The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

A Theocratic Mistake

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In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Chuck Colson was asked what he believed was the greatest misconception about Christians. His response was: "That we are intolerant. Christianity has deep convictions about what is true, but I don’t think Christians should impose themselves on people. My greatest concern is theocracy." Now I have great respect for Chuck Colson and I understand what he is trying to say in his brief answer, but I must disagree with him on this. There are some topics that should not and cannot be answered with three sentences. While I don't have the luxury of knowing whether Colson's answer has been edited in any way, I do know that this short answer serves to reinforce a mistaken notion—which is held by most mainstream journalists in this country, and therefore by many citizens in this country—about what "theocracy" really means.

To begin, we need to make a delineation between “theonomy” and “theocracy.” Theonomy refers to God's law and theocracy refers to God's rule. All Christians, to some degree, believe that God's law reveals the true and proper way to live in this world. To that end, all Christians also understand that they should be theocratic (ruled by God) in their earthly obedience; that is, like Peter and the rest of the apostles, they believe they "must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). The secularists in the mainstream media—not to mention the new atheist bulldogs of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al.—constantly smear Christians who choose to exercise their right to participate in the political process of this country as “theocrats” who want to turn America into a “theocracy.” Although they never define just what they mean by this, the mental image communicated to the reader is often one of women in burkas, and priests/politicians with AK-47s. If this top-down, authoritarian, reign of power was what Christians had in mind when they spoke of obeying God’s law, I would welcome the alarms being sounded by the media. But just because the Muslim variety of theocracy is the most visible and vocal one in the world, doesn’t make it the correct one. Sadly, Colson's answer to the NYT Magazine only perpetuates this misunderstanding.

When Colson says that Christians should not impose themselves on other people, just what does he mean? He seems to be implying that when we impose our "deep convictions about what is true" on other people, we are guilty of being theocrats. And in the true sense of what the word means, this is exactly what we are doing. We are told to obey God rather than men and part of this obedience is to take the truth of God's Kingdom to all nations, teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). In fact, it was the Sanhedrin's seeking to deny the carrying out of this command that prompted the apostles to answer that they were duty-bound to obey God, not men. The reason why the apostles chose to ignore the Sanhedrin's demand to keep quiet about Jesus was because they recognized that Jesus represented a higher authority than man. Because they believed in God's rule, they knew they must obey God's law. Their decision to disobey was indeed a theocratic one. But this is obviously not what Colson means when he says that theocracy is his greatest concern.

Most times, discussions about "theocracy" involve the always misunderstood doctrine of separation of church and state. When most critics discuss this "separation" what they really mean is that religion can never have anything to do with matters of the state. This is preposterous, not to mention impossible. It must be pointed out that every law is an imposition of morality and every morality stems from a religious belief. Every one of us, regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be "religious" or not, believe some things to be true about the world that we have no way of proving or knowing for certain. Take the issue of stealing for example. Most people think that stealing is wrong, but how many ever to stop to ask why. Is there some sort of natural law that we can look to that informs us that theft is wrong? Bigger animals steal food from smaller animals and taller trees steal the sunlight away from smaller trees all the time, but where is the cry of injustice over this? Why aren't these bully animals and trees brought up on charges of theft and racketeering? The answer is obvious. We don't expect the animal and plant world to follow the rules that apply to mankind. But why not? Why does mankind follow a "different rule" for not taking what belongs to his neighbor? If there is a natural law about theft, it would be that the bigger and the stronger ones of a society should be the ones that get to thrive and survive. But the rule of the jungle is not the rule of men. Why is this? Simply because man's views on the rightness or wrongness of theft comes from a religious conviction, not the natural world. The same could said about murder, lying, cheating, rape, murder, and countless other things that human governments legislate.

Theocracy is an inescapable concept. Everyone is a theocrat in the sense that everyone does or doesn't do certain things based on what they believe to be right or wrong. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris believe that religion (and by this they mean the Christian religion) has no place in the public policy arena, because this would invariably lead to a "theocracy;" yet they have no problem bringing their own religious ideas of how men should live and act to the discussion. In fact, most non-Christians would like to have some form of a Christian society (one that abides by the last six of the Ten Commandments), they just don't want Christ as the Giver of the law. In other words, they believe that not stealing from your neighbor is a perfectly acceptable law to have in a civilized and separatized society, however, saying that we should not steal because Jesus said not to is theocratic and therefore not allowed. In the first instance, man himself is the "god"—deciding for himself what is good and evil; in the second instance, God is God—revealing to us what is good and evil. And this is exactly where the heart of the separation issue lies: either man is god, or God is God.

If we were to follow Colson's definition of theocracy to its logical conclusion, we can only conclude that he would have us side with the Sanhedrin rather than the Apostles. In other words, in his short, three-sentence answer, Colson has effectively made evangelism impossible. How so? Because evangelism—like human law—is an imposition of your beliefs on other people. It is my belief that speeding cars can kill people, but I would be roundly condemned (and maybe even arrested) for not imposing my belief on an unsuspecting pedestrian in the crosswalk. In the same way, it is my belief that living without Christ leads to death while living with Him leads to life. But if I refuse to tell someone about Christ out of fear of being labeled a "theocrat," I am not obeying God, I am obeying man. When we tell someone that they should become a Christian, we are imposing our beliefs about ultimate reality on them; that is, we are telling them something we believe to be universally true and binding on all people.
When God sent Jonah to the Assyrians, He sent him to preach the gospel to them that they might repent from their wicked ways. When Jonah tries to flee from the presence of God to avoid taking the message of judgment to Nineveh, we learn that he did this because he feared that Nineveh might actually do it. Jonah refused to obey God because he couldn't bear to imagine that God might actually show compassion and grace to this corrupt and sinful city. In the same way, Peter (Simon bar-Jonah, son of Jonah) refused to take the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, because he couldn't fathom a world where God would show compassion and grace to non-Jews. In both cases, God gives divine insight that He will do as He chooses and that He is not constrained by the boundaries and limitations of men. Jonah and Peter both re-learned the lesson that it is better to obey God than men. God's rule demands that we obey Him.

In both of these stories—Jonah and Peter—notice that God's servants are only required to preach the message. The willingness to obey the demands of God's law (theonomy) are not imposed by either Jonah or Peter, but flow out from the people's acknowledgment that God is King (theocracy). When Chuck Colson speaks of theocracy being his greatest concern, he means an external imposition of obedience to God's law onto people who do not accept God's rule. The problem is that this is a myth; it is a scare tactic created by the media and the New Atheists. It proves that Goebbels was correct that if a lie is repeated enough times it will eventually become accepted as truth, even among those who should know better. Nowhere in the United States does this "top-down" Christian theocracy exist. Chuck Colson knows this. No Christian, to my knowledge, has ever promoted the idea that if we could only get enough Christians elected to public office, we would then be able to impose Christianity on the American people. A church sign that I saw on my home yesterday made a very good point in this regard; it said: "Visitors welcomed, Members expected." This is the real message of the theocracy of Christ. New members are being welcomed with open arms, but current members are expected to be actively engaging and doing the work of "obeying God rather than men." But when Colson equivocates on what "theocracy" means, as he does in his short quotation, he plays right into the hands of the secularists and the humanists that are seeking to erase every vestige of Christianity from the public square and the history books of this nation. Theocracy is a real concern, but only in its misapplication. As Christians we must be ever mindful of not only how we live out the Gospel in this world, but also how we talk about it and present it.

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