When the government of a society is a religious institution where all authority derives, then this structure is referred to as a theocracy. It is a system where the priests are the rulers of the people, often doing so in the name of gods or one true God. An ecclesiocracy can be part of the theocratic structure, which occurs when the priests assume a leading role in the government, but they are not trying to claim that they are in power because it is the divine will of their supernatural leader.
Most theocracies are oligarchic by design, with only a few ruling the many. During the days of the Holy Roman Empire, it was the Pope who was placed in charge of the entire government, making decisions that ranged from war declarations to wedding certificates. Some of the rulers in a theocracy are often treated as being anointed under claims of divine commission, even if the primary structure is ecclesiastic.
Almost every major religion on our planet has the concept of a theocracy as part of its doctrine. Although Islamic theocracies often receive the most attention in western culture because of the presence of sharia law, Christian theocracies (such as the Holy See) also exist. It should also be noted that many conservative evangelical Christians in the United States see their elected officials in this role, even at the state and local levels.
As with any other structure of government that humans create, there are some significant advantages and disadvantages of a theocracy to consider.
List of the Advantages of Theocracy
1. Theocracies work to eliminate political polarization.
When a government is structured as a theocracy, then the spiritual and physical needs of a society come together under the same governing umbrella. Even though there are different opinions that are accepted under this structure, everyone feels like they are on the same team. That means there are fewer issues with filibusters and other forms of delay because everyone is on the same common ground from the start. Instead of debating ideas, theocracies typically discuss the best ways to implement processes instead.
2. This government structure works to streamline all operations.
The Pope is still considered the ruler of the Vatican City, which makes this government a Christian theocracy. Instead of going through 2+ branches of government and a judicial overview of any legislation or proclamation, a general declaration from the leader is all that is necessary to create the changes which are desired for any reason. Depending on the philosophy which declares why leaders are in power, these policies can be structured in a way that indicates God is the one declaring that a society follow new rules instead of the people who came up with the idea in the first place.
3. A theocracy operates through a centralized structure.
All theocracies offer a streamlined system of governing because everything emanates from a centralized command authority. This hierarchy does not allow for individual leaders to make decisions by themselves because every action is a dictation from the rulers. The actual religion used as the foundation of the government does not matter with this advantage.
Yemen, Vatican City, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, and Mauritania are all notable examples of varying size that show off this centralized structure in ways that benefit the local population. The leader is often viewed as the supreme power, with most (including Vatican City) operating as a monarchy of some type.
4. It creates higher levels of legislative compliance.
When people attend a religious service of any type, their manners tend to be turned up to 11. There is a desire to follow all of the spiritual laws and expectations (including unwritten ones) to ensure that their soul can reach its intended destination one day. From a Christian perspective, one might call that perspective a form of insurance against eternal punishment. Because people feel like there is so much that is on the line, they comply with all laws, decrees, and suggestions from the government even if it seems like an immoral choice on a personal level.
This structure is the reason why theocracies have higher levels of societal compliance in legal matters compared to other forms of government. The leader of a theocracy has the authority to declare a person to be eternally damned for non-compliance. People who want to be faithful work hard to keep their salvation, which is how the leadership in the government can retain power for an extended time.
5. Theocracies could change the world for the better.
Imagine if a theocracy actually practiced the concept of loving one’s neighbor as themselves? What would happen in our world today if governments used their resources to help the needy, provide for a robust education, and ensure that no child was left hungry? It would be an incredible place to live. The only problem with this government structure is that there is a political interpretation of the holy books which differs from the personal views that people hold.
An excellent example of this issue comes from Genesis 19. Although the book of Ezekiel clearly declares that the sin of Sodom is their refusal to help those who were in need, previous generations chose to focus on the concepts of rape that are spoken of in the passage. Isn’t it curious that religious leaders can ignore the fact that Lot’s daughters conspire to rape him in his sleep, yet condemn their perception of same-gender relationships from the interactions that the family has before God destroys the city?
6. Compromise is never needed in the context of a theocracy.
Theocracies don’t need to worry about finding a compromise when legislation is necessary because most officials will already be on the same page. Rulers gain compliance through fear, sometimes even to the extent of threatening a person’s eternal reward if they refuse to “join the team” when passing laws. There is a certain nobleness to the idea that people can work toward a common good together without interference, but this advantage can only be beneficial if there is an emphasis on goodness with each action. Since humans are fallible, a theocracy will often fail to work because it assigns religious sanctity to the decision-making processes of a privileged few people.
List of the Disadvantages of Theocracy
1. Alternative opinions are rarely welcomed in a theocracy.
When someone reads a book, their individual perspectives will guide the interpretation of the material they encounter. It doesn’t matter if the story is a documentary or a work of outright fiction. We all take a different lesson from page, sometimes going beyond even what the author intended. This principle still applies when we read holy books. Even if there is one “perfect” idea to find, we would all apply it in different ways in our life.
Under the guise of a theocracy, there is no individual interpretation. You must conform, or you choose to risk your eternal salvation. Take a look at the history of the Roman Catholic Church and you will see this disadvantage on full display. That was the reason why Martin Luther decided to take things into his own hands in the first place.
2. Theocracies might preach peace, but they teach discord.
When you question the government’s actions or policies when living in a theocracy, then most leaders would equate that action to questioning God, the gods in charge, or even the ruler who society sees as a god. When there a few ruling the many, it becomes virtually impossible to challenge the ideas of a supernatural being that the average person cannot see or hear. You have no room for debate because the decision has already been made.
It is not unusual in Christian circles for someone to say something like, “I choose this path because it was what God told me to do.” Even Nancy Guthrie for The Gospel Coalition says that a silent alarm goes off somewhere inside of her when someone uses that kind of phrase unless there is Scripture behind it. The government is in the business of staying in control, and nothing works better than the idea that God is forcing this idea on you, whether you like it or not.
3. Minority groups are not tolerated in theocracies.
When you are living in a theocracy, then being in the minority on anything is not a position where you want to be. Even if you have a religious basis for your beliefs, the alternative thoughts are rarely tolerated. When the doctrine comes straight from the government and you refuse to follow it, then there is a possibility that your views could be seen as a violation of the law. Courts in theocracies sentence “dissidents” to jail or worse frequently.
Although some people think this disadvantage is sometimes overstated, all you need to do to see it on full display is to walk into a Christian church and say that you believe something else than they do. You will find some people are willing to engage, but the general consensus (even if you are also a Christian) is that their perspective is correct and yours is not. Now expand that interaction to a societal level and you can see why a theocracy can be such a dangerous form of governing.
4. Businesses must operate under the guise of the theocratic law.
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom where the country and God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet are the federal constitution. Despite the principles of equality that are taught in this holy literature, women are not allowed to vote at all, nor can then be elected to a high political position. It was only just recently that the laws were relaxed to permit women to drive. From a business perspective, women leaders provide more consistency, innovation, and leadership compared to their male counterparts, yet their ideas are held back in almost every nation that is structured as a theocracy.
Dr. John L. Perkins, an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research even argues that the structure of a theocracy prioritizes scriptural studying over creativity, innovation, or scientific research. When Rome switched to a spread of religion instead of economic policy, Perkins argues that this move to theocratic structures became the foundation of the empire’s eventual fall.
5. You cannot have a unique faith under the structure of a theocracy.
Although some theocracies may suggest that you can believe anything you want if you are willing to follow the structure of the law, the foundational scriptural elements of the government would suggest otherwise. You may be able to co-exist in this society as a different believer, but you might be asked to pay additional taxes, be forbidden to vote, or have other rights restricted that those who follow the faith do not experience.
It is through this structure that the government seeks to bring non-believers into compliance. By making life uncomfortable, the goal of the government is to encourage a switch in spiritual belief for political purposes. Those in power want your physical soul because it has economic value to the centralized state.
6. Theocracies change the fundamental beliefs of a nation.
Theocracies have the power to change the structure of a religion as they see fit based on the political needs of the moment. Those in power can set aside hundreds of years of teaching and tradition to accommodate current problems. Subtle shifts in how lessons are taught can create large changes in how people perceive the end goal of their faith.
Jesus talked about the fact that people believing in him as the Messiah would create a sword of division within their household, separating fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and even husband and wife. When he told his disciples to buy a sword, was Jesus talking about self-defense as so many people believe today? Or was he talking about the Word of God, which is also described as a sword? Maybe he was talking about the fact that the visual presence of a physical sword would be enough to detract thieves.
What we do know is that in Matthew 26:52, Jesus said that those who take the sword will perish by it. The self-defense culture of God and guns seems to run counter to this in the U.S., but from a theocratic perspective (even though the United States is not one), the passages can be interpreted in any manner desired.
7. The structure of a democracy is based on selfish ambition.
If you think about the usual pitch that someone makes about joining a specific faith, the goal is to encourage someone to take on a form of spiritual life insurance. As an example, Christians often ask people where they would spend eternity if they were to die today – heaven or hell? Fear is used as a way to control the overall population. Theocracies take the same approach. Once an individual attains power, most will do whatever it takes to retain their position for as long as possible. The purpose of the leadership shifts from doing good for the society to providing personal benefits at the expense of others.
8. It places the cultural expectations of one society against others.
Because there is such a lack of cooperation that develops under the context of a theocracy, international trade opportunities become limited since there is a need to build relationships with like-minded governments. Imagine the relationship that the United States has with Cuba, but through the lens of spiritualism. Because one is Communist and the U.S. sees itself as a capitalist, slightly mixed economy, there is an attitude of superiority present between the nations.
Even if all of the countries involved in a trading partnership would benefit from the relationship, a theocracy would only involve itself if the other governments committed to the same faith – or their internal faith could expand because of what others offered.
9. Facts don’t matter when you are living in a theocracy.
Even though it seems like there would be benefits to living in a theocracy, most people find that it is challenging to maintain their household because there are fewer facts available. Whether it is the lack of intervention in the Catholic church when priests were abusing children or the calls to terrorism that are done in the name of God, facts only matter as far as they can be used by the government to create a means to an end. The faith of the people will eventually become the spiritual perspective of the few that are in charge. It is their opinions which eventually turn into facts.
10. Theocracies are temporary.
The problem that human societies eventually have with religion is that the belief systems of a group change. When you look at the history of Christianity, it all started from the teachings of Jesus and his disciples. In the 2,000+ years that have passed since then, there are six “megablocks” of Christian belief that subdivide into 30,000 to 50,000 different unique denominations. Each person follows the specific subgroup of faith that they feel works for them because it feels like their “one truth.” If you have tens of thousands of different groups all under the same heading who are trying to convince one another of their superiority, then how can anything get done?
That is why the structure of a theocracy is often centralized to a single person or a ruling few. By keeping to this structure, the government can limit the spread of alternative ideas to keep everyone believing something similar.
In Summary of the Advantages and Disadvantages of Theocracy
We often consider the idea of a theocracy when there are numerous challenges that we face on a societal level. There is a goal to be on the same page as a culture, but our debates frequently end up resulting in a lack of movement. Moving toward this form of governing should never be done in frustration or for a selfish desire for power.
Unfortunately, all too often the cultures which accept theocracy are the ones which struggle the most on the global stage. It takes a strong leader who is willing to put the interests of the people and the nation first to make this form of governing succeed. There are instances throughout history where this has happened, and it made the world a better place.
Far too often, the opposite occurs. Instead of discovering success, we find a quest of a few for power and abuse. Then the spiritual nature of the culture is used to cover up the selfishness that is on full display.
The advantages and disadvantages of theocracy were once evaluated by American colonists. These people became the founding fathers of a new country because they were unwilling to accept the idea that the church and the state were a combined entity. Whenever we think that returning to a theocracy is a good idea, it would be an excellent idea to revisit the lessons learned in past generations.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.