Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Bible and Human Authority, Part 3: The Great Chain of Being

In Parts 1 and 2 we examined what the Bible actually teaches about human authority. God in the Old Testament simply does not appear to be interested in setting up human authority structures, but rather prefers to raise up individual, Spirit-led leaders who act in God’s authority, not as part of a top-down chain of command. And though the New Testament teaches submission to earthly institutions of human authority, its focus is on the new kingdom of God, in which hierarchies of human authority are eliminated in favor of equal brother-sister relationships.

So where did the idea come from, that there is top-down chain of command from God, both in earthly and in spiritual relationships, with human authority structures in every area of life?

Plato (429-347 BC) was possibly the greatest of the Greek philosophers. He conceived of the nature of reality to consist first of ideal “Forms,” and then objects/beings which were types of each ideal. Plato conceived of the Form of Absolute Good as the ultimate, universal object of human desire, and this Idea of the Good became synonymous with God in the writings of his student, Aristotle. In order to be the ultimate Good, God would, in Absolute generosity, also give existence to every other possible good thing. Aristotle then arranged all creatures into a graded scale according to how closely they approached “perfection.” The Neo-Platonists, a group of Greek philosophers in the 3rd-5th centuries AD, who expanded Plato and Aristotle’s ideas, particularly in terms of religion and spirituality, developed this notion further. Macrobius, a Neo-Platonist writing in the early fifth century AD, wrote:

“[T]he attentive observer will discover a connection of parts, from the Supreme God down to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without a break. And this is Homer’s golden chain, which God, he says, bade hang down from heaven to earth.” (Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Harper & Brothers (1936) p. 63.)

This idea of a graded, hierarchical creation came to be known as the “Great Chain of Being.” Alan Myatt, in his paper “On the Compatibility of Ontological Equality, Hierarchy and Functional Distinctions,” writes:

“As Greek philosophical notions were appropriated by early Christian apologists in their defense of the faith, it [the idea of the Great Chain of Being] eventually became entwined with the theology of the church and set the agenda for its theory of society. . . In the Middle Ages, this concept translated into the division of society into ‘Three Estates,’ each stratified according to the Chain of Being. The first estate consisted of church officials beginning with the pope. . . The second estate included the ruling classes of kings, nobility and knights, while the peasants and merchants made up the third estate. Any violation of the established authority within each estate was seen as a threat to the creation order, and subversive to the state and to the stability of Christian culture. Any attempt to leave one’s place in the chain was therefore an act of rebellion. It is critical to note that in the family, there was a hierarchical ordering of husband, wife, children and servants. Each was subordinate to the previous due to their immutable places in the Chain of Being.”

By Elizabethan times (1500s), the Chain of Being had become “one of those accepted commonplaces, more often hinted at or taken for granted than set forth.” (Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, Vintage Books, page 26.) The Elizabethan philosophers and theologians envisioned not just a hierarchical gradation of beings, but a “primacy” within each specific class of beings, such as “the dolphin among fishes, the eagle among birds, the lion among beasts, the emperor among men.” Ibid, p. 29-30. This conception of hierarchy among the animals is never hinted at in the biblical creation story— but it became part of Christian/Western thought through the infusion of pagan philosophy. Even now we still think of the lion as “the king of beasts.”

Another “commonplace” assumption of Elizabethan times was that “the order in the state duplicates the order of the macrocosm.” Ibid, p. 88. The Homily of Obedience written in 1547 stated,

“In the earth God has assigned kings, princes with other governors under them, all in good and necessary order. The water above is kept and raineth down in due time and season. The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightening, clouds, and all birds of the air do keep their order.” Ibid, p. 88.

Thus, building upon Greek pagan thought, the idea of a hierarchical order of authority in every strata of human relations, based upon the order of creation, became infused with Christianity to the point where no one even thought to question it. This legacy became part of our Western conception of the universe, which still exists today. Alan Myatt notes that a hierarchical understanding of the universe is the tendency in eastern systems of thought as well, “so universal in human society that it could be said to be the default mode of human existence.” He adds that in our churches today, “Traditional hierarchical biblical interpretation has been filtered through the lens of a cultural vision of human relations compromised by a pagan worldview [which] effectively blinded it to the egalitarian implications of the biblical text.” In other words, hierarchical thinking is so natural for humans, and so much a part of our Western mentality, that we have been reading it back into the biblical texts ever since the end of the Age of the Apostles.

With regards, then, to Jesus’ submission to the Father as a justification for hierarchy in human relationships (and particularly in marriage)— it seems apparent that the notion of the Trinity as a hierarchy of authority between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a continuation of this notion of the Great Chain of Being into the Godhead Itself. But is this the way the Bible actually describes the submission of the Son to the Father? Or to put it another way, is the submission of the Son to the authority of the Father shown by the Bible to be an eternal, divine absolute? Or was the submission of the Son to the Father a temporary matter, tied to the Son’s taking on of human nature and walking on earth as an example of human obedience? Is Jesus’ submission to the Father’s authority human and temporal, or divine and eternal?

Philippians 2:6-9 says that Jesus was “in the form of God, [and] thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And Hebrews 2:9 says, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”

These verses show that Jesus laid down His complete equality with the Father in order to take on human nature and become an obedient servant. There is no indication that Jesus was subject to the Father, or under the Father’s authority, prior to this event, or that it continued after He had “tasted death” and then been “crowned with glory and honor.” It was only for a little while, during His time on earth, that He was made “ a little lower than the angels,” which according to Hebrews 2:6-7 is the nature of humanity. The state of the Son now, according to Phil. 2:9, is that “God hath highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name.” There is no indication that a state of authority and subordination continues to exist at the present time between the Father and the Son.

In fact, the very idea of authority and subordination within the Godhead in Its eternal divinity is actually incoherent. The triune God is One—three Persons, distinguishable but not divisible, Who in eternity are completely of one Will. Authority makes no sense unless there is a need for obedience; and there can be no need for obedience when there is no difference in wills. The Father did not want to send the Son to earth more than the Son wanted to go. The only time during which the wills of the Father and the Son could diverge, was when the human needs and desires of the incarnated, human Christ conflicted with His divine purpose. This is why Hebrews 5:8 says He “learned obedience by the things which he suffered.” Obedience was something the Son needed to learn on earth, because it could not have had any existence or meaning in the divine eternity of the Trinity, where there was nothing the Son wanted that the Father and the Spirit did not also want.

Even during Jesus’ time on earth we see incidents where Their divine mutuality shows. When soldiers come to arrest Jesus in Matthew 26:53, Jesus says, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently [at once] give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be [that the Christ must die]?” Jesus was confident that the Father would do whatever Jesus wanted— but Jesus Himself was choosing to do what needed to be done.

In John 5:19, Jesus explains, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” He does not say that the Son does what the Father tells Him to do, but what He sees the Father doing. The Son is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). This is an aspect of the divine mystery of the Trinity, and because of this, it isn’t really a good idea to try to compare human relationships, such as husbands and wives, to the interrelationships of the infinite Godhead. In any event, this comparison seems largely to be done as a justification of male authority over the female in marriage, rather than because the Bible itself makes any such comparison.

What, then can we say about 1 Cor 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God”? As I have explained in detail elsewhere, the context surrounding 1 Corinthians 11:3 leads to understanding the word “head” in that verse as meaning “origin” or “source.” And what the passage actually says is that God is the “head” of “Christ,” not of “the Son.” “Christ means “the Anointed One/Messiah,” and refers specifically to the Son in His relations to humanity. He is the “Lamb, slain from the Foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), which means that since the Creation Jesus has, first by anticipation and then by actuality, been the “Christ.” “God is the head [origin] of Christ” because it was from God that Christ came into the world. “Christ is the head [origin] of man” because, according to 1 Cor. 8:6 and Col 1:15, all things, including man, were created by and through Christ. “Man is the head [origin] of woman” because the first woman was taken out of the man’s side; but Paul goes on to say that even as the woman came from the man (at creation), so man comes from woman (in childbirth), and all things come from God (1 Cor. 11:12). This passage is not setting up a hierarchy: God-Christ-man-woman— because it is not stated in that order; instead, it is given in chronological order according to when each came into the world: the man, created by and through Christ; then the woman, taken out of the man; then the Christ, sent by God.

The last passage to address is 1 Cor. 15:28, the main passage used to support the idea that the Son is meant to be eternally, divinely under the authority of the Father: “And when all things shall be subdued to him [the Christ], then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” The context of this passage is the final redemption of the creation and the resurrection of the dead. Christ, being the first resurrected, is called the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (verse 20). Verse 21 points out that the verse is specifically about Christ as “man,” undoing the death that came through the first man, Adam, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (verse 22). Verse 24 says that the end will be consummated when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God, even the Father.” Verses 26 and 27 speak of how “all things” (the entire creation) shall be put under Christ’s feet, with death the last enemy to be conquered. This shows a dynamic movement of authority between the Father and Jesus as the Christ, so that it is Christ, being Himself part of the creation in His humanity, who is in authority over the creation at this present time. The Father is not under Christ’s authority (“he is excepted, which did put all things under him”), but neither is the Father in authority over the creation: He has given that to Christ. In the end, then, Christ, now spoken of as “the Son” shall “also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him.” If anything, this speaks against the idea of eternal, divine subordination of the Son, for if there is going to come a time when the Son becomes subject to the Father, the fact is that He is not subject now, or there would be no point of speaking of a future time.

Greek scholar Philip Payne, in his book Man and Woman, One in Christ, points out that a distinction is being made between “God the Father" in verse 24, and “God” (“the God” in the original language, with definite article “the”) in verse 28. Verse 24 speaks of Christ as Man, Himself partaking of the nature of created things, Who will as the Ruler of the creation, give it up to the Father at the end. Verse 28 then says that as the Son, he will be subjected (or possibly, "subject Himself”) to the Father, that “the God” will be “all in all.” As Payne says, “Accordingly, 1 Cor 15:28 . . . may be better translated, ‘so that the Godhead may be all in all.’” The form of future tense used for “will be subject” does not, according to Payne, indicate that the thing being done “will be the condition forever thereafter.” (Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, Zondervan (2009), p. 134-135.) If it did, it would contradict Ephesians 1:21, which says that God has placed Christ above all rule and power and “every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in the one to come.” (Emphasis added.) Rather, this passage may be seen as a one-time event at the end of this creation, that lays to rest the issue of authority as it exists in this creation, by placing it all under the Christ as Man (a Creature of this creation)— and then Jesus as the Son, with all the rule and authority He has as Christ-Man, placed under the Father, that the divine Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) may be “all in all.”

In other words, the New Testament shows God the Father and God the Son sharing authority over the creation, so that it moves back and forth between them depending on times and circumstances. Authority of the Father over the Son only makes sense within the human nature of the Son, not in His divine eternity with the Father and the Spirit. We cannot, then, use the submission of the Son to the Father at certain times and events as an indication that the nature of the Godhead is a divine hierarchy. In fact, if we view the Trinity as a permanent hierarchy within Its divine essence, then we must view the nature of the Father as essentially different from that of the Son, in that the Father is eternally suited to rule the Son and the Son is eternally suited to be ruled by the Father. However, for the Persons of the Trinity to be different in essence, contradicts the very nature of the Trinity, rendering them separate gods instead of One God.

To sum up, then: The Bible does not actually teach that God has a divine plan for authority such that there is a hierarchically ordered chain of command in every area of life, extending top-down from a hierarchical Trinity. The Bible teaches that in the New Creation, equality of status is the plan of God, with servanthood replacing authority, and those who lead, leading by example rather than by right. Jesus was quite accurate when He said that hierarchies of authority and rule were of the “Gentiles” in Matthew 20:25, because the concept known as the “Great Chain of Being” was formed in Greek thought and was never taught by our Savior. We are Gentiles also, and we have taken hierarchy for granted, missing the impact of Christ’s words that it is to be “not so among you,” for too long.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Bible and Human Authority, Part 2: New Testament

In the New Testament we see again the idea of God’s sovereignty over earthly human authority. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” This chapter continues on from Romans 12, in which Paul gives practical advice for Christian living. “Higher powers” refers specifically to earthly governing authorities. The word “ordained” is the Greek word “tasso,” which refers to placing in order or assigning a place to something. It does not mean that earthly authority figures are granted “divine right” to rule or that we must slavishly obey earthly powers, right or wrong (see Acts 3:19). Paul was repeating the Old Testament idea that God was the ultimate Source of all authority—but being a scholar of the Old Testament, he probably also kept in mind Hosea 8:4, where God denounces those who “have set up kings, but not by Me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.” Paul is not saying that God has exercised His sovereignty so controllingly that every earthly ruler, good or evil, is there by God's divine plan. Paul is saying that God has assigned places to earthly authorities for the benefit of all: “for he is the minister of God to thee for good” (Rom. 13:4).

However, the New Testament is not so much concerned with earthly kingdoms as it is with the kingdom of God. Matthew 4:17 and Luke 4:43 make it clear that preaching about the coming of God’s kingdom was the focal point of Jesus’ entire message. How did Jesus envision authority working within the kingdom of God? Is the New Creation that came and is coming through His death and resurrection, different from the old creation in terms of authority structures?

Possibly the most definitive statement Jesus made about authority in the kingdom occurs in the context of James and John’s mother’s request that her sons sit one on His right hand and the other on His left, in the kingdom. Matthew 20:20-27. Salome was envisioning a kingdom just like the kingdoms of earth, with hierarchies of power and authority— and she wanted her sons at the top. Jesus’ answer was that it was not His to give places on His right hand or left, but “to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” Just before this incident, in verses 1-16, Jesus had told the parable of the workers in the vineyard— how those who had worked just one hour received the same wages as the ones who worked all day. “For the last shall be first, and the first last,” Jesus said, indicating how God levels the playing field among His children. Now, in response to the disciples’ anger over James and John’s mother’s question, He calls all the disciples to gather, and tells them this: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [“servant” in the original Greek], and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant [“slave” in the original].” Those who sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, according to Jesus, will not be at the top of a hierarchy, taking authority over others. They will be at the bottom, lifting up others.

Jesus expresses the same idea in different terms slightly earlier in Matthew— also in response to a question about hierarchy in the kingdom of God: “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1-3.) This was the mentality the disciples knew: the world of authority structures and hierarchical positioning. “Who is greatest?” here is in the same vein as “Who shall sit on Your right and left hand?” a little later on. But here is how Jesus responded in Matthew 18:2-3: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

This was upside-down to the way the disciples had always thought. If there was one kind of person who had no status, no place in the social structure, it was a little child. Even a slave could have authority over other slaves, but a little child had authority over no one. Unless you became like that, Jesus said, you could not even enter the kingdom! We tend to interpret this passage as if it were about some about special spirituality that the innocence of children gives them, to help them enter the kingdom. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. The context of this passage is the disciples’ question: “Who is greatest in the kingdom?” which meant “Who has most authority? Who is at the top of the hierarchy?” And Jesus’ answer meant, “There is no hierarchy. The kingdom of God isn’t like that at all.”

From Matthew 18 all the way through Matthew 23, the theme of human authority in the kingdom builds upon itself. In Matthew 23, the theme culminates when Jesus focuses on the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, beginning with their use of Old Covenant religious authority. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do ye not after their works, for they say and do not.” (Matt. 23:2-3.) What Jesus meant by “in Moses’ seat” has been variously interpreted, but Moses’ main job was conveying the words of the Law to the people, and insofar as the Pharisees were doing the same, they would have been “sitting in Moses’ seat.” Jesus is not telling the people to follow every teaching of the Pharisees, however, just because of their authoritative position— for that would contradict His warning in Matthew 16:12, where He tells the disciples to beware of the Pharisees’ teaching—and also Matthew 15:6, where He faults the Pharisees for making “the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” Jesus wanted people to follow God, not the Pharisees.

Jesus goes on in Matthew 23 to say that the Pharisees “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplace, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” (v. 7.) He criticizes the Pharisees for seeking power and authority, for desiring high positions and titles. His followers are not to be like that. “But be ye not called Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters, for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:8-11.)

The non-governmental authority structures of that day were centered around those three things: teachers, fathers and masters. Jesus said that His followers were not to desire titles or seek authority, because they were all “brethren” (the Greek word is gender inclusive) with God as their Father and Christ as their Teacher and Master. Authority in first-century Ancient Near East families was concentrated in the hands of the father, with the firstborn son having the place of prominence among the children. All the non-firstborn children were equal in status.* Romans 8:29 calls Christ the “firstborn among many brethren.” Jesus and Paul both pictured the kingdom of God in terms of a spiritual family, in which the authority patterns and hierarchies of the world did not apply. We are not to take for ourselves, or give one another, hierarchical positions or titles of power, like the Pharisees loved to do. Instead we are to see one another as brothers and sisters under God alone.

So how did Jesus handle His status as Firstborn, Master and Teacher? John 13:3-4 says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girdeth himself. After that he poureth water in a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” This was the action of a slave. People did not wash one another’s feet in polite society; when they came in from the dusty outdoors, they waited for slaves to perform this menial task. Peter was so shocked by Jesus’ actions that he refused at first to let Him perform the slave’s traditional service towards him, but Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (v. 14-15.) Jesus was showing them a practical illustration of how “not so among you, for whoever is greatest shall be your servant” was to be lived out in God’s kingdom. It was not in exercising authority, but in laying it down. If the Firstborn does this, how much more should the equal-status younger brothers and sisters do the same?

Someone might bring up Hebrews 13:17 at this point: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account.” The words “watch for your souls” means that the Hebrews author is referring to spiritual leaders. Was the author of Hebrews commanding obedience to hierarchical church authorities?

There are some interesting translation issues in this passage. First of all, the word translated “obey” is not the word that generally means “obey” in the original Greek. The word that means “obey” is “hypakouo.” This word in Hebrews 13:17 is “peitho,” which actually means to trust, listen to or be persuaded by. “Have the rule over you” is also a problematic translation. It is the noun form of a verb which is usually translated “to consider.” As a noun, it conveys not so much a sense of rule or authority, as leadership by example. Hebrews 13:7 confirms this: using the same word, “hegaomei,” this verse counsels the readers to follow the faith of their leaders; it does not say to follow the leaders themselves. In Philippians 3:17 we see the same idea, as Paul encourages his readers to follow his example— and in 1 Cor. 3:4 he discourages them from following himself or Apollos, telling them that Paul and Apollos are nothing and that they should follow God.

In fact, the early church was characterized by a plurality of leaders rather than a hierarchy of authority. 1 Peter 5:1-3 says, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [note that Peter does not give himself any title here higher than those he is addressing] . . . feed the flock of God which is among you. . . neither being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”

Daughters of the Church by Tucker and Liefeld offers this analysis of the nature of leadership during the ministry of the original Apostles:

“Even where there was a ranking of importance of gifts (as Paul seems to do in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – according to their value in edifying the church), it has to be said that ‘in reality there hardly existed any hierarchical differentiation between the various functions or, in other words, no function at the time of Paul’s letter writing was legally subordinated to any other.’ . . . . The New Testament speaks of a plurality of leadership, rather than of individual authority. Some elders lead well and some are good at teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), but there is no indication that elders in the New Testament exercised authority as individuals over others.”
Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), p. 469, quoting in part Holmberg, Paul and Power, Fortress (1978), p. 119. Emphasis in original.

A possible rebuttal might arise from Titus 2:15, “These things speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.” But Daughters of the Church notes as follows:

“What authority there is resides in the Scripture that is being taught, not in the teacher. . . . The word [in Titus 2:15 translated “authority”] was not the familiar exousia [the usual word for authority] but epitage. This word was often used in ancient times to refer to a command from God (or in paganism, from a god) that is to be passed on. . . Timothy and Titus were apostolic delegates. The terminology, therefore, seems not to indicate that Titus was vested with ongoing ecclesiastical authority as an individual, but that he was to convey God’s commands in their full force.”
p. 468.

Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-19, “All power has been given to me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore. . . .” Jesus sends His followers out in His power and authority, rather than vesting them with hierarchical authority as individuals.

So again the question must be asked: If structures of authority are so necessary in God’s mind—if God has “ordained” that someone must be in charge in each area or sphere of life—why does Jesus teach that God’s kingdom, God’s spiritual family, is characterized by laying down authority and becoming equal-status siblings? Why does Jesus Himself, as Master and Lord and Firstborn in the kingdom, set us an example by doing a slave’s job? And why do Jesus, Peter and Paul emphasize groups of leaders leading by example, none of whom is in authority over the others, rather than structured systems of authorities wielding individual, hierarchical power? Is this whole idea that there “has to be someone in charge” in every area of human life, actually from God?

Part 3 will address the question of Jesus’ submission to the Father, and will also look into where the idea actually came from that there is a divine chain of command, with hierarchical authorities in each sphere of life.

*See Michael Kruse’s “Household of God” series for more information.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Bible and Human Authority, Part 1: Old Testament

I'd like to look a little further into this idea, so common among Christians, that "someone has to be in charge" in every area of life. Sometimes they speak in terms of "spheres of authority," saying that God has established different spheres, or realms, in which different authority structures hold sway, including the church, the family and society. But always there's this idea that hierarchical systems of authority extend top-down from God into each aspect of life, and that to operate without one or more of these authority systems is to invite chaos. It is even said that there is hierarchy in the Trinity: that because God the Son submitted to God the Father on earth, the Son functions in an eternal relationship of submission to the Father, even though they are equals. The idea of hierarchy in the Trinity is set forth as a justification for hierarchy in marriage, because if the Son's submission to the Father does not diminish the Son in terms of equality, the subordination of a wife to her husband would not diminish the wife's equality either.

It cannot be denied that human societies need some form of law, to protect people from being harmed by one another, among other things-- and that laws need someone with the power to enforce them, or they are useless. But is this idea that "someone has to be in charge," that there is a chain of command in every area of human life, actually taught in the Bible?

First of all, let’s define our terms. What is “authority”? How is the concept of authority treated in the Bible? Here is a definition from an online dictionary:

“The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.”

For purposes of this study, I'd like to draw a distinction between "authority," or the power or right to command, and "leadership," which is the actual act of leading or commanding, or the state of being the one leading or commanding.

The first mention of authority or rule in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:26-28. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth. . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them. . . “[H]ave dominion over . . . every living thing that moveth on the earth.”

Notice first of all that the word “man” here includes “male and female.” The meaning is “human beings,” not “male humans.” Notice also that there is no hint here of an authority relationship between the male and the female; both are to have authority over the creatures, but nothing is said about either being in authority over the other. Neither is there any indication of an authority structure within the ranks of other creatures. God does not say, “the animals that are bigger shall rule over the smaller animals, all the way down to the insects,” or anything like that (this may seem like an unimportant point, but I'll get into why it’s important later in this series). In fact, other than the humans ruling together over the animals, there are no earthly authority structures in view in the first chapter of Genesis.

When do we see the first mention of humans ruling over one another? In Genesis 3:16, right after the Fall of Adam and Eve. God tells Eve then that the man will begin to rule over her, as part of the consequences of the wrong that has come into the world. Note that this was not part of God's divine plan from the beginning; nor does God tell the man to rule the woman. God simply informs the woman that this is going to happen, as part of the consequences of the Fall.

Some Christians teach that because Eve was not yet created when God gave the command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam had to convey God’s words to Eve, and that automatically put him in charge of her and made him an intermediary between her and God. But those are assumptions that are read into the text. The Bible never actually says anything like that. Instead, it says that God made Eve out of Adam’s own flesh, so that there was no way he could say, “this is a different/lesser sort of being than I am.” It says Eve was his “face-to-face strong aid,” which is a literal translation of “help meet for him” (Gen 2:20).* The Bible is actually silent on whether God spoke directly to Eve about the forbidden tree (though it does show Him speaking directly to both man and woman in Genesis 1:27), or whether Adam told Eve about the tree. It does not tell us one way or the other. Eve knows about the tree in Gen. 3:2, but how she came to know is simply not told. It’s important, if we make assumptions about what a biblical text is telling us, that we know the difference between what we are assuming, and what the text actually does or doesn’t say.

What else does the Old Testament say about human authority structures? The next few chapters of Genesis after the Fall of humanity say nothing whatsoever about anyone being a ruler or leader over anyone else, by God’s plan or otherwise. Babel is set out as a story of human organization and structure, but no specific leaders are mentioned, and God deliberately scatters the people there. Abraham, of course, becomes a tribal leader with servants under his authority, but God seems curiously uninterested in that aspect of the matter, being more concerned with the covenant under which Isaac will be born.

God is shown as choosing individuals to further His purpose of preparing a people through which to bring the Messiah; but an interesting dynamic runs though this entire process: God almost always chooses a younger son over the older ones. Primogeniture, the idea that the oldest son is to rule, was a basic assumption of Ancient Near East societies, but God turns primogeniture on its head over and over again. He chooses Jacob over Esau, Joseph over 10 older brothers, David the youngest of eight, and so on.

We do see a couple of systems of governmental hierarchy set up in Genesis 41 and Exodus 18. In Genesis 41:31-35, Joseph suggests that the Pharoah set up an agent, with officers under him, to gather surplus food in preparation for a coming famine. In Exodus 18:13-27, after Moses had led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the people began coming to him to judge disputes between them. Moses was getting worn out, being the sole judge, so his father-in-law Jethro advised him to set up rulers over groups of 10, 50, 100 and 1000, to judge disputes between the people. In both these cases, there is no mention of God having directly instructed the setting up of these hierarchies. It is Joseph who requests the system of officers in Genesis 41:33. In Exodus 18:23 Jethro advises Moses to be sure God agrees, but the idea is shown to be Jethro’s.

In fact, God appears to make no direct law establishing any hierarchical authority structure in the Old Testament except for the priest/Levite orders, in which neither priests nor Levites are given any governmental authority. They are to run the tabernacle/temple and administer the sacrifices and holidays, and that is all. It would have been so easy to make the priestly class into the ruling class—but the Law simply does not go there.

Israel’s actual governmental systems reveal other interesting dynamics. First, although Deuteronomy 17:14 anticipates that Israel will decide to set a king over itself, God does not seem to actually desire them to do so. God does not give them a king, but rather raises up judges (often from the most unlikely sources!) until the people of Israel actually voice a desire for a king. And in 1 Samuel 8:7 God says that in desiring a king, Israel is actually rejecting God as their ruler. God tells Samuel to tell the people that the king will use his power to oppress them— and though the people say they want a king anyway, it seems to be a concession on God’s part to give them what they want. God also limits the power of the king by making him subject to the law and forbidding him priestly powers. 1 Samuel 13:10-14.

There is a consistent theme in the Old Testament of the sovereignty of God over human authority. Daniel 4:32 says, “The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whosoever he will.” However, the context here is God restraining a king’s self-glorification. God is depicted in many texts as having power over what authorities exist and who gets to be in authority. But often—and certainly here in Daniel 4 as in 1 Samuel 13— God seems more interested in restraining human authority than He is in creating it.

In fact, God's plan seems to be more about raising up individual leaders than setting up structures of authority (please keep in mind the definitions set forth earlier). The leaders God does raise up act in accordance with God’s authority, rather than being given some inherent right or power of their own to command— with the exception of the kings, which God apparently would rather not have given Israel at all.

It is interesting, if the Bible teaches that God is so concerned with making sure there are authority structures in every area of life— if having someone “in charge” in every sphere of human relations is such a vital part of His divine plan— that God in the Old Testament seems so reluctant to establish authority structures in Israel, so careful to limit the ones He does establish, and so ready to overturn human assumptions about who should be in authority.

I will look into how the concept of authority is treated in the New Testament, as well as how Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God differs from natural, earthly human societies in the area of authority, in Part 2.


*I have written elsewhere a piece called "The Bible and the Nature of Woman." More information about "help meet" and my views regarding other aspects of woman's relationship to man can be found there.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Provoketive Magazine Repost

My three-part essay regarding Ephesians 5:21-33 and the nature of marriage has been published in the online magazine Provoketive. I'm honored that they wanted this material in their magazine.

Part 1 is published here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Provoketive Magazine has a wide variety of thought-provoking articles by many different Christian authors. Please check it out!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Does Someone Have to "Be In Charge" of Your Marriage?

Christian complementarianism often makes this argument, as explained in the book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs:

“What your husband wants is your acknowledgement that he is the leader, the one in authority. This is not to grind you under or treat you as inferior. It is only to say that because God has made your husband responsible (review Eph. 5:22-33), he needs the authority to carry out that responsibility. No smoothly running organization can have two heads. To set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure. That is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing today.” page 221

My main issue with that is this: Why must some Christians insist that marriage is "an organization" or should work like one? Marriage is an organic unit, a synthesis, a joining of two into one body. It is, or should be, the best kind of best-friend relationship you could ever have.

Best friends do not need one of them to be the leader. In that case they wouldn't be best friends, they'd be hero and sidekick. One thing best friends never are, is boss and subordinate as in an employment model. As soon as you set up that model, the friendship has been compromised. That's why bosses are advised to never become close friends with their employees, but to always maintain a certain distance.

The Bible teaches that two people who are married become “one flesh,” not “one organization.” Christians through the ages have celebrated married love as a thing of divine (and mutual) oneness. A selection from Richard Cranshaw’s Poem “Epithalamium” from the 1600’s, is a good illustration:

May each maintain a well-fledged nest
Of winged loves in either’s breast;
Be each of them a mutual sacrifice
Of either’s eyes.

Oneness is never about who’s in charge. It’s about selfless giving, about mutual understanding and concern. It’s about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Some may here be saying, “All right, marriage is not an organization. But surely running a home and family is? Does not the running of a home require an organization, and thus someone to be in charge?”

To this I would reply that not even in the business world are all organizational models founded on someone being in charge. Partnerships are a very viable business model; one that works well in a very small business with a small membership (any family with less than 15 children would surely fit this definition). When two partners have contributed equally to a venture, and both have equal risk, then neither one is in charge. Because of this, each has great incentive to work for consensus. In a marriage run on these principles, each partner would have a vested interest in listening to and finding ways to compromise with the other partner, so that the partnership would not fail. If a business partnership can work in this way, then a marriage can work as an organization for home management without losing its organic, best-friend structure of mutual love.

Does the Bible ever say, "in any human relationship, someone must be in charge"? If it does, I'd like to see the chapter and verse. I have never read anything that indicated that David and Jonathan, or Paul and Barnabus, considered one of them to be in charge of the other. This blog has already explored how Ephesians 5:21-33 actually reflects the intention of the Holy Spirit to lead Christian marriages out of the husband-rule paradigm of the culture in which it was written, and into mutuality.

If anyone is in doubt, let me ask this: Do you know of anyone who has proposed to his future wife in this manner?

“Honey, I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Therefore, I am offering you entry into an organizational structure in which I am the boss and you the subordinate, and I will always have final say. You may have input, and I will listen to you if I think it’s in our best interests for me to do so, but remember, I am the one who will always decide what is in our best interests, and I will expect you to do your duty and go along with that, whether you like it or not. So-- with that understood, here’s the ring. Will you marry me?”

Do I hear wedding bells?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Book Recommendation: Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour

Proverbs 18:17 says, "The first to present his case seems right, until another comes forward and questions him." Or to put it in the vernacular, "There are two sides to every story."

Elias Chacour is currently the Archbishop of Galilee in the Melkite Catholic Church, which is an ancient Middle Eastern expression of Christianity loosely allied with the Roman Catholic Church. I had never heard of it before I read the book Blood Brothers. In fact, though I knew there were Christians in the Middle East, I didn't know that many of the Palestinians displaced by the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, were in fact Christians. Others are Muslims or Druze (a religion that combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Judaism). Most of them are simple, ordinary people just wanting a way to earn a living and raise their children.

Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian who was driven from his home, along with the rest of his village, when he was a child. Every building in his village was then destroyed by Israeli soldiers. The Palestinian village next to his had every man, woman and child killed and buried in shallow graves-- so Elias and his family and neighbors moved into the deserted homes of the dead.

Sound far-fetched? It is true. And none of this is anything I ever heard about as an evangelical Christian growing up in America, where Israelis were the heroes and the Palestinians were the terrorists, and that was all there was to it.

The amazing thing is the path Father Chacour chose in response. Two options seemed all he had: either passive submission, or violent revenge. Chacour chose neither. He chose active peacemaking and a life dedicated to reconciling his people and the people of Israel. When Jesus gave His Sermon on the Mount, He said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God." Elias Chacour, walking over the hills of Galilee in prayer to Christ, heard the call to become a peacemaker. There is no judgment in his heart for those who harmed his people and took everything they had-- and then blamed the victims. It is true that many of his people have since turned to violence, but the blame does not lie all on one side.

However, Chacour feels deeply for the Israelis. He understands the fear and suspicion in which the Nazi Holocaust left the surving Jews. When he was still a young child, he heard his father say, "For centuries our Jewish brothers have been exiles in foreign lands. They were hunted and tormented-- even by Christians. They have lived in poverty and sadness. They have been made to fear. . . [but] the Jews and Palestinians are brothers-- blood brothers. We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God."

In the face of hatred, Elias Chacour offers compassion, understanding, and reconciliation.

In Matt 5:39-41, Jesus said that when someone slapped you on the right cheek, you were to turn the other. He was referring to the back-handed slap that a person in power would give to an underling with the back of their right hand. To turn the other cheek was to offer the left cheek, so that the slapper would be forced to use his left hand. In that honor-shame culture, this simple, peaceful action would have shamed the one doing the slapping, and forced him to think about his actions.

When Jesus said that if someone wanted to sue you and take your shirt, you should let him have your coat-- only a rich man could afford to file a lawsuit in the courts, and to give him more than he was suing for would shame him in the eyes of the community. So would it shame a Roman soldier if he forced you to march a mile for him (only a Roman soldier had the power to do this), and you went two miles instead. All of these are the actions of the peacemaker-- the one who chooses neither passive submission nor revenge in the face of oppression, but instead makes an opportunity for the oppressed to peacefully confront the oppressor, in a way that empowers both and offers both a chance to see one another as fellow humans.*

Father Chacour has planted olive trees in the soil where land was taken from his people. He has built and opened schools and a university to educate Palestinian youth, so that they have a way out of poverty and the hopelessness that can lead to violence. When violence does erupt, he and his students give blood to help the victims-- Palestinian and Jew, Muslim and Christian alike. Nor are his schools exclusively for Palestinians; though his schools are the only ones where Palestinians may be educated, he does not turn away others, regardless of race or religion. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times-- and yet here in America, I had never heard his name or his side of the story.

Some of my relatives are Jewish, and I have a Holocaust "orphan" in my own family-- my uncle fled Nazi Germany as a boy and was raised in an orphanage, not to know where his parents were, or if they had survived, until he was grown. I have always been glad that Israel was re-established as a homeland for Jews, and I have not changed in that. But I have been misinformed and I have misjudged the situation, on the basis of having only one side of the story. No group of humans are unqualified "heroes," and listening to and hearing the stories of the disenfranchised is so important.

Brother Chacour says to the Palestinians, "Do we need to produce more victims, more martyrs and more humiliation?" He says to his Jewish brothers and sisters, "Do you need to produce more millions of victims from among your own people to convince the world that others have hated you? Are you listening as the voices of all the dead cry out, 'Cain, Cain, what have you done with your brother?"

And he has this to say to those of us in the West:

Was it a bad thing that Europe organized to liberate itself from a savage occupation before and during World War II? Were the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution "acts of terrorism"? Who is the terrorist? Who is the fighter for liberty? How do you find it your right to judge?

I'm so glad I found the book Blood Brothers. In the spirit of Proverbs 18:17, I encourage everyone to read it.

*For more information see Walter Wink, The Third Way .