Was Paul a Theocrat?

Article ID: JAT105 | By: C. Wayne Mayhall

This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number3 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

In one of his editorials1 journal editor DerekH. Davis compassionately argues for a degree of separation of church and state and offers this advice to President GeorgeW. Bush: “If I could tell the president anything it would be that there is danger in attaching his policies too closely to his personal faith, if in fact that is what he is doing. The Founding Fathers formally and wisely erected a constitutionally non-religious state, a republic whose affairs were not to be pursued according to one man’s religious vision.”2 He goes on to write, “Omitting God’s name from the Constitution was intentional on the part of the Founding Fathers, not because they did not look to God providentially to direct the nation, but because they believed that the human person is sacred and that each person’s religious conscience can be respected only if the state declares itself incompetent regarding religious matters and leaves religion as much as possible to each individual3 (emphasis added).

I need only note the example of Roev. Wade over the last three decades to support the case Davis makes for the incompetence of the state regarding religious matters. I have concerns, however, about his insistence on the fact that a separation from such incompetence is necessary in order to leave religious matters up to the individual. Davis, although quite generous in his evaluation of the democratic,4 fails to realize the most glaring of its inadequacies—that rule by a people that is not predisposed to heavenly-mindedness tends to become, over time, not much earthly good for the kingdom of God.

With its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, its phenomenal growth in post-French revolutionary Europe, and its adoption into the fabric of colonial America, the concept of separation of church and state flourished. In the twenty-first century, however, the state is overwhelmingly secularist, and the church reels in the wake of privatization (keep God to yourself) and pluralization (don’t impose God upon the secular or sacred gods of others). Catholic theologian Plinio Correa de Oliveira writes regarding the humble beginnings of separation, “This immense transformation, the natural and typical fruit of a tendency towards laicization [the exclusion of religion from society by removing control from the church] that has made itself progressively felt in the various sectors of Western culture, in society, and in life itself, was inherently prejudicial.”5

I believe with Correa de Oliveira that faith is the foundation for virtue and virtue is essential for the realization that salvation is necessary for membership in the new heaven and earth to come, and that laicization is thus contrary to faith. I realize that such a conclusion leads others to label me with the oft-maligned and superficially understood term “theocrat”; nonetheless, I am eager to declare that I am a theocrat, and to state that democratic tolerance is merely smoke and mirrors.6 Further, I believe that my claim has ample support from Paul, the greatest of Christ-followers.

Paul’s Political Nature. Paul had been arrested by the Romans and thrown into prison when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Because he was in immediate political danger, he was careful to disguise his political and social ideas7 in the letter by using a joyful and spiritually grounded tone. He does, however, particularly in Philippians1:1—3:1 and 4:4–7, repeatedly reference the lordship of Jesus. Theologian Deiter Georgi observes that Paul writes that Jesus, as “Lord” (Phil.2:11), “has created a realm of peace in which people can live secure (4:7) and in which all may demonstrate royal forbearance (4:5).”8 In Paul’s words:

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consideration of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind….with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves….Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself….Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil.2:1–11).9

We must be careful not to hide Paul’s declaration in Philippians2:5–11 in the shadows of mere spiritualized moralizing when in its true light it seems, as Georgi states, that the text “defies not just the world but all of its powers.”10

A bridge between the phrase “in Christ” in verse1 and in verse5 establishes Christ’s jurisdiction and the dynamics of His rule. Paul declares Jesus to be first among equals and makes known His obedience and willingness to be subject to the limits of the human condition. Georgi writes that “for Paul (the Roman citizen) as well as for the citizens of Philippi (a military colony of Rome) the description of Jesus’ exaltation and entrance into heaven must have suggested the events surrounding the decrease of a princeps [leading Roman citizen] and his heavenly assumption and apotheosis [model of excellence] by resolution of the Roman senate, ratified in heaven”11 (emphasis in original).

A critical antithesis emerges from this. Jesus is the sole possessor of absolute ruling power given Him by God, and all earthly powers are subjected to Him; yet, “Jesus is introduced into heaven and made the object for the oath of loyalty administered by all the powers.”12

Christ, No Crucified Pretender. In this Christological hymn that opens Philippians, Paul explains that the rule and the worship of Jesus are not to be compared to the exalted rule and worship of Caesars that were typical of the Roman time to which he was born. As a Roman citizen himself, Paul purposely writes to offend anyone versed in the ways of Rome. Christ’s exaltation follows His very real death so that He is indeed the first among equals and equal to the biblical god and His death occurs on the most accursed of symbols: the Roman cross. Georgi writes that such “a death should have rendered his very memory accursed: a true damnation memoriae. But more than his memory lives on: he himself does. This affront at the same time disguises what is for Paul the critical sting of the text, its tangible political and social threat: no Roman censor would think it necessary to fear a crucified pretender and a group of his followers. He would rank such a notion as an absurdity.”13 It is nonetheless obvious that Paul purposely is putting forth the idea that the existing political and social ideology has been subverted.

Philippians2:5–11 is a plea to eschew the evils of privatization and sectarian dominance. Paul asks his readers to shine as lights in the world, and to be fully engaged in their present political reality.

Our Political Responsibility. Paul would have the Philippian Christians become the competitors of the governing statesmen, not to rule the chaos of earthly affairs as do the elite of a “crooked and perverse generation” (Phil.2:15) but as genuine followers of Jesus, the true representative man and ruler of the human race. If they were to understand and follow through with this new form of government they would be able to exercise true political responsibility.

In Philippians3 and4 Paul employs the loaded political term politeuma (Gk., “citizenship”). He says: “For our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil.3:20). He urges a separation from those whose god is their belly and whose minds are set on “earthly things” (3:18–19) and puts forth an appeal for action within the community (4:1–4) and a secular call for creativity regarding ethical questions (4:8–9).

Head on, Paul confronts the secular ethics of his day and makes space for the paradox of human frailty and disgrace (3:4b–14); he excites his subversive ethical theory and democratizes it with a plan to see its growth through grass roots multiplication (3:15–17); he reminds his readers that they need discernment and mutual respect and inclusiveness. Paul envisions the resurrection of Christ-followers and their transformation from an earthly body to a heavenly one. He adds another critical consideration when, regarding Christ’s position in all of these events, he concludes with the words “of the power that he has even to subject all things to himself” (3:21).

Do you like what you’re reading? Take a look at this.

As Georgi writes, “Behind the awaited transformation stands the same power which, according to the hymn in Philippians, forced and still forces all other powers to acknowledge Jesus. Renunciation of ascendancy is the secret of ascendancy. Jesus’ obedience is the mystery of his ‘glory’ and establishes his rule.”14 All claims to hegemony [political authority or control] are nullified, as are all alienating and murderous powers and the law by which they stand.

A Plea for Intolerance. Many Christians long for the rule of God in a democracy such as that of the United States. Such democracies tolerate any and every opinion except intolerance; opening one’s eyes to certain evils inherent in the system is the quickest means to becoming the object of persecution and ridicule.

As Correa de Oliveira so poignantly says, “We are speaking of knowing….[to] what point we may and should be tolerant. We have every reason to fear that contemporary man will often lazily and apathetically tolerate what should be vigilantly, firmly, and astutely tolerated and even opposed.”15 I offer this reflection on Paul’s theocratic declaration in his letter to the Philippians with the hope that Christ-followers might confront evil of this magnitude directly on every front. I hope we can do so even as proverbial Goths gather outside our gates and the fires of corruption from within slowly burn what is left of the fragile moral fiber that weaves this tapestry we proudly proclaim, often at great risk, to be one nation under God.

— C. Wayne Mayhall


1. Derek H. Davis, “Thoughts on the Separation of Church and State under the Administration of President GeorgeW. Bush,” Journal of Church and State (March 2003): 229–235.

2. Ibid., 234.

3. Ibid.

4. The word “democracy” is derived from the ancient Greek dïmokratia, which is derived from the roots dïmos (“people, the mob, the many”) and kratos (“rule” or “power”).

5. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, “What Is Tolerance?” TFP Student Action, The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, http://www.tfp.org/student_action/opinions/culture/tolerance1.htm.

6. For an excellent treatment of why a democracy isn’t God’s idea but man’s, see Fuller Theological Seminary President RichardJ. Mouw’s blog entry “A Larger View of Theocracy,” at Mouw’s Musings: the President’s Blog, http://www.netbloghost.com/mouw/?p=24.

7. I refer to Deiter Georgi, Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) throughout this article.

8. Georgi, 73.

9. All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

10. Georgi, 73.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., 74.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 77–78.

15. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, “Tolerating the Secular State, the Enemy of Faith,” TFP Student Action, The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, http://www.tfp.org/student_action/opinions/culture/tolerance4.htm.