What is a Theocracy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The term "theocracy" comes from the Greek word theokratia, which is a compound word that combines theos, which means "god," and kratein, which means "to rule." A theocracy, therefore, is a form of government in which rule is directed by the belief in a god or by certain religious beliefs. It might also be the case that the head of a theocratic government is the head of a specific religion, as in the case of Vatican City. Theocratic rulers are guided specifically by their religious beliefs and might see themselves as emissaries of their god who are meant to rule their people.

Vatican City, a city state that serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, is a theocracy governed by the Pope and College of Cardinals.
Vatican City, a city state that serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, is a theocracy governed by the Pope and College of Cardinals.

Theocracy vs. Ecclesiocracy

In the strictest sense, a theocracy has a ruler who claims to be guided by his or her god, such as through direct revelation. When this is the case, laws and declarations made by the ruler are considered by the ruler's followers to be divinely revealed or inspired. A similar type of government is an ecclesiocracy, which is when the government is controlled by a church or religion but the leaders do not claim to be in direct communication with or to receive revelation from God. Instead, an ecclesiocratic government's leaders might rule based upon religious beliefs, tenets and interpretations. Despite the differences between these types of governments, ecclesiocracies typically are considered to be theocracies in a general sense.

Iran has been a theocratic Islamic state since the overthrow of its monarchy, which was led by the Pahlavi dynasty, in 1979.
Iran has been a theocratic Islamic state since the overthrow of its monarchy, which was led by the Pahlavi dynasty, in 1979.

History of Theocracies

During the Middle Ages, many monarchies were at least partly theocratic. Decisions of rulers in Catholic countries, for example, were often questioned and dismissed if the popes of the time disagreed with them. Religious leaders frequently advised rulers on matters of both government and religion.

This began to change as Protestantism and other non-Catholic religions gained influence in certain countries. Many countries still might have official religions or have leaders who are advised by religious figures, but these conditions alone do not meet the definition of a theocracy. In addition, governments in countries where the population is overwhelmingly made up of members of a particular religion might resemble theocracies even if they actually use other forms of government.

Modern Theocracies

As of 2011, most of the world's governments that were considered to be theocracies were Islamic states. Among these were the governments of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Vatican City is a Catholic theocracy with the pope as the head of its government.

Saudi Arabia is a modern theocracy.
Saudi Arabia is a modern theocracy.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


There has not been a true theocracy since the garden of Eden.


How do they choose their leader?


what is the Theocratic age?


Actually since Iran's Supreme Leader is the emissary or representative of God, it fits better under theocracy category. Even though the constitution creates power in other branches, since the supreme leader has ultimate power to dispose of any person or policy, there is no room for derivation from the leader's interpretation/stance.


Really? I'm not seeing that Saudi Arabia is theocratic country per se. That's why the world once had Bin Laden.


@ Comparables- A constitutional theocracy is a theocracy based on a constitution, where elected officials operate within the bounds of the constitution rather than directly in the bounds of the religion. A single religion is still the main influence of a constitutional theocracy, but the government bases laws and their enforcement on a constitution, which the founders have based heavily on different aspects of a religion.

I am not exactly sure what an ecclisiocracy is, but I assume it is similar to a constitutional theocracy; Iran's type of government.


What is the difference between a theocracy and a constitutional theocracy? I read that Iran was a constitutional theocracy, but the article stated that Iran is more of an ecclisiocracy. Is an ecclisiocracy the same as a constitutional theocracy?


@ Anon21556- The Vatican City's government would be a theocracy by definition. As religious as the people of Israel are, Israel itself is a parliamentary democracy. The people of Israel are represented by the government, whereas the church and the bible are the rule of the land in the Vatican City.

Israel does not have an official constitution yet, but the Israeli government has been working on a draft constitution for the last seven years. The government is composed of an executive, legislative, and judicial branch, and there are numerous political parties and affiliations.

The only area of the government where religion plays a direct role is in the legal and judicial system when personal matters are involved. In these instances, laws are designed to represent Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths.


what are the differences between Vatican City's government and Israel's?

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