The 6th essay in a series.
The Church of God for the last 20 years has experienced significant division, often caused by church leaders claiming exclusive power to understand, speak on, and govern in the name of God. God is the source of their claimed authority, flowing from Him, now resting on them, the “shepherds” of His sheep. Division in their mind becomes the natural and necessary a tool to handle those ignorant of their authority.
But it seems we have a contradiction. The role of a “shepherd” is to keep the “sheep” together, which has not been the case. Division is bad fruit. It creates sorrow, pain, victims, and really is a form of oppression. An entire generation of Sabbath keeping Christians has grown up separated from potential friends and denied relationships. Would God who loves unity, grant power to men so that they could lead the flock into different directions? That seems unlikely. Nor is the only other alternative likely; that only one such leader is correct and God is not telling the rest of us who it is. Sounds fishy.
When multiple “hierarchical” churches all supposedly trace to a God who dislikes disunity and even less those who create it (Prov. 6:19) a strong case can be made against such a form of church structure. Thus division in the spiritual body of Christ necessarily comes by the authority of men, and a relatively few men at that. We are not talking about “just members” who overwhelmingly (like God) love unity and cannot understand those who resist it, given that fundamental beliefs are fundamentally the same. Excepting of course, the belief as to who should “rule”.
So it is reasonable to ask “What is God’s perfect government structure for man given his human nature? How should man deal with the problem of power in his affairs with fellow man? What is the alternative to hierarchical government structure?”
After God finally established Israel as a civil society in the Promised Land He chose not to continue the pattern of government He earlier established with Moses and Joshua. Here after, the people would choose leaders to serve in office to carry out the common and daily affairs of the people. Judges and Prophets would continue.Their direct authority from God was clear to all and they had specific, limited tasks that lay outside the routine affairs of state.
While Israel itself was not perfect, the principles that flow from the mind of God certainly are. So the practice of “choosing leaders” accountable in some way to those who choose them is not an evil act invented by “the world”. America’s founding fathers looked to the example of Israel to validate their concept of good government and helped create a nation that has been a blessing to the world. Any society, including God’s Church would benefit by considering those same principles of good government. Speaking to the people of Israel, Moses wrote the following:
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment …” (Deut. 16:18) “Choose wise and knowledgeable men from among the tribes and I will make them heads over you” (Deut. 1:13)
God is the ultimate source of all power in the universe. Among men, there are two fundamental kinds of government: those in which power moves from the top down and those where power moves from the bottom up. The governments of the nations at the time of ancient Israel were all top down. The government God gave Israel was radically different and new. It was “bottom up” and merit based.
The following principles of government are contained in God’s instruction:
1. Dispersion, rather that concentration of power:
Government and therefore power was decentralized throughout the 13 tribes. There also was a separation of powers between judges and officers.
2. Extended responsibility:
Responsibility extended past the front door of the family unit into society and “in all your gates”. Applying this principle in society today; self rule extends into our neighborhoods, schools, institutions, and halls of government. In a church context, members are responsible for what happens in their congregations.
3. Merit based leadership:
Leaders were appointed from among the people on the basis of merit. God is fully aware that no leader in the selection pool is perfect. This does not invalidate the principle. The same is true today, whether selecting leaders in the church, or for government office.
4. Limited leadership rather than rulership:
God remained their ruler and expressed His will through His law and principles. The people appointed representatives to lead them, rather than rule over them. When later the people wanted Gideon to be their ruler he said to them: “I will not rule over, nor shall my son rule over; the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:24)
The difference between a “ruler” and a “leader” is significant. Leadership is primarily task and “result oriented”. The tasks define the scope of the leader’s role. Rulership is first and foremost “position oriented” with undefined power to achieve (hopefully) good results. The more a leader exceeds his defined tasks, or the less they are defined, the more he resembles a ruler.
A bad leader could be checked simply by the people replacing him. But when people give away their power of self rule, they also give up the power to replace the one to whom they give it. Human nature unchecked tends to lust for ever increasing power. It desires (as Christ said) to “lord it over” others, rather than assume the mantle of a humble servant. Corrupt rulers can destroy a nation because they cannot be removed from office.
Why was God reluctant to give Israel a king, or any other form of top down government? The answer is that power in the hands of man, subject as he is to his human nature, creates fundamental problems.
God warned that those who exercise great power over others are easily corrupted through greed, sexual appetite and pride (Deut. 17:15-20 and 1 Sam. 8:11-18) Power tends to elevate the ego and feed pride, blinding one to wisdom and separating one from reality. As a remedy, God insisted that each king write out for a copy of God’s law: “he shall read it all the days of his life that he may learn to fear the Lord his God “ (Deut. 17:19)
God’s law is the ultimate reference point of reality. What was necessary for a king remains necessary for Christians today. We study God’s word today not just to grow in wisdom and understanding, but to remain anchored in reality … while a deceptive world and our own human nature seek to deprive us of it.
One significant point of “reality” from God’s perspective is that the king is not better than his fellow man, that he has no right to oppress him, ergo the statement “that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren“(verse 20) The belief that one is superior in wisdom, privilege, or otherwise by virtue of office is a fundamental illusion and danger that sometimes comes with power. Note that God calls the ordinary citizens “brethren” of the king, rather than “subjects”. The economic oppression God warned of came quickly; Solomon imposed heavy taxation, a burden that worsened with later kings. Such is human nature when armed with power.
Beyond concerns for oppression, there is a more subtle reason God implemented a “bottom up” form of government for Israel.
After roughly 400 years of decentralized government, Israel insisted upon becoming like all the nations around them, and desired a king. God said something curious: “They have not rejected you (speaking to Samuel) they have rejected me that I should not rule over them” (1 Sam. 8:7). What did God mean “they have rejected me?” More is meant than just rejecting God’s preferred form of government in favor of one preferred by the world around them. The people wanted a king to “… judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). The king would act as an intermediary between them and God. He would be directly responsible to Him, relieving the people of that burden, responsibility, and when necessary, any blame.
The problem is the shift of power. God has given each of us the gift of free will. He does not give us this gift with the intent that others take it away or diminish the benefits from its effective use.
That is the pattern of the world whose leaders (as Christ would say) “lord it over” their “subjects” (as in “subjection”) and become despots. The natural extension of free will is self rule. This is easy for us to understand; it is the way children become adults. It is what every loving father wants for His children, including our Father in heaven.
God could forgive Israel for many sins, but when they cried out to Him on account of the oppression that comes from rejecting self rule, He said “the Lord will not hear you in that day” (1 Sam. 8:18) The more we shift our power of self rule to others, the weaker we become, eventually to the point of docility. What is the point of rescuing a weakened, docile people? They have ceased to be capable of representing the way of God on earth. Slavery loomed on the horizon once again.
People might point to the book of Judges and say “It did not turn out to well”.
They may look at a statement like “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) and forget that during these days some people found it “right” to obey God, examples being Boaz and Ruth. There may have been many others. Two facts are clear: (1) Whatever problems arose in those 400 or so years did not threaten the entire nation and (2) God always opposed giving them a strong central government, such as a king.
Freedom of self rule comes with a small price tag. Efficiency and order may be sacrificed up front but in the end, self rule gives everyone the greatest opportunity power to grow. Paul’s maxim “Let all things be done decently and in order” while a worthy goal is no mandate for authoritarianism. The same Paul said “Let all things be done to edify” which may result in “planned chaos” as people are edified in learning and growing from mistakes.
An interesting parallel may be drawn: Federalism (in the Founders’ conception) grants plenary power to the states and only limited, defined power to Washington. This allows “every state to do what is right in its own eyes”, for better or worse. When a state does well, its neighbors will emulate. When it does poorly, a state may learn and change its course.
We come to a fundamental question: Does the Holy Spirit remove the need for a decentralized power structure?
Certainly God’s Holy Spirit “transforms the heart” and helps negate the destructive force of human nature. Does this mean “Where the Holy Spirit is involved, any form of government will work”? Does the Holy Spirit allow for a successful top down power structure that grants leaders great power and demands minimal accountability?
Let us examine the life of King David, called by God “a man after my own heart” to test whether this statement can be true. Scriptures strongly suggest David had God’s Holy Spirit. He wrote many Psalms that reflect the mind of a converted servant of God. As a young man he had tremendous faith in God; he slew lions, then Goliath, and saved Israel. Along with Moses and Abraham, he is one of the most prominent servants of God in the Old Testament and is an inspiration to Christians today.
So the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah stands as a complete contradiction to the person God chose as king. What David did was not just a simple slip up, a misjudgment of an otherwise devoted servant. No Christian can really comprehend a servant of God imbued with the Holy Spirit doing what he did. Coveting and adultery are serious enough sins. Deception, premeditated murder, and the betrayal of a faithful servant and fellow soldier combine to make David’s crime one of the worst committed by an individual in the entire Bible.
From being a man “after God’s own heart”, he had became a man who despised God (2 Sam. 12:10) This does not happen in a matter of moments, walking on a balcony in the evening.
He saw Bathsheba one evening bathing and immediately inquired who she was. She was the wife of one of his fellow soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, who had earned the designation of being a “mighty man” in the army of David. Already at that point he had two wives (Michal and Abigail) and on his way to a total of eight named and an unknown number of unnamed wives. All this despite God having warned kings “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away …” (Deut. 17:16) He desired her, sent for her, and “lay with her”. When she became pregnant with his child, David eventually had Uriah killed to cover up his sins. Everyone knows the story.
Sexual desire was not real the issue with David. Men with the same sex drive as David see beautiful women all the time. Had a servant and not David seen Bathsheba, appreciated her beauty and desired her, the matter would likely have ended upon finding out she was already married. What distinguished David was that he also had opportunity and power. David did not hate Uriah but neither could he love him as much as he loved himself (Lev. 19:18) It was power that had transformed his heart from one after God’s heart, to one “lifted above his brethren“, one prepared to murder and despise God. It had taken years for power to do this. The night on the balcony was simply the test.
There seemed to be none of the resistance one would expect from a servant of God fighting temptation. There is no record of a spiritual struggle before the act and for nine months till the baby was born, no record of repentance or even regret. After God sent Nathan, David was oblivious that he had given himself the death sentence for being the pitiless rich man in Nathan’s analogy. He had not lost his sense of justice but something had clouded his mind that justice also applied to him.
When God had warned how the king would elevate himself over the people to the point of oppression (2 Sam. 8: 18) God did not specify the abuses would come only from bad kings. He knew that power could corrupt a good man as easily as it can make worse an evil one.
David would not be executed. Nor would he lose the kingdom, though what he had done was surely far worse than what had cost Saul his throne. But the child, yet nameless, would die and David would ever more suffer misery in this life (2 Sam. 12:1011) Why a lifetime of punishment? Good question; one reason for sure is the demand of justice. God’s name cannot be mocked, in Israel or in the eyes of the world. But I suspect there are other reasons:
It would take a life time of suffering to restore David to being the humble servant of God he once was. David needed more than just forgiveness, he needed transformation, even “reconstruction”. God’s ultimate concern for all of us is that we become transformed into the image of His Son. Suffering may be necessary to transform our hearts. In all this we see God remaining incredibly patient, long suffering, and faithful to his chosen yet flawed servants. His mercy towards David is incredible and offers all of us immense comfort in our own short comings.
But the lesson of David most pertinent to this essay concerns the corrupting influence of power on someone with God’s Holy Spirit. If the power offered in hierarchical government (such as a monarchy) can destroy a man such as David, a faithful servant of God, imbued with His Spirit, guided by godly conscience, a man after God’s own heart … then it can destroy anyone.
Good character and the Holy Spirit alone cannot contain the abuse of power. More is needed, namely; God’s principles of good government that shield a man from excess power. God’s principles are still essential in the Church of God today. They are spiritual in nature; like wisdom they do not grow old and while man has his nature, they help him to control it.
As noted earlier, the Church of God for the last 20 years has experienced significant division. Is the same division likely to continue for another 20 years? Consider for a moment the 5th commandment, the only commandment specifically dedicated to preserving a culture. A younger generation is exhorted to “honor” its elders that it may live long and that “it may be well with you” in other words, thrive.
To “honor” an older generation is to continue what they have learned is true, and reject what they have learned is false. If every generation was to do this, a culture would thrive into perpetuity. It is only when a generation rejects the past that it ceases to thrive and starts to decline. This is happening in America today. The irony is that unless our children reject our legacy of division, it could also happen in God’s Church. Growth and division are antithetical to each other. They cannot coexist.
What a gift to our children and their children if before our generation passes into irrelevance … we could help restore unity to the Church of God and really give our children something to emulate? God’s perfect government for man can help achieve this. It does not seek its own, does not “lord it over” and in all things seeks to edify. It would restore unity to God’s Church.
So the subject of government is important and worth thinking about. I hope to continue doing so by reviewing the specific examples of church government left for us by the early Church of God, in the New Testament.