Beginning on March 1, 1692, Sarah Good, of Salem, Massachusetts, was examined on charges of witchcraft. Witnesses would later testify that she had engaged in witchcraft, ridden on brooms and poles, appeared as an apparition and tormented children, and otherwise bewitched various people in the community. Good denied all charges, including having familiarity with evil spirits and making a contract with the devil. The final recorded comments of her examination included the following exchange:
John Harthorn: who doe you serve?
Sarah Good: I serve god.
Harthorn: what god doe you serve?
Good: the god that made heaven and earth
In short, she denied all charges and claimed to be just like her examiners in serving God. She was executed by hanging on July 19, 1692.
The record of Sarah Good’s trial reads like modern day horror-genre fiction, and a contemporary reader of the transcript might perhaps be wholly unconvinced of Good’s guilt. Whether or not she was involved in witchcraft, there is no actual evidence presented against her, but in her day the fervor against witchcraft was so strong that the ridiculous testimonies against her were sufficient for her to be condemned to death. Roughly twenty others in the Salem area were executed on charges of witchcraft – including some who opposed the witch-hunts, such as John Proctor and Salem’s former minister, George Burroughs. Later, authorities conceded that the witch-hunts had been a terrible mistake, but the damage had been done, and it was irreparable.
In addition to wild superstition, there was a theological basis for the prevailing attitudes toward witchcraft. For example, Deuteronomy 18:10-12 reads, “There shall not be found among you anyone who…uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up of the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord…” The you in the passage is Israel, and the passage is in the context of reiterating Israel’s commission to drive out the nations from the land of Canaan (because of their wickedness, Deut 9:4).
Clearly, God was opposed to witchcraft then, and still is (e.g., Gal 5:20). Yet He never broadened Israel’s commission (to purge that land of wicked nations) to include any other nation, and certainly He gave no such instruction or authority to the church. Historically, some have claimed this kind of authority through the device of replacement theology – the idea that the church replaces Israel (or at least is the continuation of true Israel) in God’s plan. Replacement theology rejects the idea that ethnic Israel (as qualified in Romans 9:6ff) is uniquely and perpetually chosen by God.
Israel, upon accepting the Mosaic Covenant (beginning in Ex 19), came under theocracy. They were directly governed by God and His Law, as given through Moses and enforced later by Joshua and the judges. After the time of the judges, Israel desired a king, so they could be like the other nations. God granted their wish, but considered their desire a rejection of Him (1 Sam 8:7), and since that time there has been no divinely ordained theocracy on this planet. Much of the prophecy in the Hebrew Bible deals with the restoration of Israel’s theocracy, but in the next iteration it will be under the physical and present rule of the Messiah in Jerusalem. In the meantime, though, the church is not Israel, and the Mosaic Covenant (Law) has been fulfilled – having fulfilled its purpose and being no longer in effect (see Eph 2:15, Gal 3:19-24, and Rom 6:14).
In late-seventeenth century Salem, the authorities were operating in large part under a human-ordained selective theocracy. God didn’t command it, and He gave no instruction regarding such a thing. It was selective in that there was no consistency with respect to which “laws” of God would be applied and enforced. While the folks at Salem could be commended for their apparent (I’m trying to be charitable here) desire to legislate and enforce legislation based on what they understood to be God’s preference, they erred greatly in failing to rightly ascertain how God handles sin outside of the context of the Mosaic Law, and they failed to understand the Biblical distinction in ethical standards and enablement for believers and unbelievers in the present age.
Today, we face some of these same challenges. Christians are the body of Christ, and have the Spirit within them – that Spirit Who will bear fruit in the lives of believers if they will let Him (e.g., Gal 5). Believers are to hold each other accountable to the lofty Biblical standards of spiritual maturity, and are to exhibit love and grace – two qualities that are integral to those Biblical standards. On the other hand, believers are not called to hold unbelievers accountable to those standards (1 Cor 5:9). That judgment is the Lord’s, and His alone. Perhaps reading the death warrant of Sarah Good will help us to consider the evil we create when we step into God’s role without His permission.
So how should we, as Christians in a largely non-Christian society, approach our God-given social-political roles? We are no longer of this world (Col 1:13), but we are in it. We are citizens in societies that also allow us differing levels of influence in how those societies will operate. Shall we ignore those opportunities entirely, citing our heavenly focus? Or shall we, acknowledging our heavenly focus, do what we can – not to place on unbelievers the expectation of spiritual maturity – but to be equitable and just in how we interact with them. We must be cautious not to rush headlong into the error of Salem – we must not be frenzied in the pursuit of a selective theocracy and forget who we are and why we are here. Theocracy isn’t ours in this present age. Let’s leave off claiming what God hasn’t given us, and instead focus on our own obedience.
(note: the image above is not depicting Good’s trial, but another similar event)