The State-Muzzled Church
The State-Muzzled Church
One of the most telling passages in all of Scripture occurs in the seventh chapter of Amos. The conflict between the prophet and the state comes to a head when Amaziah, the priest of Bethel (not to be confused with King Amaziah, son of Joash), sends an evil report to the king of Israel concerning Amos. “Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to bear all his words” (Amos 7:10). We see here the direct attack upon the words Amos is speaking, and that the land of Israel cannot tolerate such offensive speech coming from within its borders. Such destructive words are to be silenced for the sake of the land and its people, that their collective conscience not be pricked.
This same priest later sets out a pecuniary argument (verse 12), affecting to say that there’s no money to be made in prophesying up here in the north. He basically tells Amos, “If you want to be like us and earn money as a prophet, go south to Judah and prophesy there, and you’ll make more than enough to eat bread.” Stay up here in Bethel and starve: there’ll be financial repercussions for speaking your mind here.
Amaziah’s attack terminates at the thirteenth verse, where he demands of the prophet that Amos no longer prophesy at Bethel “for it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court.” It is harder to find more stunning words that so clearly spell out how statism pollutes the house of God to the point it is no longer His house. It is worth examining this exchange in a bit more detail.
The So-Called House of God
The first thing to note is that Bethel’s name is itself execrable. The city was called the house (Beth) of God (El). By this artifice, the setting up of worship in places other than where God required it (at Jerusalem) was papered over and whitewashed. Here we see these early statists casting about for legitimacy by taking advantage of the fact that in Hebrew, the same term is used for both “word” and “thing” (the Hebrew dabar).1 If the city is called the House of God, that must mean it really isthe House of God—so long as nothing shatters the illusion.
Amaziah, Bethel’s priest, is unhappy that the prophet is criticizing the legitimacy of his profession and standing and office. The truth poses a threat to the nation’s refuge of lies, and might expose what’s hiding under the whitewash (see Ezek. 13:10–15). Amaziah knows he can’t appeal to God against Amos, so he appeals to temporal authorities to subvert the eternal ones. This makes sense to Amaziah in light of his view of Bethel being (as C. F. Keil put it) “the principal seat of the worship which the king has established for his kingdom.”2 Note here the centrality of the king/state, driving the conclusion that in that land “no one could be allowed to prophesy against the king.”3
To amplify the appeal to King Jeroboam, Amaziah outright lied in his accusation against Amos (verse 11) by asserting that Amos had predicted the king’s violent death (which Amos hadn’t done).4 Amaziah never acknowledges that Amos was speaking for God or against the nation’s grievous sins: he focuses entirely on the fact that the prophet’s words created “misgivings about the national religion and worship.”5 The priest believed that Bethel “must be guarded against such intrusion.”6 For this reason faithful Amos was characterized as “dangerous to the State, as he disturbed the peace of the land.”7 In all this, Amaziah omitted any mention that Amos’s “intercession had turned away first one judgment and then another”8 from the nation. Selectivity was thus a key statist campaign weapon.
Living Out Amos 7 in Today’s World
The perspective of Amaziah, recorded centuries before Christ walked the earth and supposedly lost to history, eventually became the pervading legislative reality in our modern world. The state does ultimately hold the view it has the authority to regulate the Word of God, to throttle it back, to channel it to favor state prerogatives and validate them. As R. J. Rushdoony long ago noted, the functional law of our land is actually anchored in public policy: never mind the various statutes and ordinances on the surface. What accords with public policy is promoted and protected. What conflicts with public policy is impugned and destroyed.
One can gain what Rushdoony called cheap virtue by criticizing the state and its usurpations. But those issues are merely the symptoms of the disease. The reason that judgment begins with the house of God (and not first with the state) is because the modern church has turned its back on Amos and chosen to co-opt the views of Amaziah. This erosion has been justified on the grounds of political expedience (the same factor that led to Christ’s crucifixion, John 11:50). It is no surprise, then, that as compromise and dereliction have dominated, theater has gained ground in the house of God as much as it has in the state.
In an alarmingly prescient comment published twenty-three years ago, Dennis Peacocke made note of the theatrical element polluting the political arena:
Throughout the Presidential campaign, I had the strangest sensation: what I was beholding was not so much a political contest as an exercise in public theater. It looked spontaneous, but it was theater, nevertheless. The persons were acting; they had their scripts; the stages were set; the stage managers were shrewd; the production expenses were enormous. Most importantly, the audience didn’t suspect it was a play. The production was so convincing because the subject matter is so vital; the vast majority of the people thought it was real life.9
When the core is hollowed out, all that is left is the shell, is political theater. Posturing then becomes infinitely more important than substance. And interlopers who expose political theater, who tear away protective facades, who indict the emperor for his nudity, are unwelcome: “the land cannot bear all their words.” They are unwelcome in church and unwelcome in the state.
The spirit of Amos is routinely driven out of church and state, for the church has become “the king’s chapel” in actual fact, if not quite in name. Amaziah was thus more honest about Bethel than today’s Christian leaders tend to be about their fiefdoms, which now require more theaterthan Bethel ever needed to placate the ten northern tribes it served.
The church at large refuses to apply the Word of God. Its silence renders it complicit in the nation’s sins. It claims to be Bethel—the house of God—in name and in fact. To cover up its failures in the latter capacity, it invariably turns to theater. As Peacocke warned above, “because the subject matter is so vital” we easily fall prey to a deadly illusion. It is the same illusion that blinded Christ’s disciples as they pointed out the formidable bulwarks of the temple to Him (Matt. 24:1): the idea that such mighty institutional edifices are too big to fail, and that the authorities are entrenched on solid ground.
It was the solidity of the ground underlying Bethel that Amos directly challenged. Ironically, his counterclaims provoked Amaziah to concede that the sanctuary at Bethel was not actually God’s but the king’s. All pretenses about the name were summarily dropped. The religion of statism had taken off its mask. The underlying reality that had been hidden was fully exposed.10
Church and state today cannot bear the very words that would heal them. The resentment coursing through Amaziah as he attempts damage control against Amos lives on today on a grand scale. The same tactics, used the same way, with the same justifications, are now central to our political and religious theater.
Finally, the timing of Amaziah’s slanderous attack on Amos tells us something very important. The false priest ignored the prophet until he realized Amos was actually making headway with some of the people. In other words, Amos committed the crime of being effective. Countless rice bowls get kicked over when God’s people are effective, when they apply God’s law-word faithfully.
In the eyes of statist churchmen hiding their true affiliations, this is the unforgivable sin. It is provocation enough to drive them out into the open, to give an honest answer to the question “Who’s your Daddy?” They have no king but Caesar, only conceding this ground to protect their turf. Some factions have refurbished the original façade of orthodoxy by molding kingdom doctrine to harmonize the sellout. Others embrace the modernistic impulse to the same practical end. These two factions, fully analogous to the ancient Pharisees and Sadducees, strike hands in agreement that the land cannot bear God’s words.
Statism in both church and state has no future because God’s Word will stand. Amos told the statist priest of Bethel that because he ordered the word of God to be muzzled, “thou shalt die in a polluted land” (Amos 7:16–17).
The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15) and is the true Bethel only when it fulfills this criterionand abandons the gospel of statism. Only then can it resist the tempting lure of financial security, like that dangled by Amaziah in front of Amos, ever content with his blue-collar layman status.
The spirit of Amos lives in committed laymen today who call out all the false Bethels in church and state, who unleash God’s healing word as ministers of reconciliation, “to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19a). This spirit directs the path to the victory that overcomes the world.
Does this same spirit, the spirit of Amos, also dwell in you?
1. Arthur C. Custance, The Doorway Papers(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), vol. IX (The Flood: Local or Global? And Other Studies), p. 181.
2. Carl F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984 [1864–1878]), vol. 10, p. 312.
4. R. Gandell, Commentary on Amos in The Bible Commentary, ed. F. C. Cook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House 1981 [1871–1881 Charles Scribner’s Sons]), vol. 6, p. 551. Keil, on the other hand, discounts (rather unconvincingly) Gandell’s view that Amos didn’t threaten the king’s life in verse 9, leading Keil to try to explain away the king’s indifference at verse 12. Further, Jeroboam didn’t die by the sword (2 Kings 14:28–29), so if Amos hadpredicted this as alleged, his prophecy would have been falsified and his prophetic calling discredited.
6. ibid, p. 552.
7. C. Von Orelli, The Twelve Minor Prophets (Minneapolis, MN: Klock & Klock, 1977 [T. & T. Clark 1897]) p. 144.
8. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible(McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), vol. 4, p. 1258.
9. Dennis Peacocke, The Bottom Line, March 1993. ©Strategic Christian Services.
10. This is, of course, the definition of a prophet: someone who exposes and brings to light what is hidden. A thing could be hidden because it is future (the essence of predictive prophecy) but more often it is hidden because it lies under the surface. Christ speaks prophetically to Laodicea that despite outward appearances they were poor, blind, and naked. He revealed the truth under the formal veneer. The road to freedom is never paved by saving the appearances. The truth alone sets us free.
Martin G. Selbrede is Chalcedon’s resident scholar and Editor of Faith for All of Life and the Chalcedon Report.