Thursday, 23 February 2012

Allegiance and Obedience

Sam Cooper led a most interesting and informative Biblical Thinking Forum this Monday. We looked at how the early church interacted successfully (or not so) with the civilizations in which it was embedded, and how, as the Caesars came to view themselves as gods, they became increasingly hostile to the church.

One thing that struck me was a letter where Pliny, a Roman official, writes to the emperor asking what he should do with Christians. Taken from one angle, you wonder what he was making a fuss about; the Christians seem innocuous at worst:

They [Christians] stated that the sum of their guilt or error amounted to this, that they used to gather on a stated day before dawn and sing to Christ as if he were a god, and that they took an oath not to involve themselves in villainy, but rather to commit no theft, no fraud, no adultery; not to break faith, nor to deny money placed with them in trust. Once these things were done, it was their custom to part and return later to eat a meal together, innocently, although they stopped this after my edict, in which I, following your mandate, forbade all secret societies.
But elsewhere in the letter he states:
Meanwhile, this is the method I have followed with those who were brought before me as Christians. I asked them directly if they were Christians. The ones who answered affirmatively I questioned again with a warning, and yet a third time: those who persisted I ordered led [away and executed]. For I have no doubt, whatever else they confessed to, certainly [this] pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished.
Pliny's concern is not that Christians are social pariahs, but that they don't have full allegiance to the state. One could understand a certain sense of outrage here. The Romans brought many benefits to civilisation, and could feel entitled to tribute from their subjects who benefitted from all these. It's all too easy to bite the hand that feeds us, saying stupid things about those in authority over us.

But, life is less about obedience than it is about allegiance. It's more about a competition for the heart and soul of a person, than their external behaviours. In the competition for final allegiances, the Bible is clear who calls the shots (Rom.13:1). Christians are to obey their earthly rulers as much as they can, but our allegiance is to Jesus.

If the "middle managers" (aka caesars, kings, presidents etc) go AWOL from God's purposes and start messing around with those under their authority, claiming themselves as absolute authorities (as gods e.g. the king of Tyre) then stand firm and remember that allegiance is to the final authority - Jesus himself (Eph.1:20-22).

If / When that day comes, and your middle managers (earthly rulers) are trying to steal your heart and pit you against your ruler (Jesus), whose side will you come out on?

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