The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Theocracy vs. Ecclesiocracy: There is a Difference

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Ross Douthat’s appraisal of four recent books crying out against “theocracy” in the August 2006 issue of First Things reaches further than one might at first suppose. Although he touched on it only sparingly, Douthat pointed out a significant blunder that is common today. Nearly all observers decry “theocracy,” although their objection usually centers on “ecclesiocracy.” Douthat noted the difference without comment when he stated that evangelical Protestantism (the focus of much vituperation in the four books he examined) is characterized “precisely by its lack of any centralized ecclesiastical government.” The difference between “theocracy” and “ecclesiocracy” is important. The two terms identify, a law-giver in any society (theocracy), as opposed to rule by an ensconced institutional religious leadership (ecclesiocracy).

The much-remarked Rousas John Rushdoony pointed his rhetorical finger at this difference thirty years ago, early on in his The Institutes of Biblical Law: “Because law governs man and society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious, in that it establishes in practical fashion the ultimate concerns of a culture”(4). Of course that is true. Whoever gives the law determines what is right and what is wrong.

Rushdoony thereby skewered the sophomoric claim, “You can’t legislate morality!” by pointing out that law determines acceptable behavior, meaning righteous living, meaning morality, for any society. Which is to say, one cannot avoid legislating morality. The question is, Whose morality gets legislated? Rushdoony touched the issue with a needle, in that the “theo” in theocracy is clear. “Theo” means lawgiver-god.

Ecclesiocracy, however, is messier, both in thought and in practice. Ecclesiocracy usually means rule by an institutional religious hierarchy, as in Iran today. While this may sometimes work out reasonably well, eccesiocracy in general presents a question regarding the consent of the governed. Sometimes, ecclesiocracy is welcomed (as in the Vatican), but ecclesiocracy is usually resisted (even resented) by its subjects.  (Note that Rushdoony and all of his colleagues and fellow laborers for Christian Reconstruction do not, never have, and never will espouse ecclesiocracy.)  The four books Douthat examines have, however, a different story to shop around, which is why they use confusion between theocracy and ecclesiocracy as a diversion.

Common to any society, atheistic or otherwise, is a specific tendency toward a single law-giver, for good reason. Rushdoony again: “[T]here can be no tolerance in a law-system for another religion. Tolerance is a device used to introduce a new law-system as a prelude to a new intolerance.” If Rushdoony is correct, then one understands immediately that our so-called secular state is actually a vehicle for a single non-ecclesiastical law-system. The Founding Fathers would have agreed with contemporary Reconstructionists, whether old (Rushdoony’s or new (—since societies cannot avoid legislating morality, then societies should legislate God’s morality. The advantage of a representative republic is that the governing bodies usually come from society at large, rather than from narrowly defined elites, whether an atheistic tyranny or an established institutional church. 

All this suggests that the outcry against “theocracy” that Douthat described is a smokescreen intended to deflect attention away from an ongoing political contest in the public square. To the extent that these four books try to treat “theocracy” as synonymous with “ecclesiocracy,” they hide the real conflict, which centers on the identity of the lawgiver: God, or man. Today, that conflict pits our law-abiding Christian heritage against an atheistic insurgency that leans toward intolerant antinomianism.

One suspects that victory will require more, rather than less, biblical Christian thought, practice, and education.

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