Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Anonymous Asks (2)

“If your father tells you to kill someone and you say ‘no’, would that be considered a sin?”

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: It might be useful to consider some of the things the Bible says about authorities and how Christians are to respond to them. There are things your father could demand of you that are less obviously evil than murder. It might be interesting and instructive to consider an order from Dad like “You can’t date THAT girl!” or “We had you baptized as an infant. Don’t you DARE think about getting baptized again!”

Sound like fun?

Authority 101

Okay. Basic Bible principle here: Other than the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ (“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”) and the ultimate authority of God, who “put all things in subjection under him”, no terrestrial or heavenly authority is absolute. None. All operate within spheres. God, who ordained authorities, also set limits for them. And some of the most difficult decisions Christians may ever have to make originate in those places where spheres of legitimate authority seem to overlap.

We see the limits of authority from the very beginning of creation:
“God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.”
Thus, the vast majority of people on planet Earth see the sun by day and the moon and stars by night the vast majority of the time. There are places on earth north of the Arctic Circle that are exceptions two months of the year, and moments at dawn and dusk when both sun and moon may appear, but the exceptions prove the rule, not least because extended exposure to Midnight Sun or Polar Night causes sleep disturbance, hyperactivity, fatigue and irritability. Even the ordinary operation of our celestial “authorities” was designed for the good of human beings.

The takeaway from nature: whenever an authority exceeds its usual boundaries, something undesirable happens.

Instituted By God

That’s how all authority works, including the human authorities that God has set over us in this world. Paul says of these that:
“There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Now, incurring judgment is an intimidating prospect, and we are wise to avoid it. Like the sun and the moon, the vast majority of the time we ought to expect that what Paul says here will hold true for us. Rulers are “God’s servant for your good.”

But rulers also operate within spheres of authority. When they are acting for the good of those they govern, they are operating legitimately. When they act against the interests of the governed, they are operating illegitimately, or counter to the purposes for which God has empowered them.

Thus when the Jewish religious authorities commanded Peter and the other apostles to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, Peter and the other apostles answered them, “We must obey God rather than men.” In this case, resistance to authority was legitimate and God-sanctioned.

Truth and Consequences

Let’s be clear here: the fact that resisting authority was in this case entirely legitimate did NOT mean it was without consequences for those who resisted. Later on, we read that King Herod had James the brother of John killed with the sword and arrested Peter. So there is still sometimes a price to be paid in this world for failing to obey even the most illegitimate command.

But what the illegitimacy of the command DID mean was that resisting it was not a sin. When an angel appeared to Peter in jail and woke him from sleep, telling him, “Get up quickly,” and causing his chains to fall off his hands by themselves, Peter would have had to be pretty dull to respond, “Thanks, but no. I’ll stay put if you don’t mind. The authorities that exist have been instituted by God and whoever resists will incur judgment.”

Obviously that didn’t happen. Peter did not struggle with that sort of moral dilemma. Instead, he got up and followed the angel, as God intended him to do, even though his departure could technically be construed as resisting authority. In this he followed in the footsteps of Old Testament believers who also ran when their lives were threatened by authority figures acting outside of their purview, including David and Elijah, and New Testament believers like the Lord’s earthly parents, who temporarily relocated to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod. They too “resisted authority”, but not in a rebellious or ungodly way.

Dealing with Unreasonable Dad

Now, none of this makes dealing with an unreasonable dad any easier, at least not at first. What it does do is establish that (1) authorities have limits; and (2) when a lower authority clashes with a higher authority, it is the higher authority that we ought to obey, regardless of the potential cost to us.

It also establishes a third thing: that there is a solid chance there will be a cost to resisting authority, either immediate or long-term. Peter didn’t pay that price in Acts 12 (church history and scripture both tell us he did pay it later on), but James definitely did.

All clear so far? Good. The question, then, is what are the limits of Dad’s authority? Let’s think about that.

Well, he is accountable to God, whether he knows it or not, to raise you to man- or womanhood, and then his obligation is to let you go become the head of your own wife and father of your own family, or else the wife of another man, walking independently and honorably before God. At least, that’s God’s view of it, which is pretty much the only one that matters. Marriage indisputably ends Dad’s authority, and therefore his ability to command you to do anything, reasonable or unreasonable: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

Leaving Father and Mother

So if you’re married, well, you’re off the hook. I would add that even if you’re not married, if you are financially independent and are no longer under Dad’s roof (especially if leaving was by mutual agreement), you are also off the hook. You have “left father and mother” already even if you have not sought or found a partner. Adult children should certainly honor their parents and consider their counsel, but they are under no obligation to obey orders, and parents of adult children should be wise enough not to give them.

On the other hand, in the event you are still financially dependent on your father and mother, you are operating as a child, even if you look like an adult, and even if you feel you should be treated as one. That sounds harsh, but if Dad is paying the bills, Dad gets to express his opinion, and that opinion ought to be taken very seriously. It is, after all, Dad’s house, even if his opinion is wrong. If you are eating Dad’s Kraft Dinner and borrowing his car, and he happens to tell you he’d prefer you not to date a particular girl, then as a Christian, I’d take that as coming from the Lord, even if it seems completely unreasonable. Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children, obey your parents.” If you are still living in a parent/child relationship, you owe them obedience.

An Iffier Situation

The baptism thing is a little iffier. I’ve seen newly-saved children go both ways, and not because a father has the legitimate authority to command his saved child not to be baptized. He does not. The greater authority wins every time, and baptism is a command of God. The saved child belongs to Christ first, and his parents second.

That said, God is also concerned with saving your father and mother, and has tolerated the modification of his commands from time to time in unusual circumstances where the intent and desire of his servants was obedience. In one case in Judah, Levites did the work of priests because too few priests had consecrated themselves in a timely fashion. In another situation, it was decided to celebrate the Passover in the wrong month rather than miss it entirely. The fact that God still blessed his people when they were unable to follow his instructions with perfect timing suggests to me that in certain situations, a dependent child may be wise to delay his obedience in baptism until he can either obtain his parents’ approval or become financially independent of them. But every situation first and foremost demands a good conscience before God.

Finally, in the unlikely situation it were to occur, a father who commands a child to kill has almost surely exceeded his mandate. He is operating beyond the limits of his authority, and as such, his child can say with the apostles, “I must obey God rather than men.”

No, such a refusal is not sin.

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