Think politics. It’s unsuitable for polite company, but we begin here anyway. When we say “politics,” one probably defaults to first thinking of Washington, DC. Capitol Hill, the White House, chambers of the Supreme Court, and more evoke images of influence and power, a place “where things get done” … on some days. We especially think of the unending bickering, procedural intrigue that stymies some voices in preference to others. We think of unpleasant shouting matches and strained neck muscles and mouths wide open in full-throated rancor. But the federal seat of power is not the only place such strains tear at our relational bonds. From Capitol Hill to state houses, to governors’ mansions, all the way to municipal council chambers and zoning committee meetings, we strive against each other in competition for our view of what’s right and wrong in this world.
Once-and-for-all: Who’s right?
When Robert Mueller, III, gave a short, televised address on May 29, 2019, our nation, and perhaps many around the world, tuned in. The ensuing conversations between (and around) public figures, politicians, commenters, and even at many kitchen tables were quite animated we’re confident in the immediate days. For years – some point to the Newt Gingrich Speakership in the mid-90s – our political discourse has been bifurcating, polarizing, and crescendo-ing. “Filter bubbles” follow us through Google and other online sites, whether we login or not. (They track our computer’s unique online identifier – our IP Address.) Google force-feeds us search results that more or less entrench and reinforce our existing beliefs. Amazon posts products that it assumes we’re more likely to buy. Such tracking and the related Filter Bubbles are an unmistakable example of Confirmation Bias and Conservatism Bias (not in a political sense) in action. We look for information that more or less confirms what we already think. In so doing, we conserve our existing beliefs, not straying far from our established worldview. Socially and politically, this is deepening.
One side shouts-down the other: “you’re wrong!” The other side shouts louder still. During one of their debates, then-candidate Trump intoned like a broken record at Secretary Clinton a one-word chorus: “WRONG.”
Why begin with the intractable rancor of politics? As church coaches, don’t we just talk about things that are good, peaceable? Why bring up topics that only divide people and cause fights? Isn’t it wrong to be divisive; Paul even wrote about that in Titus! Grandma taught us “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” And if that weren’t enough, mom taught us it isn’t any good to talk about politics or religion in polite company.
We begin here to illustrate the way in which we label ourselves right and wrong. We then take aim with vehement rhetoric at each other, stridently fighting over the labels. This is not written to alienate anyone, but profoundly and truthfully: the world’s claim in recent decades that right and wrong aren’t always black-and-white is, in fact, true. Sometimes we in the Church claim and cling to the notion that an action, a political vote, a situation, a court case, or some other happening is just wrong and “someone needs to stand up and do something!” Often, in the church, we end up reacting to such headlines, and our responses instead become overreactions that end up alienating the unsaved people who watch us frenetically chase our proverbial tails.
In this paper we want to, primarily, defend biblical truth. Secondarily, we want to recognize that sometimes, our effort to clarify and simplify our thinking to others, in fact, does neither.
Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the rightest of them all?
When we talk about what’s right or wrong in Christian circles we’re often speaking in terms of what we see allowed, encouraged, or commanded in the Bible – what’s right – versus what is forbade or condemned in the Bible – what’s wrong. This is the foundation on which we must stand. But foundations are only a base; we can’t stop at the foundation. We must also look at the large structure standing on that foundation.
We can contend that right and wrong come in at least three distinct, yet overlapping, “types:” what is ethical, what is moral, and what is legal. At this point, we simply must settle on definitions.
- Ethical: an action or state of being that is right in and of itself
- Moral: an action or state of being that is right according to the standards of society
- Legal: an action or state of being that is right according to legislation or regulation
Readers may disagree with our stated definitions. For the purpose of this paper, we use these definitions deliberately.
On one hand, a word’s meaning is determined by its usage. Conversely, popular usage cannot be the only criterion determining a word’s meaning. Dictionaries do change, but they do so at a slower pace than culture. In our own Christian sphere, we are highly accustomed to hearing “Christ” and “lord” frequently, and we typically understand those terms to refer to, respectively, Jesus and God-or-Jesus. However, if we could somehow capture all of the English spoken across the entire globe on any given day, the most frequent uses of those words would not be the way in which most church leaders hear them. The vastest majority of the English-speaking world hears and uses “christ” as a curse! The vast majority of “lord” would probably be references to either “landlords” or pop culture villains – Lord Vader, Lord Voldemort, etc.
We use the above definitions of ethical, moral, and legal more for their histories and etymologies than for what dictionaries currently describe.
Ethics we take to be an “ultimate” type of right or wrong – and action or state is right just because of itself. We can remember Immanual Kant’s Categorical Imperative: an action is right or wrong, for all people, in all situations, for all time. If lying is wrong, then it is wrong when we get the proverbial question about how clothing looks on our spouse. If lying is permissible, then go ahead; lie about its fit. If not, then don’t. It’s not a joke. It’s wrong to lie. If lying is wrong, it also doesn’t mean we must be brutal. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I know what you’re about to ask, and I’m not going to answer.” The essence of the categorical imperative is very firm and simple: something is right or it is wrong, “full stop.” And that is akin to the sense we are describing for ethics here. As Christians, we stake our ethics solidly in a biblical framework. Actions and/or status are right or wrong according to God’s standards, and His standards express His eternal, perfect character. His standards are what they are, and they flow from His perfect, unchanging character.
Morals we describe as right or wrong in society’s eyes because of its etymology, coming to us through Middle English from Latin’s “moralis,” which described what was “customary.” Customs are crafted and perpetuated by a society. In a moral sense, then, it might be wrong to lie. It might not. It is very common in our 21st-century, Western society to lie for the sake of personal convenience.
In our setting we often hear morals and ethics conflated. But there are important distinctions between them. Legal, of course, is much clearer. If something is addressed by a legislature’s or an agency’s paperwork, its legality is settled. At times, politicians, celebrity personalities, or people suffering delusional thinking might think certain legal standards don’t or shouldn’t apply to them, but that doesn’t make the legality any less certain. Sometimes a law or regulation simply isn’t enforced equitably; “accountability for thee, but not for me.”
With these definitions in mind, we’ll consider three different scenarios from the Bible that illustrate these nuances of what’s right and what’s wrong. In what way might it be most important in God’s eyes to be right? In what ways might it be alright, from biblical example, to “let it slide” and compromise? Is compromise or rationalization ever acceptable? We will consider the scenarios first. Afterward, we explore why such seeming trivialities even matter.
Ethical: Moses and the Complaints
When earlier we wrote that ethics are “ultimate” right/wrong, the following biblical example, among others, should be helpfully illustrative. Following are the first 9.5 verses from Numbers chapter 14; chapter 13 gives the detailed account of the spies being appointed, traveling through Canaan, and returning. Famously, as the Sunday School song taught us, “Ten were bad and two were good.” Note that Joshua and Caleb were not the first of the twelve to speak. The ten fearful spies immediately spread their fear and told the people there was no way they could go into the land God had appointed over 500 years previously to Abraham. The opening lines of chapter 14 pick up the story:
Then the whole community began weeping aloud, and they cried all night. Their voices rose in a great chorus of protest against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” Then they plotted among themselves, “Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!”
Then Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground before the whole community of Israel. Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing. They said to all the people of Israel, “The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!”
But the whole community began to talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb…
Rather than Sunday School songs, we need to focus here on the relationship of the people to Moses, and Moses’ leadership priorities. Enough commentary has been written about the spies, the reports, the forty-year punishment, and so on. Focusing instead on the narrower aspect of Moses’ relationship to the people and vice-versa illustrates what we are attempting to describe.
Was Moses ethical?
Yes, he was acting ethically here.
Defining ethics as right in-and-of-itself, we must take God’s own commands as our objective standard. His character doesn’t change, though ours can – even on a minute-to-minute basis! And His priorities flow from His perfect character. Here, with the people of Israel along the edge of Canaan, Moses was still following God’s original directive to him from Exodus 3 (specifically verses 10 and 17). Moses had led them out of Egypt (Ex. 3.10) and was about to lead them into Canaan (Ex. 3.17). Moses was in the midst of following God’s way. He was ethical.
Was Moses moral?
No, he was not moral here.
The text very plainly shows how completely against Moses and Aaron the people had turned. As leaders, they were following the will of God, and in this episode the will of the people turned 180° away. We typically talk of repentance as a good thing, but here, the people had “repented” away from God!
Additionally, in the etymological sense of “customary,” Moses was also not moral in this instance as the people had lived in Egypt for 430 years; their sense of normal and customary was still thoroughly grounded in Egypt. They were in-between what had been normal in Egypt and what would yet in the future become normal and customary in the Promised Land. In this situation, Moses was not acting morally. That is irrespective of what sense in which we are using the word – “in line with society” or “in line with established custom.” Whether we say Moses was immoral (going against morals) or amoral (independent/absent from morals), the fact remains, he was not moral. Their leadership was so thoroughly uncustomary, in fact, that the people wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb, who were advocating for the same viewpoint as Moses and Aaron.
Was Moses legal?
No, he was not legal here.
We can take one, or both, of two approaches. As a monarch, Pharaoh was the law of the land in Egypt at the time of Israel’s Exodus, and he’d decreed multiple times they could not leave. Though Pharaoh changed his mind and ordered the Hebrews to leave (Ex. 12.31), he did change his mind again and pursued them, famously, with hundreds of chariots to and into the Red Sea (chapter 14). According to the law of the land of Egypt, they should not have left; it was an illegal departure. Irrespective of Pharaoh’s capriciousness, it was not legal. That episode alone should give us pause about viewing simple legality with too much importance.
In the second sense, though God had visited Israel on Mount Sinai and extended to them a covenant, they were not yet established in the Promised Land. It was, again, an in-between state; we would almost say this was an a-legal period for them. It was not necessarily illegal (as with the laws of Egypt), but a-legal – without legal basis. Beginning with Exodus 12.25 and concluding with Deuteronomy 27.3, “when you enter the land” is a recurring theme. Many of the regulations and expectations were not yet applicable while they wandered. They couldn’t give grain offerings, for example (Leviticus chapter 2), while they had no fields to cultivate. The covenant hadn’t fully taken effect.
Scenario Conclusion: Ethical
When Moses and Aaron led Israel, faced the complaints of the people, and remained faithful to God’s expectations, they were (in this and similar instances):
- Ethical they followed God’s way
- Immoral they rejected the people’s priorities
- Illegal they rejected/ignored “the law of the land” of Egypt, (and/or a-legal)
Moral: Joash’s Altar to Baal
That night the Lord said to Gideon, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one that is seven years old. Pull down your father’s altar to Baal, and cut down the Asherah pole standing beside it. Then build an altar to the Lord your God here on this hilltop sanctuary, laying the stones carefully. Sacrifice the bull as a burnt offering on the altar, using as fuel the wood of the Asherah pole you cut down.”
So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord had commanded. But he did it at night because he was afraid of the other members of his father’s household and the people of the town.
Early the next morning, as the people of the town began to stir, someone discovered that the altar of Baal had been broken down and that the Asherah pole beside it had been cut down. In their place a new altar had been built, and on it were the remains of the bull that had been sacrificed. The people said to each other, “Who did this?” And after asking around and making a careful search, they learned that it was Gideon, the son of Joash.
“Bring out your son,” the men of the town demanded of Joash. “He must die for destroying the altar of Baal and for cutting down the Asherah pole.”
But Joash shouted to the mob that confronted him, “Why are you defending Baal? Will you argue his case? Whoever pleads his case will be put to death by morning! If Baal truly is a god, let him defend himself and destroy the one who broke down his altar!”
This exchange happened after God / His angel had first appeared to Gideon, but before the famous episode with the fleece(s). Rather than focus on the main character of the over-arching story, Gideon, we will give our attention Gideon’s dad, Joash, in this scenario.
Was Joash ethical?
No, Joash was not ethical.
By the time of the book of Judges, Israel had been led out of Egypt by Moses, into Canaan and begun taking over much of it through Joshua’s leadership, and they were beginning to settle into life there. Several Judges had already come and gone by chapter six (Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and Deborah are explicitly named). We’re reminded on more than one occasion in the book that “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17.6 and 21.25). Chapter six tells us, overtly, that Joash, father of Gideon, thought it was right to have an altar to Baal, as was the custom of the area – not to the God who revealed Himself to Abraham early in Genesis, again to Moses in Exodus 3, and who then led Israel by cloud and fire for forty years. The text plainly tells us that this altar dedicated to Baal belonged to Joash. God demands in no uncertain terms that our worship be directed to Him, the only being worthy of worship in any way. From Genesis chapter four, in the immediate aftermath of Cain’s murder of Abel, people were “worshiping God by name” (verse 26). Joash was not doing that. He was worshiping Baal.
He was unethical.
Was Joash moral?
Yes, Joash was acting morally.
The “men of the town” wanted to kill Gideon for pulling down the altar. The text doesn’t indicate it was some lone, random neighbor. This didn’t upset one particular altar stone mason. Remember Demetrius’ complaint against Paul in Acts? He got mad because Paul’s preaching about Jesus slowed the sales of silver idols crafted in Artemis’ image. Demetrius then spread his disdain, which others picked up on, but that riot began from the discontent of an individual. Something similar did not happen here. This whole town overwhelmingly reacted to Gideon in favor of Baal’s altar, and Joash was the owner of said altar. This altar and Baal worship occurring on/around it was good in the eyes of the town. They wanted their crops to grow. They wanted their wives to bear multiple kids. (Baal was thought a fertility god.) Joash was acting morally.
That said, something is odd about his priorities and behavior. He was the owner and caretaker of the altar to Baal in their town, yet once Gideon pulled it down, Joash defended his son and went against the grain of the morals and customs of his neighbors. If nothing else, this turning of tables at least shows our near-infinite capacity for hypocrisy. Joash was not fundamentally different from you or I.
Was Joash legal?
No, Joash was not acting legally.
This was blatantly against the covenant recorded by Moses. Moses had received and explained the covenant on multiple occasions – at least at its initial reception in Exodus and then again as a “farewell address” just ahead of his death late in Deuteronomy. Joshua had then reminded the people of the covenant, and Joshua carried out Moses’ direction given in Deuteronomy 11.
Some of the people stood below Mount Gerizim and the rest stood below Mount Ebal. They then shouted back and forth to each other terms in the covenant that brought blessings or curses. What Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 11, Joshua did in Joshua 8, after Jericho’s defeat and their entry into the Promised Land.
Long before Joash’s birth, the Moses Covenant was established as “the law of the land.” He was acting illegally.
Scenario Conclusion: Moral
When Joash built and/or maintained an altar in the name of Baal:
- Unethical he was not following God’s way
- Moral he was doing what his neighbors did/expected/wanted
- Illegal he rejected/ignored the covenant law of God
Legal: Jezebel Versus Naboth
In one of the more famous episodes of the Old Testament demonstrating the corruption for which the people were exiled, Jezebel (Queen of the northern kingdom, Israel), manipulatively took control of a vineyard and threshing floor near the kingdom’s capital, Samaria.
… Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance that was passed down by my ancestors.”
So Ahab went home angry and sullen because of Naboth’s answer. The king went to bed with his face to the wall and refused to eat!
“What’s the matter?” his wife Jezebel asked him. “What’s made you so upset that you’re not eating?”
“I asked Naboth to sell me his vineyard or trade it, but he refused!” Ahab told her.
“Are you the king of Israel or not?” Jezebel demanded. “Get up and eat something, and don’t worry about it. I’ll get you Naboth’s vineyard!”
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealed them with his seal, and sent them to the elders and other leaders of the town where Naboth lived. In her letters she commanded: “Call the citizens together for a time of fasting, and give Naboth a place of honor. And then seat two scoundrels across from him who will accuse him of cursing God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
So the elders and other town leaders followed the instructions Jezebel had written in the letters. They called for a fast and put Naboth at a prominent place before the people. Then the two scoundrels came and sat down across from him. And they accused Naboth before all the people, saying, “He cursed God and the king.” So he was dragged outside the town and stoned to death. The town leaders then sent word to Jezebel, “Naboth has been stoned to death.”
When Jezebel heard the news, she said to Ahab, “You know the vineyard Naboth wouldn’t sell you? Well, you can have it now! He’s dead!” So Ahab immediately went down to the vineyard of Naboth to claim it.
1 Kings 21.3-16
Was Jezebel ethical?
Jezebel certainly acted unethically in this situation.
Perhaps most famously in Proverbs 6.16-19, the seven things God hates are listed as: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family.” Arguably, Jezebel eagerly practiced all of these; she overtly committed at least two (heart plotting evil; feet racing to do wrong). She was not following God’s way; she was unethical.
Was Jezebel moral?
Despite the corrupt nature of Israel’s politics and society at the time, Jezebel actually did cross the moral line here as well. She was immoral.
We see this in the description she chose to use in writing the letter: “…seat two scoundrels across from him.” She wrote a letter to the civic “leaders” of Naboth’s hometown and overtly requested them to find dishonest people for this role. These two were understood by their neighbors as dishonest, as scoundrels (“worthless” in some translations). This was not merely contrary to God’s way (unethical). It was less than acceptable even according to the corrupt standards of the time. The fact that the town elders embraced the devious scheme and actively participated, even despite seeing the king’s [forged] name on those letters, enabling this obvious assault against life and property, is an entirely different – and infuriating – discussion.
Was Jezebel legal?
Perhaps surprisingly, Jezebel was acting legally.
In manipulating circumstances so her husband could claim Naboth’s vineyard, the basic requirement that more than one individual accuse someone of wrongdoing was met.
Jezebel incited people to lie on her behalf; she didn’t overtly break the 9th Commandment.
She arranged circumstances such that Naboth was killed; she didn’t, herself, “strike and kill [him] with a piece of iron” (Num. 35.16).
She ensured a property auction took place so Ahab could get the vineyard; she didn’t, herself, “move a boundary marker” to seize it (Deut. 19.14 and 27.17).
All these actions were addressed in the Moses Covenant Law, but from arm’s length, Jezebel could just plausibly say “I didn’t do it” and, at least in her own self-justifying thinking, walk away, supposedly innocent. We might forget that we are reading this account of her nefariousness from, in a literary sense, an omniscient viewpoint; Ahab was unaware she was the lynchpin of the story, and the town elders were unaware of her ultimate goal. She told Ahab “eat something and I’ll get it for you.” She told, under a forged signature, the town elders to hold a fast and place the scoundrels strategically. Once Naboth was killed, she found out and told Ahab “o hey, hun, that vineyard is available by the way.” Interesting that she wrote the letter in Ahab’s name and sealed it with his ring, yet the elders informed her after the dastardly doings.
We also want to pause a moment and introduce another concept; we might term it a “sub-category.” There are actions and states, in our current context, that are not criminal; that is, “improper” rather than outright illegal. A speeding or parking ticket is a familiar example. They result from our actions as drivers that, legally, are not allowed, but that are also not a felony nor misdemeanor. To circle back to the social discord and political vitriol that opened this discussion, we point out that a foreigner’s undocumented, “unlawful” presence in the USA is a civil violation, not criminal. (That decision was made in 2012 by the Supreme Court; the cited US code “imposes criminal and civil penalties on employers … but only civil penalties on aliens… [pg. 3].) “Illegal immigration” is a misnomer; as the saying goes, “it’s not really a thing.” Indeed, there is no such thing as “illegal immigration,” despite the term’s incessant usage in our social discourse. We mention this to point out these are not meaningless trivialities. What is ethical in God’s eyes, what is moral in our neighbors’ eyes, and what is legal where we live confronts even the hottest hot-button issues in our lives and culture.
But the discussion continues. This is not the end of the story.
Scenario Conclusion: Legal
When Jezebel arranged to get Naboth’s vineyard for Ahab:
- Unethical she was not following God’s way
- Immoral she enlisted the help of the very basest people, “scoundrels”
- Legal she “ticked the boxes” to have Naboth killed, but with plausible deniability
Implications: So What?
Why does any of this matter? These contrasts, similarities, differences, and subtleties matter for one simple reason: God expects us to be sensitive to all of them.
The default, and frankly, simplistic, answer to “just do what the Bible says” or “just follow God” response we have to our changing and increasingly hostile world is inadequate. A flippant, dismissive attitude does not help us build bridges between our lost culture and our Good Father.
It’s a part of our human nature to want to be “right.” But being “right” can take multiple shapes, as the above scenarios help to illustrate. What kind of “right” – ethical, moral, or legal – should we be as God followers? We should be all three. Following is a list of several examples of each, from Scripture, in which God explicitly expects us to do “right” according to His standards and/or even others’ standards. The following are not the same Scriptures as above.
|Gen. 4.3-7||When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift – the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.
“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right…
|Lev. 11.45||For I, the Lord, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy.||Ethical|
|Lev. 20.26||You must be holy because I, the Lord, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.||Ethical|
|Matt. 5.48||But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.||Ethical|
|1 Pet. 1.15-16||You must be holy because I, the Lord, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”||Ethical|
|Gen. 34.30||…Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have ruined me! You’ve made me stink among all the people of this land…”||Moral|
|Jer. 29.7||And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. …its welfare will determine your welfare.||Moral|
|Acts 2.47||[Believers were] praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people.||Moral|
|Rom 12.17-18||Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.||Moral|
|1 Cor. 8.9 2 Cor. 6.3||We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. // But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble.||Moral|
|Gen. 27.7-9||Then Abraham bowed low before the Hittites and said, “Since you are willing to help me in this way, be so kind as to ask Ephron son of Zohar to let me buy his cave at Machpelah, down at the end of his field. I will pay the full price in the presence of witnesses, so I will have a permanent burial place for my family.”||Legal|
|Neh. 2.20||The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.||Legal|
|Esther 8.7-8||Then King Xerxes said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, “I have given Esther the property of Haman, and he has been impaled on a pole because he tried to destroy the Jews. Now go ahead and send a message to the Jews in the king’s name, telling them whatever you want, and seal it with the king’s signet ring. But remember that whatever has already been written in the king’s name and sealed with his signet ring can never be revoked.”||Legal|
|Rom. 13.5-6||So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons…||Legal|
|1 Tim 2.1-2||…Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.||Legal|
We see in the “ethical” references ways/reasons that we should be and act simply because it is what God expects. God told Cain to do right, and from the very beginning of the Moses Covenant right through to 1 Peter, God expects us to be “holy” – mature, set-apart, His.
In the “moral” references we see the clear expectation of God that we, His followers, “go along / get along” in whatever way we can. Jacob was most worried about being perceived as a “bad neighbor,” though Simeon and Levi had engaged in the arguably “more-right” action of avenging their sister’s assault. In Romans 12, “everyone” – not only fellow Christians – should see that we are honorable. The early Church lived in such a way that outsiders were glad to think of them with “goodwill” (Acts 2.47). Getting along with non-believing neighbors and living in a way that they deem “right” is also expected of us by God.
In the “legal” references we also see God’s expectation that we live within the parameters of the society in which we find ourselves. Abraham deferred to the Hittite elders’ influence in buying the burial cave at Machpelah. Esther and Mordecai didn’t ignore or usurp the legal regime of the Persian/Median Empire; they worked within it. Nehemiah challenged the “squatters’ rights” mentality of Sanballat, Tobiah, et. al. upon his arrival in Jerusalem. The decree of the emperor had made him the legal governor of the territory (see his retrospective comment in ch 5 v 14). He knew those papers appointing him were important; the king had made the effort to decide on his governorship and record that decision, so Nehemiah was going to honor that. With letters to various provincial governors regarding provisions for the journey and rebuilding, Nehemiah was trying to accomplish his God-ordained (ethical) task with as much proper paperwork (legal) as possible. Both Paul and Peter, then, round-out our sample, also admonishing us to do what is right and proper and upstanding regarding civil authorities.
Application: Being Right isn’t the Goal
We too often think being right is important – in a discussion, an argument, a political contest, in a leadership decision regarding “our” church – and that our amount of rightness determines the outcome. We obsess over being right in our assessment of the challenge. We may even seek out – perhaps desperately – the most-right advice about tackling said challenge. If we seek outside counsel, we then wonder whether the advice-giver’s thinking about the situation is right and then ponder whether the advice offered is the right approach to take.
God has told us to do what is right. That should not be minimized. But doing what is right in all of these scenarios ultimately expresses our willingness, as God-followers, to submit. We deliberately end the previous sentence with “submit” and not with a limiting, qualifying clause. Being right is less about our assessment or action than it is about our attitude or posture.
How Does Submission = Right?
Let’s go back to our three case studies: Moses, Joash, and Jezebel.
Moses was in the right ethically because he’d already committed in his heart, mind and soul to lead the people of Israel as God had directed him – he’d submitted to God’s authority and when a test came, Moses remained committed to that earlier decision. Joash was in the right morally at least insofar as he had submitted to his neighbors. Jezebel was in the right legally insofar as she’d submitted to following procedures laid out by Moses centuries before her. Joash’s and Jezebel’s rightness in an ethical sense was lacking, but that is a different discussion.
The people in our three main examples were all submitted to an authority in some form or another. Similarly, the chart just above displays willing submission. The recurring directive to “be holy because God is holy” demands that we live His way; if we’re called-out, called-apart, set apart, etc. then we’ll be living in the way God has prescribed. For ancient Israel, that was a heeding of a specific set of sacrificial parameters, behavioral guidelines, directives for husbanding the land, clothing stipulations, cleanliness and much more. Now in the New Covenant, we’re still expected to be set apart and living God’s way; that still includes the way we treat each other, generosity toward people and God, having a humble and contrite heart, and much more. Morally – the way we interact with our culture – involves a degree of submission. Very few Christians in the US advocate for a political system besides one centered on the Constitution; to advocate otherwise would, in fact, be immoral. In this way, we submit to our neighbors’ political inclinations – at least in a general sense. When we use turn signals, manage our speed, heed traffic lights, and so on, we have submitted to the various legal requirements of operating motor vehicles.
Being right is inherently tied to submission.
And here we get to the core of the issue. Have we set our life’s standard merely at “ticking boxes” so we don’t get in trouble in a legal sense while letting our moral or even ethical character rot? What’s most important in life? Are we most concerned with doing things our way and only worrying about what we can get away with? Do we hold our fellow church leaders to minimalist standards; do we rationalize-away situations with statements like “Well, I guess it’s not wrong, but…”? Do we split all the proverbial hairs? As Jesus once put it “…you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law … You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23.23-24).
Doing things God’s way above all, while keeping an understanding and peaceable disposition toward our neighbors, trying to go-along/get-along with all the civic authorities requires our willingness to submit to others – both to God and fellow people. And that will only be our disposition if we have a humble attitude, confident in the wisdom of living God’s way.
God knows what He is doing. Outcomes are not up to us. We just need to follow and trust the results to Him. God never promised we would be successful; He called us to be faithful. The rightness of our decision-making process, of the outside consultant’s thinking, of our understanding of a problem or of our general approach to it, of our theology, of our political or social convictions … they pale compared to our attitude of humility and posture of submission.
Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said…
As for you, follow Me.
Yes, we do want to do and be and believe what is right in God’s eyes. We can’t speak for you, but we would also, additionally, in conjunction with that, rather get along with our neighbors and “be at peace” (Rom. 12.18) with them, versus picking fights. And we certainly prefer living in a geography whose political/civil stipulations make it easier to cooperate with civic authorities, rather than be resistant against them.
But being “in the right” in any of these ways is not nearly as important to the Father as having the right posture (i.e., submission) and having the right attitude (i.e., humility). Divisiveness is not a God-honoring character trait. Korah and hundreds of others died in Numbers 16 because they were so stubbornly divisive. On the other end of the Bible, Paul directed Titus not to put up with people who exhibit a consistently divisive attitude (Titus 3.9-11). “I’m right, you’re wrong” is not the first filter through which we live life in way of Jesus. If we really are His followers and insist on having such a “me-first” attitude, finding fault with others’ thinking or speech or actions, we must first locate “book-chapter-verse” when Jesus set the example to us that He was interested in being right. But He was not. Such a moment is not recorded in Scripture. Jesus served. He humbled Himself. He relinquished control of situation after situation. He submitted to God’s plan in prayer on the night He was arrested. He submitted to requests for healing – leprosy, blindness, deformities. He submitted to some parents’ request to bless their young kids. He even submitted to the priorities of a hurting crowd rather than tend to His own hurting heart in the aftermath of John the Baptist’s execution (Matt. 14.13-14).
Submitting to the capriciousness of Nebuchadnezzar, then Darius, then Belshazzar – all of whom were blatantly, overtly ungodly at different times – may not seem at first glance to be God-honoring. But we know God sustained Daniel through it all. Daniel submitted. God blessed him. Submission is a dirty word to our supposedly American independent streak. Really, it’s just an assault on the deep-seated pride of our human nature. God has shown and told us to submit to Him, to our neighbors and to civic authorities. At times, those 2nd and 3rd ways can run counter to God’s way, but they are unusual times. Causing tension with neighbors and civil disobedience are the exception.
Submission, additionally and to be clear, is not obeisance nor acquiescence to any particular person. We all mutually submit to each other “out of reverence for [Jesus]” (Eph. 5.21). We have one head, and it is no mere man nor woman. Being that we started this missive with politics, we should say plainly that abject deference to any one human figure, especially in a political sense, is merely another expression of our broken tendency to gravitate to who is most-right – in our own flawed estimation. We see political correctness operating in both the political right and left. Submission and humility as modeled and embodied by Jesus was not the grotesque fealty we see in politicians’ and pundits’ rationalized hero-worship. On more than one occasion, and yet, not every occasion, Jesus Himself demonstrated no patience for certain agendas. While Daniel submitted to the legal, political authority of three corrupt and mercurial kings, he also did not compromise his ultimate submission to God and his humility before those kings. Daniel went to the lions’ den, but he engaged in no mental or verbal gymnastics justifying the law that condemned him; “O hail Darius! God Himself has anointed you as His chosen king and instrument and I know this law is just what God wanted you to decree!” Not what the text says.
At that time some Pharisees said to him, “Get away from here if you want to live! Herod Antipas wants to kill you!” Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox …
Ultimately, our deliberate cultivation of a humble attitude and willingness to submit to fellow Christians and beyond is what God honors, not our rightness. Hundreds of times throughout the Bible, we are reminded that God alone is right. We make it a fancy church word and usually say “righteous,” but it simply means that God is right, He has all rightness in Himself. God does expect us to reflect Him. But it is through Jesus that God shares His rightness and makes us right before Him – but that’s a direct and inseparable result of Jesus’ work on our behalf. We are not right; Jesus is. Our fixation on being right does not reflect the perfect character of either the Father or Son. Our dependence, though, upon Him does. He is the vine; we are the branches. He wants us to embrace submission and humility, not “I know I’m right.”
Jesus was right because He submitted to God’s way. And He submitted to God’s plan for our redemption because He was humble before God His Father, even though He was God!
Next time we feel compelled to be right or compel someone else to be right, we might instead think about how we are refusing to submit or how we can cultivate a more humble attitude.
Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants.
2 Timothy 2.23-26
“Who’s right?” Such a question and the insistence on probing for its definitive answer is, indeed, a “foolish, ignorant argument that only starts a fight.”
In the upside-down values of God’s Kingdom, He told us to serve, not to be served. He expects us to lose our lives to find life in Him. He told us to sit at the foot of the table, not the head. He told us the greatest in His eyes is the one who serves at the lowest, deepest, greatest extent. His strength only perfects when we are utterly spent, pitifully weak.
Submitting, telling someone else “you are right,” is right. Only God can accomplish such a paradox in His upside-down way. There are a great many paradoxes and tensions with which our Father expects us to live until He restores everything to His way (Rev. 21.5). Our values, our assumptions, our defaults are not His.
The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.
Psalm 118.22-23, Matthew 21.42, Mark 12.10, Luke 20.17, Acts 4.11, 1 Peter 2.7
The ability to relinquish our rightness and defer to someone else’s rightness requires humility – and Jesus set the perfect example to us. “As for you, follow me.” Jesus invited us; in His perfectly gentle way, told us, to follow Him. And His way is humility.
Paul gave exquisite insight into that humility in Philippians 2.
Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The King of the Universe and beyond was willingly born in human flesh as a slave. May we be awestruck every time we read Paul’s words. God never told us to be right. But He has told us – and shown us! – to submit and be humble. As for us, we follow in Jesus’ way.
I can think of no better way to conclude this discussion than to simply quote a prayer that first appeared in print in the late 19th century.    (It has been attributed to St. Francis and to Rafael del Val, but these first printings from 1867 and 1880 make no such citation; the original pray-er or author is perhaps, even appropriately, lost to history.)
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being rebuked, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being criticized, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That in the opinion of the world others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
May it be in the Name of Jesus. Amen.
 https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-182.pdf accessed 2019-July-2
 https://archive.org/details/TheFerventAdorer/page/n263 accessed 2019-July 3
 https://archive.org/details/littlemanualofno00sylv/page/132 accessed 2019-July-3