Are we "Under Orders?"
In 1896 Princeton Professor B.B. Warfield published a short article in a denominational publication entitled "Under Orders." As I read this piece, I couldn't help but be reminded of what Ecclesiastes tells us, "there is nothing new under the sun." Although so many things have changed in the 120 years since this article was first published, the central point remains as relevant (perhaps more so?) than ever for Christians living in 21st century America.
The main point of his article was to say that the most fundamental difference between a Christian and the non-Christian is that a Christian lives his life under orders. Just as a solider in the military lives under orders from an authority higher than himself, "Christians are like soldiers, they are under orders." His point is that Christians do not have the final say in their life, that is given to God. Christians live under an external authority other than ourselves. By contrast, most pagan religions and secular people fundamentally govern themselves. They have no orders to obey other than the ones they give to themselves, no higher authority in their lives but themselves.
Certainly Warfield is correct to point this out as the fundamental difference between a Christian and non-Christian view of reality. As Christians, we believe that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that Word reveals to us what we are to believe about him, and what duties he requires of us (WSC # 3). As Christians, we are called to order our lives underneath that authoritative word. The non-Christian, by contrast, "obeys no orders but his own, he is self-governed."
In the article, Warfield goes on to talk about the goodness and benefits of being under orders. Instead of being a negative, Warfield believes that living life under God's authority is part of what gives us self-respect, dignity, and worth as we live our lives in this world. However, he also acknowledges that this idea of being under external authority is at odds with much theological opinion of the day, and certainly at odds with the culture. And what I found to be most relevant, he observes that this pagan idea of being under our own authority, has always sought to engraft itself to Christianity. Indeed, many variations of Christianity that he was facing in the late 19th century called on Christians to look to their own power of intellect or to the inner voice inside themselves in order to determine what to believe and how to live. Even though they continued to call themselves Christians, and continued to appeal to the Bible and to Jesus, yet ultimately they only believed and lived out what they determined was best for them. The rest was ignored or discarded. His conclusion is worth quoting in full:
The finger is put here directly upon the ulcer. It is possible to talk much about Christ and yet to betray him. The point is not to whom we attribute our guidance. The point is from whom we receive our orders. Do we accept Jesus' statements and obey his command simply because Jesus affirms them and gives them? Or do we accept and obey because and only so far as we judge them ourselves to be wise and true? Are we under orders...or after all, are we in the position of the heathen, of whom it is said that they don't obey no orders, except they is their own.
As I said, there is nothing new under the sun. And while we could lament at length the radical individualism and the rejection of authority we see in our culture, the greater problem is the extent to which the pagan idea he speaks of has engrafted itself to American Christianity. Today we see many denominations that claim the name of Christ, and yet clearly are not "under orders." Even in denominations and churches that hold to biblical authority, many Christians in those churches do not live their lives under orders. Even the secular word sees the inconsistency when we pick and choose the verses and moral teaching of Jesus that we want to believe and live out, while rejecting other parts that we don't like as much, or that would require too much personal sacrifice or discomfort to keep. If that is the case, then Jesus may be our life coach, our cheerleader, but he is not our King. We are our own King. In conservative churches this engrafted paganism tends to use the language of personal experience. We appeal to our personal experience, our inner feelings of "peace," to justify believing or living in a way contrary to what our King says. This has always been a danger, no less a writer than Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of it in his book Life Together, saying "How often we hear innumerable arguments from life and from experience put forward as the basis for our most crucial decisions, but the argument of Scripture is missing, and this authority would perhaps point in exactly the opposite direction." I once read an article by the late R.C. Sproul, in which he laments the number of Christians who use their personal experience as a trump card over God’s word. He wrote:
“...every day many Christians subject the Word of God to their experience. Too often, when our experience conflicts with the Word of God, we set aside the Scriptures...Sometimes we try to cover up our reliance on experience with more orthodox-sounding language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Christians tell me that the Holy Spirit led them to do things Scripture clearly forbids or that God gave them peace about their decision to act in a way that is clearly contrary to the law of God. “
It is not always easy to live life under orders, and we all face temptations to be our own King. Indeed, that was the temptation that came to Adam and Eve, and it was so powerful that they failed. We must constantly be on guard against this sin. We must fight to remember that our God is a good king, a king who sacrifices and sent his son for us, and therefore living under his orders, even when those orders conflict with our own experience, is ultimately not only for his glory, but for our great good both in this life and the life to come.