What type of State?

I’m writing these articles about Public Theology in the context of a General Election and that should act as a cautionary reminder. Our Public Theology is likely to be affected by our context. Here we are talking about the role of the state, where its boundaries are and whether it is benign or evil in the context of a modern, western democracy.

Would our view of the State be the same if we were living in Nazi Germany under a tyrannical dictator? What about if we were living in an Islamic theocracy like Iran (it is possible that some readers are)?  When Samuel Rutherford wrote Lex Rex, he was assuming that his readers would be living in a Christian state where the rulers and wider society where at least nominally Christian.  His assumption was that the State was benign but that its role was limited.

It is worth remembering first of all that everything we saw in Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Revelation 15-16 was written and first read in the context of the Roman Empire and the persecution of believers not in a liberal democracy like ours nor a Christian state like Rutherford envisaged.  This is a reminder that what we have seen about the Government being both put in place by God to do good and also standing in idolatrous opposition to Christ and His Church is not dependent upon the chosen method of government nor on the moral character of individual leaders.

Secondly, it might be helpful to talk about the different models of government that Public Theologians have suggested.  I am not talking here about whether or not democracy is better an oligarchy or whether republics are more acceptable than monarchies. Rather I want to identify three options.

  1. Theonomy (A Christian State)
  2. Pluralism
  3. Secularism


This may be an unfamiliar concept in the UK but it has a strong following in the USA and has had some influence on the Religious Right.  Theonomy is the belief that Government should seek to apply God’s Law to public life.

Put that way, you may realise that although the term is unfamiliar, the sentiment isn’t that strange to Christians. But what does it mean for a Government to obey God’s Law? We tend to think in terms of the Torah and so Theonomy is often identified with attempts to implement the Old Testament penal code including Capital Punishment. This of course raises further questions about what should come under that penal code. Obvious examples might include crimes such as murder, rape, theft etc. but what about other things that the Old Testament sanctions. Should adultery be criminalised? You will realise that this leads us to the thorny subject of homosexuality, not just whether or not politicians are able to speak openly about whether or not it is a sin, not just whether there should be same-sex marriage but whether or not same-sex relationships should be legal in the first place. Remember that in parts of the World Homosexuality is criminalised and that in the UK up until not that long ago it was a criminal offence with the age of consent only being equalised very recently indeed.

The things we’ve talked about mean we are likely to associate Theonomy with right wing politics and quite a few prominent Theonomist’s argue for free-market economics. This is because they have also tended to accept Rutherford’s views on the role and limits of State, Church and Family.

However, Theonomy might also include concerns to incorporate or in some way replicate elements of the Old Testament laws on gleaning, Sabbath days and years and Jubilee years. In other words, rules that might be seen as providing for the poor, reducing debt and protecting the environment. A “Jubilee” agenda is, fairly or unfairly often associated with the political left.

Now, obviously at the moment, we don’t have a Christian government but the argument is that this is something we should be working towards. This means that some people will form movements and parties. Sometimes, a particular brand of politics is perceived as being closest to the Christian ideal hence the existence of Christian Socialism (left-wing) and the Christian Coalition (Right-wing/US).

Theonomy is also closely associated with Post-millennialism and the assumption is that we will see an end time awakening/revival leading to large numbers and even a majority of genuine believers in many countries enabling Christian Government to natural come into place.

Problems with this approach are:

–          It raises questions about how people today, both Christians and non-Christians, collectively and individually are intended to relate to the Old Testament Law (we will look at this in more detail in a future article).

–          As seen above, we have a tendency to attempt to identify Christian politics with our own priorities hence left-wing and right wing brands of Theonomics.

–          Theocracries of all religious persuasions including Christian ones don’t tend to have a good track record throughout history

–          Theonomy seems to assume a particular eschatological view and indeed arguably relies on an overreached eschatology assuming a greater level of transformation prior to Christ’s return than the Bible seems to suggest


We tend to think of pluralism in terms of philosophical pluralism as an aspect of post-modernism. Philosophical pluralism assumes that there is no absolute truth and that this is a positive thing.

A  Pluralistic State recognises that there are different cultural and religious groupings in society and tries to recognise, accommodate and protect them so that they may flourish. Government will be designed in such a way that these different religious and cultural identities are able to contribute into public life. However, public space is seen as being essentially neutral.

In other words, for the Christian, pluralism here means the right to live by their faith publically and freely in a way that does not encroach on the rights of others to live by their faith.  A Pluralistic society will tolerate the right of a Sikh to wear his Turban and a Muslim women to wear the veil. It would safeguard the rights of Christian churches not to perform same-sex marriages, a bed and breakfast to only offer rooms for married couples, a school to teach creationism and a Catholic adoption agency to only accept heterosexual couples. At the same time you would expect the state to provide an equal right to marriage to homosexual couples as well.

You will recognise here that

  1. What I am describing is what Christians are most often campaigning for or when defending human rights arguing on the basis of. We assume that our society is essential Pluralistic by choice.
  2. This does not describe what our society is like.  We have not been able to achieve equal rights for different beliefs but usually find that these compete. Rather, the reality may be increasingly seen as closer to the third option


This is the belief that our religious views belong solely in the private sphere. The State is secular in that it recognises no religious position.  Laws are determined purely by the democratic will of the people.

This means that when a public law is seen to be in competition with a person’s private religious position then the secular law overrules. We have seen examples of this in recent years with

  1. Attempts to control the language used to describe, promote and debate faith through religious hatred laws.
  2. Changes to the Law on adoption and the rights of same-sex couples which resulted in Catholic adoption agencies having to close down.
  3. Prosecution of Christian businesses including a cake -baker and bed and breakfast owners where their business transactions were seen as coming within the public sphere and therefore it was unlawful to bring their religious views into the public domain of their business.
  4. Private family life and church life are not left independent from the Law and indeed one would struggle that it can be left untouched when it comes to some issues, particularly child safe-guarding.

We will also recognise that things are “messy.” There are still attempts to provide protection for faith and for example it is possible to declare a Genuine Occupational Requirement (GOR) when employing someone. Other areas where we see some messiness include the continuation of an established church with a presence in the House of Lords and a significant ceremonial role in public life. Additionally, politicians often find it in their interest to give a little nod to an acceptable form of private Christian faith.

Both pluralism and secularism wish to present themselves as ideologically neutral but in fact both of them are underpinned by ideologies that stand against Christian faith. This is important because whilst on the surface, secularism or pluralism may look like the reasonable option for those who accept a “Two Kingdoms” approach to our engagement with the World, this is not the case.  The “Two Kingdoms” approach still sees the political world as under God’s rule whilst secularism and pluralism are in effect saying that God’s reign as at best limited to the spiritual sphere of church and private life.


A quick survey identifies challenges with each of these positions. In our next article, we will look in a little more detail at our relationship to God’s Law. We will then set out an alternative approach to the relationship between Christianity, the Bible and the State