The late Paul J. Tillich (1886-1965)—not exactly a hero to conservative Christians, Protestant or Catholic—spoke of the rival impulses that cause agony in personal and community decisionmaking, which he defined as the clash between autonomy and heteronomy. In autonomy—literally, “self-law”—individuals think of themselves as a law unto themselves; in heteronomy, “other-law,” they see themselves as subject to alien rule. The solution to this tension, according to Tillich, is theonomy, “God-law.” It is easy to affirm this advice in principle, on the personal level, at least for the Christian, because, as Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

The problem arises at the social level. “Theonomy” has become the slogan for a small group of theologians called reconstructionists, who believe that it is the duty of Christians to create a social order that will install and enforce the biblical law of the Old Testament. This principle has not worked all that well even when it has been energetically tried, as in the English Republic under Oliver Cromwell, or in Puritan New England. For the Christian, the proper motive for obedience is love. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Unfortunately, such being the human condition, this principle does not work very well even in the Christian community, and it cannot be expected to prevail among the general public. This is the basic reason why society requires government.

At its foundation, the new North American republic was what Jacques Maritain called “descriptively Christian.” Biblical principles were enshrined in many institutions and were frequently cited in court decisions, so that we may properly say that a measure of attention was paid to theonomy. However, the concept of theocracy, or, more practically, rule by the Church, was not even considered. The principle of a national church was rejected in the First Amendment, which was later applied to the states.

Even if it had not been prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, the concept of theocracy would have been nearly inconceivable in the United States from the beginning and is even less conceivable today, in a society that has become pluralistic and multicultural and where there is latent prejudice against religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is evident, and recognized by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, that duplex in homine regimen—the government of man is two-fold. There are small Christian communities which regard civil government as the worldly realm that “lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19), During the Vietnam War, a few disillusioned Christians actually advocated anarchy. Nevertheless, for virtually all Christians, there is a “necessity and sanction for civil government.”

The question for Christians today is not whether but what: What should we think about the relationship between the secular and the spiritual, or more specifically, what spiritual principles should be kept in mind as we attempt to carry out our civic duty in constituting and maintaining civil government? Paul’s Epistle to the Romans offers guidance, and chapter 13 stresses the legitimacy and the limits of government power: “The powers that be are ordained of Cod,” and “he [the ruler] is a minister of God to thee for good” (verses 1,4). While government, all government, has a principle of legitimacy, a government can become illegitimate when it ceases to reward good and punish evil; therefore, under extreme circumstances, resistance, even armed revolt, can be approved. In the context, Calvin requires that revolt be determined by the “lesser magistrates”—in other words, by people who already have a measure of divinely approved authority. This principle was followed successfully in the American War of Independence, which was a revolt of the colonial authorities, not of the people, and unsuccessfully in the German officers’ revolt against Hitler. In both cases, people who already possessed authority and responsibility determined that the supreme authority was flawed or, in Hitler’s case, demonic. Government is therefore legitimate but limited: It cannot command what God forbids, nor forbid what God commands (see Daniel 3:1-18, 6:6-11; Acts 4:19, 5:29), and it must not invert its mandate and begin to punish good and reward evil.

Christians are not expected to establish a theocracy or an officially Christian government, although Christians from A.D. 300 have done so, sometimes with more, sometimes with less success. What Christians can expect of any state, and especially of a state in which they are the numerical majority, is suggested by Paul’s warning in Romans 1:21, where he says of the pagans of his day, “When they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful.” The consequences he says, were that they “became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (verses 21, 22). Under the instructions of our most eminent and highest court, the United States government has increasingly forbidden public acknowledgement and expressions of gratitude toward God, and we experience the prophesied consequence in growing governmental folly—for example, in the exaltation of abortion, “gay rights,” and even homosexual “marriage.” Perhaps if a future government again determines to give God at least a measure of formal honor and thankfulness, we may learn not to treat folly as wisdom, darkness as light.