Authority

I’m not much of an exegete, which is probably why Reformed thinking was so attractive to me when I first discovered it—all those biblical interconnections, laid out neatly, explained in detail, tied up with neat ribbons. I read a lot of Reformed writings, and it helped me internalize both the structure and content of the Bible.

I still like a lot about Reformed thinking, but I’m no longer so enamored with the Reformed tendency to look for a pat answer to difficult questions. These days I’m more interested in a sort of Bible reading that I have no name for, but is often found in the writings of liberal or neo-orthodox Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul and Wendell Berry, folks who take a superficially troubling passage and rather than explaining difficult implications away will try to wrestle them to the ground, even at the risk of unresolved conflicts in their understanding of the Bible.

One simple example that comes to mind is Mark 10:24, where “the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” The pat answer, I suppose, is that the danger is not in riches but in trustring riches—as long as you don’t trust in them, go ahead and pile them up. And plenty of writers have made a biblical case that wealth is a blessing, not a curse. But my naive initial reaction to that verse is to think, why would anyone ever want to be rich at all, if riches can put you at risk of entering into the kingdom of God?

So I am drawn to troubling passages, and am grateful when someone points out reasons to be troubled by passages I previously glossed over. Last week I was reading some Ellul, and ended up seeing this passage with new eyes:

In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, 21:25)

If I thought about that passage at all, I thought of it as a negative assessment of the situation in Israel at the time: these wayward folks needed to be brought under the authority of a king.

But that can’t be right, can it? When the people eventually demanded of Samuel that they have a king, Samuel explained to them exactly what horrors a king would visit upon them. And when he does finally crown Saul, he tells the people “Ye have this day rejected your God.” (1 Samuel 10:19) So, wasn’t it a good (or at least a better) thing that in the days of Judges there was no king in Israel?

Furthermore, is it necessarily a bad thing that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”? Wouldn’t we expect a righteous man to do that which is right in his own eyes, eyes that have been trained in godliness and so need no worldly authority to guide his actions? In Romans 13:3, Paul tells us “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” I don’t read this as a command to do whatever the rulers tell us, but simply to do what is right in our own (godly) eyes, trusting that the rulers will not terrorize us for them.

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5 thoughts on “Authority

  1. Rick,

    You make some good points! I can recall when I was a rather young lad being given the opportunity to teach the adults at church. I was well trained within the context of my upbringing and was comfortable as long as I could operate within my packaging, so to speak. I recall one Sunday teaching through 1 Thessalonians and hitting the subject of abstinence (in regard to alcohol). Everyone there would have been agreement with what I read, but for some reason as I was going through my arguments it dawned on me that I really had no argument at all. Shortly thereafter I was confronted with reformed doctrine and I was left momentarily exposed and shaken!

    Perhaps with the passages in the book of Judges one need not be dogmatic in the negative. The godly could indeed do what is right in his eyes, but of course, this assumes that the godly has established the Word of God as His source of instruction and thus guiding his definition of right.

    In regard to Israel at the end of the book of Judges, I tend to view the remark negatively simply because of what follows in the next five chapters: idolatry, rape, murder, sodomy, civil war. In the next five chapters, there is a common reminder that there was no king and it would seem that the reminder is given during times in which justice was needed. Civil war erupts when the Danites were not able to receive their inheritance. When the men of the city kill the Levite’s concubine, he cuts her up into 12 pieces and sends the piece all throughout Israel. Some suggest it was done as a cry for justice.

    Of course, Solomon reminds us that even the way of the fool is right in his own eyes. It seems to me that we need the various spheres of authority that God has ordained. Could the saints of God even function together in church and community merely on the basis that we each did was right in our own eyes? I supect we would find that we would be better ordered when the community had a set standard of law and a magistrate to see that it is enforced and that the church had a confession and elders to function as the same.

    Of course, I will confess to feeling comfortable at times with details neatly wrapped in ribbons!

    Bob

  2. I’ve felt the same way, and have found Ellul in particular to be a wonderful inspiration in rethinking my understanding of what it “means” to be a Christian. Somehow, he’s so faithful to biblical teachings that he makes more conservative exegetes look like false prophets — and yet he’s profoundly progressive in his beliefs.

    I thank God for men like Ellul, and pray that we might all be as committed to the living God as he was.

  3. I agree, Rick. At the risk of always seeming to tell you what you what I think you can do, I’d recommend some of these audio messages: http://www.mckenziestudycenter.org/audio/#date –particularly the ones by Jack Crabtree. I first heard about Ellul because of my son hearing about him from the Crabtree brothers at Gutenberg College. I’m always impressed listening to their messages from their church services (I hesitate to call them “sermons” not knowing really what all that connotes.) that they seem to be able to lay aside preconceived notions and really wrestle with what is right there in front of them. I may decide at some future time that I think they’re terrible heretics :-) , but I don’t think so.

  4. The repeated refrain of “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” is indeed a negative evaluation. (See Deut 12:8). I believe this statement is in contrast to following what God prescribed for them in His covenant law. In the Judges 17 context, Micah and his mother made idols, certainly given as an example of not obeying the covenant law God had given them, and doing whatever they saw fit. The rest of the book continues with more examples of covenant unfaithfulness. Accompanied with this unfaithfulness is the repeated and directly connected phrase, “there was no king in Israel”. One way to look at that is that it means that the people did not obey their divine King. God was not among them as He warned them if they played the harlot and worshipped other Gods. (Deut 31:16-17). They most certainly did need to be under His authority.

    If it refers to an earthly king, it could mean the type of earthly king that God intended them to have, ie one after his own heart, such as David. Such a king was important in leading and enabling the nation to remain faithful to the covenant. If God had never intended for Israel to ever have an earthly king, then why did not just return them to their pre-Saul state after they had repented?

  5. Hi Rick,

    One danger in being reformed, as you pointed out very well, is in thinking you have the Bible figured out. I can identify with what you have written here. I do agree with you that the weight of biblical evidence seems to be against the accumulation of wealth. Having said that, many have done exactly that and kept their souls. Abraham springs to mind. For myself, I am uncomfortable seeking something which might narrow the gate to heaven even more then it is. Being dragged through the eye of a needle sounds like an ordeal. No thanks.

    On the matter of kings and everyone doing what they want, one can easily be as bad as the other. Or as good. But it might be easier to find one good man to occupy a throne and lead a nation in righteousness, then expect lots of good men (especially reformed men!) to agree enough to do the same. My Pastor actually said from the pulpit a few weeks ago that having a good king is a good thing. I about fell off my chair. It just sounded so.. undemocratic or something. But upon further reflection, I would have to agree with him. After all, God gave Israel’s Kings-to-be instructions long before Israel asked for a King. (Deut. 17) And I’m not so sure that Israel sinned by asking for a King; they sinned by wanting an earthly king instead of a heavenly King. The Lord specifically says to Samuel: ‘they are not rejecting you, they are rejecting me’ or words to that effect. I don’t know if I’m a ‘constitutional monarchist’ yet or not.. but I’m less inclined to dismiss the idea without giving it a hearing then I was before.

    Anyway, my two cents..

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