Church and Community in History (3)

The Biblical Basis for Decentralization

R.J. Rushdoony

Well, our next subject is the Biblical basis for decentralization, because as we see the humanistic community arise, it seeks to centralize power. The Biblical basis for decentralization, of course, rests on the fact that the Word of God, the law of God, does not permit either a powerful state or a powerful church. The civil tax in Scripture is limited to half a shekel for all males twenty years old and older, the same for the rich and the poor. It’s called ‘the atonement tax,’ but that meant covering, civil covering, civil protection, and we have a long history of the Jewish collection of that civil tax. It meant that the state could not be strong when it was limited to so much and no more.

The church as a worshiping body is likewise limited. According to Numbers 18:2-29 the tithe went to the Levites who were in charge of health education and welfare and they were according to Deuteronomy 33:10 the instructors of Israel, but they in term gave a tenth of the tithe to the priests for worship. Thus, while church and state are both important in the sight of God, neither is permitted to be the top power center. The people are the ones who are to apply the faith. You see, what we see in the church today is not godly, the televangelists in some instances, not in all, epitomize this, ‘the star system.’

About 1820, what developed was that great preachers or famous preachers began to dominate the church and the people became spectators going to listen to a star who was a preacher, and this is what we have today, and the hard working pastor in those circumstances who is trying to educate the people to become responsible working Christians is not a successful one when the ‘star mentality’ prevails among the people. Their idea of Christianity is to sit in the pew and let the minister and maybe the church officers do all the application of Christianity. One of the greatest of Christians, General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote the best program of Christian Reconstruction that I’ve ever read In Darkest England and the Way Out. It’s a book that’s had a powerful influence on me, and what he wrote about in that book was the failure of the churches and in other works as well. He said the problem with many of our churches today is that when they convert someone they promptly mummify him. So he has one function, to sit in the pew and listen, and he has only enough life in him to reach for his wallet and he doesn’t do that very well. Well, read General Booth, and you’ll see that reconstruction is not anything that R.J. Rushdoony thought up. It has a long history, and it goes back before Booth, although Booth was one of its great formulators. Now, when you have the ‘star system,’ whether it is politics or in the church, you have a power structure, a power system, because you concentrate action and power on a focal point. And you create a spectator-people, whether in politics or in the church.

In the dictionary of Sociology ‘power’ is defined in these words and I quote; “The ability or authority to dominate men. To coerce and control them, attain their obedience, interfere with their freedom and compel their actions in particular ways.” Notice the words; to dominate, coerce, control, interfere, compel. That’s what power is about, the power such as the Gentiles seek. Fallen men do seek such power, and they do exercise it to the detriment of the people.

Society today is a system of power relationships, and because of the fall, men both seek to gain power, and also to exercise that power to exalt themselves at the expense of others, and the modern state is seeking a monopoly of power. They seek to gain power in the name of one class or another. And they say to various groups; “If only the lower class could gain power, or the middle classes, or the upper classes, the intellectuals, the scientific elites, or any other group, than the problems of society would be solved.” When, in fact, they are aggravated. That’s why the scripture warns us against trust in any class or group, instead of the Lord. Psalm 62 tells us;

“Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them. God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God. Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work.”

Now this is what Scripture says, power belongs only to God. But the quest for power is in the church, in the state, in economics, in education, everywhere. This, our Lord says, is what the Gentiles seek, but ye are to be ministers, servants one of another, members one of another.
Now, it is interesting that, even as we are told that “power belongs unto God,” we are also told that mercy belongs to Him also. Only in God do you have the coincidence of power and mercy, never in man or in the church or in the state or in any human agency, because when they gain power, they use it to dominate men, not to be merciful. And if they talk about mercy and if they talk about welfare, it is a means of controlling people.

Mercy and power are united in the Lord. Moreover there is justice also with the Lord, David tells us. For it is God who renders to every man according to his works. We thus have a Trinity presented of God. God is the source of power, mercy and justice, and the three inseparable in our Lord one from another. Man is not the source of these things and he can only exercise them partially, subject to God’s word and to a limited degree. We are told that; “…the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,” that when men seek to exercise any power or justice or mercy apart from God, these things become evil. Man’s goal in power always has been a tower of Babel, a centralized humanistic world order, whereas God’s law limits man and the state and the church and everything else. But the modern state is our modern Tower of Babel in construction.

And we have to see this. The builder said; “…let us build us a tower which will reach unto heaven,” which will replace God, which will exercise all the powers of God over men, which will supplant God, and this is what the modern state is doing. The state seeks to become greater than the sum of its parts, to be like God. The state has undercut the Word of God as the source of law all over the world. The state is now the source of law, and there is no appeal beyond the state. We have a monopoly of legal power in the state, a monopoly of military power. In Israel the tribes or clans each provided the troops, as they did in Scotland and elsewhere for centuries. In Medieval Europe the feudal lord each had their own fighting power. The king’s army was like that of his lords, a limited one, a limited number of men. Did you know that William the Conqueror had only six thousand men when he took England?

In every area the modern state seeks a monopoly. Did you know that up until a little more than a century ago, any bank or any private association could coin gold and silver? As long as they met the weights and measures set up by Congress? That, in fact, the coining of gold was very popular in California and very widely used. Some people collect California gold, most people don’t even know that it even exists. But in California even quarters, twenty five cent pieces were of gold, as was fifty cent pieces.

In a number of spheres feudalism undercut centralization. Not because of the feudal lords, but because the Christian community fought against the centralizing of power. They believed that power belongs only to God. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many, many merchant companies had their own laws, business law, and to this day, although the state is moving in here, many areas of economic activity have their own laws and arbitrators, and these function.

In recent years we’ve seen the state move into these spheres, we’ve seen, for example, in the past twenty years, a number of corporations heavily fined and penalized for bribing federal officials. This is an interesting fact, because the Bible tells us that the crime in bribery is on the receiving end, not the paying. Why? Well if you examine the situation today in the United States, what you find is that these bribes are shakedowns and payoffs, the price of staying in business. One California city contractor told me that if he applied for a license to even put up a garage door, let alone put up a building, unless he made a payoff, he would have to wait for months. And he said if it is ever found out, I will be the one who’s punished, not the officials. That’s exactly as it has been for the corporate payoffs to federal officials. In fact, a former California state senator, a very prominent one, in a book which was published last year, James R. Mills, The Disorderly House, describes, in that book, a mild example of political pressure, the threat of closure, on a business firm that was showing an independent spirit. And in fact, when Otto Scott of the Chalcedon Staff wrote an unfavorable book review in the San Diego paper of Mills, Senator Mills’ book, not this one, but a previous one, Mills called up the newspaper office and had him fired.

The desire for a total monopoly of power by the state means that the areas of existing freedom, the family and the church, are now targeted for controls, and that’s why we have all the cases. Everything else is controlled, so now the goal is; let’s control the family and the church.

The urge for centralization and a monopoly of power is always the same over the centuries, it’s the will to be God. We see this desire in one area after another; we see it in the family and tyrannical husbands who want total control and power over their children. We see it in churches and churchmen who want to replace with their rules and regulations the Holy Spirit. We see it in little caesars in every sphere of life today. And the only check to this drive by fallen man to centralize power, to build a modern Tower of Babel, for total power and control, the only checks are first; a truly Biblical faith, one which applies the law-Word of God to every area of life and thought. And second, the recognition that God’s word speaks primarily to the person not to the institution. God’s Spirit works in and through man primarily, and God does not identify himself with an office or an institution; he does not say anyone who holds this office is my voice. There have been theologians who held that.

The king in Israel was required to know God’s law-Word. He was anointed to remind him of his prophetic duty to speak for God by God’s Word and Spirit. And even the most blessed of kings, the man used by the spirit, was still rebuked for a sin by a prophet of God, David rebuked by Nathan.

Where the Holy Spirit works we have two factors at work, first we have a radical decentralization of authority. the Holy Spirit will work through the humblest believer, because the believer who acts as God’s servant, and opens his life to the Lord does not need to wait on institutions to serve God. He begins in his own life to govern himself, and then to meet needs and responsibilities in terms of the Word of God. Then second, at the same time where the Spirit works there we have true community and unity. Then, the focus of organized action is not a Tower of Babel-like power-structure, but to do the will of God; “Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.” David tells us that believing God means hearing him and doing his will.

He says in Psalm 40:4-8;

“Blessed is that man that maketh the LORD his trust, and respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies. Many, O LORD my God, are thy wonderful works which thou hast done, and thy thoughts which are to us-ward: they cannot be reckoned up in order unto thee: if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered. Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.”

Faith without works is dead, James tells us. Faith must therefore have results. It means sound morality, it means godly charity, it means being members one of another. We cannot, James tells us, neglect the need of our brethren and claim to have faith. The faithful will minister to all needs as they see them.

We must not assume because the early church did these things that they were remarkable saints. Whether rich or poor, of high or low estate, their Greek or Roman culture included every kind of depravity and a common acceptance of them as natural. As a result we find in Corinthians Paul had real problems, moral problems to face in the church. In the Council of Ancyra in 314 they issued some canons, rules, about moral delinquency among church members, things such as adultery, fornication, divination and the like, and even mentioned bestiality. This was the early church! But the difference was they did something about these problems, they did bring people into line, they did motivate them for action. So they had people then far faultier than the people who are in the churches today, but they were motivated for action. They were disciplined in their waywardness, and therefore they were a mighty army for the Lord.

Thus, the early church had to deal with people whose moral sights were very low at the time of their conversion, were steadily brought into line with the work of the kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The church began by summoning all such people to repentance in its true and original meaning, a reversal of direction. This meant moral responsibility; it means separation from sin, a separation to holy works, it meant membership with the brethren. We can see from the surviving records how seriously they took this. In Rome itself, at about 260 A.D., there were between thirty to fifty thousand Christians. There were a hundred and fifty-four pastors. These people, the members, were supporting one thousand five hundred widows and needy persons. Now, counting the clergy and their families there were perhaps two thousand who were supported by the believers, thirty to fifty thousand. And Rome was not one of the better centers for this kind of action. It was a major center of persecution, and the church was regularly being hurt, broken by persecution and martyrdom.

When Rome fell, it was not followed by a collapse, and feudalism was of Roman origin. In fact, Sir William Ramsay, a generation or more ago, told us that serfdom began as people surrendered their property and freedom to various lords in exchange for cradle-to-grave security. And he wrote; “Salvation of Jesus and Paul was freedom, the salvation of the imperial system was serfdom.”

What fell with Rome was centralization. What Christianity then did was slowly to transform a broken culture into a Christian one. It worked with barbarian Europe, and barbarian Europe meant peoples, Germanic and other tribes, that practiced human sacrifice. And barbarians regarded decentralization, charity, humility and grace as signs of weakness! And the church had to convert them and say; “what you as pagans called signs of weakness are in the Lord Jesus Christ signs of strength.”

But the Roman dream of centralization is very much with us again, it has always been the motive of fallen man, and it is the dream of the Tower of Babel that marks our time. Only a total Christian faith can counteract it and assert what was once the battle cry of the Puritans in England; “the crown rights of Christ our king.” We need to work for the crown rights of Christ our king. Thank you.

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books. Learn more about R.J. Rushdoony by visiting:

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