Confucianism – and the mandate of heaven (part 2)
In a previous post we looked at the Confucian concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which describes how authority is seen as coming to the leader. Heaven chooses the leader, on account of their virtue. And heaven’s choice is seen in the will of the people.
But in what way might all this shape Christian leaders today who remain strongly influenced by their Confucian heritage? What signs should we watch out for?
Freedom to sin
If a leader feels they have the Mandate of Heaven, this gives them heaven-endowed authority over individuals, as well as a kind of divine protection.
Because the leader feels they have the Mandate of Heaven, sometimes you may detect that the Christian leader has the ability to hurt individuals with impunity. They feel no compulsion against lying, bullying and slanderering people, or otherwise engaging in what would be considered clearly ungodly behaviour – but only against individuals.
But not only that, they may feel outraged if they are questioned or challenged by lesser people for their behaviour. Because the role they have been appointed to comes with a divine trust which others do not share. “How dare you question me: don’t you know who I am?” Due process counts for little when it comes to the one endowed with the Mandate of Heaven.
Fear of public opinion
It is important to note that the above is about individuals (or perhaps insignificant groups). Because it’s a different matter when it comes to offending against large groups of people.
Because the Mandate of Heaven is perceived in the will of the people. And so while there is an impunity when it comes to individuals, there is paradoxically a fear when it comes to the mass of people. And as a result you may often find leaders who are afraid of making decisions that they know will upset many people and damage harmony.
And so an innocent individual may often be hurt, so that the many may remain in harmony. A good policy may often be shelved, because leaders know it will meet with resistance. A well-respected figure is likely to escape church discipline measures, so as to not anger his followers.
This fear is strong because what the leader stands to lose is not just the support of people – they actually lose the Mandate of Heaven itself. This doesn’t just make their job difficult – the unspoken feeling is that it actually invalidates them as leaders, it shows they are no longer worthy of the role. It robs them of the very virtue by which they were thought worthy of leadership.
In the West it doesn’t matter – you would still have the rest of your term to exercise leadership, despite your unpopularity. But in the East it matters – the feeling is that you are no longer a valid leader.
The authority of Scripture
This dynamic becomes particularly worrisome when it comes to how Scripture is handled.
It is called the Mandate of Heaven – but by and large what is involved is not the opinion of a personal and supernatural god, but the collective opinions of all the people. And so the rightness or wrongness of something is ultimately determined by what the people think – rather than what God thinks. In fact what the people think overrides, overrules, interprets what God himself says in his word. “Yes we know that the Bible says X – but that will never do. The people believe Y – and that settles it.”
And so in terms of authority there is a kind of charismaticism – God speaks through his people today by his Spirit, and that voice is a greater authority than his inscripturated word. This is why churches can sometimes be staunchly conservative on most matters – yet strangely liberal on a few issues. This hermeneutical inconsistency is because authority is ultimately found in the feelings of the people.
The usefulness of gossiping
This may also be why when people notice something out of order with their leadership, they do not bring it directly to their leaders. Because it is not done to directly challenge someone who has the Mandate of Heaven!
Instead what people instinctively know to do is to spread it around behind the back of the ruler, to destroy their reputation in the eyes of others. And perhaps if the cause is taken up by enough people, then that ruler will lose the Mandate of Heaven – while the gossiper himself remains safely hidden behind the rest of the people.
Is gossiping ever right? From this perspective, gossiping is proved right if people believe it. Just like in ancient China rebellions against the emperor are right if they succeed. Because obviously Heaven has now shifted its Mandate away from the ruler.
Fear of people – and fear of the Lord
How should we reflect on the Mandate of Heaven as Christians? Here is a passage from 1 Samuel that presents quite a stark contrast to the Confucian doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven.
24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them. 25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”
26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”
1 Samuel 15:24-26 (NIV)
This passage is the exact opposite of the Mandate of Heaven. Here is Saul, the ruler, who loses his ‘mandate’ to rule (v.26). But notice the crucial difference: Saul loses that mandate because he was afraid of the people and gave in to them (v.24). And as he does that he also goes against the word of the Lord.
This is quite a contrast to Confucian-influenced leaders who greatly fear man instead of God. Moreover, this is a strong contrast against those who allow the opinion of the people to guide, and at times override their interpretation of the word of God!
In Galatians 1 and 1 Thessalonians 2 Paul echoes this single-minded determination to please God and not man when it comes down to it:
10 Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Galatians 1:10 (NIV)
4 On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.
1Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)
…and there are many other passages like that.
While the Confucian heritage of the Mandate of Heaven might give us a useful sense of the divine weight of responsibility of leadership, in the end it can do great damage to gospel ministry.
Because it means that leaders have an unhealthy sense of the power over individuals they have been given. And because leaders are overly gripped by a fear of upsetting the people.
And this leads to ministries that do not stretch the church to pursue God’s mission. Ministries that tolerate sin. Ministries where people are big – and God is small.