At the beginning of the 19th century, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared that obedience is the “bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, “for it makes slaves of men, and of the human frame a mechanised automation.”
A child of the European Enlightenment, Shelley waxed eloquent in echoing the disdain of many of his contemporaries over the suffocating authoritarianism that obedience sardonically implies.
As the late Roman Catholic theologian and indefatigable essayist Fr Richard Neuhaus puts it: “… obedience became a dirty word already in the 18th century Enlightenment, when it was frequently construed as meaning ‘blind obedience’ – a stifling and unthinking conformity to authority.”
This attitude still holds sway for many in our society today.
Obedience, however, is one of the most important themes in the Bible. In Scripture as well as in the theological and spiritual tradition of the Church, obedience is understood as the most appropriate attitude and response of the believer to God.
Now, it is imperative that we achieve a clear understanding of what the Bible has to say about this important virtue. This is because the biblical concept of obedience is radically different from secular accounts and the doctrines of other religions, such as Islam.
In the Bible, faith and obedience are intricately interwoven with each other. The obedience of the Christian flows out of his faith (trust) in the God whose extravagant love is demonstrated in the giving of His Son for the salvation of the world. Paul highlights the relationship between faith and obedience in the expression “the obedience that comes from faith” in his letter to the Christians in Rome (Romans 1:5, NIV).
So inseparable is faith and obedience in the Bible that the German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could aver that “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”
The profound relationship between love and obedience is portrayed repeatedly in Scripture. Jesus said to His disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And John, the Apostle of Love, wrote to the Christians in his community: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
The Christian obeys not because he is forced or coerced. The Christian obeys because he loves. He loves because he knows that he is being loved.
Christian obedience, therefore, can never be reduced to crass legalism. It is rather the sure and concrete proof of our love for God.
Understood in this way, Christian obedience is never a chore or a burden. “His commandments”, wrote John crisply and incisively, “are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3b). The Spanish theologian Ignatius of Loyola has put it plainly: “It is not hard to obey when we love the one whom we obey.”
Finally, it is by obeying the Word of God and by bending our wills to His that we become truly free. It is by yielding to the will of the Creator that we are gradually being transformed from inauthenticity to authenticity.
Secular thinkers like Shelley often mistakenly regard this paradox as some pious mumbo jumbo at best, or a silly contradiction at worst. For them, we are truly free only when we are not bound by the fetters of dogma or morality that are imposed from outside.
Only the sovereign individual, they insist, is truly free.
But the sovereign individual is a myth. So is the freedom that he purportedly enjoys. In truth, the person who rejects God in the name of freedom and self-determination is in the state of delusion and ‘un-freedom’.
To put it forthrightly, as the Bible does, the person who chooses disobedience instead of obedience is in bondage. He is “a slave to sin” (John 8:34).