Do You Want a King?
Judges 2:6-3:6; I Samuel 8:1-22
We live in America – land of the free. Our start as a country came when we rejected a King and started down a very different path from other nations in the world. "We recognize no Sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus!” John Adams & John Hancock April 18, 1775. So it may seem strange that I would even ask the question, “Do you want a King?” Of course not! Americans may not agree on a lot of things, but we agree we don’t want a King.
Do you think there is anything that would change your minds? As we read in I Samuel 8, around 1100 BC, Samuel, the faithful leader of the Hebrews, was about to retire from his role as judge. He had appointed his sons as his replacements, but they were godless, dishonest, and greedy. So the leaders of Israel asked Samuel for a King instead. They wanted to be like other nations. A single ruler could unite them against their enemies; bring peace and order; inspire them in battle; maximize their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.
But a King would also mean a much bigger government - more taxes, greater personal sacrifice, more frustrating bureaucracy, hierarchy and many more rules. Worst of all, for the Jews it meant rejecting Jehovah God as the true leader of the country. I’d like to look at our question today in light of what we have just said and summarized from I Samuel 8.
QUESTION: “How did the church go from New Testament simplicity to the hierarchy of the Catholic church (structure and doctrine) in such a short amount of time?”
This question is bigger than we can do in a single sermon so I have narrowed it to deal with the changes in the structure of the church from the time of the apostles until 325AD which is the time of Constantine. It is also helpful to remember that the structure & doctrine of the Roman Catholic church you know today finally develops between 900-1100 AD, so it wasn’t a short time. Even the short period we are looking at is longer than our country’s history.
PROPOSITION: God tolerates a lot more “messiness” involving the interaction between local churches but calls all true churches to have a unified core faith in Jesus & to work together in joining God in His work.
I. God’s “structural approach” for Israel
Turn to Judges 2. Let’s first look at God’s “structural approach” for the new nation of Israel to see some principles He has used in the past. These may or may not apply today.
A. Each tribe sent to their own area without a national leader Judges 2:6-7
God raised up a leader, Moses, to bring His people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. When Moses was ready to die, he laid hands on Joshua to be the next leader and God confirmed that choice. Joshua then led the people into the PROMISED LAND. In a unified effort, the Israelite armies, under Josiah, broke the main military power of the Canaanites and captured the key cities.
Then we read in Judges 2:6-7 READ. So the 12 tribes were dismissed to their own lands to finish off the work of subduing the land that they had all begun together. Notice though that Joshua doesn’t first appoint a national leader. Instead the tribes go to their own lands which will be like states. So their laws, their cultural habits, their armies, and their leadership will be state oriented AND over time they will be different from each other. So what is going to unite them or keep them united?
B. Common faith (Torah) & worship structure (Levites/tabernacle) unites themJudges 2:10-12
They served the Lord as long as they remembered the GREAT THINGS God has done for the people. They would have a common belief (found in their Bible which was the Torah) and a common focus of worship – this one true God who was more powerful than any idol, any obstacle or any human power. In fact one of the tribes, the Levites, didn’t have any land to go to, but were scattered throughout all the tribes to provide religious education for the people and lead a common worship at a national tabernacle.
Let’s pick up in V 10. READ. They lost the experience and the knowledge of God’s power & salvation. READ v 11-12. They go back to sinful living & wrong behaviors so God, in His love, must discipline them. Instead of the victory of Joshua, their enemies raid them, harass them and even control them. In God’s sight, the strongest bonds between His people are to be spiritual rather than organizational, ethnic, situational or tribal.
C. God raises up a leader “for the times” Judges 2:16
So when the people finally repent and cry out to the true God for help, The Lord would raise up a human leader, called “a judge” to call people back to faith and to show them how to successfully deal with their times.
D. All tribes are to follow this leader who is God-ordained & authenticated Judges 2:18-19
READ v 18. This required all the people to again trust in the Lord alone. They had no idea which tribe the person would come from (& God always picked different ones). They couldn’t guess the Judge’s temperament, looks, or talents. They couldn’t even know ahead of time how God would authenticate this leader. They just had to follow him, or her, in the case of Deborah. READ v 19.
E. Spiritual disobedience leaves constant physical challenges Judges 2:20-22
Notice it is spiritual disobedience, not the lack of a single national structure that left the people constantly battling outward problems. READ v 20-22. I’d love to talk more about how this might look today but that isn’t our topic. What’s clear is that the people’s disobedience has led to plan B in God’s sight – where He continues to trans- form them, but though more obstacles & pain because of their stubborn disobedience.
F. Insecurity, chaos, non-conformity lead people to want a King instead I Samuel 8:1-22
Finally the insecurity, the chaos, and the non-conformity lead the people to want a King instead, as we saw in our introduction. If only they had a King who could unite them, lead them in battle, bring justice and the same standards everywhere - then life would be better. There are some definite similarities structurally in what happened to Israel here and the growth of the early church. It is not a direct correlation because the early church was more obedient than it was disobedient.
II. Some contrasts between the early church and later Roman Catholic Church (structure)
What are some of the differences between the more organic early church of the apostles and the very structured Roman Catholic church today?
A. Beliefs/authoritative writings
In the early church, they focused on Jesus risen from the dead as Savior, Lord, Messiah and the moral life you should live because of that. They had very few writings – just the Jewish Bible which we call the Old Testament along with some stories and sayings about Jesus.
Today the Catholic Church has so much more. It has the full Bible, the creeds by the church councils, & the writings of the Church Fathers. They have extensive doctrine, the Apocrypha, infallible statements by Popes, authoritative traditions, the 7 official sacraments of baptism, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, Eucharist, confession (or penance) and the anointing of the sick (or last rites). They have a liturgical calendar where everyone does the same thing on any given week. You get the idea.
Just like in the book of Judges, after the death of the apostles there was no central authoritative structure which could guard and protect Christian beliefs & practices. Instead the early church was just a loosely connected group of local churches. The Roman Catholic Church became a clearly defined, authoritative & complex hierarchy with Pope at the head and under him in order -- the Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Monsignori, Archpriests, Priests, Deacons. We have monasteries, orders, universities and even a city/state called the Vatican.
C. Local church governance
In the New Testament times, the local churches were led locally by a group of men who were called elders (Presbyters), overseers (bishops), or pastors. These words were used interchangeably in New Testament times. The churches had a lead or differentiated elder. Some time after the apostle John’s death – that lead elder would be called a bishop if the church was large enough or they were over an area. Because there was no big hierarchy, the churches did a number of things different from each other. I laugh when someone says, “We need to go back to be like the early church.” Which one? Should we be legalistic like the Galatians; fighting like the Corinthians, doing weird things in anticipation of Jesus return like the Thessalonians or having esoteric arguments over angels like the Colossians? Today if you go to a Roman Catholic church you will find them similar to each other, much like a McDonald’s franchise because the main decision making now goes from the top down.
D. Buildings/Political power
And, of course, the early church had no buildings and no political power. While the political power of the Roman Catholic church reached its highest level a while ago, they still some political influence &, like other churches, have many buildings. So however one looks at it, structurally there has been incredible changes in structure!
III. Pressures to want more “structure”
But these changes came slowly and in response to wanting to bring order to chaos, strength from weakness, security from danger or predictability in the times of non-conformity. They were pressures we will face in our life time.
A. False teaching
The first pressure to get more “structured” is clearly seen in the New Testament itself. Virtually every New Testament author writes a warning for people so they aren’t deceived by false teaching! To me, it is amazing that the Christian faith was passed on as well as it has been because God did not give us a definitive doctrinal statement. Instead He gave us a person – the God/man Jesus AND He gave us an event – Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice for our sin and His bodily resurrection from the dead. These called men and women away from false gods (or no gods) to grace, hope and love. But, what happened when a teacher started to say one must first get circumcised to become a Christian or Jesus wasn’t God incarnate until His baptism or that we need to be tolerant, so it is OK in a man has sexual relations with his step-mother. Who is going to authoritatively speak against these things and declare what the truth is?
While the apostles were alive, they did. But God didn’t set up a truth panel which would be the final arbitrators. Instead God would empower and authenticate certain pastors and bishops when they stood up for the truth. We call these the early church fathers. One was Irenaeus, bishop in France. He survived an awful local persecution because he was sent to Rome to battle Gnostic false teaching, only to return and find some in his churches promoting it. This was leading people astray and to eternity in hell. Irenaeus poured his whole life into this battle for truth which was messy, difficult and long. So you can see why some would think – wouldn’t a king or pope be better? Yet we know God led the church through these 250 years successfully without a King and we think highly of the churches and believers of this time.
Then opposition came from outside the church – God raised up different leaders to defend the faith and give a reason for the hope that is in us. About 150 AD Justin Martyr wrote very strongly worded, open letters to the Emperor and Roman Senate demonstrating that the persecution of Christians was wrong, ignorant, and without cause. Christians were good citizens & only had to civilly disobey when wrongly forced to deny their Lord. As his name shows, he was later martyred. But Christians gained great courage through his stand. Again you can see how people would think it would be better if we had a more settled structure that regularly trained people to defend the faith and stand up for Christians. “Oh for a King!”
B. Bad bishops/pastors
In the early church, the lead elder was called the bishop. That would be me at here at Barre EFC. But as the years went on, the church grew, and the local church leaders battled more false teachers and outward opposition, certain of these local pastors with more experience took on a bigger role watching over a whole Roman district, much like a governor did for the secular government. The word “Bishop” would then refer to these district leaders or those who led the large churches like Rome, Antioch or Jerusalem. Now what happens when this person/this regional or powerful bishop falls into heresy and starts making the area pastors teach false doctrine – who do the pastors turn to for help? What about the bishop who abuses his powers or becomes greedy? Or what if two people both claim to be the rightful bishop of a particular area – who is to decide? These new positions of authority had arisen to provide better purity & training of what we call pastors today and to be a more effective voice against false teachings. But who is going to step in with bad bishops – they are more harmful to God’s work than bad pastors? At first, nearby Bishops would try to step in or people would turn to the bishops of bigger churches. Then they tried bringing 8-12 nearby bishops together for a “synod.” Much like the elders of a local church, they would seek out a solution as they sought the guidance of Jesus. But the process was messy, time-consuming, & the affected area may not listen. If you lived at that time, it was not unlike facing all the denominations we have today. Wouldn’t it be so much easy and better for God’s work if we just had a King? Now the pope as the supreme leader over the church wouldn’t come from many centuries, but you can begin to see they didn’t go this way to make a hierarchy but to solve incredibly difficult & painful situations so Jesus’ work could flourish.
C. Sinful actions
Please cross out the phrase “of leaders” under outline point 3C – for we want to talk about major sin in the life of anyone who was part of the church. From the end of the apostles’ period up through the early 200’s, the evidence of God to the unbelieving world was seen in the moral lives of the Christians rather than mystical encounters, ecstatic utterances or personal claims. As Paul stated early in his Christian life, the evidence of God’s Spirit is “love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The church believed living a moral life was the natural fruit of a true relationship with Jesus and it was a regular focus of the teaching and preaching. As Athenagoras, a Christian philosopher at Athens, puts it, “Among us are uneducated folk, artisans and old women who are utterly unable to describe the value of our doctrines in words, but who attest them by their deeds.” And when you read history, friend and foe alike admitted that Christians displayed a moral power and holiness in actions that far exceeded anything in culture.
Church discipline helped to keep this strong. If you committed sexual immorality, murder or apostasy (that is denying the faith, offering incense to idols or the Emperor or calling him “Lord”), if you do any of the BIG THREE you were removed from the church and you could not come back. God might forgive you if you repented, but you couldn’t come back to the church. While that seems strange to you today, it is the same standard many hold for pastors today – if they do one of those three things even if they repent, they can not be a pastor again. This strong standard was true of the first 200+ years of the Christian church.
Somewhere after 200 AD major persecution of Christians slowed down, so some of that generation started to say we need to lighten the church discipline and accept back into the church, highly repentant people. Callistus, bishop of Rome from 217-222, was the first major church leader to do this – he did it for highly repentant people who had committed adultery. He was martyred was martyred in 222.
Skip forward to 250 AD. The worst persecution of Christians to-date happened when Emperor Decius commanded all people in the empire to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods. If they did, they got a certificate as evidence of obedience. Anyone not having a certificate was to be killed. It would be apostasy for a Christian to make that sacrifice. Many died including the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch. But the emperor wanted to discredit Christianity not make martyr heroes, so he switched to torture to get Christians to deny Jesus.
The persecution ended 2 years later, but not before many Christians had offered the sacrifices, denied Christ under torture or lied or bribed to get a fake certificate – sometimes as high as 3/4ths of a congregation left living. So what happens after the persecution is over? Should they be allowed to come back into the church? If so, under what conditions? Then what of all those who suffered incredibly but didn’t deny Jesus? Was all their pain a waste because everyone could just come back to the church anyways? And who would make these decisions? Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, proposed a system of readmission based on the seriousness of the sin – now you know the start of what is called “penance” today. It was just like what is required of lapsed pastors today – they must repent, then go through a long restoration process to have a chance at pastoring again. That is the process every Christian had to go through who fell short in this great persecution. Now this move to allow restoration takes quite a hierarchy to carry it out, make it fair, and have it so people don’t just switch churches. This step of hierarchy was done for redeeming grace. This doctrine of penance was far different than many of you going to the priest for a lie and doing 10 Hail Mary’s. That’s is how BIGGER things develop – it is over time & out of very deep situations.
D. Outward opposition/decaying society
A stronger force would come a couple centuries later as the church would need to step in to fill the power gaps of the decaying society around them. We call this the dark ages. Whenever there is chaos, opposition, confusion, false teaching, or conflict we naturally think life would be better if we had a structure over us that would take care of it. We really do want a king IF the messiness around us is big enough. But like our reading in I Samuel, we forget the cost of the King & forget it might not be God’s plan to have a single structure over all churches. In fact, because of this study I’ve become convinced we personally (and as a local church) grow more because of trying to stay faithful in the midst of the messiness than if we had a high leader to get rid of the messiness or there was no messiness of all. I have also come to believe God’s power is demonstrated more in that messiness. Some people use to say, “How can we believe Christianity is true when there are so many denominations?” After this study I would answer – it is precisely because of that messiness that we know Christianity is not just a human invention. Through all those flavors of faith, God has preserved the core faith – that’s incredible!
IV. Pastor Neal’s personal applications
Rather than challenge you to consider various applications, I just want to end by sharing how I am personally applying it only to myself.
- I am more amazed at the power and the direction of God in every situation than I was before. That God can bring us to such clear unity in the basics of the faith today after the messiness of history is incredible. God’s direction is so relentless, that even when cult followers numbered more than the faithful in history – God regularly turned everything around and kept the church going the right way.
- Second, I want to have a greater INNER calm when faced with the strongest deceptive teaching around me. There is no reason for deep worry or depression because God has never let go of His people. On Tuesday, a book was released by a very popular preacher to the younger generation – it takes positions that I’d call false teaching. When I first saw the slick video promoting this guy’s ideas, I saw the best argument for universalism put out in the last 100 years. This is super serious, its going to deceive many & lead them away from the true God. The implications are eternal. While it is a battle God requires me to tackle as a pastor which will take a lot of time and energy, I don’t have to worry about the outcome or that my effort is in vain. I’ve seen what God does in history with this messiness. By the way, if you want to see that video and 5 resources answering it – just e-mail me; my personal e-mail is in the new pink church directory.
- Third, as I work for Jesus’ unity on this earth, I don’t believe God’s goal is to make all the denominations one. Instead God wants me to cooperate with other like-minded pastors and churches to further Jesus’ work like we are now. But God also wants us to look around us when we face frustrating situations for those pastors and churches who He has already gifted and authenticated to lead us through this time. Our tribes may be very different, but for this time & purpose God has them as the leader we need to learn from & cooperate with in this one issue.
I’ll stop here. This is one of those sermons that I’ll think about and it will impact me for the next decade. If it wasn’t meaningful to you, sorry I wasn’t clearer but I can guarantee next week’s will be meaningful for all of us and similar to what they would have preached in that day.