There’s been considerable discussion lately in our churches and among Christians over whether the United States is or should be a “Christian nation.” Much of the discussion centers on what the framers of the Constitution meant by certain words in the First Amendment and what Thomas Jefferson meant by his reference to a “wall of separation.”
But precious little time has been spent determining whether God wants the United States to be a “Christian nation.” Now, obviously, he wants all people to come to Jesus and be saved. He wants all Americans (and all Afghans) to be saved. And so, if we mean by “Christian nation” a nation filled with saved people, yes, God wants all nations to be Christian nations.
But what kind of power does God want the church to have in such a nation? Does he want the church to control the presidency, the Congress, and the courts? And that’s not quite so easy a question to answer. But, as is so often the case, history helps us gain perspective.
Let’s go back to Israel, which truly was a theocracy. The nation of Israel was originally led by a series of men and women called “judges.” Some judges, such as Deborah, actually served as judges, deciding disputes because of her wisdom and gift of prophecy. But Deborah also commanded the general of the nation’s army. She was both commander-in-chief and a one-women supreme court. But God himself was the Congress! He instructed Moses on the writing of the Law of Moses.
Some years later, despite God’s warnings, the people begged for a king to be anointed, and so God gave them Saul to rule over them. God gave Saul his Holy Spirit, so that Saul, for a time, had the presence of God within him, equipping him for the throne of Israel.
Of course, we know the story. Saul became arrogant, he lost the Spirit, and was eventually replaced by David, and later, Solomon replaced David. Solomon built God’s temple but also conscripted 30,000 people into forced labor and allowed the construction of temples to false gods.
The next generation divided the nation north and south (Jeroboam and Rehoboam), and the two kingdoms strayed further from God. Eventually, God allowed the northern tribes to be taken into Assyrian captivity because of the severity of their idolatry. And, later, Judah became so idolatrous that God allowed the Babylonians to conquer the nation, destroy the Temple, and carry the Judeans into the Babylonian captivity.
The idolatry was so severe that even the kings sacrificed their own children — as babies — to the idol Molech, allowing them to be burned alive. Every once in a while a king would arise who honored God as the only god and who’d destroy and the altars and “high places” for idol worship. But it’s clear that even these good kings were unable to persuade the people to honor God only. As soon as they died, the kings’ own sons took up idolatry. The nation was so corrupted that even God-fearing kings couldn’t pass their faith on to their children!
After the Persians allowed Nehemiah and Ezra to rebuild the Temple and some of the Jews to return, the new nation was under Persian rule and later Seleucid rule. But under the Maccabees, the Jews managed to throw off foreign rule and convert Judea into an independent nation. Once again, Judea was a theocracy. And while idolatry was no longer the problem, the new nation did not fare well.
The Jews divided into disputing camps. The Essenes rejected the new government because they saw violations of the Torah — especially in terms of the priesthood. The Maccabees had overthrown Rome, but were Levites and so couldn’t sit on the throne of David, and yet they ruled from the temple. The Pharisees sought to find God’s favor through very strict obedience to Torah. The Saduccees, who were the priests, were in power because of the temple tax and the power of the treasury — and they sought compromise with the Greek culture that surrounded them.
The descendants of the Maccabees, in a struggle for power, invited Rome to weigh in. And Rome weighed in by conquering Jerusalem with virtually no resistance. And so by the time of Jesus, Israel was once again under foreign rule.
In Jesus’ time, the Zealots wanted revolution, recalling the independence they enjoyed under the Maccabees and under the Davidic dynasty. And many prayed for the coming of the Messiah — the Son of David, who would sit on throne of David and bring freedom to God’s children.
And Jesus came — and many begged him to overthrow Rome. Among those asking him to gain earthly power was Satan himself, at the beginning of his ministry. We generally fail to see this dynamic in the Gospels as powerfully as we should. For example, in the Triumphal Entry, the people waved palm branches — symbols of the Maccabean dynasty and Jewish national independence! Yes, they proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, but they wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans!
Jesus certainly could have founded an earthly kingdom. God had done that before and he could do it again. If what God wanted was an army of Christ followers defeating Rome and ruling the Empire for Jesus, he could have done it. But he didn’t.
Indeed, rather than accept the people’s plea, Jesus preferred to submit to crucifixion. Of course, this was the ultimate defeat of Rome.
(Col 2:15 ESV) He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The church suffered bitter persecution, torture, and fines and yet grew under Roman rule until, in the Fourth Century, Constantine was forced to legalize Christianity. And not long afterwards, Christianity became the state religion. Formerly pagan temples were turned over to the Christians, who no longer had to meet in houses or tunnels, but could meet in large congregations in public.
Some actually read Revelation 21-22 to apply to this time, as though finally gaining political power is the new heavens and new earth. It surely must of have seemed that way to many.
But not to the unorthodox. Doctrine became the means used by the newly empowered church to enforce its power, and heretics were brutally suppressed. For a time, the suppression was so egregious that Rome reverted to paganism under Emperor Julian (the Apostate). According to Hellenica,
Constantine and his immediate successors had prohibited the upkeep of pagan temples, and many temples were destroyed and pagan worshippers killed during the reign of Constantine and his successors. The extent to which the emperors approved or commanded these destructions and killings is disputed, but it is certain they did not prevent them.
You see, the Christians became guilty of the very persecutions they’d suffered for so long.
Eventually, the church became more and more powerful, so that in Medieval times, the Pope had authority over the kings of Europe — leading to the Crusades, including the sack of Constantinople, in which thousands of Eastern Orthodox Christians were killed by Catholic Christian Crusaders.
By the 16th Century, Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther were beginning the Protestant Reformation. Zwingli pled for a return to First Century Christianity. But when a group petitioned him to restore baptism of believers by immersion, he declared them heretics and persecuted them fervently. Their leader was killed by drowning, in a parody of his views on baptism. The believers were, of course, the founders of the Anabaptist movement, which grew despite persecution by both Catholic and Protestant authorities.
Luther’s Reformation led some peasants to revolt against their kings, with some even founding a communist society in an effort to emulate the Christians of Acts 2. Luther voiced no objection as hundreds of thousands were killed by the kings and princes. Only Catholicism and Lutheranism would be allowed in Germany.
It was about this time that a novel philosophy appeared on the scene: atheism. And the roots of atheism are found in the abuse of power by the Christians, who persecuted, tortured, killed, and imprisoned each other to enforce their brand of Christianity and to preserve their power.
In ancient Rome, the pagans found Christianity so attractive that they’d suffer persecution, torture, death, and imprisonment to become one. In 16th Century Europe, Christianity was so brutal that the atheists would suffer persecution, torture, death, and imprisonment rather than become one.
We Christians don’t do well with power.
(2Co 12:9 ESV) But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
The result of Christian infighting in France was the rejection of Christianity in the French Revolution, which made atheism the official state religion, only shortly after the American Revolution. But the English developed a solution through freedom of religion. We’ll consider John Locke’s solution in the next post of this series.
For now, suffice to say that I don’t want the church to be in power — first, because God doesn’t, and second, because I’ve seen what power does to Christians. I’ve read our history.