Theonomy and Sharia Law
Does Christian theonomy commit the same errors as Islamic sharia law?
WHAT IS THEONOMY?
With increasing rates of moral and cultural decline in the 1970s and 1980s, a group of evangelical writers surfaced who identified themselves as theonomists. These writers wanted Christians to set their sights not just on evangelizing but on Christianizing the nation through the powers of government. The movement, sometimes called Reconstructionism, didn’t merely call for laws and structures of governance to reflect Christian values and morality. More remarkably, Reconstructionism sought a Christian state that would implement the civil elements of the Mosaic law—including all Ten Commandments.
Recently, discussions surrounding theonomy have resurfaced. Only now the discussion is more nuanced and refers to itself as general equity theonomy. General equity theonomists rightly give the church a more prominent place in their program than the Reconstructionist did. They don’t tie themselves to the actual stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant as tightly as the Reconstructionists. While they begin with the Mosaic civil law, they argue that these codes cannot be applied directly but need to be adapted to differing historical circumstances.
Nonetheless, both approaches begin with the Mosaic Covenant’s civil codes, and they see the church and the state as conduits and facilitators of God’s inbreaking kingdom. Wherever possible, the state should enforce the dictates of the church, including what counts as true religion, the Mosaic civil code or adaptations of it, as well as the first four commandments. If loving one’s neighbor depends upon loving God, then the government should declare who God is and, by necessary implication, who his people are because they belong to government recognized churches.
Other writers have offered biblical critiques of theonomy—both new and old. My goal in this piece is to focus on the missiological dangers of theonomy, and to do so by comparing it to Islam’s use of sharia law. Just as Islam seeks to build Allah’s kingdom in this world and so fuses “mosque and state,” so Christian theonomy will undermine the church’s ability to distinguish the gospel from the law and Christ’s kingdom from Caesar’s state.
This perspective derives from my theological convictions and missiological posture, but it also connects with my experiences in countries where Islamic imposition of sharia law has allowed me to observe firsthand some of the problems with theonomy. Of course, Islamic law and biblical law differ in both their origin and their particulars. In contrast with biblical law, Islamic law does not possess divine authorization. Still, Christian theonomy poses some of the same dangers as an Islamic state.
We will look at three specific ways that Christian theonomy might be reasonably compared to Islam’s use of sharia law. Then we’ll conclude by observing how a Christianized nation would hamstring Christian witness. Perhaps not all proposals for theonomy will struggle to the same degree with the following warnings. Still, I believe these are dangers we all must be aware of as we consider what it looks like to live under Christ’s rule and seek the good of our communities.
CITIZENS AS DHIMMIS
First, theonomy risks creating a Muslim-like dhimmitude, or second-class citizenship, in a so-called Christian nation.
Islam believes that religious teaching should manifest itself in an Islamic state. This in turn places non-Muslims under Islamic rule into a tenuous relationship with the state. Such has been the case from the early days of Islam to modern-day Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
At various times, non-Muslims have enjoyed relative tolerance under an Islamic state. Yet the influence of Qur’an 9:29 has a perennial effect in how Islamic law affects the non-Muslim citizen:
Fight those who do not believe in God or the Last Day, and do not forbid what God and His messenger have forbidden, and do not practice the religion of truth—from among those who have been given the Book—until they pay tribute (jizya) out of hand, and they are disgraced.
While most contemporary scholars limit what type of fighting binds contemporary Muslims, this verse lays the foundation for the second-class treatment (or worse) of non-Muslims—referred to as dhimmis—living under Islamic governance.
Historically, the concept of dhimmitude placed “limitations on whether dhimmis could build or renovate their places of worship; clothing requirements that distinguished the dhimmis from Muslims; special tax liability known as the jizya; and their incapacity to serve in the military.” This jizya tax for dhimmis, for instance, is a military exemption tax for non-Muslim citizens in an Islamic state. “In the Islamic state, every able-bodied Muslim is obliged to take up arms in jihad (i.e., in a just war in God’s cause) whenever the freedom of his faith or the political safety of his community is imperiled.” Since non-Muslims should not be called upon to serve in jihad, the jizya is a payment they make in order to enjoy the protection of the state. Non-Muslims are not required to fight for Islamic purposes, but they are required to pay for Muslims wielding the sword for religious purposes.
This is just one example. Specific details of how dhimmis are treated varies across different expressions of Islamic governance. Yet even in a relatively benevolent and commercially sophisticated nation like today’s United Arab Emirates, non-Muslim residents possess a lower status than Muslim citizens. Full Emirati citizenship, available only to Muslims, entitles one to an Emirati passport, the right to vote, “family book allowances,” a generous education allowance, access to land and housing opportunities, subsidized electricity and water rates, and other silent benefits like guaranteed employment and loans at preferential terms.
While Christianity may not formally recognize a dhimmitude in the same way, theonomy effectively creates one within a Christian state among non-Christian citizens. If government dictates the terms of proper worship, presenting this as a standard by which to judge the uprightness of a citizen, a distinction between Christian citizens and non-Christian citizens necessarily follows. At the very least, Christians and non-Christians will enjoy different rights, privileges, and protections as afforded by the state when their religious practices differ. If history is any indication, those differences will extend across other categories of civil liberty as well, such as religious tests for political office, as was common in early America. Even Christians whose convictions differ on how to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy might find themselves out of favor with the state when the state disagrees with their interpretation.
THE STATE MUST MAKE BINDING THEOLOGICAL JUDGMENTS
Raising the issue of differing views among Christians regarding the Sabbath brings us to a second point of comparison between theonomy and sharia law: the state must assert competence in making binding theological judgments for the sake of protecting its religion.
In the theonomic program, someone’s theological convictions and interpretations must establish the law of the land. But whose? Is it possible to create a broadly Christian or pan-Protestant consensus on Sabbath keeping, honoring father and mother, or criminalizing blasphemy? Or should we assume that the governing authority’s laws on these matters will change from administration to administration according to the theological inclinations and denominational preferences of whoever happens to be in power?
If you’re a citizen of Malaysia—conveniently—you can download this app on your smartphone created by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia. It will provide you with prayer times for the whole of Malaysia, daily prayers, a list of nearby mosques, as well as theologically acceptable answers to all your religious questions, such as proper head-attire for women. It’s true that the guys at 9Marks would only be too happy to answer all your specific questions about fencing the Lord’s Table, church discipline, and various points of doctrine, but can you imagine asking a government agency in Washington, DC to address those topics? And giving that agency a power of enforcement, just like the Environmental Protection Agency enforces clean water standards?
Once the government is put in charge of doctrine, it will enforce that doctrine even among its own national and religious adherents. This problem bedevils Islamic states. Not only are non-Muslim citizens subject to a second- or third-class status and precluded from participating in aspects of government, Muslim citizens are also scrutinized for adhering to the faith, based on whoever is in power.
The Qur’an emphasizes that there is to be no compulsion in religion (Qur’an 2:256), yet the Islamic state creates a religious body that wields not only theological authority but also the sword and the gavel. A person’s standing as a Muslim citizen, therefore, is impacted by his or her theological convictions.
In the early 1990s, on the heels of an Islamic resurgence in Egypt, a Muslim professor named Abu Zeid was denied promotion in a public university due to questions about his orthodoxy. However, due to the influence of sharia in Egyptian governance, Zeid’s penalty for unorthodox teaching was not relegated to his professional life. He was also brought before a court on the principle of hisba, which allows for prosecuting Muslims if they pose a threat to Islam. The court decided against Zeid. One of the penalties levied by the court was the order to dissolve his marriage due to the fact that an apostate or heretical man could not be legitimately married to a Muslim woman. Zeid and his wife therefore fled the country. In Muslim state after state, from Indonesia to Algeria, among names Western readers would know like Salman Rushdie to countless others, some version of this story occurs, whereby the government enforces Muslim orthodoxy and prosecutes blasphemy.
In a government established and operated by religious belief, those who wield the sword do so not only to protect or advance national interests, but also to preserve religious conviction. If a Muslim is identified as wavering in their religious convictions, they are not merely dabbling in issues of unorthodoxy. Such a person may be perceived as a threat to the state.
As in Islam, so in Christian theonomy. Christians contemplating the merits of Christian theonomy should wrestle with the danger of endowing the state with the ability to arbitrate theological convictions and punish deviators.
CONVERSION AS TREASON
This brings us to a third point of comparison and concern between Islam’s use of sharia law and theonomy: when a state privileges one religion, conversion away from that religion carries political consequences, which in turn incentivizes superficial or nominal adherence to that religion.
In 1976, a group of Muslims and Christians gathered for a five-day conference referred to as the Chambesy Consultation. This consultation was convened for the purpose of discussing the missionary nature of both faiths and the tensions that result within their respective communities. During this consultation, the idea of proselytization and conversion arose. Khurshid Ahmad, then director of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, made the following remarks regarding the political standing of a Muslim citizen in an Islamic state who converted to Christianity:
Islam is not merely a religion in the limited sense of the word involving some metaphysical doctrines and some religious rites and rituals; it is a complete way of life and a code of socio-political behavior. It establishes a community and a state on the foundations of the faith. Faith is not just like an overcoat which one may put on and put off as one likes. It is also the foundation of the state. Change of loyalty in faith has implications for loyalty to the state.
This last line is startling: in a government run by sharia law, conversion is both apostasy and treason.
This general tenor was shared by Ismail al-Furuqi who likewise commented, “The Islamic state has, of course, to protect itself—and as was said already in an earlier session—conversion so often seems to be tantamount to subversion of Islamic values and existence.”
Throughout their dialogue, both Ahmad and al-Furuqi insisted that the Islamic state upholds the free practice of other religions. While that may be formally true, practically it isn’t. Whether by threat of punishment or through financial and social incentives, a state that privileges specific religious convictions and adherence is unavoidably coercive.
The result, inevitably, is that fewer people formally convert away from Islam, yet remain superficially attached to it. Spend time in a Muslim country, therefore, and you discover how widespread nominal Islam is—even in a nation like Iran. People continue to identify as Muslim, even while admitting in more private conversations that they hate the mullahs and they doubt the religion.
This brings us to the crux of why Christian theonomy is a missiological mistake. Theonomy incentivizes superficial conversion toward a Christian identity. It also disincentivizes conversion away from Christianity—even among the unconvinced—based on the coercive power of the sword. The power of the sword, in other words, doesn’t overpower the beauty of the gospel, per se, but it exerts its own “conversionary” power alongside the gospel. Like the gospel, coercion can create converts. Unlike the gospel, coercion can leave hearts unconverted. In other words, theonomy incentivizes a superficial adherence to Christianity. And this, in turn, makes it difficult to discern who is redeemed by the gospel and who is merely compliant to the state.
For the Christian, in other words, a coercive approach to faith and identity cannot be reconciled with the gospel. True belief requires individuals to recognize their inability to live according to God’s law and to seek out new life through Christ. Entangling a person’s citizenship and loyalty to the state with a faith-borne allegiance to King Jesus, however, blurs the division of labor between the state and the church.
Furthermore, by instating Christian theonomy, theological differences among Christians would be put on trial at the state level. Unbelieving onlookers will then be subject to intra-denominational infighting that presents the additional offense of having become state-sponsored inquisition.
COERCIVE VERSUS COMPELLING
In short, theonomy, at least in principle, can lead to the same errors as Islamic sharia, even if not every author or advocate of theonomy takes it this far. These, as I said, are the risks.
To be sure, biblical Christianity, like theonomy and Islam, has a vision for the state. God has established governments for his purposes (e.g. Rom. 13:1-7). Not only that, biblical Christianity calls for the state to implement justice as God defines justice within the state’s God-assigned jurisdiction (e.g. Prov. 29:4). The government can implement his version of justice or some other god’s version of justice. There is no objective or detached brand of justice—it’s one God or god or another’s.
Yet biblical Christianity also limits the government’s jurisdiction, refraining from the expansivist and essentially totalitarian vision of both Islam and theonomy. Nothing in Scripture suggests the power of the gavel or the sword can produce true religion or worship or righteousness. Indeed, Israel’s history teaches the opposite. The law serves to expose our need for grace, but it cannot give people new hearts. Even a legal code inspired by God cannot be the means of transforming society or creating ideal citizens.
The community that is best able to demonstrate the goodness of divine rule is not the state, but the church. The church is the community that has freely bound itself to the mandates of Christ’s kingdom—without either incentive or threat from the state. As Christians, we ought to display the compelling nature of living according to divine law by grace and through faith, not by guilt through force.
When the church seeks to take up the sword and gavel, it reaches for worldly means to transform that which can only be changed by the gospel. The gospel is always concerned with the heart—an element of society which the state has no ability to regulate.
In contrast to Islamic injunctions to take up the gavel and sword to enforce Islam, the church’s willingness to take up the cross and suffer according to Christ’s example offers a far different—and more compelling—exhibition. The church has been established amidst the kingdoms of this world as a kingdom outpost where the obedience to and worship of God in Christ and by the Holy Spirit provides a display of the compelling beauty and goodness of King Jesus’s reign before a watching world.
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 See the recent video explanation by Doug Wilson “General Equity Theonomy,” Christ Church Reformed Basics, Accessed 12/19/2022. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_4KGg2jxLY. Also, for a cautious approach to General Equity Theonomy, see Tom Hicks, “Is ‘General Equity Theonomy’ a Confessional and Biblical Doctrine?” April 5, 2021 Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary. Accessed 12/19, 2022. Online at https://cbtseminary.org/is-general-equity-theonomy-a-confessional-and-biblical-doctrine/
 One might consider the line of thought proffered by Douglas Wilson, “Theonomy is a Many-Splendored Thing,” Jan. 24, 2018, Blog and Mablog. Accessed 12/19/2022. Online at https://dougwils.com/the-church/s16-theology/theonomy-many-splendored-thing.html. While addressing the idea that the regenerate and the unregenerate relate to the law differently, Wilson concludes his argument by appealing to 2 Corinthians 2:16 to demonstrate, “To the regenerate heart, everything God says is sweet, everything is good news, everything is gospel. To the unregenerate heart, everything God says is obnoxious and savors of condemnation.” The problem with this is that Wilson seems to be arguing that the law of God should be made to stand over the unredeemed via the state and any repulsion they might exhibit simply demonstrates their reprobate state and their rejection of the gospel. His appeal to 2 Corinthians fails to make his point, however, insofar as Paul is discussing those who are rejecting the fragrance of Christ, not of his law. For the state to wield divine law and then to assign the non-Christian who bristles under it the status of unregenerate is to obscure and confuse the gospel message beneath the law’s demands.
 David VanDrunen, “Theonomy: A Theological Critique,” The London Lyceum. Online: https://www.thelondonlyceum.com/theonomy-a-theological-critique/. Jonathan Leeman’s distinction between the influence of Christian ethics on our political engagement versus the desire for the identification of a state as Christian is helpful here. Jonathan Leeman, “’Christian Nationalism’ Misrepresents Jesus, So We Should Reject It,” 9Marks 10/31/2022. Online: https://www.9marks.org/article/christian-nationalism-as-influence-or-identity/
 Anver Emon, “Dhimmis, Shari’a, and Empire,” pp. 33—76 in Religious Pluralism and Islamic Law: Dhimmis and Others in the Empire of Law, ed. Anver Emon (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), 34.
 Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Dubai: Oriental, 2012), 295n43.
 See Ba’at Yeor, The Dhimmi: Jews & Christians Under Islam (Unkno, 1985).
 Geneive Abdo, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 163–164.
 Christian Mission and Islamic Da‘wah (Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, 1982), 90.
 Christian Mission and Islamic Da‘wah, 92.