This is the fourth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.
We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
God calls us to respect authority in honor of his authority.
1. The authority of God is the universal assumption of Scripture. His will demands absolute conformity, even if he allows us to resist and disobey. We get a small taste of his holiness when Uzzah immediately dies when he tries to steady the ark (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Similarly, at Mt. Sinai, any person or animal that might touch the mountain was to be put to death while God presence was there (Exod. 19:12-13).
The ancient world was an honor/shame world. High premium was put on how highly you were regarded in relation to the values of your group. Such a world contrasts with our modern individualistic "guilt" culture, where high premium is put on being true to yourself and what you as an individual believe.
The command not to take the name of the LORD in vain was a command that had to do with taking oaths in the name of YHWH, the name of God. When one invoked YHWH's name, one put the honor of YHWH on the line in relation to a vow. To break the vow was to dishonor him. To break the vow was thus to incur the wrath of YHWH.
Jephthah gives us a picture of how important it was to keep a vow in Judges 11:30-31. He vows to YHWH that he will sacrifice the first living thing that comes out of his house if God gives him the victory in battle. It proves to be his daughter. So he gives his daughter two months to mourn her death as an unmarried virgin and then he keeps his vow (11:37-39).
Jesus undercuts this command when he says not to swear at all but to be a person who tells the truth (Matt. 5:33-37). If my "yes" really means "yes" and my "no" really means "no," then there is no need for me to take oaths. People will know that I am a person whose word is truth, a person who means what I say.
If God's people are truth-tellers, then God will get honor from us without us needing to take vows.
2. Vows of course have little meaning in the modern Western world today. People say, "I swear," all the time and it is practically meaningless. With Jesus Christ and the New Testament, we are also better aware of the compassionate forgiveness of God if someone were to make a bad vow like Jephthah's. We can now say that it would have been far more pleasing to God for Jephthah to ask God's forgiveness for a foolish vow and then to spare his daughter's life than to keep his foolish vow.
Cursing today doesn't have the same character as it did in other times and places. People say God or Jesus' name (or a derivative of them) as an exclamation rather than as a vow. The third commandment was not about cursing but about vow keeping. Nevertheless, Ephesians 5:4 and Colossians 3:8 tell us what we would have known otherwise--our speech should be honorable and uplifting. We can either honor or dishonor God with our language and, even more importantly, the attitude behind our language.
3. Almost every culture has some authority structure. Those few pockets of humanity that have not had a clear leader usually develop one or have one that is unacknowledged. Even if we were all in perfect submission to and communication with the Holy Spirit, there would still be a leader--the Holy Spirit.
So while it is ideal that, in any group, all the individuals would "honor one another above yourselves" (Rom. 12:10, NIV), it is likely that structures of authority will develop in any group of people of any size. Churches naturally have official leadership structures. Nations and people groups naturally have official leadership structures. "If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?" (1 Cor. 14:8).
Paul told the Romans, "The authorities that exist have been established by God" (Rom. 13:1). The way most of us apply this idea is that we should show respect to our leaders, even if they are evil, even if they are incompetent. The classic example is when David does not take an opportunity to kill king Saul, even though Saul is trying to kill him. He does not do it, even though his men are urging him, because he will not touch the LORD's anointed (1 Sam. 24:6).
To be sure, God also is said to sanction coups in Scripture (e.g., 2 Kings 9:6-7). Elisha anoints Jehu to destroy the house of Ahab. Yet even here, Hosea considers Jehu's slaughter of all Ahab's house to be a matter for which God was going to destroy the house of Jehu (Hos. 1:4).
Clearly there is a great wisdom needed here. When do we submit and conform to what we consider to be bad leadership? When do we, respectfully, work for leadership change?
In the light of Christ, our bias must be toward respect and submission, even if there may be times for exception. It is fallen human nature to justify subversion for our own selfish advancement. It is more often the evil impulse that wants to fight and overthrow. Any exception must be for the good of others rather than ourselves, and we can hardly trust ourselves to make that judgment.
4. We are thus called to respect the authority of those over us as a way of honoring God and respecting his authority. Our default should be submission and respect for those in authority over us in whatever domain. We should treat those in office as God's anointed. There is a time to work for change, but it must never be for our selfish advancement, only the good of others and to honor God.
Next week: ET5. God calls us to respect our governments.