The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Theonomy vs. Theocracy

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Even though Gary DeMar’s two articles at the beginning of the week were meant to put this issue to rest, I couldn’t resist one last article on the presidential election. After reading many of the comments to Gary’s articles and my own, I realized that most of us are talking past each other. Although many of our readers strongly disagreed with the strategy that was being espoused in these articles (perfectly fine), several comments went beyond disagreement by calling it “anti-theonomic” (not perfectly fine). This article is directed to those who would question American Vision’s stance on theonomy by equating a vote for a third party candidate as being consistently theonomic.

To begin with, we need to make a delineation between “theonomy” and “theocracy.” The secularists in the mainstream media—not to mention the new atheist bulldogs of Dawkins, Harris, et al.—constantly smear Christians who choose to exercise their right to participate in the political process as “theocrats” who want to turn America into a “theocracy.” Although they seldom 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 Sam Harrises of the world. But just because the Muslim variety of theocracy is the most visible and vocal in the world, doesn’t mean that it is the correct one. When American Vision speaks of “theonomy,” or God’s law, you can rest assured that we do not mean “theocracy” in the sense described above. In fact, a true theocracy is only possible when a nation is truly theonomic. In other words, God’s law cannot govern a nation (theocracy) where God’s law does not rule in the hearts of the people (theonomy). A theonomic approach to all of life by all of the citizens of a nation will, by definition, be a theocracy. This can never be a top-down hand of oppression, but must always be a bottom-up, from the heart, obedience. The critics rely on this negative idea of an oppressive theocracy to make their case against theonomy,[1] yet can never cite a direct quote from theonomic writers who actually advocate a top-down method of civic oppression and submission.

When Moses came down from Sinai with the law from God, a very important point that is often neglected in theonomic discussions is made in Exodus 24:

Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!” … Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:3, 7-8).

Notice that when Moses brought the law of God to the people they agreed to obey all that God commanded. This is not a top-down, oppressive reign of terror. The people agreed to the terms of the covenant before Moses sealed it with blood. Later, when Israel demanded a king like the other nations, God told Samuel that the people had not rejected him, but God. “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them’” (1 Samuel 8:7). The ultimate rejection of God’s rule came during Jesus’ public trial by Pilate:

Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” So they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:13-15)

Take careful note who spoke these words: the chief priests. Israel had become quite content living in their political monarchy, so much so that even the chief religious leaders would choose Caesar over God’s own Son (read the parable of the landowner in Matthew 21:33-46 for Jesus’ ominous prediction of this rejection). Israel’s rejection of the covenant and preferring man’s rule to God’s theocracy led to the divine sanctions that began with Christ’s crucifixion. “When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.’ And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27:24-25). The final and most decisive result of this rejection was the destruction of the temple, which was the physical reminder of God’s presence among His people. The remnant of true Israel was scattered (dispersed) among the surrounding nations, taking God’s law with them. “Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

But what does all of this have to do with the presidential election you may ask. The Bible gives the foundation for a true theocracy as a bottom-up, grassroots effort that begins in the hearts of the people. It can never be imposed from the top down. Although we may be disillusioned with our two major party candidates (and I believe we’re ALL in agreement about this), the solution is not to be found at the top. As I stated in my previous article and will restate here, we get the candidates we deserve. The very fact that we are in agreement about the major party candidates is only a verification of how much work the Church needs to do. Voting your conscience for a third party candidate may make you feel better about yourself, but it does nothing for actually changing anything. If by some miraculous happenstance a third-party candidate was to win the election, what could he possibly do in a nation that has categorically rejected the law of God? We can deceive ourselves into thinking that the people of the United States would be willing to echo the sentiments of the desert-wandering Israelites, accepting the terms of God’s covenantal rule, or we can get to work locally, making change at the top inevitable. Voting for this sort of top-down change without doing the hard work of the bottom-up is exactly the sort of theocratic thinking that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris accuse Christians of having. We need a theonomic revolution in the hearts of the American people (and the rest of the world), not a theocratic one. Politics and presidents can’t save us, only Jesus can. And when the Church serves her true King in obedience and action, the theocracy will come—not through elections, but through people—one heart at a time.

[1] See Chapters 7-8 in Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and its Critics for examples of this. Also refer to Chapter 20 in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, also by Bahnsen, for a thorough discussion of what “theocracy” does and does not mean.
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