God, Government and Anarchy

Anarchism is not a viable biblical or political option:

It is vital that we get the biblical position on government correct. If not, we can get into all sorts of trouble and confusion. Absolutising and idolising the state is certainly not the way to go. But neither is seeking to argue against all civil government, promoting anarchy instead. I have written on both extremes often enough.

As to making government absolute, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/  

As to pushing anarchism, see this one: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/12/20/no-god-is-not-an-anarchist/  

In a moment I will speak about one well-known author on these matters, Jacques Ellul, but a few preliminary remarks are in order. First, this piece was a bit of a fluke, as it arose from a volume I just half-randomly pulled from my shelves: Michael Bauman’s 1992 book, Pilgrim Theology (Zondervan).

On a personal note, this American lecturer at Hillsdale College and I shared a platform in Australia some years ago at a worldview conference. As we chatted, we learned that we were both classmates together at Trinity College in Chicago back in the 70s. We did not know each other then, but we became friends after that conference. Sadly he passed away in 2019, aged 69.

Secondly, I had been meaning to do a piece on Ellul (1912-1994) for a while now. The French philosopher and sociologist has often been followed by many evangelicals, even though he was not part of the evangelical camp. He is famous for books such as the following:

The Technological Society (1954)
The Political Illusion (1967)
The Subversion of Christianity (1986)
Jesus and Marx (1988)
Anarchy and Christianity (1988)

It is those last two volumes – especially the final one – that I want to discuss here. If you look at my copies of these two works, you will see plenty of yellow highlighting (which is true of all my books). But as is true of some of my books, you will also see a number of yellow question marks in many places. There is much of value in his works, but there is also plenty that is quite questionable.

Ellul freely admits how he was influenced by Marx, and he is quite certain that both Testaments of the Bible espouse anarchism. He viewed anarchy as being synonymous with non-violence. The more traditional understanding of anarchism is the rejection of government as a form of authority.

Here is just one quote to show how the biblical Christian would need to question some of his views: “Biblically, love is the way, not violence (in spite of the wars recounted in the Hebrew Bible, which I frankly confess to be most embarrassing.” Given that it was God who initiated many of these wars (certainly the taking of Canaan), and given that Christ will come back to judge his enemies (violently), we have to part ways with Ellul here.

Image of Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery
Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery by Michael Bauman (Author) Amazon logo

But as I say, it is the Bauman volume that I wish to speak to here. His 11th chapter is called “Christianity and Leftist Radical Chic: Critiquing Evangelicalism’s Attraction to Ellul and Anarchy.” Early on he says this: “Ellulism – the theology and politics of Jacques Ellul – I am convinced, is seriously defective. It is, nevertheless, widely held and respected among evangelicals.”

His views on politics and power means, says Bauman, that he has “improperly recast the Bible into a leftwing manifesto.” Ellul insists that the Bible is against all power and all politics, and he argues that the place to begin here is 1 Samuel 8.

But Bauman demurs, saying the proper place to begin is Deuteronomy: “[T]he Deuteronomic code itself is an extensive example and elaborate constitution for ancient political power, dealing as it does with property rights, family relationships, labor, freedom, and crime and punishment.”

He looks further at the Old Testament texts, and then Bauman looks at what Ellul says about the New Testament: “Ellul then dismisses out of hand what most exegetes would identify as the locus classicus NT teaching on government: Paul’s word in Romans 13 that we ought to submit ourselves to the governing authorities because, as rulers, they have been established by God himself as a force for good.”

Bauman also notes how philosophical and practical problems flow from his anarchism. Simply think of the great Western political theorists, most of whom were Christians. Writes Bauman:

Christianity is, as it were, a reality game. The Bible deals with real people in a realistic fashion. It stares directly upon human nature and does not blink. Jesus, as C. S. Lewis rightly perceived, was a thoroughgoing realist, though he is seldom given credit for being so. Augustine, while he understood perhaps better than anyone that the City of Man could never become the City of God, never slid from anti-utopianism into anarchism. Thomas Aquinas, far from being an anarchist, was an ardent proponent of respublica hominum sub Deo. He believed that the proper purpose of human law was to propose and uphold the ideal of good conduct and to help habituate men toward its performance.

Of course in addition to the influence of Marx, Ellul has shared the theological camp of one minority position in church history: that of the Anabaptists and their commitment to pacifism. But Bauman reminds us of this basic truth:

[S]imply because human government is imperfect, Christian political theorists and politicians do not relegate politics and the state to the secularists and to the secular, as does Ellul, who writes that we do not “have to work out a Christian doctrine of the form of government or the economy,” and that “another way that is closed to Christians is that of wanting to christianize society or the state. The state is not meant to be Christian. It is meant to be secular.” To Ellul, participation in politics and in the structures of “the powers that be” forms no necessary part of Christian life and faith. “In fact,” writes Ellul,” no directly biblical or theological argument seems to support participation.”

Let me share two more important quotes:

Ellul does not understand that, while the political considerations surrounding life, liberty, and property (to invoke the Lockean triad) are not of ultimate or transcendent importance, they have a genuine significance that cannot be downplayed or made to appear as falling somehow beyond the purview of Christian revelation and theology. That such considerations are not ultimate concerns should lead us to advocate a limited state, not no state whatever. Ellul has not come to grips with the fact that not one shred of evidence exists that demonstrates that the anarchist principles he advocates would make the world more free, more prosperous, or more secure. To procure these desirable political and economic conditions requires the “active presence and participation of the Christian in the affairs of state and society,” [citing Thomas Molnar] not the radical secularization of all political endeavors. Secularisation is the enemy of modern Christianity, not its political ally….


Freedom and political power are not antithetical realities in the fallen world. Ellul seems not to recognize that there can be no freedom without justice and that in a fallen world there can be no justice without power. He seems not to understand that while freedom is in most cases a desirable political condition, anarchism is simply freedom gone to seed. It is freedom improperly extended beyond the boundaries of political wisdom and foresight, the two indispensable characteristics of any good political theory. There is no freedom without order, and there is no order without law and law enforcement. As Goethe has observed, only law can give us freedom. Freedom without law endures as long as a lamb among hungry wolves. Therefore, because order is a political requirement of the first rank, if anything in politics is demonic, it is not Caesar or money (as Ellul says); it is that spirit that cannot bear authority and seeks to destroy it utterly.

Bauman goes on to look in some detail at the impact Marx had on Ellul. And it was not just a reckless fling while a youth. Throughout his life he admitted his indebtedness to Marx. Bauman closes his chapter with these words:

In short, a man who does not reject socialism, egalitarianism, or the dissolution of the state, but who does reject the teachings of the historic Christian Church and the legitimacy of every government, past or present, regardless of its form, history, or ideals, has not really rejected Marxist ideology – despite his claims to the contrary. Simply by distancing himself from other Marxists, Ellul has not thereby distanced himself from Marxist ideology. He has merely subjected it to a marginal reconstruction, as if Marxist methods of analysis could be separated from their philosophical presuppositions and their ideological underpinnings and implications, and as if Marxist methods came from nothing and could lead nowhere. When Ellul opposes the Marxists, it is still an intracamp affair. When he attacks Communist ideologues, he puts his own work under siege. He is not sufficiently alarmed by the pervasive Marxist ideology of his own position. The crisis in Ellul’s thought is that there is no crisis in Ellul’s thought, much less a proper resolution.

I am with you Michael. As I say, Ellul does have some helpful insights and ideas in his many writings. I am not dismissing him out of hand. But on this issue of politics and power, I am both a realist as well as a biblical Christian. For those reasons I cannot ever embrace anarchism as any sort of a viable option in a fallen world.


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8 Replies to “God, Government and Anarchy”

  1. Hi Bill, great article, intellectually stimulating as always. Looking forward to the other two articles you began yesterday!

  2. Excellent!
    Anarchy works (if al all) only for righteous people with a high level of self-control.
    Fallen man without self-control brings chaos and destruction to a society.
    God, in the theocracy of the OT included laws, city elders and judges.
    The closer we get to true Anarchy the sooner the public will demand a dictator to “control-the culture”.
    Side note: in a Democratic-Republic the voters, citizens wield the power. IMHO when the Bible speaks to “Kings and Rulers” it speaks to citizen voters.

  3. Jesus made it perfectly clear with the Centurion in Matt 8 that understanding authority was integral to faith.

  4. Still, there will come times when civil disobedience may be necessary to challenge unjust laws- but I doubt whether that could be classified as anarchism, given its objective is legislative reform.

    Otherwise, as long as protest is peaceful and nonviolent, I don’t think any Christian could argue with that. Take, for example, the African-American civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. I’ve also marched with other Christians opposed to the likes of (UK) National Front neofascism, the nuclear arms race of the eighties, against South African apartheid and the persecution of Soviet Jews. And of course, against abortion and euthanasia.

  5. I don’t know if this is relevant but the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates, and The Magdeburg confession 1550 show people the biblical way of dealing with tyrannous governments .
    The Rev Samuel Langdon and Samuel Adams were of one mind on this issue in laying out the American Constitution

    I have also just discovered this, which also might relevant to this discussion:

    David Skinner UK

  6. As for those who say that Marxist and even more Hegelian philosophy, though interesting, from an academic point of view, have had (and continue) to have no real practical significance or impact on the world, nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment they declared their philosophies and ideologies, they changed the world. The vast majority of people are totally unaware of how their thinking is controlled by these ideas which seep into the air like noxious poison, spread by the media, the education system, the institutional church and the judiciary.

    David Skinner UK

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