First of all, this post is a companion piece to the following article, done by NPR, so you really need to listen to the story, or at least read the online (shorter) version of it.
Second of all, if after reading the story, this movement doesn’t scare you, or at least creep you out, something’s wrong.
Let me summarize. There is a movement, with a key player in the movement being the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), which seeks to advance God’s kingdom (His will being done on earth as in heaven) through gaining dominion (power, influence, control) over various aspects of culture, such as arts and entertainment, business, family, media, religion, education, and especially, government (referred to as the seven “mountains of culture”). The philosophy behind the movement is often called “Dominion Theology.” So, why is this scary?
Well, looked at from one perspective, it is just a different twist on the “culture wars” between some Christian groups and some secular groups over who can gain the most power and control over society and shape it to their liking (which I firmly believe to be a complete waste of time and a quite un-Christian activity). Anyways, this movement largely consists of Charismatically inclined Christians (I will not seek to discuss the merits or concerns of Charismaticism in this post). The members of this group also tend to ascribe to typical views of Evangelical eschatology that hold to such ideas as the rapture, a great tribulation, an anti-Christ figure, etc., etc., which are widely held views, but are a complete joke if one has any appreciation for historical context and genre considerations (i.e. reading Revelation as a 1st century prophetic/apocalyptic text, not as some coded prediction about the “end times”. Most who hold to these views, in my experience, tend to give little thought to hermaneutical method, and it shows). However, I will not get into the details of why this brand of eschatology is wrong in this post. The details may be a bit different than the common eschatological view for some in this movement, like the timing of the rapture in relation to the great tribulation, but the parts are all still there.
But (somewhat) unlike your usual culture warrior, the political “battles” are understood in more than just terms of good and bad or right and wrong, but literally in terms of fighting against demonic powers. Various kinds of prayers are used to attempt to exorcise demons who hold power in society and are holding back (what they see as) God’s will from being done (I’m also not going to get into that validity or not of their view on demons and exorcism). It’s also interesting that “God’s will” tends to coincide with the will of the conservative wing of the Republican party and the interests of the rich and powerful (which is why the movement is intertwined with the “Tea Party” movement). It is important to note, in fairness, that they do not try to “demonize” their political/social opponents and see them as enemies, but even the belief that those you disagree with are doing so because they are (unfortunately) under the influence of demons is a bit of a dangerous belief. But the core of this movement is the idea that God is wanting to put all things under His dominion, and they are setting out to do just that. This is not a radically wrong belief, but rather a subtle distortion of a right belief, which might be even worse. So I would like to set out to talk about the theme (as I understand it) of dominion/reigning in the bible, and then give a few thoughts about what I think a healthy role is for Christians in society.
So I will start (of course) with Genesis. Chapter one tells the story of the creation of the world culminating on day 6 with the creation of mankind and giving mankind dominion over God’s creation. Verses 26-28 are as follows (using the ESV translation since http://www.biblegateway.com [a great resource] doesn’t have the NRSV, my favorite translation):
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.””
Now, what is often missed is that there are strong overtones of the theme of temple in this piece of literature. Temples were viewed in the ancient world as the home of a god; it’s where they lived and ran all their business from, and it was only secondarily a place of worship, often done by priests. Sometimes temple dedications were done with a 6 day ceremony, culminating in the god “taking his rest”, so to speak, in the temple on the seventh day. (for far more on this, see John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One) So the story of Genesis 1 can be understood to be saying that God made the world, and he made it his temple, the place where he will live. However, Genesis 1 also makes it clear that he is running things through human beings, whom he made in his own image. While it is very difficult to figure out the exact meaning of being made in the image of God, one part of it may be, I think, that God chooses to work and rule His creation through us. He chooses to reflect His wisdom and love and goodness in running the creation, by having humanity run the creation with those qualities. This is why having dominion over the earth does not give free license to destroy it and do whatever we feel like with it, but only what continues to reflect God’s goodness in our use of it (this is foundational for a Christian view of ecology).
But we all know the story of how something went wrong (explained by Genesis with a story about a man, a women, a garden, some trees, and a talking snake) with man’s relationship with God, and as is easy to see, mankind reflects the goodness of God only imperfectly at best. But, as we see in the narrative of Scripture, God has not given up on this idea of humanity ruling. In the bible we read about how God will restore His creation into the “new heavens and new earth”, and in this new/restored creation there will apparently be His people ruling it along with Him, much like His original vision for His creation that we see in Genesis. Here are a few NT passages that allude to this:
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:11)
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteousinstead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? (1 Corinthians 6:1-2)
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
So if we were created to reign and have dominion on the earth, and God’s plan is for His people to reign (and apparently judge the world according to that Corinthians passage, not sure what to make of that other than going along with the theme of ruling God’s new creation as the other passages talk about), then what might that look like in the present, when God’s kingdom is at hand, and in some sense present, but in another sense, is yet to be fully realized. I think the answer for what this looks like has to come from Jesus, God’s fullest expression of self-revelation. Does our “reigning” or “dominion” look like how Jesus lived? It’s one thing to have some sort of power or influence or dominion, it’s another thing to ask whether or not it is the sort of power/influence/dominion that God has in mind for us. This distinction is crucial (and I think it’s one the Dominion Theology folks miss). So what does Jesus have to say about power?
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, also see Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:24-27)
The real question that I have to keep coming back to is whether or not a certain approach looks like Jesus. Jesus talked about God’s dominion, His rule, His kingdom coming, but what did this kingdom look like? At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we are told about how he went through several temptations, one of which was the temptation to grab political power, in order to presumably use it for good. in Luke 4:5-8 we read:
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”
If there was ever a time to try to grab the reigns of power and control of society, Jesus’ day was the time. His own country was occupied by a foreign superpower, the Roman empire, that at times was downright brutal. Uprisings, which were common, were put down ruthlessly. And yet Jesus resisted the temptation to seek after power (at least as understood and practiced in the current state of the world). Speaking of this temptation of Christ, Joseph Ratzinger (the current Pope Benedict XVI) wrote these wise words:
“This temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.”
So while as Christians we confess that Jesus is Lord, and that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11) and that “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus, the methods by which Jesus exercised that authority, and likewise the methods that we are to exercise that authority are drastically different than those we see exercised in the political arena and that seem to be used by this “Dominion Theology” movement. Jesus Kingdom comes with and through the self-sacrificial love that he perfectly exemplifies on the cross. Governmental power is by its nature dependent on force or the threat of force, whereas God’s dominion and Kingdom comes through serving others in love. God’s power and authority is unlike all other power and authority. Jesus came and turned our preset notions of what dominion and power look like upside down. Power and authority, for the follower of Christ, looks like service and sacrifice, things we would typically associate with powerlessness. But, paradoxically, in our powerlessness, God exercises His power. In our weakness, he shows His strength. God is still out to use His people to rule His creation, but His rule is one of goodness, grace, and service, not control and dominance over others.
John Walton on Genesis