The Bible is opposed to centralism, whether it’s political (United Nations) or religious (World Council of Churches). The tower of Babel and God’s scattering of those who were involved in its design were judged because of the potential corruption that is inherent in religious and political centralism. “The tower of Babel (Gen. 11) was [a] representative pagan architectural structure. It was probably something like the Babylonian ziggurat, a tower made up of concentric circles that resembled a ladder to heaven from whatever direction an observer approached. Here is the theology that Satan offered to Adam: autonomous man’s way to heaven. The tower was a link between heaven and earth, but one which men built, not God. The pinnacle of the tower represented the seat of power, the link between evolving man and the gods” (Gary North, Unconditional Surrender, 143).
The symbolic purpose of the tower was an attempt by fallen man to unify all creation under a centralized governmental and religious system, “Let’s make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4) was “the first public declaration of humanism” (Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time, 152). Corruption and tyranny would be centralized, along with power and authority. This was the danger.
Fallen men believe that they can overthrow the purposes of God through a united display of power as their efforts with the tower of Babel demonstrate. There are other examples as well. Satan tried to secure a host of angels in order to damage God’s eternal order. He was soon displaced from his station of honor for his efforts: “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev. 12:9); and his final destruction was sealed: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).
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Satan attempts to marshal the forces of nations against the purposes of God, but to no avail: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against His Anointed” (Ps. 2:1-2). All those who seek to centralize power and authority do so in opposition to God. God’s response to their efforts show how foolish their attempts are: “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the LORD scoffs at them” (2:4).
The Bible stresses local government in both Church and State. Paul’s letters indicate that there were many churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achia: Colossae, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Galatia. The Apostle John lists churches not mentioned by Paul and other New Testament writers (Rev. 2-3). Of course, there was a very influential church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:22; 15:1-35). All of these churches had their own ecclesiastical government with their own rulers. But these rulers were not autonomous. They, as well as the membership, are ultimately responsible to Jesus Christ who is “the head of the Church” (Eph. 5:23).
Churches are mini-republics. The model for their government is based on the governing principles from the “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). Church government is neither a pure democracy nor a monarchy (cf. Ex. 18). While the people participate in electing officers, the officers, once they assume a position of leadership, are the rulers who should be obeyed and honored: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17a). But their leadership should not be used as an opportunity to be autocratic or tyrannous: “Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (13:l7b). Again, Jesus is the example.
Elders are to “shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). But the church cannot be effectively shepherded from a distance. This is why Paul instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Each church was to have a Bible-based ecclesiastical government ruled and shepherded by qualified leaders (I Timothy 3:115). When disputes arose among the churches, representatives from the local churches spread abroad came to Jerusalem to settle certain doctrinal matters (Acts 15:1-35).
Civil government is to follow a similar pattern. The affairs of State can best be handled at the local level where the needs of the people and the community are known and the consolidation of power is minimal. The United States civil system of government exhibits a decentralized social order, although attempts at centralization are on the rise.