Religious liberty leaders are operating on outdated assumptions about the church and state relation. Many presume a world in which government is the dispassionate, neutral arbiter between church and state. But a great gulf exists between the assumptions of that worldview, and the increasing movement toward totalitarianism in the 2020s. We are in a place of grave danger. The increasingly totalitarian manifestation seen in contemporary governments and rulers leaves no space for expression or even holding of conscientious viewpoints or practices which do not correspond to a prescribed narrative. Many well-meaning people remain unaware that they have overlaid mistaken assumptions onto Scripture.
A Different Time
Many operate under expectation that there are clearly demarcated realms. There is a separation between the State and media. There is an open "town square." Everyone gets to share what they think; none fear being "cancelled." The State only anticipates its views will be presented as one possibility among many. In this view it is almost unimaginable that the State would have a propaganda arm, or that its powers would be directed against its own citizens, or that American citizens would be surveilled.
In this view, reason has the primacy. Ideas and views compete against other ideas and views. The best logic is to be weighed by a moral citizenry. Individual rights are respected, their exercise encouraged. It is desired that citizens in general be moral, principled, and informed.
The State is the neutral, refereed, boundary-keeping, checks-and-balances State. Powers are separated within the State. Three separate branches of government (legislative, judicial, and executive) are each granted only limited powers, and even those significantly circumscribed by the Constitution.
In this viewpoint, the State operates in a fenced space and keeps within the lines.
The primary religious threat is anticipated to be the religious right, more recently relabled white Christian nationalism. The main dangers are all anticipated to come from the right. The left represents the sustenance of liberty, and the right, the forces arrayed to suppress freedom. There is no serious space in this view for incoming threats from the left. Government is the check against the power of the religious right. This view remains blind to serious threats against liberty which would come from the government or from a blending of big tech, big Pharma, and the government.
Put simply, this viewpoint has no space for threats posed by the combination of a powerful and highly-centralized State combined with technocratic interests.
But there have been developments in our world, and we need better to understand those changes.
The Totalitarian World
There is today a rapidly increasing turn to what only can be described as a Totalitarian worldview. The classic examples are seen in the Soviet Union, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
In the totalitarian worldview there is no demarcation, no separation of powers. The goal is the opposite of checking power, preventing its coalescence; the goal is to unite all in one. Where one worldview would sharply separate power in order to limit power, a totalitarian government includes government, private corporations, and wealthy entreprenuers in one whole. All are controlled under one rule, whether under a despot or a ruling oligarchy or a party elite, all is combined. All that remains is the party, the government, and government agents.
The goal is not to live within reality but to shape reality. Humans are not high creatures with conscience made in the image of their Creator; humans are cogs, malleable, expendable material, proper fodder for the wood-chipper, compost, material to be reshaped. Coercion doesn't merely have primacy; coercion is normal.
In this context we better understand the thinking embraced by technocrats like Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum (WEF). They embrace social constructivism, policing language, censorship, and cartelization because these are the means of shaping and reshaping people, thus reshaping the culture, thus reshaping society. If humans are that low, why respect or speak of anyone's rights? Instead, rights ought to be redefined collectively as desired and defined by technocrats and enforced by oligarchs. This, then is the non-neutral, obedience-commanding, non-bounded state.
There is nothing even remotely like this on the radar of those adhering to the other view, not because the Bible doesn't predict it but because those invested in that worldview cannot imagine so different a view.
Benito Mussolini wrote in 1932:
Fascism is for the only liberty which can be a serious thing, the liberty of the state and of the individual in the state. Therefore for the fascist, everything is in the state, and no human or spiritual thing exists, or has any sort of value, outside the state. In this sense fascism is totalitarian, and the fascist state which is the synthesis and unity of every value, interprets, develops and strengthens the entire life of the people.(Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, The Doctrine of Fascism)
Shoshana Zuboff points out that such a form of power is unprecedented.(Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p. 353)
Joseph Stalin, speaking of this form of power in 1933, said,
Our tanks are worthless if the souls who must steer them are made of clay. This is why I say: The production of souls is more important than that of tanks…. Man is reshaped by life itself, and those of you here must assist in reshaping his soul. That is what is important, the producetion of human souls. That is why I raise my glass to you, writers, to the engineers of the soul.(Zuboff, op. cit. p. 355)
Hannah Arendt, widely recognized as the foremost authority on totalitarianism, wrote "Totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within."(Zuboff, op. cit., p. 356)
Totalitarian government is different from dictatorships and tyrannies; the ability to distinguish between them is by no means an academic issue which could be safely left to the "theoreticians," for total domination is the only form of government with which coexistence is not possible.(Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. xxviii)
Arendt, commenting on the sophisticated Soviet filing system used by the secret police, wrote in 1948, that Theoretically, a gigantic single sheet could show the relations and cross relationships of the entire population. And this is the Utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police.… This old dream was terrible enough and since time immemorial has invariably led to torture and the most abominable cruelties. There was only one thing in its favor: it asked for the impossible. The modern dream of the totalitarian police, with its modern techniques, is incomparably more terrible. Now the police dreams that one look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish who was related to whom and in what degree of intimacy; and, theoretically, this dream is not unrealizable although it's technical execution is bound to be somewhat difficult. If this map really did exist, not even memory would stand in the way of the totalitarian claim to domination; such a map might make it possible to obliterate people without any traces, as if they had never existed at all.(Arendt, p. 434)
Three-quarters of a century later, Edward Snowden revealed that exactly such a map has been constructed by the National Security apparatus of the US. We are just moments in time away from a dystopia worse than Orwell's 1984.
Let's study the Scriptures now, refining our view of the relation between church and state. We will review ten Bible verses or passages which help us better see the relation between the individual and the State.
Genesis 11:1-9 — First Rebel Human Government
The first organized system of independent human government is found at Genesis 11. God judges men but preserves humanity through the flood. Genesis 9:1 recapitulates the creation in a sense, as God commands those whom He has preserved to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." After the flood, men share one language in common. Genesis 11:1-9 describes men grouping together and choosing, rather than filling the earth, to combine together to congregate in one place and build a city and a tower. Verse 4 shows they explicitly reject the command to fill the earth and decide to make a name for themselves. Rather than be humans under the plan of the Creator, they determine they will take charge of the planet in their own way. They will populate it in their own way, make their own name, and even build a tower to the heavens. In Genesis 11:5 God investigates not only the tower but the city which the men are making. It is the first organized counter-government. God confuses their language and scatters them over the whole earth (vs. 9).
Thus, the first human government was organized to act in rebellion against God. The question is, was this an anomaly or is it the fundamental nature of virtually all human governments?
Exodus — Oppression and Genocide
In the first chapter of Exodus the government decrees the death of all male Hebrew infants. Pharaoh is claiming the right to murder babies of a disapproved class. Some of earth's most notable genocides occurred just one century ago from us, with the murder of millions of Jews and others in Nazi Germany, and many, many millions under Soviet and Chinese communism. Egypt in Exodus oppressed the Hebrews as slaves and many died under harsh conditions. God sent a deliverer but pharaoh defied Him. He insisted on his own reality, not God's reality. His refusal to recognize God marked him in a sense as a fountainhead for atheism.
1 Samuel 8 — Rejecting God's Government
When we come to 1 Samuel, God has been ruling His people as King through judges. But they are determined to forsake God's preferred form of organization so they can have a human king over them. "The people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, 'No, but we will have a king over us, so that we may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.'"(1 Samuel 8:19-20)
God had a pattern of governance for His people but the people were inclined to reject that and trust in human power. Everything short of God's governance man's reliance on human power. Thus, a mistaken trust in government can itself increase the separation between God and His people.
Psalm 2 — Rebellion of Human Governments Against God
Hear the thought of the leaders of human governments in Psalm 2:1-3:
Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, 'Let us break their bonds in pieces and cast away their cords from us.'
No exceptions are indicated. The kings of the earth "set themselves." This is rebellion. They "take counsel together." This is premeditation. Their counsel is against the Lord and His anointed. It is against the Father and Jesus. Indeed, the best that human governments ever get to, is one government which for a period of time manifests lamblikeness, but in the end is morally coercive.
Hosea 8:4 — They Set Up Kings But Not By Me
Hosea 8:3-4 further informs us. We cannot assume that every human leader has God's endorsement. "Israel has rejected the good; the enemy will pursue him. They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them. From their silver and gold they made idols for themselves—and that they might be cut off." God sets kings up and takes them down. But not all kings are set up by God. Some rulers are given authority in spite of God's preferred will.
Matthew 22:21 — Render Unto Caesar
Jesus' enemies confront Him with a question: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus calls for a coin and asks whose image and superscription are on it. Caesar's is. His answer is, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
Jesus' answer has been pressed into service to suggest that somehow there is a domain where human authority can trump divine authority and another domain where divine authority can trump human authority. But all that we have, all that Caesar had, came from God. We return ten percent of our increase to God to signify that 100% percent of what we have came from Him. There are limits to the Christian's duty to civil government. We do well to hear how Christian pastors responded to the misuse of this passage when they were required by the government to speak a loyalty oath to Hitler:
It is simply not the case that with this answer a division is made between the area over which Caesar has authority and the area over which God is Lord. It is simply not the case that here the state receives its own area of authority in which God has nothing to say and that the church receives that province for itself in which it might satisfy its religious requirements… And if one so twists the Lord's word, then what results is our having to surrender any obedience to God in any area of our earthly life and leave to him nothing but the authority over heavenly affairs. In truth, the Lord's answer summons us to complete obedience to the first commandment… if we are to give to the state what belongs to the state, then it is because even here we are to obey God according to whose merciful ordering of matters the secular authority is allowed to conduct stately affairs. This simply means that we should not and are forbidden to give to the state what is not allowed the state and that the state itself must render to God what is God's, for God is and remains Lord and Judge over the rulers and the ruled.'(Dean G. Stroud, Preaching in Hitler's Shadow, pp. 181-182)
Acts 4-5 — Worldviews in Conflict
In Acts chapters four and five the authorities forbid Jesus' disciples from teaching and preaching in His name, and are actually imprisoned for these activities. But God works out a supernatural release for them. They respond to these demands by declaring to those corrupt authorities their determination to obey God rather than men.(Acts 4:17, 19; 5:25, 28, 29, 40, 42)
Also interesting here is that in their prayer giving thanks for their deliverance (Acts 4:23-31), they refer again to Psalm 2:1-3!
Romans 13 — Hitler's Favorite Text
Romans 13:1-7 is often referred to as the master-text through which we should understand our duty to God and to the State. But we should understand this passage carefully and in its context before drawing conclusions.
Exploring the broader context, we look at chapter 12. We notice in the first verse that our bodies are to be given not to the state but to God as living sacrifices. In the second verse we are urged not to conform to this world, which we know is under the strong influences of Satan. Verse 9 tells us to abhor what is evil. Verse 16 tells us to associate not with the powerful but with the humble. In verse 18 we are called as much as possible to live peaceably with all men. Verse 19 reminds us not to avenge ourselves on others. Finally, 21 commands us not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil.
Chapter 14 addresses conscience at length and urges us not to behave in any way that might destabilize the conscience of another person.
It is remarkable that the content of chapter 13 comes immediately preceded by chapter 12’s call to abhor evil and not be conformed to this world but to overcome evil with good, and, that it is immediately followed by the single chapter in the Bible most intensely calling for care toward the consciences of others.
Many have attempted to make Romans 13:1-7 as providing justification for a hand-off of responsibility for certain of their actions to the State. But Romans 13 includes verses 8-14. Verses 8-10 offer crucial context for understanding 1-7. Listen:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
We see here what we truly owe others. We are to love them, not empower the state to bully them. We cannot support murder or theft, or the state speaking lies about them. We are to treat other persons as we would prefer to be treated. “Love does no harm to a neighbor.”
It is remarkable how little is said here about an alleged duty to the state. It is almost as if the state is something on the periphery of life, something not to become preeminent, not to become all-encompassing. The emphasis in Scripture is on our direct relations with our fellow man, not on our becoming agents of the state.
1 Peter 2:4-25 — Fear God, Respect the King
Some have taken 1 Peter 2:13 as granting absolute authority to the state:
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who were sent by Him for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
We are to do good even if the "rules" permit us to do what is unjust. In things that are indifferent we are to go along with commands. And yet, to obey every ordinance of man clearly does not include obeying rules that would put the lives of others in danger. If we know a Jew is hiding from Nazis across the street and German soldiers come to us and ask us, Are there Jews hiding across the street? we are not to participate in the genocide even if the chancellor says that our participation is the law.
Here that we are to honor all people and to honor the king and the same word is used. But only God receives the high honor of being feared.
Revelation — Rebel Human Government Ended
Finally, the books of Daniel and Revelation are filled with lessons concerning conscience, church and state, the rights of the individual, and predations and evil of governmental coercion. Both books foretell issues of conscience and worship ending with death decrees for those, who out of faithfulness to Jesus, refuse to do what the state demands. But all this coercion is ended and even the existence of Satan ultimately is ended. Rebellion is temporary. By faith men and women of God can endure all trials and be true to Him.
Scripture does not give the state a blank check and order us to do almost anything the government says we musty do. While limits to power, checks and balances, served America well in its earliest years, there have been dramatic changes. Do those assumptions still prevail?
It will be useful here to offer clearer definitions of certain terms we will use in our updated expectations:
Citizen = A person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it. This is the self-view of the person living according to a mistaken worldview. He thinks of the government as guaranteeing his rights although the government has long abandoned that role and is instead engaged in active attempts to reshape him.
Government = Oligarchs employing the rules, institutions, and machinery of the state to implement the world designed by the party.
Party = In a fascistic state, an independent ideologically driven body inhabiting government and industry. In the contemporary setting, the ruling elite.
Serf = A person in bondage or servitude. Under technocracy people practicing Christianity wouldn't even be serfs, but face reprogramming or eventual elimination. The only approved life is one serving the imperatives of the party. That is to say, a serf is a person intended to receive and embrace the narrative propagated by the State.
Sojourner = A person who lives as a foreigner temporarily in a place that is not his permanent home (also a stranger, alien). Believers in God are should be anationalistic. They are servants of His Majesty King Jesus whose government is the only one which shall endure.
State agents = those who act as an enforcement arm of the state, enforcing state rules, decrees, and mandates. When a private citizen enforces state decrees, or when a social media platform censors a post, a link, or a media item because it has been declared to be misinformation by some distant world governance body (i.e. WHO) or the national government (i.e CDC), that person is acting as an agent to the state. When a corporation, body, or group does the bidding of the state and that bidding is illegitimate, that corporation, body, or group is acting as an agent of the state.
Technocrat = Ideology which says that the world should be ruled by the most knowledgable and efficient persons, not by politicians.
Under the totalitarian impulse, we should update our expectations to include the following:
- The State observes few, if any, practical limitations to its power
- Updated descriptions of the fundamental character of contemporary Western representative governments include global capitalism surveillance capitalism capitalism with Chinese characteristics fascism technocracy
- Many government agents today see the State as a machine for the exercise of power, by no means a neutral arbiter of power. The State no longer sees it as her mission to recognize and sustain the Creator's order but to create her own order.
- The State = government + state agents + serfs
- The State is deeply engaged in shaping the opinion of its own serfs in ways which perpetuate and strengthen the power of the State and its ordering of the world.
- The State is center; there is no periphery. The State is Babylon remaking the world in its own image.
- Since reality is shaped by language, the party uses the power of the State to reshape language to reshape reality.
Most of us today see ourselves as being citizens. But are we citizens? Is the contract between us and the state, our expectations of protection and care from it, still intact? Is the state operating in good faith towards us and others? If not, then although we might have rights as citizens, we should recognize that at this stage of history, these are largely illusion. Most corporations are actually agents of the state. More realistically we should see ourselves as sojourners and remain wary of the State and its agents. We should strive for full dependence on Jesus and minimal dependance on the State and its agents.
Some have wondered how a kind of global totalitarianism can fit into a Bible understanding of the end-time scenario. Contemporary totalitarianism comes into being only in the 1930s. Yet today we see clear trends and markers suggesting a rapid movement in our culture toward totalitarianism. Moral values are in collapse, the rights and dignity of people as citizens increasingly are overturned by contemporary cancel culture. The view that somehow all this "secularism" is non-religious is a mistake. Rod Dreher gives this insight:
Communism answered an essentially religious longing in the souls of restless young intellectuals. Progressivism in all its forms appeals to the same desire in intelligent young people today—both secular and those within churches who are alienated from authoritative ecclesial traditions. This is why Christians today must understand that, fundamentally, they aren't resisting a different politics but rather what is effectively a rival religion.(Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies, p. 54)
Here is where the mistaken viewpoint that our radars really only need to be pointed at the "religious right" is seen as most problematic. In fact, the main threats to men and women of faith today come to us from the left and the very alarming changes in societal values now in process. The forces which have brought the world to this present place will not easily be dislodged from their purpose. In a significant measure, they have already achieved key elements of their agenda. We are only one or two "global crisis" away from becoming captive to a period of global totalitarianism reinforced by technologies Stalin and Hitler could only dream of.
We should be alert that the appearance of our world can be very deceiving. On the surface we are participants in Western democracies, but just under that surface deep and rapid movements are occurring. We should review passages such as The Great Controversy, pp. 588-590 and Testimonies, vol. 5, 449-454 carefully. Such passages as those can be helps toward updating our understanding of how the situation we are in today may fit into intermediate or closing developments.
God will have a people who pass through a final, extreme, indescribable time of trouble, yet who remain faithful to Jesus. Surely those who are successful will be believers under no illusions, who have placed all of their trust—absolutely all of it—in the Lord Jesus Christ.
2022-06-21, Liberty of Conscience Congress, Puerto Rico, via Streamyard