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Breaking the Yardstick by Which We Measure Success

By Martin G. Selbrede
November 01, 2005

In one of my talks at Chalcedon’s recent 40th Anniversary Conference in Georgia, I alluded to a question from a Bay Area atheist group during a telephone interview the month before. The atheists were curious how I would measure the success of Christian Reconstruction. From their reaction to my answers, I’d guess that they expected me to wax enthusiastic over the supposed impact of the Christian Right on national politics and on the Republican Party. They expected me to couch my reply in statist terms (a framework they appear to find both intelligible and credible). They were distressed when I instead proposed two goals that, if met, would signal the success of Christian Reconstruction. I further insisted that until these two goals were achieved, any other alleged “successes” of Christian Reconstruction would be like “Band-Aids” applied to a compound fracture: superficial and ephemeral.

What two things would indicate that Christian Reconstruction has been successful? First, that Christians tithe all the tithes commanded in the Bible: the Levitical tithe, the poor tithe, and the rejoicing tithe. All of it. Every last, decentralizing, state de-bloating cent of it. Second, that the tithe is applied as commanded in Scripture (e.g., Neh. 10:38), with only a tithe of the tithe directed to institutional worship, but 90% of the tithe directed to Levitical functions (in particular, education of children).

These two things go in tandem: so long as Christians won’t tithe, the short-changed Church will be tempted to gratuitously identify itself with Malachi’s storehouse to avoid the implications of Neh. 10:38. But even if Christians did tithe, the Church’s misallocation of the tithe would completely undermine that fact, fostering ecclesiastical bloat. If God asserts He is robbed when individuals withhold the full tithe, will He hold churches blameless that misapply 90% of the collected tithe? Judgment begins at the house of God. We’d expect that He will prosper, not the ecclesiocentric churches, but the basiliocentric (Kingdom-centered) churches.

In short, when every Christian puts his money where his preachy mouth is, and churches trust God and obey the injunction of Nehemiah 10:38, Christian Reconstruction can acknowledge a major success. The cultural implications of these two indices will be deep, lasting, and will snowball. Until that time, both individuals and churches are illegitimately dipping their hands into God’s pockets — in different ways, assuredly, but no less culpably.

So, what is going on culturally in the mean time? Christians are looking for quick political fixes, and are equating any perceived progress on such fronts as rip-roaring successes. It is instructive, then, to consider the rip-roaring successes achieved by King Josiah, the greatest king of the Old Testament by Scriptural acclamation.

The scriptures that speak of Josiah’s reign should bring tears of joy and recognition to those sympathetic to Christian Reconstruction. The fact is, notwithstanding the astonishing strides under Josiah, Israel’s reconstruction was short-lived and finally collapsed catastrophically under the reign of Zedekiah. The reconstruction, particularly among the populace, had no abiding root. It’s as if the cultural flip-side to “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees…” is “unless your reconstruction exceeds that of King Josiah…” But make no mistake: if we, today, were enjoying even a fifth of the progress that Josiah’s cultural piledriver had achieved, many Christians would see that as a miraculous, world-wide success. So we must continually remind ourselves that “these things happened to them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition” (I Cor. 10:11). Only unshakeable things can remain when God moves in history.

John Peter Lange brings home the meaning of counting the cost before building a tower (Lk. 14:28-30) in words that apply both to Josiah’s reform and our own era:

The beginning signifies nothing unless it leads to the end; a good ending is impossible without careful calculation and continually renewed exertion of all inward powers… So long as the City of God shows so many incomplete towers and heaps of ruins, it cannot possibly make upon its enemies the impression of an impregnable fortress.1

By the time you read this, Mark Rushdoony, Chris Ortiz, and myself will have (Deo volente) attended a follow-up conference in New York (October 21-22, 2005) sponsored by secularists for the purpose of enlightening attendees on the dangers of “Dominionism.” We expect that secularists will once again (as in April 2005’s conference) apply statist/political yardsticks to measure the success of the Christian Right, concerning which they take (to be charitable here) a dim view. As I see Christians grab the exact same yardsticks to draw exultant conclusions, I find myself in the ironic situation of regretting my comments to the Bay Area atheists concerning the two tithe-based yardsticks I proposed. My change of heart isn’t based on my analysis being incorrect. Nor is it because I’ve come to prefer other equally suitable yardsticks (e.g., “when conservative Christian pastors no longer put their own kids in public schools, creating arguably the worst example possible for their flock”). My reversal is premised on the fact that all such yardsticks reflect gross presumption in light of our Lord’s words at Luke 17:20.

When the Pharisees inquired of Christ, “When comes the kingdom of God?”, they did not “intend to inquire as to the date but as to the visible signs and tangible proofs for determining that the kingdom has truly come” (Lenski2). The words of Christ in answer to this cannot be evaded: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation.”

How theologians use this idea appears to vary with their eschatology.

Amillennialists think it applies with equal force against both premillennialists and postmillennialists: the Kingdom will never be visibly manifested this side of the Second Advent, being a purely spiritual phenomenon, and least of all would its coming be observable in the premillennial sense of a sudden imposition of millennial rule by Christ in person.

Some premillennialists don’t scruple to reverse the sense entirely, as if Christ had meant it will be unnecessary to hunt for omens or sift through data to detect it, because the Kingdom’s coming will be so explosive that no one will miss it. Ridderbos even adopts this perspective.3

Godet corrects these notions in explaining the phrase used by Christ, meta parataraseos, meaning “in such a way as to be observed,” which relates “to the observation of objects falling under the senses.”4  The great 19th century German exegete, H.A.W. Meyer, agrees:

“[T]he coming of the Messiah’s kingdom is not so conditioned that this coming could be observed as a visible development, or that it could be said, in consequence of such observation, that here or there is the kingdom. The coming… develops itself unnoticed.” 5

John Owen touches on Luke 17:20 in his sermon on Daniel 7:15-16 preached on Oct. 13, 1652, taking up the issue of the diverse opinions on the matter of Christ’s Kingdom: “This we find, by woeful experience, that all who, from the spirituality of the rule of Christ, and delight therein, have degenerated into carnal apprehensions of the beauty and glory of it, have, for the most part, been given up to carnal actions, suited to such apprehensions; and have been so dazzled with gazing after temporal glory, that the kingdom which comes not by observation hath been vile in their eyes.”

Owen doesn’t fail to press the personal component upon our souls: “Let not any think to set up the kingdom of Christ in the world, while they pull it down in their own hearts by sin and folly.” But the end game is still clearly revealed:

Yet, this is certain, that all nations whatever, which in their present state and government have given their power to the dragon and the beast to oppose the Lord Christ withal, shall be shaken, broken, translated, and turned off their old foundations and constitutions, into which the antichristian interest hath been woven for a long season. God will shake the heavens and the earth of the nations round about, until all the Babylonish rubbish, all their original engagements to the man of sin, be taken away.6

The means of victory is ultimately supernatural, as Owen clearly lays out:

The coming in of the kingdom shall not be by the arm of flesh, nor shall it be the product of the strifes and contests of men which are in the world, — it is not to be done by might or power, but by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts, Zech. 4:6. Certainly the strivings of men about this business shall have no influence into it. It shall be by the glorious manifestation of His own power, and that by His Spirit subduing the souls of men unto it; — not by the sword of man setting up a few to rule over others. 7

What, precisely, is the danger?  The danger is in equating short-term progress (which stands every chance of being far more superficial than the progress achieved under Josiah) with the forward-motion of God’s Kingdom. In fact, the great error of far too many 19th century postmillennialists was their expectation of too-rapid progress. When these faulty expectations imploded (cf. WWI, WWII), premillennialists could justifiably characterize the shift away from postmillennialism as a rout.

In short, postmillennialists banking on what they observed (contra Luke 17:20) invariably lived to regret it. It’s a hard habit to break: even postmillennialist Dr. Loraine Boettner appealed to the technological/cultural strides of the Eisenhower era as evidence for postmillennialism, a misguided tactic for which he received full-body slams in debate.8 It’s an error today’s Christians may be sorely tempted to fall into. What currently feeds this temptation? Perhaps Dr. Gary North’s insightful essay, “Eschatology and the New Christian Right,” gives us a clue when he invokes the vivid figure of those who “smell blood” in the tumult of modern politics.

God doesn’t appear to be particularly impressed with human political power. “All nations before Him are as nothing; and they are counted to Him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isa. 40:17). They “are counted as the small dust of the balance” (v. 15), meaning they have zero impact or influence on what God determines to do: God’s balances aren’t even remotely perturbed by their actions. Accordingly, when God issues moral imperatives, He has the authority and power to back them up, such that He enforces many of His laws directly, not by human institutions (the tithe laws being a prime example of this).  Men misread this as largesse, or worse: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11).  Yet God sets in motion His measured response: “It is time for thee, Lord, to work: for they have made void Thy law” (Ps. 119:126).

Alignment with a political party is its own punishment. How many Christians enter a voting booth with the clear mandate of 2 Samuel 23:3 governing their suffrage? (“The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.”) Modern Christendom’s rewrite too often runs something like this: “He that ruleth over men must be electable according to the pollsters, lest ye throw away thy vote.” The associating, the equating, of God’s cause with any given human cause (read: party, candidate, nation) should never be taken lightly.

Sad but true: we are prone to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10), notwithstanding God’s acting through them. It is not surprising, then, that God’s people likewise “despised the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoiced in Rezin and Remaliah’s son” (Is. 8:6). The low water pressure feeding the Shiloah fountain made Jerusalem’s water supply look laughable next to nations that bordered the mighty Euphrates and other rivers. The “waters that go softly” are a metaphor for God’s gentle, beneficent theocratic rule; the high regard God’s people had for power politics recoiled against them (v. 7-8) when Isaiah drops the metaphor and informs the people that the nations (e.g., Assyria) that they envied and courted would, like a river, overflow their banks, that very flood growing actual wings, wings wide enough to cover the entire covenant land.

Isaiah was so tempted to adopt the peoples’ viewpoint that he claims the only thing that restrained him was the strong hand of the Lord pressing heavily upon him: “For the Lord spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people…” (v. 11)  Now more than ever, we need the strong hand of the Lord to keep us steady and fixed on the true, unshakeable end-game, and not on cleverly-painted decoys. There are a lot of hares racing towards supposed political finish lines, but the tortoise’s victory is the one predetermined. As Dr. Rushdoony put it so succinctly, “there is no easy way.” If a given political victory by the Christian Right seems too good to be true, perhaps it is.  Josiah’s reign was too good to be true, and we’ve got nothing on him! Neither be seduced by political victories (lest we be “so dazzled gazing after temporal glory, that the Kingdom that comes not by observation seems vile in our eyes”) nor derailed by losses or setbacks (because our God is He that “calleth those things which be not, as though they were” — Rom. 4:17).

But if we faithfully “raise the foundations of many generations” (Is. 58:12), living out a text that lifts our thinking beyond the next election to our grandchildren’s generation and beyond, contemporary Christian activism (in education, politics, economics, etc.)
will take deep, effective root, and will hold against what future storms may come. Storms discriminate between trees with shallow roots and those with deep roots. Josiah’s magnificent reconstruction (2 Chr. 34 & 35) was a glorious tree with shallow roots, which made the nation’s decline all the more precipitous. Failure to focus on the roots, the foundations, always spells disaster down the line, because the storms will mercilessly test them. As Shakespeare put it, “When the sea was calm, all ships alike showed mastership at floating.”

It is not without reason that Owen’s allusion to Luke 17:20 appears on the dust jacket of Dr. Rushdoony’s Christianity and the State. Hailing a political victory as visible, observable evidence that God’s Kingdom is advancing (using a standard tailored to Christians already prone to walk by sight) is risky business in an age where the expectations of Isaiah 2 (nations flowing to God voluntarily; all men inviting one another to go up to the house of God and learn of His ways and walk in His paths) don’t yet figure in our cultural landscape. We are rightly gratified when our labor is not in vain, but breaking out yardsticks to measure the unmeasurable can only frustrate us down the line. 9

However, when we take Christ’s injunction about the unobservable coming of His Kingdom seriously, we will be immunized against gleeful reports of “progress” by God’s opponents, such as atheist Jim Heldberg’s description of a Washington D.C. march held on Nov. 2, 2002: “The gates had been opened, and the momentum had begun for organized godless activism. The crowd poured out their enthusiasm. They poured money into buckets to back up their enthusiasm with commitment. They poured cards with their names and addresses into more buckets for future actions to bring a godless America to reality.” When we trust the Lord and throw away pointless yardsticks, we’ll come to appreciate that Heldberg’s report is no more a sign of the retardation of God’s Kingdom being realized than a Christian political victory is a sign of its acceleration.

We must resist being drawn into our opponents’ mental frame, which sees the nations decisively determining the tilt of God’s balance. We must consistently affirm that the small dust of the balance is, and will ever remain, irrelevant. We should pray that God place His strong hand upon us lest we be tempted to seek out and use the kind of yardsticks the Pharisees had sought from Christ. We prosecute the ongoing task of Christian Reconstruction according to an invincible standard, moving inexorably toward victory, only when we think His thoughts after Him.

By faithfully upholding a transcendent standard, God’s standard, we shall observe what St. John saw and reported: “the darkness is passing away, and the true light is shining already” (1 John 2:8). Dr. Rushdoony articulated the content of that divine standard with penetrating clarity throughout his published works, which, in sum, point the way to the highway of holiness, as envisioned in Isaiah 35:8: “And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.” In modern language, Isaiah here describes The Idiot’s Guide to Holiness. When it becomes a bestseller, figuratively speaking, we will see the rulers and judges of the earth “serve the Lord with fear” as they “kiss the Son” instead of provoking one another to rebellion against His rule (Psalm 2).


1. Lange, John Peter. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d., p. 232 (Vol. 16B: Luke).

2. Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1946, p. 881.

3. Ridderbos, Herman. The Coming of the Kingdom. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962, p. 474.

4. Godet, Frederic. Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1887, p. 403.

5. Meyer, H.A.W. Commentary on the New Testament. Winona Lake: Alpha Publications, 1979. 10 vols. Originally published by T.&T. Clark in 1883. Vol. 2, p. 490.

6. Owen, John. The Works of John Owen. 16 vols. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 (1850-53). Vol. 8, p. 374.

7. Ibid., p. 376.

8. Clouse, Robert G. The Meaning of the Millennium. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1977. Anthony A. Hoekema (p. 151) pointed out that Boettner’s sketch of world conditions was seriously out of date, while George Eldon Ladd (p. 143) argued that such claims were a double-edged sword.

9. None of this discussion bears on our continuing obligation to labor faithfully in all domains, including the political realm: it rather speaks to our attitude toward that work. When Christ tells the disciples (Luke 10:20), “Don’t rejoice that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” He didn’t mean that they should stop casting out demons! The disciples were to draw their eyes upward to see that their temporal success was a side effect of something bigger. Consider Daniel’s vision of the Kingdom as a rock cut without hands that becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth. That Kingdom moves forward like an immense glacier. The enemies arrayed like ants in front of it use all their strength to stop and reverse it, but they clearly imagine a vain thing – they’re pushing the wrong way. On the other hand, as we push on the glacier in its actual direction of motion, let none of us ever boast: “Hey, I moved it!”


Topics: Biblical Law, Christian Reconstruction, Church, The, Culture , Dominion, Economics, Education, Family & Marriage, Government, Justice, Old Testament History, Reformed Thought, Statism, Theology

Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s magazine, Faith for All of Life. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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