Rebellion, Submission, & Authority
Over and over in Scripture we see examples where God expects us to keep our word. It’s not that God isn’t merciful and doesn’t provide His grace when we aren’t able to keep our commitments; however, our actions often put into motion events that must run their course—God promises His grace will be evident in each situation, but He doesn’t promise to remove each difficult consequence.
This unfolding of events, where our actions cause undesired and/or unintended results is commonly called “consequential judgment.” Sometimes the judgment is a negative thing (i.e., a “sanction”) and sometimes it is a positive thing (i.e., a “blessing”). These principles are most often taught in the context of blessings and curses, or sin and forgiveness; however, this essay will present this principle in the context of personal promises and commitments.
God expects us to keep our commitments, to follow-through on our promises; however, He also provides grace when we make promises we are unable to keep. This grace should not motivate us to make hasty promises; rather, our promises should be cautiously and carefully made.
The purpose of this essay is to call the reader to caution, with respect to making commitments; but, then challenge the reader to keep promises once they have been made.
Employers and employees exist together based upon certain promises and covenants—made by both parties—obligating one to another in various ways. At the most basic level, this means:
As most of us will be aware, the relationship between employers and employees is much more complex than this. This complex relationship is expressed as a set of “terms and conditions” (T&Cs). T&Cs are at the heart of every serious relationship people have; both with one another and with God.
In human relationships, the T&Cs become more complex and consequential as the relationships become more serious and burdened with responsibility. For example, unskilled labourers who receive no training from their employer are able to quit without giving the employer any advance notice; whereas employees who receive some training must provide a notice period (to allow the employer time to find, hire, and train a replacement worker).
When we are presented with an opportunity, when we are being asked to make a commitment, we should count the cost and examine the T&Cs before we take the opportunity or make the commitment. Jesus counselled us to count the cost before we proceed, and we shouldn’t neglect this direction. Common folk-wisdom tells us to always “read the fine print,” and to “never sign anything you haven’t read and understood.” It is also commonly understood that most people don’t follow this advice.
In Matthew 20:1–16, Jesus tells of the employer who hires men to labour in his vineyard. No matter when during the course of the day the labourers were signed on, they each received the same wage. When those who started at daybreak discover that the men who came later are receiving the same wage, they complain to the employer. Jesus points out the fact that each worker was offered T&Cs which they individually accepted, and it was the employer’s prerogative to be generous and offer all the workers the same benefit.
Here are some things to consider before entering into an agreement. Each of these points is a completion of the phrase, “If I sign…”:
Given these thoughts, above, let’s examine some scenarios.
Marriage relationships have the following characteristics:
A man and woman marry in order to spend their lives together; traditionally with an intent to raise children together. The bride and groom pool their resources and agree to be owned by the other. Traditionally, most marriage unions result in children, and the distinct roles a man and woman—father and mother—bring o the process of raising and caring for children are best served by this state of interdependence and life-long term.
Every parent learns that they always have an opportunity to care for their children, no matter how old that child becomes. In a successful marriage, the husband and wife become more dependent upon each other, not less.
All this to say, the marriage relationship is one which validly does not contain an early termination provision.
Employment relationships generally exhibit the following characteristics:
When one enters a company's employ, no life-long responsibility is being given, offered, or accepted. A company, the employer, has no way of guaranteeing its long-term success, and so it has no way of guaranteeing life-long care for the employee. Also, as employees grow, learn, and mature, they validly desire new challenges and experiences. A single employer can rarely supply a lifetime of challenge. Both employees and employers benefit from some amount of movement of employees between employers, and hence from the freedom an employee has to move from one job to another: employees benefit from the new experiences, advancement, etc.; employers benefit from the new ideas & experiences which new employees bring to a new job.
Each human relationship should have T&Cs which are appropriate to that relationship. As we saw in the marriage and employment examples, above, marriage relationships are for life and employment relationships are indefinite; both appropriately so.
Appropriate terms and conditions protect both parties in a relationship. Inappropriate T&Cs hurt one party or the other (or both). For example, the trade union movement came about due to inappropriate T&Cs: whereby some employers took advantage of their employees.
As a participant in any relationship, we have a responsibility to work to see that appropriate T&Cs are established in our relationships. Even when we understand this responsibility, we may inadvertently enter into relationships which contain inappropriate T&Cs; when this occurs we must keep God's injunction to be faithful close to heart and respond accordingly.
If we enter into an agreement which has no exit clause and we decide at a later date that we no longer want to continue, there are only two ways to end the relationship:
To quit and walk away is an act of rebellion and should not be our first response (rebellion against God because we are breaking our word, and going against His commandment to keep our commitments). The second alternative, asking to be released, is a much more difficult and vulnerable approach: we are are relying upon the other party to be gracious, trying to work out a way forward with us. This second approach can be a lot of work, and it can take an extended period of time.
In Joshua 9:1–10:27 we read about how Israel made a hasty commitment that had consequences. Joshua and the other Israelite leaders entered into an agreement with a neighbouring nation, where Israel agreed that these neighbours should become their slaves. The Bible tells us that the Israelite leaders did not consult God before granting a treaty to the Gibeonites. The Bible also says that the Gibeonites were attacked shortly after the Gibeonites came under Israel’s protection, and Israel had to come to their defence; God gave victory to Joshua and his army.
While Israel probably shouldn’t have made the treaty with Gibeon, Israel kept her word to the Gibeonites and God honoured Israel’s faithfulness by assisting them in defence of the Gibeonites.
To act with honour and integrity means taking the honourable option, even if it is “to our own hurt” (c.f. Psalm 15:4, Ecclesiastes 5:4). Israel’s faithfulness to keep their word to the Gibeonites, and God’s subsequent faithfulness to the Israelites is an example of this principle at work.
The Bible is very clear that God raises up those in authority over us: our employers, our political leaders, our elders & other church leaders, et al. Since God has raised them up, He will back them up. Jesus said, “What you bind on earth...” (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18). This is an example of God standing behind the leaders He has appointed.
Given that God puts leaders in place, we must also be aware of our own part of this “raising up”. When we submit ourselves to someone’s or some organization’s leadership, we are implicitly giving that person or entity influence over our future. This is why Scripture tells us not to be unequally yoked: if we ally ourselves with an unrighteous leader, we will share in his bad decisions.
To put this idea into practical terms, when we accept a position or make a covenant which has no exit clause, we are implicitly limiting our future: the person or entity we have bound ourselves to will have a say in what happens to us, until we have been released from the commitment. If we want to be released, and the other party is not providing that release, then we will experience two possible sanctions:
If we have allowed ourselves to become bound in a covenant which lacks exit terms, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to ever leave that place; rather, it simply means that it may be difficult to leave. Note, God doesn’t typically call us to leave things, instead he calls us towards new things; thus, we should generally not seek to leave an agreement unless we are being called on to something else.
Because the honourable—the Godly—way out of unbounded covenants is difficult and time consuming, God will begin to call us out of such places long before He expects us to be released. We will be motivated to leave by God’s call, and so start the process. In all likelihood we will see doors open, call us forth, and then close. This will make the leaving process even more difficult: we will have to deal with our disappointment in missing the new opportunity, as well as dealing with our frustration at not having been released.
Knowing this hard path may be ahead of us should not discourage us from walking in God’s way. We should seek the council and support of someone who is able to help us stick with the honourable way.
I feel compelled to take a moment to comment that the ideas in this essay are not something to be taken in support of divorce. The marriage covenant specifically does not contain an early termination clause. This is by design and the marriage covenant should only be broken in extreme circumstances. Note that the ’oft heard “falling out of love” or “falling in love with someone else” reasons for leaving a marriage are un-Godly and are not extreme circumstances by any measure.