Publications: Articles - Theology
The Freedom of Obedience (Part I)
Obedience is normally understood in terms of submission, which presupposes the resignation of one's will to that of another higher authority. Or it is usually perceived in terms of conforming to some external rules or regulations enforced upon by another more dominant power. Indeed, in today's society, obedience has become synonymous with subjugation and it is believed to demand the total renunciation of one's will and 'blind' submission to that conglomeration of rules enforced upon that other higher reality. Accordingly, in most people's consciousness, obedience, by extension means to submit to a group of regulations or laws set by a superior authority (which incidentally may not always necessarily be religious – for example it could be ideological or political) and not ask any questions. Hence we have the well-established misconception of 'blind obedience', which stipulates 'doing what you are told' and for this reason it is thought to be enslavement. It follows from this that obedience comes to be seen as a weakness and a contradictory concept for the 'enlightened' or emancipated person since their freedom is brought into question.
Understood in such a superficial manner one can perhaps appreciate why people would even go so far as to point out the utter absurdity of obedience. Believing it to be a feature of the psychologically bound, timid and naïve, these people conclude that the practice of obedience is only for the backward and conservative. Indeed in the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, God is seen as the enemy of freedom since He is perceived as a frightful authority figure who must be obeyed. This inevitably leads to the atheistic syllogism that: 'since I am a free human being I need not obey. If I obey, then I am not a free human being'. Unfortunately this attitude to obedience has not only made its way into contemporary society but also into the Church where many can no longer discern or even appreciate the spiritual, let alone the practical significance of this virtue. For this reason a reflection on obedience is required in order to rediscover its organic link with freedom and life-giving communion.
However, before turning out attention to examine the Church's understanding of obedience it must be pointed out that the reality of this virtue in contemporary society is not as foreign and detestable as it might first appear. For example, who would question the importance of the obedience displayed by athletes to their trainers as they set out to prepare for forthcoming events. Surely their carefully regulated practice sessions coupled with other rules (dietary et al.), which permeate all facets of their lives constitutes a kind of 'blind' obedience to the personal judgement of their coach.
One also sees the practice of obedience in those students who have an earnest desire to excel at school. They therefore know that they must put themselves entirely in the hands of their teachers if they want to succeed in their studies. Indeed the conscious or sub-conscious significance of obedience is seen in all facets of human existence right from little children whose faith and trust in their parents help immensely in their psychological growth to that of the elderly who entrust their entire well-being, on a daily basis to their doctors. All these examples serve to illustrate the degree to which all people have surrendered themselves to obedience. Indeed it is the practice of obedience which serves to bring about psychological growth and maturity on the part of the obedient person.
Church's Experience of Obedience
In the Greek language, the term 'obedience' (hyp-akoe or in its verbal form hyp-akouo) is derived from the preposition 'hypo' meaning 'under' and the verb 'to listen'. That is, the preposition 'hypo' shows the vertical direction in obedience – that is, between the heavenly realm and that of the world. And so obedience is to be understood in the context of an encounter between God and the human person where God 'speaks' and the human person actively listens. Consequently, far from implying a passive attitude to life, obedience is an active function since the action of listening requires a level of attentiveness and focused concentration in order to discern what is being said, especially when this relates to the transcendent yet immanent God. Ultimately obedience implies eagerly awaiting upon God so that with 'ears to hear' we may listen (cf Mk 4:23). In this sense, the meaning of obedience, as it is experienced and lived out by the Church is entirely foreign to any forms of 'passiveness' or fatalism since it occurs ultimately within the context of a personal relationship with God. On the contrary, obedience is less concerned with the submission of the conscience to external rules as it is with an inward transformation where life is surrendered to God corresponding to the 'ascent' towards heaven as it is found in the spirituality of the writings of the entire ascetic tradition, an example of which is St John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent.1 That is to say, it is only when the will of the ego is abandoned that that person can truly begin to unite and share in the eternal life of God.
Indeed in obedience the will (idion thelema) is buried (not destroyed) so that the 'spirit' within every human person can be resurrected and become attuned to the 'voice' of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. Far from being negative, obedience as absolute trust in God becomes the means to a life infinitely greater than one's mere biological existence. It becomes clear already that obedience essentially is a fact of communion with God and so only those who cling to this communal mode of existence and strive to live it out can claim to have entrusted themselves to, or become obedient disciples of, God. And in so doing, God begins to indwell or be in an intimate communal relationship with them. Not only does God listen to these faithful people (cf Jn 9:31)2 but makes His dwelling place in their hearts:
All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us (1Jn 3:24).3
The significance of God remaining with the obedient ones becomes all the more apparent when we realize, that being the source of life and freedom (primarily freedom from the bounds of death) God calls all out of an isolated existence so that they can enter a relationship with Him. And if communion with God constitutes life, then obedience is that dynamic towards that life. Before further reflecting on the 'freedom of obedience' some brief remarks on the New Testament vision of obedience will be offered, especially as they relate to Christ's filial obedience to God, His Father followed by some examples of obedience from the Patristic ascetical tradition.
Obedience in the New Testament
Reading the New Testament one can easily discern, throughout the entire life of Jesus, the conscious obedience which He displayed towards God His Father. Indeed Christ's obedience involved the unwavering adherence to His Father's will in all moments of His life. In his letter to the Philippians St Paul urged the community to live their life not out of "selfish ambition or conceit" (Phil 2:3) but primarily in humility taking Christ as their example who was obedient to God even to the point of death:
"who, though he was in the form of God… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).
Such radical obedience, even to the point of death cannot be explained by any logic but will only be appreciated if it is seen from within the radically intimate relationship of profound love and trust that Jesus had to His Father. Indeed all four gospels emphasize this point as can be seen from Jesus Himself who in the gospel according to St John said:
"For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day" (Jn 6:38-39).
In this case, we see the extent to which St John went in order to emphasize Christ’s ministry and teaching in terms of His resolute obedience to all that God His Father had shown Him and given Him to do and say. Indeed what is even more profound is that the Scriptures' insistence of Christ's obedience, not only to God but also to other people, including his earthly parents:
"then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them" (Lk 2:51).
By example during His earthly ministry Jesus showed the significance of obeying the commandments of God even as they are mediated through elders, in this case His earthly parents. As we shall see, this is important especially when it comes to the obedience between two people – that of a disciple to an elder.
Now, the reason for the importance of obedience is clearly stated in the New Testament. It was only in this perfect obedience to God that Christ was able to become the source of the world's salvation. In the letter to the Hebrews we read:
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Heb. 5:8-9).
Just as Christ's obedience to God was the source of all glory and life, so too, our invitation5 to obey the Lord becomes our opportunity not only to show our love for Him (cf Jn 14:21-24), but above all to be graced with the gift of freedom in becoming "the glory of God's children" (Rom 8.21). Already within the writings of the New Testament we see the importance of obedience as the means for our ultimate glorification and freedom as God's children.
By Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. So important is obedience that it occupies the second longest chapter in St John Climacus' Ladder. Also cf Archbishop Stylianos, 'Ta Duvo vUyilon - vUbri" kai Upakohv', Vema Oct(2005): 3.
2. Jn 9:31 "We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will".
3. Cf also, "and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”" (Mt 28:20).
4. The negative or restrictive aspect of obedience as it is portrayed in the Old Testament, especially in the Decalogue "You shall not" is transformed in Christ with the manner in which He fulfilled the Law as this is exemplified, in the beatitudes.
5. Note, that Jesus did not command but rather invited people to follow Him as can be seen from the following: "Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23). That first part of this phrase, 'if any want' is decisive since God compels no one