“But what about David?“
That was what a male church leader commented on a Facebook post about allegations concerning Ravi Zacharias.
“He was a man after God’s own heart“
Paul, a male early church leader, describes David thusly in Acts 13:22
“We must believe women“
This echoes the cry of the #MeToo movement, which has given a platform to victims of all kinds of abuse and assault.
It’s as counter-cultural now as it was when Jesus’ female followers were the first to find an empty tomb on that first Easter day.
“Touch not the Lord’s anointed“
This is a snippet from Psalm 105:15, apparently not written by David.
The context in which we read, hear, or see something, is vital. There are people out there who, reading me writing these words, have every right to challenge me directly and personally because of my own sin. I think it’s because I have come to recognise the reality of my own sin, and the effect it has had on people around me, that I feel so strongly about particular issues of justice and accountability.
It almost seems a weekly occurrence that a famous Christian leader falls from grace, or is posthumously revealed to be not the man we thought them to be. This blog post is not about that, particularly, nor is it about the many leaders, male and female, who serve God and God’s people faithfully in and out of season, on and off stage. This blog post is interrogating something I’ve written about before, the blinding lights of Christian celebrity.
“But what about David?”
At first glance, this seems like a reasonable response to questions, challenges and accusations about leaders. After all, David was imperfect (to say the least), and yet Paul described him as “a man after God’s own heart“. It’s probably worth pointing a few things out. The Bible at no point celebrates or justifies the sinful parts of David’s life. Reporting the happening of something is not the same as saying ‘go and do likewise’. The whole affair (which can very reasonably called rape given the power dynamics involved) involving Bathsheba and her husband is hardly what Paul was talking about! And it is vital to note what Paul was actually talking about. Paul is describing the election of David to the kingship of Israel – in the context of a sermon to “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles” – to twist those words and to use them as a carte-blanche excuse for sinful behaviour is to miss the point of what Paul is saying, and to iron out the complexities of the story of David that the Bible gives us.
It isn’t anti-bible or anti-men to observe that David did bad things, evil things, and yet also did good things. It would be anti-bible and anti-men to imagine that this complexity can be neatly resolved, to forget the biblical call to justice and truth, and to pretend that these sins were not real and meaningful.
In her excellent book Why Trust the Bible?, theologian and apologist Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing writes this regarding the resurrection accounts:
“it is striking for us to remember that the word of women was perceived as having less value than that of men in the ancient world. It is therefore enormously important that the most significant events of Jesus’ life, identity, death and resurrection were witnessed first-hand primarily by women. This provides us with strong evidence for the veracity of the Gospel accounts, for it is unconscionable that, in the ancient world, someone fabricating a historical event of any significance would have chosen to put into their story women as the first eyewitnesses. Women were not likely to be believed.”
There is a chilling resonance here.
2000 years on, has that much changed?
“Women were not likely to be believed“.
As a father and a husband, key parts of what I do and who I am are fundamentally male. But that doesn’t mean I have to succumb to tradtional or historical models of manhood. I want to be a man who believes women. I want to be a man who stands up for women – and men – even when it costs me personally. I want to be a man after God’s own heart. I think a part of that has to be sitting and listening honestly to the stories that are there. To the stories in Scripture. How should I as a man read the story of Bathsheba and David? Was it her fault for sitting on sun lounger? It might seem a jump from that story to my own experience in year 2020 – but the reality is that there will always be opportunities for men to abuse their power and position to damage others. Jesus himself challenged us that that the commandment to murder was not just limited to killing someone – that even the way we see and hear and think of others reveals something of the state of our soul. Imperfectly, I want to be the kind of man who doesn’t murder women with my thoughts.
How should I as a man read the New Testament accounts of Jesus Resurrection? Should I dismiss them as gossip, as womanly stories, as unlikely fictions spun by various Mary’s whilst Jesus’ male disciples got on with the real work (ironically, of course, the ‘real work’ of hiding!)?
Of course not.
In the rest of Acts 13, Paul contrasts David – a man who the promise of the Messiah was given to – with Jesus: the God-Man who has come to make everything right.
To be a man after God’s own heart means, to me at least, to understand the truth that apart from Jesus “there is no-one righteous, not even one” (Paul, in Romans 3:10). That truth means that I can trust in Jesus when my heroes fall. That truth means that my wife and daughter can make sense of my own sin and failings when I get things wrong. That truth means that I am constantly called back again and again to consider the only one who is righteous. The only one who has never and will never act or speak or think in a way that is abusive to women (or men!).
Another early follower of Jesus, a man called John, wrote this about God’s heart, the thing that as Christians we are invited to pursue:
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him“
Those words in 1 John 3:1 are a radical truth that changes everything. God’s heart is that we would become his children – it’s why Jesus came, died and rose again. And the kind of manhood that I want to emulate is the kind encapsulated in the story of the prodigal son. The love of a father who runs to embrace his son even after all the rejection imaginable. And that kind of love can only make sense in the context of the beautiful mystery of the doctrine of the Trinity: the Father sending the Son, to make a way that the Spirit can breathe life and joy into the dry and brittle bones of this broken planet. And it is here that the final verse, from Psalm 105, so often twisted and misused becomes a powerful word to this situation. So often mis-applied to keep leaders above criticism, I wonder if perhaps there are two possible readings of it for today. Firstly, that it is referring to Jesus, God’s Holy and Anointed One, who we cannot touch, yet comes close to us and sacrifices himself for us in a way that explodes our conceptions of what leadership and anointing look like. Secondly, that it could be referring to or applicable to those who are ‘children of God’, a warning to us all about damaging the image of God that is being restored in humanity by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Name of Jesus. Either way, I am encouraged again to seek to be a man after God’s own heart, looking to Jesus first, and valuing those around me.
If you are a woman reading this blog post, please do let me know in the comments or more privately if there are ways I could use this platform and other forms of power I have to better listen, to better stand up as a ‘First Man Standing’. If you are a man, would you join me in asking God to send his Spirit on the men of the church again, that we would be men with hearts for Jesus first, not afraid of challenge and critique, and not covering or excusing sin and abuse? As I quoted Amos 5 in a recent blog post, so his words are a simple encouragement for us:
“Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.