Christian Anarchism & Atheism

My friend and colleague David has gotten me interested in the work of Jacques Ellul. And as I've read Ellul I've gotten more interested in Christian anarchism, particularly after reading Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity.

I'm new to this literature, so please don't count me as an expert. I mainly want to point out two things in this post.

First, in an important sense, all Christians are anarchists. The word "anarchism" comes from the Greek ἄναρχος (anarchos) which means "no rulers" or "without rulers." For the Christian such a description, obviously, refers to the ultimacy of human rulers.

An anarchist strain runs throughout the Old and Testaments. We see it in the Old Testament in God's unwillingness to give a king to Israel. When God finally relents God takes this as an explicit rejection and predicts things aren't going to go well for Israel:

1 Samuel 8.6-22
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

So Samuel passed on the Lord’s warning to the people who were asking him for a king. “This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning. “Even so, we still want a king,” they said. “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.”

So Samuel repeated to the Lord what the people had said, and the Lord replied, “Do as they say, and give them a king.” Then Samuel agreed and sent the people home.
So the bible has a very dim view of kings. But the people want one. And their reason for wanting a king is interesting: "to judge us and lead us into battle." Another sign that the bible has a dim view of kings is that every Old Testament king had a prophet. And in Jesus's day Herod had John the Baptist.

But beyond the kings of Israel we also see the Israelites coming into conflict with the rulers of foreign nations. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego's refusal to bow down, under threat of death, to the golden idol erected by Nebuchadnezzar:
Daniel 3. 13-18
Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
What is interesting here in Daniel, and this is the second and larger point I want to make in this post, is the conflation of anarchism and atheism. You'll recall that the word "atheist" was coined by the Romans to describe the early Christians. This was because Christians rejected the gods of the Romans, denied their legitimacy, ultimacy and existence.

In short, there is a conflation between the rulers/rule of a nation and the pantheon of gods supporting it and conferring legitimacy. To be an anarchist, then, one also has to be an atheist. The two go hand in hand. And we see this clearly in Daniel. To say no to the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar is to refuse to worship his idol.

This duality sits at the heart of the Old Testament in the experience of the Exodus. Moses emancipates slaves by revolting against both the rule and divinity of Pharaoh. To the Egyptians Moses was both an atheist--in his denial of their divinities, Pharaoh among them--and an anarchist. The political and the spiritual go hand in hand.

So there is this interesting conflation of obedience and worship. Both, after all, involve "bowing down." Perhaps the best word to pick out this area of overlap is allegiance. When push comes to shove, whom do you serve? This is nicely pointed out in a well-known example of New Testament anarchism:
Acts 5.27-29
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!"
Along these lines, we might consider Jesus to be the paradigmatic case--the Original Anarchist. Note the conflation of refusing rule and refusing to worship:
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’
Another theme of anarchism is being "stateless." This is also a theme found throughout the Old and New Testaments where the people of God are considered pilgrims, exiles, and sojourners. 1 Peter is a prolonged meditation on this theme. Right at the start of 1 Peter Christians are addressed as eklektois parepidemois diasporas. This is variously translated as:
"To the exiles of the Dispersion...who have been chosen."

"To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered..."

" all those living as aliens in the Dispersion...who have been chosen."

" God's chosen people who are living as foreigners."

Good News:
"To God's chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of..."
Later, in 2.11, the author of 1 Peter uses a different word to describe Christians, paroikos: "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles (paroikos)..." Where parepidemois carries the idea of "sojourning" paroikos is a political word referring to the tenuous relationship (or lack thereof) between the the pilgrim and the state he/she is currently residing in. Because of this paroikos is often translated as "resident alien" or "resident non-citizen." The important part for our purposes is how 1 Peter uses the idea "statelessness" to describe the Christian relationship with the world. We are resident non-citizens of the world. In this sense, the Christian identity is anarchical.

And it's this anarchical relationship with the world that produces persecution. After Peter and the apostles give their speech about obeying God rather than men they are flogged. Jesus also speaks of this persecution in the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Why would anyone want to persecute the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers? That's a puzzle. Until we ponder the provocative and anarchical nature of the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven." It's the anarchical nature of the peacemaking that's bringing the persecution. Here is a peace that occurs outside of, in opposition to, and as an indictment of worldly rule, with how Leviathan "makes peace." This was why the early Christians were persecuted by Rome. Rome wasn't upset by Christian meekness and humility. Rome was upset by Christian atheism and anarchism. In the Roman worldview Caesar was considered to be the Son of God and his imperial accomplishments were proclaimed as gospel ("glad tidings"). Christians, however, recognized a different Son of God, a King even, and proclaimed a rival gospel. Thus the clash between rival conceptions of rule (anarchism) and divinity (atheism). Walter Wink describes the conflict:
When the Romans archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor's behalf to God. This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been. Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor's power, and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power...prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire's "angel," as it where, before the judgment seat of God.
All this is to simply point out the anarchist themes in the bible and how those themes are intimately associated with issues related to idolatry and false worship. There is a pervasive spiritual aspect to Christian anarchism. It cannot be reduced to political actions or activities. Specifically, Christian anarchism is atheistic in denying that which confers spiritual legitimacy to the use of power. This is, I think, what it means to "discern the spirits" and to claim that our battle "is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this dark age."

And yet, if we utter this atheistic "no" we step outside the nexus of values and ideologies that legitimize how meaning is constructed in the world (mainly though the use of power). The atheistic move makes us appear "lawless," advocates of anarchy and "no rule." This is the root of Christian persecution. Why Jesus was considered to be both demon-possessed and executed as a political dissident.

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37 thoughts on “Christian Anarchism & Atheism”

  1. This is great stuff, Richard. Jacques Ellul has many good reads and they all build on each other. He really does have a "body of work". As Christians, we are even atheists relative to the gods of atheism and secularism which reign today and that infuriates those in power.

    A quick semi-related story just because I know you'll appreciate it. My mother used to be personnel director for the IRS. They were working with MBTI. She and two of her staff were identified as INTP (which is my profile as well). The facilitator was completely surprised as such people usual run screaming from employment at IRS. He had never read the description in this setting, but did so then. He got to the part where it said "no respect for authority". My mother's boss turned to her and said "Really!?!" My mother tried to smooth things over by saying, "It's not that I don't respect you. It's just that I respect you the same way I respect my secretary." Let's just say that went over like a lead balloon. :-)

  2. Hooray for Christian Anarchism!  Might I suggest that you temper Ellul with Peter Boettke and his students (of whom I am one, though you need not bother with what I write)?  Boettke has encouraged a research agenda in anarchist systems of economics.  David Friedman (Milton's son) has also done and continues to work in this area.  Coming from the Anarcho-capitalist side of the spectrum, I have been in conversation with the Christian Anarchists such as Jason Barr and Mark Van Steenwyk for a few years now, whom are more communist.  My primary contention with them, and with Wink, is the inclusion of voluntary market systems as one of the "powers," along with the idea that democratic collective decision making can somehow overcome the tendency to become a power.
    The obvious follow-up question is how do you deal with Romans 13? 

  3. Great post. You had me at "all Christians are anarchists".  There's the beginnings of a nice intro to Christian Anarchism over at Jesus Radicals  Looks like they're posting one episode per fortnight, so pretty easy for people to catch up on the first three.

  4. Re markets as powers - you should hear the way virtually all stock exchange traders talk about the markets (or read their postings on the web). "she's in a feisty mood today", "the market woke up with a sore head", "its very vindictive", even the language of bullish and bearish. I find it quite easy to see this animistic and anthropomorphic language as pointing towards a felt experience of a spiritual reality in the imaginal realm. Going a bit O/T -  also Richard's earlier series on the powers has some good stuff here.   

  5. Great story. Yes, many of us are anarchists by temperament. I'd include myself in that group.  

  6. You know what we need? We need some creative person to come up with a Jesus/Christian version of a Guy Fawkes mask. Fuller beard, tears, crown of thorns--Man of Sorrow. A non-violent version of the mask.

  7. I like it when people start to learn and write about my religion. its exciting!

    Could you apply what you've shared to the need for and dynamics created by elders in the faith community?

    I want to hear if a thinking man comes to the same conclusions.

  8. Hi David, Not sure what you mean about dynamics created by elders. Could you clarify?

  9. "Denying that which confers spiritual legitimacy to the use of power".  That's one great heuristic, Richard.  I could (and probably will) spend hours bathing in it.

  10. I guess starting at 'church leadership' would be the best place. People assign leaders or 'bow' to assigned leaders instictively, then those leaders lead.
    Even in the body of Christ.
    Electing the new Apostle into leadership. Acts 1.Combining wealth; a leaderless comune? Acts 2Distinguishing between leaders of old and the new way. Acts 3Confronting those leaders of old, and then not yelling when people start dropping money at new leaders feet. Acts 4New leaders not being perfectly clear that they weren't that kind of leader; parishoners dying as a result. Fear ceizing the 'whole' church. Old leaders getting nervous about the new leaders. Act 5New leaders assigning food czars; while an anarchist ends up going where anarchists are usually sent. Acts 6.

  11. Oh, I definitely think there is an anarchical aspect to how the church conducts it's business. I'd start with this text:

    Matthew 20.25-28
    Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

  12. Well written article. I recently found your blog and let's just say I will be around reading for quite awhile. Looking forward to more thought provoking insights!

  13. I think you can get a lot of mileage from this framework. In particular, Ellul later explores, in The Subversion of Christianity, the anti-ethics of Christianity, and their implications.

    I'll be reading The Technological Society next month; Ellul's sociological readings are even better than his theological moonlighting; like you, theology wasn't his main mode but was a very strong side project of his.

  14. Dr. Beck,

    "Christian anarchism is atheistic in denying that which confers spiritual legitimacy to the use of power.
    This is, I think, what it means to 'discern the spirits' and to claim
    that our battle 'is not against flesh and blood, but against the
    principalities and powers of this dark age.'";

    Taking it a step further (which I'm not sure you intend), what do we have when it is Christians and/or the church lending "spiritual legitimacy to [their own] use of power"? Does it then cease to be Christian anarchism and move toward full blown atheism? At what point do we admit Christians have become part of the principalities and powers?

    When do we follow Yukon Cornelius in declaring the "misfit among misfits"?

    Awesome post, thank you.

  15. I think there are actual Christian atheists (see someone like Peter Rollins) who make just this move.

  16. OK, Richard - I've had time to think about that 'use of power' phrase a little more: do you think that, in an unjust world, the use of power per se is diabolical, or that it's the use of 'power without justice' that defines evil (to quote David Bentley Hart).  What would the Christian anarchist say to this?  My own journey has been away from a denial of my own power, towards the exercise of that power on behalf of the powerless.  Does this not redeem power for as long as we walk in the valley of the shadow of death?

  17. Thanks for getting me to think about this. I can't say I've worked out a fully comprehensive and coherent theology of power. I'd love for anyone to recommend some good reading on this subject.

    Here's where my thinking is. I think power is inherently sinful but unavoidable in the Fall. That is, as bounded creatures that need to consume energy I don't see how we cannot avoid the exercise of power. But that exercise of power, in some form or fashion, makes me complicit in various froms of damage. I don't think I can escape that web of power/damage. When I think of "the Fall" that's what I think of.

    That said, in the wake of Pentecost we begin to taste the first fruits of the Kingdom coming. In the early descriptions of the church in Acts we see a mutuality and an "at-one-ness" that begins to mirror the life of the Trinity. So where the reign of God exists we start to experience what love really looks like. But even these expressions will only be approximate, shadows of the New Jerusalem. (For example, while I get taste of the mutuality of the Kingdom at my own church we still have an electric bill. And that bill represents participation in a vast web of power relations and forms of damage.) 

    So stepping back, I don't think there is ever a use of power that is purely "just." But I do think we can strive to act in such a way as to minimize the damage (I agree with Niebuhr here). We can refuse to participate in war, we can live in more sustainable ways, we can serve rather an command, etc. And the more we move in this direction, though we'll never complete this journey in this life, we move deeper into the life of God.

    In fact, this line of argument fits with my Slavery of Death series. We exercise power to fend off death. So death--our finiteness--drives everything. To step out of the power game we need to transcend death. This is the promise of the resurrection.

    Continuing with this ramble, the real problem isn't really death. It's entropy. We need to exercise power to resist the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And the reason why we have the ability to create and perserve structure is because of the Sun. That's the energy (mainly stored) we're all trying to "grab" and "possess" to perserve our structure. In light of that, I'm intruged by the vision of the New Jersusalem where God is our "Sun." In the Kingdom there's no need to "grab" energy, no need for power. In God's economy there is enough, a superabundance. And, thus, peace--a life with no more damage, no more tears and death. For the old things have passed away.

  18. For Jesus followers, I think the response is to bug the hell out of the authorities by doing good and to do so as circumstances dictate--quietly or noisily.  Jesus and his boys sometimes went into hiding, sometimes engaged in confrontation.  The aim is not passive-aggressive anarchy but liberation.  As Wink suggests, redeem the powers.

  19. The "teleios" is not passive-aggressive anarchy but liberation through submission to the Living God.


  20. Wow!  Those are some pretty big thoughts - about, in my book at least, a hugely important question.  I'd echo your request for recommended reading.  You've really made me think already.  As I alluded to before, I have a history of not engaging with power - which was challenged a few years back during my Ed Psych training.  I think the reasoning was that refusing to engage with power is a form of self-delusion (nice tie-in with your previous post).  Since we cannot come value-free to social situations, it's better to be clear about your side than not to play the game.  But I've never really felt that I'd sorted this out - just brushed up my values and adopted a new default position.  For me, it's harder to approach this question than some others objectively - I'm constantly confronted by my own personal history.  I'd love you to pursue this further one of these days - I'd really value a space within which to explore these ideas.


  21. Coincidentally, I just picked up Ellul's Christianity and Anarchism a week ago. I want to read his Meaning of the City, because the guys at Englewood tell me it's great. Peace.

  22. I think this has great implications for emphasizing each Christian's personal responsibility to pursue God and embody His love in the world, beyond just belonging to a church. If we stop thinking of Christianity as some local authority under which we place ourselves, or some in-group to whom we belong, then we will be encouraged to act on a smaller, more nimble scale.

  23. I like that - that we should be atheistic anarchists  ...and I can see it in the Gospels and Acts,  but (I've not read any of the authors you disuss - so here is the probably naive question) what do we then do with verses from Peter and Paul like:

    Romans 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

    Romans 13:6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing.

    1 Peter 2:13,14 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

    1 Peter 2:17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

    Best wishes, Al

  24. Christoyannopolous I think is one of the best contemporary writers on Christian Anarchism and Leo Tolstoy's contributions to the tradition.  His website has several links to articles he's published and his major work "Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospels."

    Tripp York's "Living on Hope While Living In Babylon: The Christian Anarchists of the 20th Century" has some major critics, but I still think that it is a great peak into historical contexts where communities of Christian Anarchism take shape in response to their location/challenges.

  25. Hi Andrew,
    I think that moving from law to love as a guide inherently means leaving behind a search for a final answer to any ethical point of view. It's an "atheism" which refuses to bow even to an ETHICAL system, in the sense that placing a set point of view in place by which to judge right and wrong IS idolatry.Even that is problematic (forbidding set answers to ethical questions). My kids were continually exasperated by my responses when they asked my for advice (my 17-year-old still is, I'm sorry to say). They typically want a quick affirmation or caution--yes or no, good or bad--and I go into a "there's a lot of grey area there requiring more information to make a good decision" mode. I see now that I ought to have accommodated myself to their developmental stages much better--that my inflexible hope to make their minds more supple was a mistake.But I do think this is tied up with Paul's view that the law was our custodian ("humanity's" custodian) till we came of age with Christ and the law of love.I guess I'm saying, look to each situation for guidance. The answer might be that there is no answer,l except what you heart decides--with the best of intent motivated by love.

  26. Hi Tracy

    Thanks so much for this wise and gracious response.  My boys are a few years in age behind yours - I'll try to learn from your experience when the time comes.  I've never thought about ethics as a form of legalism before, but it puts words to a feeling I've been vaguely aware of before - thank-you.  I love your forbearing attitude towards the law, too.  There's something of divine fatherhood in your response - and, as Paul also says, there are not many fathers. Thanks for accommodating yourself to my developmental stage and giving me a good answer to my question!


  27. P.S.  Just preparing some training on restorative approaches this afternoon and came across a great quote by the 13th Century mystic poet Rumi that made me think of you!

    "Beyond right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field.  I'll meet you there."

  28. Have you looked at the work of Michael Munger (Political Science chair at Duke) on Euvoluntary Exchange?  Here's his blog on EE: 
    He discusses the idea of a BATNA, "Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement".  Here's the journal article (gated):
    The idea is that we don't like to see people working for very low wages, even though they would do so voluntarily, because there is a difference in BATNAs.  Now, as subversive Christians, we might take it upon ourselves to reduce BATNAs through sacrifice.  But to insist that BATNAs be reduced through state action generates moral hazard conditions which make everyone slightly worse off.  (He deals with Rawls, etc.)
    Christian Anarchism too often ignores the realities of human nature captured in economics, trying to create a new kind of human by means other than regeneration.  To be meaningful, strategies for effective Christian Anarchism ought to incorporate some of these ideas more thoroughly.

  29. My take: There are consequences to behavior. The act of not respecting as authoritative is not the same thing as disrespecting obvious power.

    I respect psychology, fire, snakes, government and loaded firearms.

  30. I would say I am in 50% agreement with this article. I am more concerned about trying to read more into what the verses say and what they mean, to the point of giving your interpretation of them, then extrapolating a whole new denomination from it.  I am just wondering your thoughts on parental ruler-ship. Even in a Christian household, and the child being a Christian. I mean, is not the Father of the house, the "giver of the law" and the Mother, "the keeper of the law". According to Bill Gothard and many others to name in that teaching. Isn't this how we teach children to respect/love themselves and others? Since we all fall short of the perfection of God's law, and more often than not, reap what we sow, spiritually(robbed of peace) and physically(the rod). Not exasperating your children, but teaching them that submission is not a bad word, but shows true humility. 

    IMHO, going completely "anarchist" can go to the other extreme that this article, and your opinion seems to present. True authority begins with protection, not domination, correct? Authority is a good thing, and it was designed to be so. Moses was an authority, (and I don't believe he was crowned a King, like David, etc). Weren't  even the apostles an authority?  Isn't society/and the church designed to be a reflection of the household?  I am not talking about any kind of bowing down to any human being at all. Even the priest has to sacrifice for his own sins(Hebrews). We do have to respect and obey human authority,(the power) as someone wrote earlier(with scripture references), but not worship them. Surely a child cannot tell his Father/Mother, you are not my boss, only God is. And he/she must respect the house as his parents dominion, and provision for them, not tell them I can bring anyone in I want to, you have no say in it because God told me so. This IMHO is one of the foundations of truth on how we teach on how to live in a peaceful and loving society, as God designed it to be.

    I guess what I am trying to get across here is that no matter what we think or like, we will always have authority on this earth until we are in the full presence of God. 1/2 the time you will be persecuted for living a Holy life, and the other half, because you bow down to an earthly king. 

  31. Hi Richard and all,

    Great post. I am sure you are already familiar with Christoyannopoulos' work. If not, this BBC blog title "Was Jesus an anarchist?" gives a good primer:

    God bless,


  32. Richard, your blog has helped me understand Scripture a great deal. I did a series on Romans 13 that I thought you might be interested in. After all, you're quoted and cited 3 or 4 times :P

  33. You are in no way advocating the rational thought of anarchism. Instead, you have taken all that which anarchism rejects, namely slavery, and transferred such ruling power from a secular body to a religious one, one that does not have to face its peasants. You reject one merciless king for another, one set of laws for another, one jail for hell. This is not anarchism, that is merely a theocracy.

  34. This is an absolute joke. It is claimed that God has complete domain and sovreignity over man. See the contradiction? To deny any man authority over you but then to willingly accept the authority of a non visible, unproven deity, is ludicrous. Christian Anarchism is an oxymoron.

  35. "Christianarchy"

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