This book is easy to read and memorable. It just isn’t true.
Despite its lop-sided popularity (you can scan a galaxy of 5-star Amazon reviews), A Tale of Three Kings represents an inaccurate and, thus, harmful perspective on spiritual authority and those who have been wounded by its abuse.
Gene Edwards first published A Tale of Three Kings in 1980. It describes three Israelite kings: Saul, David, and Absalom, and how their behaviors supposedly represent Christian responses to authority and rebellion. We should be like David, says Edwards, who refused to touch God’s “anointed” in the person of King Saul. Edwards says that we should also be like David when he refused to do anything to stop Absalom’s rebellion (a questionable assertion we’ll discuss below). Christians who resist abusive leaders or usurpers are acting like Saul and Absalom, says Edwards.
The book served as Edwards’s heart-felt response to spiritually-abused people whom he perceived as leaving the church because they refused to submit to authority (p.ix). Edwards’s solution for these abused and broken people, amazingly, was not healing but rather more brokenness. Hence his subtitle: “A Study in Brokenness.” Being abused? Great, submit to it and you’ll get better.
Written in a historical-fiction approach, the book relies on Edwards’s interpretation of Old Testament Bible stories, his own conjecture, and his belief in the one-to-one application of these stories to contemporary believers.
Before I examine some of the inaccuracies in this book, let me state my motives.
Motive 1: As a follower of Jesus who holds firmly to the inspiration of scripture—and as a graduate of a conservative seminary, as was Edwards—I value adherence to the Word of God. A book may move me to no end, but if the words strung so beautifully together are in fact untrue, then I trust my weight to a fractured chain.
Motive 2: As a survivor of spiritual abuse in a Bible-cult for 25 years, I have a heightened awareness of issues related to spiritual authority and submission. Therefore, when I read a book on this topic my ears perk up and I have a vested interest that the author accurately portrays the salient issues. I personally know people who read books like this as a source of wisdom and insight. I want to make sure these good folk receive true balm, not snake-oil or vinegar.
Exegetical Fallacies in A Tale of Three Kings:
Unfortunately, I believe that Edwards’s book commits several major flaws in logic and in hermeneutics (that is, the interpretation of God’s Word). This distorts the truth of scripture in aid of his thesis and makes the book’s premise and its conclusions untrue. I will include one interpretational matter and four logical errors, with the relevant category in parentheses after each point. For a better understanding of these categories, refer to Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson.
1.) Mistaking description for prescription (Hermeneutics). Edwards mistakenly uses Old Testament descriptive passages as a prescription for Christians. What does this mean? It means that Edwards has interpreted narrative portions of scripture to draw out principles which the original authors may never have intended. He treats these stories as if they were doctrinal epistles similar to the book of Ephesians or 2 Timothy. Thus he takes David’s behavior during the rebellion of Absalom as prescriptive for every believer. But the Bible never says that David handled every matter in a godly way which Christians today should emulate. In fact, David made many mistakes in parenting and kingship which a discerning reader can identify. Complicating this is that Edwards freely switches between loose paraphrases of scripture and his own made-up conjecture. He implies that Christians must adhere to his fanciful interpretation and act accordingly. Thus the non-discriminating reader may easily become confused as to what is scripture and what is Edwards’s fiction.
2.) Failure to Recognize Distinctions (Logic). By saying that Christian leaders are like anointed kings, Edwards fails to distinguish critical differences between Israelite kings in a theocracy and Christian leaders today. Most Christians understand that there is a categorical difference between the kings of Israel 3,000 years ago and the local church pastor today. Edwards does not. A question: Can your local church pastor raise an army? Collect taxes? Build a temple? Put congregants to death? No. Then why does Edwards believe that a king and a pastor should be viewed as identical with each other? It doesn’t follow.
Indeed, nowhere in the New Testament are church leaders described as “anointed” leaders, much less kings with divine right to rule. Instead, Christian leaders are selected via a strict qualification process with carefully prescribed prerequisites (cf. I Timothy 3; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5). And leaders who abuse their authority may be called to account via a carefully regulated church discipline process (cf. Matthew 18; I Corinthians 5; 1 Timothy 5:19—this last verse is often cited by abusive leaders who claim that church folk cannot question them. But the verse explicitly says that church members may entertain an accusation against an elder if there are at least two witnesses.)
3.) False Distinctions: An Improper Appeal to the Law of the Excluded Middle (Logic). By setting forth either-or options of conduct, Edwards has committed what logicians call a false distinction. That is, Edwards creates a scenario (King Saul throwing spears at David) and then gives only two options to respond: to throw the spears back (which makes you a bad person), or to do nothing (which makes you a good person). But aren’t there other options? Couldn’t a believer put up a shield, call the king out on his mad behavior, and call other believers to assist in restraining the king’s madness or removing the king from power?
4.) Appeal to selective evidence (Logic). Because Edwards has a thesis to prove, he refers to scripture in a manner which supports his opinion. For example, when he says that David did nothing when Absalom rebelled against him (p.72), Edwards overlooks the rest of the story which shows that David was highly strategic in his response and aggressively assertive with his army when it came time to fight. Ignoring biblical context and citing only favorable scriptures is called proof-texting.
5.) Improperly handled syllogisms (Logic). This just means that an argument is flawed because its pieces don’t necessarily follow. For example, Edwards says that if David had resisted Saul, that would equal rebellion (A) which would have been bad (B). Therefore, resistance to any authority figure (C) is also bad (B). In other words, A=B=C. But this doesn’t follow. A Christian is called to stand up for what is right and to call into question unqualified leaders or false teachers who are abusing God’s people, just as Jesus opposed the Pharisees (cf. Matthew 21; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 12-15, 20; 12:19-21; Gal. 1:6-10; 2:11-14; 3:1-5; 4:8-12, 15-20; 5:4, 7-26; 6:1; Col. 2:8-23; 2 Tim. 3:1-9, 13).
Potential Harm of the Book:
Because Edwards’s major premises are flawed, his conclusions also represent flawed and simplistic solutions to spiritual abuse.
While his stated goal is to prevent division in the church and to encourage people to submit to spiritual authority, in fact Edwards reinforces unhealthy models of spiritual authority. Chief amongst these is the fallacy that church leaders are unimpeachable; that people who disagree with a spiritual leader should remain silent (the “Don’t Talk” rule of many cults, cf. p.69); that those who are hit by a leader’s “spears” are to blame (blame-shifting, cf. p.19); that critically-minded people are rebels like Korah (p.91) [My own pastor unforgettably cited this passage when deacons called him to account for his spiritually abusive behavior]; and that spiritually abused people should prefer getting “stabbed to death” by an abusive leader rather than to resist an abusive spiritual authority (p.23).
For these reasons, I give A Tale of Three Kings a single star and wish it a quick death or a corrective sequel.
Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Reprint edition 1992 [originally published in 1980] (111 pages)
Update, 1/12/14 – A reader sent me the following link where Gene Edwards talks about the origins of the book: http://www.geneedwards.us I was surprised with what I read, since I interpret the book much differently than Edwards does himself. But I’m glad to hear Edwards’ thoughts and I wish he would pen an afterward or a postscript to clarify what he is and is not saying. Because I still think this book can be misused or misunderstood in such a way that people who are being abused stay in those abusive situations.
Well done, Steve! I appreciated this review, thank you.
and dude, you made my quote file again with this one: A book may move me to no end, but if the words strung so beautifully together are in fact untrue, then I trust my weight to a fractured chain.
a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link
Haha! Thanks Monax. You are a clear thinker and a great stockpiler of quotes. I’m honored I made it into your quote file. But I’m even more happy that I passed the gauntlet of your mind. If the stuff I write isn’t true, it doesn’t help anyone. Thanks for being part of this “sharpening” community.
the gantlet of my mind… that’s funny
fwiw, i’m presently memorizing the Hebrew text of Proverbs 27:17 and 19 (via a 3 x 5 card posted on my frig)
here’s my English translation:
Iron sharpens with iron as one sharpens the face of his friend.
As water reflects the face so the heart of man reflects the man.
Nice! Two profound thoughts, there.
Yup, and the two proverbs in concert deepen the meaning of each.
Kinda like, if your husband’s beatings keep putting you in the hospital, you should just stop pushing his buttons.
I read that back when I was still in a cult. And even then, something seemed wrong with it. Thanks for exposing the error in it!
Thank you. This explains why the leader of the cult I was in liked this book so much.
I know it’s been 2 years since this review and many of these comments but I just need to ask something. My question is why do so few people see what you see? This book receives praise wherever it goes. We had a new pastor come to our church. We were a solid, loving, healthy church of about 120 people. We were truly a family. In 18 months he, along with a blind leadership that had this kind of blind loyalty, destroyed it. Those of us who tried to call him on things were told that leadership was standing behind him 100% and if we didn’t like that we were free to leave. After playing the martyr he left and was seen as wounded and hurt. Ironically his last Sunday was my last Sunday. (I was the last of over half of the church to leave.) Shortly after that those left behind found this book and read it and it reinforced the idea that we had been wrong not to submit to God’s annointed one. This book is so deadly used in the wrong hands. I ask again – why do so many people not see the danger and instead tout it as a wonderful book? I just don’t get it.
I’m not sure. I’m saddened to hear about what happened at your church. To me, the praise this book has received demonstrates the power and persuasiveness of story. It sounds good and convincing, and the concepts are biblical, right? I mean, we’re supposed to turn the other cheek and submit to authority, so how can this book be untrue? But when an author plays fast and loose with the text and then concocts dialogue and puts that fantasy as equal to scripture, all kinds of problems occur. It is time for the church to embrace critical thinking as a biblical imperative, rather than to accept uncritically the persuasive arguments and storytelling myths of charismatic leaders who consciously or unconsciously advance their personal agenda. I hope that you can find healing in a new, healthy church.
Appreciated hearing your story, Ic. I have a similar one that’s just as sad.
Indeed, Steve, “It is time for the church to embrace critical thinking as a biblical imperative”!
Thank you to both gentlemen for your replies. There have been good things that have come out of this situation for many of us who were so deeply hurt. Many have found new churches and although it will never be the same they are good places to belong. Many of us have made it a habit to learn about the Church and God’s plan for it, to ask questions about our faith and what it really means to be a follower of Christ and above all else we have learned that there will be times in life when people will let us down – they are only human – but our Father will never leave us or forsake us.
As a former leader (and hopefully will be again when the time is right) I have learned so much. Hopefully this experience will make me a better leader.
Thank you again.
WOW – i respect your take, but you’ve blown Gene Edward’s book way out of proportion. you totally missed it 😦 you drew assumptions and distinctions that he never made, and i’m afraid your personal journey of the Bible-cult abuse (i’m so sorry you dealt with that) has very much formed your opinion.
Kaitlyn – Life often reflects truth but the opposite is also true. In this case many of us either did practice what “Tale of Three Kings” prescribes and it had disastrous effects or we rejected it and although we ourselves recognized how destructive this teaching was – we see the path of wreckage it left behind in it’s wake for those who did follow it.
What Steve has done is not just have a “take” on this book, He has very clearly and concisely articulated what and why this book and teaching are so harmful. Could you please be more specific with your assertion that he has blown things out of proportion and which assumptions and distinctions that Steve criticized that the author never made?
I know that you are commenting on an old post but I think the discussion is still important and relevant. I would as respectfully as possible tell you that it is this kind of speaking in generalities and dismissive attitude that allows leaders to continue this behaviour and does not reflect Jesus and his teaching.
The Bible is not flat; it does not all have equal weight. I am part of the Anabaptist heritage. Anabaptists believe and give the highest order of thinking and authority to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teaching, secondly to the gospels, then the New Testament and then the Old Testament. In other words, what I see taught by Jesus and his life is my highest authority. Anabaptists believe that all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the lense of Jesus life and teaching. If Jesus is God, and he tells us that if we have seen him we have seen the Father, then I know that if Jesus would not have done something then God, the Father, would not do it. Jesus was about servant leadership. He taught that love in the highest order is laying our lives down for others -LEADERS ARE ESPECIALLY HELD TO THIS STANDARD. Jesus’ soundest criticism was reserved for the religious leaders who placed a yolk on the people that they themselves could not follow. we are told by Jesus to submit to the political leaders but Jesus never, never says one word about submitting to leaders blindly. In fact 2 Corinthians 1:21 & 22 says that we, the church, are God’s anointed. Elsewhere in the New Testament only Jesus is also referred to as anointed and it is an expression used to denote being set aside and used by the Holy Spirit. I would even argue that if you want to use Edward’s line of thinking that leaders should be very careful how they treat (i.e. lead) the Church as it is God’s anointed.
He wants us to be critical thinkers, to make decisions together and to be unified in the Holy Spirit. Edward’s thinking and teaching cannot be reconciled to this teaching of Jesus’.
All of that is to say that “Tale of Three Kings” is exactly what Steve said it is – dangerous and unbiblical.
Thank you so so much for this! If only there was a way to help other people (victims) see what you see.
I read your review, but will still recommend the book. You seem to have missed his point of “just walk away” from abuse. Don’t confront it and don’t live with it, just leave it behind. I had to follow his advice more than once, but I did it before I had ever read the book. I would add that the need for Edwards’ advice is probably more necessary in charistmatic circles than in denominational/evangelical churches.
I didn’t get that from the book, Randall, so we disagree. But not everyone needs to share my opinion 🙂
Mr. Newton – One of the things that followers of Jesus and his Good News are called to do is speak up for those who cannot, for whatever reason, speak up for themselves. That means that whenever there is a power imbalance adults speak up for children, men speak up for women, free speak up for those enslaved, the rich speak up for the poor etc. When anyone of us in the church has privilege and/or advantage of any kind be it financial, education, knowledge of situations, a respected place in the church, power or position it must be used for the benefit of all. That is what the Church is. That is what Jesus did. He came to rescue we, who could not rescue ourselves. That is in effect the Good News of The Gospel. In many situations it is especially those who are disadvantaged in some way who are the very ones being abused. It is not our privilege to walk away but our responsibility to speak up to abuse and call it what it is. Jesus spoke up to the religious leaders of his day and called them out for their abuse of power and the yoke they placed upon those they were to shepherd and lead.
You missed the whole point of the book.
Surely the point of the book is to get away from abusive leaders who move outside of their authority. Fighting back from a position of abuse, hurt and weakness will play into an abuser’s hand. The book does not prelude the idea of exposing injustice but rejects the notion that the best way to deal with abuse is to be an abuser.
That’s not at all what I got from reading the book, unfortunately.
I can’t understand why people like Gene Edwards wants to change Scripture so much. Why is the bible no longer sufficient? If people can’t understand what is written in black and white, then they should consider joining a church that does proper expository teaching.
The subtitle of the book is “A Study in Brokenness,” not “A Study in Submission.”
That makes a world of difference when it comes to how you read and interpret it.
I read this book several years ago. While it was somewhat helpful in processing a very difficult church staff situation I endured many years ago, your critique of the book is a welcome alternate perspective.
The link to Edwards’ explanation of the book’s origins no longer seems to be working.
Steve, interesting perspective. That is not how I read the book. To put it in very simple workds: I thought Edwards wrote more from the perspective of the leader being criticized, hurt and attacked (from very differing angles) and how he might respond in a spiritual way. I did not think he was writing from the perspective you mainly focus on (Christians resisting abusive leaders and how that should take place).
Given some of his other books like ‘Letters to a Devastated Christian’ or ‘Crucified by Christians’ I doubt Edwards is pushing what you claim he does.
Though I would agree with you that he runs the danger of some ‘exegetical fallacies’. There were passages of the book that made me frown. But then, on that end of ‘exegetical fallacies’ it is always good to look into the mirror. Your own words are interesting with regard to that:
“But the Bible never says that David handled every matter in a godly way which Christians today should emulate. In fact, David made many mistakes in parenting and kingship which a discerning reader can identify.”
With the first sentence I would say you are on safe ground. With the second sentence you commit kind of the same mistake you blame on Edwards. If you judge an author on the grounds of ‘mistakes… which a discerning reader can identify’ (and not what the Bible explicitly says on it) then you are probably on shaky grounds as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no intention to argue with you. I appreciate the critical and different perspective you have brought up. I just thought it might have missed the point a bit the author himself thought he made?