Do Christians who are being abused by their authorities have to endure, or can we flee?
There is a great risk taken in teaching passages that call us to submit to authorities (Rom 13, 1 Peter 2-3, Eph 5-6, and Col 3-4) and that is the assumption that such passages suggest God approves of, or at least tolerates oppression and abuse.
One of the common accusations presented against such passages is that in encouraging submission to ungodly authorities, they are by extension endorsing abuse. If we are taking seriously the whole of Scripture on this subject, then this accusation must be patently false. That is like claiming that when Christians glory in the cross, then they, by extension, endorse the torture of innocent people. But, what happened to Jesus was horrific. There are not words in the English language strong enough to describe the evil that took place on Calvary. Likewise, any form of abuse is horrific- which is especially true when performed by the hands of a person in authority.
God hates abusive authorities
God’s anger against abusive authorities is recognized in examination of the following passages:
Matthew 23- Jesus rebuked the Pharisees as leaders of the people who abused their authority by leading the people away from the truth
James 3:1- Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James warns people to exercise caution in becoming teachers because they will incur a stricter judgment.
Hebrews 13:7 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. The author of Hebrews tells us that leaders will have to give an account of how they used their authority.
Luke 17:1-2 - And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Because of the implied vulnerability of children, those who take advantage of them will be severely punished. By extension, authorities who abuse those vulnerable to their authority should expect similar treatment.
One of the main themes of the book of Revelation is the vindication of the saints in the pouring out of God’s wrath on their oppressors. This is most poignantly revealed in Rev. 16: 4-7.
Rev 16:4-7- The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. 6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”
Rom 12:19- Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
From a biblical perspective, any abuse of authority is sinful and foolish. Those who have been abused by those in authority should take great comfort in the fact that such abusers will have to give an account to their creator for what they have done. This will probably not provide immediate comfort for those who are currently being afflicted. It also gives little direction in knowing how they should respond to their abusers.
If we are suffering due to abusive authorities do we have to endure, or can we flee?
God wants us to live at peace
1 Tim 2:1-4 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Roman 12:18-If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
God desires us to live at peace, but he also sovereignly ordains suffering.
Phil 1:29- For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,
2 Cor 12:9-10- But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
James 1:2-3 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
See also: (Rom 5:3, 8:35-39; Php 2:17,18; Col 1:24; 1Pe 1:6,7 4:13,14) .
How do we come to terms with the tension between the two: peace and suffering?
Although passages like Matt 5:39, advise one way to respond- “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). The Bible also gives warrant for believers to flee their suffering as well. This was part of the purpose of the cities of refuge that were commanded to be established in Israel (Num 19).
John Bunyan, who was all too familiar with suffering, wrestled with the tension of these two truths in the Bible as he sought to come to terms with how God would have him respond given his own situations.
He that flies, has warrant to do so; he that stands, has warrant to do so. Yea, the same man may both fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be. Moses fled, Ex. 2:15; Moses stood, Heb. 11:27. David fled, 1 Sam. 19:12; David stood, 24:8. Jeremiah fled, Jer. 37:11–12; Jeremiah stood, 38:17. Christ withdrew himself, Luke 19:10; Christ stood, John 18:1–8. Paul fled, 2 Cor. 11:33; Paul stood, Acts 20:22–23. . . . Do not fly out of a slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God’s providence, and the escape countenanced by God’s Word, Matt. 10:23. (emphasis mine). (Seasonable Counsels, or Advice to Sufferers, in The Works of John Bunyan, volume 2, page 726)
- Treasure and utilize laws that protect the vulnerable
We are incredibly blessed to live in a society that advocates for the weak and vulnerable. We have strict laws in our country against domestic violence, sexual harassment, child abuse, and elderly abuse. Few countries in the world (and certainly throughout history) are as cognizant of the responsibility to protect the vulnerable. Because of this immense blessing, Christians who are subject to abuse by their authorities have a great advocate on their side, namely the law. Therefore, even in respect to the authority of our government, Christians who are subject to, or are aware of illegal activities such as domestic violence or child abuse, have a doubly moral responsibility to notify legal authorities.
The elders at Grace and Truth Bible Truth recognize the immense responsibility given to us as leaders of Christ’s church (Heb 13:17). Therefore, in the fear of God and in love of the church, we are committed as a church leadership to firmly stand against abuse and will take every accusation of abuse seriously by reporting it to the appropriate authorities.
- Know that believers are called to care for the vulnerable and oppressed
Micah 6:8- He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Prov 21:3- To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Isaiah 1:16-17- Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
James 1:27- Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Matt 25:34- 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
As believers, when we become aware of oppression we need to have the courage to confront it. We cannot be afraid to call out evil and confront wicked people who are being cruel. Even if we lack legal authority, we do not lack moral authority- we can appeal to the oppressor’s dignity and their conscience in hopes that they will be brought to repentance and that justice will be served.
I appreciate John Piper’s words in regard to how the church should respond to women who are abused by their husbands:
What I want to stress is that long before they reach a point of desperation — or harm — the women of the church should know that there are spiritual men and women in the church that they can turn to for help. By way of caution and lament, I cannot promise that every church has such spiritual, gifted, and compassionate men and women available for help. But many do. The intervention of these mature brothers and sisters may bring the husband to repentance and reconciliation. Or they may determine that laws have been broken and the civil authorities should or must be notified. In either case, no Christian woman (or man) should have to face abuse alone. (John Piper, Dec 19, 2012, http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/clarifying-words-on-wife-abuse).
- Pray for Justice
Jesus appealed many times to his followers to pray for God’s will to be done on earth; maybe the most familiar appeal being in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come Thy Will Be Done”. Jesus calls us to pray in his name, meaning that we were to pray for what he would have (John 15:7, 16:23-24). Given God’s passion for justice, we can also pray boldly that justice will be done upon the earth. This is a common theme echoed throughout the Law (Ex 23:2, 6; Deut 10:18, 16:19-20, 24:17, 27:19), the Psalms (Ps 10, 28, 35, 43, 72, 82, 103, 106, 140, 146), and the Prophets (Is 1:17, 10:2, 16:3, 42, 56, 59; Jer 5:28, 7:5, 21:12; Ez 18:8, 22:29; Hos 12:6; Amos 5:7, 15; Micah 6:8; Hab 1:4). Therefore, knowing God’s interest in justice for the oppressed we can boldly go directly to him. In contrast to seeking our own vengeance when wronged, we can appeal to the highest authority and trust in his sovereign rule over all things.
Rom 12:19- Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Here are some helpful links for more in-depth thought on the matter:
When I was in high school, every August my football team would start our pre-season training, which was affectionately, dubbed “Hell Week”. This was a fitting appellation because as many of you know, I grew up in the Mojave Desert and temperatures would usually rest in the hundreds during that month. On top of that, we would have two-a-day practices lasting usually 4 hours each where the coaches would constantly afflict our bodies with grueling workouts in order to get us in shape for the upcoming season, which most of us desperately needed. Anybody who wanted to play the next year had to press through the week, and if you could not hack it, the coaches suggested baseball as an alternative.
This is a helpful illustration of the Christian life. Since becoming saved, God’s purpose for us is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29; Phil 2:5-8). This means that our ultimate purpose in life is to follow the example of Jesus and die to our own fleshly inclinations and submit to the Father’s will in all things (John 8:29; Phil 3:10-11). We painfully die to what our flesh wants (comfort, praise, adoration, security, etc) and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, through the word, which subsequently helps us achieve Christ-likeness (Gal 6:14; Rom 8:12-17; 2 Cor 4:17).
The Result of Suffering
The scripture makes it evident that our lives are essentially going to be full of trials because of the conflict of the flesh and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit calls us to die to ourselves, and the flesh wants to be indulged; so, they are at war with one another (Gal 5:16-25). James encourages us not to be discouraged by these trials, but rather rejoice because they are producing steadfastness (James 1:2-4). Paul also reminds us that these trials are producing Christ-like character (Rom 5:3-5). Suffering is necessary for us if we are going to reach our goal of becoming Christ-like. We can rejoice in the trials because of the result they are producing, even if for the moment they seem excruciating (Heb 12:11).
I willfully endured Hell Week because I wanted to play; there was an end in mind. The coaches’ end was for me to be in the best shape possible. They knew this would take temporary suffering. God’s end is that we would be in the shape of Christ. This also necessitates temporary suffering. But the more we suffer for the sake of Christ, the more we will be conformed into His image (2 Cor 4:17).
The Christian life is like Hell Week practice every day of our lives. God’s purpose is for us to deny our fleshly desires and to seek his kingdom first. He always has a purposeful plan of trials awaiting us each day (practice). Some workouts will be short and easy, others will be lengthy and painful, but there is a purposeful perfect intention behind each one. As we offer up our lives as living sacrifices we will be able to discern God’s will and better discern his purpose behind the “workouts” (Rom 12:1-2).
The Necessity of Spiritual Nourishment
Knowledge that this is what awaits us each day should encourage us to begin each day with a hearty meal of meditation on the scriptures. We also need to be well hydrated and so we should refresh our souls through an extensive time of secret prayer. If we choose to neglect either, the consequences during the workout will become evident. Moreover, if we choose to indulge on junk food of the world for breakfast, this too will influence our endurance and joy during the trials that await us. Though the flesh likes its Twinkies and Coke, these will only make it sick in the end. We do have the choice of what we want to eat.
Helping One Another Endure
We are all in this Hell Week together and on the same team. Therefore, we are not competing with one another, but with sin in general. Each person is seeking to die to his flesh and run the race set before him with endurance. Yet, we know from personal experience that our comrades’ diets are not always up to snuff and so they often faint during the trials. They become exhausted and pale and it is our job to come along side them to refresh their parched souls with water of the Holy Spirit through prayer and ministry, or to aid their strength by giving them the Word. It should be noted that if a brother is dying from heat stroke, yelling at them will not help. Then again, there may be a time when our friend innovatively thinks about taking a short-cut by crossing though the freeway might shorten their trial. A stern rebuke would certainly be on order, and tossing them a water bottle will not help much. We need to discern people’s true needs before imparting the medicine. In addition, it is good to remember that each of us has vomited a time or two and some of us have been hit by trucks; let our memory help us as we minister.
Looking Forward to the End
One day each of us will look like the Perfect One; We will be changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:50-58).
What characterizes one as heroic? An examination of the heroes of film or the sports icons of today would lead one to conclude that they are admired because of their confidence, strong-will, and inflexibility. We know that it takes a great deal of strength to overlook personal weaknesses and confidently face opposition. Therefore, we often crave that same heroic status for ourselves and admire men like Muhammad Ali, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Caesar Augustus. We wonder what gives them such strength, and conclude that it is pride that strengthens men.
The Bible however comes to the opposite conclusion. It warns us that pride comes before the fall. It is pride that will lead to destruction and it is the meek who will inherit the earth. Yet, we wonder how can one be triumphant if they are supposed to be clothed in humility? We question because we have been polluted by the wisdom of the world. Since the world has forsaken God, it discredits His sovereignty, power, and authority. It knows that in the absence of God, strength must be found in one’s self.
However, God is real and his existence debunks the conclusion that one must be proud in order to be successful. Because God exists, and is in sovereign control over all things, we will find success only in submission to Him. Anything opposed to the will of God will ultimately lead to defeat. God does not compromise with man and therefore man must submit to God. This submission to the will of God is humility. Yet, it is not simply submission in deed but in heart as well. God can look into the heart of man and will not be fooled by our actions. True humility is subjecting our wills, desires, thoughts and actions to the rule of King of Glory. And in this subjection, we will find success, nobility, and strength.
Humility is not teachability, tenderness, or compromise- although these things might accompany it. Humility in its purest form has nothing to do with our disposition before man. It has everything to do with our response to God. Humility is not concerned about self because it understands that self has been sold to the King. It cares little of man’s opinion, because its service is to God and not man. Christ demonstrated his humility in allowing himself to be reviled even though he was God. Yet, he showed an equal amount of humility in being uncompromising with the truth. Christ came to do the will of him who sent him, not his own. He would not compromise on truth, or defend himself from insults, because he had emptied himself of everything except what the Father willed.
Humility will call us to be strong and uncompromising, but it will also call us to tenderness and teachability. It may call us to be trampled upon and spat at, or it may call us to draw our swords. God calls us to suffering and to delight. Humility delights to do either, depending upon which God would call us to for the moment.
Our community group recently got into a discussion regarding our favorite kinds of literature. I confessed that Russian novels happen to be my favorite. One of the reasons I enjoy them so much is they have an amazing ability to recognize and grasp the profoundest things in life and then to display their observations in vast stories (the true meaning of genius). They are never just telling an entertaining tale. Rather they are preaching to us wisdom, shouting aloud in the streets. Much about people, life, and philosophy can be learned by reading their stories. Few people understand the complexities of human mind and heart like Tolstoy. More can be learned about people in reading War and Peace than in a semester of psychology classes in college. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, paints the power that a life of sacrifice can have upon unbelievers. It’s convicting! And it’s a short read. Dostoevsky recognized the power of ideas and their impact upon the decisions we make. The mercy and kindness of Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov, made me weep and forever changed my approach to the downtrodden and forsaken of society. I want to share a bit of Dostoevsky’s wisdom. This is one of my favorite quotes on love. It is a mere few sentences in his book.
Are you speaking the truth? Well now after such a confession, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid false hood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch into your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful both others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of you observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is the consequence of every kind of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love. Do not be frightened over much even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can not say nothing more consoling you for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will give their lives if only the ordeal is slow and does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as if on stage. But, active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.
It’s not hard to love the gifted ball player- unless you happen to play 2nd string on his team.
It’s not hard to love the talented violinist, unless you happen to be second chair.
It’s not hard to love the brilliant academic, unless you are her dyslexic sister.
It is hard to love gifted people around you, until you recognize that you don’t have to be them.
What the performance reviewers tell us is true- that setting a high bar will encourage us to perform to higher standards. Such is the wisdom of performance reviewers (even the imaginary ones). What they tend to overlook is the fact that such standard setting really only makes the pursuit of the standard more disheartening. This is because they really only concerned about performance; the emotional stability of the recipient is a secondary issue.
The impact of comparing ourselves or being compared to other people is crippling. It’s crippling not only to our own growth and effectiveness- but it cripples the church as well.
From my earliest experiences with ministry I felt the burden of not measuring up to my colleagues in the ministry. It probably began when I was given the opportunity to intern in a medium size church along with 20 or so other gifted men who were also training for the ministry. There were limited ministry positions which inevitably created a competitive atmosphere, exacerbating a latent insecurity.
The nature of the internship put every ministry decision under the microscope; every weakness was scrutinized. It also opened up the opportunity for everybody (or welt felt like it) to weigh in on my suitability for ministry and giving them the opportunity to serve as personal performance reviewers. There was never a consensus regarding the results. Some assured me that I was certainly “called” to the ministry, and many other credible critics suggested I wasn’t (often accompanied with a comparison to some other successful minister).
Until recently, I have felt awkward when introduced to other pastors. It has also been difficult for me to listen to other preachers without comparing myself to them. I would constantly ask: What do they do that I don’t? What do I do that prevents me from being like them? My take-aways: If only I was more bold….; If only I was more intelligent….; If only I was more articulate….; If only I was more extroverted….
I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong in constantly seeking to improve, but my I see now that my expectations of myself might have been a bit too high. Do I really need to have authority of MacArthur, the tenderness of Tripp, the passion of Piper, and the wit of Wilson in order to be faithful in what God has called me to?
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned (Rom 12:3).
Now, what had previously been a threat has become my joy. There is joy in simply accepting, I am who I am. But the real joy in my discovery is not in simply that I have come to accept my weaknesses (as relieving as that can be). Rather, it is in recognizing what wonderful gifts I have been given- in being a part of the body of Christ. What once had intimidated me now brings security. I don’t have to be D.A. Carson because the church already has him, or R.C. Sproul, Al Mohler, David Platt, or Russell Moore. I don’t even need to be like them because we already have them. I have them!
21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours (1 Cor 3:21-22).
I am so glad I don’t have to bear the burdens they bear because of their accomplishments and gifts. If I did what they did, I would burn out in a week.
For instance, I am so thankful that I am not the only person defending the world against false teachers. Any reasonably intelligent false teacher could out argue me in a heated conversation. I am also not very good at small talk which makes it difficult to speak with strangers. If evangelism were all up to me, the Great Commission might take a million millennia to get accomplished.
This recognition has also allowed me to embrace my imaginary critics who want me to be like such men, or at least who want to compare me with them. I can agree- they are right! I am not them! Praise God I am not them!
It’s not just me though
I have seen this kind of insecurity stifle men as well as ministries. It not only prevents us from appreciating the varied gifts of the members of the body, it can actually lead us to be threatened by them. (Ironically, the people we need the most are the ones we feel most threatened by). I write this because I have often seen progress in ministry get stifled because the team members I was working with didn’t trust one another. I believe the underlying reason had less to do with trustworthiness of the ministers and more to do with confusion that resulted from differences in personality and giftedness.
Here is an imaginary conversation of a ministry team discussing how it can improve:
“This ministry would be more effective if we were more friendly”- says the friendly guy. All the while everyone else is thinking, “Oh no, I hope this doesn’t mean we are now going to be required to take shifts greeting newcomers.”
The secretary responds, “Well I think that we should get more organized so that we can actually function.” The others think, “Oh no, here comes the petition to schedule more meetings.”
The charismatic extravert pipes up, “I think we need to be more bold in our evangelism- are we going to be outdone by a bunch of JW’s?” The others think, “Oh no, not canvassing neighborhoods again!”
Inevitably, we will express our personal aversions to others’ assertive suggestions with strong defensiveness. We think, “That Guy is trying to push an agenda- I need to stop him somehow.” What I have discovered however is that it is far more likely that these passionate people are simply trying to love people better.
Often the reason for our lack of trust towards one another is simply because we recognize that we would not speak or act like the other person did unless some sinful motive was involved. But, the truth is that Johnny was not trying to be a jerk when he overtly disagreed with George’s position. His frankness was a sincere attempt to love his friend. Jimmy was not being a coward because he was reluctant to disagree. Rather his lack of speaking up was due to the fact that he valued the relationship so much that he wanted to make sure the common ground well established. So that, when the disagreement was exposed the relationship would not be destroyed along with it.
Just because a person does or says something you would not, does not mean that they are in sin, even if you would have been in sin if you would have said or done such and such. There is grave danger is assigning motivations. Sin is clear cut- lying, stealing, cheating, adultery. Yes, we can sin without an overt action. I am not denying that. But, we cannot assume motives simply by comparing another person’s actions with our own.
This is readily recognized on a macro level- cultures express themselves differently: Germans are cold, Latinos are passionate, and Hawaiians are laid-back (forgive the stereotypes). But the same is true in individual people- different personalities and gifts express themselves differently.
As Christians serving in the church, we need to study one another in order to interpret one another’s actions on the basis of who they are, not on the basis of who we are, or what we think they should be. When we accept one another as is, we enable ourselves to truly delight in our differences. Other people are the way they are so that we don’t have to be the way they are.
So, if you find yourself feeling insecure around other believers, ask yourself if you trying to be them. Or if you find yourself concerned about another’s sinful motives, ask yourself if you are imagining that they are you. And, if you find yourself angry at other people’s incompetence in something that seems simple and obvious, also ask yourself if you are imagining that they are you.
It is for okay for believers to be like other believers. But we should be careful. When Paul encourages believers to follow the example of others (1 Cor 11:1, 1 Pet 5:3, Titus 2, 2 Tim 2) he is not suggesting that they be like them in every way- but that their lives would reflect the biblical values of a mature believer. The aim is that as the various members grow in maturity and work according to their gifts they will reflect the person of Christ as a whole.
when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4:16)
This is what is so wonderful about being a member of the body of Christ- you don’t have to be Christ; you just have to be yourself. You also don’t have to be eye if you’re not good at seeing. It’s okay to be a heart, they are important too.
When we embrace our weaknesses and avoid being threatened by the strengths of the other members’ three things are accomplished:
- The Body becomes more useful
- The individual members delight in one another
- The individual members are free to be effective in their own right