The word “theocracy” carries a lot of baggage today. A term of derision for many, it conjures up visions of dictatorial governments, strict rules, and forced conversions. The literal meaning, “rule by God”, isn’t very helpful. The modern definition of theocracy is “a country ruled by religious leaders.” Current examples are Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom are Islamic theocracies. The LDS, aka Mormons, had something like a theocracy in Utah under Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders in the mid-eighteen-hundreds. These examples do nothing to commend theocracy to us. Yet despite our negative conceptions, theocracy is treated as the hope of God’s people in the Old and New Testaments.
Scripture doesn’t directly use the word “theocracy”, although the idea of Yahweh ruling is present throughout. The most specific reference to being under God’s rule is during the period of Israel’s judges. They served in a military and judicial function for the people as God’s representative after they possessed the Promised Land. This period was marked by its overall moral and spiritual decline. As often happens in periods of decline, Israel had a populist uprising and called for a change in government. They wanted a king like the surrounding nations. When they did so, God told Samuel – who was both a priest and a judge at that time – that by doing this they had rejected Him as their ruler.
“And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them’” (I Samuel 8:7).
During the reign of David, God promised that another king would come who would establish His reign throughout the earth (Psalm 72). Centuries later Jesus proclaimed a soon-coming kingdom that will grow throughout history. In His resurrection and ascension, Jesus was exalted as priest and king. Scripture shows Him ruling at the Father’s right hand, ruling the nations despite their ornery defiance. Paul says that Jesus will reign until all enemies are put under His feet (I Cor. 15:25) and the book of Revelation displays Jesus as the priest, prophet, judge, and king.
But this raises a question. How can we say Jesus is King when we see so many terrible things in the world? Would a good king allow death, famine, war, and other evils? Why doesn’t He put a stop to it all? Part of the answer is that there is a difference between God’s providential rule over all things – which has been since He created the world – and the reign of Christ in His promised kingdom. When God gave men and angels free will, He providentially allowed evil into the world. Though this is a tough theological and philosophical issue we can rest in the promise that God is sovereign, all-powerful, gracious, and He works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
This enhances the question. If God is sovereign and Jesus reigns as our King, why doesn’t He eradicate evil right now? Because He doesn’t use power like that, at least not right now. We have a particular view of power that’s different from what’s found in Scripture. We understand power as a simple force that requires people to bend to do our will. When two opposing powers meet, one will be stronger and subdue the other by force. But the reign of Christ does not work like that. When Jesus defeated death and Satan, He overthrew the power of the adversary and the most powerful tool Satan had – the fear of death. He rules the nations through His Spirit, working in and through His people (His body). The New Testament picture is of a kingdom that extends gradually, rather than all at once (Matt. 13:31-33). He reigns as the kings of old would reign over colonies, through governors, representatives, and stewards. His great commission is the call to declare the gospel: the good news of the reign of Christ, His victory over His enemies, and His pardoning grace to all who submit to Him. As the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 2:8-9,
“You have put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.
We don’t yet see all things subdued under the reign of Christ, but by faith, we see Jesus, who came as a man to take upon Himself all the evil that the cosmos could dish out, and make a way for us to come to God through Him. Even though evil exists in the world still, our Savior absorbed it for us that we might be His instruments of grace in this world.
Part of God’s grace to us is the gift of civil leaders, those who rule, enact, and enforce laws. He appointed them to “execute wrath on evildoers,” (Rom. 13:4). As God’s appointed servants, every time they carry out justice, they are fulfilling the work of Christ the King. It doesn’t matter if they do so knowingly, although it’s better if they do. For many centuries Christians agreed that rulers had an obligation to rule in submission to the moral law revealed in Scripture. Believing that Christ is Lord requires that you obey Christ, whether you are a mayor, police officer, artist, engineer, or dog-catcher. Rulers are in a unique position as they have a greater ability to implement the moral/natural law, and they have to do so.
What then does this mean for us? On a local, practical level, the rulers of Huntsville, Alabama should honor God in the way they rule. They should act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. They should remember that Jesus Christ rules over them as king and they will give an account to Him one day for how they ruled. Because we love our city and seek its peace, the church should remind our city fathers of these things, whether they want to hear it or not. But the church as an institution does not bear the responsibility of forming and trying to implement a detailed political agenda. Trying to do so risks compromising the mission of the church and turning Scripture into a political manifesto.
But is that a real danger? Would people ever do that? Yes, they would.
In the 1530s, the Reformation was in full swing. Many German towns and villages were excited about casting off the yoke of papal tyranny. Soon the fervor of freedom led some to turn against their local magistrates, viewing them as too strict and oppressive. A tailor named Jan Bockelson believed that the theological and social reforms throughout the Holy Roman Empire (what is today Germany) were neither swift nor thorough enough. He had been a Lutheran but now believed that the Lutheran church remained in bondage to tradition.
Believing that the millennial reign of Christ was immediate, the charismatic Bockelson joined other radical reformers in the city of Münster. He proclaimed it “The New Jerusalem” and himself, who had taken the name “John of Leiden,” its king. He and other city leaders emphasized the theocratic nature of their city, saying they ruled under God and directly from Scripture. They abolished many laws deemed oppressive and redistributed property democratically. They legalized polygamy, citing Old Testament law regarding multiple wives; John himself had sixteen wives. Soon they began killing supposed criminals without a trial (the main crime was criticizing John or his “holy” rule). In an early example of cooperation between Catholic and Lutheran armies, outside forces laid siege to the city for several years, and in time Bockelson and his comrades were tortured and killed.
While this event does not discredit theocracy, it should teach us the danger of idealistic, political zeal, even towards Christian ends. We don’t establish God’s kingdom by force; we pray, prepare, teach, plan, and take opportunities as they come. In the light of eternity, we live in the dawn of the reign of Christ over the nations. We can afford to be patient but not lazy. We must not shrink back from the task of gradual, thorough discipleship.
In conclusion, theocracy is not just a good idea – it is God’s plan. Thankfully the church isn’t given the task of establishing theocracy – Jesus already did that. Our responsibility as disciples is to manifest submission to Christ in every sphere: home, church, business, politics, entertainment, technology, etc. As we pursue these goals together, the Kingdom of God grows and we anticipate one day seeing all things transformed in Christ.
 Psalms 2, 72, 110, Daniel 2, Isaiah 9:7, Luke 11:2, I Corinthians 15:25,
 Daniel 4:34-35, Romans 8:28-29; for a more detailed account of the doctrine of God’s providence, see the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 5, “Of Providence.” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-westminster-confession-of-faith-1647
 This includes Paul (Rom. 13:1-5), John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas, just to name a few examples.
 For a good summary of this see John von Heyking’s Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World
 For a shorter article on this, see https://www.thelocal.de/20180503/muenster-theocracy-history-anabaptists/. If you’d like to read greater detail, see The Tailor King, by Anthony Arthur.
Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor for Shepherding at Trinity Reformed Church. He has been in ministry for ten years and was a school teacher for fifteen years where he taught history, government, and economics.