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Dutch Sheets and Dominionism

I have previously written about the term “dominionism,” one which I don’t find very helpful as a label for a political position. So I was very interested to hear Dutch Sheets, one of those called (by some) a dominionist, make reference to the term.

I was invited as a Christian leader to hear Dutch Sheets speak at Kingsway Church in Pensacola, Florida (I was unable to locate a web page for Kingsway). I’m thankful for the invitation to this session for pastors and leaders. This post isn’t a critique of that talk, but rather deals with just a few moments of his presentation that relate to the term “dominionism” which has been very controversial. I will need to mention some of my own political views in delineating the various positions.

The bulk of the presentation dealt with the role of the church. Sheets is anxious (as I am) for us to get away from the idea that “church” is a building or a gathering at which we babysit the pew-sitters. That’s an incredible simplification of what he was saying, as he has some very specific points to make about just how we do it, but I think disagreements over details of strategy shouldn’t make us miss the main point.

He says that the church has elevated just one of the offices (or better, gifts), pastor, over all the others, and thus has gotten unbalanced. By nature, pastors nurture people. But a group that wants to get something done needs leaders who will also get people moving. Pastors may do that to some extent, but we’ve emphasized the care and nurture part.

He builds the way in which this happens around a broad scope of biblical history, starting with creation and the fall. Humanity is created and given dominion, then loses that dominion at the fall. Christ comes and restores what was lost. He takes the specific meaning of “legislative assembly” for the Greek word “ekklesia,” and uses it as an example of what the church is to do—act with authority. One might debate his extension of that particular meaning of the word to the New Testament, but nonetheless it gives the flavor of what he means by the church taking authority.

It was in this context that he brought up the term “dominionist.” He indicated that he didn’t like the label, but at the same time, he noted that if it’s defined as noted above—that humanity had dominion, lost it, that Christ came and restored it, and that the church carries on that mission—then in those terms he’s a dominionist.

I can see this term from a theological point of view. His view places a strong emphasis on the word “dominion.” You’ll hear him use that word much more than your average speaker. And if you make differences of emphasis central, then you could say his view is somewhat different from what is usually preached on this point. How frequently do you hear the word “dominion” in a discussion of the atonement? But as I mentioned earlier, I’m not writing to critique his presentation, but to clarify what he means.

What that dominionism, as he (reluctantly) accepted the term, means in politics became clear when he discussed specifically what it would mean for the church to be “ekklesia” as he defined it. In politics, he used the example of the young man who is interested in changing education. He said that as Christians we do not use force (he repeated this a number of times). What we want, he said, is for a young man to go out, get a PhD, become the superintendent of schools, and then we would be able to do things about prayer in schools. (Prayer was the specific example he used.)

Since it is currently quite legal for students to pray in school in the United States, despite some school boards’ overreactions, but not legal for school officials or teachers to lead or prescribe prayer, I’m going to assume that what Sheets wants here is for officially led or prescribed prayer. That would seem to be the one thing a school superintendent could work on regarding prayer in public schools. Of course, one would need to have lawyers educated and on the Supreme Court, legislators at various levels of government (a constitutional amendment might be required), and so forth.

This was the example Sheets used of the impact of the church acting as a legislative assembly (ekklesia as he defined it) for the world. So there is a particular political strategy that comes out of the church behaving as he is calling on it to do. Understand that the presentation was only about two hours, so he did not have time to flesh it out. I have used the most fleshed out example I heard.

So how much different is this from the basic idea that Christians should live their values in the public sphere? (I’m avoiding the “seven mountains” terminology, though that did come up.) I would simply note that there are a variety of views on how a Christian acts as part of one of the “kingdoms of this world” while being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. For some, being part of the kingdom of heaven means no political participation at all. We witness for the kingdom of heaven, but we do not become part of the political structures. At the other extreme would be Christians who believe that we will successively take over the world’s governments until, by that means, the rule of Christ will extend to the entire world. In addition, there would be variations on just what methods are justified in pursuing those goals. Sheets specifically rejected the idea that Christians would take over the whole world; he said God would come in and finish it in a sweep.

I personally believe that Christians should participate in a secular, pluralistic society as moral and ethical people, but not in a way that would make the society less friendly to those of other beliefs. In fact, because of the freedom I believe God gives us, I think we should make society more friendly. If the Muslims in my community want to build a mosque, I’m there to back them up. At the same time, this means I disagree on the issue of prayer in public schools. My imaginary Christian young man would grow up, get a PhD, and be the person who makes life more comfortable for an atheist student, rather than the one who requires that the atheist student hear a prescribed prayer or do Bible study.

Sheets emphasized that he does not believe in force. I appreciate that. It distinguishes him from some extremists, and it’s a critical distinction. At the same time, my concern is that, as soon as we as Christians have the power of the state behind us, we are, by nature, employing force. I think Christian history suggests that when we bring the power of the state to bear in religious issues, the results are not good either for the church or the state. Sheets explicitly said “no separation of church and state,” though it’s important to note he said that from the church’s point of view, i.e. the church doesn’t separate itself from the state.

At this point I see “dominionism” as a possibly useful theological label. I’m still not convinced it’s useful as a political label, and hearing Sheets speak only further convinced me of this. His position on political issues, and on the church’s action in the political sphere, is essentially the dominant position of the Christian right. They wish to get elected and enact laws that favor Christianity in the public sphere. It’s no secret. I don’t see the need for a separate label. In Escambia County Florida, where I live, that’s pretty much the definition of a conservative Republican, with the note that there’s hardly any other kind of Republican around these parts.

Theologically, there is a greater difference, because Sheets has tied theology and the action of the church much more closely to this specific agenda. But it’s specifically of that usage that he acknowledged the term “dominionist” in the first place. And I want to note that I see his theology as a different emphasis on various elements of existing theology, and not something created out of whole cloth.

My concern is that the more detailed of a political strategy we pursue, the more opportunities we have for division over things that are not central. That could be further illustrated by how very American both Sheets’ presentation and my response are. How does this relate to various countries in Africa? What about to Christians living in the Muslim world? How does our tying Christianity to American political goals impact the gospel message worldwide?

I know there are dangers working from memory on hearing someone talk. As a writer and speaker myself, I generally prefer people to work from my written works, and I’d prefer my views to be taken from my books rather than my blog, if there’s a conflict. At the same time, what someone says in a more informal setting may well reflect one’s views more accurately.

So take this as my impressions. It didn’t really shift my view on the application of the term “dominionism.” It reinforced and clarified my existing position.

 

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