The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times

In 1975 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, speaking at his annual Puritan and Westminster Conference, which was entitled, “The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times,” delivered a message that is as relevant today in the U.S. as it was in the 1970’s U.K. In these conferences, which occurred from 1959 to 1978, Lloyd-Jones often used them as an opportunity to provide historical surveys and summaries, typically building on his messages from the previous year. On this occasion, we find ourselves in the late 18th Century with a message that publishers would later entitle, “The French Revolution and After”. He states the reason for choosing the topic as follows:

My whole thesis is to show that something entirely new emerged, and came into being, with the French Revolution. It was one of those great turning points in history comparable with the Reformation – not in the same way, of course, but quite as definitely a turning point as was the Protestant Reformation.

The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, Banner of Truth, 2016; p. 326

While it could be argued that only a small percentage of evangelicals are familiar with the Protestant Reformation, beyond a caricature of Martin Luther, still a smaller percentage are likely familiar with the French Revolution and its significance, particularly on Christendom. Lloyd-Jones’ lecture is a helpful introduction into this reality, however more recently, the French Revolution and its primary protagonists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, have come into view with critiques of the Marxist based Critical Race Theory lending credence to our conclusion below that the ideas behind this revolution are alive and well today.

Frenchmen such as Rousseau, particularly through his book The Social Contract, had a particular interest in education based in natural instinct free from influence, the state as independent from God’s providence or laws, and an optimistic view of man. Additionally, their emphasis was on the sovereignty of the people, as opposed to God, expressed through the well-known phrase of ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’. These views formed the foundation of the French Revolution and, according to Lloyd-Jones, led to widespread influence throughout Europe particularly among William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These two, primarily through their poems, felt that the events of the French Revolution were leading a millennium-like era, “free from restraints and shackles, and a great new world was going to develop.” (pg. 328) As history shows, their optimism was futile, and the reign of terror rather than a utopia was what followed. The concept of a utopia is not a neutral premise, rather it has religious undertones. Lloyd-Jones recognizes as much while citing historians of this period who conclude

The Revolution is a unique event. It is a revolution of beliefs; it is the emergence of a new sect, of a new religion; of a religion which is nothing but irreligion itself, atheism, the hatred of Christianity raised into a system.

The Puritans, p. 331

…the French Revolution was in reality a new religion, and not merely a political theory. There is an element of worship in them, and also an apocalyptic element. They are not merely political programmes, there is something much deeper and almost demonic. This is true of Facism as well as of Communism.

The Puritans, p. 333

After giving a brief introduction to the French Revolution, Lloyd-Jones uses it to frame subsequent revolutions, such as those after 1848 and that in Russia 1917, which all occurred from similar motivations, in order to reach his destination of revolutionary reactions. At this, he offers three dangers that need to be avoided within the context of revolutions (one could argue presently we are either at the beginning of our own revolution or entering into that period). These dangers occur on both the extreme right and extreme left. The former is conservative, meaning keeping things in place while the latter is liberal preferring to drastically change things. A middling position might well be considered ‘radical’, i.e. seeking to reform those systems and institutions currently in place. (Credit for these categories is due to J.I. Packer’s book, Keeping in Step with the Spirit, pg. 189)

(1) The first of these dangers is embracing the status quo. Lloyd-Jones concludes that historically this has been the most dangerous to revolutionary periods as it seeks to keep things unchanged by embracing institutions. In other words, those who embrace the status quo do not want to see significant institutional change, i.e. no broad or sweeping changes in government, culture, nor religion. Instead they want to maintain them. Here he lumps in Luther and Calvin because of their belief in “law and order”. We’ve discussed this before regarding Luther and his desire to reform the Catholic Church to be more catholic, not to reform it into something different. Similarly, as with Calvin after him, Luther did not want to divorce the state from its relationship to the church, rather to uphold it. The warning of this danger, as Lloyd-Jones concludes, is to paint the picture that we, as Christians, are always on the side of the Establishment and existing authorities. If we needed a modern example of this being untrue, think Christians in Middle Eastern or Chinese regions.

(2) The second danger is overemphasis on reform, especially political reform, which of course would be the polar opposite of maintaining the status quo. We might well summarize that this particular danger would prefer to overthrow establishments and norms in order to rebuild, or even build back. Within this category, Lloyd-Jones highlights three different parties that have fallen prey to this error, (a) beginning with examples of the Levellers, Fifth Monarchy Men, the Millenarians, and others such as the Diggers, of the 17th Century. Their chief desire, and that of those who came after them, was political reform, especially in the form of political equality. In the 19th Century, Nonconformists were pacified with receiving political equality but “the real problem, the ultimate problem would arise when the masses asked for economic equality and complete economic freedom.” (The Puritans p. 340) (b) The second group highlighted as falling into this error are those who emphasize the cultural mandate teaching that, “it is our primary duty as Christians to see that the Lordship of Christ is exercised in every realm and department of life – in drama, art, literature, politics, in Trades Unions and in every other respect.” (The Puritans p. 340) (c) The third and final party that falls within this second danger of overemphasis on reform are those who Lloyd-Jones describes as teaching a ‘theology of liberation or revolution’. Earlier in his message, Lloyd-Jones highlighted their emphasis on social injustice, “[i]n other words, they teach that real Christianity means to liberate people from poverty, from political oppression and so on, and that the Christian Church should be leading in this revolution.” (The Puritans p. 334)

(3) The third and final danger highlighted in Lloyd-Jones’ message of reactions during revolutionary times are those who advocate “other-worldliness”. Here we would include those who would isolate and insulate from culture. Lloyd-Jones spends little time here as he references earlier statements about the need for Christians to have a worldview, meaning to be thoughtfully engaged with the world around us.

With these three categorical dangerous reactions to revolutionary times, we come now to ask does any of it apply to today. Has Martyn Lloyd-Jones placed his finger on the generalized reactions to revolution, which he says always fall into extremes on the right and left? In my opinion, by looking at what is happening in the world today and the various camps and parties that are forming it is precisely what we find in this mid 1970’s message. Let’s briefly expand on this.

The last 2-3 years has brought us into revolutionary times. The movement was already present and active, but the obvious nature of it had not yet been revealed. The turmoil and reaction to the turmoil has served well to usher in a new era, which some have called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, more on that another time. In the midst of the crisis and chaos that has taken place from elections to the pandemic, the situation is ripe for alliances, and more accurately divisions into the camps that Lloyd-Jones has laid out above.

First of course are the conservative do-nothings, those who would simply embrace the status quo. This isn’t altogether bad, as Lloyd-Jones would himself conclude later in his message that it is a likely starting point for a correct response. This particular reaction today, by both Christians and non-Christians, seeks to maintain the systems and institutions that have been built in the United States, but simply desires to purify and clean them up. Remember earlier the example of Luther and Calvin. In other words, just because a situation is chaotic, this view doesn’t require or necessitate the burning down of the entire system.

The second parallel from Lloyd-Jones’ observation into our own day is a bit complex and in reality, where all of the clear and present danger lies today. Remember from earlier how this danger was marked by an overemphasis on reform, especially political, and had three primary subdivisions. The first category was those who wanted political freedom with an underlying desire for economic equality and economic freedom. Generally speaking, into this group falls the majority of conservatives today who believe (and rightly so) that the political system is tilted unfairly left, therefore a sweeping overhaul is needed. In their opinion, corruption is so deep that cleaning it up will not help. Instead, it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. This particular group is prone to advancing novel ideas about military takeovers, tribunals, and “third presidential terms”.

Next within this second reaction to revolutionary times were those who believe in advancing the cultural mandate as described by Lloyd-Jones above. In short, this group is broad in their beliefs and is subdivided, but can be simply categorized as dominionists, i.e. advancing Christian dominion into all areas of culture. This broad category of dominion has been more recently termed Christian Nationalism, though this deserves some nuance. The term is used by those on the left as a pejorative to describe generally all those who are Christian and have patriotic love for their country. But as the left are prone to do they tack on besmirching and attacking descriptors such as white, racist, homophobic, and whatever else they can come up with to label it a threat to society. Within this group there is some overlap with the first group from this category, i.e. those who seek political reform, particularly among those who would call themselves patriots and would desire America be taken back for God and become once again a “Christian nation” as they believe it was upon its founding.

There are also those within the dominion camp those who take seriously their belief in the cultural mandate to the point of desiring America to become a Theocracy under the law of God (Theonomy). This view is beyond simply having the Ten Commandments displayed in a school or courthouse but would instead be more satisfied with a modern iteration of Old Covenant Israel while applying the “general equity” of the Levitical laws into a modern American framework. Historically, those nations with a State-Church have been a disaster. The Church isn’t meant to wield the sword or be wed to the State. When it is, then those in power can dictate the terms of worship and determine what is qualified as obedience (see also Sacralism). This dominionist view as a whole is gaining in popularity. What was once fringe has become mainstream as professing Christians who desired political reform within this second category, find commonality with other professing Christians and have subsequently joined their movement. As is always the case, this particular movement has been appealing to the Christians-in-name-only (CINOs) who look for every opportunity to rebrand and make themselves relevant.

The third sub-category within the group who would advance political reform in revolutionary times are those who embrace a theology of liberation and seek to right the wrongs of social injustices (as they perceive them). If you believe the crisis and chaos of present day was manufactured, then you likely also see that this group was out in front of the crisis laying the groundwork for what was to come. In other words the reaction to the problem was already in place before the problem appeared. In this way, it was less of a true reaction to revolution and more of a precursor, preparing people for it. Here of course are the Critical Race Theorists, the Woke crowd, and those who would see revolution as an opportunity to right systematic wrongs and oppressions in order to completely level the field socially. If you’re familiar at all with the beliefs behind CRT it isn’t difficult to see how this inevitably leads to socialism. The Christian Nationalism described above is actually the opposite (over)reaction to the social justice movement. Whereas this group finds its dénouement in socialism, Christian nationalism finds its dénouement in totalitarianism. Both inevitably end up in dictatorship.

Finally, we come to address the third category of danger namely those who would withdraw into other-worldliness. Broadly speaking these are the “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through” crowd. Which of course is a true statement, and I should note all of these particular responses and reactions have varying levels of truth in them. Taken to its extreme other-worldliness is in effect Amish. The glaring error here is how one could reach this level of other-worldliness and still be salt and light in the world. Within this category there are naturally subdivisions as in our other categories, which includes those who would retreat and set up separate, parallel societies. Logically, this particular area of concern is sometimes arrived at after working through and rejecting the earlier reactions but retaining certain elements. For instance, one might reject the status quo, realize the unscriptural disease of Critical Race Theory, and consider that erecting a Theonomic State would be disastrous. But instead of becoming Amish, they would prefer to set up alternate, separate systems. In other words, let the status quo burn down and prepare for insulation in parallel micro-Christian societies.

With this general overview of reactions in revolutionary times, it is clear that despite the differences, and indeed overlaps, of the movements mentioned above one thing is clear. Revolutionary times are fracturing and tend to lead towards balkanization. In reality, of those reactions mentioned above, all except for maintaining the status quo lead to balkanization. In this regard, the very nature of revolution and those who are instrumental behind it, is the desire of fracturing people into divisions along political, religious, ethnic, or fabricated racial lines. It should be obvious but retreating and setting up parallel societies falls precisely into the trap of divisions set by the revolutionaries.

What then is the proper Christian response?

In the next post, we’ll return to Lloyd-Jones to see his recommended approaches from a Scriptural perspective.

See Part 2: A Right Response to Revolutionary Times
Part 3: Right Living in Revolutionary Times

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.


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