Yesterday, the visiting pastor giving the sermon message for the Sabbath made several references to the same quotation from a 1980 article or sermon by Herbert W. Armstrong, in which the question was asked whether we are to be a church of God or a church of people. The speaker himself focused his attention in the particular aspect of this quote that criticized the way that for some people church seems to be a social club, rather than an opportunity to have a deeper and richer relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, to treat them as beloved family members. To be sure, I agree with this critique, so far as it goes. Yet at the same time, in pondering the context of when the quote was made in its timing, it is hard for me not to think of the quote at the same time as being a misguided and unbiblical belief in the legitimacy and desirability of a strongly and rigidly hierarchical one-man government in which it is the responsibility of ordinary people only to obey, and the privilege only of elites to rule. It is that sort of tyranny, that open invitation to abuse without recourse to justice that I have spent my life seeking to overturn and counteract with all of the wisdom, intellect, and strength that God has given me.
I do not wish to pretend that I am an unbiased person in this matter, nor is it my belief that it is impossible to be impartial between the claims of justice and the dictates of tyranny, between life and death, between good and evil. There is a great contempt for the wishes of people, a slander of the claims of people to have institutions that serve their own well-being, their own preferences even, at least within certain bounds. Our own wishes aside, what I seek to examine today is the importance of the ground of the wishes of the people themselves, and the weight that the personal preferences of people have with the way that God operates. Does God consider only the opinions of those with a high enough rank to be valuable and important in His plans, or does God respect, even with regret and disagreement, the voice of the people, granting people the sort of authority and dispensation and societal structure that they wish, even if it would be preferable for them to live under a different sort of structure than what they want. I wish to make it as clear as possible what it is that I am discussing, and what I am not discussing. There is no evidence anywhere that God allows the truth of doctrine to be submitted to majority rule. God, as the superior party, offered to Israel and offers presently to those whom He calls a covenant, and the terms of that covenant are not negotiable, and neither is its consideration, namely obedience through love, respect, and honor. That said, there is clear biblical warrant that the administration of these covenants not only welcomes the voice of the people, but even when those wishes of the people are not according to God’s ideal, those wishes are granted.
Having said this, let us look at a couple of notable instances of this from the melancholy history of ancient Israel. Exodus 20:18-21 records the reaction of Israel to the giving of the Ten Commandments by the voice of God at Mount Sinai. It reads: ” Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.” This is a sad passage for a variety of reasons. Before God spoke the Ten Commandments, and before He gave the Law of the Covenant that immediately followed thereafter, the people had agreed to obey whatever God told them to do, and God had given them the general responsibility of being a royal priesthood and holy nation, to set a positive example for the nations around them, to induce a sense of curiosity among their neighbors through the flamboyant blessings for obedience that God wished to provide them, so that their example would spread through the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Yet when faced with the unwillingness of Israel to have a close relationship with him, because they were afraid of the thunderings of his voice, what was God’s response? We read of it in Exodus 24:1-2: “Now He said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. And Moses alone shall come near the Lord, but they shall not come near; nor shall the people go up with him.”” Here we see that even though Israel’s rejection of an intimate and personal relationship with God was due to their hardness of heart, their unconversion, and the fact that their fear and terror of a being whose motives were for love and blessing were entirely inappropriate, God granted their desire for distance and working through intermediaries and working more indirectly. The expressed preference of Israel to hear about God’s ways indirectly through Moses (and others) was not the original plan of God. God wanted to know them on a personal level, to spend time with them, to become their friends as He had been the friend of righteous men and women like Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah, and as He would later be friends with people like David and a few others who had the Holy Spirit within them and were sensitive to its stirrings. Despite God’s own wishes, He did not force a relationship on those who were unwilling. It was their loss, for not having the sorts of hearts that would want to be a friend of God, and for not realizing what they were missing.
We see another example of Israel not realizing what they were missing and expressing a misguided desire for a particular form of government in 1 Samuel 8, about which much can be said . 1 Samuel 8:4-9 discusses the desire of Israel for a human ruler, for the sort of one man rule that many in the Church of God see as God’s true government, even though the Bible does not actually speak very highly of the sort of unaccountable one man government that many people long for as a way for them to escape the discomfort of developing a personal relationship with God, showing outgoing concern for others, and developing a sense of personal responsibility. As it is written: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day—with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.””
There are at least a few noteworthy aspects of this passage as they relate to our concern about God heeding the voice of the people, even where it does not coincide with His own wishes. For one, the desire of Israel for a strong arm to lead them rather than the loose and not particularly centralized or domineering government of the Judges was viewed as being tantamount to rejecting God. God wanted Israel to have very little government over them, and of a very mild nature, and that is the sort of government that is best for people who are godly and converted and whose lives are filled with self-restraint and obedience to His laws and ways. Yet Israel, rather than being content to be an example of liberty and personal responsibility to their neighbors, had thought that all they needed to solve their chronic problems of disunity and weakness in the eyes of the world was a strong leader to save the day and unite the fractious tribes into one Gentile kingdom modeling the ways of heathen rulers, of which our Lord and Savoir said that it should not be so among us . Yet, even though their desire for a strong human ruler was contrary to God’s wishes, amounted to a rejection of God’s rule over them, and violated the purpose of Israel to be a model of God’s ways to the world, God told His prophet Samuel to heed their voice and give them a king, and then told Samuel to discuss the tyrannical and abusive sort of rule that one-man government would lead to, as it consistently leads to when it is tried in nations or other institutions.
So far we have looked at two examples of cases where God heeded the voice of the people, even when they asked for two undesirable requests: an increased distance and a loss of a personal relationship with God, and of strong monarchical rule. Although the terms of the covenant were not and have never been and are not up for debate or negotiation, the relationship between God and man or between people is up for negotiation. God’s respect for the free will of other people, and His refusal to coerce others in order to maintain a sham sort of relationship where intimacy is pretended where it is not genuinely felt, are aspects of His divine nature that demonstrate the difficulties we have as human beings in finding and maintaining loving relationships. God’s steadfast refusal to abuse others is an essential aspect of His nature that ought to be remembered by those who claim the legitimacy of their authority by some sort of divine right. What we desire of God is not merely sanction for our offices and positions, whether those be in families, over churches, or over nations, but what we desire is to have His Spirit within us, and to acquire His nature so that when people see us and the way that we honor God and treat other people, they may see God in us, and praise our Father that His children have a family resemblance.
This is precisely what we see when we look at the familiar and oft-quoted passage in Matthew 18 dealing with the resolution of difficulties between brethren . It ought not to be a surprise that in a passage as part of a larger reflection on forgiveness and the paramount importance of repentance and reconciliation to the workings of the Family of God also deals with the willingness of God to accept the voice of the people as the voice of God. As it is written in Matthew 18:15-20: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.””
What is the point of telling our brother or sister his (or her) faults and offenses towards us? Here, for any believer, the point is that we win our brother or sister by having them change their wicked ways so that we may win back our fellow believer, and so that our relationships may be restored. This is why the process discussed is so patient and gradual in nature. The goal is not to banish others from our lives, or to pretend that they do not exist, or to seek to justify our refusal to treat our fellow brethren with love and respect, with friendliness and concern, but rather to restore relationships to closest possible level. And so if a one-to-one conversation does not lead to a correction of conduct and a restoration of positive relations, one seeks the mediation of mutually acceptable witnesses of one’s good faith and desire for reconciliation, and if that does not work, one seeks the encouragement of the assembly of believers. It is telling that just as in Exodus 20 and 24 and 1 Samuel 8, that here too Jesus Christ expresses on the behalf of Our Father an express willingness to heed the voice of the people of the assembly of believers as if it was His own voice. Let us note that this is not with regards to the content of God ways, or any sort of loosening of the terms of the covenant, but rather the binding and loosing of people to each other based on whether they are treating their brothers and sisters with converted hearts that desire to do right by others and that desire to be a loving family within congregations, as well as the entire body of believers over all time.
Regardless of our own place within various governmental systems and institutions, we are all faced with the challenge both of developing a sense of submission to those in authority over us so that we may develop the behavior of obedience to God, and the challenge of developing our capacity to make wise decisions and apply God’s word for ourselves, so that we may acquire maturity through obedience and through wrestling with God’s ways and with their application in a life full of messy and awkward situations. It is very easy to attempt to resolve the tension of learning how to rule and learning how to accept rule by seeking to overemphasize one or the other of those elements at the expense or to the exclusion of the other. Alternatively, we may falsely claim that some have been born or made to rule and were born with boots and spurs on their feet and others were born merely to be ruled with saddles on their backs like horses . The Bible is clear, though, that God expects us to heed His voice and follow His ways. Yet it is often forgotten that God also heeds our own voices when it comes to our expression of the extent to which we desire to have a relationship with Him. Since God equates the level of relationship He has with us to the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ (see, for example, 1 John 4:20-21), let us recognize the importance of signalling our desire to have a relationship with Him by building our love for our brethren. After all, we may find much to our regret that God may heed our voice just as he heeded the voice of ancient Israel by removing Himself from having a close relationship with us and by giving us cruel and tyrannical leaders because we could not accept having such indirect rule that required so much of our own personal responsibility. God will heed our voices in how He relates to us; we had better make sure we really know what those voices are saying and what they mean.
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