Christ Above All Rule and Authority in our Churches

“[The Father] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Eph 1:20b – 22

As Christians, we serve Christ, the King. When we (rightly) call Christ “The King”, we are echoing a Biblical theme that holds Christ up, not just as a savior, but as a ruler, His has a Kingdom. The entire theocratic line of Israelite kings points to a final fulfillment of the everlasting king, Jesus. We are subjects of the Kingdom, and called to obey our King. One of the symbols we use to represent a kingdom, is a flag. The topic of flags has received a lot of attention lately, with debates over confederate flags, flying flags half-mast (and many waving rainbow flags as well). Flags are typically used to represent a particular nation, society, order, or other affinity, and flying a flag is way to declare one’s allegiance, loyalty, and submission to that nation or kingdom. Flying a flag is a way to lift up, honor, and exalt that kingdom and its king or ruler or ideology. Recently I had been a part of some discussion of what this means for a church. Should churches be flying flags, and if so what? And while I doubt I will ever see confederate or rainbow flags show up in our church, there is still a flag, and another kingdom (other than Christ’s) that it represents, that often does fly in our churches. What does the Bible say about this?

The Bible’s approach to the Kingdom’s of the world is very exclusive. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that we simply add to the other kingdoms of the world. From early in scriptures, God declares his exclusive claims of rule: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”. We must not be tempted to compartmentalize “worship” here as merely bowing down or singing worship sings. This commandment isn’t for the sake of keeping our knees clean and our voice boxes well-rested. It is ultimately about who we are giving our submission, our loyalty, and our honor too. And God is jealous, he isn’t just asking that we give him some of our submission, but that He would completely displace our submission to any other kingdoms. But surely we can share and divide up our allegiance to God and country and serve both kingdoms? If we justify ourselves by calling another kingdom “godly” or “Christian”, then can’t we fully obey both masters? As I written before, Jesus echoes these Old Testament passages with an emphatic “no”:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. – Matt 6:24

Calling another master or kingdom “Christian” only lures us further into the temptation of displacing our true King with an earthly country, just as the Israelites desired when they asked for a king. Serving two masters may work for a while, but ultimately they will come into conflict at some point, and your love for one will need to take precedence.

Now, of course as we consider flags, for many, flying a flag is not intended to declare that we have supplanted God with country. For many flying a flag is simply way of paying tribute to our freedom and the sacrifices made to achieve that freedom. But, the flag is still a symbol, used and defined by cultures. The American flag can mean many different things to many different people. To some it means sacrifice and freedom. To others it might mean violence and exploitation. Regardless of whether you, personally, see it as a great symbol or a detrimental symbol, we must remember that we can not control what it communicates to different audiences. It is symbol that is defined by cultures that interpret it. By using the symbol, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of culture, and different audiences, to define what we are communicating. But, if we believe that it is our duty, as Christians, we must strive to communicate clear Biblical concepts, not just wavering symbols that depend on who and how they are interpreted. Scriptures go to great lengths to carefully define the concepts of grace, forgiveness, love, etc., rather than simply relying on whatever culture defines these to mean. We must diligently seek to communicate absolute truths, and not just relative symbols that are up to the observer to apply in different ways. With this in mind, we must remember that we are called to do whatever it takes to bring people to Christ, willing to remove any and every obstacle. Paul says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul never let any personal preference of symbols or imagery that he liked stand in the way of drawing people to Christ.

The question of how symbols are interpreted can not even be limited to how a flag is interpreted by fellow Americans. Much of the New Testament, from the Great Commission, to the events in Acts, to the strategies of Paul are concerned with making Christ known not just among one nation, but among ALL nations. Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations is preeminent concern, we must certainly consider the vast diversity of interpretations of our flag, and what it mean to other nations, and how divergent those interpretations may be from what we really want to communicate as the church. But are mere symbols that important? The first commandment, to worship God alone, does stand by itself. It is so important, that it is immediately preceded by the second commandment, which forbids any representation of another God. Of course even the ancients were probably smart enough to recognize that idols were symbols of gods. But even these symbols of other entities desiring submission represented a danger.

So what does this mean to the church? I believe that the church’s purpose is to lead people to obey, follow, submit to, and honor Christ. This is the entire purpose of the church, and the church should be a place where every effort is defined by the pursuit of this aim. The church exists to lift up Christ and only Christ, and as the one true, rightful ruler and only ruler, to teach submission to the one and only one Kingdom, the Kingdom Of God. To fly flags that symbolically place the kingdom of America on equal status as the Kingdom of God, no matter how we might wish this to honor certain principles or people, is ultimately a symbolic statement that says Christ is equal in authority. This unfortunately defies the Father’s declaration that Christ is to be “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”. There is just no way around it, the church must settle for nothing less that exalting and submitting Christ, and Christ alone. The church is not a place of mixing allegiances, but of declaring Christ above all rule.

For a minute, imagine arriving an US Army boot camp, and to discover that they were flying a Chinese flag right along the US flag. You would probably find this quite shocking. Now somebody might offer some explanations of why China is a nice country, they have been lifting many out of poverty, and they have some great accomplishments. But this isn’t the point. Boot camp exists to train soldiers in unswerving loyalty, dedication, and service to their country. The US flag flies above all, because the boot camp exists to train soldiers for serving that country. Likewise, the church exists for the purpose of leading people to follow Christ. It does not matter if we think highly of another country or kingdom. If boot camp points to a single allegiance, how much more so should the church do the same in pointing people to their King.

Another Old Testament story that highlights that conflict between God and countries of the world is found in Daniel, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faced with pressure to put their loyalty to their ruler alongside God. Again, we shouldn’t think that this story is about the physical act of bowing, God was not concerned with bruises on their knees. Bowing was a symbolic act of giving full submission and honor to the King and the country he ruled. While this story is often held up as an example of uncompromising loyalty to God, it is important to remember what precisely what they were being asked to do. The pressure was not just about some random physical act, but about the pressure to demonstrate loyalty to a country and its ruler, which is, as always, a replacement of loyalty to God. God’s call for our submission and loyalty is not just because God is hungry for followers, hoping that he can satisfy his hunger for a high follower count. It is because God is truly the best leader we can follow, and His leadership is in our best interest

Again, as Jesus clearly stated in Matt 6:24, eventually our loyalty will be determined when our loyalties come in conflict. When this happens whose direction will we choose? Unquestioned loyalty to country has served to facilitate some of the greatest tragedies of mankind. For many German soldiers in the 1930s, serving God and country were united. The churches had defined Christianity and loyalty to country without distinction. Without clarity that loyalty is to God above all, the actions of the third Reich remained unquestioned by many Christians. The same experience occurred in the Civil war as Christianity became defined by the the loyalism to the national traditions of slavery rather than a God who challenged this notions.

Again, I understand that many individuals fly flags to communicate, honor, and pay tribute to different ideas, sacrifices, and ideals. That is fine. But the church must take the greatest of care in recognizing what it might be communicating, and how that might be understood, and how that might greatly differ from the purpose of the church to draw people to the exclusive rule and reign of Christ. I encourage the church to focus solely on the the glorious calling of lifting Christ and Christ alone. The Father gave Christ “as head over all things to the church”, and may we do all that we can to proclaim that He is indeed “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”! Praise to be to our one true King!

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Collective Generosity

Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.

Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.

It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.

First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.

And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.

This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.

Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.

Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.

Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:

Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;

In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.

Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.

The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.

In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.

By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.

Legalism vs Purpose

In this post I wanted to consider what I believe to be one of most critical lessons in the Bible on how to actually interpret the Bible itself: we must look for the purpose as we read scriptures. I intend to do some other posts that will build on this principle, so I wanted to layout this post as a foundation for later posts.

One of the key narratives from the gospels is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and their legalism. Traditionally, when we speak of legalism in the church, it is contrasted with grace. And Paul clearly teaches us to leave behind legalism and accept grace. Paul’s challenge to legalism addresses the issue of attribution of righteousness. His main focus was on helping us to see that we would not attain righteousness on our own, but only through the grace of Christ.

However, Jesus addresses a distinctly different issue, as he confronts the Pharisees. A substantial portion of the gospels is devoted to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (and Sadducees). This rebuke perhaps reaches a climax in Matthew 23, which is entirely devoted to this subject. Interestingly though, this chapter (and most other passages) never says that the problem with Pharisees is that they aren’t relying on grace for righteousness. Jesus never tells the pharisees that their righteousness is insufficient, and that they need to lean on faith in Christ instead. As far as I can tell, he never tells them anything remotely close to this. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of many things, including pride and hypocrisy, but one of the biggest issue addressed in this chapter is how they’ve been following the law. Jesus accuses them of observing the law legalistically without any concern for the purpose of the law. This is less of an issue of attributing righteousness to one-self (although their pride does indicate that is an problem), and more to do with purpose, and looking below the surface to see what God was revealing through the law. This is more than an issue of attitude, but Jesus is actually saying that they aren’t even interpreting and obeying the law correctly.

Jesus demonstrates a correct interpretation and obedience to the law, in contrast to the Pharisees, in the beginning of Matthew 12. Here Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. According to the shallow interpretation of the Pharisees, this was a clear violation of the 4th (or 3rd, depending on your tradition) commandment. But Jesus says that they are not understanding the law properly, they need to look deeper, to understand the *purpose* of the 4th commandment. He corrects them, saying that the purpose of this law is that the Sabbath is for man (Mark 2:27). Note again, Jesus doesn’t make any suggestion of eliminating the law, that grace will replace the law, or any such thing. His point is very clear: we must look to the purpose that is being revealed by ordinances, and not just at the surface statement of behavior.

Going back to Matthew 23, there are a number of examples of how Jesus criticizes legalistic shallowness and points to deeper purpose. He condemns a legalistic approach to tithing, where even herbs are tithed (Matt 23:23), and points to the deeper purpose of tithing: to pursue justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He condemns the legalistic obsession with cleanliness (Matt 23:24-26), while pointing to the deeper purpose of being cleansed from greed and self-indulgence.

To reiterate this point, according to Jesus’ teachings, we are and will fail to obediently submit to God if we only mechanically follow the surface readings of ordinances and rules without seeking to understand the purpose of these rules, and the deeper concepts and truths that they are seeking to reveal about God and His Kingdom. This is true regardless of whether these rules are found in the Old or New Testament. Jesus’ teaching on obedience holds true for the whole of scriptures.

It is worth pointing out that Jesus’ different angle of condemnation of legalism than Paul’s is not contradictory, but instead is a foundation. Demonstrating how our mechanical legalism falls far short of true obedience to the deeper concepts that these laws reveal, provides foundational proof of how desperately we need the grace that counters attributive legalism. Jesus rebuke of the Pharisees gives us an important lesson on legalism.

As we read the Bible, let us not treat the Bible like the Pharisees, who viewed it as instructions to mechanically follow for divine favor, but rather see every law, story, parable, and exhortation as a revelation of who God is and what His purpose is, and how we can join in that. We must constantly be seeking to understand what scriptures is telling us about God, for this its purpose. If we simply go through the motions of obeying Biblical rules, without regard for understand the purpose behind these rules, we have come no closer to God’s intent for scriptures than if we were to ignore them altogether.

More to come…