What are the advantages and pitfalls of theocratic government? What does it mean from a Western perspective? What does it mean from a global perspective?
It seems clear from Scripture that Man was intended to live under the government of God. In the garden of Eden, God made all the plans and decisions. There was no council of Mankind, no debate, no discussion, no polls, no parliament. It was God’s garden, God’s way, and God’s government.
Even the two trees in the garden were symbolic of this: The Tree of Life symbolized our dependence on God to sustain life and maintain order in the garden. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil symbolized discrimination and debate: Things are either/or, right or wrong, good or bad. It seems that the prohibition against eating its fruit meant that any discrimination was God’s business. He would walk with Mankind in the garden, but not for consultation about how to run it. Mankind was under the government of God.
After the Fall, God maintained direct communication with Mankind for a while. Cain and Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others had frequent communication with Him. God gave direction to them, for their lives, their families, and even for their worship. He communicated directly with Moses about the Exodus from Egypt, thereby emphasizing His theocratic rule. God instructed, led, and communicated with Israel through Moses, His messenger and, for a short time, His government representative:
Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Moses’ wife Zipporah, after he had sent her away, and her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom, for Moses said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” The other was named Eliezer, for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was camped, at the mount of God. He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her.” Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent. Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the Lord had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. So Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.” Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.”
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.”
So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land. (Exodus 18)
This passage introduces several principles of theocratic government:
- It requires knowledge and education of the people in the laws of God.
- It requires someone—a leader, a prophet, a cleric, a seer—who has a direct line to God.
- Authority can be delegated, but only in minor matters.
The key component of a theocracy is a clear and unambiguous open channel between the prophet and God. As Israel became a commonwealth of God’s people, the high priest became the communicant. The Urim and Thummum stones embedded in his breastplate gave God’s direct answers to questions put to the priest:
You shall put in the breastpiece of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the Lord continually. (Exodus 28:30)
Moreover, he [the questioner] shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his command they shall go out and at his command they shall come in, both he and the sons of Israel with him, even all the congregation.” (Numbers 27:21)
The theocracy continued to rule Israel until the time of Samuel:
And it came about when Samuel was old that he appointed his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judging in Beersheba. His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 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 8:1-7)
God’s direct rule through the high priest was replaced by a monarchy, for two reasons: (1) A loss of confidence in God’s spokesperson, and (2) a desire to be ruled as other nations were ruled. God of course declared this to be a rejection of Himself and His theocracy. It highlights the trouble with theocracy from Man’s perspective: How to be sure that people claiming to have a direct line to God are authentic, trustworthy, and reliable. Samuel’s sons were seen as inauthentic, untrustworthy, and unreliable.
Since the beginning of history, rulers have publicly aligned themselves with God. Some—the Pharaohs, the Japanese emperor, and others have even proclaimed themselves to be a god. Even today there are rulers who claim to be the head of His church (Queen Elizabeth II for the Church of England, and the claimant to the post of God’s personal representative on earth, the Pope, for the Church of Rome (also governing an independent Vatican state of about 900 people).
In recent times, even in the United States, claims to have a line to God are common among candidates for political office:
Scott Walker: “I am certain: This is God’s plan for me and I am humbled to be a candidate for President of the United States.”
Ben Carson: When asked if God had grabbed him by the collar yet about a potential presidential run, Carson responded: “I feel fingers.”
Rick Perry: “God sends messages through a lot of ways and through a lot of messengers.”
Rick Santorum: His wife said in 2011 that her husband’s candidacy was about “defending God’s truth in the world,” explaining that “it really boils down to God’s will. What is it that God wants? … We have prayed a lot about this decision, and we believe with all our hearts that this is what God wants.”
Mike Huckabee: Huckabee asked people to pray for God’s blessing for him to get in the race. “For me, this is not just a political or financial decision, it is a spiritual decision. You know, the only thing worse than not being elected president would be to be elected president without God’s blessing.”
Rand Paul: “Today I announce with God’s help, with the help of liberty lovers everywhere, that I am putting myself forward as a candidate for president of the United States of America.”
Marco Rubio: “… in this [candidacy] endeavor, as in all things, I find comfort in the ancient command: be strong and courageous. Do not tremble or be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” He eventually withdrew his candidacy, saying: “it is not God’s plan that I be president in 2016 or maybe ever.”
John Kasich: “The most important thing is, what does the Lord want me to do with my life? You know, he puts us on Earth, all of us on Earth, to achieve certain purposes, and I’m trying to determine if this is what the Lord wants.”
Ted Cruz: His father said: “My son Ted and his family spent six months in prayer seeking God’s will for this decision…. We were on our knees for two hours seeking God’s will. At the end of that time, a word came through his wife, Heidi. And the word came, just saying, “Seek God’s face, not God’s hand.” And I’ll tell you, it was as if there was a cloud of the holy spirit filling that place. Some of us were weeping, and Ted just looked up and said, “Lord, here am I, use me. I surrender to you, whatever you want.” And he felt that was a green light to move forward.”
(Selected from this source.)
In previous elections, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and many other candidates have quoted Scripture to stake a claim to a relationship with God.
To some Americans, this is all too much. On the religion and politics blog of PBS’s “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has challenged the increasing amount of religion on the campaign trail.
“There’s vastly too much discussion about God and religion and the candidates in this election cycle,” he said. “And it really doesn’t get Americans to know two important things – are the candidates competent and what specific principles will they use to guide their policies?”
Lynn was not advocating for the candidates to put aside their religious beliefs. The ordained United Church of Christ minister and long-time civil rights activist, however, did say he looked forward to the day when candidates would not drag religion onto the campaign trail and not suggest that there’s a religious test for public office in America.
Does God want to be involved in politics? Does He really care who is running for office? How could we be certain that God instructed them to run? (And if God underwrites these candidates, how come most of them do so poorly at the polls?) Should believers seek theocratic government? Does it have some advantages? Pitfalls? And again: What did Jesus mean when He said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s”?
David: The obvious pitfall would be that since no human being can hope to understand the mind of God, we cannot hope to represent Him in government. No ayatollah, no king, no emperor can legitimately claim to know God’s mind sufficient to apply it to rule with genuine divine authority over people. Of course, they can and do claim it, but their claim is illegitimate, and the tragic results are all around us.
Robin: We are unlikely to convince an ayatollah—or an atheist—that he should worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God. What upsets me during election campaigns is that we are manipulated by messages “spun” to appeal to the group with which we identify. Everybody hears what they want to hear. God’s government is overarching and fair. Caesar’s government is always manipulative.
Jay: Yet the “Render” statement of Jesus seems to imply that there is a legitimate need for worldly government to maintain some sort of order in the daily grind of life. But it reminds us also that there is a government of God that is more concerned with principles to live by rather than functional rules for society, though there is clearly some overlap between these. Theocracies do not automatically result in prosperity and success for the societies they rule. They are not a garden of Eden.
David: Last week we talked about the role of government, and agreed that defense was a major role. Would not the government of a Christian God simply turn the other cheek instead of planning a defense strategy? But what earthly government would ever accept turning the other cheek as a defensive strategy? None. I think the principle of turning the other cheek is intended for the self-government of our individual lives,
Jay: But what happens when the rules of society conflict with the principles of self-government? In the “Render” statement, Jesus was not asking for moral compromise; He was telling us that there are rules for society and rules for leading our individual lives, and that we should follow both. What do we do when they clash? Whose rules should prevail, and what happens if we make the wrong choice of rules?
David: Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to participate in war and choose prison over government conscription laws. States that make exceptions for such conscientious objectors have their cake and eat it: They look good for making a handful of exceptions while still getting plenty of cannon fodder for their wars. But what if everyone became a conscientious objector? What would have happened if every citizen in the allied countries had each individually decided to turn the other cheek and let Hitler have his way with Poland, France, the Jews, and Great Britain? God leaves us alone to manage, through earthly government, the social messes we make on Earth, and concentrates instead on guiding us in governing our individual lives through a relationship with Him.
Jeff: As Christians, we’ve always thought that theocracy was God’s original plan, rejected by Man in favor of an earthly king. But theocracy also failed in heaven itself, where war was waged under God’s direct governance. So the thought that theocracy works when God is directly involved does not seem to hold. It follows that our ability discern God’s will is less than clear, so we have to look to govern ourselves. It has always bothered me, that…
“He removes kings and establishes kings;…” (Daniel 2:21)
It seems to say that the leaders we’ve had were appointed (and dis-appointed) by God.
Don: So were South Africa’s apartheid leaders the result of God’s will? Was Hitler? Does God prefer Trump to Hilary? Or are we missing something? This is what makes the “Render” statement so important. It speaks of things that concern us deeply in our lives on earth.
Jeff: Maybe Daniel was pointing to the solution. 😉
Don: The mixture of God and politics is tricky territory—which is precisely why the Pharisees chose it in trying to trick Jesus.
Jay: The “Render” text speaks of “things of God” and “things of Caesar.” We see overlap between these things, but it seems to me we ought somehow to be able to discern which is which.
Dr. Singh: Nobody can give a definition of God. In the Bible, Jehovah was only for the Jews, which is why they did not want to accept Jesus. But He was Creator of the whole human race. God is like a prism. He emits a hundred thousand rays of light, too numerous to be definable.
Robin: If an incumbent government happens to produce a good economy and so on can we conclude that God had a hand in it? We read in the Bible that Satan makes himself look good, too. Every election, we choose one party over another to be the voice of God, but we have a tendency to mess up. Whenever we get behind a party or leader, eventually we will be disappointed, when we learn of their corruption and immorality and so on. So we need to be very careful in our alignments. We are easily fooled.
Jeff: This is why Jay’s point about discernment is so important. It is central to the concept of the separation of church and state. The problem is its impracticality. We live in the public arena, in society. As Christians, we should strive to let God’s light shine through us onto others, but maintaining that line of discrimination is impossible.
Jay: If nothing happens that God does not want to happen, it would mean that sin (which happens) is God’s will. So should we oppose God’s will by not sinning, or not? If bad leaders come and go at God’s will, then what are we to make of it? The choice of leadership affects so many people in serious ways, surely God ought to impose His will to ensure only the best leaders? The fact is, we live in a very imperfect, sinful world. That’s why “Render” is so appealing at the personal level: It is between me and God, and there is nothing to stop me personally from living by those principles. But I still fear that the requirement to give to Caesar might sometimes conflict with my requirement to give to God. If that happens, what do I do?
Don: Is Jesus telling us to isolate ourselves from government, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
David: The “Render” statement is a positive one: “Do this.” It is not a negative “Don’t do this.” To me the key question is what exactly is God’s, and what exactly is Caesar’s? With regard to what we owe to God, we have two things to guide us: Scripture and the inner light. Scripture is an unreliable guide, because of its inconsistencies both within and between the New and Old Testaments, the Bible, the Koran, and so on. Based on the world’s Scripture as a whole, anything goes—and has indeed gone: Theocracy, dictatorship, democracy, secular government, secular government based on a religion, and so on. But if we reduce Scripture to only the messages of Jesus, and add to them the messages we receive through the inner light/voice/spirit, then surely we have all the guidance needed to know what is God’s. And that is what we must render to God: Acceptance of His messages as taught by Jesus and as communicated through conscience—the spirit inside us. Caesar, in whatever form s/he assumes, is welcome to the rest. Caesar and the things we owe him are essentially irrelevant, as far as God is concerned. What matters is what is God’s.
KB: In South Africa, there was a time when blacks were told that the apartheid government was what God wanted. It led the Adventist church in South Africa to cut itself off from politics, and led young Adventists to ignore government and not participate in politics. Let others decide what to eat, how to live, how to educate children, where to go. Now, young people are asking if that is the kind of God they want to believe in and serve—the kind of God who gives someone else the power to decide how they should live their lives. I don’t know the answer. God is not clear on the matter.
Don: Though not quite as strongly as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventism too has generally stayed clear of politics. Does a Christian have a duty to stand up for something and against other things, such as apartheid in South Africa and the racism that still exists in America? Does apartheid belong to Caesar, so we should give it to him without question? Should we surrender to Nazism?
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-6)
But I don’t recall any Scripture that exhorts us to participate in politics. The “Render” statement was based on a coin with Caesar’s head on it. It was about money, a worldly thing which has nothing to do with God, and therefore of no concern to Christians. We have the Bible, God’s word, God’s kingship over us. We don’t need government to tell us how to live, when we have the Bible to tell us. As long as we live by God’s word, we cannot come into conflict with government or anyone.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galations 5:22-23)
KB: But the two inevitably conflict. It is impossible to live without coming into this conflict.
Anonymous: Nothing can stop you from worshiping God and doing what He wants you to do in the privacy of your home. Even if government closes down the churches. It’s inside you. Nobody can take it away.
Jay: This is individual versus corporate worship. Is that what the “Render” statement is about? There are societal norms, such as driving on the right side of the road and paying taxes, that are essential to maintaining order. They belong to Caesar. The question is: Can they come into conflict with the things of God?
David: In the form of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the ending of apartheid, South Africa provided the one shining exception that proves the rule that corporate, worldly government delivers a different product that divine government; in this (exceptional) case, confession and forgiveness, a Christian virtue.
KB: And it eventually went south. There are still families hunting for the heads of people who confessed to hurting them. The Commission was founded on the Christian principle of “forgive and forget”, but many could not forget.
Don: The Render statement remains profound and ambiguous. We will consider it further.