You ask your six-year-old son to close the refrigerator door. He says, “You know, Dad, I just really don’t think I can in good conscience do what you’re asking me to do. See, I don’t want to do what you’re asking, and if I do it when I don’t want to do it, I’m afraid that would be hypocrisy and legalism. I want to be about true obedience, not legalism and hypocrisy, so I’m not going to close the door. I love you, Dad, and if you ask me to do something I want to do I will cheerfully obey!” Then he walks away.
What can be said about such a child? Precocious, yes. Sincere, likely. But obedient? No. What we have here is someone who doesn’t understand what obedience is.
Children should obey their parents because it’s right
Perhaps we would instead turn our focus on the parent and say, “Now don’t be so hard on the boy. Why did you ask him to close the refrigerator door anyway? Just close it yourself. We need to keep our sense of proportion here. Surely the world doesn’t hang on something so small!” Human parents are frail and imperfect, and sometimes our commands do not flow from a pure motive — maybe the command was given in a moment of laziness. Still, a child’s responsibility is to obey his (imperfect) parents because this is God’s good command.
Adults should obey the authorities because it’s right
When we become adults we do not outgrow the concept of authority structures — as adults we simply have a new place in that structure. We are under the authority of our church elders and of the laws of the state.
Just as parents’ instructions to their children are flawed, church leaders do not lead perfectly; lawmakers do not create perfect laws; and the police and the courts do not enforce and uphold the laws perfectly either. This, however, does not excuse us from obeying the authorities, because God put them there for his glory and our good. Look how strongly Paul says it in Romans 13:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
–Romans 13:1-5 (NIV)
(See also 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Heb. 13:17)
Disobedience is unbelief in God’s goodness
When we refuse to obey the authorities God has placed over us, are we not rebelling against the God who placed those authorities there? Yes — when we do this, we are demonstrating to the world an unbelief in the goodness of our God’s provision for us, and God’s name is not magnified but profaned.
But perhaps we obey in all the major matters. What about the little things? Surely we shouldn’t try to be completely obedient, should we? Wouldn’t that be pharasaism? Legalism?
I think we are really confused about what legalism is. I think generally when we see obedience, we call it legalism (when actually, obedience is obeying your authorities; legalism is thinking you are more righteous before God for doing so). Rather than arguing that at length though, right now I’d like to simply give a personal example.
Breaking the speed limit is the best example I know of a small sin. It’s socially acceptable; it’s accepted even in the church. Let me tell about me and my pet sin.
My pet sin
I used to make a practice of breaking the speed limit, on principle: “I know how to drive safely, and I should have a right to make the decision of how fast I go.” I got angry at traffic police: “Who do they think they are, constricting my freedom?” Whenever I was on the road (often breaking the speed limit), I saw police as the bad guys and myself as the good guy. When I was pulled over and ticketed (as I was two or three times), I did not feel sorrow that I had done wrong – rather I felt frustration, perhaps anger, as if I had been wronged and was now going to have a fine stolen from me in a way I couldn’t defend against.
Did my example point to the Lord as my King, proclaiming to all with whom I came in contact, “The Lord is great, and I count everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing him” ?
It most certainly did not. Look at my example. What distinguishing marks of a believer do you see? Answer: there were none. In my driving I was acting just like an unbeliever, rebelling against God, acting in enmity against the authorities he placed over me. I must have brought reproach to my Lord if anyone knew I claimed to be a Christian.
“I’ll take the fine”
Perhaps we don’t get angry at the police; perhaps instead we speed with the philosophy, “If I get caught, I won’t fight it; I’ll admit I was in the wrong and pay the fine.”
This appears a step better than the other example, and maybe it is. But I’m not sure: this is a professing Christian saying, “I won’t obey; I won’t yield to correction; but I’ll submit to the punishment.”
Based on what I see in Scripture, I fear for the souls of those who live this way. (Look at the warnings in Hebrews, for example.) Agreeing what obedience would be is not the same as being obedient.
God’s glory is at stake
Brothers and sisters, do we believe in the goodness of the God we profess to serve? Why is it so important to us to break the speed limit, or other laws we can get away with breaking?
And if we say in our hearts, “Surely God would not condemn me for a disobedience so small!” what are we saying about the value of the blood of the Lamb, shed for our sins?
Brothers and fathers, sisters and mothers, these are not small issues. Let’s repent of our sins, whether large or “small”, so that we may once again bring glory to the name of our God!