SOME sermons from the distant past may sound strange to our ears today. Take, for instance, John Wesley’s sermon, “On Obedience to Pastors”. Imagine you were in the congregation when he preached that sermon. You would have heard these words:
“I would now apply myself in a more particular manner to you who desire me to watch over your souls. Do you make it a point of conscience to obey me, for my Master’s sake, to submit yourselves to me in things indifferent; things not determined in the Word of God; in all things that are not enjoined, nor yet forbidden, in Scripture?”
You would then further hear Wesley insist that you obey him in his teachings about dressing plainly and simply:
“Do you then take my advice … with regard to dress? I published that advice above thirty years ago; I have repeated it a thousand times since. I have advised you not to be conformable to the world herein, to lay aside all needless ornaments, to avoid all needless expense, to be patterns of plainness to all that are round about you. Have you taken this advice? Have you all, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, laid aside all those needless ornaments which I particularly objected to? Are you all exemplarily plain in your apparel …? If not … you declare hereby to all the world that you will not obey them that are over you in the Lord. You declare, in open defiance of God and man, that you will not submit yourselves to them.”
What makes it hard to understand today is that Wesley expected his members to obey him as their pastor in matters that Scripture is silent about. His main principle was the scripture text he used for the sermon: Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: For they watch over your souls, as they that shall give account, that they may do this with joy, and not with grief: For that is unprofitable for you. (Heb. 13:17). You would need to read the actual sermon to understand the nuances of Wesley’s argument, but what I have said thus far is enough to spur us to think about the place of obedience in our lives. We don’t even need to think about obedience to pastors – obedience to God is itself an issue that demands much careful thought and examination.
Even a quick and superficial reading of Scripture will show the importance of obedience in the Christian life. Our human problems are rooted in the act of disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. When God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of their Egyptian slavery, He insisted on obedience. Again and again, whenever Israel sinned, the prophets thundered forth their messages reminding people of their basic problem – disobedience.
One of the things that Jesus modelled for us is obedience. He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Such discipleship, it is clear, cannot be lived without obedience to God.
‘Love and obedience are travelling companions. Obedience is, therefore, to be seen in relational terms, for true obedience springs from love.’
But if obedience is central in the Christian life, how do we teach this in church? What makes it difficult is that obedience is an unpalatable concept in today’s rebellious and self-indulgent world. People today want to hear about self-fulfilment, self-determination and self-expression. These things are considered as one’s inalienable rights. Don’t we, however, hear the serpent’s whispers embedded in all of this? For at the Garden of Eden, it was the same argument and sales pitch that was heard.
The contemporary mind thinks that obedience is a childish thing. One must grow out of it and become free from all imposition from outside. The only thing to obey, in the words of a popular advertisement, is “your thirst”. But this is dangerous and contrary to what God has said in His Word.
To obey God and to submit to Him is a sign of great maturity, precisely because such obedience has to do with love. Jesus declared, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (Jn. 14:15). Love and obedience are travelling companions.
Obedience is, therefore, to be seen in relational terms, for true obedience springs from love. Christian obedience is not some blind impersonal obedience to rules, or even principles, or to some committee or group. It has to do with our relationship with God. It is more an obedience to the Lawgiver than of the law. That is why Jesus summarised the law as wholehearted love for God. Obedience, therefore, is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of mature love and deep knowledge.
To love God is to know Him for who He actually is, and when we know Him, our response would be obedience. The more intimate our knowledge of God, the greater and more ready will be our obedience. As Charles Finney had pointed out, obedience follows naturally as we learn to abide in Christ. The verb “obey” comes from the Latin “oboedire” meaning “to listen”. Obedience to God has to do with giving Him loving attention, listening to Him, and becoming and doing what He desires.
We have to teach this in church. But modern culture and mindsets provide challenges, as their patterns and the patterns of the transformed Christian mind are growing to be deeply different. In a culture where rebelliousness and sin are increasingly not only tolerated but celebrated, how do we teach the necessity of obedience? How do we show that it is in fact the rebellious heart that is shackled, not the obedient heart?
We must turn to Jesus, who though He was God the Son, became obedient to death (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8-9). He also showed the way in social relationships by obeying His earthly parents even though He knew the truth more deeply than they did (Lk. 2:50-51). Jesus shows that it is the obedient life that is truly beautiful and ultimately free.
We must decide whether we want to follow Jesus or the modern pipe-pipers of this fallen world. If we follow Jesus, we will see the connection between love and obedience; we will discover true freedom. When we understand this, we will have no problem understanding Wesley’s odd sermon.