THEONOMY. Perhaps there is no word more beautifully deceptive than this. Literally meaning God’s Law (theos: God, nomos: law), it sets forth the proposition that our civil magistrates must adhere to God’s standard and that our earthly laws should reflect His moral law. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see how the Christian might be inclined to follow it. For instance, Jeff Durbin of Apologia Church is a strong advocate for the system where he has affirmed his position that the only two options are theonomy or tyranny. With such well known Christians proclaiming the belief, does this give credence to it? There seems to be a growing number of people, particularly post-millennials, who are advocating for it and are using the Bible and etymology of the word to justify their position. However, as set forth, I believe to do so is to fall victim to highly deceptive terminology rooted in error. Before we begin, I want to outright state I’m certainly not advocating for antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness) with this post. I’d be foolish to ignore the fact that God has written His moral law on the hearts of believers (Jeremiah 31:33; 2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 10:16) and that we have an obligation to be obedient to the One who bought us with His blood (Galatians 3:13). However, what does that obedience look like and how far does it extend? If God truly reigns over all the earth (and He does), is theonomy a view that aligns with Scripture? I argue that it does not.
Personally, I think theonomy becomes a dangerous position when taken to its fullest extent because it becomes inconsistent, mandates a theocracy, merges Church and State, and reintroduces what Christ has abrogated. I think it’s a wonderful and necessary thing in the Church, but it has no place in the government as a formal requirement or system. I’ll give a very brief summary and then expound upon each point throughout the remainder of this post. If enacting a theocracy, it necessitates the reinstatement of Civil Mosaic Law or else it’s no longer grounded in biblical principles. After all, if we’re going to mandate civil government follow the biblical structure as found in the Old Testament theocratic systems, we must also resurrect the biblical pattern for judicial consequences. Any other structure results in “cherry picking” and fails the test of consistency. However, our nation follows a system of Separation of Church and State, which means a theocracy can never be as that makes the two a joint union. While I pray for leaders to be Bible-believing Christians (for obvious reasons), I don’t see it as a requirement for office that they be. The only two offices I feel necessitate that are elder and deacon.
Aside from feeling theonomy within government can’t be done properly, we’ve also never seen a single instance of it actually work, even in all of Scripture. Ultimately, sin gets in the way and leads to a perversion of God’s Law, oftentimes leading to legalism, which is just as bad as antinomianism. It’s impossible for us to live in a pure society that is fully governed by God. The only time we’ll ever see a functioning theonomy is in Heaven, and the only way to truly be a consistent theonomist is to conflate the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. As Christians, we adhere to God’s Moral Law as found in the Ten Commandments. Yet, even these are for His people, of which most of the world is not. Those not in Christ are expected to live like the world. Those in Christ are expected to adhere to the Moral Law. The Civil (and Ceremonial) Law has since been abrogated and, I argue, to adhere to theonomy is to minimize the completed work of Christ. Furthermore, a theocratic government, if implementing theonomy to its fullest extent, would have to punish people for not being Christian, having a different sexual preference, etc. God will indeed judge spiritual rebellion and sexual immorality in His time, but our government shouldn’t assume that role.
When speaking with a theonomist, you’ll undoubtedly be given Scriptural examples of God being over governing rulers. However, what does this actually imply? Does it imply we’re to advocate for a theocracy, or does it simply tell us that God is sovereign? I dare say it’s the latter. Because He has sovereignly placed them in positions of power, we’re to submit to this governing power as unto God. Despite this, it in no way advocates for a theocratic form of government. As stated earlier, every such form of implementation has failed, and there is a good reason for it. Let’s break down a number of examples.
At Creation, we see Adam and Eve before the Lord. They were in direct communion with Him and He was over them. He gave the command and their responsibility was to obey. That’s a prime example of a theocracy how it was meant to be. However, we both know Adam and Eve failed miserably and paid the price that, ultimately, spread to all men in the form of physical and spiritual death. This wasn’t a failure on part of the theocracy but of humanity. Yet, it still failed.
Throughout Scripture, we see more examples. For instance, the Hebrews followed Moses and submitted to the governing structure that was in place. This was another theocracy, as it was leadership appointed by God to lead His people. All moral, ceremonial, and judicial matters were handled by this body. While it was in effect for a time, Scripture reveals that Christ abrogated the Ceremonial and Civil Law, leaving only the Moral Law that is written on the hearts of His own. Thus, we shouldn’t desire to go back to that construct as it’s no longer functional.
When we see kings come on the scene, it was something that immediately angered God. Yet, they wanted one just like the pagan lands. While we see times of prosperity when those kings feared the Lord and used discernment, we also see how they abused the position. Countless forms of sin crept in due to a sinful nature. This was a horribly perverted form of a theocracy that even God Himself warned against. Surely, this shouldn’t be advocated for if even God is against it (1 Samuel 8:7).
Now, let’s skip ahead to the time of Christ and the early Church. While we see examples telling us to submit to the governing rulers because they were placed there by God, nowhere do we see a requirement that they be Christian in order to be legitimate. In fact, we even see evil rulers being regarded as legitimate. While they were indeed placed there by God, in no way was it a theocracy. Nor do we see Christ trying to implement a theocracy. What we do see is Christ setting the foundation for His Church and other New Testament passages telling us how we’re citizens of Heaven (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20). If a theocracy was the structure in view here, Christ took zero time to speak of it and actually seemingly spoke contrary to it.
It’s been argued that Jesus was a theonomist, and that He advocated for the system in Matthew 5:17. Does this undo everything I’ve just said and annul anything I’m about to say, or are we just not thinking critically enough yet? First, think about the time period in which Jesus lived. The threefold division of the Law was still in effect. He was still performing His active obedience to the Law. With this in mind, we’d be remiss to ignore the preceding verse where he says he, “did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Again, we can’t “cherry pick” the parts we want just to validate a belief. Keeping in line with the extent of Christ’s vicarious atonement also comes the extent to which, as our federal head, His active obedience fulfilled the Civil and Ceremonial Law. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.
Where we once again see a theocracy try to rear its ugly head is in the Catholic Church. Within the first few centuries after Christ’s death, the Church was the State and it handled all matters of governing ordinance. It was a true theocracy in every sense of the word. However, it, too, failed miserably due to human nature. It quickly became corrupt, lost sight of God, and sought absolute power, all while claiming the name of Christ. Perhaps even more frightening than the prospect of religion ruling over the people of the State is the thought of the State ruling over the people of the Church. Think it can’t happen? I highly suggest reviewing the history of Theodosius, c.391 A.D. When one conflates Church and State, man’s sinful nature knows no bounds.
Yet again, it was an example of why a theocracy will never work this side of Heaven. The only example of a pure theocracy was in the Garden with God as the direct ruler and even that failed on the part of man. Every other instance was nothing more than a perversion of the theocracy we will see in eternity. And, as I stated above, to implement one on this earth necessitates a restoration of Mosaic Civil Law in order to properly punish the wicked who violate God’s Moral Law.
The greater question becomes one of whether we are to hold the unbeliever accountable for violating God’s Law. Clearly, we have violations and punishments in place for things such as murder, rape, theft, etc. But is it in place because they violate God’s Law or is it in place because they violate the law of the land? I’d argue it’s the latter, because punishment for violating God’s Law will come from God Himself on the Day of Judgment. We still submit to it because we know the rulers are only there by God’s divine appointment, but just as Pharaoh met his demise at the hand of God, so, too, will our ungodly earthly rulers. Again, no instance of a theocracy is necessary nor is it prescribed. We live in a pagan land with pagan rulers. While I would prefer a Christian be in office in order to possibly implement laws that honor God, I also recognize they aren’t obligated to do this. Similarly, if we had a Christian in office, I wouldn’t want the law of the land to be conflated with the standard of the Church. This would only open the door to punishing people simply for not being Christian or for worshiping a false god. Our civil government is not to be conflated with the moral law written on the hearts of those in the Christ.
Chapter 19, Of the Law of God, in the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 gives a very concise, yet highly biblical, description of what Christ accomplished in His death, burial, and resurrection in regards to the Law. I highly suggest reading it for yourself. In it, paragraph 1 speaks of a law of universal obedience being written on Adam’s heart. Paragraph 2 goes on to say how this same law, “was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments and written on two tables, the first four containing our duty to God and the other six, our duty to man.” Paragraph 3 speaks of the implementation of ceremonial laws and how Christ abrogated these laws (Ephesians 2:15). Paragraph 4 goes on to speak of judiciary (i.e. Civil) laws , “which expired together with the state of the people,” (Acts 6:14) and tells how, though they have a certain practical application in the moral use, we’re under no obligation to follow them. Take note that all of this is written for the Church and not for our civil government. Look no further than 1 Corinthians 5 for an example of how this should play our biblically. Though this man was to be excommunicated, at no point was the recommendation to put him to death (Leviticus 20:10). Such Law that would require it had been fulfilled. In the sense of civil government, it held no role in what would happen to the man. It was a Church matter only.
In conclusion, I hope you can see why, though a beautiful term from the etymological position, theonomy is incredibly dangerous when implemented with an earthly system of government. We have many freedoms in this great nation and I value all of them, even the ones that give people the legal right to worship idols. While sounding liberating, due to its very nature, when taken to its logical and consistent end, it will always result in bondage to man and threatening of liberty. God indeed reigns over the earth and His righteous judgment will one day be executed in the day He withholds His grace and mercy. That day belongs to Him alone and not to any civil magistrates. There will come a day when Christ shall return and we’ll finally see theonomy as God intended. However, unless Christ comes back before sundown, today is not that day.
(For my follow-on article, read Theonomy: A Doctrine of Ignorance and Error)
~ Travis W. Rogers
What is the alternative of theonomy? Two Kingdom theology? Reformed Libertarianism?
Two Kingdoms Theology is, as far as I am convinced, the biblical way to address the role of the church and the role of the believer as we traverse through this world.
Great article. As a Navy vet and now pastor myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see your bio at the end. Well done.