Monday, March 04, 2013

A look at Biblical Authority – Part 2 – What submission to authority is not

Usually I do not like to give a merely negative definition of something, but sometimes it is helpful to do this. Some of these examples I will give are personal misconceptions that I had and now realize were wrong. One of the reasons I am writing these posts is to give myself perspective on what does and does not constitute submission to authority. These wrong perceptions I had were partially due to my personality type, but also partially due to an overreaction which the American church especially had to the 1960’s revolt from every type of authority. My generation, growing up in the 80s and 90s often were taught too much emphasis on obedience with little to bring balance to it. The key to a proper balance on something is not to do the opposite of the world though, but rather to find what God actually teaches and follow that.

1. Submission is not keeping absolutely silent under false accusation
Personally I always thought it was, or at least acted like it and there were a few times in school when I got into trouble for something I had not done. One time when I was 5 or 6 a teacher was giving an announcement; another classmate was trying to talk to me so I told her to be quiet. The teacher thought I had said that to her and I ended up in the principal’s office. Since I was never asked for my side of the story I didn’t give it and was punished. At that time and for a long time after I thought this was the right way to handle things. It is only recently I realized that it is not.
Hannah when she was thought to be drunk by Eli corrected his misconception. She did not insult his intelligence or berate him at all, but she did point out that her symptoms were symptoms of deep grief, not of drunkenness (1 Samuel 1:1-20). Not only was she not reproved for this but God heard her prayer.
Even Jesus, of whom it is said that He was lead as a sheep to the slaughter and did not open His mouth (Isaiah 53:7), that does not mean that He literally said nothing. In fact when asked concerning His doctrine, He asked them to summon witnesses (John 18:20-21). This was an appeal to Jewish law and showed the illegality of the proceedings in the most respectful way possible. When He was struck for saying this, He mildly said, "If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?" This was not a lack of meekness but again a mild rebuke of the illegality of their actions.
Since God also for His own purposes once even enabled a donkey to testify in its own defense when receiving an unjust beating, it is hard to imagine that He has a one size fits all always grin and bear it approach to receiving injustice. That is actually patently false.
2.  Having a complaint is not automatically a sin
In Numbers 27 the daughters of Zelophehad brought their cause to Moses. As fatherless women who had no living brothers, they would have received no allotted land and would have been left in very difficult circumstances. God allowed them to inherit the same portions as a son would have. Later the elders of their tribe ask for a review of this previous ruling since it could over time cause a very confused patch work division of the tribes through intermarriage (Num. 36:1-12). Moses did not view this request for review brought with a plain reason for alteration as a threat to his authority or an attempted insurrection. Instead He took it to the Lord and God agreed that the law should also stipulate that those women who did inherit property should marry within their own tribe to preserve the territory of each tribe.
In the book of Acts there arose murmurings (a word usually used in a very negative sense in the New Testament) because it appeared that the Hellenized Jewish widows were not being treated fairly (Acts 6:1-6). How was this handled? What the apostles did not do:
1.                  They did not tell the Greeks that this unfairness was an opportunity to learn meekness.
2.                They did not complain about how these uppity Greeks were always whining.
3.                They did not quote Numbers 11:1 and tell them that complaining displeases the Lord.
What did they do?
1.                  They listened to the substance of the complaint.
2.                They appointed 7 men to prevent future problems all of whom in addition to being of good repute all had Greek names. Thus they destroyed any plausible appearance of favoritism.
To be honest in similar situations I have heard a lot more of the top 3 attitudes reflected than the bottom 2. This is sad. The church is to show forth the wisdom of God, and that wisdom is easy to be entreated.
The complaints and murmuring which angered God had more to do with things which were clearly circumstances God had brought Israel into in the desert, like lack of water, no meat, etc. These were normal realities of travelling through the desert which God had told them they would go through before their deliverance. It was not genuine complaints of oversight or unfairness on the part of leadership. Job pleaded his personal innocence of deserving his trial by stating that he had not ignored complaints that his servants had against him (Job 31:13-14). While a complainant should strive to do so with a good attitude, even if he does not that does not absolve the one above him from doing what is right.
 3.  The Bitterness Card
Anyone who has been involved in an even mildly authoritarian group will recognize this one. Any negative emotion or word displayed against a course of action chosen will result in a Heb. 12:15 quotation warning you against bitterness. The problem with that is manifold:

Firstly, Heb. 12:15 is a reference to the LXX translation of Deut. 29:18, “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.” The root of bitterness refers to idolatry and immorality as the next verse referencing Esau shows. It is likely in the sense as it was applied to false prophets in the Old Testament that Peter tells Simon he is in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity. Simon desired the gifts of God for personal gain and was willing to pay for them, he was not bitter in the usual sense we use the word at all. Rather it was his desire of the things of God for his own ends to draw people after himself which was the bitterness mentioned, which was and always has been a mark of a false prophet/minister (Acts 20:29-30).

Secondly the words translated “bitterness” are used 38 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New Testament, and in most of these cases bitterness is describing an emotion or an experience and is not used in a bad way but a neutral one. The usual translation for this is bitter of soul (Job. 3:20, 1 Sam. 1:10, Isa. 38:15), but sometimes it is translated as bitterness of heart (Eze. 27:31), discontented (1 Sam. 22:2), chafed in mind (2 Sam. 17:8), or even angry (Jdg. 18:25). A reasonably good English approximation would be agitated, or aggrieved. This feeling is not sinful, and if you are in this state you should do what all the saints of old have done and pour out your soul to God.

The preceding things are not to say that bitterness is never used in the traditional manner in Scripture. Certainly Scripture does speak about the necessity for forgiveness, and there are some verses that without doubt do use bitterness, especially bitter speech such as Eph. 4:31, Psa. 64:3, as well as Romans 3:14 (a quotation of Psalms 10:7, which uses the words deceit and fraud, so even here it may have more to do with slander).

Saying every person who brings up a grievance is bitter and offended has another side effect. If every person so labeled really is so, and the condition was created by you, then it is hard to avoid the force of Christ’s words in Matt. 18:6. My suggestion would be if that is you, you should start learning to tread water with some weights attached.

To fully round off this section on the use of bitterness as an excuse to silence people, it should be noted that Paul’s behavior was radically different. When someone was offended not only did he not warn others not to take up the offense, he took up the offense and got angry. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?” (2 Cor. 11:29). Jamieson Fausset and Brown have this to say concerning the phrase, “I burn not — The “I” in the Greek is emphatic, which it is not in the former clause, “I am not weak.” I not only enter into the feeling of the party offended, but I burn with indignation at the offender, I myself taking up his cause as my own. “Who meets with a stumbling-block and I am not disturbed even more than himself” [Neander].” I like Paul’s method of leadership, which is patterned after Christ’s, it actually works.

4.    Behavior Paul did not tolerate from leaders

In 2 Corinthians 11:19-20 that Apostle Paul makes it clear that the Corinthians were not only bearing folly, but tolerating behavior that should never be tolerated in a Christian Church.

“For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.”

  •  No Christian or any church should tolerate any leader making slaves of them. This is done when they are made to refer all major decisions to leadership. As a master in the Old Testament was given disposal over the type of work, area of labor, and even marriage of a slave to give anyone other than Christ power to veto these things is to have a master other than Christ and be enslaved by them. 
  •  No Christian church should ever tolerate avaricious behavior by their leadership. Long manipulative collections with “words of knowledge” are entirely unacceptable.
  • No Christian church should allow self-exaltation of their leaders. When leaders allow themselves flattering titles, or claim that they have a unique perspective based on their office which means that they must be implicitly obeyed they have overstepped their bounds. This is compounded if people are forbidden or discouraged from judging their doctrine and practice by Scripture. No man is immune from the bar of Scripture and to act so is to play the fool and the madman.
  • No Christian church should ever tolerate public humiliation of the flock. Almost universally the strike on the face is more than violence, but is the ultimate insult and indignity. While it would include literal striking, it would also include public shaming of many forms.
 Paul was clear that this behavior currently being accepted by the Corinthians was not to be tolerated. 

 5.     Some misused Scriptures

Before ending this post I would like to look at some Scriptures I have heard misused to provide a bolster for authoritarianism. These misuses may not seem like a big issue to the reader, but I was born with a low blasphemy threshold. I despise anything that takes away from the Lordship of Christ in His Church, and I make and by God’s grace never shall make an apology for attacking those who commit the treason of seating another on the throne of Christ.

a.     Psalm 119:165 “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.” This is a wonderful verse in the middle of a Psalm which specifically deals with the goodness of God’s Word. It is misused when the law here is glossed to include the law of the pastor. I heard this done with my own ears. That is a clear No-No. Human law even religious human law (actually especially religious human law) can never be elevated to the level of divine law. God’s law is eternal having existed in Him as character prior to utterance. When He spoke it was out of the abundance of His heart. Human utterances are born in time and not eternal. I am required to love the law of God because it is an expression of His heart and to love it is to love Him for who He really is. The Word is also the incorruptible seed by which I was born again (1 Pet. 1:23). A human command even if reasonable and good cannot be held up as a necessary object of love. It can require obedience though even that is not absolute, but not love. Joab hated David’s command to number the people though he obeyed it (1 Chron. 21:6). Pastors have a responsibility to guide the flock of God and that of course does require them to make rules. I have no problem with that as long as the rules do not overextend the authority Christ gave them and reserves for Himself and these rules are not viewed as objects of love placing them on equal footing with Scripture.

b.    Heb. 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This verse is misused when the concepts in it are extended beyond the bounds God has ordained.

John Wesley says on this verse, “And submit yourselves - Give up (not your conscience or judgment, but) your own will, in all things purely indifferent.”

Obey means to be persuaded and this is the main means God uses to bring us into compliance. The apostles when faced with recalcitrant congregations did not assert their blanket authority and chastise the flock, but instead wrote Epistles to persuade them (3 John, and the Corinthians). Submission is to be given to leaders, but it is limited in scope. Their giving of direction to the church and ordering of things in it is limited only to that which does not violate Christ’s precepts. It is more limited when it comes to personal decisions made by the flock in things where there is no command of Christ violated. If someone desires to change employment that does not fall under the rule of the leaders unless the employment entered into is wrong in itself, or God gives a specific prophecy, vision to the leadership, in that case the person should test the prophecy, but it should have due weight in their decision. The same rule would apply to marriage as well as what studies to pursue and other like things. 1 Cor. 7:39 gives widows (and by implication widowers), a group especially prone to make rash decisions especially in that time where it was very difficult for a woman to support herself, the right to choose any husband they desired provided it broke no law of God. Paul apparently did not desire supervision of their choice and gave no direction for leaders to “help out” either. To go beyond the call God has given us as leaders is also to go beyond our own competence, and we and our people will know the consequences of our hubris.

Even those who teach the doctrine of absolute obedience do not really believe it as they teach it. Most of them have at one time or another belonged to another church which they left for one reason or another (sometimes valid doctrinal reasons). If they really believed this verse in the way they use it on others they could not have done that. It is ironic but people that teach an absolute submission often are the cause of church splits. When they have a strong conviction about something which the pastor does not share they leave and take many with them. Also if they come to a new church with differing beliefs they try to change them. The problem is their submission is to someone far away and not the pastor of the church.  A healthy balance on the obedience and submission is the best way to preserve respect for leaders with whom you disagree. Just remember that pastors were set in the Church by Christ, in the church their arrangement is to be accepted as long as they are not violating Scripture. They also have a limited authority over your outside life to guide you when you stray and to strengthen you, etc. It is only when it crosses into a controlling of decisions which God has left in the hands of each individual that it is a problem. The head of every man (no matter how stupid, rebellious or foolish you may personally think him) is Christ.

c.     Another common passage first used by Catholics against Protestants and later by Lutherans against Anabaptists and still in vogue today is Matt. 23:2-3.

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you--but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”

As Menno Simons replied to the Lutherans who used this verse to upbraid the Stillen im Lande for their absence from state church services, these words were spoken of the Pharisees and are not applicable at all unless the Lutherans were willing to claim that they were those who killed Christ and were subject to His woes.

Granted there is somewhat of a principle here taught by Christ of submission to bad leadership. It still is limited to what is in the Law – Moses’ seat. This has been the interpretation of Protestantism throughout its history until the fundamentalists began resurrecting the teaching of the Jesuits. That Christ only taught submission to things in accordance with God’s Word is clear by His own practice. He had no compunction about not following ceremonial washings, the Sabbath observance and many other things that were preached by the Pharisees, but came not from Moses’ seat (Mark 7:1-13, John 9:14-16).

d.     Before concluding this lengthy post I would like to look at some points regarding the patriarchal family model:

Pro 23:26  “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.”

Orthodox Christianity for more than 1800 years has regarded this verse as God, especially as personified wisdom, addressing His child. To interpret it as requiring a child to give their heart to a parent is blasphemous, because it is a creature demanding what belongs only to the Creator. It is also against the context as it is God’s ways, and pleasing the Lord that keep a person from immorality not affection for a parent (Ecc. 7:26).

Ironically patriarchy fails in the very areas where it prides itself. It intends to bring children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). However, let alone the high rate of apostates it produces, even among those who do not reject it, it actively prevents their being brought up to maturity. Christ was a morally responsible individual at the age of 12 and as such entered the Temple doing His Father’s business. He recognized a higher authority to be obeyed than His parents though He was still subject to them. After He entered His ministry attempts by His mother to influence His course of action were all met by polite refusal (John 2:3-4, Luke 8:20-21). It is ungodly for grown children to be required to clear everything with their parents as a superior, instead of to counsel with as an equal individual whose experience and position should be given weight, that is honor, in the decision making process. There is more I intend to write on certain aspects of this, but right now I will only say that this is a result of the sin of unbelief. It is against the whole tenor of Scripture, and it retards the Church and cripples Christ in His members.  

One final error which patriarchy often teaches that men as the head of the home should have absolute control over the finances and a woman should make almost no decisions without consulting her husband. Proverbs 31 teaches otherwise (v.16). It actually implies a large degree of freedom and responsibility on the part of the wife. Not only was she to not do evil to her husband but she was to do him good (prov. 31:12).  In essence that requires responsible freedom. Prisoners do society no evil, because they are restrained, however other than manufacturing license plates they do little good. Doing good requires freedom. This principle goes far beyond marriage, but into every aspect of human life. If churches had more influence on Christian freedom and responsibility to God instead of solely trying to restrain congregations from evil, the Church might actually become what Christ intended a mature bride doing good works out of love to Christ.

May God grant us to be so! Amen.

1 comment:

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