God Works in Spite of... Hierarchies

I Samuel 8 clearly shows that hierarchies are not God's choice or preference. Yet, what is the "rest of the story"?

Many of us are familiar with the story of the children of Israel when they were not content to be different from the surrounding nations in matters of governance. One of the last judges was a prophet by the name of Samuel. As he was getting up in years, he made his sons, Joel and Abijah, judges over Israel. As the story goes, his sons were corrupt. The people knew that and were not pleased with Samuel's sons. So they said to Samuel, "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" (1 Sam 8:1-5).

That request really bothered Samuel so he went to God about it. God told him, "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" (vs. 6-9).

God made a couple of things rather clear. First, Israel had been rejecting Yahweh and serving other gods ever since leaving Egypt. Secondly, their action of desiring a king and its associated hierarchy was simply another example of rejecting Yahweh and serving other gods—in other words, idolatry.

We know that the first is indeed the case by noticing that their history is summed up in the last verse of the book of Judges, "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (21:25). Some church leaders have used this as proof that there should be a hierarchy. But those who do so are not being honest with scripture or their audience. All that this scripture says is that they were rejecting God and his instruction and doing what they thought was right. Later, when the hierarchy was firmly established, we find most of the people were still evil—usually because they were following an evil king.

As ancient Israel wanted a visible man to be their king (under God, of course); so some modern-day brethren want a visible man to be "head of their church" (under God, of course). It may be hard for them to believe that an invisible God can achieve his purpose working separately through thousands of human belings. It is also much easier to please (and to manipulate) a human than it is God. So today, we hear people saying "we have to all get behind one man so a work can be done."

Regarding Israel's wishes, God did tell Samuel to grant their request along with many warnings (I Sam 8:10-17). We need not elaborate on all of these warnings, but one does need to consider them all in conjunction with any known hierarchies, be they national or religious. Once the oppression and corruption becomes widespread, the final warning is significant, being, "And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day" (v. 18).

In other words, once they reaped the consequences of the hierarchy, he will not hear them no matter how loudly they cry out, proclaim fasts or whatever else they, or we, may do. Nevertheless, Israel wanted a king. So God said, "Heed their voice, and make them a king" (v. 22).

God does let us do what is right in our own eyes, doesn't he? He tells us what is good and what is bad. He then leaves it up to us to determine if we are going to listen, learn and do what is pleasing to him. So, in our religious and church life, what if we choose some of the bad things, like hierarchy (idolatry) for instance? Does he abandon us and no longer work with us?

"The Rest of the Story"

Once you choose a hierarchy does God leave you to whatever end you achieve? The answer is: Yes and No—it depends. We need to continue with the rest of the story of Samuel, Israel and the setting up of the king (idolatry) in I Samuel 12.

"Now Samuel said to all Israel: "Indeed I have heeded your voice in all that you said to me, and have made a king over you" (v. 1). Samuel then proceeds to witness against the people that he partook not in any of the politics that a hierarchy will typically do. The people confirmed his statements. Samuel then explained that it was Yahweh and not some king who delivered Israel from Egypt and many other enemies. The reason deliverance was needed each time was because "they forgot the Lord their God" (vs. 2-9). Now that the Ammonites had just been on their doorstep, they wanted a human king instead of their divine king (vs. 10-12).

"Now therefore, here is the king whom you have chosen and whom you have desired. And take note, the Lord has set a king over you" (v. 13). God has given them the hierarchy they wanted. So, does God work through hierarchies even though it is a form of idolatry? The following two verses describe the Yes and No part.

"If you fear the Lord and serve Him and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the Lord your God. However, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you, as it was against your fathers" (vs. 14-15).

No matter what we choose to do in our lives, it all boils down to one thing, doesn't it? We must always obey God and his commandments, for if we don't, he will be against us. It is very important to note in the above verses that obedience to a hierarchy does not replace obedience to God. People are accountable for doing what is right, whether the hierarchy is preaching truth or not. Granted, a hierarchy is not pleasing to God, but if that's what you find yourself in, you can still be worked with by God. He will work with you in spite of any hierarchies provided you are not caught up in its idolatries. However, once the hierarchy you are involved with starts participating in taking, cheating, oppressing and bribes, i.e., universal corruption (see v. 3), God will be against it.

Today, we have a choice whether we will associate with a hierarchy or not. If a certain system that you are involved with is hierarchical and you don't see it that way, it would stand to reason that God will continue to work with you. It should be the same even if you know its hierarchical nature but feel that it does not disobey the voice of God and rebel against his commandments. There may a number of factors that influence whether or not you work within a hierarchical system. In some cases, it may be the only Sabbath fellowship available or it may be the only place that other family members agree to go. But if you know that a hierarchical system is largely corrupt, you should definitely leave, for God will be against it.

How long will it take for God to take definitive action against such a corrupt hierarchy? The northern kingdom of Israel was sent into captivity more than 200 years after their first unrighteous king. The southern kingdom of Judah lasted over 300 years before going into captivity. In the meantime, God did send prophets with messages of fearing, serving and obeying God. Just because he is patient and long-suffering doesn't mean that he is not against it.

Even though God said he would not forsake the Israelites if they and their hierarchy continued to obey him, the message regarding hierarchies is quite clear. Notice the conclusion to this matter. Samuel showed the people an extremely unusual miracle to show that God was indeed speaking through him. The people, realizing the situation said, "Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of asking a king for ourselves" (v. 19). They knew that it was evil and a sin to have asked for a king. Samuel confirmed that with a stern warning, "Do not fear. You have done all this wickedness; yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart.... For the Lord will not forsake His people, for His great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you His people" (v. 20, 22).

Yes, hierarchies are evil and a sin for it is strictly a form of idolatry. But because God is jealous for his name's sake and extends to us much mercy, he will tolerate and still work with and through us in spite of even seemingly good hierarchies that choose to put away corruption and seek to fear, serve and obey him.

We are given vivid examples of three men, Saul, David and Solomon, who, while specifically chosen by God, fell to the clutches of the evils and corruption of hierarchies. It appears that only David was able to repent of his part of the evil. God will continue to use whatever is at his disposal to effect his will, whether it is Satan, a heathen nation or even an idolatrous hierarchy.

What is Our Duty?

So, for those of us who are part of the church of God, but not aligned with any human organization, what is our duty regarding hierarchies and the people who follow them? What was Samuel's reply regarding his part in all of this? "Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way. Only fear the Lord, and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you" (vs. 23-24). Samuel's part was to not forsake them as well. In fact, he was to pray for them and continue to instruct them.

We, like Samuel, also, need to set the example of a righteous life and to pray for those following hierarchies and, as time and place allows, instruct them as to the good and the right way, including the Bible teaching on the subject of hierarchies. We, of course, need to do more than just preach "the gospel of anti-hierarchy". We need to bear spiritual fruit of our own, otherwise, why should anyone heed us? Once they see that God does work and that much fruit is born outside of a hierarchy, they will be able to make the right decision for themselves.

Yes, God does still work where he chooses in spite of hierarchies, but he does conclude with a strong warning which applies to all of us: "But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king" (v. 25).

—Norman A. Brumm, III

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