Theocracy Revisited

The other day I mentioned to my sister that I support a form of theocracy. Unfortunately, other developments in the conversation left me without an opportunity to elaborate much at all on what I mean by this. Since I didn't satisfy my wish to explain then, I'll take up the details here instead.


First, a basic definition of "theocracy." It gets used in a variety of more or less helpful ways, but for my purposes, I think the basic Wikipedia definition will suffice: "Theocracy is a form of government in which a deity of some type is recognized as the supreme ruling authority, giving divine guidance to human intermediaries that manage the day-to-day affairs of the government."

The two key features of theocracy, then, are (1) that a deity is recognized as the supreme authority and (2) human intermediaries manage day-to-day affairs by the deity's guidance. Both of these are, I will argue, essential to any properly Christian notion of how government should operate.

Supreme Authority

The first key of theocracy in the broadest sense is that a deity is acknowledged as the highest authority. This can take a stronger or weaker form. In the weaker form, the government has no laws or constitutional features explicitly subjecting it to a deity, but the actual people who make up the government are explicitly devoted to performing their duties in service and submission to the deity. In the stronger form, this commitment is expressed as well in laws, oaths, or policies that recognize the authority of the deity over the actions of the governing authorities.

From a Christian perspective, then, we can ask the following question: Should people in positions of governmental authority recognize God through the Lord Jesus Christ as supreme authority? The obvious answer to this is "Yes," as to deny this would be quite literally apostasy, but for now the exact way in which this recognition should function might leave a lot of latitude.

It is at this point we should recall a basic but often neglected fact about "government." The notion of the government or the state is an abstraction that can blind us to the fact that all actors involved with governance are individual human persons and moral agents. As such, each of them is accountable to God, bound to obey Him, and tasked first and foremost with honoring Him in all things. If there is a debate about how the "government" should or should not devote itself to God, it must take into account that the obligation in question is not properly about what an abstract entity must do, but what the persons who are govern with authority must do.

So we should most certainly at least grant that all persons in a position of authority are obligated to recognize Jesus as Lord over themselves. No matter what they do in any sphere, they ought to obey Him and honor Him.

Human Intermediaries

The second key to theocracy is that human intermediaries administer the day-to-day affairs of the government guided by the will of the deity. This can take different forms. In many of the popular images, priests run the show and make their word law, sometimes with or sometimes without the actual consent of the deity. But there are other ways this can work, as well. This can also take the form of governors and magistrates simply being obedient to their deity in their general duties.

The degree to which the divine order guides the day-to-day human administration can also vary. In some cases, the whole revealed divine will may receive direct legal enforcement. On the other hand, sometimes the implementation of known divine will may be distributed to different kinds of people, some of it to governors, and some to priests without legal backing, and some to families or fathers.

This again comes to the question of Christian application. Is there a sense in which Christians in position of authority should perform day-to-day governing tasks using guidance from God? Again, the answer seems to be obviously "Yes," even if there is plenty of room to imagine different ways of doing this.

Here we should recognize that all works of governance are, or should, be ordered to serve the good of the people being governed. Yet even the nature of what is good for people is known at least from God's revelation and guidance by means of nature and conscience. The source of what even the unbelieving authority knows about what benefits his people is God. And for the Christian, we have additional, infallible information on how people are designed and what they should or should not do for their own good from special revelation. If this information is indeed objectively true, which a Christian must of course believe, then a Christian authority can be no means disregard it as he seeks to serve his people for their good.

Theocracy v. Theonomy v. Ecclesiocracy

So, in the broadest sense, theocracy includes any form of government in which a deity is recognized as supreme and human authorities administer day-to-day affairs using divine guidance. An explicitly Christian theocracy in this broadest sense is one in which Jesus Christ is recognized as supreme Lord and human authorities administer day-to-day affairs making use of guidance derived from general revelation (nature, conscience, and reason) and special revelation (the Bible) in some way, shape, or form.

A significant feature of this definition is that it does not necessarily entail either of two things people tend to think of when they hear "theocracy," namely theonomy and ecclesiocracy. So it's worth pointing out what each of these actually means, and how/that neither is necessarily entailed in a "mere theocracy."

"Theonomy" (God-law) has been used in almost as many varying ways as "theocracy," but the general use in modern discourse refers to the notion that some/all of the Mosaic law as such is still in force and should be applied by all present governments. Some still use a weaker force of the term, which simply means that all governments should obey God's law in a more general sense, a position which roughly overlaps by the bare theocracy we've been looking at here. But the more common use would involve finding ways to integrate all or much of Old Testament law into the laws we live by today. This is not necessary to theocracy in any sense. While any proper Christian theocracy would need to include laws that overlap with Torah, this would not necessarily be because they are in Torah. So theocracy as such does not imply any particular commitment to any particular modern application of Old Testament laws.

Theocracy is also often confused with ecclesiocracy, in which a religious institution/religious leaders run the government. While such an arrangement would almost certainly be theocratic, theocracy does not require or imply it. In fact, the Torah, a textbook example of a theocratic government, quite sharply divides the political and ecclesiastical institutions, at least formally. Priests and Levites ran "the church," while judges and later kings ran "the state." Prophets, a third category, operated outside of both church and state and called both to account directly to God. So governments can and often have been theocratic without a religious institution running the government, or even without any direct links between religious and political institutions.

Religious Liberty?

In the context especially of American evangelicalism, but also other places as well, even the word "theocracy" can trigger deep convictions or instincts about the necessity of religious liberty. Surely the government cannot impose beliefs? Christianity can't be forced? Will we go back to a state church supported by taxes that enrich bishops while oppressing the poor, burning heretics and sending out crusades to conquer infidels in other lands?

In truth, a minimal concept of Christian theocracy does not entail any particular policy for how governing authorities might handle matters like an established church, heresy and blasphemy, or relations with unbelieving peoples. Indeed, I for one do not consider it implausible that the Church's present political impotence is at least partially a judgment against her rather catastrophic descent into abuse of power on just these matters as the Middle Ages progressed.

Explicitly acknowledging and submitting to the Lordship of Christ would, of course, prevent the governing authorities from treating other heresies and other religions identically or equally to Christianity. But the proper way of dealing with these can depend on time, place, and demographic. A small and thoroughly Christian city with a sudden outbreak of Unitarianism does not need, and should not have, the same approach to matters of religious liberty as a large cosmopolitan metro with a religious subgroup for every flavor at Ben & Jerry's.

In any case, Christian theology should be able to recognize the basic truths that faith cannot by nature be coerced, that the sacraments are of no benefit to the unwilling, and that law operates only in the temporal, physical realm and as such has no direct power over the heart and conscience, which alone count before God. These propositions, not always acknowledged during medieval Christendom, lay the groundwork for many possible forms of religious liberty that nonetheless allow the authorities to confess and obey Christ without compromise.

An Outline of a Sketch of a Dream

I've spent a lot of time so far describing what theocracy _doesn't _have to be. At this point, it may not be clear exactly what I do support. So let me briefly describe the overall gist of what I think proper theocracy might look like in a potential future American context.

The clearest and most obvious change would be that the governing authorities as a whole would no longer pretend to be religiously neutral (FYI, they're not, just in case you missed it), but consisting hypothetically of mostly Christians, would make it a matter of public principle that their highest allegiance is to Jesus Christ, the Lord of the nations, and that they will only execute their offices in ways that can honor Him. This could or could not involve a constitutional amendment revising the language of the First Amendment, though clever legislators and/or justices could avoid the need to do this.

The primary practical difference would be that legislators would no longer put on the charade of excluding information or principles related to religion from law-making and public discourse. The whole truth of reality, including truth only found or more easily found in Scripture, would be taken into account. This would most obviously become relevant at the limits of secular reasoning, e.g. matters like abortion where no amount of science and no pretense of full neutrality can ever quite settle the core issues at stake. Law-makers would not be limited to exegetical reasoning or required to make laws "based on the Bible," but they would be more than free, and indeed encouraged, to bring in biblical and theological data to bear on pressing issues where applicable. The question "What would Jesus do?" would not be the beginning or end of any particular policy, but it would at least be allowed.

Obviously, there would be other changes, as well. No state church or state denomination would be necessary, but agencies and services run by the state could freely cooperate with Christian organizations where/if desired, especially for charitable purposes or for community improvement. And the most radical of heresies, like the LGBTQ+ movement, wouldn't need any heretic burnings but could at least be fully excluded from any claiming any legal ground.

Foreign policy would be modified as well. War-mongering would obviously be out, along with extensive meddling for quasi-religious crusades like spreading Democracy™ in the Middle East, as such things are clearly unchristian. Rather than debates between hawks and isolationists, the spectrum would be more limited by concerns of peace, like a debate between just war theorists and pacifists. Alliances and enmity, war and diplomacy, would be deliberating with concern for the welfare of the Church in every nation, the possible effects of treaties and wars on the spread of the Gospel, our greater obligations toward other Christians, and the damaging effects of institutionalized idolatry in countries controlled by false religions. This needn't make a simple map of Christian countries we like vs. pagan countries we don't, but simply taking these factors into serious consideration would be a huge improvement over the mess we're in now.


A great deal more could be said about what a good Christian theocracy might look like or not look like. I certainly don't have the time or the qualifications to go into all of it. Nor do I necessarily expect this brief discussion to persuade anyone initially triggered by the mention of "theocracy" that there really is a desirable category of possible governing arrangements to which the term applies. Nonetheless, I hope it was at least somewhat thought-provoking and clarifying about my views. In a future post, I may move on to discuss why I think the Bible itself considers the public, politically visible allegiance of the nations to Christ in history a big deal.

A few additional resources: