“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author” – G. K. Chesterton
The other day we took up a piece by Kirsten Powers discussing Christian persecution across the world and the American Church’s response (see “Kirsten Powers and the Silent Church“). A good friend, Rob, wrote in with a comment, which can be seen at the bottom of the post. I responded to his comment (though it didn’t need any response) and somehow the subject of Dominionism came up. As the days have gone on the notion is still wiggling around in the back of my mind. My opposition to Dominionism appears to be critical to my understanding of the limited role of government in running the lives of the people.
Before I get down this rabbit hole, let me point to the very end of Rob’s comment. In a parenthetical, which could almost be lost, he put down something quite beautiful: “(but maybe I’m wrong)”. Amen – and maybe I’m wrong too. Or, as G. K. Chesterton once put it: “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”
The term is a bit of a catch-all, and there are many strains of thinking that could be qualified as “Dominionist” – and many of them would disagree with each other. At a basic level here I’m referring to sects of Christianity that hold that the role of the Church on earth is that of reclaiming Dominion over the earth (harkening back to Gen 1:28).
The themes vary from “Christian Reconstructionism” – a Calvinist offshoot that seems to have a good deal of traction in the Christian Right” – to “Kingdom Now” – which is charismatic in nature. Talk about differences. I can only imagine these folks would call each other heretics. Yet they would both be categorized as Dominionists in that they hold Christians and the Church are to rule in civil affairs of men.
Let me make several notes here. First, from the standpoint of the Powers article and response of Christians in America to persecution worldwide, I think only the veneer of “Christians ruling the civil affairs of men” matters, not the particular theologies of these groups. Second, it is typically the case that Christian folks may hold some small allegiance to a form of Dominionism without knowing it, and certainly without making a full-throated defense if pressed. For instance, I can only imagine that if I polled Christians in America on something like “gay marriage” I would find a large majority opposed. Yet if I polled as to “why” very few would choose the option “the affairs of civil government ought to be based on Mosaic law”.
My Non-Dominionist View
To get to my non-Dominionist view, I’ll actually start by pulling in Rob’s comment:
Matthew 5:11- “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Seems to me it might be somewhat fruitless to try and stop what Jesus Himself said would surely happen. If anyone in history had the power and authority to abolish and put and end Christian persecution it would be Jesus. But He instead seems to predict (and authorize) it, more than once. The theme “The world will hate you” is riddled throughout the New Testament, and we see that concept manifested daily. Persecution is a purification method God uses to clean up and solidify His church. So, with that in mind, I have a hard time positioning myself contrary to God’s process, even though I shutter at the horrors we continually hear about.
Jesus says it right there, the world will hate Christians and persecute them. He says when talking to Pilate just before His execution: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” All throughout the early church and the epistles of the New Testament we see the same themes in action: we are here to bring the message of good news, to be a light in darkness, to be ambassadors for Christ, to seek and save the lost, to set the captives free. But taking dominion?
Furthermore, when one reads to the end of the book, a picture of the “endgame” emerges that runs completely contrary to Dominionism. It doesn’t at all look like “the church eventually takes over and subdues the world.” Rather, the picture is “things will get dark and ugly before the end.”
Indeed, even the imagery of “the Bride of Christ” runs counter (allegorically) to the Dominionist view. Our view is that Jesus went to prepare a place for us (as He said) and will someday come to take us home to be with Him. The Dominionist view is that we are here to prepare a place for the Lord, and once we have subdued the world He will return and rule. (It’s a theme that comes up more than once in some circles – this role reversal between God and Christians, where we become the center of worship and He the servant.)
The Limits of Policy
One of the obvious difficulties of Dominionism is the limits of public policy. We can hardly take things part-way when we start down the road of Christian rule in a kingdom-of-God-precursor. We have little trouble outlawing murder (as the Bible does). But what about extra-marital sex? Will we outlaw that? If so, how do we define extra-marital? What do we do with divorcees who have remarried? Some Christian groups say the second marriage is a sham and others recognize it. What about “gay marriage”? Some Christian groups recognize it and some do not. How do we draw the line?
I hear you, “we read the Bible” – but we do read the Bible and come to wildly different conclusions. Must we now subjugate Christians who disagree with us, as well as non-Christians who choose rebellion against God? Or do we vote and take a majority rule? Is that a good way to lay down doctrine? A vote amongst the masses?
For that matter, why would we take dominion in public policy farther than we are allowed by the Bible to take it in Church discipline? If my brother offends me I tell him about it. If he won’t listen I take a few others. If he still won’t listen we take it to the whole church. And if he still won’t listen … I throw him in jail for refusal to adhere to sound doctrine! No, Matt 18:15-17 draws the line at putting him out of the congregation.
Naturally I don’t ascribe to any of this Dominionism. As such, the logical end of policy is freedom and equality before the law, and the law stops at collective defense of individual liberties – and no more. I don’t need Mosaic law for this. I only need equality before God. I only need “created in His image” to demand that we may protect all men from oppression via civil order.
Consider the difference. If I have a wealthy Christian brother who refuses to help a poor brother, I can tell him his error. I can take witnesses with me, and take it before the whole church, but I cannot seize his property and distribute it too the poor against his will. Church law stop short where Dominionism may well press on.
But suppose I have a wealthy Christian brother who intends to take a hammer and attack a poor person. I don’t need to tell him his fault, or appeal to the Church – I am well within my rights to step in and defend the potential victim. My action is not based in preventing immorality in my brother, but rather in the equality of men before God and the Golden Rule, which insists I aid the victim (because I would want his aid if roles were reversed).
Why So Many Then?
Given that we find so little basis for Dominion thinking in the Bible, one might reasonably ask why it holds such sway over much of American Christendom. I’m not sure I have a great answer, other than I don’t find it utterly sinister. I suspect that most folks who give a head-nod to basing policy on Christian morals do so out of tradition, not because of some heartfelt conviction about the need to rule their neighbors (for the good of us all).
I’ll also note that when it comes to strains of Dominion theology, it is rarely taught all the way to its logical end. When someone mentions opposition to policy they rarely do so pulling the thread all the way back to Genesis 1:28, or vetting it against the teachings of Jesus regarding the relationship of the believer to the world. No, the “talking points” tend to exist above such root-cause analysis, if you will.
Widespread rejection of Dominionism amongst theological circles hasn’t necessarily ended its presence, even at superficial levels, in the thinking of Christians in a democracy. Consider, for instance, that the Assemblies of God (my current denomination) rejected charismatic strains of Dominionism as far back as 1949. (This falls under many names like “Latter Rain Movement” and “Joel’s Army” and “The Manifest Sons of God”.) It has issued a number of statements and position papers from the General Council rejecting various teachings of the charismatic Dominionists (though, the AG is much more diplomatic than I am – and they rarely call particular preachers out by name). And yet, the hints of these teachings can still be found in churches across the AG (and preachers who teach them can have a great following). Why?
Well, let me ask you this – do you know any pro-choice Catholics? (I know quite a few.) How can that be – the church emphatically rejects this view. Yet there they are.
Now, I don’t say any of this as an accusation that the AG is rife with Dominionist teachings. Not at all. I look at it from the other direction. If charismatic Dominionists are to gain any traction in the church world, where might it be? Will they head off to the Catholics, or Methodists, or Lutherans? No way. They wouldn’t get through the door. No, if these ideals are going to have any traction it would have to be somewhere that lies “closer” in terms of theology. And thus the continual stream of warnings against these teachings from the General Council.
I’m less versed in how various Calvinist groups have addressed the Christian Reconstruction variant, but I imagine they have done due diligence to hold true to scriptures.
And So …
Now that we’ve cleared that up – or muddied the waters more – I’m off to bed.