The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote to the 1st Century Christians, “Obey those who rule over you…” (Hebrews 13:17). These words were written by a believer at a time when he apparently could not imagine Christian leadership misleading or abusing fellow Christians. Almost 2000 years later Christians have learned through painful experience that leadership sometimes fails, sometimes sins, sometimes abuses its power. In an age when leadership of every kind is looked at with far less trust, the unflinching and unapologetic attitude of the Letter to the Hebrews stands as a challenge to those who are jaded by skepticism toward leadership. (In the 2008 Gallup Honesty and Integrity Poll only 56% of Americans ranked church leaders as being of high integrity).
Obedience in America is often coupled with the adjective “blind” and is most often considered the lot of enslaved people. Think about the Star Wars movies – the federation has a presidency with some implication of free elections while the evil empire is ruled by a despotic emperor who crushes dissent with storm troopers.
On the other side of this, we Christians can see that one of the traits of the Messiah is that though He was God, He learned obedience to His Father.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name…” (Philippians 2:5-9 RSV)
In this, He showed us that obedience can be part of love and of salvation. We don’t have to be blindly obedient to authority, but in love we can freely submit ourselves to authority in order to accomplish salvation for the world and to build up the household of God. The practices of asceticism – fasting and self-denial – is connected to our freely choosing to deny ourselves in order to take up our crosses and follow Christ.
Admittedly, St. Paul wrote those words in a culture which valued obedience a lot more than American culture does. Nevertheless, if we are to be Christian, Christ-like, disciples of Christ, there is a need for us to learn some form of obedience. Fasting is one way that we can learn this. Submitting ourselves to a discipline is a way to become a disciple.
“Obey!” for many Americans is a command for a dog, perhaps a child, but not for an adult. Theologian Olivier Clement defined Christian obedience in this way: “Obedience sets freedom free by crucifying the love of self”. Obedience has to do with discerning God’s will, something we cannot do if we are pre-occupied with asserting our own.
Jack Sparks in his adaptation of the spiritual classic, VICTORY IN THE UNSEEN WARFARE, writes this about the will of God:
“For whatever affliction comes upon them, they refuse to bend their necks to the yoke of God’s will and to trust in His secret and righteous judgments. They do not want to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, who humbled Himself and suffered for our sakes…We must renounce all will of our own and learn perfect obedience to the will of God…You must sacrifice everything to God and do only His will. You will meet within yourself a multitude of desires, all clamoring for satisfaction, whether or not it agrees with the will of God…Therefore, to reach our chosen aim, we must first curb our own desires, submitting them to the will of God.”
Fasting, self-denial, abstinence all have to do with learning how to freely submit our desires to the will of God.
In Hebrews we are told to “obey those who rule over you,” referring to allegiance to legitimate Church authority. In Romans 6:16, we are reminded of another side of obedience:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
Here St. Paul asks us to think about whom we obey for whomever that is, we become enslaved to them. We can become enslaved to sin or to righteousness, to God or to the ego, to evil or to the self, to peer pressure or to our passions, to wealth and pleasure or to goodness and love. Obedience in and of itself is not always a virtue: we must discern to whom we choose to become servants and whom we are to obey.