Demanding obedience is corrupting

5Slaves, give single-minded obedience to your earthly masters with fear and trembling, as if to Christ. 6Do it not merely to catch their eye or curry favour with them, but as slaves of Christ do the will of God wholeheartedly. 7Give cheerful service, as slaves of the Lord rather than of men.’

Ephesians 6: 5-7 – Revised English Bible

18 When (the King) has ascended the throne of the kingdom, he is to make a copy of this law in a book at the dictation of the Levitical priests. 19He is to have it by him and read from it all his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and keep all the words of this law and observe these statutes. 20Thus he will avoid alienation from his fellow-countrymen through pride, and not deviate from these commandments to right or to left…..

Deuteronomy 17: 18-20 – Revised English Bible

14(The king) will seize the best of your fields, vineyards and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage to give to his eunuchs and courtiers…..17He will take a tenth of your flocks , and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18There will come a day when you will cry out against the king you have chosen…..

1 Samuel 8: 14-15; 17-18 – Revised English Bible

Photo courtesy of Pexels

A number of years ago, I witnessed my first service of Ordination in our local Cathedral. There was a moment during the proceedings when I was riveted to the spot. I had just seen the Diocesan Bishop washing the feet of those who were about to be ordained. This act, which originates in Chapter 13 of St John’s gospel, tells how Jesus shows his own disciples that he expects them to demonstrate a form of ‘servant priesthood’.

Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not, it lies, or should lie, at the very heart of Christian discipleship.

What worried me was not the foot washing (albeit maybe this form of serving others has partially lost its original meaning and needs updating?) but what followed immediately afterwards, with no pause at all in between. It was the oath of obedience to the Bishop, which all of those to be ordained must make, under Church law. This is the form of words they are required to make:

I, A B, do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest: So help me God.

I was very surprised that I seemed to be the only one who felt that these two acts, the foot washing and speaking the oath of obedience raised many questions and were, actually, incompatible.

Perhaps I need to make it clear that I am not an anarchist, but I am extremely uncomfortable about forcing people to be obedient to others. I learned this at an early age, when I suffered at the hands of some of the Masters at my rather brutal boarding school.

Before exploring why I feel this, I want to draw attention to the two Biblical quotes above, from Deuteronomy 17 and 1 Samuel 8. The background is that traditionally in Judaism, there was only ever one king, and that was God. One of the reasons why the Bible still has so much to offer us in the modern world is that it is full of enduring wisdom. When the Israelites clamour for a king to rule over them, so that they can be like their neighbours, God warns them in no uncertain terms that any king, even if encouraged to follow God’s commandments and statutes as set forth in Deuteronomy, will frustrate their people by taking their possessions and even enslaving them. You see, almost everything has changed over the thousands of years since Old Testament times, with maybe the sole exception of human nature, which is as predictable as ever.

So why is the very notion of obedience (described by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘submission to another’s rule; compliance with commands irrespective of their nature’) inherently wrong?

American social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) touched on this when he wrote:

“The essence in obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as an instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions”

In the latest podcast of ‘Irreverend’ (http://irreverend.org.uk) from last week, the author and commentator Laura Dodsworth said that she felt that even the idea of taking her moral direction and guidance from the Archbishop of Canterbury was ‘embarrassing’ and ‘objectionable’. I agree, and I feel that the issue of obedience within the Church of England is one important reason why so many people find the Church’s moral guidance so unworthy of respect.

What the Bible tells us, is that if people have authority over others, that authority needs to be exercised with humility, sensitivity, respect and love.

In contrast, what we see in history, which Stanley Milgram commented on, is that if people wield authority by demanding obedience, then very soon they become obsessed with their own sense of superiority and lose all right to exercise leadership.

Exercising obedience is corrupting to those to whom oaths of obedience are made. And for those who make those oaths, it removes all sense of personal responsibility (‘I was only following orders’). Oaths of obedience have no place, literally no place, in any Christian organisation, let alone in the Church itself.

We have just ended a period in our history when people have been clamouring to be told exactly what to do and how to behave. That has been extremely unhealthy: for our political, scientific and health leaders; for individual members of the public, and particularly for society in general.

We need a different way, which is what Christ shows us, in the act of washing the feet of his disciples.

You see, the paradox is that we all need to be obedient to God, but it is only God who is capable of accepting that obedience without becoming corrupted by it.      

Heavenly Father, teach us ‘give cheerful service as slaves of you, our Lord, rather than of men’. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, who came among us and understood human weakness only too well. Amen

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