I have been reading Charles Foster’s blog Smyth, Fletcher, Iwerne, and the theology of the divided self from Surviving Church.org. The article is available here.
It has set me thinking about the way people can be faithful to wrong theology and how this can be a source of evil in the church. Foster tells of his experiences and indoctrination into a particular theology for young men from elite backgrounds and how this was warped into abuse.
It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jephthah, told in Judges chapter 11. The way this is usually preached is that Jephthah was a great and faithful man of God. He made a promise to God that if God gave him victory in battle then Jephthah would sacrifice ‘whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’ NIV translation. When he returned the first person to greet him was his only child, his daughter. Jephthah was faithful to his promise to the Lord and he eventually sacrificed his daughter to the Lord. Therefore, we are told, we should be faithful, no matter how high the cost, just like Jephthah.
Very rarely have I heard that story preached for what it actually was – the cold-blooded murder of a child. Even though there are clear prohibitions against child sacrifice, for example in Deuteronomy chapter 12 or Leviticus 18.
God did not tell Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter, God did not ask him for any promise in return for victory against the Ammonites. God freely gave victory to his people. Jephthah may have sincerely believed that he was being faithful to God in sacrificing his daughter, but he was doing something that had no mandate from God. This was something that was forbidden in the ten commandments, given in Exodus 20.13.
Yet nobody in his society tried to stop him. Why? Was it because he was a powerful leader and was beyond challenge? Was it because she was a daughter, and after all women were the property of their father until they became the property of their husband?
Many times I have heard this story linked with the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, as told in Genesis chapter 22. Jephthah, like Abraham, is portrayed as a man of great faith, willing to sacrifice his only child for the Lord. But there are two very big differences in their stories. First, God told Abraham to do this, so he was being obedient to what God actually said, it was not a promise he had simply made himself. Secondly, the child did not die, God provided a ram to be the sacrifice instead. No child murder here, just faithful obedience and a willingness to give everything for God.
Evil can flourish where it is not challenged. How many powerful people of God are following their own agendas, believing themselves to be faithful? How can the people of God hold up a mirror to their activities and say ‘no, this is not being faithful to God, it is child murder’? Where there is power, there will be abuses of power, even if those are seen to be having a good reason.
This is the heart of the problem, where faithful Christians are trusting their leaders to do what is right but judge the intentions and reasons or even the faithful integrity of the person rather than holding those leaders to account for what they are actually doing.