A Critique of Christian Non-Theonomic Conceptions of Civil Government

A Position Paper of the Ohio Center of Policy Studies

The topic of the Christian’s responsibility to lay the Biblical claims of righteousness before an ungodly society naturally leads to questions concerning civic law. For example, should Christians within a democracy or constitutional republic encourage the implementation of specifically Christian legislation? If so, what should serve as the guide to inform or govern that legislation? On the other hand, should Christian responsibility in this area be limited to merely a confessional role, in which we simply declare God’s demands of righteousness for a society?

Historically four principal categories of answers have been given to these questions by non-Catholics, answers that persist in the late twentieth century.


First, some have argued that human society is equivalent to the “world” and necessarily and irremediably depraved, and that it is not the responsibility of Christians to attempt to alter or structure that society in such a way as to compel Christian or even external righteousness. Under this category the Anabaptists come immediately to mind. Their attitude toward the relationship between civil legislation and righteousness is basically one of indifference. For though they are not indifferent to personal and social righteousness in general, they consider attempts to influence society by means of legislation to be beyond their responsibility. Interestingly, they uniformly recognize government as a divine ordinance (Rom. 13) and attempt to obey its laws except where those laws require them to violate God’s standard as revealed in his word. For the most part, pietists of our day have taken the position that attempts to wed righteousness to legislation are really not in the purview of Christian responsibility. Those within the Anabaptist tradition would probably not deny that human law should in some sense reflect Christian standards of righteousness, but they ordinarily do not specify what that sense is, and, instead, concentrate on personal holiness, evangelism, and missions. Some Anabaptists historically equated human government with a Satanic kingdom while simultaneously recognizing it as a divine ordinance.1

Natural-law theory

A second group providing answers to the questions surrounding civic legislation and righteousness insists that Christians should indeed attempt to influence legislation, particularly in a democratic-style society, and that the standard for righteousness should be God’s natural revelation. From their standpoint, since God’s natural revelation is universal, virtually all men can come to agreement concerning a general standard of righteousness (for instance, the unethical nature of murder, theft, adultery, and so forth). Society, then, should be founded on these general standards of righteousness disclosed by means of God’s natural revelation, and Christians should attempt to influence government to enact legislation based on that revelation.2

Christian-consensus theory

Third, some like T.S. Eliot have argued for what may be termed a Christian-consensus or -ethos concept of civic righteousness. They understand that to secularize society is to invite tyranny for religious underpinnings of society and instead attempt to make it a “culture” and provide a stability that permits maximum individual freedom. Their emphasis is not as much on specifically religious legislation as it is on the imperative of a Christian consensus that influences the values of society.3

“Christian America” and theonomy

Disciples of the final category believe that Christians should attempt to base the legislation of society upon Christian standards but, unlike proponents of the natural-law theory, contend that the standard for righteousness is the Bible or the Christian religion, and not merely God’s natural revelation. They believe one reason the Scriptures-particularly the OT-were given was to provide human governments with guidelines and, according to some, specific laws to implement in society.4 Those of the “Christian America” persuasion believe the United States should revive its explicitly Christian heritage.5


The Anabaptist viewpoint is fashioned by its distinctive hermeneutic that the NT rather than the OT is the guide for Christians and that the law was abolished by Christ. Endemic to this persuasion is the belief in a strong discontinuity between Israel and the church.6

Anabaptists and those holding their socio-political view uniformly recognize government as an ordinance of God, but not an ordinance to be actively shaped by his word and will. They are willing to suffer flagrant persecution at the hands of unrighteous governments and never attempt to resist or change those governments lest they should violate God’s law of personal peace and nonretaliatory response in the face of cruel provocation (Mt. 5:38-48). Their refusal to directly influence civil law for the sake of righteousness derives less from their idea that governmental responsibility is not within the jurisdiction of Christian responsibility than their dedication to more personal matters of Christian practice. They see no conflict in affirming government as an ordinance of God, even if the government is unjust and unrighteous (for one thing, they feel that government may be used as an instrument to purify the church by means of persecution, just as God used heathen nations of the OT to purify and punish Israel).

If, nonetheless, government is, in fact, an ordinance of God-as are the family and the church-it follows that citizens, particularly Christians who affirm the authority of the Bible, should attempt insofar as it is possible to achieve the divine ideal of that ordinance. Admittedly, in special cases God has used corrupt and unjust governments to punish his people, but he always revealed to his people that these unrighteous governments were being used for that disciplinary purpose. To argue that Christians today should not attempt to influence and change unrighteous governments for the sake of Christianity and righteousness because those governments are being used as a divine instrument to punish a specific group of individuals or an entire nation is not materially different from those German Christians who claimed they should not have opposed Hitler and Naziism because God was using the Nazis to punish the Jews.

The unswerving Anabaptist accent on discipleship necessarily prohibits Christian identification with any government. “To affirm that one is a member of the Kingdom of Christ now means that loyalty to Christ and his kingdom transcends every other loyalty,” states Augsburger.7 This aspect of Anabaptism is entirely in harmony with Biblical teaching, as are the statements, “We cannot assume that since God ordains government we are always obeying God in our obedience to it” and “…we…cannot disobey a divine law to obey a contrary law by the government.“8 Augsburger’s insistence, however, that “As Christians we are not here [in this world and society] to provide an ethic for the society or state, but to clearly define an ethic for disciples of Jesus Christ.“9 simply does not do justice to the portrayal of government as an institution committed to restricting evil, or to God’s injunctions and warnings to governmental rulers regarding conformity to his law (Ps. 2). Further, Augsburger’s suggestion that, “We need a new awareness of the pluralism of the New Testament [and]…the crucial issue is the difference between the church and the world and that the church operates ‘within the perfection of Christ,’ while the world operates ‘outside the perfection or will of Christ.’“10 erroneously equates “the world” with human government. The world is indeed “outside the perfection or will of Christ,” but if human government must punish evil it must adhere to the divine standard according to which the whole idea of evil must be understood. And while Augsburger is quite correct that Christians must “not equate the church and state,“11 the fact that society in general and human government in particular are “worldly” does not any sense mitigate their responsibility to conform themselves to the commands of their Creator. The Anabaptist viewpoint as expressed by Augsburger sometimes appears more anthropologically centered than theistically centered as, for example, in Augsburger’s statement made in opposition to participation in war that, “Above everything else, we [Christians] want our fellow men to become our brothers in Christ.“12 To the contrary, above everything else we should desire to obey God, and in doing so will maintain a proper relationship to both our God and our fellow man.

A vestige of the early Anabaptist idea of government is the simple sentiment that “politics and religion don’t mix,” espoused today by numerous pietistic evangelicals. Oddly enough, on this point pietistic “conservatives” and secular humanists agree entirely; the former do not believe politics to be their responsibility, and the latter want no religious interference in their secularistic utopian efforts. As Russell Kirk, echoing the sentiments of T.S. Eliot, reminds us, however, “…the source of any political order is a religious creed-or else the inverted religion of ideology. A principal function of the state is the maintenance of justice; and justice can be defined only upon ethical assumptions, ultimately derived from religious insights.“13

If righteousness exalts a nation, and if God blesses nations that conform themselves to his righteous standard, Christians should attempt to influence nations for the sake of righteousness. Nor can it be justifiably or sensibly argued that it is not by means of the institution of righteous laws that we should attempt to enhance civil righteousness. God punishes Gentiles according to the provisions of his law (Rom. 1, 2), and it is the law itself that should be highlighted in attempts to propagate righteousness.

Further, Anabaptists interpret Scriptural commands regarding personal nonretaliation in such a way as to prohibit civil responsibility. Yet if an aspect of our commission in the world is to “teach all nations…to observe all things whatsoever [Christ] commanded [us],” (Mt. 28:19,20), we must attempt to establish any civil laws which Christ himself not only affirmed but also amplified and internalized (Mt. 5:21-22; 27-27, 28, 33-44). To say that individuals should adhere to the law of God but that governments are exempt from that law is manifestly inconsistent.

Christians should submit to governments, even corrupt governments (Rom. 13:1-7). The comments in Romans 13, the locus classicus of the Christian’s personal relationship to government, presuppose on the part of human government a general awareness of the nature of good and evil and a commitment to preserving the former and punishing the latter. In no case does it presuppose the necessity of a theocratic or Christian government if believers are to obey that government’s laws. Do not these facts, however, refute the idea being presented in this essay, i.e., that a goal of Christians in a particular society is the conformity of that society to God’s righteous demands? They do not. Paul’s intent in outlining the individual’s relationship to the state was apparently to squelch revolutionary tendencies, perhaps on the part of Jews who wanted immediately to establish some sort of national kingdom and who had influenced Gentiles along those lines. In any case, Paul in that chapter is not prescribing the ideal form of government, but rather the minimal standards of an acceptable form of government whose function is to “use the sword” to punish evil. Christians, according to Paul, are not to resist the divine ordinance of government (except, of course, in cases in which government specifically demands that which is contrary to Scripture [Ac. 4:19, 5:29]). In addition, Christians should willingly pay taxes and honor those in authority. It was never the intention of Paul’s remarks in Romans 13 to discourage Christian attempts to influence society for the sake of righteousness; rather, his objective was to encourage social order and discourage obstreperousness among Christians in their disagreement with governmental laws and policies.

The Anabaptist view conceives righteousness almost exclusively in individual or ecclesiological terms, and its sharp distinction between Christianity and the world is exaggerated in that it precludes Christian influence over the whole of society. Because Anabaptism looks askance at civic responsibility, it can provide no explanation for the role Daniel and Joseph (and possibly members within Caesar’s household) performed for God in the social and political sphere. Nor can it posit any positive advice for political leaders who become Christians; Anabaptism can only assert that politicians who become Christian should resign. One finds incongruous Augsburger’s remarks, “Christians should only serve [sic] at government levels where they can honestly carry out the functions of their office without compromising their fidelity to Jesus Christ as Lord“14 and “Christians ought never to use a powerful government position as a means to achieve Christ’s goals for humanity.“15 His solution to this contradiction is that, “It is our responsibility as Christians to call the government to be secular.“16 But is secular government ever portrayed as the will of God in Scripture ? And should Christians not bring their faith to bear on government as much as on other aspects of life ? Not surprisingly, Anabaptism is most successful in a secular society or one in the which the Christian Faith is opposed and its disciples persecuted.


Likewise, the natural law basis for civic righteousness is inept. Crucial to this conception of human government is “the belief in religious pluralism.“17 Those embracing this view “do not attempt to set up a distinctly Christian government; they work rather for good government…not for Christian civil laws but only for fair ones….not…religious superiority for Christianity but religious equality before the law for all religions.“18 But Norman Geisler, a chief proponent of this view, can provide no Scriptural evidence justifying religious pluralism. In addition, the attempt to establish “good government” rather than “Christian government” seems contradictory inasmuch as it is difficult if not impossible to determine exactly what constitutes “good government” apart from appeal to Scripture. Geisler would respond, no doubt, that God’s natural revelation is sufficiently intelligible to serve as a foundation for civil government and law. But is natural law in fact as clear as Geisler suggests? It is quite true that God’s revelation in nature is “clearly seen” by unregenerate man (Rom. 1:20). The problem is not with the clarity of God’s natural revelation, but with depraved man’s proclivity to suppress it (Rom. 1). Geisler’s argument that “there was God-ordained civil government (cf. Gen. 9:6) long before there was a Bible“19 overlooks the fact that human government both before and after the Fall of man was based on propositional revelation, not mere natural revelation. Geisler’s statement that “nowhere in the Bible is God’s judgment of the nations based on His special written revelation (the Bible)…[but] on general principles of goodness and justice known to all men by general revelation“20 is misleading, for while Scripture does portray Jehovah as punishing Gentile nations on the basis of what some may consider natural law (cf. e.g., Amos 1 and cf. 2:4-8), this is in no sense a confutation of the proposal that special revelation should serve as the base of human government. Geisler’s belief that natural law “include[s] the kinds of things addressed in the second table of the Mosaic Law (attitudes and actions toward men) but not the first table of the law (those toward God)“21 apparently overlooks the fact that God punished Gentile nations for idolatry (note, e.g., Jer. 51:17; Isa. 19:1-3), a sin prohibited in the first table of the law. According to the natural-law premise for human government, idolatry is permissible in a supposed Scripturally pluralistic society.22 Apparently Geisler does not believe that the existence of the true God is an aspect of natural revelation, though Romans 1 plainly asserts that it is and that God judges the Gentiles because of their idolatry. Consequently, Geisler’s natural-law theory of government finds itself in the awkward position of “work[ing] for a truly free [pluralistic] America,” whose very pluralism ensures divine displeasure and judgment. The fact that special revelation was not the specific standard by which Jehovah judged the Gentiles lends little support to the belief that government should not be founded on the principles of Biblical revelation, for we have no Biblical warrant to assume that the content of natural revelation is different from that of special revelation; it may be fairly argued that God’s giving his oracles to Israel (Rom. 3:2) and leaving Gentiles in darkness in the past should impel us all the more to flee to those oracles God has graciously made accessible to us Gentiles today, and not squander the opportunity of founding government on specially revealed principles. For natural-law theorists, however, that idea is most undesirable.

As indicated above, the natural-law theory fails to provide adequate-or at least workable-definitions for terms like “good government” and “fair [laws].“23 Goodness and equity must be informed by and evaluated against some standard. Natural revelation may indeed reveal something of the goodness of God (Acts 14:16, 17) but depraved man will suppress the revelation of God’s goodness and thus must be compelled to confront the propositional revelation of God in Scripture. Rousas Rushdoony levels the cogent, and, it should be mentioned, incontrovertible charge at natural-law theory: “The reason why men choose to look for a foundation [for law] in man is because of their quest for a common ground with all men and all reality outside of [sic] God. They want to avoid what they call ‘a “sectarian” system of thought.’ They declare that the need is for ‘the philosophia perennis,’ a philosophy common to all men as such, apart from theological considerations.“24


According to this idea, “we must labor to restore the Christian State,” for the West has largely departed from her religious foundations, and, “If the state stands in opposition to the religious dogmas of a society, or is indifferent to those teachings, then either the state or the society is not long for this world.“25 But what is a “Christian State”? Kirk, echoing T.S. Eliot, responds, “For a Christian State to come into being, there must exist a Christian Community, or a society in which most people are strongly influenced by Christian teaching. That community is given direction by a ‘much smaller number of conscious human beings,’ the Community of Christians.“26 These individuals “by their example and their leadership consciously and conscientiously guide the mass of citizens whose acceptance of Christian belief is passive merely.“27 Beyond this, Kirk does not specify how exactly this “leadership” shapes a society for Christ; thus, this idea-though helpful as far as it goes- is vulnerable to many of the same charges as that of natural-law theory: what is most problematic is its failure to show how a Christian consensus actively influences society for righteousness. Are personal “example” and “leadership” sufficient to shape a society for the Faith?


To avoid the snare of either an amorphous democratic sentiment or a sociological basis for law, one must insist that an objective transcendent ideal serve as the foundation for civic law. As indicated above, two principal interpretations exist as to the extent to which Scripture should guide civic law. First, the “Christian America” or “Christian Pluralist view“28 would have law broadly-though not comprehensively-shaped by the Bible and would demand a distinctive place for the Christian religion in the United States, though other religions would be tolerated. This idea strongly favors the American heritage and thus the superiority of the democratic system and, consequently, laments the increasing deviation from the principles of the Bible and of the founders on which the nation was broadly built. It does not, unfortunately, address the Biblical conception of civil government in societies other than the United States.

The second view which holds that the Scriptures should function as the authority of and foundation for human law and government is known as theonomy. One of its chief spokesmen states that, “God’s revealed standing laws [that is, ‘policy directives applicable over time to classes of individuals…in contrast to particular directions for an individual or…positive commands for distinct incidents…’] are a reflection of His immutable moral character and, as such, are absolute in the sense of being non-arbitrary, objective, universal, and established in advance of particular circumstances (thus applicable to general types of moral situations)”; that “Christian involvement in politics calls for recognition of God’s transcendent, absolute, revealed law as a standard by which to judge all social codes”; and that, “Civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as ministers of God, avenging divine wrath against criminals and giving an account on the final day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and judge.“29 This view is expressed more fully in Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy and Christian Ethics.30 Though not all of its proponents agree on the full extent and nature of the application of OT “standing laws” in present human government and society, all do agree that government is a minister of God and, deriving its authority from him, subject to his word.

It is here suggested that the Holy Scriptures as God’s supreme objective revelation of righteousness (apart, of course, from Christ himself) must serve as the blueprint of the righteousness demanded of human government and society, no less than of individuals. This view insists that Scripture as a whole is in varying degrees applicable to human government and society not only, for example, in its “standing laws,” but also in its founder’s interpretation and application of all law (Mt. 5:17-48; 12:1-8).


John Jefferson Davis argues against the full application of theonomy from the covenantal character of the Mosaic law: “Israel was a ‘fully covenanted’ nation; the people of Israel voluntarily gave virtually unanimous consent to the Mosaic covenant and placed themselves under its stipulations (Exod. 24:7; Josh. 24:19-22). This is not the case in the United States today — or for that matter, in any modern nation.“31 This objection, nonetheless, is no refutation of the fact that Israel’s law was to serve as a model to the surrounding Gentile nations, or that the Mosaic law will one day judge the nations.

It has already been asserted that since mankind has distorted God’s revelation in nature, natural law is not sufficiently comprehensive to function as the transcendent base of government. Hence, if general revelation is inadequate, only special revelation remains. But to affirm special revelation merely by default is unconvincing. The question is, Does Scripture itself portray special revelation, i.e., itself, as a feasible and necessary basis for law and government? It does, though unfortunately only a brief summary of a Biblical conception of the proper foundation of law and government is possible here.

1. Human government was instituted by God as a direct result of the fall. If as Romans chapter 13 discloses, the chief function of government is to restrain evil, reward the obedient, and protect the innocent, it follows that human government (not immediate divine govenment) in an Edenic or sinless society is unnecessary. Only after the Fall did God establish human government as a check on sinfulness to prevent the complete breakdown of society.

2. Paul insists that “rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil” and that they are a “minister of God to thee for good” (Rom. 13:3, 4). Government “is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (v.4). What determines government’s idea of good and evil, however? Merely the opinions and sentiments of society? Natural law? Vague personal ideas of what is right and wrong? None of these is adequate to fashion human ideas of good and evil. The very nature of law and government demands a specific standard against which to evaluate human behavior.

3. The moral and civil codes given to Israel by Jehovah were to serve as the law of their civil society and as a pattern to the Gentile nations surrounding them (Dt. 4:5-8). Even dispensationalist Robert Saucy remarks concerning the salvific pattern Israel was to exemplify, “The biblical teaching of the nation of Israel as a society in which God is to be glorified and his laws observed suggests that the role of Israel is somehow to serve as an agent of this societal salvation by modeling it to all nations.“32 No one who opposes the view that Scripture should function as the base of human government may seriously argue that God is necessarily oblivious to the nature of human government, for he clearly demanded civil obedience of Israel by means of the somewhat detailed and precise civic and moral law he gave that nation. It appears as though that law was intended for Gentile nations both in Old Testament times and today because, though to Gentile nations the inscripturated law was inaccessible, by that very law they were judged temporally (Ps. 2) and will be judged eternally (Rom. 2:14-16). That they were not the intended recipients of the written oracles does not excuse them from obedience, for rudiments of the law were “written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15), and, more importantly, the Gentile nations were to observe Israel and her divine civil law as a pattern for their own government.

4. That the NT church was not actively involved in the introduction of OT law into society is not a valid argument against the present application of that law. Their political situation-subjugation to the Roman government-would not permit immediate socio-political activity more common to that disclosed in the OT. Their fervent evangelistic and social efforts, however, earned them the reputation of “turn[ing] the world upside down”; and within three centuries their successors had so influenced society that Christianity was made the “state religion” by Constantine.


All of this, of course, is anathema to the promoters of modern Western secularized liberal democracy, whose nonchalant attachment to Constitutionalism is almost entirely “rights”-related, and whose disciples are ignorant of or care nothing for the foundational Biblical principles that make a relatively large measure of personal freedom possible. And proponents of nontheonomic views of civil government unwittingly abet the secularization of civil government and therefore society itself by discarding the Holy Scripture as the exclusive objective, transcendent jurisprudential instrument of all of life and society.

Andrew Sandlin is American editor of Calvinism Today and moderator of the Reconstructionist Society of Ohio. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, and his essays have appeared in numerous publications.

1 Myron S Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981) 81-97.
2 Norman L. Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” Bibliotheca Sacra, July-September, 1985, 250-266.
3 Russell Kirk, “Eliot and a Christian Culture,” This World, Winter, 1989 [24], 5-19.
4 Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1984 [second edition]).
5 Harold O.J Brown, “The Christian America Position,” in Gary S. Smith, ed., God and Politics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1989) 126-149. Proponents of this view differ from those of theonomy mainly in their unwillingness to conform public law “in all its details” to the Bible (p. 142). They nonetheless insist that civil law must be “informed by biblical law” (idem.).
6 Augsburger, 83.
7 idem., 87
8 idem.
9 idem., 85
10 idem.
11 idem.
12 idem., 91.
13 Kirk, 10 [emphasis added].
14 Augsburger, 89.
15 idem., 89, 90.
16 idem., 89.
17 Geisler, 256.
18 idem.
19 idem., 261.
20 idem., 261.
21 idem., 258.
22 idem., 263.
23 idem., 256.
24 Rousas Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973) 684, 685.
25 Kirk, 10.
26 idem. Kirk is quoting Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society.
27 idem., 10, 11.
28 Brown, passim.
29 Greg Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Position,” in Gary S. Smith, ed., God and Politics. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1989) 24.
30 see note 4.
31 John Jefferson Davis, Foundations of Evangelical Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984) 268.
32 Robert Saucy, “Israel and the Church: A Case for Discontinuity,” in John Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988) 257 [emphasis added].

Your comments are welcome

Use Textile help to style your comments

Suggested products