Tuesday, April 01, 2014

a little word for people who left Mars Hill, your new ecclesiology won't save you, either

Word gets around and so sometimes Wenatchee The Hatchet hears about people who have left Mars Hill for this or that denominational enclave. Of course Wenatchee The Hatchet appreciates denominations of various kinds (I happen to be Presbyterian) but if there was a key lesson to be learned in the history of Mars Hill Church it's that your ecclesiology won't save you.  Your ecclesiology won't keep your church movement/institution/organization from going off the rails. 

If there are character issues in the leadership it doesn't matter how great your ecclesiological systems are.  The great temptation for some former Mars Hill people is to imagine that because there was a cult of personality at Mars Hill Church the alternative to this is a traditional ecclesiology with formal checks and balances.  Carl Trueman has been stumping for this but much as I agree with a variety of things Carl Trueman has had to say I'm siding with Steve Hays in doubting that ecclesiology in itself solves anything.  Presbyterian though I may be I'll be first to say the pastoral epistles do not prescribe a Presbyterian polity.  Baptist congregational leadership could be just as effective.  What matters in the pastoral epistles is not so much a specific ecclesiological polity as the character of those who hold whatever offices, formal or informal, may exist in a local Christian community. 

Not that I don't agree with a lot of what Carl Trueman has had to say in the last six months, it's just that if we're going to propose that an ecclesiological system will somehow ensure that cults of personality are less likely to happen we need to stop deceiving ourselves.  The character of the people in whatever capacity they are entrusted with has to be assessed first.  As some of the formerly young, restless and Reformed start approaching middle-age they need, in particular, to realize that the shift from being Mars Hill to Presbyterian or some other actually Reformed denomination will not actually eliminate the risk of a personality cult.  In fact the are arguably a number of cults of personality in Presbyterianism in spite of the theoretically better-than-Mars Hill ecclesiology some might be tempted to say they've found.  Better the congregational Arminian Baptist community that's not run by a cult of personality than the Presbyterian community that has the check sand balances on paper but functionally runs on one person's charisma. 

Remember, folks who left Mars Hill, it once had that plurality of elders and look how that's played out?  It can happen anywhere regardless of what does or doesn't happen on paper.  Politics about dominant personalities and the infighting that can breed in all directions can happen anywhere.  Don't fool yourself into thinking otherwise.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

on Nathan and David--don't miss the forest for the trees, David's abuse of royal power made his other sins possible


The story of Nathan confronting David is well-known.  Now there are those who doubt the historicity of David altogether and some have gone so far as to propose everything to do with Nathan is fiction invented as a defense for the kingship of Solomon (not that we're going to get into that in this post) but let's consider the narrative for a bit as it is.

It's commonly understand Nathan confronted David about his sin of committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for the death (murder) of Uriah the Hittite.  Those things are certainly bad. 

But Nathan points out that David was made king over Israel and received his predecessor Saul's house and wives.  In case people weren't paying attention to this one of Saul's wives is named Ahinoam and David's wife mentioned before Abigail is named Ahinoam.  There's debate about whether Ahinoam could have been David's wife after having been Saul's wife. Joel Baden's not entirely persuasive proposal is that David stole Ahinoam from Saul in a bid for kingship and that this was why Saul wanted to kill David.  Baden proposes that Jonathan is nothing more than a literary fiction invented to be the surrogate for the sympathetic reader, which might be a way to discount that if Ahinoam, wife of Saul, was mother to Jonathan it's hard to see what the case would be for David deciding to marry Jonathan's mother, wife of Saul. 

But that Nathan states that David got Saul's harem and estate after Saul's death seems clear enough from Nathan's rebuke of David.  Here's what Nathan says on behalf of God regarding all that:

I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

More wives would have been okay (and for people who understand that reproduction and preservation of the family line was paramount the practice of polygamy may not seem appealing but it makes sense, much like in our time if you accept that a sexual union is predicated on mutual attraction and pleasure rather than fostering business ties in contemporary society then certain subsidiary decisions like how to snub unwanted suitors and what constitutes being sexually desirable will flow from that.  Certain things are considered socially acceptable and normal once certain values are given.David was the king who succeeded Saul and David got the harem and God said that if this had been too little He would have given David more.

But before we jump straight to David taking another man's wife and having him killed how was David able to do this?  Because he was the king.  If David was being confronted merely about the consequences of his sins for individuals then what was going on with Nathan's rebuke including a
pronouncement on the future of David's dynasty?
vs 10-11
Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

David's sins were private and possible because of the power and authority he had as king.  Notice that David does not die but Nathan warns that because David has shown utter contempt for the word of the Lord by doing what he has done (using his royal station to take another man's wife and having the man murdered) David's child of Bathsheba was going to die and the sword was never going to depart from the Davidic dynasty.  Out of David's own house strife and calamity would come.  If we only read this narrative as an account of David's sin as an individual and not as a king and the head of a dynasty who abused his station then the punishment won't make any sense.  Why did a baby die because David stole a man's wife and killed the man?  Well, let's propose that it s because in so doing David annihilated Uriah's possibility of a legacy and a future altogether.  God exacting punishment on a nascent dynasty for abusing its royal station to abrogate any possibility of a family's future makes more sense if we keep in mind the norms that are implied or inherent in the narrative.

Now as some have pointed out about 2 Samuel 11, in the time when kings go to war David was at his home.  We could propose that David came upon his particularly notorious sins because he was already not doing what was described as customary for kings to do at a given time of the year.

All of this, so far, should be obvious but when Christians invoke the story of Nathan and David it tends to come up as a way to discuss confrontation of the individual sins when we would do well to remind ourselves what Nathan was clearly and ultimately confronting was David's misuse of royal power and resources for purely personal benefit over against the benefit of Israel as a whole and over against what was beneficial to a loyal servant of the king.  It was arguably because David was willing to do this that later Ahithophel opted to join Absalom's rebellion.  There are some moral failings leaders can permit themselves that cause, according to Nathan, their household to fall into calamity in a way where the sword never departs from it. 

Earlier in the books of Samuel we saw the priestly house of Eli was eventually completely deposed because of its misuse and abuse of power.  Samuel came to replace Eli and yet Samuel's own nepotism led to his corrupt sons being given charge over things, and it was the corruption of Samuel's sons that was part of the reason Israel wanted a king.  So the theme of dynastic corruption in spite of the best qualities of founding patriarchs is rampant in the Samuel-Kings narrative overall.  If even the best judges and kings end up having abominable children then the worst can hardly be better. 

David's sins were done in secret with the benefit of royal power but they eventually led to public chaos, death and discord.  As Nathan predicted, the chaos and enmity would emerge from within David's own household.  The royal/dynastic privilege David had used to take a man's wife and have him killed, depriving him of any future family becomes ironically inverted and subverted through the majority of chaos coming from intra-dynastic bloodshed and fighting.

All this is fairly obvious but as a teacher I knew in college once put it, never underestimate the obvious.

When people ask where there is a Nathan to confront a David this seems to presuppose an abuse of essentially royal authority.  If we live in an era that has a new variation on the divine right of kings then kings are defended regardless of what they may have done or said in private.  Yet when David was deposed by Absalom and accused of having shed the blood of the entire house of Saul he didn't seek to defend himself.  He trusted that this, too, was a providential outworking of the rebuke given to him by Nathan from the Lord about what would happen because David had abused royal privilege to please himself over against serving the people he was appointed over.  David isn't held up as a righteous king because he didn't sin in horrible ways so much as because when he was confronted with the reality of his misuse of royal power and and authority to serve himself against the best interests of the kingdom he admitted directly to his sins.  Saul, who had defended his actions as justifiable in the heat of the moment and in response to the clamor of the people, did not fare quite as well. 

And in the long run Nathan aids Bathsheba in her subterfuge to get Solomon on the throne so it's important to observe that even a Nathan isn't above political intrigue and taking sides.  It may well be God wanted Solomon on the throne but how Solomon was installed was not necessarily admirable.  Within two generations the house of David wasn't even ruling all of Israel any longer.  Solomon multipled wives and chariots, taxed the people, and set up forced labor to build monuments to establish his legacy while worshipping other gods in addition to Yahweh.  Rehoboam's even greater egotism fractured the temporarily united kingdom.  It might be difficult to overstate the level of disaster that was cumulatively visited on the house of David in the wake of his use of royal power to take a man's wife and have him killed.  If we forget the dynastic level of the sin and the dynastic implications of that sin then we fail to fully appreciate what the narrative of Samuel-Kings presents to us. 

Let's consider that if we're talking about a role like being king of Israel that the line between a "mistake" and a sin in that time and place was sometimes non-existent.  One of David's last acts as king was to take a census against the counsel of Joab.  For those who subscribe to the idea that the Torah wasn't anywhere close to formed the prohibition against census-taking might be moot but in any event the point is that God incited David to take a census in Samuel and in Kings Satan is the agent and David realizes that in setting up the census he sinned against the Lord.  It also was considered a sin that led to a plague as one of the lesser calamities to befall Israel.  The general point is that David is shown as not merely owning that he made mere mistakes but that he sinned against the Lord and brought real death and disaster on God's people through those sins.  If we attempt to frame the reactions of Saul and David in terms of their response to both private and public confrontation about error Saul's reaction might be broadly summarized as "mistakes were made" and David's reactions could be broadly summarized as "I have sinned against the Lord".