A Larger View of Theocracy

A Larger View of Theocracy

I keep reading about how bad it is to be a “theocrat,” so every chance I get I try to own up to the fact that I am one of them. I am a theocrat.

I know I am taking a bit of a risk in owning up to that label. “Theocrat” functions these days a lot like “pervert.” The people who think nothing of accusing other people of being perverts do not really expect the persons they are accusing to respond by saying, “Yes, I am a pervert.” “Theocrat” seems to function in pretty much the same way.

Actually there are a lot more of us theocrats around than the accusers have in mind. When the label gets used by people who see it as a term of insult, they are typically thinking of evangelical Christians, especially those associated with the “Religious Right.” But strictly speaking, anyone who believes in the God of the Bible is a theocrat.

I made this point with a rabbi friend a while back. He was complaining about “those theocrats” in the evangelical world whose views about public policy he abhorred. I said to him, “But you’re a theocrat too, aren’t you?” “Of course not!” he replied. But then I pointed out that the Jewish prayers he regularly intoned often begin by addressing God as “King of the Universe” or “Sovereign Ruler of the Universe.” Theocracy is the rule by God, and the biblical psalms, for example, make it very clear that God rules over everything in the world: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1); “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). That is theocracy!

My rabbi friend’s response? “Well, yeah, in that sense, okay. We all believe in the rule of God. But that doesn’t mean that I want to be associated with those folks who think they can impose on all of us their own ideas about the rule of God!”

I was glad he agreed on the technical point. Because what he made clear in his response was that it really isn’t theocracy as such that he had problems with. Rather, he was troubled by the way one particular group of theocrats behave in the public arena.

I’m not as down on the Religious Right as he is. On many of the issues the people attracted to that movement care about, I agree with them. I oppose abortion-on-demand. I worry much about the widespread–and increasingly very public–sexual promiscuity in our society. I am troubled about some of the things being taught in public schools. I firmly believe that the word “marriage,” even in our increasingly pluralistic society, ought to be restricted to apply to a relationship between a man and a woman.

Where I depart from the Religious Right is not in what they care about, but on some of the things they don’t always seem to care about. Rick Warren–the evangelical pastor of “Purpose Driven” fame–put it well when someone asked him whether he is right-wing or left-wing. I’m both, he said, because a one-winged bird can’t fly. We need the whole bird.

The problem is not with theocracy as such. It is with how we theocrats deal with the fact that right now we are living in a world that has not yet been renewed by God. It is not our job to rush God in bringing the Final Judgment. This year at Fuller our theme verse is Micah 6:8, and that gives us a great set of marching orders for how we theocrats are to behave ourselves in the here-and-now: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”


  1. Dr. Mouw,

    I very much appreciate your post. I learn when I observe how different terms are used among different persons.

    Nevertheless, I wonder if employing “theocrat”, etc as you do–given the mass media understanding and usage that seems to suggest fundamentalist christians taking over congress and banning all religions but theirs–does not lead to varying degrees of confusion.

    Grace to you today. With that, I am…


    Comment by peter lumpkins — March 8, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  2. Dr. Mouw –

    Two comments I’d like to make: This week’s post is a delightful follow up after listening to Zev Chafets on CSpan’s BookTV this weekend. An Israeli American Jew, he wanted to uncover the disconnect between the right-winged behavior of evangelicals and their support of Israel. To his liberal Jewish friends who dislike Evangelicals and worry about their ‚overtaking’ politics in America, Chafets says, America is less religious now than it was in the fifties and sixties. (His greater concern is survival of the nation state of Israel and Xn support of it) I wonder if the reason Evangelicals do seem so counter to the culture isn’t because the culture in the last thirty seven years has pushed at values once universally shared. 1970 – no abortion on demand, no homosexual marriages/unions, and the free-love movement was just getting started. To object to these things now is to be considered intolerant. As to what RW Evangelicals do care about, has that really been explored? Perhaps this is another disconnect and the RWrs are also reading in schools, helping at soup kitchens etc. I don’t know, I’m just hoping they are out there quietly working as a response to their relationship with God.

    Second comment: Re: Your post of January 19 – Jack Bauer – I saw a Reuters piece today talking about the influence of TV violence. You close that post asking What [is watching this violence] doing to us as a people?“ Here’s reuter’s answer: “Most disturbing, according to some experts, is that such entertainment has inspired real-life American soldiers assigned to question prisoners without proper training, or under controversial new interrogation directives that critics say permit torture and disregard the Geneva Conventions.
    Here’s the post if you want to take a quick look.

    Comment by Diane S — March 8, 2007 @ 4:25 pm

  3. The problem is not the rule of God. The problem is that rule, as rule, is always by men: and there is only one man who could fulfill the requirement.

    The only comment on the “theme verse” comes from an old friend of mine as we discussed it: “Sounds nice. But I’ve talked to your friends, I know your parents, I know many of the people you’ve made enemies of. If that’s the standard, you’re going straight to hell. I’d rely on Christ a bit more, if I were you.”

    After I got done blustering in response, I realized he had a point. After thinking further about it, I think the point has a more general application.

    Comment by Arnold Williams — March 9, 2007 @ 9:39 am

  4. Dr. Mouw,

    Your clear description of the best meaning of “theocrat” forces me to agree – I am a theocrat, too!

    Unfortunately, as you know better than I, words are “containers of meaning.” I fear that when a word such as theocrat has been “filled” (by others) with such meaning that is contrary to its original intent it is not only an uphill battle to reverse the trend, but perhaps even impossible.

    A similar thing is happening with the phrase, “Emerging Churches.” Though Gibbs and Bolger did a fantastic job clarifying what I believe is closer to Karen Ward’s intended meaning for the phrase, the broader discussion has “fuzzied” the meaning almost to unrecognizability.

    In the “Emerging” case, I’m choosing to use the phrase “Nascent Churches.” First, having not been used, this term is ready to be ‘filled’ with meaning as it relates to ecclesiology. Two, many will have to look this word up in the dictionary as I did, stumping assumptions, at least for a little while.

    At any rate, I’m wondering if you haven’t come up with another (perhaps better) term than ‘theocrat’that we might popularize, and which points to those who believe the world is ultimately ‘ruled by God’, yet with less cultural baggage?

    Comment by Eric Herron — March 9, 2007 @ 11:59 am

  5. I have Some thoughts after the reading of : “Rick Warren–the evangelical pastor of “Purpose Driven” fame–put it well when someone asked him whether he is right-wing or left-wing. I’m both, he said, because a one-winged bird can’t fly. We need the whole bird.”

    I have had chance to participate the recent LA Marathon last Sunday. One thing I have learned from my Marathon race this time is that I can never imagine what God can do for us at my most unexpected time. I eat a bag of dry fruit and nuts right before the race, which I should have known better not to do so as an “experienced” runner. But I couldn’t help myself due to extreme hunger at the time. For the 1st 12 miles, I had to deal with my stomach sick and feeling of throwing up. After the long battle with my constant thought of “quitting”, Out of my deep distresses, I prayed and God showed me HIS mercy and compassion at mile 14–where Azusa Revival event took place last year. Immediately, I felt that I had wings (not one wing, but two of them) to fly like eagle. I was able to keep the pace for the last 12 miles faster than all my previous races and to finish strong.

    I don’t mean to get off the interesting subject of “Theocrat”. I have enjoyed very much all the topics Dr. Mouw had discussed in the past. The blog gave me a chance to learn a great deal of theological concepts and realistic view points from different perspectives, which I found very challenge to my mind. Just a thought of flying with one wing make me laugh. I would be injured by now, not even mention about finishing the race.

    Yes, I admit that I am a theocrat:)



    Comment by LLL — March 10, 2007 @ 9:47 pm

  6. This is too clever by half. Words mean what they are used to mean. Just believing in God does not make one a theocrat, as the word means by its common usage. It’s like saying someone is gay because they are happy. That’s technically true, but meaningless because the word has come to have a common useage.

    Comment by toniok — March 26, 2007 @ 1:17 pm

  7. For another defense of theocracy and theocrats, see “Renew America Forum” http://www.renewamerica.us/forum/?date=070523&a=82

    To toniok’s comment that calling yourself a theocrat in the Biblical sense is meaningless because the word has come to have a common usage, I would respond that the common usage of the word “theocrat” today, very much like the word “gay”, is a perversion of the original as much in need of redemption as the original Adam.

    Comment by G.A. Rodgers — June 11, 2007 @ 7:43 pm