“Yeah But We Are The Government”

J. H. Alsted was correct. The doctrine of justification is the article of the standing or falling of the church—the doctrine of the church. Calvin was right. The doctrine of justification is the axis around which the faith orbits. So, it must be a perennial question. The nomists will never go away. We know this because they have been around since before Pelagius and this will persist until Christ returns. So we will always have to re-state, clarify, and defend the doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the pressing question of the moment is the relation between Christ and culture. How should Christians relate to the broader culture? The current fad among some wings of American evangelicalism is to re-assert Christendom (see the resources below) and the Constantinian arrangement. To call it Constantinianism is attractive, because people know (or think they know) who Constantine was, but, in fact, Constantine did not establish Christianity as the state religion of the Empire. He legalized Christianity and restored property to the Christians (as he should have) but Theodosius I (AD 347–95) made Christianity the religion of the empire in AD 381. Christianity remained the state-religion, of the empire until 1806, when the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved.

Remarkably, there are American Christians openly advocating that Christianity should be the established religion of the USA. They are, in effect, calling for the overthrow of the current constitutional state, which expressly forbids an established federal church. They are openly talking about the punishment or banishment of heretics. One such work that does this was recently published by Canon Press in Moscow, ID so we need not imagine what they have in mind. They have been telling us for years. Anyone who has paid attention to the theonomic movement and the broader Reconstructionist movement (as I have done for 40 years) knows what this lot expects and hopes to achieve. The striking thing about this current round of discussions is that those who were, hitherto, outside that culture are giving it credence and advocating for it. Among them are Baptists, who, of all the major American Christian groups, were the loudest to disavow the established church. Apparently, some Baptists need a history lesson about what has happened to Baptists (and their Anabaptist forebears) under the state-churches of Europe.

Since American civics education has apparently fallen on hard times, perhaps a refresher is in order? The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The founders intentionally established a Republic in which there would be no federally established church. There remained established churches in the states until 1833 but there have been no established churches since that time.

As practical matter, it is stunning to see Christians openly advocating the establishment of Christianity as the state religion at time when the fortunes of Christianity in America have never been lower. It is rather like the interim Nebraska football coach, Mickey Joseph, announcing their the goal of Nebraska football is to compete with Ohio State. That goal is laudable but rather ridiculous for a program which by turns has been great, good, mediocre, and now bad over the last 21 years. Nebraska football should be thinking about how to beat Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech next year since it seems probable that the Cornhuskers will be 0-2 going into those games and one is hard pressed to see how they will win any games after that. So it is for evangelical and Reformed Christians talking about “taking back” America and making Christianity the established religion at either the federal or the state level. As to a federal establishment, not only do we have first amendment protections against such a thing but we have second amendment protections. There should have to be a fairly unprecedented legal revolution in order to secure established churches at the state level. The adjective risible comes to mind.

One of the less plausible arguments that is made in this regard is that, in the USA, the people are the government and that if enough people are converted, then the people can establish a church. This is not correct. Even were it the case that the majority of Americans were or actually became Christian (as historically defined by the ecumenical creeds), the USA is a not a democracy. Again, I understand that civics is a lost course but the facts are that the USA is a constitutional republic which has a democratic process. The people do directly elect state and local representatives and they do directly elect congressional representatives and even senators—the 17th amendment was a dreadful mistake, the fruit of which we see every time the senate is in session. That body which was supposed to act as a brake on the crazed radicals in the House of Representatives, has become about as crazed as their cousins down the street. The president, as we should all know after 2016, is actually elected by the electoral college. The founders intentionally inserted the electoral college as a buffer between the people and the chief executive of the United States.

It might be theoretically possible for the the Constitution to be fundamentally altered to establish a federal church or to permit the establishment of state churches but as much as we probably need a constitutional convention, a procedure established in art. 5 of the Constitution, should it be called by two-thirds of the states it would more likely result in the establishment of something that resembled Wicca than Christianity. Have you read the latest Ligonier survey of theology? Does anyone have any idea how many people attend Lakeside Church in Houston or how many American regard Joel and Victoria Osteen as credible representatives of Christianity? Benny Hinn has a massive following in this country. The powers that be, in what Carl Trueman calls Big Eva, tried to baptize a oneness Pentecostal (T. D. Jakes) into the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. Jakes is so distant from Christian orthodoxy that, even as he tried to defend his orthodoxy, he advocated the Monarchian modalist (Sabellian) heresy. Has anyone ever looked at the list of the leading Christian (English-language) podcasts? If there is a revival of genuine Christianity and Christian orthodoxy there is no indication of it by those measures.

Christians do and should participate in civil life. They should be involved in public, secular life, but there is a distinction between participating and dominating. Paul exercised his rights (after he was beaten and jailed—people who invoke Paul as a model of Christian citizenship typically ignore that aspect of the story) but when he had opportunity to speak to the civic powers of the Roman empire he gave them no advice about politics, economics, or social policy. He told his story, he preached the law and the gospel. He was martyred on the Appian Way, outside of Rome, because he was a Christian who refused to renounce Christ. He was not beheaded because his politics were wrong. Remember, as much as the theocrats and theonomists wish it were not so and as hard as they work to try to make it go away—only the feminists work as hard to make a passage [1 Tim 2:11–12] go away—Romans chapter 13 is still God’s Word. Paul never called for a revolution of the Roman social order even though the implications of the Christian faith were truly revolutionary. The subversion of Roman culture would take centuries and would come from below, not from above and not by force.

What we are witnessing is a convulsion, a spasm, a paroxysm. Christians know that they are being pushed to the margins of the culture. The signs are everywhere. Where one might see a sympathetic portrayal of a Roman priest, Protestants and especially evangelicals appear only as cartoon figures or villains in popular culture. Mostly, however, Christians are increasingly invisible. We are the invisible man of late-modern Western culture. When we remove our bandages, we disappear. Three generations ago, people had strong, personal memories of church, catechesis, and the faith. Two generations ago, people had memories of their parents and grandparents going to church or perhaps of deciding to leave church. The rising generations do not even have the memory of apostatizing. They are utterly ignorant. This is why I keep talking about the lessons (see below) of the ancient church. They are trying to teach us how to navigate our post-Christian future if only we will listen.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. Bravo, Dr. Clark, the Nevada vs Ohio State comparison has done better than anything I have read or heard to illustrate the primary objection that comes up in my mind as I learn about these movements and make any attempt to take them seriously, if not finding them sadly laughable.

    The guys who are rooting for this theocratic revolution in America, what world do they live in? Is their hope against hope that they could somehow convince the most Godless version of America that America has ever seen to just abandon its ways of greed, pride, self-service and hedonism and just submit to God’s Law, despite such a teensy % of Americans being Christians? Do supporters of these movements think that the rest of our country will say, “YEAH, what a great idea!!!”

    Or is it something like where the supporters of these movements think of themselves as modern-day versions of those OT servants of God who were told to go into some kind of hostile enemy stronghold despite being outnumbered in a Thermopylae-like manner, and due to their faith, God would quicken their efforts in all kinds of supernatural ways resulting in an unfathomable victory? Whether the theocratic government takeover be done through democratic means or by force? Is this what these guys are shooting for?

    Last question: if all of this stuff is as loony (or bonkers?) as it seems like it is to me, why is so much digital ink being spilt over it? Don’t we have better things to talk about, like what version of the software update will be coming in the next COVID booster shot for our Bill Gates implanted microchips?

    • Paul,

      The new theocrats (see the resources for more on this) are mostly postmillennial. Take a listen to the Heidelcast series we’ve been running on postmillennialism for the quick intro and critique. They expect the Lord to bring about an earthly golden age in which the godly will rule the earth. They expect to see most of the earth to be converted and some expect to impose the Mosaic judicial laws as the standard of civil government (theonomy).

      Some expect a social collapse before the golden age and most expect a brief apostasy before the Lord returns but they expect a long glorious earthly golden age before Christ returns.

      So, some of the debate is about eschatology even if that’s not always on the surface.

      They do often read the Scriptures as if there were no New Testament. They tend not only to overlook the way the NT speaks about the future and the our relationship to the broader culture but they ignore the way the NT interprets the Old Testament. Honestly, the way they read the Old Testament reminds me more of the way the Dispensationalists read the Old Testament than the way the New Testament does. In my experience it’s not unusual for a Dispensationalist to become “Reformed” and then a theonomist or at least postmil and a theocrat. They’ve merely taken a lateral step from an earthly Jewish rule to an earthly Christian rule.

  2. Thank you for the illumination, as always!

    It it just a coincidence that you are suggesting to listen to the Heidelcast segments on Postmillenialism and one came into my email just this morning with Kim Riddlebarger?

  3. Such views seem highly plausible but taken to their logical conclusion would prohibit any revolutionary movement. You may point to the constitution and its specifics but under your interpretation of Romans 13 there could be no revolution, and consequently no US constitution!

  4. RSC: This comment and question is not quite on topic … In my reading on John Knox, I came away with the sense that Calvin and other Swiss Reformation leaders did not support Knox in his advocacy of armed rebellion against rulers who enforced idolatry and outlawed true religion. In brief, do you share that interpretation of the state of affairs?

  5. I think the one thing we must be aware of is the trend toward pagan nationalism. I hope more then concerning ourselves with the fringe, Christian leadership can help stand with their members who are being forced to take an experimental vax or lose their livelihood. In being unified to resist these forms of tyranny, we made simultaneously suppress these types of radical Christian movements. But don’t gaslight them. Understand that some of these trends are pretty frightening.

  6. Of course, I was thinking more along the lines of joint statements via the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) so there is unification in support of the Christian conscience against government intrusion in which even our right to exercise and practice our faith is compromised. It’s one thing to be a minority, quite another to be abolished, which can be achieved through the back door without much public fanfare. Are we unified in at least recognizing these threats. I think Covid should be as much of a wake up call than anything else. (Between the vaccine mandates and church/worship restricting lockdowns).

    Thanks, I look forward to reading.

  7. What does one do if the pastor is pushing very hard the agenda of theonomy, post millenialism and Christian nationalism? Very hard means preaching on all of this each week for over a year, with separate “evenings of eschatology” going deeper into Revelation. He is aligned with the group from Moscow which he has mentioned several times from the pulpit. Is this a reason to leave a church?

  8. This week I read/heard two pastors (you and the Theocast guys) mention that the post millennial view of today is different from the post millennial view that some of the Puritans, etc. held long ago. Can you explain the difference(s)? As I explained to you earlier, the church I have been in is currently really pushing this modern view. Thanks!

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