Obedience here does not point so much to subjugation as it does to resemblance
1. The Center Thread That Comes Down
In outlining the traits, or the virtues, that should shine in the life of those who are reborn in the Spirit, St. Paul, after speaking about charity and humility, now speaks of obedience in chapter 13 of the Letter to the Romans:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom 13:1ff)
The rest of this text, in which he speaks of swords and taxes, together with other texts of the New Testament on the same topic (see Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-15), clearly indicates that the apostle is not speaking about authority in general and about every kind of authority but only about the civil authority of the state. St. Paul is dealing with one particular facet of obedience that was of particular interest at the moment in which he was writing and perhaps even to the community to which he was writing.
It was the moment in which, in the heart of Palestinian Judaism, the zealots’ revolt against Rome was developing, which ended a few years later in the destruction of Jerusalem. Christianity was born from Judaism; many members of the Christian community in Rome were converted Jews. The question of whether to obey the Roman state or not was indirectly an issue for the Christians as well.
The apostolic Church was facing a decisive choice. St. Paul, like all the rest of the New Testament writers, resolves the issue in the light of Jesus’ attitude and words, especially his words about tribute to Caesar (see Mk 12:17). The kingdom preached by Jesus is “not of this world,” it is not of a national or political nature. It can, therefore, exist under any kind of political regime, accepting its advantages (like Roman citizenship) but also its laws. The problem, in brief, gets resolved in the meaning of obedience to the state.
Obedience to the state is a result and an aspect of a much more important and comprehensive obedience that the apostle calls “obedience to the gospel” (see Rom 10:16). The strict admonition of the apostle shows that paying taxes and fulfilling one’s duty to society in general is not only a civic duty but also a moral and religious duty. It is a requirement of the precept of love of neighbor. The state is not an abstract entity; it is the community of people who comprise it. If I do not pay my taxes, if I spoil the environment, if I break traffic laws, I harm and show disdain for my neighbor. On this point we Italians (and maybe not only us) will need to add some questions to our examinations of conscience.
All of this, as we can see, is very relevant, but we cannot limit our discussion on obedience only to the aspect of obedience to the state. St. Paul indicates the place for the Christian discussion of obedience, but he does not tell us everything that can be said about this virtue only in this text. He is drawing out the consequences here of principles previously presented in the Letter to the Romans and elsewhere, and we need to search for those principles to have a discussion on obedience that is useful and relevant for us today.
We need to discover the “fundamental” obedience, the obedience from which all other kinds of obedience arise, including obedience to the civil authorities. It is an obedience that applies to all of us—supervisors and subordinates, religious and lay—and it is the most important one of all. It regulates and energizes all the other kinds of obedience. It is not the obedience of a human being to others but of a human being to God.
After Vatican II someone wrote, “If there is a problem of obedience today it is not that of docility to the Holy Spirit—to whom everyone claims a willingness to submit—but rather that of submission to a hierarchy, to a law, to an authority in its human expression.” I am convinced that this is the case. But we must begin with obedience to God and to his Spirit precisely to make possible once again concrete obedience to the law and to visible authority.
Obedience to God is like “the center thread that comes down” that supports a spider’s beautiful web hanging on a hedge. Descending from the top by this thread it produces, the spider constructs a web that is perfect and taut at every corner. Once the spider’s work is finished, this center thread used to construct the web is not removed but remains in place. In fact, the center thread is what holds together all of the spider’s weaving; without it everything collapses. If one of the lateral threads breaks (I tested this once), the spider rushes to quickly repair his web, but if that center thread from on high is broken, then the spider moves on because nothing more can be done.
Something analogous happens with the network of obediences in a society, in a religious order, and in the Church. Every one of us lives within a closely woven network of submission to civil authorities and ecclesiastical authorities—in the case of the Church, to the local superior, to the bishop, to the Congregation of the Clergy or of Religious, and to the pope. Obedience to God is the center thread that comes down: everything is built around it, but it cannot be forgotten after the construction of the whole is finished. Otherwise, everything collapses and people no longer understand why they should obey.
2. The Obedience of Christ
It is relatively simple to discover the nature and origin of Christian obedience: we just need to understand the specific concept of obedience by which Jesus is defined in Scripture as “the Obedient one.” We quickly discover in doing this that the true foundation of Christian obedience is not an idea of obedience but an act of obedience. It is not the abstract principle from Aristotle according to whom “the inferior must submit to the superior” but is instead an event. It is not found in “right reason” but in the kerygma, and its foundation is that Christ “became obedient unto death” (Phil 2:8), and that he “learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:8-9).
The luminous center which sheds light on the whole discussion of obedience in the Letter to the Romans, is Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Whoever knows the place that justification holds in the Letter to the Romans can understand the place that obedience holds!
Let us seek to understand the nature of this act of obedience on which the new order is based; in other words, let us try to understand what the obedience of Christ is like. As a child, Jesus obeyed his parents; then as an adult he submitted to the Mosaic Law, to the Sanhedrin, and to Pilate. St. Paul, however, is not thinking of any of these kinds of obedience. He is thinking instead of Christ’s obedience to the Father.
Christ’s obedience is considered to be the exact antithesis of Adam’s disobedience: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19; see 1 Cor 15:22). But who did Adam disobey? Certainly not his parents, the state, or laws. He disobeyed God. At the origin of all disobedience is disobedience to God, and at the origin of all obedience is obedience to God.
Obedience fills all of Jesus’ life. While St. Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews highlight the role of obedience in Jesus’s death, St. John and the Synoptic Gospels fill out the picture by highlighting the place of obedience in Jesus’ life, in his daily activity. “My food, “ Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “is to do the will of him who sent me,” and “I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 4:34, 8:29). The life of Jesus is as though guided by a shining path shaped by the words written about him in the Bible. “It is written . . . . It is written . . . .” This is how he overcame the temptations in the desert. Jesus gathers from Scripture the “so must it be” (dei) that governs his whole life.
The greatness of Jesus’ obedience is objectively measured “by the things he suffered” and subjectively by the love and freedom with which he obeyed. Filial obedience is exemplified to the highest degree in him. Even in his most extreme moment, when the Father gives him the cup of his passion to drink, his filial cry never leaves his lips: “Abba! My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” he exclaimed on the cross (see Mt 27:46), but, according to Luke, he quickly adds the words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk 23:46). On the cross “Jesus abandoned himself to the God who had abandoned him” (whatever this abandonment by the Father means). His obedience unto death is “the rock of our salvation.”
3. Obedience as Grace: Baptism
In the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul presents Christ to us as the head of the obedient in opposition to Adam who was the head of the disobedient. In the next chapter, chapter 6, the apostle reveals the manner in which we enter into the reality of this event: it is through baptism. St. Paul sets forth one principle above all: if you place yourself freely under someone’s jurisdiction you are obliged then to serve and obey them.
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Rom 6:16).
Having now established this principle, St. Paul recalls the fact that Christians have actually freely placed themselves under the jurisdiction of Christ on the day they accepted him in baptism as their Lord: “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17-18). With baptism there came a change of masters, a shift of kingdoms: from sin to righteousness, from disobedience to obedience, from Adam to Christ. The liturgy of baptism has expressed all this in its contrasting declarations: “I renounce – I believe”.
Obedience, then, is something essential in Christian life: it is the practical and necessary implication of the Lordship of Christ. There is no Lordship present if there is no obedience on the part of a human being. In baptism we accepted one Lord, one Kyrios, but an “obedient” Lord, someone who became Lord precisely because of his obedience (see Phil 2:8-11), someone whose Lordship is substantiated, so to speak, by obedience. Obedience here does not point so much to subjugation as it does to resemblance: to obey such a Lord means to become like him, because it is precisely through his obedience unto death that he has obtained the name of Lord, which is above every other name (see Phil 2:8-9).
We discover from this that before being a virtue, obedience is a gift, before being law, it is grace. The difference between the two is that the law tells us what to do while grace gives us the ability to do what we are commanded. Obedience is above all the work of God in Christ that is then held up as a model for believers so that they in turn can express it in their lives through faithful imitation. In other words, we do not only have the duty to obey, but we also now have the grace to obey!
Christian obedience is rooted, then, in baptism; in baptism all Christians are “dedicated” to obedience, and in a certain sense have made that “vow.” The rediscovery of this fact common to all and founded in baptism meets a vital need for lay people in the Church. Vatican II enunciated the principle of a “universal call to holiness” for the people of God (LG 40). And since there is no holiness without obedience, to say that all the baptized are called to holiness is like saying that all are called to obedience, that there is also a universal call to obedience.
4. Obedience as a “Duty”: The Imitation of Christ
In the first part of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul presents Jesus Christ to us as a gift to be received by faith, while in the second section—the exhortation section—he presents Christ to us as a model to imitate in our lives. These two aspects of salvation are also present within each of the individual virtues or fruits of the Spirit. In every Christian virtue there is an element of mystery and an element of asceticism, one part that is entrusted to grace and one part that is entrusted to human freedom. It is now the moment to consider this second part, our active imitation of the obedience of Christ, obedience as a duty.
As soon as we try to search through the New Testament for what the duty of obedience entails, we make the surprising discovery that obedience is almost always seen as obedience to God. There is of course also mention of all the other forms of obedience—to parents, to masters, to superiors, to civil authorities, “to every human institution” (1 Pet 2:13)—but they are noted much less often and in a much less solemn manner. The noun “obedience” (hupakoè) itself is always used to indicate only obedience to God or, in any event, instances that are connected to God except in one passage from the Letter to Philemon (v. 21) where it refers to obedience to the apostle. St. Paul speaks of obedience to the faith (Rom 1:5, 16:26), obedience to teaching (Rom 6:17), obedience to the gospel (Rom 10:16; 2 Thess 1:8), obedience to truth (Gal 5:7), and obedience to Christ (2 Cor 10:5). We also find the identical language elsewhere in the New Testament (see Acts 6:7; 1 Pet 1:2, 22).
But is it possible and does it make sense today to speak about obedience to God after the new and living will of God, manifested in Christ, has been fully expressed and instituted in a whole series of laws and hierarchies? Is it permissible to think that after all this, there still are “new wills” of God that we might need to receive and fulfill? Yes, most certainly! If the living will of God could be enclosed and objectified thoroughly and definitively in a series of laws, norms, and institutions in an established and definite “order” once and for all, then the Church would end up being a petrified Church.
The rediscovery of the importance of obedience to God is a natural consequence of the rediscovery of the pneumatic dimension—alongside the hierarchical dimension—of the Church and of the primacy of the word of God in it. Obedience to God, in other words, is conceivable only when we affirm, as Vatican II did, that “The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits. By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. Uninterruptedly He renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse” (LG 4).
Only if we believe in a present and specific “Lordship” of the Risen One over the Church, only if we are deeply convinced that today as well, as the Psalm says, “The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and does not keep silent” (see Ps 50:1-2), only then are we able to understand the necessity and the importance of obeying God. It calls for an attentive listening to God who speaks in the Church through his Spirit who illuminates the words of Jesus and of the whole Bible, conferring authority on them and making them channels of the living and present will of God for us.
But just as institution and mystery are not set in opposition to each other in the Church but are instead united, so too we must now show that spiritual obedience to God does not deter obedience to visible and institutional authority. On the contrary it renews it, strengthens it, brings it to life to the point that obedience to human beings becomes the criterion to judge if someone is obedient or not and if his or her obedience to God is genuine. There is an analogy between obedience and charity. The first commandment is to love God, but its litmus test is loving our neighbor. St. John writes, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). The same must be said about obedience: if you do not obey the superior you see, how can you say you obey God whom you do not see?
Obedience to God generally happens this way. God suddenly flashes something in your mind or your heart about his will for you: it is an “inspiration” that usually comes from a word from God you heard or read in prayer. You feel yourself “challenged” by that word and that inspiration. You feel that God is “asking”’ something new from you, and you say “yes.” If it involves a decision that would have practical consequences, you cannot act solely on the basis of your inspiration. You need to put your call in the hands of your superiors or of those who have spiritual authority over you in some way, believing that if it is from God he will make it known to his representatives.
But what do you do when a conflict emerges between the two kinds of obedience, and the human superior asks you to do something different and contrary to what you believe God commanded you? We only need to ask ourselves what Jesus did in such a case. He accepted the external obedience and submitted himself to men; in so doing, however, he did not renounce obedience to the Father but instead fulfilled it. This was in fact just what the Father wanted. Without knowing it and without willing it, at times in good faith and at other times not, people—like Caiaphas, Pilate, and the crowd—become instruments who fulfill God’s will, not their own.
This rule is not absolute, however. I do not speak here of the positive obligation to disobey when the political authority –as in some dictatorial regimes – asks something clearly immoral and criminal. Remaining in the field of religion God’s will and his freedom may require a person—like Peter before the Sanhedrin’s order—to obey God rather than men (see Acts 4:19-20). But whoever starts down this path has to accept, like every true prophet, dying to himself (and often physically) before seeing his word come to pass. In the Catholic Church true prophecy has always been accompanied by obedience to the pope. Father Primo Mazzolari and Lorenzo Milani are some recent examples of that.
Obeying only when what a superior says corresponds exactly to our ideas and our choices is not obeying God but obeying ourselves; it is not doing God’s will but doing our own. If in the case of a difference of opinion, instead of questioning ourselves we immediately question the superior’s discernment and competence, we are no longer people who are obeying but people who are objecting.
5. An Obedience Always Open to All
Obedience to God is the obedience we can always practice. Obedience to very demanding orders from visible authorities happens only occasionally, perhaps three or four times in one’s life. On the other hand, there are many occasions for obedience to God, and the more one obeys, the more God’s orders multiply, because he knows that this is the best gift he can give, which is what he gave his Son Jesus. When he finds a person resolved to obey, God then takes hold of that life, like someone who takes hold of the helm of a ship or the reins of a carriage. Then God becomes “Lord” in earnest and not just in theory; he becomes the one who “rules,” who “governs,” determining, one could say, the gestures and words of that person moment by moment, the manner in which time is spent—everything.
I said that obedience to God is something that a person can always give. I need to add that it is also the obedience that all of us can give, whether we are subordinates or superiors. It has often been said that a person needs to know how to obey in order to be able to command. This is not just a common sense principle, it also has a theological rationale. It means that the true source of spiritual authority resides more in obedience than in the title or the office that one holds. Conceiving of authority as obedience means not being satisfied only with authority but aspiring to the authoritativeness that comes from having God behind you and supporting your decision. It means moving closer to the kind of authority that sprang from Christ’s actions and made people ask themselves, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” (see Mk 1:27).
This is a different kind of authority, with real and effective power, not a nominal one; it is an intrinsic power, not an extrinsic one. When an order is given by a parent or a superior who strives to live in God’s will, who has prayed first and has no personal stake to protect but has in view only the good of the brother or of his own child, then the very authority of God acts as a buttress to that order or decision. If a challenge arises, God tells his representative what he said to Jeremiah one day: “Behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls. . . . They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord” (Jer 1:18-19). St. Ignatius of Antioch gave this wise advice to St. Polycarp, one of his disciples and colleagues in the episcopate: “Let nothing be done without your consent, nor do anything without God’s consent.”
This path of obedience to God has nothing mystical or extraordinary about it per se and is open to all the baptized. It consists in “presenting questions to God” (see Ex 18:19). I can decide on my own to take a trip or not, to accept a job, to go visit someone, to make a purchase, and then once I have decided I can ask God to give me a good outcome. But if I love obedience to God, then I do things differently. First I ask God through the simple means available to all of us—prayer—if it is his will for me to take that trip or that job or to make that visit or that purchase. I will end up deciding to do it or not, but in any case it will now be an act of obedience to God and not my own free initiative.
Normally, I will not hear a voice in my brief prayer, and I will have no explicit answer about doing something—at least it is not necessary to have an answer for my action to involve obedience. In so doing I have in fact submitted the question to God, I have stripped myself of my will, I have renounced deciding on my own, and I have given God the opportunity to intervene in my life as he wishes. Whatever thing I now decide to do, relying on the ordinary criteria of discernment, will be obedience to God. This is how to yield the reins of one’s life to God! This is how God’s will penetrates always more deeply into the fabric of one’s existence, enriching it and making of it “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1).
Let us conclude this time as well with the words of a psalm that allows us to transform the teaching the apostle gave us into prayer. On a day that was full of joy and recognition of the benefits of his God (“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me . . . . He drew me up from the desolate pit” (Ps 40:1-2), the psalmist, in a true state of grace, asks himself how he can respond to so much goodness from the Lord: should he offer burnt offerings and sacrifices? He quickly understands that this is not what God is wanting from him; it is too meager to express what is in his heart. Then comes the insight and revelation: what God wants from him is a generous and solemn decision to fulfil all that God wants from him from now on, to obey him in everything. So he then exclaims,
Behold, I come;
in the roll of the book it is written of me,
I delight to do your will, O my God.
your law is within my heart (Ps 40:7-8)
In coming into the world Jesus made these words his own, saying, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:7). Now it’s our turn. All of life can be lived day by day under the banner of these words, “Behold, I come to do your will, O God!” In the morning, at the beginning of the new day, then going to an appointment or a meeting, at beginning of a new task, we can say, “Behold, I come to do your will, O God!”
We do not know what that day, that meeting, that task will hold for us. We know only one thing with certainty: that we want to do God’s will in all these things. We do not know what our future holds, but it is good to walk toward it with these words on our lips: “Behold, I come to do your will, O God!”
English Translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson
1.St. Ignatius, “Letter to Polycarp,” 4, 1, in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., ed. and rev. trans. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 265.