What price obedience?

Amongst the stories in the news this week, one that caught my attention was that the government is considering the introduction of schools with a ‘military ethos’.   

None of the online stories I could find did much to define what ‘military ethos’ meant, but seeing as the details included reference to schools with discipline issues, it seems probable that at least part of what is intended is a strict disciplinary regime.  The online comments certainly assumed so, with lots of people responding positively that kids today need to “learn to respect their elders” or “learn to do as they’re told.”  In other words, diagnosing the “problem” with the youth of today as a lack of obedience, being too willing to rebel or answer back. 

As a Christian I have a big problem with this assumption that unquestioning obedience is a good thing.  I’ll come on to the reasons why in a minute.  But unfortunately this idea has crept into the church too.  Conservative evangelical culture has always placed high store on authority, whether that be parents and children, church leaders and congregation, or God and humanity.  That is not in and of itself entirely a bad thing but, partly due it seems to the influx of resources from America, there is an increasing tendency to demand unconditional obedience in all those areas.  Parents will demand their children obey simply because, whatever the request may be.  Church leaders will take a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership.  And “God says” has become the ultimate trump card in any question of what choice someone should make. 

My problem with this is that I don’t think it’s Biblical or healthy.  There are 206 uses of the word “obey” in the NIV.  The vast majority of these reference obedience to God’s commands.  Some appear in a narrative context, such as references to people obeying the king.  Very few are instructions for people to obey other people, and those that are never make that unquestioning. 

To consider the handful of most relevant passages.  Deuteronomy 21:18-20 speaks of a son who is disobedient to his parents, but the details makes clear that the issue here is more than just not doing what he is told, but of underlying attitudes: “stubborn… rebellious… glutton… drunkard.”  Joshua 1:17 and 22:2 speak of the people’s obedience of Moses and Joshua, but this clearly stems from and is conditional on their obedience of God and his continued presence with them.   

Ephesians 6 is the passage that comes closest to requiring unconditional obedience, of parents to children and slaves to masters.  But even here it is in the context of reverence to Christ, and the obedience is to be “in the Lord.”  And there is a reciprocity in the way parents are told to treat their children and masters their slaves.  But even if we were to take that one passage as demanding unquestioning obedience, that is scant Biblical support for something to become so central. 

We do not have to look far for examples where an uncritical acceptance of authority has caused hurt or pain.  Unquestioning deference to positional status has allowed far too many parents, clergy, teachers, and others to continue to abuse children.  On a national scale it was the attitude that allowed leaders such as Hitler to flourish.  And even when it comes to religion, an unquestioning acceptance of what is (wrongly) perceived to be God’s will has caused Christians to support the crusades, slavery, racism and more. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating bringing up children to be anarchists.  I hopefully show my boys the importance of doing as mammy and daddy ask, and I tell them that they should do what their teachers tell them.  But I hope that in an age-appropriate way I also teach them the importance of their conscience, and that there may be occasions when an adult asks them to do something which they just know to be wrong.  At those times I want them to have the confidence and the permission to stand up and refuse to obey. 

Because we live in a world where there are unfortunately still those who seek to abuse positions of authority, particularly when it comes to children; where sections of the media increasingly push ideology based on fake news; where those wishing to become UK citizens must pledge unconditional loyalty and allegiance; and where there are those who would brand anyone who questions government actions as traitors.  In such a world we all need to be prepared for those times when we may need to say, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”  (Acts 5:29)