Understandably, for many American Christians, the fight or flight instinct has kicked in. They are made to pay taxes to support institutions—for example, public schools—that demonstrably work against their interests and seek to subvert the authority of parents in the family by inculcating their children with an alien and viciously corrupted understanding of reality, human nature, and human sexuality. As a result, a kind of complacency has settled in, and some parents seem to care more about exposing their children to drag shows than about the basics of education.
In response, more than a few Christians (both Protestant and Roman), appear to have given up on the American experiment in self-government in favor of a theocratic monarchy. They are now longing for a Christian prince or king to rescue them from the chaos that is the late-modern West. To be sure, there were always Americans who did not support the Revolution, who doubted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and were simply never Americans ideologically (in that they thought that there should be an established national church). These people have always lived uneasily in America. For example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America has rejected the legitimacy of the government for centuries because it does not recognize “the crown rights of King Jesus” (i.e., the Mediatorial kingship of Christ). As a result of this thinking, it was not until relatively recently that they began to participate in self-governance by voting. Though the last state church in the USA was disestablished in 1833, Christendom lived on in the USA de facto for about another 130 years or more. Those of us who were born before 1970 have lived through the death of Christendom in the USA. In 2023, we are living through a radical postmodern cultural revolution enforced by governments, HR departments, corporations, and creators of popular culture.
Thus, though a little ironic, I propose that we look to Scripture to show us a way forward. It is ironic because as an anti-theocrat (i.e., an ideological American), I argue that we have agreed together, perhaps even covenanted, to be governed by the “laws of nature” and of “nature’s God.” It is the theocrats who tend to blur the lines between the canonical period of history—that is, when redemption was being worked out and special revelation was given—and national Israel and the American Republic. There is a way, however, of being guided, in this instance, by Scripture, without doing bad biblical exegesis and falling into the theocratic trap. God the Spirit did not inspire 1 Samuel 8 in order to teach Americans about civil polity. Nevertheless, there are universal, natural truths contained in that chapter, which should be of interest to Americans.
The books of 1 and 2 Samuel were originally given as one, but they were divided during the inter-testamental period in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).1 They describe the period c. 1000 BC (the eleventh century), though scholars differ as to exactly when they were written.2 They tell, in part, the story of the rejection of the prophets as the leaders of God’s people and the fulfillment of the prophecy that Israel would ask for a king (Deut 17:14–15).
In 1 Samuel 8, we see Israel hankering to be like the nations around them, longing for a king. As it is for us, so it was for them. There were reasons to which they could point to explain their disillusionment. Samuel was old. His sons, whom he had made judges over Israel “did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:3; ESV). So, the elders gathered (1 Sam 8:4) and demanded that Samuel appoint a king, “to judge us like all the nations.” Samuel was displeased and he prayed to Yahweh, our covenant God, who told him to give the people what they wanted because “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7).
Samuel acceded to their demands, but he did as Yahweh commanded and warned them about what they had just got themselves into (1 Sam 8:9).
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day (1 Sam 8:11–18).
The point not to be missed about Samuel’s warning to Israel, the Old Testament church, was that if they wanted to be like the rest of the nations, they must endure what the rest of the nations endured. To be very clear, the USA is not national Israel, but the USA is a unique experiment in self-governance. There are no national peoples of God now and no national covenants. All those expired with the death of Christ and, as the Westminster Divines said, with “the state of that people” (WCF 19.4). This is why theonomy (i.e., the abiding validity of the judicial laws in exhaustive detail) is a non-starter for anyone who affirms the Westminster Standards (or who would be Reformed).
Should the USA decide to follow the monarchist theocrats, an outcome that is beyond unlikely, they should not delude themselves into thinking that the outcome will be any different than what Samuel predicted for the Israelites. Samuel said what he did because this is what monarchs do:
- Draft your sons (and your daughters) to fight their wars
- Draft hitherto free citizens into slave labor
- Draft hitherto free citizens to become household servants and slaves
- Take the best of American agriculture and production for themselves and their court
Samuel warned them: when all that happens, you will cry out, but it will be too late. “Yahweh will not answer you.”
These are the very sorts of things to which the American Founders objected. There were reasons why, in the Declaration of Independence, the Founders said that they were seeking to preserve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (not euphoria). Revolutionaries that we are (or were), the Americans said that rights come from God and that the authority of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. Under a theocratic monarch all that will go away.
The Founders objected to British “abuse and usurpations,” and “absolute despotism.” We Americans revolted against a theocratic monarchy (there is a state church in England) because that silly theocratic monarch George III (1738–1820),
- Refused his assent to just laws
- Forbade his governors to pass necessary laws until he approved them
- Held just laws hostage until the governed gave up their right of self-government
- Intentionally made participation in any representative body impossible
- Dissolved representative legislative bodies
- Refused to allow the formation of representative legislative bodies
- Refused to allow the colonies to control immigration to the colonies
- Refused to allow the colonies to establish a judiciary
- Established “a multitude of new offices” and sent “swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance”
- Instituted a military government beyond civil control
- Forced Americans to house British soldiers
- Conducted kangaroo courts when British soldiers murdered Americans
- Imposed taxes on Americans without their consent
- Took us hostage to England for bogus trials
These are just some of the objections of the American Founders. Further, in the First Amendment, when they said, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion,” the American Founders deliberately rejected the idea of a national church. In the nineteenth century, that principle was extended to the States. The experiment has worked. We Americans have not, since the Revolution, suffered the endless European wars of religion in large measure because we have agreed that we will not seek to use the lever of state power to force others to support or adhere to our religion. The Roman Catholics of Maryland cannot force the Congregationalists of Massachusetts to agree with, support, or affirm their religion.
American religious pluralism works. There are indeed those on the radical cultural left who are seeking to impose a kind of new national religion. The answer, however, is not to react by seeking to overthrow the American experiment in favor of theocracy, but rather to reargue and reassert the American principle of religious pluralism. We should resist the theocrats of the left and the right.
The American Revolutionaries revolted against the British crown because they rejected the legitimacy of the monarchy, even an ostensibly Christian, theocratic monarchy. That some Americans today are even considering going back to that mess of pottage is astounding. It suggests that they have not digested 1 Samuel 8 and that, like the Marxists, they imagine theocracy has not worked because the right people have not tried it.
1. John E. Anderson, s.v., “1 and 2 Samuel,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary.
2. Fred Young’s entry in the old Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), s.v., 1 and 2 Samuel, reflects the approach I was taught, which tended to situate the authorship closer to the time described.
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