Theocracy is a delicate word in modern usage. Some see it as an ideal government as intended for ancient Israel. Some see it as the corruption of American right-wing politics. But, as the great Inigo Montoya once said, “you keep saying that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What is a Theocracy?
Theocracy is a very simple word: theos + cratos = God + ruler. It refers to the ruling of a country alongside Democracy (ruled by people), Monarchy (ruled by one), Oligarchy (ruled by a few), Meritocracy (ruled by gifted people), and so on. This brings two major issues to my mind immediately.
First, it occurs to me that believing in the words of the Christian Bible, one must confess that the entire universe is under a theocracy. Ever since Jesus defeated sin and put death to flight at the throne of his Cross, he has been the ruler of the world. As he himself testified:
Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show by what death he was to die. (John 12:31-33)
In this light, it seems silly to try to identify individual countries as “theocracies,” because in the grand scheme of things, God is in charge no matter who the President, King, Emperor, Governor, or other ruler is.
The second issue that comes to mind is that it is ridiculously difficult to form a theocracy in real life. If the government is God Almighty and none other, then who gets to police his laws? Are there even any laws? The Old Testament Law of Moses exists, and was put forth for the ancient Israelites, but because it has its fulfillment in Jesus, we know it’s no longer appropriate for us to adopt it wholesale. To do so would be to take a drastic step backwards, away from Christ, and thus away from God.
The closest thing I can think of a theocracy in the modern world is ISIS. They have an army and are ousting government control from parts of Syria and Iraq, and instead of replacing those governments with their own, they’re enforcing Sharia Law, which is about as close as they can get to having Allah in charge according to Muslim theology. My point is not that theocracy leads to terrorism, but that it is simply not practiceable. As Christians, we don’t have a built-in means for socio-political organization. The ancient Jews had civil laws built in to their religious law, and the Muslims have a tradition of civil law, but we don’t. The closest thing we have to being organized is having the Church.
How about an Ecclesiocracy?
When most people in the USA complain about Christians pushing for a “theocracy,” what they often see and mislabel is the push for an Ecclesiocracy (the Church ruling the land). Think about it: imagine some Christians trying to enforce a “theocracy.” How would they do it? Who would be the judges of the law? Who would hold authority and influence? In short, who are God’s representatives?
In ancient Israel the answer was simple: the Prophets, the Priests, and the Kings. These three offices were anointed by God to be his mouthpiece within certain parameters. Prophets preached and enforced the Law; Priests performed the religious functions and (with the Levites) taught and settled disputes; Kings managed the civil law and provided organization for the whole land. All that to say, even the so-called theocracy of ancient Israel was really administered through intermediaries. It was a religious monarchy, perhaps, or a politicized ecclesiocracy, but not a theocracy.
In the Church today, who are God’s representatives? The historic answer would be the clergy, according to their respective functions. And while a number of Christians in the USA right now might still agree with that, plenty would be uncomfortable with such a notion. This is because of our radical cultural striving towards the ideal of “equality” and especially “liberty.” (In my view, Lady Liberty, as I’ve argued in the past, is the true goddess of America.) In short, the prevailing non-denominational attitude of American Christians today would make it nigh impossible to form a theocracy. Competing interpretations of Scripture would tear it apart without a united form of organization.
That is actually why the founding documents of the USA forbade there being a national state religion: too many denominations already existed to make such an enterprise feasible. And many of the founding fathers were more interested in individual liberty than the truth of God.
So what is a Christian nation?
In light of how impracticable it would be to institute a real Theocracy as Christians, and how divided Christians are to form a stable Ecclesiocracy, it seems pretty straightforward to me that there can be no such thing as a “Christian nation” until Jesus returns and takes the throne visibly and finally.
Sure, you can have a nation built on “Christian principles,” but even there you’ve got the problems of competing traditions within Christianity (divine right of kings versus democratic rule, just war versus pacifism, allowing divorce versus banning divorce, equal rights for non-Christians versus second-class citizenship). And besides, Christian principles or values removed from their theological foundation are no longer reliably Christian! The reason for this is simple: the political foundation of the country is still political, not religion.
Trying to make a “Christian nation” is like mixing water and oil. If you keep stirring, they’ll remain somewhat mixed, but they naturally separate on their own. I’m not saying that religion and politics don’t belong together, they’re both liquids, after-all, and both necessary ingredients in baking a yummy cake. But until Christ returns to put our broken world back together, we have certain limitations regarding how well we can handle politics and religion and other features of culture. A more unified Church would certainly be a helpful step, but that’s not looking likely anytime soon in the USA, given our national devotion to Lady Liberty and her dogma of individualism.