Ad Hominem

Posted on March 10, 2013
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I realize for some it will seem that I am trying to cover up the inherent inequality I have advocated with hand-waving about “beauty” and Jesus. I am sensible to the fact that comparison of husbands to masters and wives to servants requires at least one kind of inequality between the married couple.  This has bothered me for years. Why should a human be unequal to another human due to a happenstance of birth — in this case, gender?

Eventually I realized that humans are always being born unequally. Leaving aside gender entirely, some are born healthy and some are born sick. Some are born dead, for that matter. Some are born to wealthy parents and some to poor. Some are born into society full of opportunity and some are born into society with no opportunity to be found. It is a very deep part of the American mythos that all humans are born equal and have equal opportunity to succeed, but this is simply not true. You cannot make the stillborn equal to the healthy and wealthy.

Infant health can be statistically related to economic wealth. Prosperous societies tend to have more healthy babies. But the trend is not a rule. Ultimately God gives life and health. The unwanted girl in China was put there just as much as the cherished daughter was given to the affluent couple in the United States. If inherent inequality is a disgrace, God is already disgraced; nobody through their free will can choose their parents.

I do only speak of certain kinds of inequality. If we speak of the inherent worth of a human, the unwanted girl in China is worth exactly what any other boy or girl on the planet is worth. If we speak of the ultimate state of humanity, we know that there will be no gender-based differences in role in the new creation. We know that the new creation will fully show the presence of God in all of his light, love, justice, and grace.

But we also know that this creation often shows the nature of God indirectly. Our demand that everyone have the exact same material circumstances for fairness is simply not in line with the manner of God’s revealing himself and his son. Adam and Eve ate the same fruit but received different penalties. Woman, as the bearer of the promised Seed, has a different role all throughout scriptural typology, a library of images constituted by the entire creation. Nothing was created apart from Christ and the purpose of anything cannot be understood apart from Christ.

It is not a person’s circumstances which determine his moral or spiritual worth but his attitude. Today we almost always mean emotions when we speak of ‘attitude,’ but the word has its roots in the position or orientation of a thing. Merriam-Webster online says that attitude can refer to “the position of an aircraft or spacecraft determined by the relationship between its axes and a reference datum (as the horizon or a particular star).” It is our attitude relative to Christ that determines our worth. We are either oriented to him and by him, pointing toward him, revealing his nature; or we are oriented away from him and against him. This attitude is not constrained by our circumstances (or by our emotions). Just as there are an infinite number of lines that can intersect a given point, so also we can point to Christ from countless different places. Beginning from a certain place does not make us more or less Christ-like. It is our attitude that shows our true service.

I have grown up mistrustful of authority in principle, and extremely unwilling to admit that anyone has any right of authority over me. It was a crusade of mine, positively a holy war, to make sure I never submitted to my oldest brother unless I thought I should. Oddly enough I am quite obsequious around some authorities. I am not likely to talk back to police officers or to deliberately snub authorities I see as several levels “above” me. But in the main I am not fond of authority on principle, and I will always try to convince myself that I am respecting someone’s merits when I listen to them, not their mere authority.

I particularly don’t like authority in Christianity–neither in theory nor in practice. For some years I pondered off an on how to explain away every reference to authority in the New Testament. Authority to me was a synonym for Satanic usurpation of the just order of things in order to establish oppressive power over others.

Because I saw having authority as synonymous with pursuing evil designs, I also thought of myself as abstaining from the exercise of authority myself. I wanted to avoid any position of authority in the workplace because such authority was an institution of man designed to coerce and exploit others.

And certainly workplace authority has been used to coerce and exploit others. Notwithstanding abuses that have taken place and do take place, however, it turns out that a great deal of contemporary teaching on authority emphasizes that coercion is the least effective form of authority and really a failure of authority. The boss who says “do it because I’m the boss” has the least useful and effective authority. The most effective authority is trust; people comply to their best ability and understanding (fulfilling not just the “letter” of the request but also the “spirit”) when they trust that doing so will result in the best outcome. I can aspire to be trustworthy without a qualm.

As I have over the years been taught more about influence without authority, or soft authority, or inspirational leadership, or whatever you want to call it, I’ve realized that although I have never managed anyone officially, I have exercised authority. People have done as I asked and people have trusted my decisions. Talk about becoming what you hate!

Equally confounding for me, I have realized that some people really just want authoritative direction. I don’t mean that universally, as though some people want to be told every little thing to do or to live in abject slavery. But although I very much want to understand why something is a good idea before I do it, some other people only want to know what they are “supposed” to do so that they can go and do it. There are limits to this willingness; people are not looking for medical advice from their car mechanic. But in specific contexts, such as the work environment, there are people for whom evaluating the various options is a miserable process and who much prefer to follow an authority.

For me, willingness to follow an authority has always been tantamount to immorality; you should think and decide for yourself, not accept some person’s word for what is good! But this simplifies life into a constant parade of moral decisions. A moral question might arise over any decision, and in a moral quandary you cannot pass moral responsibility off to another. Your decision is always your own. But a person unaware of any moral question is not obliged to invent one so that he can then choose the “right” course of action. Outside of those moral choices, there is no harm or shame in leaning on the expertise of another.

Oftentimes decisions which seem benign at the moment can lead into moral quandaries down the road. This is another aspect of authority that I was always uncomfortable with. If you give someone else direction or advice and they follow it, they could wind up in an unpleasant situation or one which seems to force an impossible choice on them down the road. If you say to someone, “Sure, hire So-and-So, he’s a great guy,” but for some reason he turns out to be  a poor fit for the job, the manager will now have to decide between extra expense in training and possibly ongoing accommodation or the odious step of revoking someone’s livelihood. And you will have contributed to this impasse!

But life is full of such consequences, full to the brim beyond any possibility of avoiding them all. One can only avoid the most noticeable and try to ignore the rest. But this is no way to live, and no way we are called to live. Rather than avoiding having any kind of “authority” (really, responsibility) over anyone else, we are called to look out for the welfare of all our brothers and sisters. This does not mean imperiously commanding them to do just as we say, but it does mean that when they fall into hard times we come along side them, not step back and say “Whew!  Glad I have no part in THAT mess!”

A person rightly exercising authority often takes responsibility for more than he can control. Rather than saying “That wasn’t my decision so that’s not my problem,” the good leader understands that many things will happen outside his control but that his responsibility is always to make the best of things as they are, not point fingers for how they got that way.

In your life you have probably met some leaders better than others. The better leaders probably took more responsibility for things outside their control (not power-grabs to control things belonging to them, but a willingness to fix problems dumped in their laps) and probably demonstrated a concern for the well-being of those under their authority in their use of their authority. Beyond this there are often differences in style; some people leaders prefer a lot of discussion and dialogue, others just cut to the chase and move on. But loving care and intercession are hallmarks of a good leader, and you will find them in his actions whatever his style.

None of this personal commentary necessarily means that husbands ought to have authority over wives. I get that first from the scriptures, as I have done, and not from my personal observations and conclusions. But I will say that the marriages that have appeared to me to “work” always seem to have an aspect of the husband’s authority in them – even in those marriages where both spouses would insist that they are equal partners. There is not one simple way in which a husband’s authority is expressed. It is not as though there is a rule that he must balance the checkbook or he must always drive the car or this or that nonsense. Any one thing you might decide is an exercise of “authority” might be delegated. Wise leaders always delegate tasks to their most capable crew. But however it appears, in healthy marriages I always see respect from the wife for the decision of her husband.

Contrarily, when it is clear that a wife does not respect her husband, that marriage is always clearly unhealthy. Several marriages I know as well as I know any marriage aside from my parent’s have exhibited this disrespect, even while the wives in question might insist that they, as good Christian wives, respect their husbands exactly as they ought. Mere obedience is not really the same thing as submission. You can poison someone’s food and you can poison your own obedience. It is not pleasant to watch.

There is a corollary with husbands to wives for which I cannot think of just the right word. You might call it consideration. You might even call it respect, but there is some subtle difference in the husband’s regard for the wife versus the wife’s regard for the husband. Perhaps you could call it affection; a wife must never lose the affection of her husband and a husband must never lose the respect of his wife. Of course they do, both of them, fail; we are as ever in need of grace. But even in cases where at first I would have said that a wife had the leading role in a healthy marriage, in time I have come to see it as only the more active role; more outspoken, perhaps. And authority runs deeper than merely having the last word.

I do not justify my conclusions with such observations, for my observations are few indeed and flawed. But I must confess that what I can see with my eyes matches what I read in the Bible, even if on principle I do not like what I read.

Particularly distasteful to me is the idea that a man can have the kind of authority over his wife that an unjust master has over his servant. But I have never said the Bible encourages this. No, a master should be kind and merciful, mindful of his own master; and a husband should be ever gracious. But to say that a husband doesn’t have the power to be an unjust master seems only wishful thinking. Domestic abuse is far and away a crime of men. Even in a society where women are relatively free to get away (relative to many ancient and contemporary societies) women still very often remain under the power of cruel men. I am not saying that abuse is right or justified or permissible, but pretending that men do not have power over women seems about as useful and worthwhile as pretending that we won’t all die. Far better to say that the power men have over women demands of men their extra concern and responsibility not to misuse that power. Given that it is so, consider well how you will live.

One last note. I have neglected to say much in my formal writing about the responsibilities men have to be Christ-like in their love for their wives. I have alluded to it throughout, I think, but not addressed it much head-on. This is a cultural accident. I think we see ourselves as Christians in America who all follow the Golden Rule and who love one another. All Americans have Christ-like love for their neighbor! Obviously this is absurd, but given that we think of ourselves this way it is stating nothing out of the ordinary to say that we should love like Christ.

I have never been happy to hear complementarians (who usually assign a priestly role to the husband as well as kingly) talk about how the husband’s role is harder than the wife’s, so it is all fair in the end. Nominally, yes, it is hard to be like Christ. It is impossible to fully be like Christ, in fact. But husbands and wives are both called to be like Christ. Christ in his submission came as a servant of all, not as the conquering king of all. Yes, he still exercised authority over his disciples, the church, but with respect to authority he showed us how to live under godless authority. And that is the example our wives will need! We are not going to succeed in being mini-Jesus so our wives will have to live with us as men who sin!

I have heard men talking who don’t care for their wives as they should. They complain about their wives’ needs and wants and do whatever they can get away with. They seem to think that their wives should be privileged to have them around and that if their wives want to leave, good riddance. This pretty nearly demonstrates the opposite attitude husbands ought to have toward their wives. For both the husband and the wife, the marriage relationship is an ongoing struggle to put the priority of self below the best interest of the other.

But, although I do not think the husband’s responsibility is easy, it is really the responsibility over the wife that I have the most trouble accepting. To me, unmarried that I am, selflessly saying “as you wish” to my wife’s every whim sounds only romantic; giving up on some personal ambition to better care for her, only chivalrous. “Do whatever you want, just be happy” is the simplest and easiest thing I can think of to say.

This extremely unhealthy, however. This is neglect disguised and benevolence. As with a sports team, project team, working group, military unit, or any other organization under authority, a marriage needs to operate with a single purpose. This purpose does not come wholly from one person. It is not merely the extension of the ego of the leader. But whoever is in charge does have the responsibility to draw the diverging goals of the member together into a unified purpose. “Do whatever you want” may sound permissive but it is actually dismissive.

“Make your wife happy” is a command that sounds to me most pleasant to obey. I may live to find out differently, but the more superficial aspects of loving your wife and caring for her are all easy for me to assent to now. The harder thing to think is that it may sometimes be my responsibility to make my wife unhappy – not capriciously, for my own amusement, but from a sincere belief and decision on what would be best for her and for both of us as servants of the living God. It is much easier for me to think, “We’ll do what you want, and if it turns out badly – fine! I’ll manage and it will be your fault. You’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.” Far preferable to “I made the wrong decision. I’m sorry.”

So yes, I see an inequality of authority between a husband and a wife. I have thought it ought to be different and read or listened to arguments insisting that there is equality between the spouses. I have wished for the arguments to be more convincing. But the more I looked into my own disquiet the broader the problem became, until instead of inequality between husband and wife I was staring at the inequality between God and man. I am not saying the two inequalities are the same; they are extremely different in magnitude and scope. But you cannot “fix” the inequality between man and woman without fixing a million other things, one detail at a time, until eventually you have redesigned all of creation. Once you are done renovating creation, what separates you from God?

There are many unpleasant things about being a creature — many kinds of powerlessness, many kinds of suffering, and finally death. We will not find our happiness by complaining about these, or trying to abolish them, wishing them away or pretending they don’t exist. We find joy and freedom in these things which we would not esteem when we see Christ in them. The suffering of this present creation is truly inseparable from the grace of Christ extended to sinners. So also the differences in gender, joined in marriage, afford us opportunity to learn of the grace, mercy, love, and humility of Christ.



Christ and the Church (Part II)

Posted on March 10, 2013
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I interrupted my thoughts on the marriage relationship for an extended digression on authority because it seemed impossible to me to finish the thought without being seriously misunderstood. Expectations different from contemporary standards color the New Testament perspective  on authority and freedom in general. In contemporary discourse we tend to conflate a whole bunch of issues into anything touching on women in the Bible. Through this compression we drive a polarization of views between either keeping women chained in the kitchen dressed in burqas and not speaking unless spoken to, or just “normal” American middle-class mores of his and hers: two cars, two careers, two nominally interchangeable adults with accidentally different physiology. People live all up and down this spectrum, of course, but usually by unspoken agreement; those moderating positions are not arrived at through discussion or argument. If a discussion arises any amount of disagreement usually turns to accusations of extremism toward one end or the other.

My understanding of the authority of a husband is in some ways extreme. I do see a husbands authority as roughly that of a king over a household. The close proximity of instructions to masters and instructions to husbands in the epistles is not coincidence. For the authors of the New Testament there are similarities between the relationship of master to servant and husband to wife. But many others who advance such a view implicitly or even explicitly insist that kingship conveys righteousness. They insist that God speaks through this mini-king, ignoring the plenteous examples of sinful kings throughout the Bible; or they whimsically decide that this mini-king only should be obeyed if he is acceptably righteous (again, ignoring a multitude of contrary evidence). Although we are never expected under Biblical teaching to obey a command to directly participate in immorality, our usual obedience is not even a tacit indication of the moral quality of the authority we obey. In observing that New Testament authors expect wives to be under the authority of their husbands, I am drawing no conclusions about the moral, spiritual, or ethical superiority of men.

Let me reiterate that I am speaking now only of husbands and wives, not women in general. Whether a woman should ever have a commanding position over a man is a different subject. Clearly women can and do; Cleopatra predates the Gospels. There are a few examples of women in authority within the Bible as well. Examining those cases is beyond the present subject. Also, I am not addressing men and women within the church generally; that too requires consideration of some specific points that I am not now considering. For now I am considering only the relationship between husband and wife.

There are three passages that link the submission of a wife and the submission of a servant, two from Paul and one from Peter. I will quote from them at length, since it is sometimes said that the instructions for wives are taken out of context. Note that in all three of these passages, there is a comment either before or after the instruction to wives on the conduct of believers toward one another generally. In Colossians it is “Put on […] compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In Ephesians it is “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In 1 Peter it is “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” But also note that each of these passages deals not jut with husbands and wives, but also with masters and servants. Two of them also deal with parents and children. Therefore, the context that applies to and modifies the instructions to wives also applies to and modifies these relationships as well.

With that in mind, this is what Paul says to the wives in Colossae, in context:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:12-4:1 ESV)

Note that all believers are “called in one body.” This principle, however, does not exclude some serving others in a one-directional way, as bondservants are to “obey in everything,” a command not given to masters. The masters and servants are both part of the “one body” and both under the command of humility and meekness, but there is still a servant-master relationship. Note that the servants are to consider their service “as for the Lord” because they are “serving the Lord Christ.”  This does not mean that the masters have a relationship with Jesus which the servants do not have. It does not mean that the masters are more godly, wise, or righteous. It means only that our work serving one another, whether serving masters or “the least of these,” can be dedicated to Christ.

Essentially the same remarks apply to Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 5:15-6:9 ESV)

Some commentators start the explanation of the instruction to wives with the verse about “submitting to one another.” In the ESV translation it is very hard to get that phrase to go with the instructions to wives, as it fits and flows with the preceding thought. That is not to say that “submitting to one another” is totally unrelated to what comes after, but it is easier and a more natural grouping (again, in the ESV translation; I don’t know Greek) to take the following verses as context for the instruction to wives. When bondservants are to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,” this sounds very similar to and naturally pairs with “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The point again is not that a husband somehow “represents” Christ to a wife, but that a wife may dedicate her service to her husband to God, the same way a servant may consider his service to be not merely for a man. Distorting the significance of  “as to the Lord” leads to an equal distortion of “as Christ loved the church.” No man can “wash” his wife so that she is “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing […], holy and without blemish.” But a man can understand that caring for his wife does not make him “weak” or “whipped”, any more than Christ’s love for that man makes Christ weak. In all these cases the point is not to exalt the person in a position of power, but to exalt service as a sacrifice pleasing to God.

Paul is clear enough in comparing a wife’s service to her husband with a servant’s service to his master, but Peter is even more explicit. He writes:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 2:13-38 ESV)

Summarized for our purpose, Peter’s instruction is to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution […], not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. […]  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. […] Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” Peter does not expect “more” submission or service from a wife than he expects from a servant. True, it is always possible for a woman to be one rung lower on the ladder than a man of equal station who is her husband. But position on the ladder is not something esteemed by Peter or Paul. It is never said “woe to you if you have many governors and institutions of man,” or “it is shameful for you to have more layers of human institutions bossing you around than your neighbor does.” Service offered to God is service to God, regardless of what godless men make of it.

It is in this connection that Peter admonishes us to “live as people who are free.” He does not mean that we should be subject to no authority, for he is at the same time telling us to submit to every authority. When modern commentators object that no Christian could be expected to submit to another Christian because “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 ESV), they misunderstand the meaning of freedom. For Paul and for Peter, freedom is not the lack of an earthly master who can boss you around. Freedom is the assurance that your life does not depend upon the performance of temporal things (whether obeying a master of keeping the Mosaic law). It is “through fear of death” that we are “subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15 ESV), and it is from this that we are set free (Romans 8:2, John 5:24). Even if we are “subject” to “unjust” masters in this life, still we are free because of our assurance of everlasting life in Christ. This is true whether it is a master or a husband who does not “obey the word.”

All three of these passages show clear parallelism between instructions to wives and instructions to servants. In this third passage, Peter’s opening remark on service in general, “for this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” complements his latter comment to wives specifically: “be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” For Peter it is explicitly possible that a master or husband may not seem to deserve honor or respect. The suggestion some people offer, that slavery in Biblical times was “different,” glosses over the three slave rebellions in Roman history. The third happened about as many years before the New Testament was written as the Civil War was before now. None of the three ended in emancipation. The rebellious slaves were killed. By the third revolt the penalty had to be obvious, but they revolted anyway. The cause was probably more severe than a missed Cost of Living Adjustment. Masters could be “unjust” in a way that caused “suffering” like that of Christ. Still, Peter tells servants (and wives) to submit.

It is appropriate here to point out what submission of wives to husbands, or servants to masters, does not mean:

The New Testament writers did not abolish, nor attempt to abolish, slavery. Neither did they attempt to abolish childhood or parenthood. Neither did they attempt to abolish government. These are all regarded as persistent institutions of man, and of the present creation generally. (Slavery, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is not clearly separated in the Bible from servanthood or employment generally.) In the same way, the husband and wife relationship is expected by the authors of the New Testament to continue with the husband generally having authority over the wife, and wives are enjoined to cooperate in making it so. Although some people consider Jesus to be abolishing authority of any kind for Christians when he washes his disciples’ feet, a reading of any of the gospels will only show the apostles doing the bidding of Jesus, never Jesus doing the bidding of the apostles. Jesus does show a far more gentle and patient authority with mankind in general than any other man will ever demonstrate, but his patience and humility is not an abdication of his authority. Jesus expects to be obeyed as well as to be loved.

This relationship of power and love illustrates the relationship of Jesus to his people: positively, as  an illustration, when the husband loves his wife in preference to himself; but also, negatively, demonstrating the unworthiness of anyone else to take Christ’s place when the husband fails to be Christ-like. And it is not as though only some husbands fail to be Christ-like; all do, and we notice some more than others. The husband who is not Christ-like is to be compared to the Adulterous Woman in scripture, who represents the people of God who are not faithful to him. You see the Adulterous Woman a lot in scripture because in this world the people of God are never fully faithful to him. Only when Christ returns is the Perfect Bride revealed; only when Christ returns is the Perfect Groom revealed. He is also the perfect Bread of Life, the perfect Water of Life, the perfect Light; all these things speak of Christ and illustrate his nature even when they are not perfect, even if only by contrast. Thus marriage always speaks of Christ, regardless of the faith of the couple; and in faith the picture should only become more vibrant and beautiful.


Spiritual Authority

Posted on February 24, 2013
Filed Under Authority, Specials, Theological | 1 Comment

Authority, for my purpose, is the ability to direct the activities of another person in a way that they would not otherwise chose and in which they do not see any direct benefit (other than avoiding the consequences of disobeying). In this sense the reason for the authority (governmental, spiritual, or otherwise) is not relevant. But in many cases the source of one’s nominal authority can determine whether that person has any effective authority or not. Badges, signs, and seals are used to endorse governmental authorities, signifying that the force of the government will be used to enforce the claims of the authorized individual. Spiritual authority is then authority which is understood to come from God–from representing God, from correctly interpreting or relaying his will and commands.

The Bible separates spiritual authority from every other authority. That is, no authority always has spiritual authority or speaks for God. Individuals are sometimes shown to speak for God, and God in cases supports that authority through acting directly against disobedient people; but that authority always comes when people speak for God (contingent upon them actually and correctly representing God) and never from a persons office or position alone. Some offices and positions were established by God and have authority (such as the priests and kings in Israel), but that authority is specific to its role (priestly and kingly) and does not speak, necessarily, directly for God. God speaks for himself through whomever he chooses, and when he is recognized as speaking he is obeyed regardless of who is delivering the message.

There are more examples in addition to the above which amply demonstrate that no authority can be relied on to always speak for God. Even people who ordinarily and routinely declare the righteous truth of God sometimes stray from it, and it is appropriate to call them out on it when they do. Some who in their hearts hate God and should never be considered reliable guides nevertheless at times give voice to his truth. Spiritual authority cannot be fit into any fixed relationship with any other authority or office, but derives its authority from its truth. Paul emphasizes this to the Galatians, writing, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9 NKJV). Paul disqualifies himself from having any authority if he speaks outside of the truth that he has previously declared. This is an amazing thing you are not likely to find with any modern authority. You can find someone who will tell you that they have God’s authority over a church or a family or this or that other thing, but it will be hard indeed to find one among them who will say that he should also be cursed if he goes beyond the gospel.

It is absurd and misleading for anyone to say that we should listen to them because they speak for God. Spiritual authority is always recognized before it is obeyed. Nobody honors God by obeying someone because that person claims to be speaking for God–that honors the person by assuming what they say (that they speak for God) is true even though you can’t see it. We can honor God by listening to someone when we realize that what they say is true even when we normally would not respect or rely on that person (Amos 7:14-16). But anyone who is truly speaking for God realizes that God must grant the hearing as well as the speaking, just as Peter first confessed recognized Christ (Matthew 16:17). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12 NKJV), and to the Thessalonians “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13 NKJV). It is the Holy Spirit in us which causes us to recognize God speaking, and not some man insisting that some verses in the Bible qualify him to speak for God. John confirms this, writing “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 John 2:27 NKJV).

It is quite possible for someone who is speaking for God to be ignored. It happens all the time and it happened to the best of us. Christ himself said that his audience could not hear God speaking (Matthew 13:13-14; cf. Mark 4:12, Luke 8:20, Acts 28:26). To reinforce the point, it happened quite literally when God spoke from heaven and some people thought it was thunder (John 12:28). Jesus’ reaction to this lack of hearing (and the reaction of his apostles after him) was not to set up rules and try to force people to follow him because he knew he was right. He let his sheep who heard him follow him, and the ones who did not hear were led astray by other voices. Spiritual authority is obeyed by those who recognize it, and anyone who must insist that he has spiritual authority and ought to be followed is not relying on spiritual authority at all.

This is the fourth part in a series on Authority. You can find the other parts here.


The Faces of Authority

Posted on February 24, 2013
Filed Under Authority, Specials, Theological | Comments Off on The Faces of Authority

In keeping with our great distinction between experts and despots, we make much sharper distinctions between different types of authority than was common in the culture of the New Testament (or Old Testament, for that matter). Consider these two passages from Matthew:

“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?’ (Matthew 20:1-13 NIV)

Here the landowner engages the services of free men to do a definite task for a price. It’s a simple hiring transaction with no long-term obligation, not much different than a employer-employee relationship today.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35 NIV)

In this case, not only is the servant jailed for debt, he is also tortured. This is an atrocity in our contemporary culture. It is unthinkable that someone would be tortured for a debt. But the same word (kurios, Strong’s 2962) is used for the landowner in the first story (“the owner of the vineyard,” Matthew 20:8 NIV) as is used for the master in the second story (“in anger his master handed him over,” Matthew 18:34 NIV). Both stories are parables of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven recorded in Matthew. Although the two masters have different specific relationships to the servants in the two stories, their authority is not considered essentially different in the way that we would distinguish ‘office manager’ from ‘slave master’.

We think of a slave master, an employer, and a high-ranking politician has having three fundamentally different kinds of authority. The first we consider inherently wicked and perverse; the second, generally a mutually beneficial relationship; and our view of the third depends wildly on whether we believe that particular politician represents our interests. The politician might be considered as corrupt as the slave master or more beneficent than the employer, all depending on our political views. But the ancient lack of distinction is starting to creep back up on us. Although generally we do see employers and employees as both benefiting, in some crowds the employer’s benefit dwarfs the employee’s to the point where we now use the term “wage slave.” In our use this is an entirely derogatory term, pushing an employer into the category of a wicked and corrupt slave owner. In ancient contexts the view was more mixed; although it was generally considered better to be free, a slave or bondservant might consider themselves to enjoy such advantages from a good master than they voluntarily continue the relationship when they might get out (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). But we cannot even suggest today that a slave might choose his service without being considered racist and dishonest – a legacy of the race-based slavery in the United States.

It might be worth stating here explicitly that preferring to remain a slave or bondservant has always been the exception and never the rule. When Paul writes to the Corinthians about freedom in Christ, he says “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (1 Corinthians 7:21 ESV). It is assumed unless demonstrated otherwise that everyone would prefer freedom. Perhaps today a lifetime career with a single company is about as common as voluntary bondservice was then – you can find it, but it is not considered normal.

The modern notion of a “wage slave” ironically helps us bridge the gap to the ancient perspective on bondservice. There are some jobs in our economy that we would conventionally say nobody would chose. Stereotypically, working in fast food or big-box retail would never be anyone’s first choice. Yet most of us do not regard holding such jobs as being subject to evil. (Some, of course, would say so.) For most people, these unpleasant jobs are something to work your way out of and to avoid as much as possible, but they are not institutions of evil to which no person should ever be subjected. In some ways they form a part of the overall continuum of jobs, along which we are always trying to move to a “better” job. Typically a “better” job is one with more responsibility and more monetary compensation. This kind of improvement was available to at least some servants in New Testament times (Luke 19:11-19).

The ultimate difference between our conception of authority and the understanding of the New Testament authors is that we see authority as antithetical to love. A relationship of authority cannot be a relationship of love. We have established this in widespread regulations prohibiting romantic involvement between a boss and an employee. Such a relationship is certainly open to abuses, but relationships of authority are always open to abuse, inherently so. Prohibiting sexual activity between boss and employee is not effective–neither at preventing such activity nor at eliminating abuses of power. But since we have generally confused sex with love, we prohibit sex and then pretend that no kind of love exists between authority and subject. We can talk about how we admire our boss or respect him; we can speak of our boss as a mentor and perhaps even as a friend. But it is taboo to say that you love your boss (in any genuine sense, beyond the trivial use of ‘love’ that can be applied to any passing fancy). Likewise, although it is permissible to love your country, it is weird and taboo to love the president. We just do not see authority and love as compatible. If we do love any person in power, we may only love them ‘as a person,’ as distinct from their role of authority. That ‘person’ we love does not have authority, of course, only the office… the walls and the desk and the chair, but not ‘the person.’ Even many parents are at pains to try to relate to their children as equals, and remove or disguise the authority that they have over their children. Finally, we apply our dislike of authority to God himself. In all the traditional notions of God, God has power. In our modern notions God does not have power, or cannot use his power, or chooses not to use his power, because a God who is actively more powerful than ourselves is beyond our love (so we think). God cannot be both lovable and powerful. Power is bad, so God becomes a helpless good.

The modern contradiction between authority and love is not known in the Bible. The most obvious example of a lovable (rightly beloved) authority is Jesus himself. Peter’s word ‘Lord’ below is the same word as in the two parables earlier, with the hired field workers and the indebted servant:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17 ESV)

There are of course countless other examples of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples involving  both authority and love. Arguably, any relationship we are to emulate in the New Testament that involves authority also involves love. But one in particular will serve to illustrate how deeply opposed we are today to allowing authority and love to mix: Peter’s comment to wives about submission. “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:5-6 ESV). We cannot in our culture imagine a wife calling her husband ‘lord’ or anything even close: ‘master,’ ‘boss,’ even ‘sir’. By “we” I mean myself if no one else. It is frankly appalling to me to imagine a wife referring to her husband this way. It does not sound romantic. It does not sound like a term of love or an address that expects to be loved. But this proves that my hearing is wrong, because whatever the situation actually was between Abraham and Sarah (flawed humans, both, and not in all ways good examples), this is the same way that Jesus’ own disciples addressed him. If there is truth in the love of Christ, then, it cannot be impossible to combine with that word ‘lord.’

This is the third part in a series on Authority. You can find the other parts here.


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