As Tears for Fears sang in their 1985 number one hit, “Everybody wants to rule the world.”
I am pretty sure that religions are the most prolific at creating that desire. And a lot of American Christians today seem obsessed with control.
To listen to many voices on both political and Christian extremes, one would get the idea that the way to move forward as a society and a religion is to lock down our culture so that only those with the correct ways of thinking can have a voice in society.
On the far right are increasing calls for Christian nationalism and morality police, putting all of American society under Biblically-honoring rules and codes. Honestly it doesn’t look much different from the Taliban, other than who they worship.
On the far left are those who seek to “cancel” and shun anyone who doesn’t give full credence to liberal respect for whatever anyone sees as their personal truth.
Both worldviews are about forcibly creating the conditions under which we’ll live as a society. We have some idea of the “right” way to live together, and we try to impose that structure on those around us. And as Christians, we also tend to look at it in supernatural terms. Many Christians have been trained to think in terms of Ephesians 6:10-18 (putting on the whole armor of God) where all things are seen as a struggle “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
When you see the world as a conflict between principalities and powers, it’s natural to try to figure out how to ensure that the right power ends up in charge. And of course, we’re all quite convinced that our own belief system is the right one, and so it’s natural to want our belief system to have precedence in the world around us.
On the right wing, at least, this manifests itself as a rather forcible approach to establishing righteousness in society.
The theology of Seven Mountains Dominionism, also variously known as the Seven Mountains Mandate, dominion theology, or theonomy, is playing a large part in today’s emphasis on Christian nationalism. At the core, these all play to the idea that if Christians can take over the reigns of control of society, they can usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, leading to the end times and Jesus’ return and the new eternal city of Jerusalem “coming down out of Heaven from God” (Rev 21:10) (of course, along with our personal reward mansions and streets paved with gold).
Here’s the problem: We want to skip right over a lot of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ constant emphasis on self-sacrifice and humility and service and loving our enemies, and instead go straight to Revelation chapters 19-22 where Jesus rides in on a white horse with a sword from His mouth to slay the unbelievers, where Satan and the Beast and the False Prophet are thrown in the lake of fire, and where the righteous will rule with Christ forever.
I believed in that approach for most of my life. What most interests me about it now is that we skipped right over all the difficult parts in Revelation chapters 4 through 18. A fairly large fraction of those chapters discusses the apostate church, prostituting herself to rulers and authorities so she can sit on the seats of power with them, clothing herself in riches and pleasures, but as a result being cast out by the Lord Himself for her unrighteousness. In the theology I was raised to believe, all those uncomfortable verses applied to the Catholic church, not to we “true” Christians. After all, they have the Vatican and its gold and marble, and we just meet in humble church buildings.
Well, it is obvious that the Catholic church made horrible bargains with the Roman emperors, beginning with Constantine, to retain its seat of power and control, and it’s for good reason that it was long referred to as the Holy Roman Empire.
But as I’ve matured, I am beginning to clearly see how the evangelical church is doing exactly the same things today, right down to the megachurches and the “Crystal Cathedrals” on which they spend 90% of their tithe income.
And far from being about just the finances or the massive buildings, the real issue is the desire for control – not the particulars of whether or not a Christian worships Mary or builds a cathedral or trusts a priest for their absolution. And the uncomfortable truth is that the error in all these cases, Catholic or evangelical or liberal, is the worship of power.
Looking back, it’s unsurprising to me that I fit right into the evangelical desire to reshape society into our own image (which we assumed, by the way, was God’s image). My upbringing, in both family and church, was filled with a focus on right behavior and rule-following, not just right thinking. As I grew older, I was steeped in the politically-similar world of “the rule of law” – a focus I personally first encountered in Ronald Reagan’s speeches as a presidential candidate, decrying the left’s liberalism and calling for a renewed focus on ensuring citizen’s safety through strong police enforcing the laws and judges applying harsh deterrent sentences to criminals. And that focus has persisted through my years – increasingly with Republican candidates, and even in Christian calls from the pulpit for right behavior and Christian support for “the rule of law” as a political necessity.
But I’m no longer convinced that is actually a proper, true image of God. Or at least a complete image. Certainly, we see in the Old Testament a depiction of a God who often seemed to focus on right behavior and compliance with His very specific codes. But Jesus showed a markedly different picture of His Father to the world.
And when we look at what the disciples did after Jesus ascended to the Father, it looks quite different from the Old Testament. In fact, the early church transformed the world with Jesus’ message of self-sacrifice, humility, and love despite being an oppressed minority. They didn’t do it by trying to overthrow Rome. They didn’t do it by creating a new nation governed by Christian laws and rules. They didn’t do it by mandating proper worship. They did it by demonstrating a different way of living, by dealing with their own behavior and representation of the Father, instead of by confronting others’ behavior.
And the result was an explosive growth of that early church, both in size and influence. The culture of that day saw these new Christians acting so dramatically different than anything they had seen before that they wanted to be part of it.
But what we see in the early church looks very little like the emphasis we see today. Consider that right now, there’s a group marketing Jesus through various forms of media under the “Jesus Gets Us” branding. Why do people think that marketing is necessary? Because the world looks at the church and simply cannot tell what sets it apart from the world. Instead, they see the church trying to gain power or rule over the world. The Seven Mountains mindset is not only apparent to the world, it’s largely abhorrent too. They see a church that doesn’t look a lot like Jesus, that has very little love for those outside the church, trying to take dominion over them instead of caring for them. And not surprisingly, the world will actively resist that pressure, with every bit of strength they can muster.
Not only does this pursuit of dominionism achieve exactly the wrong result, it’s also self-defeating. The desire to create the Kingdom by our own strength and effort goes against the very message of the Gospel, of self-sacrifice to the point of death, of carrying his burden two miles instead of one when our oppressor demands compliance, of loving our enemies, and it tries to take away the need to sacrifice or surrender or love those who hate us.
So creating a system that gives priority to Christians removes the very pressures that show the message of Jesus to the world. Some of the greatest witness to the power of God in the New Testament was the persecutions of the saints, for example Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7, or Paul’s multiple imprisonments. Paul testifies to the value of this determination in the face of persecution in 2 Corinthians 4:8-12.
Centuries later, after about 300 years of constant oppression, during which the church flourished despite – or because of – the pressure, and saw some of its most influential thinkers, the Roman emperor Constantine effectively removed the oppression barrier to the growth of Christianity, but at the same time removed the pressures that made it so compelling to those observing it from outside.
I really do understand this desire to make the world look like the Kingdom. But I can’t see it ever coming to a good end. There’s just still so much of the world in us, that any system that we create will be unrighteous and unholy, and won’t represent the Father. Until we learn to be the oppressed ones, to be the persecuted ones, we won’t be fit rulers of the Kingdom.
I listened to a great episode on the Good Faith podcast with David French and Curtis Chang, where they interview Pete Wehner. It’s titled “Learning to Live in Exile.” I’d really recommend listening to it yourself. I’ll include a link in the show notes. Pete discusses his life journey from being a White House speechwriter for George W. Bush and then director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, to leaving his positions of power and taking very unpopular positions that cost him a lot of prestige and power and popularity, when he chose to stand against what he saw as the Republican party abandoning its Christian principles and roots to follow Donald Trump.
At any rate, I was really captivated by that podcast title: learning to live in exile. It’s not a popular sentiment, especially among those who hold visions of remaking America into their own image, and creating the Kingdom of God on earth, but I think Pete is on to something very important, and we really need to reconsider how Jesus demonstrated the right way to live, that it doesn’t look anything like dominionism or Christian nationalism.
For my part, it means surrender, not victory. It means learning to live with the displeasure of many people I grew up with, who see my recent sociopolitical and religious views as opposing true Christianity. And conversely, it also means being at total peace with frustrating the world who still thinks I’m too Christian. In a nutshell, it means following Jesus when it’s deeply unpopular to everyone around me, being only focused on honoring Him as the Holy Spirit leads me day by day, idea by idea, conversation by conversation. I have to be utterly willing to walk alone in the desert, exiled from my safe spaces, trusting only the Lord as my provider and my protector.
So I’ll push back against this pseudo-Christian desire for control, for power, for authority in our culture and our nation. The world needs to see us surrendering and humble, and loving our oppressors even when we’re pinned to the cross at the tip of a spear.
Because one of the most fascinating verses in the Bible is the Roman soldier who stood at the foot of the cross, having watched a Jewish man he had been taught to view as subhuman scum, die the most painful and humiliating public death with dignity and love, and in the presence of that testimony, to utter “Surely this man was the son of God.”
I want people to say that about me, too.