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IS OBEDIENCE EVANGELICAL?

“Blessed are the obedient” expresses the ethic of unequal relations. In Antiquity, children and slaves were taught the ethic of submission. In the Roman civil society children are lowest while in the kingdom of God those like them are greatest. (Mt 18:1-3)

St. Paul was the first to exhort Christians to excel in the virtues of the time. He thus recommended obedience to children and slaves, submission to women, and “the obedience of faith” to converts. It will take twenty centuries before a successor of Peter wrote about the “joy of the gospel” in lieu of the obedience of faith. Today the moral core of the family, education, and the civil society is the ethic of active participation, not obedience and submission. And so it should be in the church.

It is not those who say “Lord, Lord” who will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of the Father (Mt 7:21). This is an exhortation to do the work of God, as illustrated by the parable of the two sons: one disobeyed but later did the work, the other obeyed but in words only. There are many ways to do the work of God, and obedience is the least creative one.

In Gethsemane Jesus prayed repeatedly,”Not my will, but thine, be done.” These words should not be interpreted as submission. Slaves must submit to their masters because they have no choice. Faith and hope are Christian virtues, submission is not. Stoic submission is dehumanizing: it makes you treat yourself as an object. Hope requires the surrender of one’s whole being to a Higher Power; this surrender can be much more excruciating than stoicism. Stoicism sees the Higher Power as Fate, the “moira” of Greek tragedies. Christians see the Higher Power as a loving Father who wants you to be a free person, not an object. When confronted with sickness and death, a Christ-like attitude is not one of fatalism and stoicism, but one of absolute trust in God’s power over sickness and death.

Two conclusions. The call of “submission of intellect and will” of Vatican II is an obsolete reminder of old ecclesiologies of power and submission; it treats the “people of God” as children. It is out of place in the “joy of the gospel.” The church must treat its members with the same respects it treats – in words at least – the poor and the excluded of the world.

More importantly, the “will of God” is not submission; it is the grand design “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph 1:10). This grand design is the “mystery of God’s will” which surpasses all understanding. This grand design requires active participation in church and society not submission. It is an invitation to create a new heaven and new earth.

“Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1). Obedience is not an evangelical virtue. Creatively doing the work of God is – in faith, hope sand charity.