Two Views of Civil Government: Puritanism vs. Pietism

The Lord has established His throne in the heaven and His sovereignty rules over all (Ps. 103:19).

The 1990s may very well become known to future historians as the decade of Christians in civil government. Even more so than in the 1980s, the evangelical church has had a greater voice in the political process. The full impact of this surging tide will not be felt until the 1998 and 2000 elections and beyond.

For those who are mobilizing for action at the grass roots level, it will become increasingly important to lay a foundation based on biblical law and to avoid building party platforms based on populist conservatism. Those entrusted with the vision to rebuild a Christian democratic republic must be aware that the blueprint for reforming civil government is given only in the Word of God.

Over the past 30 years, American evangelicals began to cast off the pietistic notion that political involvement is somehow worldly. Christians regained a sense of history through studying America’s Puritan heritage. They awakened to the fact that the church is to be the salt and light of the world, and realized that they had a God-given mandate to possess the gates of the city.

But then something went awry on the way to the new millennium …

The view of 21st century America envisioned by some modern evangelicals resembles more the nostalgic television reruns of the 1950s than the powerful transforming spiritual awakenings of past centuries. The view of civil government offered by modern Christian activists resembles more closely that of the mystics of the Middle Ages who viewed politics as Satan’s domain. They have obscured the view offered by our Puritan forefathers who saw government as an institution given by God to be reformed by His chosen elect.

Two Views of Government

There are essentially two views of government that have been held to by two groups of evangelical Christians in modern times—the Puritan or Reformed view (based on the ideals of the Protestant Reformation), and the Pietist view.

1. The Puritan view of government: All people are under a two-fold theocratic form of government (ecclesiastical and civil). The church legislates the moral law of God through the preaching of blessings and curses found in God’s Word (the Bible); the state enforces the moral law of God through a system of reward and punishment. Believers obey the moral law of God out of love and are subject to church discipline; sinners obey out of constraint and fear of punishment by civil judges. But both classes of men are to be ruled by the moral law of God. Human government is an institution given by God to be cared for and reformed by men.

The Puritan historical view of government is providential, with Jesus Christ leading believers in His train as a captain leads an army to victory over the anti-Christian power bases of the world. The ultimate destiny of government is to establish Christ’s dominion over all the earth with God’s people ruling in positions of power. Christ will return to the earth when all things are subject to Him under His feet (the church). The role of the elect is to occupy the power bases of both ecclesiastical and civil forms of government until He comes to establish greater justice.

2. The Pietist view of government: Christians are under the authority of both church and civil government; sinners are under the authority of civil government only. The moral law of God rules over Christians; but since sinners are doomed to hell, they are free to do whatever they please. Civil government is a part of the world system which is controlled by Satan. It is no surprise to the pietist that so many governments are unjust and evil.

The Pietist historical view of government is conspiratorial. Government is a part of the world system which is controlled by Satan and his cohorts. The conspiracy will end in a one-world government ruled by an anti-Christ figure who will control the hearts and minds of men for a dispensational time period. The only job for the church is to preach the gospel so that some may be saved. The job of Christians in civil government is limited since politics is evil. Christians have to wait until Christ returns to the earth with cataclysmic judgment before they can rule as the elect.

The Puritan view of history and government is what resulted in America being founded as a Christian democratic republic. Throughout the early years of America’s history, the plan for civil government was based on the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. As America was being explored, the Reformation was still very much in progress.

The theology developed during the 1500s by men such as Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Knox was adopted by an enlightened few in the Church of England. These were the Separatists (or Pilgrims) and the Puritans. By the early 1600s, when the Pilgrims and Puritans began their exodus to Massachusetts Bay Colony, the ideals of the Reformation had taken hold of most of northern Europe. Yet the Reformation had its fullest expression in America.

The biblical model of reformation for church and civil government was pioneered by the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled America. This was the foundation for our democratic republic. Although Christianity in America has become increasingly diverse, every reform movement of consequence throughout American history has been neo-Puritan in character. This was true of the First Great Awakening during the time of Jonathan Edwards, and also of the sporadic revivals of the 1800s which resulted in societal transformation.

Although the Christian foundation of American society has eroded today, most retain a feeling of pride that we are somehow different as a nation. We somehow believe that freedom in the world today sprang from our nation. We believe that our country is the best place in the world to live. Yet today most have an uneasy feeling that something is dreadfully wrong with us. If we are to retain today the ideals that once made us great as a nation, we need to examine our origins in order to discover the source of this problem.

Two Strains of the Reformation

To better understand how Christian Americans arrived at their present state, it will be useful to take a brief look at the schools of thought within the Reformation which were prevalent during the founding of America. These two strains have been present in the church since the beginning of the Reformation in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation occurred mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries and involved two groups of reformers. There were also two strains of the Reformation which we will call the Pietists and the Puritans.

As we look at the two strains of the Reformation, we should remember that there is truth and error in each. All orthodox church movements have emphasized some aspect of truth. We are not talking about two different Gospels here. Each is trying to teach the same Gospel, even though at times their emphasis will be a warped, limited, or partial one. We need to study each, keeping in mind that no movement or particular sect of Christianity has yet come completely out of the darkness of human depravity.

Consider the words of John Robinson to his congregation before the Pilgrims left to come to America: “If God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive truth … (for) it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick anti-Christian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.”

The Pietists

Pietism is a term describing not one specific church group, but a broader movement which began in the late 17th century. In earlier centuries, Pietism is discernible in medieval Roman Catholic mysticism and the Anabaptist movement. Anabaptists were reformers who believed that baptism should occur after repentance and salvation (hence the term ana-“after” baptism). Anabaptists are sometimes called “the radical reformers.”

The Anabaptist movement was a manifestation of a continuing mysticism in Christianity which had always been present in the church. These were often persecuted Christians who were impressed by the extreme wickedness of the world and sought to withdraw into communities of believers. They wanted to have as little to do with civil government and the military as possible. Some Anabaptist communities refused cooperation with civil authority entirely.1

In the early centuries, Montanists, Marcionites, Novatians, and various forms of Monasticism were in this mystical tradition. In the Middle Ages, the Paulicians, the Waldensees, and the Lollards were continuations of what later became known at the time of the Reformation as the Anabaptist movement. Mysticism is the belief that revelation can come directly from God. This belief was present in the early church and continues to this day. Mystics look to the “inner light” of the Holy Spirit as the guiding source of salvation.2

There is validity for supernatural operations of grace and personal piety within the framework of biblical orthodoxy. The problem with mysticism is that it often leads to “extra-biblical” revelation. There is no doubt that there have been many true Christians among the Anabaptists. The problem has not been with conversion experience, but with the frequent doctrinal errors which came from a reliance on extra-biblical revelation. Many of the teachings proposed by the Anabaptists were based more on subjective experience than the Word of God.

One of the earliest of the mystics among the Anabaptists was Sebastian Franck, a contemporary of Luther. Franck rebelled against what he deemed excessive emphasis on the written Word. He taught that a divine element existed in all men, and emphasized the inner working of the Spirit as the means to salvation.3 An early center of the Anabaptist movement was Zurich, Switzerland. Here Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz led a group of radical reformers who went much further away from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church than other Protestants. The movement spread to Austria and southeast Germany. Many missionaries were sent out to other parts of Europe and gathered Anabaptist communities.4

While having received some valid biblical truth, such as adult water baptism, one of the frequent mystical extra-biblical errors of the Anabaptists regarded predictions concerning the imminent return of Christ.

Melchior Hoffman, a Swabian furrier, predicted that after his death he would return, in 1533, with Christ in the clouds of heaven, that the wicked would be judged, and the New Jerusalem would be set up in Strassburg.5

Jan Mathys, a baker from Holland, predicted that Munster was to be the site of the New Jerusalem. He sought to gain control of Munster and organize a Christian society. The deposed bishop of that city, aided by Catholics and Lutherans, laid siege to the Anabaptists and had the leaders tortured and killed.6

Hans Hetz, a German, proclaimed that the day of the Lord was near and that the saints were to use force in rooting out the wicked before the visible reign of Christ was set up on earth.7

Michael Servetus, a Spanish scholar (not specifically an Anabaptist), believed that the millennial reign of Christ was about to begin and was later burned at the stake in Geneva for teaching heresies.8

The Anabaptists were often violently persecuted, but their movement survived. In England, Independents and Quakers developed out of the Anabaptist strain. In Germany and the low countries, the Mennonites and Amish were pacifistic Anabaptists who survived persecutions. They were later welcomed in Russia and America because of their industry and thrift.

Pietism, as mysticism’s modern expression, arose out of the tragedy of the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, which was a conflict between the Pope and the Reformers. The Reformers won, however, the war left most of Germany devastated. Philip Jacob Spener, a Lutheran minister seeking to comfort the people of Germany, emphasized the mystical side of Luther’s teachings. Spener hoped to cultivate a deeper spiritual life among his flock. He preached the necessity of the new birth and a personal, warm Christian experience. Pietism soon spread rapidly throughout Europe via Lutheran churches.9

Pietism had its positive effect by infusing a sense of personal experience with Jesus Christ in the life of a believer. This emphasis helped the cause of evangelism. Those among the Pietists who helped spread Christianity worldwide were Count Leopold von Zinzendorf, founder of the Moravian Missionary Society, which sent hundreds of missionaries to America; Roger Williams, a Baptist, who founded Rhode Island after being expelled from Massachusetts by the Puritans; and the Quakers, George Fox and William Penn, who founded colonies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The negative aspects of pietistic thinking are: a withdrawal of Christians from society because of the belief that the world is Satan’s domain, and an emphasis on the imminent return of Christ with a preoccupation with date-setting for the Second Coming.

The Puritans

The strengths of Puritan or Reformed thinking are: the belief that Christ rules over every sphere of society with Christians being stewards of the earth; and having a long term view of Christ’s return with an emphasis on advancing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

The Puritans came from the Reformed tradition. The fathers of Reformed theology were Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox. Unlike Martin Luther, who had mystical, pietistic leanings, the Puritans tended to be more Calvinistic in their thinking.

The Puritans who arrived in America had already absorbed a century of accumulated Reformation doctrine. The Puritans were Anglican Church reformers who adopted John Calvin’s theology. They were the English version of the Scottish Presbyterians. They were a part of a reformation that was still very much in progress. Yet, at the time of their arrival in the New World, the Puritans had a vision for a society built on the laws of God.

They had broken away from Episcopalian government—but not completely away from the Church of England—and now sought to create a theocratic government. They disclaimed the divine authority of lords and bishops and believed in the priesthood of the individual believer. As each believer was to be self-governing, so was each church; each family; each community; each township; each colony; etc.

The Puritans saw themselves as soldiers in a war against Satan. This small band of believers struggled against adversity to build the City of God in New England. They saw all of human history as a progression toward the fulfillment of God’s design on earth.10

Unlike the pietistic Anabaptists, the Puritans had a long term view of history, they generally regarded the Second Coming of Christ to be far off, and they were optimistic about the attempts of Christians to reform civil government. The founders of New England were not social radicals. They disliked bishops and so they came to America to set up the City of Zion. In their doctrine of covenantalism, they saw God bringing in the kingdom in a gradual and orderly fashion. They understood that the Second Coming of Christ would not happen for centuries to come. They understood that it was their role in society to be visible saints, to submit to church discipline, and to be the light of the world.11


The contribution of the First Great Awakening was a revitalized “neo-Puritanism”—a combining of personal experience with God with the complete biblical worldview of the Puritans. The Great Awakening began under the ministries of Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, and English evangelist George Whitefield in the early 1700s. These three personalities were strictly Calvinistic in their view of salvation yet they preached in such a way as to awaken sinners to a state of grace.

The mass conversions that took place during the Great Awakening were undergirded by the Puritan ethic which had been developed in the preceding centuries. It was the strength of the Reformed view of biblical social order combined with personal experience with God that led to the reformation of American society. The Great Awakening did much also to unite the thirteen colonies. This union resulted in the establishment of the United States of America a generation later. The Great Awakening encouraged people to look optimistically at life in America. The revivals of the 18th century promoted the idea that the “city set upon a hill for all the world to see” was still viable.

By 1830, what America is today as a nation had become well defined, reformed, and constituted. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French social scientist, recorded in his classic work, Democracy in America, that Americans exhibited certain distinctions that set them apart from Europeans. It was as if God Himself had formed a new race of men and women on the earth. American idealism was so unique that it warranted an investigation. According to de Tocqueville, American idealism was characterized by individualism—a self-reliant spirit that pushed individuals to take on great responsibilities and produce great accomplishments. There was a sense of a personal responsibility to God, country, and family. These were, in fact, Puritan ethics.

According to church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette: “In 1815, the Christianity of the United States, like that of the Thirteen Colonies, was still overwhelmingly Protestant…. Even more than in the Thirteen Colonies, it was showing a marked variety. To the denominations brought from Europe, several were being added. Some were divisions from the old and others were quite new. Still more than in colonial days, the Christianity of the United States represented the extreme wing of Protestantism.“12

Neo-Puritanism can thus be defined as a blending together of the ethics and worldview of the Puritans with the methods of power evangelism which added great numbers of souls to the American churches during the Great Awakenings.

The Shift Away From Neo-Puritanism

The shift away from neo-Puritanism began in the 1830s when the competing worldview of dispensationalism emerged giving Pietism a systematic theology.

Dispensationalism: The idea that God has worked in different ways throughout history through different economies or dispensations. A dispensationalist makes a major division between the Covenants, God acting with wrath and vengeance in the Old Testament and with love and grace in the New Testament. Dispensationalism teaches a pre-tribulational rapture, divides the “end times” into several dispensations, and teaches a conspiratorial view of history.

John Nelson Darby, an Irish priest (Anglican), organized a more numerous group called the Plymouth Brethren. Darby taught that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. He rejected the creeds of the early church and believed that social reform is useless. Darby’s followers concentrated on saving men and women out of the world.

C.I. Scofield, a Texas pastor, popularized the teachings of J.N. Darby in a systematic theology known as dispensational premillennialism. C.I. Scofield first compiled his reference Bible as a teaching aid for missionaries. It soon became one of the most widely used tools for Bible study among entire denominations such as Southern Baptists and Disciples of Christ.13


Despite the fact that many of the dispensationalists stressed personal holiness, the paradigm shift of the 1800s paved the way for a much greater evil, antinomianism, which means literally “anti-law.”

Antinomianism: an anti-law position which states that man is saved by faith alone; since faith frees the Christian from the law, he is no longer bound to obey the law. Antinomianism creates a system in which the laws of the Bible cannot apply to governing an individual or society.

Dispensationalism promoted antinomian thinking by de-emphasizing the relationship of the Old Covenant law to the individual. This led to a waning influence of Christians in society.

To the Puritans, covenantalism and the law of God were obvious foundations of Christian social order. Two Puritan ideas stand in stark contrast to dispensationalism and antinomianism: covenantalism and theonomy.


Covenant theology laid the groundwork for a political theory which held that state and all society came into being as a contract on the basis of God’s eternal covenant. Hence, the moral law of God must be the foundation for a society’s laws and government.

Covenantalism: The Puritans held to covenant or “federalist” theology which maintains that God operates through covenants, or eternally binding legal agreements with men. The Old and New Covenants are God’s basis for governing the universe. There is no division between the Covenants. The New Covenant is built firmly on the foundation of the Old Covenant. This presupposes that the Law does not change: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). God is not a dispensational, evolving God; He is a God that never changes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Covenantalism stands in stark opposition to the modern notion of antinomianism. Covenantalism begins with the assumption that the believer is no longer condemned by the law but justified by faith. But unlike antinomianism it answers the obvious question: Once a man is saved, is he restored to a position of law keeping or not? Yes! Although the law can never help a man do this!

Bq. God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:4).

The work of the cross of the New Covenant is the destruction of “sin in the flesh.” Once the propensity to sin is destroyed, sin is gone and the law no longer condemns us. The law is not primarily for the regenerated believer, but for the unbeliever to reveal his sin. However, this does not mean that the Covenant of the Law has passed away.


The Bible teaches us that the law is eternally binding as the standard of sanctification for both the individual and society. The Reformers and the Puritans believed that the church and the kingdom of God are subject to God’s laws. In turn, it is the church’s mandate to advance the kingdom of God on earth. This includes legislating the moral law of God in the nations. This concept is known as theonomy which means literally: “God’s law.”

Theonomy: The belief that the moral laws of the Old Testament are still binding in the New Testament age. God’s law is the standard for personal, family, ecclesiastical, and civil righteousness. Civil governments are obligated to follow the moral laws outlined in the Bible. Theonomy asserts that only laws which are specifically fulfilled or changed in the New Covenant—such as dietary laws, agricultural laws, Sabbath laws, and ceremonial laws—are non-binding in the New Covenant age. Moral laws, such as the Ten Commandments and the case laws, are still the ethical standards for governing individuals and society.

Civil governments are obligated to follow God’s moral laws. If they are not, then Christians have no real standards by which to influence legislation. There is no other standard besides the moral law of God to effect the reformation of America except democratic pluralism: What the majority thinks is right in their own eyes.14

Democratic pluralism has led us to the current state of affairs in our nation. In early America, especially in the Puritan townships, there was a type of theocratic pluralism, or democracy under the moral laws of God.

The law itself is holy and good; but it cannot make anyone, Jew or Gentile, holy or spiritual. As long as a man is carnal, the law spells death. It is only through grace that we fulfill the law. Furthermore, no system of law can ever sanctify a society. However, when society’s laws are based on God’s laws, they can serve to teach an entire civilization about the character of God and lead some to salvation. The moral law of God serves as the standard of sanctification. According to Calvin:

From these things one can gather … the function and the use of the law…. While showing God’s righteousness, that is, what God requires of us, it admonishes each one of his unrighteousness and convicts him of sin. All men, without exception, are puffed up with insane confidence in their own powers, unless the Lord proves their vanity. When all this stupid opinion of their own power has been laid aside, they must needs know they stand and are upheld by God’s hand alone. Again since by righteousness of their works they are aroused against God’s grace, it is fitting that this arrogance be cast down and confounded that, naked and empty-handed, they may flee to God’s mercy, repose in it, hide within it and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit. For God’s mercy is revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true faith.15

What we experience as a nation in the next few years will largely depend on the obedience of the church to the Word of God. It will depend on evangelicals making the necessary paradigm shift toward a vibrant, robust neo-Puritanism.

“Who knows whether you are called into the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

Jay Rogers is the director of The Forerunner. He can be contacted at The Forerunner, P.O. Box 138030, Clermont, FL 34713.

1. Kenneth Scott LaTourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 779.

2. Ibid., 786.

3. Ibid., 789.

4. Ibid., 780.

5. Ibid, 783.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, 782.

8. Ibid., 759.

9. Ibid, 895.

10. The Norton Anthology of American Literature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979), 3.

11. Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Meridan Books, 1959), 320.

12. LaTourette, op. cit., 1045.

13. Ibid., 1185.

14. Gary DeMar, The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction (Atlanta: American Vision Press, 1988), 210.

15. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 34.

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