September 2020 Pulse
In their interesting study published in 2018 in the journal Sociology of Religion entitled ‘Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election’, Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker argue that while there may be a variety of explanations for Donald Trump’s success at the polls – such as economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia – Christian nationalism is a factor which simply cannot be ignored or taken lightly.
Despite these close connections with economic views, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, however, Christian nationalism is not synonymous with or reducible to any or all of these. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a set of beliefs and ideals that seek the national preservation of a supposedly unique Christian identity. Voting for Donald Trump was for many Americans a Christian nationalist response to the perceived threats to that identity. Stated more formally, we hypothesise that Christian nationalism will predict voting for Donald Trump even after these other important and interrelated factors have been held constant …
Christian nationalism in America comes in different shades and hues. One of its most prominent expression is arguably Dominionism, a theological-political vision of society that is associated primarily – although not exclusively – with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Dominion theology is often presented by its proponents as being of a piece with mainstream evangelicalism, even though it also claims to recover some aspects of biblical teaching that have been neglected or ignored by the church.
In this short article, I examine the contours of Dominion Theology (DT) in America, with an eye on its political agenda and its alleged relationship with evangelical Christianity.
As we begin with an attempt to define Dominionism, we would do well to take note of the point made by Al Dager in his article entitled, ‘Kingdom Theology’ that ‘Dominion Theology is not an easily delineated segment with the Church, but rather a loose network of autonomous sub-movements that have different approaches to their attempts at establishing the Kingdom of God.’
That said, it is possible to trace the common features that these disparate sub-movements share theologically and ideologically. In fact, a number of authors have offered helpful descriptions of this phenomenon, and it pays to rehearse some of them here.
In his article entitled ‘Dominionism Rising’ published on the Political Research site, Frederick Clarkson explains that ‘Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions. The term describes a broad tendency across a wide swath of American Christianity.’
In his book Kingdom Come: A Biblical Response to Dominion Theology, Don Pirozok links DT to Kingdom Now (KN) theology. As its name suggests, KN teaches that it is the responsibility of the Church to expand the kingdom of God which Jesus Christ has inaugurated to the far reaches of the earth, to ‘spread the glory of God by making the nations “Christian”.’
Pirozok rightly observes that this theology is most prevalent in certain segments of charismatic Christianity in America and elsewhere. Advocates of KN emphasise the significance of the so-called five-fold ministry found in Ephesians 4:11, stressing in particular that in these last days God has restored the offices of the apostles and prophets which the Church has hitherto neglected.
But most significantly, KN is governed by the Dominion Mandate, an expression coined by Peter Wagner. According to Pirozok, the Dominion Mandate is
… a directive based upon the God-given authority in Genesis 1:25 which Adam lost in the fall. Today, God is raising up Christians who will walk in restored authority which Jesus Christ has recovered through the work of the cross. The restored dominion given to Christians will allow them to subdue the earth and rule over it. In the process of taking the restored dominion, the Kingdom of Heaven can now be expanded over all the earth. The church is now expanding the kingdom, converting the nations into Christian nations, and will fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.
It is therefore not difficult to see how Dominionism and nationalism feed on each other.
In America, Dominionism is profoundly tied to the ‘Christian nation thesis’. Dominionists maintain that although America was originally a Christian nation, its Christian identity has eroded through the years due to a variety of factors. They believe that it is the task of the Church to restore that identity – to make America Christian again, as Whitehead et al have aptly put it.
The urgency to do this, according to Marci MacDonald, is due to the ‘Armageddon factor’. According to this theory, the ascended Christ will not be able to return until the Church has taken control of the governments of the world and make the nations Christian.
Church and Kingdom
As the heart of DT is its understanding of the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom of God, and the role that the former must play to advance the latter.
In order to understand the hermeneutical framework within which their ecclesiology is set, one needs to return to the early pages of the Bible and examine the way in which dominionists have interpreted the cultural mandate in relation to the primordial Fall of Adam.
In Genesis 1, we read that having created Adam and Eve in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), God charged them to exercise ‘dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (Genesis 1:28).
Biblical scholars such as Gordon Wenham are agreed that here human beings are commanded to rule over the animal kingdom as God’s representative by ‘treating them in the same way as God who created them.’ The dominionists, however, extend the scope of Adam’s rule to include other human beings as well.
According to the dominionists, Adam had forfeited his authority to exercise governance over the human race when he sinned against God. As a result, Satan now has dominion over the world.
Through his death and resurrection, Christ has achieved victory over Satan, a victory which all Christians share. Thus, the dominion which Adam had lost because of his disobedience is now restored to the Church, which has been given the mandate and the responsibility to further God’s kingdom that was inaugurated by Christ.
Don Pirozok explains:
In Dominion Theology, Jesus Christ, through the work of the cross, has restored to the church what Adam had lost to Satan in the fall … So now the church will do what Adam never accomplished, subdue the earth and have dominion over it.
According to DT, once Christ has inaugurated the kingdom, he steps aside. The Church, which dominionists regard as the Second Adam, now occupies centre-stage and does the rest of the work of advancing God’s kingdom. Once again Pirozok offers a succinct account of the dominionist doctrine:
The basis of dominion teaching is that in the New Adam (a glorified church) restored dominion rule is exercised to transform the nations to Christ before the Second Coming. The church in Dominion Theology is the agent of change which transforms nations instead of Jesus Christ as His return.
Put differently, DT is thoroughly ecclesiocentric (church-centred) in its orientation. It focuses on the work that the Church must do to advance the kingdom while Christ waits passively in heaven.
Who, then, will bring the Kingdom of Heaven to its full consummation? Is it the Church or is it Christ? Following the Bible, Christians throughout the ages have maintained that it is Christ who will bring the inaugurated kingdom to consummation when he returns.
The dominionists, however, have a very different answer to this question.
Dominion Theology and the Parousia
This brings us to DT’s vision of the last things, its eschatology, particularly its understanding of the Second Coming of Christ. Broadly speaking, we may describe DT’s eschatological vision as broadly postmillennial, although it differs significantly from other versions.
The Reformed theologian Loraine Boettner descibes postmillennialism as:
… the view of the last things which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit, that the world eventually will be Christianised, and the return of Christ will occur at the close of the long period of righteousness and peace commonly call the Millennium.
The eschatology of the dominionists may be described as postmillennial in that it holds that the kingdom of God will advance and spread to the far reaches of the globe, and the nations of the world will become Christian.
But it departs from traditional postmillennialism in that it believes that the kingdom of God is not extended by preaching the Gospel alone but more crucially by Christians – more specifically, God’s end-time apostles and prophets – taking over and controlling the major institutions of society and culture (the seven mountains), especially the government.
Most significantly, the dominionists maintain that the extension of the kingdom and the return of Christ are dependent on the work of the Church under the leadership of the end-time apostles and prophets. Christ will not be able to return until the Church has taken control of at least a significant portion of the world’s governments and social institutions.
Thus, it is the Church – not Christ – that will ensure the success of the kingdom of God and its extension across the globe. In his book Apostles, Prophets and the Coming Moves of God, Bill Hamon, a self- styled prophet and apostle of NAR, stresses that the Church that God will raise up in these last days to accomplish this purpose will be unstoppable:
God is preparing His Church to become an invincible, unstoppable, unconquerable, overcoming Army of the Lord that subdues everything under Christ’s feet.
It is therefore the responsibility of the Church to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by taking control of the major institutions of society and by transforming the nations.
In orthodox eschatology, it is the returning Christ who will bring about the consummation of the kingdom of God. According to the dominionist vision, it is the end-time apostles and prophets together with the triumphant church who will prepare the kingdom and hand it over to Christ when he returns!
Needless to say, all this is a disfiguring distortion of the Biblical teaching of the role of the Church, according to which it is a witness to the love and grace of God (1 Peter 2:9), a sign and sacrament of God’s already present kingdom.
Church and State
On the basis of its eschatological vision, it is therefore not difficult to discern the political agenda of the dominionists. Since government is the most important of the seven mountains, their supreme goal is to take control of this ultimate seat of power that can shape all the other six mountains.
According to Clint Heacock, in America, a great many Christian Right and dominionist organisations are ‘seeking to influence current political leaders to vote their way, and advance their particular religious agendas.’ It is the strategy of the dominionists to get Christian politicians to be installed at every level of public office, high and low.
It is worth bearing in mind that when dominionists speak about influencing society and politics, they are not referring merely to ensuring that the Christian voice is heard in the public square. Their project is much more ambitious – it’s nothing short of taking control of the government and institutions.
Peter Wagner makes this point in his book The Church in the Workplace (2006):
Now that we have social transformation on our evangelical agendas, it is time for action. I regard ‘social transformation’ as the concept term. However, the action term that will best set us on the road toward that goal is ‘taking dominion’.
He clarifies this further at the ‘Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’ Conference in Washington in the year when he explains the Dominion Mandate:
The word mandate, you gotta understand, mandate means an authoritative order or command. It doesn’t mean a good idea. It doesn’t mean a suggestion; it means an authoritative order. Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing, and it relates to society …
In his book Dominion: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World (2008), Wagner elaborates:
We have now shed our inhibitions over theologizing about taking dominion. Dominion theology is not a flashback to Constantinian triumphalism, but it is a new call to action for a triumphant Church … Satan has polluted the land and cursed it. Satan has deployed high-ranking demonic powers to darken the spiritual atmosphere over society and to block the freedom of heaven flowing to earth. Both these arenas need to be and can be cleansed spiritually. We have the tools to do it, we have the gifted personnel to do it and we have the power of the Holy Spirit to do it. It will be done!
Wagner teaches that the only way in which cultures and nations can be transformed is by putting in place a proper apostolic and prophetic government. At the ‘Arise Prophetic Conference’ in San Jose in 2004, Wagner explained why this is so crucial:
See, the problem is … that Satan has had too much of his way in our society because he has a government! And the only way to overthrow a government is with a government. It won’t happen otherwise.
Dominionism is therefore much more radical than the movement often associated with liberal Christianity called the Social Gospel. While the latter sought to transform society by injecting a certain brand of morality into the cultural and political landscape, Dominionism seeks to demolish modern social and political structures altogether.
Put differently, Dominionism is not satisfied with merely reforming culture and politics. It aims to transform society by abolishing the existing social and political structures and replacing them with Christian ones. Only when this is accomplished can Christ return and the world’s nations be handed over to him.
This of course implies a radical understanding of the relationship between the Church and the state.
During the 16th century Protestant Reformation, there arose a theory of Church-State relationship called Erastianism which maintains that the State should have absolute authority over the Church, even in matters of religion and morality. Associated with the Swiss physician and theologian Thomas Erastus (1524-1583), Erastianism is established on the basis of an analogy between Jewish and Christian Dispensations.
The dominionists have simply turned Erastianism on its head. They insist that under the leadership of the apostles and prophets, the Church as the New Adam must govern the world: all governments must be made Christian, and all civic laws must conform to God’s laws set forth in the Bible.
Dominionists and Christian Right extremists therefore seek to dismantle the long-established constitutional separation of Church and state in America, and to bring about a new order: a government that will be entirely governed by Christian values and principles as they understand them.
The vision of the dominionists for society is therefore nothing short of a theocracy and a theonomy. It is therefore not surprising that some authors have described NAR and other dominionist groups as ‘America’s Taliban’. DT and KN have also been described as a form of Christian Imperialism.
Dominionism and Evangelicalism
The leaders of dominionist organisations have tried strenuously to show that their vision is in concert with evangelical Christianity. Peter Wagner, in his description of NAR, points to the continuities and discontinuities that obtain between it and traditional Protestantism in this way:
This is not a doctrinal change. We adhere to the major tenets of the Reformation: the authority of Scripture, the justification by faith, and the priesthood of all believers. But the quality of church life, the governance of the church, the worship, the theology of prayer, the missional goals, the optimistic vision for the future, and other features, constitute quite a change from traditional Protestantism.
It is, however, more than a little disingenuous for Wagner and other NAR leaders to claim that the movement introduces no doctrinal change. This is simply not the case.
Take their doctrine of revelation. Peter Wagner clearly teaches that God continues to speak today by his Spirit to the end-time apostles and prophets. And although these new revelations do not contradict the Bible, they can supplement it.
In his article published in Charisma Magazine entitled ‘The New Apostolic Reformation is not a Cult’, Wagner writes:
… I believe that prayer is two way, we speak to God and expect Him to speak with us. We can hear God’s voice. He also reveals new things to prophets we have seen. The one major rule governing any new revelation from God is that it cannot contradict what has been written in the Bible. It may supplement it, however.
This of course contradicts Christian orthodoxy which insists on the sufficiency and finality of the Scriptures.
Those who are more familiar with NAR’s theology would know that it has brought serious distortions to the doctrine of revelation, doctrine of God, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. The distortions are simply too many to be treated in the remaining space of this article.
The dominionists’ claim that their doctrine is an expression of evangelical Christianity is of course an attempt to ensure their own legitimacy in the eyes of the American Christian public. But as Sarah Powell Miller has rightly argued,
Theologically, methodologically, and organisationally, Dominionism represents a new breed of Christian expression, which, though it includes elements of mainstream Evangelicalism, presents a radically different interpretation of Christian mission and history.
Thus, according to Miller, many have described Dominionism as a ‘bastardisation of mainstream Evangelicalism’, while others have characterised it as an ‘anti-Democratic, anti-American movement of subversion.’
In this article I’ve focussed primarily on Dominionism and its relationship to the religious right in America.
However, as trends that emerge in American Christianity are wont to very quickly reach our shores, we do well to be alert to the dangerous distortions associated with DT and its understanding of the Church and its mission in the world.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.