“obedience”

  • Is a saint required to be obedient to the church?
  • Should a saint be obedient to a church leader? 
  • Who should be obeyed?

This section seeks to discover how obedience appears in the New Testament and how it was handled if and when it took place.

I’ve made every effort to objectively examine all 109 instances  of obey and it’s derivatives as they appear in the New Testament.

In all but 2 of 109 instances (1.8%), the meanings of these words are plainly unrelated to church leadership. I think I’ve treated the two outliers (Hebrews 13:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:14) fairly and using sound interpretation principals.

I don’t believe two questionable verses are sufficient to form basis of a doctrine, especially when compared to the broader New Testament teaching regarding leadership – particularly the words of Christ in the gospels. Furthermore, the two verses in question have no substance to define what such obedience would involve if it were to be so.

Nevertheless, suppose one were to reject my interpretations of these two questionable uses of obey. One must still wonder… if the issue of obeying the authority of a church leader were of even minimal importance, why in over 109 verses utilizing those terms are there, at best, only two examples of such ?

Such a person would also need to answer – why does this very small sampling (less than 2% ) occur with no surrounding teaching dealing with the specific circumstances regarding obedience to leaders? 

If it was important to the local church in the first century, then why did the apostles give it such minimal attention and teaching? Wouldn’t they have written more about such subjects if they were important to the well-being of the local church then and now as well?

Could it be that everything was just perfect and there was just never a need because everyone perfectly obeyed? Though a crazy idea, even if that could be true, wouldn’t God have known that in the future things would be different and that we’d need to know more about such things? That would be a silly position to hold.

The simplest answer is that the apostles do not appear to have viewed themselves as having any authority over people. None attributed uniquely to their roles – at least not in such a way that required others to obey.  They do not appear to have commanded obedience from the local assemblies. They appear to have not seen themselves as any different than the rest of the saints in that regard.

Since only through conjecture can we assign more prominence to this subject than what exists, perhaps this subject should not be prominent among the saints or local church today?  For many it is not; however, for those that it is, it often used to abuse and control others. These things should be laid aside in favor of more useful theologies such as mutual submission to one another.

Does this mean obedience should be set aside? Heavens no! When examining all the verses pertaining to obedience and disobedience, it is evident that it describes how we should relate to God and encourage others, saints and the lost alike, to do likewise. Obedience to Christ is essential!

Relating to God is personal. Church community – leaders not withstanding – are involved and essential to relating to God. Nevertheless, no person can ever insist on a scriptural right or authority that places themselves over another person. Likewise, those who listen to leaders out of fear of being in sin if they don’t needn’t worry about such things.

The only exceptions would be a parent exercising authority over their children or civic matters that happen to take place between saints. For example, a believing magistrate could command that another saint pay a penalty for speeding. The offender is required by civil law and biblical command to obey.

So how should things work?

The plain teaching and examples of Jesus, Paul, and the remainder of New Testament writers is that of mutual submission (1 Peter 5:5). What is written in the scriptures is to all saints. Anything additional regarding leaders cannot invalidate the instructions to all saints. 

Therefore, if saints are instructed to mutually submit to one another, how could one saint insist on obedience from another, since doing so would allow that leader an exception to mutual submission? Furthermore, if everyone practiced mutual submission, would there even be an occasion to exercise authority?

As it is, there already exists prescribed practices for dealing with saints who walk against the truth. Those prescriptive measures involve the whole body and do not appear to be uniquely a leadership responsibility.

I steadfastly believe after my examination of the New Testament that obedience to the rule of another saint – leader or not –  is never prescribed outside of parenting and civic matters. That is because there is no authority outside of the Word of God to which a saint must submit (within the context of the local church). If there were, it would have to be extra-scriptural. How could such ever be tested or accountable to truth? The scriptures are complete. Nothing can be added or removed. All saints have the authority to wield the scriptures for any necessary use.

A saint either obeys the Word of God – and therefore, God – or they don’t. Obeying a person can never be proxy obedience to God. This is a chief consideration of the book of Hebrews and chief tenant of the New Covenant itself.

There is only one mediator between God and Man – Jesus Christ. He has become our High Priest, usurping all others before Him and is the only one qualified to stand between us and God, and stand between us he does – providing us his righteousness and removing from us all condemnation and reproach . Therefore, whom else would we possibly need to obey? Whom could occupy such a role without usurping Christ’s priesthood?

Similarly, disobedience to another person within the local church can never be construed as disobeying God himself or invite judgement for doing so. One can disobey the Word of God, coming through the admonishment and exhortation of a fellow saint, yes. Unfortunately that does happen. Nevertheless, the errant saint is not at that time disobeying the brother, sister, leader, or church – they’re disobeying God.

Rather than insisting on obedience, local church leaders should follow the example of Christ and the Apostles, invite others to follow them and their example, persuading those who are errant or have strayed, washing the feet of others and if necessary, laying down their lives for the sheep. This requires relationships and relationships require love – the same love demonstrated by the Good Shepherd. If church leaders do so, they would find those entrusted to their care allowing themselves to be influenced.

It is my hope that anyone reading this, church leader and saint alike, will prayerfully consider and search these things out, allowing ourselves to be persuaded by one another and the Spirit of Christ unto obedience unto Him.

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