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Friday, November 27, 2009

Institutions, Leaders, and Scriptures We Don't Want to Hear

We live in an anti-institutional age.  When you ask Americans whether they trust almost any institutional complex—government, the military, organized religion, business, organized labor, medicine, the legal system, academia, Hollywood, etc.—almost invariably less than half do, and usually far less (like in the 20% range).  This seems to pervade the entire West: when George W. Bush was getting approval ratings in the 20s, he was still more popular than many of his peers in Europe and Japan.

In this post-post-Watergate/Vietnam era of extreme skepticism toward anything without a residential address, the apostles' orders regarding those in social authority are shockingly counter-cultural.  I'm not talking about how the New Testament orders those in power to humble themselves to be servants of those in their care.  That is indeed (permanently!) counter-cultural, and much has rightly been made of that.  But I am talking about the flip side: how people are to defer to those in authority in every way that does not deny the supreme authority of God.

How else are we to understand passages like these: "In the same way, wives, be subject to your own husbands" (1 Pet. 3:1); "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1); "Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse" (1 Pet. 2:18); (get ready for this:) "Be subject to every human institution for the Lord's sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as those he commissions to punish wrongdoers and praise those who do good" (1 Pet. 2:13-14)?  This even applies in the church: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work.  Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage to you" (Heb. 13:17).

Is it just me or do these Scriptures sound like nails on a chalkboard?  They are totally discordant with the spirit of our age, a defiant, cynical spirit that we bring with us right into the church and our Christian families, where we gather with those we love.  To show how grating these verses are, consider that one can hardly quote them today even among Christians without adding the obligatory, "But leaders are to love their followers," etc., even though it is easy for us to quote Scriptures about loving subordinates without mentioning submitting to leaders at all.  Does not our preference for any Scripture over another show how unbiblical and infected by the world our minds are?

Though I can't say for sure, I am inclined to believe that the people of the might-makes-right 1st-century Roman Empire had at least as much reason to be skeptical of authority as we do.  But these commands were written to those very people, specifically those who had submitted themselves first of all to Christ.  Indeed, we are able to be calm, rational, patient, and voluntarily submissive to the institutions that we reflexively distrust if we truly believe that Christ is "the head over every ruler and authority" (Col. 2:10).  If we really think that Jesus is ultimately in charge, then respecting and deferring to nincompoops who report to him for a while is really no big deal.  If on the other hand we are constantly suspicious and antagonistic toward institutions, maybe that is a sign that our faith in Christ the King is not what it ought to be.  (It is also true that those who place idolatrous trust in human institutions have a faith-problem as well, but that's for some other post.)

But here's another thing: if we give institutional leaders a hard time, not only does it suggest that our faith in Christ (i.e., love of God) is askew, but our love of neighbor is out of whack too.  It ought to be obvious why: that leader is your neighbor.  He or she is an actual, flesh-and-blood human being, not merely a business card, title, amalgamation of odious viewpoints, symbol, or talking head.  Are you doing to such persons as you would have them do to you?  Are you showing them the grace and forbearance that you need to be shown?  Is your conversation about them full of grace, always "seasoned with salt"?  If you happen to be standing next to such a one before the throne of judgment on the last day, and everything you have ever said is revealed, are you going to be ashamed in the presence of God?

Lord, have mercy on us!

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