Second Marriage: A Second Look At Early Christian Writers…

Standard

Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture.

That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.

It seems a fairly reasonable approach to a controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?

However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.

Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.

Consider this early church writer…

Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.

Did you catch that?

He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.

Compare what he says to Saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

Athenagoras has clearly gone off the rails. He is in direct contradiction to the canonical teachings of the apostle Paul. Why? Well, the reason for this is that he subscribed to the heretical “New Prophecy” called Montanism.

Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.

And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?

Tertullian.

Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has an authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.

It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.

All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases, a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.

1) The death of a spouse…

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)

There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason, the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.

2) The abandonment of a spouse…

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.

3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.

Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?

The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.

It would seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture makes us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.

But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.

Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.

How God’s Economy Differs From Our Own

Standard

In three prior blogs (on topics of law, legalism and church authority) I’ve tried to present the Biblical basis and lay the theological groundwork necessary to establish concepts I will introduce in this post. I wish to remind my readers once again that I do not speak in any official capacity, I am not ordained, and encourage y’all to investigate these matters for yourselves rather than just take my word for it.

There are several cases in Scripture of people asking what they must do to be saved. In Acts 2:37-39, when the crowd asks what they must do, Peter answers:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.

Later, in Acts 16:31-34, a Roman jailer asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

This is how Paul and Silas replied:

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

We read the testimony of the apostle Paul, in Acts 22, where he describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He describes a blinding light, being confronted by Jesus, and how he asked what he should do. He is told to continue on the road and meet a man named Ananias who restores his sight and then tells him: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”

And we also have this explanation of salvation by Peter:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:18-21 NIV)

All of those passages answer the question of what a person must do. All of them mention water baptism as a necessary step in this process. This emphasis on baptism reflects the preaching of John the Baptist who tied the practice with true repentance. It also is what Jesus clearly taught:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

This is likely the reason why baptism is a sacrament that, traditionally, in an emergency or circumstance where there is nobody else, can be administered by anyone. One can repent and believe in their mind, but baptism should follow—because that is what Jesus taught, it is what the early Church believed and to this very day is still the tradition of the Church.

So, we can all agree that baptism is a requirement for salvation, right?

Probably not.

This is one point where legalists might carve out exemptions, turn Scripture against Scripture, or otherwise downplay the necessity of baptism. But no amount of theological twisting can overturn the rule. Baptism is absolutely a requirement for salvation and to argue against that is to deny what is clearly recorded in Scripture. Jesus says that “no one can enter the kingdom” without being “born of water” and we must assume that is exactly what he meant.

The Thief On the Cross, Judas, and the Kingdom

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss. But like the thief will I confess Thee: remember me O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

One of the starkest contrasts in Scripture is between the thief on the cross beside Jesus and Judas who betrayed Jesus. It wasn’t a comparison I had considered before hearing the Orthodox liturgy (in the quotes above) and yet is a parallel that is quite poetic and very significant.

On one side of the comparison, we have the man who did everything right from a legalistic standpoint. Judas had followed Jesus for years, from all appearances he had done everything required of a disciple and was even trusted enough to carry the common purse. But Judas, despite his outward devotion, seems to have been full of bitterness and ends up betraying Jesus with a kiss—before he took his own life. His name has become synonymous with betrayal and treason.

On the other side we have the account of two criminals crucified beside Jesus on the cross:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43 NIV)

This man called “the thief” was a criminal who acknowledged that his punishment was just and defends Jesus against the mocker on the other cross. We have no reason whatsoever to believe he lived an upright or righteous life. There is no evidence of this man being baptized. He doesn’t ask Jesus into his heart nor does he recite a creed. He simply pleas, with his dying breaths and a little faith, “remember me” and Jesus, in response, tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Does this mean that we should stop baptizing people?

Does this mean that we can continue in sin that grace may abound?

No and no.

There is no excuse for sin and there is no exemption for baptism either. There is, however, an order or a hierarchical arrangement of priorities and at the top of it is something beyond mere religion. What matters most is God’s grace and having the faith to fully put our trust in Him as our salvation. This something the thief could do and that Judas could not. Judas, for all his outward displays of righteousness and despite doing everything that was required of a disciple, had faith in his own understanding rather than in Jesus.

There are many sincere folks today who try to reduce Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. And, instead of an abundance of life or resembling Jesus, they are rigid, anxious, jealous, judgmental, unforgiving and too often a stumbling block to those young in the faith. They believe that they are receiving salvation as a trade for their own righteousness and careful obedience. They often end up like Judas, bitter and critical, and refuse to truly put their faith in Jesus.

No amount of ritual obedience or religion can save a person who has faith only in themselves. We should like the thief who knows they are doomed without God’s mercy and not Judas who was righteous by outward appearance and lacked faith. Being a lowly criminal with a repentant heart is eternally better than being a disciple who judges others by his own standards and betrays Jesus.

God’s Economy Is Different From Our Own

Those trying to earn God’s favor, like the Pharisee who boasted in prayer about his righteousness compared to another man, have a desperate need to justify themselves. And, like the Prodigal son’s older brother who was angry because of the grace shown to his openly rebellious younger sibling, many have an entitled attitude and believe that their obedience and works means they are owed. It is because they believe that God’s economy is merit-based like their own. They try to earn points by obeying the law and fail to comprehend their own woefully inadequate position before Almighty God.

Jesus, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, contrasts God’s economy and our own:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1‭-‬16 NIV)

It is easy to understand why those who started early in the morning and worked all day might feel slighted at the end. They had spent their entire day sweating it out, trying to earn their wage, only for some to come during the day or even at the last hour and receive the same compensation. From a laborer’s perspective, it seemed unfair. Shouldn’t those who did more also get paid more for their efforts?

But the landowner had not hired them to judge such matters for themselves. It was the landowner’s money to spend as he wished, he was not obligated to hire anyone, he had gone out to find them, they had all agreed to the wage they were paid and were truly owed nothing more than what they had received. It was a fair wage when they were hired and that fairness did not change because of the landowner’s generosity to those hired later.

But what point was Jesus trying to make with this story?

It is interesting that this story comes right in the heels of the account of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to be granted eternal life—which contains the same “the first shall be last” refrain. This man had kept the law from his youth. But when he asked what he lacked, this is how Jesus replied:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV)

If you stopped reading there you might end up like Judas who used those words of Jesus as a means to criticize an extravagant act of worship and to hide his own corrupt self-centered motives. There are many today who read the words of Jesus legalistically, they see the story of the rich man then add one more item to their list of religious requirements, and entirely missing the point.

However, there’s more to what Jesus said. If you keep reading you will see how the disciples were “greatly astonished” and ask Jesus “who then can be saved?” They, even as those who had already left everything behind to follow Jesus, understood the severity of what Jesus told the inquiring rich man. If keeping the law wasn’t enough, what then?

How Jesus answers is clear: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:‬26 NIV)

That is the answer to the rich man’s question.

It is impossible.

That is also what the parable of the laborers is about. Those who had started early in the day represent those relying on their own efforts and are completely lacking appreciation for the one who made their earning anything possible. They were upset that the landowner was paying those who came later the same as them because they felt their labor had been devalued and yet the only value their labor had was what the landowner was willing to pay them. They didn’t create the circumstances of their own employment, how could they possibly be in any position to judge what was fair compensation for someone else?

The point Jesus is making is only God can save us. If you believe your works can save you, even if you sell all and give to the poor, you are no better than that rich man. The rich man had kept the law and yet lacked true faith in Jesus. He had faith in himself as a good religious person, he thought he could do something to save himself, and yet salvation does not come from our own effort.

The reason why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom is that they are able to depend on their own effort and thus are adequate without faith in their own minds. It was that self-sufficiency, the idea that a human can earn their way into eternal life, that Jesus confronts in the rich man. A person relying on themselves does not understand that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) or that their salvation depends fully on God’s choice and not their own:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16 NIV)

Akribeia: We Cannot Please God Through Perfection on Our Own Terms

There are many trying to please God with their own righteousness. That is to assume that God will somehow want or need us if we are good enough and that is completely absurd. It is a path to misery or arrogance. If you try to win God’s favor through your works and have any grasp of how your own best efforts compare to absolute perfection, you will be miserable. And, if you can delude yourself into believing that you are able to live to a perfect divine standard you are an insufferable moron.

Our salvation is not based on our own effort and cannot be. The rich man’s perfect obedience to the law of Moses couldn’t please God. And those trying to save themselves by turning the words of Jesus into a new law will likewise fail. Being a Christian requires obedience to a standard that goes well beyond the law of Moses and even beyond a legalistic interpretation of Jesus. It requires absolute and impossible perfection.

This is where the word “Akribeia” comes in. It is a Greek word (ἀκρίβεια) that means exactness or precision and refers to strict adherence to the law in Christian usage. We are all judged according to Akribeia and found lacking in comparison to this absolutely perfect standard. Even if you have followed the words of Jesus perfectly as a law you will still have fallen infinity short of God’s glory and are no better than the rich man or Judas.

No amount of obedience to the law, outside of God’s grace, can save anyone. Salvation is not something we receive in trade for our works. Our perfection doesn’t come from our works. We can’t even know what perfection is at God’s level, let alone live it out, and even if we could, that would still not entitle us to anything and would still leave us condemned to death with no hope of eternal life.

This is our salvation:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8‭-‬10 NIV)

Jesus is what gives us currency in God’s economy and not our own righteousness. A person who even begins to comprehend how their own righteousness stacks up compared to absolute perfection will know that even their best efforts to follow the law will fall infinitely short. The very idea of pleasing God through our own works of righteousness is an insult and is basically to try to put ourselves on the same level as Almighty God.

To please God you need to be on an equal basis with God and that is not something we as a created being can do for ourselves. Our own righteousness is nothing but a filthy rag by comparison to the glory of God. That is why we must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27) and are made worthy through his work rather than our own.

Legalism doesn’t comprehend Akribeia. Legalists believe they can win God’s favor and therefore are always trying to prove their righteousness compared to others. They seem to believe that being perfect is like outrunning a bear in that you only need to be faster or better than the guy beside them. That is why they are critical rather than helpful, judgmental rather than merciful, and self-righteous rather than humble. They are like that unrepentant thief on the other cross who continued to mock and ridicule despite being condemned.

However, when you serve a God who is impossible to please by your own efforts you will not be jealous or upset about the grace that is shown to others. Instead, you will come beside the weak, forgive their sins as you have been forgiven, and help them to bear their burdens rather than pile more on. A humble person understands “there but for the grace of God go I” and realizes that even by their best efforts they would only be condemned by the perfect law of God. It is then, and only then, after we have exhausted our own riches and righteousness, that we can be saved.

Oikonomia: The Economy Of Jesus and the Church

The Old Testament law is severe by our modern standards and many believe that Jesus relaxed these standards. But that is incorrect. The law of Moses only addressed outward behavior, but Jesus emphasized that even our thoughts could make us guilty of sin. The reality is that Jesus added to the severity of the standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught that lust was comparable to the sin of adultery and equates hatefulness to murder. By that standard, we are all condemned to die.

Yet, while Jesus is making things literally impossible for the rich man and other good religious people, simultaneously he’s allowing his disciples to break the written law:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23‭-‬28 NIV)

What?!?

Didn’t Moses, by command of God, have a man executed for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath?

Note Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for their interpretation of the law. But he does give times when the law was set aside and then goes on to explain something that is key—he turns attention from the letter of the Sabbath law to the spirit or reason behind it. He tells these religious experts that the Sabbath was created for the man rather than man for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath law was instituted for the good of men and that reason for the law triumphed over the strict legalistic application.

Jesus can do that. He can for the same reason he could heal the blind, walk on water or turn water into wine. The one who created all things is not subject to anything and that includes the moral laws he created. Furthermore, the purpose and or intent of the law always supersedes the letter and therefore the one who knows the reason behind the law perfectly is free from the letter. And, while the written law is essentially the God of the legalist, we (together, as the Church) who are clothed in Jesus are given the same authority over the law and this authority is demonstrated in the early Church.

Jesus, in giving his authority to bind and loose, through the promise of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for the Church to rule on circumcision in a way that went directly against what the written law taught. Physical circumcision is still an explicit requirement according to the book of Leviticus, yet physical circumcision was dismissed by the apostle Paul. That loosing from the law led to conflict in the early church. Some were teaching that circumcision was still necessary for new converts while others were saying that this Scriptural requirement could be ignored. So the Church held a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and decided to waive the requirement.

We, as individuals, can’t pick or choose for ourselves what Biblical requirements apply to us. However, the Church (collectively) has the same authority as Jesus on matters of the law and can show the same grace (in other areas of law) that was argued in Jerusalem as far as circumcision. The Church can also expel an unrepentant evildoer as Paul demanded to be done in a letter to the Corinthians. The word for this is Oikonomia (οἰκονομία or “economia”) and literally means “household management” and is basically the same concept that allows anyone to be saved. If the written law cannot be overruled by God’s economy, we would all be condemned to death—who then could possibly be saved?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)

The law is a means, not an end.

Love is the end.

The People Want a King…, Part 1

Standard

I felt like the dog who finally caught the car.  I was perplexed with a question: Now what?

My goal in blogging is to make a difference with the ideas that I share.  I know ideas are powerful.  I want to share good ideas and debunk or discourage destructive ideas.  It has been my goal from the beginning to write things worthwhile in hope of creating dialogue.

It was exciting when Good Men Do Not Blame Women quickly surpassed my previously most viewed blog in a matter of hours.  It was also terrifying that my words were being read by hundreds of people rather than just the usual handful of friends and followers.

But, amid worries about if I had proofread enough and given fair treatment to a complex topic, I enjoyed my new found popularity.  I enjoyed it so much that I worried that I enjoyed it too much.

I worried that maybe I was ‘going negative’ instead of sharing something helpful and constructive.  Just a week or so prior I had remarked to a friend that people who criticize other people (not like them) seemed to build a fan club quicker than those who shared good ideas.

I had to think there’s a danger of becoming a different version of what we preach most passionately against.  I do not want to contribute in an overreaction in the opposite direction and abandon what is good in proper order or at the right priority level.

I had a taste of power that I both liked and that I did not like.  It provoked many questions in my mind about what would happen if I gained a following.  Would I be an example of the ideals in my mind of leadership?  Or would I insulate myself from criticism and become arrogant?

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  (Lord Action)

The good news is that my blogger stardom was very short lived and—besides a few new friends—I’m back to blogging to my usual small audience.  It means less pressure.  I feel I can share again without worrying as much about my imperfections being amplified over a large audience.

The people want a king to lead them…

In the beginning God was sufficient to lead his people.  The patriarchy of Abraham gave way to tribal elders and officers.  Later Moses acted as a prophet and arbitrator in disputes. However, eventually it was too much for Moses, the task was taking all of his time from “morning to evening,” which led to his visiting father-in-law to ask him why:

“Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”  Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.  Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.  But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.  That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.  If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”  (Exodus 18:15-23)

Moses took the advice, he delegated the task of settling disputes to other capable men and that became the system for hundreds of years. 

It was a sort of anarcho-theocracy.  The prophet was the liaison between God and the people, the messenger of God, but not a ruler per se.  The laws handed down by Moses were the standard for judgment.  Enforcement of the law was carried out by the people rather than delegated to a few people and judges a final arbitrator between parties as needed…

“At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.  In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”  (Judges 21:24-25)

There was a time after the Exodus of freedom from oppression and obligation.  Judges came and went as heroes who did God’s work to save the people from captivity.  Judges were representatives and deliverers of the people, but not rulers like a king.  However, eventually, when a worthy successor could not be found for Samuel amongst his sons, the elders of the people made a fateful demand:

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord . And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”  (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

Samuel went on to warn how kings would take their sons for wars and daughters as workers.  He spoke of how the future kings would take the best of their possessions for themselves and for their own purposes.  Still, despite the warning, he did not persuade them, the chapter continues:

“But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said.  “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”  (1 Samuel 8-19-20)

The people were delusional just like their forefathers who begged Moses for a return to slavery and Egypt.  Despite Samuel’s warning of conscription, they apparently had an idea a king could miraculously do all the fighting for them and they ignored all rational concern.

A couple of the kings were good, David and Solomon notable examples, but a majority were more concerned with themselves, they all took special privileges for themselves and loaded the people down with increased burdens.  The prophecy of Samuel became reality—the people traded their greater freedom for a false security and eventual rule of tyrants.  Instead of protecting against oppression the kings became oppressors themselves.

Consequence #1: Increased Burden

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”  (Gerald R. Ford)

Kings and government leaders promise big things to their people.  But what often is forgotten by the enthusiastic crowds is that nothing is free.  When a Pharaoh promised a pyramid for the glory of Egypt Pharaoh, he wasn’t planning to build it on his own time with godlike powers.  No, the people paid the price of a king’s grandeur with their own backs and we still bear the weight of the audacious promises of our leaders. 

The burdens never seems to be lightened either. Consider when Rehoboam took over after his father Solomon and was confronted by the people:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” … The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier.  My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”  (1 King 12:4-14)

King Reheboam was more concerned with pleasing his young peers than he was in listening to the people or the elders.  As a result some did not accept his rule over them and the nation was divided.  It is interesting to see this same pattern play out today.  Leaders pursue their own vision, they increase the burden on the people without ever easing up, which leads to division and eventual rebellion.

Consequence # 2: Increased Corruption

“Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation [of power] first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Kings and government leaders represent a consolidation of power and with consolidation of power comes increased opportunity for corruption.  Many leaders rise to power on their idealistic vision, but once they have power the vision fades and the desire to hold or increase power becomes the bigger priority.  We may call it “special interests” and political pandering today, but here’s how the Bible describes it:

“See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!   Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.  Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.  They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  (Isaiah 1:21-23)

Described above is the chipping away of principles.  Many institutions of men are founded with good intentions but become corrupted over time.  Corruption is a natural product of consolidation of power.  When power is given to one person (or a small body of people) they seem to inevitably try to use that power to secure more power for themselves.  There is no system of external controls that seems to be able to keep it in check.  Those in power have the tools to manipulate the rules for their own gain.

Consequence #3 Loss Without Gain

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”  (Barack Obama)

Kings and government leaders are established to protect the people against harm.  But, not only do they fail to be able to protect a people from harm, they themselves often another source of harm.

The strength of a king is not in themselves as much as it is in the strength of their people.  As Samuel had warned, a king takes and can only give back what is taken and thus a corrupted people produce corrupt leaders:

“You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.  Where is your king, that he may save you?  Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’?  So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away.”  (Hosea 13:9-11)

Installing a king ultimately did not solve anything.  The people still ended up taken captive by other nations as they had before, they also endured the abuses of power hungry and corrupt leaders when not in captivity.  They gave away freedom for security and got captivity because they were corrupted themselves.

People want a king to blame…

The paradox of kings is that kings need strong people to maintain power—but strong people don’t need kings.  Weak people turn to leaders to do their work for them, but a man wearing a fancy crown and holding a scepter is only empowered by those who do his bidding.

It feeds a vicious cycle.  When things go wrong people blame the king.  As a result the king is driven to take more power upon themselves or risk losing power they already have.  Of course, since their power is derived from other people this means taking more from the people who are able to give.  It can only last so long as their are enough strong people to take from—when the weight of dependents comes closer to outweighing those able (or willing) to provide there is nothing a king can do but manage the decline.

Only, it is worse than that, because as already mentioned, consolidation of power is like a petri dish for corruption.  So, not only do these kings give a convenient scapegoat, they also are too often the goats among the sheep and motivated by their own gain rather the good of all in the herd.  In other words, if a couple sheep get thrown to the wolves and it saves a goat from an undesirable outcome and nobody notices, what sheep, right?

It is exactly what king David did to Uriah.  David goofed, he got Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) pregnant.  He evidently didn’t want to suffer the political repercussions and attempted to hide the adultery.  So plan ‘A’ was urge Uriah to spend some quality time with Bathsheba and thus disguise the origin of the pregnancy.  Unfortunately Uriah, a true warrior, would not go home to his wife while his comrades were still fighting and David needed another plan.  Plan ‘B’ was to deliberately set Uriah up to be killed in battle.  It worked, except the prophet Nathan knew and he confronted the king with a story about a wealthy man who killed a neighbor’s pet sheep.

And David was one of the good kings and probably mostly because he could admit his sins…

This post is about faith, not kings…

My point here is not purely political or just historical.  I am using kings and government leaders as a metaphor for anything (be it an institution, a system of philosophy or theology, a man, etc) that replaces our own obedience to God. 

We cannot expect the world to be good if we continually delegate the tasks of our own conscience to others.  Faith is about being the solution ourselves and not sending others (who we can conveniently blame for the eventual failure) to do what is impossible for them to do alone.  We cannot expect the fullness of God’s blessing when we look to men to lead us.  If God is alive in us then we must be the agents of good in the world with our own abilities and be faithful to our calling.

This is not a call for a return to anarcho-theocracy and judges either.  Kings and governments rise in prominence because the people aren’t doing their jobs.  Therefore, the solution is not to reform government, the solution is to reform people and make government irrelevant.  If we were taking care of the widows and fatherless as we ought, for example, what need would there be for corrupt welfare programs?  If fathers weren’t leaving their sons to be raised by the brutal streets, what need would their be for police as brutal?

“Every country has the government it deserves.”  (Joseph de Maistre)

It is a collective problem when the people demand a king.  It becomes an individual problem when the people finally empower a man to do their dirty work.  There is always someone all too willing to seize power—those with an appetite for power—who will take the glory for themselves and then delegate responsibility for failure to others, exploits position, etc. 

It is a spiritual problem.  It is often only our own sloth, envy, pride, mistrust, fears, poor judgments and overreactions that are reflected back to us in the immoral whims of our leaders.  We delude ourselves when we abandon accountability to God for kings that are no better than us.

Now, enough said for now, back to chasing cars for me…