How Martin Luther King Jr. Changed Our World by Doing Theology

blog - mlk jr.You may have heard bells ringing near you today around 3:00pm. This was in celebration of the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. (August 28, 1963 at 3:00pm).

Many allegations about MLK Jr. have come out since his passing. But regardless of your view of his personal life or his politics, what’s undeniable is that at the core of the changes that MLK Jr. helped launch was his theology.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated fifty years ago today that “all men are created equal.” It’s really a bit of strange claim when you think about it.  We don’t really all look equal. We don’t have the same cultural heritage. We don’t all talk the same. We don’t have the same IQ. We don’t all have the same interests. We don’t have the same moral performance records. In other words, by mere observation, you probably wouldn’t come to the conclusion that we all were “created equal.” So where on earth would anyone come up with that idea?

MLK Jr. got it from the Bible.

In his speech “The American Dream” (1964), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

“You see, the founding fathers were influenced by the Bible.  The concept of the imago dei (image of God) is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected.  And this gives everyone a uniqueness, a worth, a dignity, and we must never forget this as a nation.  There are no gradations in the image of God.  Every man from a treble white to a bass black are significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because everyone is made in the image of God.”

Now, admittedly, within Christian theology there have been many variations on the doctrine of the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26; Gen. 5:1-3; Gen. 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7).  As clearly and briefly as I can be, the three basic views on the “image of God” debate are sometimes summarized as the Substantive View (all humanity mirrors the essence of God in our ethics, free will, and rationale); the Relational View (only those with have a personal relationship with God possess an image of God); and the Functional View (all humanity relates to God simply in the way we rule over creation).

As a Lutheran pastor, I generally like to figure out what Martin Luther had to say about a topic? The best I could find was the following: speaking of pre-fallen Adam created in the image of God, Luther said, “In Adam there was an enlightened reason, a true knowledge of God, and a most sincere desire to love God and his neighbour, so that Adam embraced Eve and at once acknowledged her to be his own flesh.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. George V. Schlink (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia, 1958), p. 63.) That doesn’t give us a ton to go on. But I think it’s fairly safe to say, nonetheless, that most every Reformer, including Luther and Calvin, suggested that after the fall, Adam lost some aspect of the image of God and retained some aspect of it.

So regardless of which view of the “image of God” you hold or whichever theologian you think has the right take on it, EVERY widely respected Bible scholar will suggest that humans have always had inherent value precisely because God originally infused humanity with his image and likeness.

James 3:9-10 “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

Back to MLK Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not say that people should believe that humans are all equal because we’re all equally refined and sophisticated.  He didn’t say we should value all human life because it comes naturally to us or because it’s common sense.   No. He did theology.  He borrowed his logic directly from James, the brother of Jesus (quoted above), who said that if we ALL were created in the image of God, and if Jesus Christ really is the glorious Lord and Savior of ALL MANKIND, then we can never, ever, ever look down on anyone, because we’re all sinners who are saved only by God’s grace. That’s the gospel. External, superficial judgment is not an option. We were created in the image of God and therefore, while we’re not God, we were designed to reflect God out into the world so that all may see the glory of God. Taking that thought a step further, if grace is the most important thing that God shows to this world, then logically, the most important contribution you and I can make to this world, is not to be beautiful, intelligent, successful, wealthy, etc.  The most important contribution we can make to this world, is to show it grace – undeserved love, kindness without qualification, truth without reservation.

Can you imagine what this world might look like if we all dealt with one another not on the basis of superficial judgment but, instead, on the basis of grace? What if we cherished other humans like they were gifts from God – created by God himself and with a part of him in there, not unlike an artist leaving a part of himself in his/her work?

Martin Luther King Jr., because of his theology, apparently could indeed imagine that. And his belief is why this world is a more livable place today.

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ZEALOT – a review of the most controversial book about Jesus to come along in awhile

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Author: Reza Aslan
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 336

About a dozen people or so in my congregation have asked me about a new book currently near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, ZEALOT.

It led to me thinking it’d be a worthwhile exercise to, every once in a while, offer a Christian pastor’s perspective on some of the more influential literature out there, particularly those that which more directly impacts American faith and spirituality. (It also doesn’t hurt when people regularly gift you books – Thanks, Bob!)

While I’m a firm believer in producing helpful content, not just tearing down the content of others (which is not only easier, but less beneficial in the long run), I’d still agree that from time to time, it’s certainly necessary to offer clarification and correction.

So…ZEALOT.

Reza Aslan’s latest book was selling quite well upon its release. But it wasn’t until after his interview with Lauren Green on Fox News that ZEALOT became the current most controversial book on the planet.

The interviewer regularly questioned Aslan’s credibility, as a Muslim, to write a book about the life of the individual on whom Christianity is founded. The more liberal edge of media pounced on this as unfair and Buzzfeed even headlined a subsequent article, “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” Quite honestly, I do think there’s something to that. If, as a Christian pastor, I did twenty years worth of research on Islam and wrote a book about Muhammad, should it immediately be discredited due to my Christian faith? I think most people would suggest “No.”

Nonetheless, I also believe the interviewer had a point that a “neutral” public sphere doesn’t understand: It’s simply impossible to write anything without bias. If I did write a book, as a Christian, about Muhammad, I can guarantee it would contain bias. Only those who don’t understand the way faith works would be so bold as to suggest that it would have zero impact on your perception of another faith. You simply cannot disassociate your soul from your worldview.

If nothing else, I thought the interview, which has been replayed and rehashed countless times at this point, served as an interesting exposure of the American public’s failure to understand the nature of faith. And it created a good learning opportunity, as does ZEALOT itself.

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Introduction

The book’s title is derived from both the author’s assessment of Jesus’s character and his leadership in a perceived “new” first century philosophy.

Jewish historian Josephus uses the term “Fourth Philosophy” to discuss an ideology that is distinct from the philosophies of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes. Aslan suggests that Jesus is the prime figure of this new party.

“What set the members of the Fourth Philosophy apart from the rest was their unshakeable commitment to freeing Israel from foreign rule and their fervent insistence, even unto death, that they would serve no lord save the One God. There was a well-defined term for this type of belief……zeal.” (pg. 40)

Aslan’s basic thought throughout the book, then, is that Jesus, the man, failed in his mission to free the Jews from Roman oppression. However, after the Jewish/Roman hostility that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jews had a decision to make regarding what they were going to do with their faith. Judaism was no longer a comfortable option.

“With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome’s enmity….or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifist preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.” (pg. 150)

In other words, Aslan is suggesting that many Jews, including the later New Testament writers, out of convenience, consciously shifted their understanding of Jesus from his true identity as a zealous Jewish nationalist (like so many other first century Jewish nationalists) into a worldwide peacemaker (unlike the other first century Jewish “messiahs”). This messiah (i.e. Jesus), was one that Rome could get on board with, to such a degree, in fact, that the empire would eventually make him their official God in the fourth century.

Aslan believes that Jesus “the Christ” has been concocted upon two millennia of false beliefs founded on the inaccurate, imaginative statements of guys like Saul of Tarsus and the Gospel writers. This claim is nothing new, by the way.

So, let’s take a look at the rejectable, the redeemable, and the net takeaway from ZEALOT.

The Rejectable

1) Jesus was the most acceptable of “bandits” to the Romans

Aslan makes the case that the Greek word lestai can best be translated as “bandits” rather than “thieves.” So, for instance, the criminals on the cross next to Jesus would not likely have been crucified merely for being “thieves,” but banditry, or inciting rebellion against the Roman state, was certainly a cause for crucifixion.

While he points out that there were many false messiahs that went through Judea in the first century, Aslan suggests that it was a series of political events that causes Jesus to be the one that stuck.

The idea that there were indeed many false messiahs in first century Palestine is true and should never scare Christians. In fact, the reality that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one who is worshipped today, two thousand years later, actually gives more credibility to Jesus. Something must have been different about him. Skeptics have known this problem and the best they’ve been able to come up with, as Aslan has, was that there must have been some sort of convenience in following Jesus that was appealing. But this is unacceptable when you consider the thousands that went to their death (and continue to today) for commitment to the man.

“There is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual……(BUT) They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.” (pg. 174) He’s talking about a resurrected Jesus. Why would so many people (Paul says over 500) claim to have seen Jesus alive after his death if it’d mean they might have to die? The most obvious explanation, which Aslan refuses to accept – is that their beliefs were TRUE.

2) Aslan’s Refusal of Predictive Prophecy

Even when reading through the introduction of the book, I got a strong sense that Aslan believes we cannot trust the Bible as wholly reliable. Much of what he was saying sounded eerily familiar. Sure enough, as I was readying the nearly 100 pages of miniscule font Author Notes at the end, I ran across quotes from guys like John Dominic Crossan and Rudolph Bultmann. I had to pour over the writings of these guys in seminary hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) classes.

Briefly, these are guys who have studied the Bible a lot, but are highly skeptical about its claims. Nonetheless, since there has been a tremendous sensitivity about bringing anything religious into the educational arena since the early-mid twentieth century, almost no conservative Bible scholarship has found its way into institutions like Harvard or Yale. Consequently, if you want to sound educated and quote higher scholarship in faith matters, you have to study and reference guys who adamantly deny the authority of the Bible’s claims.

It’s a domino effect that leads people, when studying multiple religions, as Aslan does, to almost exclusively study liberal Bible scholarship and only recognize liberal scholarship as, in fact, reputable “scholarship.”

Anyways, one of the main problems with liberal biblical scholarship is the outright rejection of predictive prophecy. In other words, these skeptics balk at the idea that King David or Isaiah or Daniel could ever be making any claims about the coming Messiah, and any New Testament writer or current Christian who believes they are, is naively reinterpretting what was originally written.

The Redeemable

1) History of first century Palestine

While I obviously don’t agree with many of Aslan’s conclusions, I found his narrative of first century Palestine to be a fascinating history review.  He walks readers through the politics of the Intertestamental Period. He explains the passage of power from Herod the Great to his three sons and why Rome decided to go from a local client-king in Herod to an eventual direct governance in a prefect like Pontius Pilate. He details the presence of other first century “messiahs” – Theudas, Athronges, The Egyptian, The Samaritan, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba, etc. It’s all very interesting and many Christians will enjoy it.

2) Profession of Historical Jesus and acknowledgement about who the Scriptural authors claim he was

Many skeptics in the twentieth century doubted the existence of the “Historical Jesus.” Many Muslims today doubt that he ever was crucified (Quran 4:157-158). But Aslan, as a historian, navigates beyond both of those instincts that would be native to him  and, to his credit, finds such suggestions, on the basis of the information we have today, unacceptable.

Jesus of Nazareth did live. He was crucified. Many claimed he rose from the grave and were absolutely convinced. If Aslan represents the modern skeptic, then the modern skeptic is one step closer to recognizing Jesus as the Christ than the twentieth century skeptic was.

3) Logical reason why we have so little info about Jesus’ childhood

Despite some conjecturing about the first thirty years of Jesus’s life, Aslan offers a refreshingly simple, yet obvious explanation as to why we have so little information on Jesus’s early years, which I will happily direct people to in the future.

“It is simply impossible to say much about Jesus’s early life in Nazareth. That is because before Jesus was declared messiah, it did not matter what kind of childhood a Jewish peasant from an insignificant hamlet in Galilee may or may not have had.” (pg. 37)

4) Acknowledgment of Jesus’s miracle-working

Again, for a skeptic, it’s a little unusual, and seemingly counterintuitive, to point out the fact that all the evidence points to Jesus as someone supernatural. But Aslan, who certainly considers himself a valid historian, does not deny the early claims.

“At no point in the gospels do Jesus’s enemies ever deny his miracles, though they do question their motive and source. Well into the second and third centuries, the Jewish intellectuals and pagan philosophers who wrote treatises denouncing Christianity took Jesus’s status as an exoricist and miracle worker for granted. They may have denounced Jesus as nothing more than a traveling magician, but they did not doubt his magical abilities.” (pg. 105)

What’s the REAL Takeaway

There’s an old joke that goes something like this……How do you find out whether or not someone went to an Ivy League School? ANSWER: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

Thus is the case with Aslan. I didn’t bother counting how many times, merely in the introduction, he refers to himself as a “scholar” or his research as “scholarly.” He realizes that if he’s going to make some fantastic claims about the most influential figure in world history, he’s going to have to lend some credibility to those claims. Nonetheless, it’s hard to take someone who is constantly trying to tell you what a good scholar they are seriously. Their work, one would think, should speak for itself.

Furthermore, while Aslan holds a degree in religion from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Sociology from Univ. Cal. Santa Barbara, Aslan also has a Master of Fine Arts from Univ. of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. In fact, Aslan currently teaches as an associate professor of Creative Writing form Univ. Cal., Riverside. Creative Writing. This is telling. It explains, to some degree, why ZEALOT, at times, reads as much like a Dan Brown book as it does actual history. Brown has a genius for taking real historical events, ignoring the traditionally accepted views, and imaginatively spinning the incidents to say something entirely different, all with well-crafted verbiage. Aslan has a similar “gift.”

This leads me to wish Aslan was, in fact, a Christian, aside from the obvious reason of desiring that his soul be saved. The truth is that he has a remarkable God-given gift for painting a vivid portrait of history. It’s just not, in my opinion (and that of the majority of scholarship of the past 2000 years), the accurate one.

So….here’s my net takeaway.

1) The arrogance of “a scholar”

As much or more than anyone I’ve read, Aslan comes off as arrogant. It’s quite apparent throughout the book that he fully believes he understands the era of Jesus better than the Gospel writers!!! (I’ve provided a number of illustrations at the end of the post, but here is just one. Aslan thinks the only way Christianity could spread is because uneducated “non-scholars” like the martyr, Stephen, were simple-minded enough to believe the fairy tales.)

“Here lies the key to understanding the dramatic transformation that took place in Jesus’s message after his death – Stephen was not a scribe or scholar. He was not an expert in the scriptures….As such, he was the perfect audience for this new, innovative, and thoroughly unorthodox interpretation of the messiah being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they preached it.” (pg. 167)

Believing that he has the authority, through his research, to examine the Bible and separate the truth from the lies, Aslan arrives at conclusions that I think will really never be considered much beyond his own personal opinions, or perhaps some fringes of liberal scholarship, whose opinion of the Historical Jesus seems to be forever changing. In other words, while a lot of people are buying Aslan’s book and are going to find his writing entertaining – he’s likely not going to reshape the way the world thinks about Jesus of Nazareth.

2) According to the Bible, a non-believer will not appreciate spiritually discerned things (1 Cor. 2:14)

The Apostle Paul wrote “Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:20-23 NASB)

Let’s go back to the original Fox News interview question about the validity of a Muslim writing on the history of Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone who has heard the gospel message is, afterwards, either a believer or a non-believer. And then, when that individual approaches the Bible (the main text that teaches about the gospel of Jesus) that person comes with presuppositional bias on the basis of that belief/non-belief.

The Apostle Paul is suggesting here that when a non-believer reads/hears the message of the Bible, particularly the gospel, it sounds like pure foolishness.  However, the individual who has denied Jesus’s divinity then has to do something with all of the historical claims that the Bible makes about Jesus.

When Aslan reads the Bible, everything he reads is processed through his “Jesus was just a political revolutionary” filter. So he says things like “Jesus recognized that the new world order he envisioned was so radical, so dangerous, so revolutionary, that Rome’s only conceivable response to it would be to arrest and execute them all for sedition. He therefore consciously chose to veil the Kingdom of God in abstruse and enigmatic parables that are nearly impossible to understand.” (pg. 124) That is his assessment of Jesus’s parables and teachings – they were just cryptic messages to the Jews about how the Jewish people would/could eventually overthrow their Gentile oppressors.

Does that make good sense? I say “No.” But it is the conclusion that a non-believer has to come to when reading things like Jesus’s parables. Remember, they are just “foolishness to the Gentiles.”

For further reading….

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Just a few examples of how Reza Aslan clearly believes he knows more about Jesus than Jesus’s contemporaries:

1) An empire wide census never could have taken place

“Luke is right about one thing and one thing only….Luke’s suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father’s birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions….is, in a word, preposterous.” (pg. 30)

2) Jesus never would have had the education or opportunity to debate rabbis

“Luke’s account of the twelve-year-old Jesus standing in the Temple of Jerusalem debating the finer points of the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes (Luke 2:42-52), or his narrative of Jesus in the (nonexistent) synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees (Luke 4:16-22), are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising.” (pg. 35)

3) Jesus never could have predicted the future

“Jesus’s warning to Jerusalem that ‘the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and crush you to the ground – you and your children – and they will not leave within you one stone upon another’ (Luke 19:43-44) was put into his mouth by the evangelists after the fact.” (pgs. 75-76)

4) Gospel-writer John tends to exaggerate

“John’s gospel claims a ‘cohort’ (speira) of soldiers marched to Gethsemane – a unit that would comprise between three hundred and six hundred Roman guards – along with the Temple police, all of them carrying ‘torches and weapons’ (John 18:3). John is obviously exaggerating.” (pg. 78)

5) John the Baptist’s death didn’t happen as taught in the Bible

(Regarding the story of John the Baptist’s death) “Alas, the gospel account is not to be believed. As deliciously scandalous as the story of John’s execution may be, it is riddled with errors and historical inaccuracies.” (pg. 81)

6) Jesus and the Pharisees really had a fairly amicable relationship

“While the gospels tend to paint the Pharisees as Jesus’s main detractors, the fact is that his relations with the Pharisees, while occasionally testy, were, for the most part, fairly civil and even friendly at times. (pg. 99)

7) Jesus never would have received an audience with Pilate

(Regarding Jesus public trial before Pontius Pilate): “This scene makes no sense at all….Why would Mark have concocted such a patently fictitious scene, one that his Jewish audience would immediately have recognized as false? The answer is simple: Mark was not writing for a Jewish audience. Mark’s audience was in Rome, where he himself resided.” (pg. 149)

8) In general, the Gospel writers are liars

“As with everything else in the gospels, the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution was written for one reason and one reason only: to prove that he was the promised messiah. Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history. The gospel writers obviously recognized how integral Jesus’s death was to the nascent community, but the story of that death needed elaborating.” (pg. 154)

9) Supernatural events, no matter what the evidence, are not possible

“The fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event.” (pg. 176)

Godly Pecking Order

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Pecking order is God’s design

If you know me, you know I love my dog, Gemma. C.S. Lewis once went so far as to say, “Man with dog closes gap with God.” He meant that there is no way to understand a man’s affection for his dog without doing theology, without coming a little closer to appreciating God’s affection for mankind.

Regardless of whether or not that’s true, “man’s best friend” is certainly a well-thought-out adage. Dogs are lovable companions in a way that humans typically aren’t. They enjoy the things you can give them, but ultimately, they just want you for you.

And yet, this relationship, this friendship, is not just a 50/50 partnership. There’s a pecking order. That’s the only way it works.

The above pictures are of Gemma as a several month old puppy. Gemma is now a full-grown, 50+ pound pit bull. That’s fairly average to small for a pit bull, but pit bulls are sort of like piranhas – the destructive potential is less about overall size than it is about jaw strength.  They’re crazy stubborn and capable of a lot of damage. To help train and manage Gemma, we have a collar with a remote that gives her a jolt of static electricity whenever she’s misbehaving (As a side note, for the dog’s sake, I’d recommend not putting the remote in the pocket of a pair of hipster skinny jeans. Just saying’. Those buttons are fairly responsive.)

Anyways, if Gemma ever gets the impression that she’s the leader of the pack, chaos inevitably ensues. She’ll help herself to anything she can find in the garbage, on the counters, or in the cat’s litter box (which you don’t realize until later on, when she comes over to try to give you a kiss). Without an awareness of pecking order, Gemma will literally barrel you over to grab the food in your hand. She will gladly eat every pair of shoes in your closet and then shove them in your face to taunt you. She will urinate on your bed, look you in the eye, and challenge you to do something about it. Like a child, she doesn’t inherently understand boundaries, so she’ll push until she meets a resistance point that someone establishes for her.

But when Gemma knows I’m in charge, she’s actually much happier. After all, she understands that I’m the one who meets her basic needs (i.e. “the provider”) and therefore she wants to see me in a position of power. She wants to sense me in control. This is why when we’re outside and she sees something unfamiliar, she immediately runs to hide between my legs. She craves the structure and dependability of God-given order. It helps her feel secure in a strange, cruel world.

So I’m in charge. This is how our relationship works best. And this shouldn’t surprise any student of the Bible, which teaches us that this is the way God designed it to be. In paradise, God said to Adam and Eve, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:28) Variously tiered roles (i.e. a “pecking order”) were a perfect, godly thing.

Sinful humans don’t like the idea of pecking order

The illustration I just gave is about humans and animals. (PLEASE NOTE: Let me make it abundantly clear that the above analogy of Gemma and me is ONLY intended to be illustrative of the fact that God established an order between us. The illustration is not to be stretched beyond that one point moving forward.) The next step, naturally, is to inquire about the roles between humans and other humans.

Because human beings have a sinful tendency to distort and abuse hierarchical relationships, we often tend to view progression of command exclusively in terms of value and power. We assume talent and hard work always flows from the top down. Consequently, we long to be at the top, in leadership positions, not so much because we truly desire to lead, but because we want to validate our worth. We think that if we’re at the top, then we must be valuable.

But what if, regardless of talent, we voluntarily chose to submit ourselves to the leadership of another. What if “What am I capable of?” wasn’t the only consideration. What if our worth wasn’t based on society’s verdict, or even self verdict, but God’s objective verdict? Wouldn’t that free us to uniquely serve in roles that a selfish society would rarely value or dream of serving in?

This reminds me of a story I once heard about Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He was a surgeon in London in the 1920s, and he was a man of great standing and distinction. However, after he became a Christian, Lloyd-Jones, who was recognized to have a tremendous gift for public speaking, wanted to enter into Christian ministry. So he became a pastor. It was supposedly about a 90 percent cut in salary. Some years after that happened, a reporter came to him, and the reporter said, “Dr. Lloyd-Jones, many people were intrigued when you made this choice. You gave up so much. There were so many things in your life you had to give up, and I’m sure there has been a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction doing what you’ve done. But I’ve come here to find out, on balance, after reflecting and weighing everything up, was it worth it?” As the story goes,  Lloyd-Jones responded back, “I gave up nothing. I received everything.” He was suggesting that when you reorient your life around the gospel of Jesus, you’re no longer trying to find your value in your money, your title, or your social status. Only a person whose life didn’t revolve around the gospel and was blind to its innate riches would think to even ask such a question.

For our purposes here, when you reorient your heart around the gospel of Jesus, you’re no longer so worried about what rung on a worldly status ladder you happen to be on. You can humbly accept whatever God’s calling for your life may be. You’ll stop trampling over others to become a master, because you’ve found the real master. And you start serving others because you know that’s your real master’s purpose for you.

Specific Implications for Christians

While there are many ways to apply the teaching of godly pecking order, I’m going to keep it to two here:

1) Marriage

“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3)

I’ve already written at length regarding the biblical concept of complementary roles of men and women. But to summarize, I’ll say that while marriage is a partnership, it’s not just a simplistic 50/50 business agreement.

For instance, if God ever comes to your family and questions your motives, priorities, decisions, and behavior (and yes, we’ll all have to give an account in the end), GENTLEMEN, he’s coming for YOU first (Gen. 3:9). According to his all-surpassing wisdom, he’s put you in charge. So, placating your wife and coming along for a spiritual ride in life won’t be “man” enough in the end, not according to God’s clearly intended roles.

Whether you signed up for it or not, God designed men to be leaders in the marriage relationship. God surely could have arranged your chromosomes differently. But he didn’t. This means you now have an important responsibility and privilege to lead, one that should never be shirked by either 1) avoiding the leadership role in laziness or cowardice, or 2) abusing the leadership role for selfish gain. It’s an important and fulfilling role. But remember, you’re in this position for the purpose of service, not self. Your wife’s well-being is more important than your own. And God calls you to lead that way.

Ladies, it’s also necessary for you to realize that God has put him in charge. “But pastor, do you realize how many men out there sometimes act like fools?!?!” Yes. I’m one of them. I don’t pretend to know WHY God created men first or WHY he put them in a leadership role. But it’s reasonable to assume that the engineer of humanity knows better how his product works than I do. And this is the pecking order he designed.

Furthermore, ladies, not only does God want you to recognize these roles, but he wants you to recognize the weight of the responsibility that’s been placed on your husband and respect him, encourage him, and support him when he embraces that leadership.

And finally, the fact that men are in the headship role does not at all suggest women are inferior. Women are not less intelligent, less capable, or less faithful. In fact, it seems fairly obvious that women are uniquely designed as superior in a number of areas. For example, whereas men often excel when one (and only one) task/project is placed before them, women generally dominate in areas that require multi-tasking. As a result, women tend to be much better than men when it comes to people/office organization, event planning, and yes, things like child rearing. Why? Those tasks all require you to juggle many things at once. Put men in these positions and you’ve got missed appointments, missed details, and missing children. These are generalizations, of course, but I don’t think the majority would disagree with the basic thought – women multi-task better than men – evidencing that headship is not a talent thing.

My bigger point then is that God established this pecking order for unknown, but not inconceivable reasons. And if you read Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 11 again, you realize that the gender roles of the Bible simply cannot be an importance or talent issue, because you’ll notice that Christ himself is on a level below God in the pecking order. Now is Jesus, in any way, inferior to God? Of course not! But he does respectfully follow the will of his Father. And therein you find the key to headship.

2) Church Leadership

“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” (Heb. 13:17)

For some reasons, perhaps because Americans tend to deify democracy, we see the need for democracy in EVERYTHING. Every opinion must count equally. All input must be considered legitimate. Or at least this is how the thought process goes.

Outside of a few votes taken in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 1 & Acts 6), for which I would not mandate a democratic form of church governance, you primarily see godly servant leaders directing and appointing in churches. By the way, in both of those examples from Acts, the vote was still occasioned by the direction of the disciples. So even the democratic parts are not entirely democratic.

The point is that not every thought, feeling, or opinion is equally valid. Godly church leadership is certainly always going to gather input and be sensitive to the hearts of the souls entrusted to their care. But too many churches accomplish too little because they’re trying to listen to a hundred voices at once. So let’s be practical about it. Jesus never ran a democracy. If every vote amongst his crew was equally weighted, he likely never would have gone to the cross to pay for our sins (Matt. 16). He would’ve been outvoted. And what sort of predicament would we be in then?

Shepherds are not called to sheep. They’re called to shepherd.  Therefore, gospel shepherds have to correct, rebuke, train, and encourage. That requires wisdom, faithfulness, humility, and guts. It also requires a flock that’s on board with the biblical concept of pecking order too. There were many Old Testament prophets who possessed all the qualifications of good shepherds, but got nowhere because people refused to humble themselves before the words and direction of God’s prophets.

Okay, so the cynic in all this might say, “Well, Pastor, how convenient? You happen to fall into the leadership responsibilities of both those examples! Jerk!!!”

So let me confess….

Almost weekly I feel like running from responsibility. Husband, pastor, Christian, doesn’t matter. I sometimes catch myself fantasizing about irresponsibility. I literally haven’t experienced the sensation of “boredom” since the 90s, cause I always feel like there’s probably something that needs to be done. And don’t get me wrong – I’m no martyr and I do fail and I do repent of occasionally shrugging off my responsibilities. But I also take them seriously. What I’m trying to say is that the weight of true headship, if the grace of God is not continuously kept in mind, can be nearly suffocating.

Additionally, EVERY person, pastors too, should be under the headship of someone. I’d like to think that the elders in my congregation or my circuit pastor (who functions sort of like a pastor to pastors in our church body) would lovingly crack me upside the head if I wasn’t being a faithful husband, pastor, or otherwise. So it isn’t like pastors don’t have functional headship in their lives. Everyone but God himself needs headship.

My point here is this: whatever level of headship in your life, it is neither better nor worse than a different level. But it is a reality that isn’t to be merely acknowledged, but rather should be lived. Your role is the position of life in which God has placed you, presumably for his divine reasons. And you glorify God by respectfully submitting in and/or lovingly leading in that role.

If husbands abuse or defer leadership OR wives usurp leadership, BIG problems. If pastors/elders abuse or defer leadership OR church members rebel against leadership, BIG problems.

Pecking order is godly.

Your Example, Savior, and Motivation

Don’t forget, Jesus voluntarily humbled himself and placed himself under his Father’s perfect will. “Though (Jesus) was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:6-7 ESV)

Paul said in one sentence what I just took like 2500 words to do. Jesus, with the talent of God, glorified God by lowering himself to serve man. In doing so, he saved you. He saved you from hell. But he also saved you from wasting your whole life in efforts to become a somebody who dies a has-been. Instead, now you’re free to empty yourself into someone else’s life, for the sake of eternal impact.

When Jesus embraced his role in the order of God’s plans, he saved billions of people. What is God going to do when you embrace your role?

How ridiculous must we look to God when we try to be someone/something that we were not created to be?

How ridiculous must we look to God when we try to be someone/something that we were not created to be?