and of no faiths at all—in seeking workable solutions to the complex challenges we face as a nation.

In our weekly theocratic gatherings, we evangelicals tell God—in our prayers, hymns, and sermons—about our spiritual weakness as vulnerable human creatures. When we walk into church, we also bring with us the hopes and fears that we experience in our political lives.

The self-righteousness that we so often exhibit in the public square does not fit well with what we know about ourselves in our deep places. It is time for us to display a kinder and gentler evangelicalism, promoting a cooperative political quest for new ways of flourishing together in our shared humanity.

One of my heroes in the faith, the great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, proclaimed in his inaugural address at the university he founded, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

I find that inspiring manifesto to be a motivation for how I am to live as a theocrat in contemporary life. There is always a temptation, of course, for us to answer that rallying cry in an arrogant and imperialistic manner—as if all we have to do is go out there and grab hold of all those square inches in the name of Jesus.

Properly understood, theocracy requires a humble spirit. The apostle Peter tells us that when we are challenged “to give the reason for the hope” we have in Christ, we must take care to “do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Since Jesus claims every square inch of creation as his own, wherever we go in our lives, we are standing on sacred ground.

In my evangelical youth, I was taught Hudson Taylor’s famous saying “Christ is either Lord of all, or is not Lord at all.” I keep learning more about what it means to represent the cause of the gospel in a gentle and respectful manner.

The God whose majesty we theocrats worship in church not only sends us out into the world over which he rules but also assures us that, wherever we go, he will be with us.

He invites us to join him on those square inches that are occupied by precious human beings who suffer from the pain of abuse, grief, loneliness and the hopelessness that comes from unbelief.

We live in times when our fellow human beings desperately need to encounter evangelicals for whom being theocratic means actively serving the cause of a loving Savior.

Richard Mouw is a senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin University and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary.



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