Choose your master

January 2005

16 And they answered Joshua, saying, All that thou commandest us we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us, we will go.
17 According as we hearkened unto Moses in all things, so will we hearken unto thee: only the LORD thy God be with thee, as he was with Moses.
18 Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death. (Book of Joshua, Chap. 1, KJV)

* * * * *

2 And Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel . . . .
13 I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and olive yards which ye planted not do ye eat.
14 Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD.
15 And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.
16 And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods. (Book of Joshua, Chap. 24, KJV, emphasis added)

After a few years of reading Christian apologetics, I began remembering that "choose you this day whom ye will serve" was a frequent sermon motif in the fundamentalist churches I attended in my youth.

The idea that one might exercise some freedom by choosing to serve nobody is unthinkable to some Christians. This explains much about fundamentalism's appeal. Slaves have no responsibility except for following orders. The only decision they could conceivably have to make is whose orders to follow -- and they don't even get to make that one unless they're told to make it.

This kind of Christianity appeals powerfully to people who feel powerless. Servitude isn't so bad when you think everyone is a servant, when you're convinced that people who think they are free are just kidding themselves. This has been Christianity's position through most of its history, that no one is offered a real choice to be free. According to traditional Christianity, we have a default master. If we do not consciously choose to serve God, then we serve the devil.

"Choose whom you will serve" is understandable as a kind of resignation to some unavoidable facts of life. If someone tells me, "You're not as free as you think you are," he has my sympathy if not necessarily my agreement. It obviously is a fact that in many situations, other people do make some decisions for us without any regard to our personal preferences, and our refusal to accept those decisions can have unpleasant consequences.

Evangelical Christianity, though, elevates obedience from contingent necessity to absolute virtue. In that moral universe, there is nothing inherently wrong with slavery. Slavery is not merely inevitable. It is positively good, provided only that you have the right master. It is no wonder that Christianity throughout most of its history found nothing morally objectionable to some people enslaving other people. Most Christians nowadays see the Bible's approval of slavery as a vestige of its human origin rather than as evidence of God's approval of it. Inerrantists of course do not have that option. What the Bible approves of must also be approved by God.

One might think they would consider it a puzzle that God ever approved of slavery, that this would be another "apparent contradiction" to be resolved by claims that the biblical authors meant something other than slavery when they mentioned slavery. A few of them do attempt such an evasion, but most instead argue that slavery was, at one time and under certain circumstances that no longer obtain, morally unobjectionable. If that be the case, of course, then it cannot be inherently wrong for one human to own another, but only situationally wrong. In some situations, slavery is right.

In the evangelical universe, virtue is all about obedience. Morality is about knowing whom to get your orders from and then following those orders. We are to love our neighbor because the lord commanded it. If he had not commanded it, then we would have no reason to do it. If Paul said "the greatest of these [virtues] is love," it was not because love has any inherent value, but only because it was so ordered.

Paul defined sin as the transgression of the law. A law exists; the righteous comply with it and the wicked do not. Evil, in other words, is disobedience, nothing more and nothing less. However far love may be exalted above all other virtues, it remains a virtue for one reason only: If we don't have it, we are disobedient. Failure to love is a sin because, and only because, it is a failure to obey.

So it is with faith. We must have it because it is disobedient to lack it. Many evangelicals have assured me that my unbelief really has nothing to do with lack of evidence for the truth of Christian teachings. Skepticism, they say, can ultimately be due only to disobedience. I wish not to obey God's laws, and therefore I must convince myself that they are not his laws.

It is an axiom of any fundamentalist belief system that all important truths have been revealed to humanity -- revealed to a few people who were unusually gifted with an ability to recognize truth whenever and however they encounter it. In this world view, all the rest of us are more or less righteous according to our ability to discern that those special people do speak the truth. Anyone who claims to lack that discernment is without excuse, because we are all under orders to have it. Evidence and argumentation are irrelevant to such discernment. Virtuous people recognize God's truths, with or without proof, whenever they hear them, no matter from whom they hear them.

Some evangelicals do claim to have evidence and reason on their side. Much apologetics is about defending that claim. A careful examination reveals, though, that every chain of evangelical logic is somewhere bolted to our obligation to believe some man who says he is speaking on God's behalf.

Life in any society does of course require a certain submissiveness to some conventions as well as codified laws. Anarchy does not work, and rebelliousness for its own sake is counterproductive. I am not in principle disparaging authority or the willingness to submit to it. But the goodness of obedience is contingent and derivative. We happen to be a social species. It happens to be necessary that we get along with each other in order to survive. Each of us has to subordinate some of his or her personal desires on some occasions so that the social unit can survive, because if the social unit does not survive, then neither do we as individuals.

None of this means that obedience is inherently good. None of this means that we should admire anyone whose ethics begin and end with following orders, not even if we happen to admire whoever is giving the orders. There are occasions when real virtue lies in disobedience, but those occasions must be discerned by people free to do their own thinking. The Christian who argues that in case of a conflict, "We must obey God rather than men" is still defining virtue in terms of following orders.

Real freedom does not exist in the evangelical universe. We were created to obey. We are allegedly free to choose not to obey, but the consequences of making that choice are severe, and they are permanent. The typical evangelical, confronted by a gunman who says "Your money or your life," will not claim to have been free to refuse to turn over his money. If he would claim it, then he must explain the moral difference between "Your money or your life" and "Worship me or burn in hell forever."

According to evangelical dogma, we are all sinners, and sin, by scriptural definition, is transgression of the law -- i.e. disobedience. And why are we all sinners? Because we are incapable of perfect obedience. Why is that? Because Adam and Eve disobeyed an order. Supposedly, the world was perfect before they disobeyed, and it would have stayed perfect if they had remained obedient. But because they chose once to disobey, we their descendants are incapable of doing any better and so we must suffer the consequences.

As we have all heard, there is a way to escape those consequences. We can be forgiven for our disobedience. And how do we get that forgiveness? By obeying one more order: Believe in Jesus. But of course it cannot really be that simple in an ideology where following orders is what virtue is all about. "Believe in Jesus" is just a code phrase for a whole package of orders that God allegedly has given us.

The specific contents of the package vary from one evangelical sect to another, but they typically include the following.

Believing all these things will have obvious implications on one's behavior, but let us notice that the orders collectively do not directly mandate any particular behavior. The fundamental order to Christians is not to do anything. It is to believe certain things. Several New Testament passages often quoted by evangelicals make this unmistakably clear. Salvation is all about belief.

Indeed, believers may be excused for all manner of bad behavior so long as they maintain their belief. "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," as the bumper sticker says. And they maintain their forgiveness by maintaining their belief. For disbelief, however, there can be no forgiveness. Disbelief cannot be excused, no matter how perfectly one may comply with all behavioral commandments.

Why should this be?

Because, from a master's standpoint, the best servitude is mental servitude. A freethinking slave is undependable, no matter how willingly he seems to do what he is told. He could, for all you know, always be looking for a way to escape. But if a slave, besides doing whatever you tell him to do, will think whatever you tell him to think, then you have a slave that you can really depend on.

And so in an ideology where virtue is embodied in obedience, the greatest virtue lies in obeying orders about what to believe. Obedient belief becomes the indispensable virtue. If you will believe what you are told to believe, then you will most likely do what you are told to do.

The biggest problem with all this is that beliefs in general cannot be commanded. Believing is not an act of will.

The way evangelicals usually solve this problem is to deny its existence. According to evangelical dogma, all it takes for any person to believe in Jesus is to decide to believe. Anyone who does not believe has therefore chosen not to believe. This must be so because, even to an evangelical, it makes no sense to punish someone for failing to do what he is genuinely incapable of doing. Believing might be difficult for some, but it must nevertheless be possible for anyone. Otherwise, God's forgiveness could not be contingent on believing.

As evangelicals see it, they themselves believe because they chose to obey God's command to believe. Since they made that choice, it must be a choice anyone else can make, and therefore those who say they cannot believe are not being truthful. They could believe if they wanted to, but they do not want to because they do not want to follow orders.

But what if belief were the act of will that evangelicals say it is? There are hundreds of sects telling me that they are giving me God's orders even while each tells all the others that they will burn in hell for disobedience. In choosing to believe one sect rather than any other, I would still be choosing to do what some man or woman tells me to do.

And, that just might be a good idea, for all I know. There might be a good reason to believe that some particular evangelical sect has correctly discerned what God's orders actually are. But no sect has ever shown me what that good reason is. Every last one of them, when push comes to shove, tells me that I had better do what they tell me to do -- i.e. believe what they tell me to believe -- or else spend all of eternity wishing I had done so.

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(This page last updated on August 6, 2010.)