Obedience – a toxic word?

There are some words, when used in a Christian context, that always make me shiver. The word ‘obedience’ is one such. No doubt it can be shown to be a good word with many Biblical examples to indicate that it has its place among the Christian virtues. Whenever anyone in fact uses it in a Christian context, I always have questions in my mind. For example -who is being obedient to whom? A typical answer is that we are commanded to be obedient to the will and Word of God. That seems like a simple and straightforward response and I am aware how many wholesome sermons can be preached on this topic. But there are still problems with this answer which do not remove potentially toxic and corrupting understandings of the word. In the first place, the words of God that demand our obedience have been selected by some process. Perhaps they have been chosen for us by a teacher or we have found them through our own reading. But in whatever way they have come to our attention they have been isolated from or extracted from a huge depository of Biblical writings, much of which is ignored. Many instructions in the Bible that might demand our obedience are never openly discussed. The people of Israel were told by God to slaughter and enslave enemies and brutally punish those who failed to keep the Law. Why are we not told to do the same? I shall not even attempt to answer that question, but merely point out that obedience to the Word of God is never simple. In practice the attempt to obey God and his Word will always demand some intermediary or interpreter of Scripture. Obedience to God will inevitably involve for us a relationship with this intermediary. This relationship may well involve obedience and submission to a powerful authority in the person of the pastor.

In this way, the word obedience, when used in Christian circles, is one that sometimes sums up an overt power relationship between a teacher/pastor and his congregation. There may be occasions when obedience is an appropriate description of a healthy relationship between a pastor and his flock, but I would hope a normal church would not experience this kind of dynamic on a regular basis. The everyday tasks of teaching, pastoral care and spiritual guidance do not normally involve giving commands and exercising power in a coercive way. The church where there is a constant demand for obedience is one where we would expect to find the practice of spiritual abuse.

A second thought comes to me as I reflect about this word obedience and the way that it is inappropriate for much church life. The normal context where the word is used healthily is in the setting of family life and the rearing of children. We insist that our children obey us in the early stages of their upbringing. This insistence is both for their own safety and a means of teaching about boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. When a child is never thwarted in doing whatever he/she wants, we see the beginnings of a chaotic and probably dysfunctional life. The skill of parenthood however requires that our demand for obedience is appropriate, consistent and just. There will be of course many parents whose approach to disciplining their children reflects more their needs and requirements rather than the welfare of the children. Exercising discipline together with the appropriate demand for obedience does takes wisdom, energy and stamina. Our children are, nevertheless, grateful for these efforts in the long term.

Obedience then is part of the pattern of the adult/child relationship when the children are growing up. One of the advantages to the child, not always appreciated at the time, is that by obeying their parents, they are kept safe. Negotiating hazards like crossing roads or learning to relate to new people is made possible by a strict unquestioning obedience to parental commands. The wise parent will gradually allow the child to be exposed to the risky parts of day-to-day living. Going out on their own and coping with the hazards found there is part of growing up. Today many of the freedoms allowed to a child in the 1950s, climbing trees, going on cycle rides and encountering any number of strange people outside the home will be delayed. But whenever the stage we call independence is reached, it is clearly a milestone in a child’s life. With independence comes a certain level of risk, a need to make decisions and choices all on their own without any adult standing at their shoulders.

So often when we hear the word obedience used in a church context, there seems to be an acceptance that is appropriate for the pastor or clergyman to treat the membership like children. In contrast, we would consider that a more appropriate aim for Christian leaders is to help people move on towards making choices and decisions for themselves. As we all know choices and decisions made on the Christian journey will sometimes involve mistakes. The response to such a mistake is not to regress back to a childish dependence on an adult; rather we should pick ourselves up and try and learn through what has gone wrong. Sadly, there seem to be far too many churches which proceed on the basis that the congregation has to be kept at the functioning level of a child where the adults (the leadership) always know best. This pastor alone has knowledge and insight into the Christian faith. When the church congregation is described as a Christian family this is ironically and tragically a good description of the faulty dynamic of what is going on. The pastor acts as the father and everyone else fulfils the role of dependent, unquestioning and immature children.

Why is this dynamic so popular among Christians? I think that the answer lies some somewhere in the desire of many people above all to feel safe. This word safe is of course close to another word salvation. People seek safety and salvation as a way of coping with the uncertainties and the stresses of their ordinary lives. A church where the congregation are treated like children – expected to obey the leader/pastor – is a comfortable reassuring place. As long as the members stay within the orbit of this reassuring comfortable congregation, they can avoid facing up to the difficult things of life. Choices, decisions even thinking for oneself can be left to others, especially those in leadership.

In this blog post I have tried to explore why the word obedience in a church context for me rings alarm bells. It is because it seems to speak of a church community where one person, the pastor, has appropriated too much power. Secondly it indicates an acceptance of a regression back to childhood, a place of safety and reassurance. Many Scriptural quotations can be advanced to indicate the importance of obedience, but I would always want to present a version of Christianity that is about growth, decision and adult responsibility. This is perhaps what James Fowler was talking about in his ideas about the way our faith changes over the decades.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Obedience – a toxic word?

  1. Good post. You’re quite right. The only thing is, obedience is sometimes appropriate within the church leadership context; the curate or Reader to the team leader, for example. By that I mean, sensible organisation of who takes what service, or how long to preach for so that you can get to the next church in time! I also know of a priest who thought people were much more important than rules, to the extent that she refused to take necessary time off following a bereavement when instructed to by the Bishop, and told a family that they could hold a collection for their charity at a funeral that was being held at another church. One that had different ways of dealing with funerals, and who were not aware of what she had said. (She did know what this other church usually did, she’d been told, she just decided to go off on her own). Obedience to rules and to those in authority is sometimes necessary for good order. That this necessity can be abused is without question.
    I sent my £2:51 to Amazon just before Christmas and am now on the last chapter of your book. It’s very good! Lots to say about it, though.

  2. I think that what you are describing is management and of course people need to submit to rotas etc if an organisation is to function. There is little to do with power in such benign arrangements. If power is involved in the exercise of obedience, it is then that it needs to be scrutinised and critiqued as necessary. It will not necessarily be wrong use of power when obedience is demanded, but it should be able to stand up to this examination and be seen to be fair and equitable.

  3. Management implies power of a sort. And it can definitely be abused. Instructions can be given that are against company guide lines, and then denied, “I never told her to do that”. Rotas can be changed at short notice. I knew a Team Rector who used to post changes on the web site, even at 24 hours notice, without emailing the person who was going to St. Gargoyles at 8, instead of St. Pancras’ at 10 to tell them. Or indeed to check that they could manage.

  4. Luther spoke of the priesthood of all believers, and I try to obey God by sensing myself what he wants me to do, without anybody else bossing me about. A deeper relationship with the Lord coupled with a shallower one with the pastor. But having said that, I like to support the pastor where I can, as I know from experience how disappointing it was to stand up in 1991 as a leader and say, “I believe God wants us to keep the church building open for the homeless this winter” only for people to pretend they hadn’t heard. Yes, it would have been difficult and demanding, but the savage week of sub zero temperatures which came in our area early in 1992 will have killed a lot of people. I think obedience to God’s leading is the central thing in church life, and I see precious little of it to be frank.

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