On Being a Christian (Anti)Revolutionary
‘Revolution’ denotes some kind of change or upheaval, whether political, social, or technological. Examples of historical revolutions include the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Sexual Revolution. But each of these Revolutions is a very different event, with different underlying principles. We might have a deep appreciation for certain revolutions, and serious concerns about others. Thinking of these examples doesn’t necessarily get us much closer to what it means to be Revolutionary or Anti-Revolutionary. The idea of being a Christian Anti-Revolutionary can be tied back to the early 20th century, when Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper started the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands, and a portion of Christian thought turned to taking up the banner of being Anti-Revolutionary, particularly in opposition to the ideas of the French Revolution. In what follows, we will consider why Christians today ought also to be Anti-Revolutionary. To look at this question, I want to start by looking at the conflict between two radically different views of the world; that based in the Christian faith, and that based in unbelief.
To consider the conflict between differing worldviews today, we can look back to the early centuries after Christ. In the Roman Empire, there were ultimately two religions vying for cultural dominance: Christianity and paganism. Christians and pagans had to figure out how to live together peacefully even though they had such different views of the world – views which radically conflicted, and views which vastly impacted the world around them. Essentially, it was a clash between pagans and Christians, who both wanted their perceptions of the world to be recognized in the public square. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become dominant in that struggle also through the reign of Christian Roman emperors and remained dominant through most of Western history. But those with a pagan or unbelieving worldview did not give up on trying to win back the world to their own vision and understanding of reality. They continued their attempts to remove God from the public square.
We see evidence of this conflict between belief and unbelief in other historical revolutions that were rooted in the idea that human beings, rather than God, are of prime importance. Groen van Prinsterer, a Dutch politician and historian who was born shortly after the end of the French Revolution, was an Anti-Revolutionary who opposed the ideas underlying the French Revolution. Decades after the French Revolution, van Prinsterer wrote, “For all its excellences, modern society, having fallen into bondage to the theory of unbelief, is increasingly being seduced into a systematic repudiation of the living God.” In the French Revolution, that unbelief attempted to systematically remove religion from society, while also spiralling into chaos and violence (more on this below).
Beginning in the twentieth century, we have seen that repudiation of the living God play out in another Revolution in the West; the Sexual Revolution, in which we see the “rejection of the very idea of [traditional sexual] codes in their entirety.” Again, this Revolution demonstrates a kind of systematic rejection of God’s laws.
But the same conflict has continued to the present day. Ultimately, there are still two religions: Christianity and unbelief. And both continue to present their vision of reality.
It is in response to this Revolutionary overturning of God’s laws that Canadian Christians are called to be anti-Revolutionaries today as well, as we respond to the ideas of the French Revolution, the Sexual Revolution and the growing secularism in our society. As we do so, we must continue to see that the issues in our society today, whether abortion, euthanasia, the LGBTQ movement, loss of religious freedom or freedom of speech, or a host of other specific issues, are symptomatic of a much bigger problem: our society’s rejection of the living God. Increasingly, our society removes the biblical foundations that give meaning to life.
In the World, but Not of It
Today, for many, the answer to how people with such radically different conceptions of the world can live together is for the public square to be religiously neutral. Seemingly, the solution is to remove religion from the public square because various Christian views are deemed intolerant. Christians can hold their opinions in private settings but must not allow them to affect other people.
Because of the conflict that results when Christians engage with those they disagree with, some Christians also advocate for retreating into the private sphere. But this is not a solution. This approach normalizes secularism and makes faith seem unrealistic to our society. We have a duty to impact the world around us and seek to influence our society for Christ. The problem is that religious neutrality is just not possible. Secularism is not just a lack of religious belief in public but is a form of unbelief which rejects God’s design for the world. Either society will be based on Christian principles, or it will be based on one of the various forms of unbelief.
At the same time, the domain of private settings where religion is permitted seems to be shrinking. For example, business used to be considered part of the private sphere, separate from government and politics. But increasingly businesses are pressured to support LGBTQ ideology and forced to provide services in spite of conscientious or religious objections. Secularism, or at least the idea of religious neutrality, also creeps into the workplace, the family, and so many other areas that in the past were considered private; places where religious worldviews were once commonplace. Another example we see of this is through attempts by the government and society to push secular ideology and beliefs on private schools.
Social and political revolutions are sparked in part by a desire for freedom: for example, freedom from tyranny or oppression. And one’s perception of what freedom is also depends on whether it is based in Christianity or in unbelief.
The French revolutionaries developed an idea that the state receives authority from the people rather than from God. From there, the state could protect and rescue the people from their problems and they could have true freedom because they would be in control of their own lives. However, this ultimately meant that the state could decide what was right or wrong while claiming the support of the people.
From 1793-1794, the state focused on the unconditional promotion of the common good or public safety. That doesn’t sound too bad, but it ultimately meant that the state decided what was right and wrong. And the Reign of Terror was the result. In support of the humanistic perspective of the common good, roughly 17,000 people were officially executed. Although the people imagined that they could decide what they were and were not allowed to do, this structure gave ultimate authority to the state because it ignored the fact that true authority is given by God. The state could then claim that their decisions were in the public interest or had the support of the majority, without needing to be accountable to a higher power.
In the Sexual Revolution too, we see the desire to pursue freedom to do whatever one pleases, without God-given limitations. Individuals do not want to be judged for their choices and thus advocate for the law to change, particularly around sexual morality. As a result, they give increasing authority to the state to try to redefine morality so that it permits and endorses their individual choice. Of course, a state – or a church or a business or an individual – can’t actually redefine morality because humans aren’t the ones who make up reality. We can only recognize the moral norms the divine Lawgiver has written in Scripture and in creation.
These ideas of freedom from any God-given limitations remain prevalent today. As society endeavours to redefine morality, governments also operate in a way that is influenced by a particular worldview. Although the Canadian government officially supports religious freedom, we’ve seen the courts, human rights tribunals, and other government institutions increasingly seek to coerce Christians to participate in what they deem immoral, whether that is abortion or euthanasia or providing services for a same-sex wedding. And the result is that the government tries to decide for itself what is moral and what is immoral because the foundation for truth and morality has been removed.
An unbelieving worldview makes one want freedom from biblical principles, rather than the biblical freedom to do what is right. Groen van Prinsterer contrasted the freedom of the French Revolution with true biblical freedom. He argued that the Protestant Reformation truly understood what freedom and liberty were: “a liberty that is grounded in submission. Liberty is the consequence, the principle is submission.” When we submit to God and His Word, we receive true freedom by following His design for humanity. We also find freedom when we relate to others, to the world, and to God in the way that God has designed. We so easily try to create our own idea of freedom, but in doing so true freedom evades us.
Galatians 5:1 reminds us to “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Our society, having removed God, has two options; either we can have some kind of ‘freedom’ invented by the state, based on their attempt to define morality, or we can return to the foundation that gave freedom in the first place. A society built on God’s Word will recognize and understand what true freedom is.
But this also has practical implications for how Christians engage in the public square. Our society is eroding its Christian foundations, and we need our communities to hear the Gospel and biblical principles must be applied to the public square so that all may flourish. History has given us examples of what can happen when the law is defined by individual preference or by the state (think of the French Revolution and Sexual Revolution), and our society needs to rebuild its foundation.
Being an (Anti)Revolutionary
As Christians today, we need to choose how we will respond to our society. Christian theologian Carl Trueman analyses the current situation in North America, and he concludes, “the second-century world is, in a sense, our world, where Christianity is a choice – and a choice likely at some point to run afoul of the authorities.” And we see this increasingly where Christian perspectives are seen as intolerant or bigoted and Christians are brought to court for not complying with the secular perspective. We see this in attempts to regulate various Christian beliefs as hate speech. Yet, we must still choose belief over unbelief. And we see the blessings of that.
No matter what, we can rejoice, knowing Jesus’ words, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). While we seek to influence this world, we also rest in the Sovereignty of God and His rule over this world. At the same time, we can have hope, knowing that we can “give thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). It is in Christ that we have true freedom and that our society can have true freedom.
These ideas are also a reminder to Christians to take action. When we understand the conflict between Christianity and unbelief and recognize our true freedom in Christ, we can also take action, knowing that we have the truth revealed in God’s Word, and we can bear witness to that truth. The unbelief affecting so many parts of our society is nothing new, and God can and will use our faithful witness in His good timing. It is in that spirit that we can speak to the issues of our day and advocate for change.
In the sense of opposing Revolutionary ideas of unbelief, also in the public square and through practical application, Christians are called to be anti-Revolutionaries. And in our society, this may look revolutionary at times because in the Gospel there is power for the radical change of individuals and society. We are called to speak the truth of God’s Word and oppose unbelief in our society. We seek to combat unbelief for the glory of God and the good of our neighbours. As we do so, we continue to “seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7).
 Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Unbelief and Revolution, trans. Harry Van Dyke (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), xxxix.
 Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 25.
 Van Prinsterer, Unbelief and Revolution, 73.
 Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 407.