I have editted it only in formatting to make it more readable.
Why Do So Many Reformed Christians Hate Reconstructionists?
by Rev. Brian M. Abshire
ver the last few years, I have talked with numerous people in Reformed (mostly Presbyterian) churches about theonomy and Christian reconstructionism. From laymen in the pews, to college and seminary students, academics and clergy, I have asked people leading questions, and then let them sound off. You'd be amazed at what you can learn if you just nod knowingly and let people just say what's on their mind. Opinions are generally quite strong on both sides of the issue. However, what is astounding is the sheer intensity of negative feelings towards Christian Reconstruction; the word "hate" is not inappropriate. Now this is interesting in light of the other doctrinal issues that divide Reformed Christians. Many Reformed people strongly disagree on some doctrines (e.g. millennial views), but what is there about this issue that so angers some people that they will say anything, do anything to destroy the opposition? Even more amazingly is that many, many people on the negative side have read few if any actual reconstructionist books or literature. They base their opinions on the adverse critique heard from others. Why do so many people have such strong negative feelings about something of which they have had little or no personal exposure ?
I want to offer what is basically an outsider's perspective. After coming to faith in Christ, I spent most of the 70's stationed overseas while on active duty with the USAF. After college and seminary, I spent most of the 80's studying and ministering in England. During that whole time, I had no personal contact with Reconstructionists in this country. My own views were developed by an exhaustive reading of the literature which was a part of my doctoral work in the sociology of religion. Through God's providence, I was led to embrace the Reformed faith and came to love the Westminster Standards as the best expression of Biblical truth by reading Reconstructionist authors. The Reconstructionists led me to the Puritans, and once I read them I was hooked! Imagine my surprise that by time I returned to the States, positions had so polarized that many regarded theonomy and Reformed theology as incompatible!
So I talked little, listened a lot and tried to understand. I offer the following suggestions as to why theonomy and Christian reconstruction have met with such antipathy. This is not a scientific survey, but rather one man's perspective. You'll forgive me if I focus on Presbyterian churches; they're the ones I know best. Perhaps if we understand why so many people feel so strongly, we can do something to change it.
One factor is that the Reformed witness in this country is fairly small. Most Presbyterian Teaching Elders went to the same seminaries, had the same professors, read the same journals, books and magazines (usually written by people known personally to them). Many are in the same Churches and Presbyteries, serve on committees and boards together and attend the same General Assemblies. This makes for a very intimate group. Thus when some of these men's views are critiqued (dare I say "exposed") by Christian Reconstructionists, etc., it can easily be perceived as a personal attack against people well known, well respected and well loved.
And let's be honest, certain writers who call them themselves Reconstructionists can be pretty vicious. Yes, I know Calvin and Luther made strong statements against their theological adversaries (my favorite is Luther's comment about Zwingli's view of the Sacraments when he said, "I'd rather drink blood with a Papist than wine with a Zwinglian.") But there is also a cultural context to Calvin and Luther's polemical tone that is not justified today. Is there not a difference between those who literally were dying for their faith and today's admittedly heated but safe debate? Yes, men who hold to theonomy have been denied ordination, excluded from Presbyteries and even had their professional careers destroyed by anti-theonomists. Yes, this is unjust, unrighteous and will bring God's condemnation. But it's not the same as being burnt at the stake. What we forget is that the battle over theonomy is a battle within the Reformed Church. Those are our brothers (for the most part) on the other side, brothers we should be trying to win.
Many people who oppose theonomy state again and again that it is not so much the theology but the vitriolic attitude of some theonomists they object to. It is their friends, their classmates, their professors, their brother elders who are being ridiculed, attacked, derided. Even though they may not have thought through the position themselves, they take personal offense for their friends. Thus before the issues can ever be discussed, the well has been poisoned.
Now this is merely personal opinion, but it seems to me that there are an inordinate number of "bulging forebrains" represented in theonomic circles. Theonomists tend to be some of the brightest, most theologically astute Christians around. Such people take to academic studies the way a fat man takes to an all you can eat special (excuse me, I shouldn't have said "fat man," I meant "horizontally challenged"). The problem is, brainy people don't often understand why the rest of us don't see immediately what is so crystal clear to them. If they are not careful, impatience can give way to an arrogant, supercilious and contemptuous attitude towards those of us who have to get by with significantly lower IQ's (cf. 1 Cor 8:1ff). Thus it is not necessarily their theology that causes the problem, but their interpersonal relationship skills. Loving the truth, standing firm on the truth, loudly and proudly proclaiming the truth does not excuse being obnoxious. Thus when such people become the perceived spokesmen for the movement, the entire group is classified by the arrogance of the few.
Secondly, epistemologically self conscious Recontructionists have thought through many social and cultural issues and are compelled, by obedience to God, to act consistently on their convictions. For example, Rushdoony was one of the first to call attention to the messianic character of American education thirty years ago and the Christian and homeschooling movement was born. I could no more send my children to the Molech State Schools today then I could offer a pinch of incense to the genius of the Emperor. This is a non-negotiable issue.
Now imagine the following scenario (reported to have actually occurred in different churches over the last 15 years). Men with strong convictions about public education rise to positions of responsibility in their churches (they're usually among the most theologically adept, generous and serving people in the church). Such men see a real problem; their pastor still sends his children to the local State school. Now at first, they may be quite understanding, willing to give the pastor a chance to grow, loaning him books, articles, pamphlets all about the dangers of public education. But the Pastor cannot afford the tuition of the local Christian school (besides, it's run by Baptists or Charasmatics!) and his wife won't hear of home schooling. So the pastor resists. The more pressure theonomists put on him, the touchier he gets. Before you know it there are hurt feelings on both sides. Some members of the session begin doubting the spiritual integrity of their pastor. The pastor doubts the commitment of his elders to support and encourage him. The situation gets tense. Eventually, he asks around, finds another church and leaves. However, you can bet that his Presbytery knows the real reason he left; those ***** theonomists drove him out of his church! And if they did it to poor old Joe, they just might do it to me!
Now, how are the pastors in the rest of the Presbytery going to respond when theonomists in their churches want to start a weekly Bible study or Sunday School class? Such men may have formed no opinions themselves about the theonomic doctrine (after all if it wasn't taught in Theology 101, it ain't in Scripture), but they certainly have formed opinions about the people who hold to such a theology. Those people are divisive, schismatic, contentious and if you let them into your church, your job may be in danger.
Most laymen never understand just how fragile their minister's job is and therefore how sensitive he is about threats to his security. If he offends the wrong people, he can find himself out on the street, with a lifetime spent on developing advanced degrees and arcane skills that won't put food on his family's table while he's between churches. It's bad enough he has to deal with the contentious old women (of both sexes) who scrutinize every word he speaks, criticize every intimate detail of his personal and family life, whine incessantly when they don't get their own way. Now he has people attacking his integrity and putting his job and his family's welfare at risk over some theological perspective he's never even heard of! No wonder he's both a little afraid and a little angry at theonomists! And once you have a negative predisposition, it is awfully easily to incorporate any new data that supports your beliefs, and ignore data which contradicts it. Is it any wonder that he then tries to find a theological justification to rid himself of something so personally threatening?
Thirdly, sadly, people are usually willing to believe the worst about others. In the kind of negative atmosphere described above, the most outrageous charges against Reconstructionism and theonomy have found fertile soil. Repeatedly when I have asked people why they hate theonomy so vehemently, they respond with something like the following; at best, theonomists want to replace the gospel with social action (like the old liberal theology), at worse, it is a extreme right wing political power group seeking to overthrow the government and impose Biblical Law through a tyrannical centralist State (something like Iran). Now of course when I ask them where they got such information, what books, articles, speakers, etc. propound this view, the response is usually a shrug of the shoulders that "well, everybody knows..." The Christian Reconstructionist movement has lost the first stage of the propaganda war. Reconstructionists have allowed their views to be manipulated and misrepresented by those hostile to their position, with the result that there is a negative predisposition before the discussion ever begins. True, Reconstructionists have written volumes defining and defending their position against these canards, but nobody ever reads them except other Reconstructionists. The only thing the average Christian has ever read is Rodney Klapp's Christianity Today article (some might say, "hatchet job") "Democracy as Heresy." But if their pastor is so much against it, therefore, it must be wrong!
Fourthly, Reconstructionism is often feared and hated because it is personally threatening. It calls men to be responsible and live according to God's Law. A seminary professor's once critiqued one of my sermons for his class by saying, "Brian, that message has too much 'heavy baggage' in it. People don't come to church to feel bad, they come to feel good." Interestingly enough, this sermon was preached long before I had ever heard the word "theonomy." It was simply a call for Christians to be obedient to God and do what He tells them to do. But that's "heavy baggage." If you call people to account, demand repentance and loving obedience to the sovereign Lord, you are going to get some people angry, upset the powers that be and maybe find yourself looking for a new church. There is emotional and spiritual as well as physical inertia. It is hard to rethink one's life and ministry. The average church already has enough infighting, politicking, backbiting, etc. on so many issues that pastors spend much of their time trying to spread oil on troubled waters. Now, theonomists want him to preach on things even more controversial? Get real!
The sad fact is that we have a church compromised with humanism. Even Reformed seminaries like to see prospective pastors get their undergraduate degrees from prestigious, secular universities. We then take the best and brightest and send them off for more indoctrination at secular graduate schools before they can teach in our seminaries. Five to seven years of intensive academic instruction in institutions that hate God and His word has to have an effect. It's not that our men lose their faith, but often they are like good quality solingen steel blades that have had their edges ground off. These men then return to seminary classrooms and pass on their blunted world view to their students.
Now along comes that bright young man we were talking about earlier; you remember the one with the high IQ and poor interpersonal skills? He's been reading, thinking, evaluating, preparing himself for the ministry. Then when he finally gets to seminary, he finds his professors mushy headed, indecisive and unable to consistently apply the Reformed faith. Like Francis Schaeffer's book "How Should We Then Live," his professors are brilliant at critiquing the problem, but can offer no distinctly Biblical solutions. How can they? We haven't been doing our homework for more than a century.
Now imagine our bright young theonomists in this class. He knows the answers, he's read about them, discussed them, thought through the implications. He asks the instructor embarrassing questions, objects to questionable statements, holds the professor accountable to be what his doctrine says he is.
Now the instructor has spent a great deal of time, effort and personal sacrifice to get just where he is today. He loves teaching and he expects his students to give him what he gave his professors, attention, respect, loyalty, and maybe just a little hero worship. Instead, he has some young punk, 15-20 years his junior questioning everything he is teaching. And even if the theonomist is gracious, uncontentious and gentle in spirit, he is still calling the professor's life work into question. Whether he admits it or not, the professor knows that somewhere along the line, he has imbibed deeply at the humanist well. He had to, otherwise it is unlikely he would have ever made it through his secular graduate program. It is tremendously difficult to recant what he has spent a lifetime learning. Is it any wonder that the professor gets upset, threatened, angry at theonomists? At best he treats the position with a sort of benign contempt; yes the young often hold foolish ideas, just give him time and he'll grow out of it. At worst the professor may decide to end this man's professional ministry before it gets off the ground.
Furthermore, the theonomist's fellow students will not appreciate his unsettling ways in the class. They just want to complete their assignments, get their degree and get out there and preach. Now, one of their contemporaries is upsetting the professor, asking hard questions and generally making a nuisance of himself. Thus both professors and students come to see theonomy as threatening to the peace and well being of the Church. If these people would just shut up and go away we could all get on with our ministries.
I had the advantage of going back to seminary for a bit after being an ordained minister for almost ten years. I sat in several classes watching the above dynamics. I tried to sit quietly and stay out of such discussions (usually unsuccessfully). However, the damage had already been done. Previous students had muddied the waters and the professors were now prepared to deal with the upstarts. Furthermore, the word was out; if theonomists ever wanted to get a church after graduation, they'd better keep their opinions to themselves.
Now watch the process here. For the reasons listed above, a great many pastors have a negative predisposition to theonomy and reconstructionism. They have adopted emotional filters that see theonomy as a threat to their peace, dangerous to their careers, unsettling to their churches. If members of their congregation asks "what's all this stuff about theonomy" the response is usually chilling. The average laymen only has to hear this a couple of times before he "knows" that theonomy is a dangerous thing and no good Reformed Christian would ever have anything to do with it. Thus, though never having actually read anything ever written by a theonomist, never evaluated the exegetical or theological merits, or even met someone who holds to the position, the die has been cast; theonomists are bad news!
Now I have deliberately not discussed the wolves in the fold. There are those who understand exactly what theonomy is, know well enough that it has a long and distinguished heritage within the Reformed camp, understand its life and culture transforming implications and hate it vehemently. They hate theonomy because they hate God's law. They hate God's Law because they hate God. But that is not the focus of this article.
If the above assessment is correct, then the battle is not yet lost. Whether they like it or not, the anti-theonomists are borrowing heavily from Reconstructionist writings. As our culture degenerates into chaos, the "principled pluralists" who seek accommodation with Humanism are finding their voices growing shriller and fainter. American Christians wants answers, real answers, Biblical answers to social, economic, and political problems. And the only ones who are offering them answers are the theonomists. Now the average Christian may find his theonomy watered down, second hand and received through "respectable" people who never acknowledge that their ideas have a theonomic source, but they need the answers and theonomists are supplying them. Ten years ago when I spoke on home and Christian schools, no one listened. Now, a great number of Reformed Christians have abandoned the public school system. In the late seventies, the only Christian solution to social chaos was a pre-tribulation rapture. Now, Christian activists were directly responsible for electing the first Republican congress in my lifetime. Twenty years ago, the problems of poverty and social justice were the pervue of liberal, mainline, socialist churches. Today, even our local Southern Baptist church has a food pantry. Jesus said that it only takes a little leaven to leaven the whole lump of dough. And theonomy has been leavening.
But the the false accusations, misrepresentations and prevarications that dog theonomists still needs to be addressed. We can start by cultivating a gentle and gracious spirit. It is not enough to expose folly and refute error. Reconstructionists must be able to demonstrate through acts of love and mercy that they not only have the truth, but are serious about applying it as well. Chalcedon's work with Romanian orphans has won the admiration of even the God haters. They are stymied in their assault because they see this good work and glorify our Father in heaven. More of this is needed on every level. Let theonomists in non-theonomic churches be the most supportive and respectful of their pastors, not compromising the truth, but also willing to love and encourage the man God has placed in leadership. Let Reconstructionists open their homes and show hospitality to the saints. Let theonomists demonstrate the power of biblical law by raising godly, hard working, obedient Christian children who are respectful of adults, diligent in their studies, productive for their families. Let fathers catechize and discipline their children, husbands love and serve their wives, women submit and respect their husbands. Let theonomic Churches lead the way in applying Biblical principles to the poor, the needy, the oppressed.
They may argue with the theology, they may ridicule the eschatology, they may shake their heads over confidence in the sovereignty of God, but loving husbands, gracious women, respectful children, godly homes, gentle spirits, and acts of charity and mercy are irrefutable. The war of hearts and minds will be won, when theonomists demonstrate that "he who would be great among you must become the servant of all..."