100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Understanding Federal Headship

There is a Biblical concept in Christian theology known as “Federal Headship”. It is most commonly discussed in reference to Adam and Jesus. Adam is the head of the human race, and the consequences of his sin are inherited by his offspring; the entire human race. Similarly, Jesus is the head of the Church, and the consequences of His righteousness are inherited by His “offspring”, those who are of faith. This concept is quite difficult for many people, and it’s certainly something which I have struggled with. But today I thought I’d share some of the conclusions I’ve come to in thinking about this doctrine.

What got me thinking about Federal Headship recently was not in reference Adam and Jesus at all. I’ll get to that in a moment. But what I found as I was trying to research this doctrine was that, the only thing people ever seem to talk about when it comes to Federal Headship is Adam and Jesus. And yet, understanding the headship of Adam and Jesus isn’t really the most difficult thing to understand. The way I see it is this... it’s more about identification with Adam or with Jesus. When we sin, it might as well have been us who were created as the first man and ate that forbidden fruit. It demonstrates that if we were in the same situation, we would have done the same thing. When we believe in Christ for salvation, however, we do all that is necessary to demonstrate that we are against Adam, disapproving of sin altogether, and that we are for Christ, desiring righteousness instead of sinfulness. Perhaps one of the best verses in the Bible which helped me to understand Federal Headship this way is the following...

Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,' so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luke 11:47-51)

The Lawyers, to whom Jesus is speaking, demonstrated that if they had been in power at the time the leaders of Israel put those various prophets to death, they would have done likewise, making them equally worthy of the punishment due to their ancestors. People ask how Federal Headship is just, but I think it’s just because we literally share the guilt of our ancestors. When we look at the “big ones”, Adam and Jesus, who together cover all of mankind, it’s not difficult to see how this is true. It’s not enough to say that we disapprove of Adam’s specific sin while we go on sinning in other ways, thereby demonstrating that we at least approve of sin itself in some form or other. Likewise, when we identify with Christ, every good Christian knows that it’s not enough to say that we hate sin, but to actually turn from sin and do righteous deeds is evidence of the veracity of such a faith claim.

But what about “smaller scale” examples? This is what I have been struggling with over the last few weeks since, in my devotional reading, I read the passage in 2 Samuel 21. In this passage we learn that King Saul, while he was in power, had attempted the genocide of the Gibeonites. Now, many years later, David is king and Saul is dead. God tells David that atonement must be made for Saul’s sin. So David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them how atonement should be made. The Gibeonites ask for the sons of Saul to be killed. This request is approved of by David and by God, it is executed, and atonement is successfully made. I was a little shocked by this. Why, I thought, did Saul’s sons deserve to die for the sins of their father? I thought about it continually. After a while I began to see it in terms of Federal Headship. Whilst the Bible tells us that the sons will not be put to the death for the sins of the father, that doesn’t mean that when the sons still identify with, or approve of the sins of their father that they shouldn’t be dealt with in the same way as their father was, or should have been. After all, Saul and his sons actually lived in Gibeah, and at what time did Saul’s sons go to the Gibeonites and say themselves, “How can we make atonement for what our father did to you?” This demonstrates that they most likely condoned the acts of their father.

Now there were probably many who still approved of what Saul had tried to do, but it was the sons who had to pay. The story alludes to the fact that David expected the Gibeonites to want the lives of many others; perhaps of the soldiers who had slain some of their people; but the Gibeonites were content for just the sons of Saul to die. This appears to be because of an awareness of this very principle of headship. But what if Saul’s sons had truly disapproved of their father’s actions? Let’s consider how, when Israel came into the land of Canaan, they were told to destroy every nation there because of the sins of those nations. But first they find Rahab, a woman who believes that Yahweh is God of all. Her faith, or identification with Yahweh, is why she is spared while all of Jericho is destroyed. That faith, and ultimately repentance, is what changes things. Rahab is not the only example. Later on in the Book of Joshua, which document’s Israel’s conquest of Canaan, we have none other than the Gibeonites themselves! The way I see it, the Gibeonites were a whole nation who felt the very same way that Rahab did. While their neighbours remained rebellious against Yahweh by trying to resist Israel, they came to Israel essentially in surrender, believing that Israel were indeed the instruments of Yahweh’s just judgement. And so the Gibeonites themselves were saved through their own repentance.

Now, Rahab’s whole family was saved, and people rarely tend to ask “but what if her family didn’t believe as she did?” Likewise, Noah’s whole family was saved on the ark, but I’ve not heard anyone ask, “but what if Noah’s wife or children hated God?” And on a national level, I'm sure that not every Gibeonite was in favour of surrendering to Israel, or every Ninevite was repentant when Jonah prophesied there, but nobody tends to ask "what about those who didn't want to surrender to Yahweh?" I’m sure I’ve heard people ask the inverse question; in cases where punishment is inflicted upon the children rather than salvation. But I think the answer is the same either way. Generally a family or nation does tend to stand together, but when they don’t we trust that the Judge of all the earth will do what is just. That may not mean that one of Noah’s sons doesn’t get to ride on the ark, or that one of Saul’s sons who disapproved of his father gets to escape the execution. Rather, as is so often the case, justice is fully reached after death in the age to come. The whole of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles is about the choices that Israel's kings made, and each king is typically evaluated as to whether they were "like their father David" or "like their father Jeroboam". And we're told often, in many ways, that if they would repent they would be blessed, but if they would worship other gods they would be cursed. Each king, therefore, is shown to have either done right in God's eyes, or done evil in God's eyes. How their decisions affected the nation is precisely the point of the books, ultimately explaining why Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. And of course the righteous in the nation went down with the whole nation because of the sins of the kings and the general population. But nobody has a real problem with that because we know that each individual will find their just reward after death. And this is how we should see the smaller-scale examples, like with the sons of Saul.

Presently, this principle of families and nations being identified as one, united in their beliefs and aspirations, is illustrative of the “big picture scenario”. That is, the Adam and Jesus “families”. Jesus also said of the Pharisees that they were “like their father the Devil”. They were identified as a certain “family of people”. In typical Biblical style, the cultural practices and principles which apply to groups or to individual people are illustrative of spiritual ideas. It’s true that you cannot choose your father, but thanks to Christ you can choose to be born again!

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

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