Evangelical Questions: Obedient in Everything
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about obedience. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
I do love to tell you about things that are going on just in case you don’t know. This coming weekend, Sept 15-16, is a conference in Salt Lake, at the Conference Center and it’s regarding the completion of the Joseph Smith Papers. The conference is free and you can come in person, or watch online. Each session will be focused on a different aspect of the world during the time of Joseph Smith. Which is really cool because you can think about what the social and economic forces are at play behind the scenes of the beginning of the church. So there’s a session on what it was like for women and families during that era, or what race, ethnicity, and politics were like then. There’s a session on how they handled conflict and one on finances. And lots more. If you’re into historical stuff like I am, you will be sure to enjoy it.
Okay, we’re going to talk about the concept of obedience. And our jumping-off verse is 2 Corinthians 2:9 which says:
Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything.
So, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. What we call 2 Cor is thought to actually be his 4th letter to them, and as you can see in the letter, things are not exactly going well. They’ve gotten themselves into some very precarious situations, and Paul is trying to help them out. But he’s also apparently a bit worried that they’re not going to listen – as evidenced by the fact that this is his 4th letter and things have gotten worse over time. So he starts out the letter with a reminder about obedience. Which leads us to an interesting question….What does the phrase, “you should be obedient in everything” bring up for Evangelicals that’s different than what it brings up for Latter-day Saints? In church we sing, “We love to obey thy command.” And that’s good. I actually really like that song. But Evangelicals get a bit weird around this sentiment and it’s not because they don’t want to obey the commands of God. They do. They interpret them a bit differently than we do, but on the whole, they are interested in obeying God. The problem, which actually is illustrated rather well in this song, is that those “commands” often come through human leaders. That song, “We Thank Thee oh God For a Prophet,” is praise directed toward God for a variety of different blessings, including the blessing of having a Prophet.
We’ve touched on this briefly in the past, but there are some variations on this topic. They’re not as much based on the different denominations or groups, but on where you fall in the authority structure of that group. Here’s an example: The average pew-sitting Evangelical will likely never be in the position to promise obedience to a human leader. They do have membership agreements that they agree to when joining a certain church, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But in general, they are assuaged into obedience based on what the individual or family will get out of that obedience. For example, the church starts some new program they want everyone to participate in. The church leadership will use various marketing techniques to help the people see the need for this thing they’re offering and then willingly participate. That’s mostly what it’s like for the pew-sitting person, no matter what version of Evangelicalism they’re following. But you will see far more variety regarding how leaders in those churches are dealt with.
Latter-day Saints, I think you’ve vaguely familiar with this, but I’ll go over it just to be sure. Church leadership in the Evangelical world is almost all done by paid employees. Those employees fall into 3 categories. First category, ordained pastoral staff. These are people who went to Divinity School and have been through an ordination process. This is a long-term career kind of position. They intend to spend their life serving a group of people by teaching them. When you think of someone who says, “I’m a pastor,” this is what you’re thinking of. Second category, non-ordained pastoral staff. These are folks who maybe are in the process of finishing their pastoral education or those for whom that level of education was simply out of reach. They might have a title like, “youth pastor” or “children’s pastor” I was a children’s pastor for a lot of years at a great church in California. And this is the category I was in. Sometimes people in this category are called “youth director” instead of “youth pastor” depending on the rules of the church, but they function identically. The third category are folks who have been hired because they possess a skill that the church needs in order to run – someone to work on printed materials; someone to keep the grounds; someone to keep the books, etc. Mostly these are people who could be doing the same work somewhere else, but work for a church instead. Our church hires lots and lots of people in these categories – people who make the website and LDS Tools work; people who know how to manage a warehouse, etc. But in theory, these people could take their skills and work for any other employer as well. So, in talking about obedience, Category 2 (non-ordained pastoral staff) and 3 (skilled professionals) are mostly compelled to obedience in their work environment by human resources, or an employee manual, or a board that oversees their work. But the Category 1 people, those who have a formal education and are ordained, might also have a different level of requirement for obedience. In the denomination where I was ordained the ordination service included what is called the Oath of Conformity and the Oath of Canonical Obedience which is a lot of words just to say: You promise to do what the Bishop tells you to do. But my experience is on one end of the spectrum – not every ordained leader is asked to take an oath for conformity and obedience. And in some places, the pastor almost ordains himself and decides to start a church all on his own, and he only answers to himself. So you can see, sometimes obedience is required at higher levels, but that is a tiny, tiny percentage of people. Most Evangelicals won’t even come across any kind of wording like that unless they’re paying attention to the process of how people get ordained. But what Evangelicals have been frequently asked to do is sign a membership agreement. But some interesting exceptions have popped up and there’s history here.
A membership agreement is traditionally exactly what it sounds like: an individual signs something to say they agree with the doctrine of a particular church, that document probably says something about the expectation that they participate in the life of the church and that they obey the scriptures. There would probably be something about what might happen if a person becomes apostate. Eventually – think 1960s – 1980s – those begun to be seen as too legalistic, too controlling. Churches mostly moved away from specifics into something that just sort of signs the person up for membership without there being any requirements – or even more likely, they did away with membership all together.
Around the year 2000, many Evangelical churches started to think about church membership differently. There was a huge resurgence of Calvinist or Reformed churches during that era. The vibe of these churches was very slick, urban, young. In the past on this show I’ve told you the history of Mars Hill Church in Seattle – which at one point was the largest church in America – before it blew up in spectacular fashion. But MH is the epitome of this time in Evangelical history. These are the folks who wanted to say – with good motives, I think – but it’s going to sound really weird to your Latter-day Saint ears….they wanted to say that God hates humans and thinks we’re disgusting worms, but the faithful response to this is to kind of take it like a man. Any softening of that was seen as weak faith. These Reformed churches revitalized the practice of church membership – and then they took it to ridiculous lengths.
Instead of being a simple statement between a church and a member about their beliefs, it started to morph into a legal document or contract. What had happened was churches that were trying to practice some form of church discipline – that is keeping members accountable for their behavior – were getting sued by the people they were trying to discipline for defamation of character. Let me read you a quote from an attorney familiar with the story,
When a church begins the process of exercising formal, biblical discipline, it will often receive a letter from the member’s attorney threatening to sue the church for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Many church leaders who would not back down have found themselves forced into court, subjected to days of humiliating cross-examination, and shocked to see juries penalize their churches with six-figure damages awards. This trend was triggered by the Guinn case in 1984, which resulted in a $400,000 judgment against a church and its leaders, and has continued to grow for twenty-five years.
So Evangelical churches have, more and more, reframed the idea of church membership. On one side they’ve completely given up the idea and said, “we just want you to come and learn and be with us – but we make no demands of obedience on you.” OR, they’ve gone the other direction and morphed their membership agreement into a legal contract, sometimes even requiring members to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding all church issues. I’d don’t have a study to point to that says this, but my own estimate is that probably 60% of churches have very low-key membership, or none at all. There are no expectations placed on people who attend. They’re treated like customers that the staff needs to keep happy. In your town if you have some slick megachurch that goes by the name,”The Rock Church” or “The Well” or “Elevation Church” this is very likely the model they’re using – church members are customers and customer service is the highest priority. And probably 40% that are trying some kind of membership agreement, which may or may not include phrasing about obedience. The ones that do contain words about obedience are probably leaning toward the legal contract side of things.
There are rare churches that have done extra sneaky things. Mars Hill in Seattle, for example, drafted their membership agreement so that in all reality, the church only had 3 members. Despite having 40,000 (or something) attending on Sundays, those people were not members. The membership contract they signed said they are members in name only, and have no right to anything – the 3 members of the church (the senior pastor and his top 2 board members) are the ultimate authority and the ones who must be obeyed above all else, and the only ones who will decide what happens, and attendees have no ability to influence that at all ever. There are other similar things. So, frankly, Evangelicals are not stupid people – they hear about stories like this and get suspicious that membership is a trick, and revert back to their hyper-independence of wanting a relationship to just be between them and God where no one else has the right to say anything about obedience.
So, all that to say, the word “obedience” is really loaded for Evangelicals. It’s either become a dirty word and been eliminated except in the most basic sense of obeying scripture – or it’s been hyped up into the realm of contracts and law. It’s probably going to take another 20 years, probably more, before they can find a sensible stance on it again.
Let’s briefly contrast this with what we believe in our church. We came to this Earth, in part, to prove our willingness to obey a Father that we can no longer see. It’s Abraham 3:25 “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” We covenant to obey the Law of Obedience, but it’s not blind obedience. At one point in my investigation of the church I had a true fear that having a Prophet actually meant that some guy I never knew could tell me what to do, and I’d have no choice but to do it. But the Law of Obedience is not God legally forcing us to comply with his dominance, it is him inviting us to come unto him. And then we get to make any choice we want – all those choices have consequences. There are no consequence-free choices in any aspect of life. But our obedience is not compelled – it is seen as a voluntary act of faith. We see – at least on our best days – that obedience is something that leads to happiness. Evangelicals have had a rough go on this topic and that word is going to bring up a lot of division (some of which we haven’t even covered here) and it’s not a word most of them would associate with “happiness.” I highly recommend to you the Youtube channel called Temple Light where my friend Jasmine talks through all things Temple in a direct way. Her episode called, “The Law of Obedience” would be a great video to watch after this one (and she’s more efficient than I am and can make her point in 10 min where it takes me 25) But that video will help you to think about why obedience has been played out in our church the way it has.
Next week we’re talking about the 3 levels of Heaven and why Evangelicals think we’re crazy to think such a thing, and how they think about it instead. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.