Obedience in Context (Ezek.33:7-9; Rom.13:1-10; Mt.18:15-20)

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 5-12, 1990, p. 795, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


How is our obedience to God mediated or intersected by loyalty to institutions and to our friends?

Over the past weeks, the lectionary texts have presented various puzzles to me, and I have been thinking half aloud in this column about what it might mean to "live by the Word" when the Word is flung at us in fragments. These three texts require us to juggle words that address a common issue but without a common voice.

In Ezekiel, the prophet is instructed to be a "watchman for the house of Israel," to warn the wicked from their way. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs the community (here explicitly called "the church") on the procedures for mutual correction and discipline. Paul tells the Roman church not to resist authority and to "be subject" to the governing authorities. In diverse ways these texts are about responsibility within and for our social world.

There are patent differences here in points of reference: the prophet’s purview is the people, the evangelist addresses the church and the apostle speaks of life within the imperial state. There are also surface differences in the respective commandments. Paul advocates what appears to be a passive acceptance of the social order, while the prophet is called to judge the wrongdoing of others, and Matthew calls on both individuals and the community to intervene against deviance. But each text locates the life of faith within a specific social context. Obedience to God, these texts suggest, cannot take place in isolation from social structures; faith in the living God demands not only love of neighbor. but also a response to the social order. The problem, as the diversity of these texts suggests, is that the proper response to society is often difficult to discern, as is a faithful response to our neighbor. That tricky gift called discernment is required as the bridge between faith and action.

An ideal government might reflect the premise that "authority is from God." Submission to governmental directives and obedience to God could then coincide, as Paul obviously thought they could in his circumstances. In an ideal world, our compatriots would act justly and kindly with no need of correction from us. Ideally, the church would not experience threateningly deviant attitudes or behavior. Even in a less ideal world, when dissonance occurs between what is right and what is being done, a warning from the watchtower might work, a word in the ear might lead to conversion. In the world I inhabit, however, governments do bad things, people go astray, and the church is torn by lack of moral cohesion. And I suspect that most people (minus those with a messiah complex) do not consider themselves to have either the perspicacity or prophetic authority to be watchmen or watchwomen.

Most of us suffer quietly the built-in conflict of loyalties endemic to life in social structures. How do we sort out our loyalties? How is our obedience to God mediated or intersected by loyalty to institutions (state, church, school),) to our fellows (citizens, worshippers, colleagues),) to our families and friends, to ourselves? These texts say that we as individuals have responsibility not only to our neighbors but to our social structures, but they do not spell out what that might mean in specific cases. Thus for all of us the conflict -- and for many of us the anxiety.

I am, to use the case closest at hand, a professor of religious studies in a large state university. Leave aside what I owe to church, family, friends or local community. Just within the practice of my profession I experience sharply conflicting loyalties established by a single social structure. University tenure reviews look for evidence of research, teaching and service. As any academic can tell you, the three do not go together easily. Indeed, each of them presents conflicting options. And since no one has infinite energy or time, choices are required.

Should I devote my research to a single, carefully crafted project that will have no impact on current debates but might affect the long-range shape of the field? Or should I try to influence the configuration of the field here and now by a flurry of papers, participation in conferences, professional activities? Which is of greatest service not to my career (or lasting reputation) but to "scholarship" or even "humanity"? As a teacher, should I write a textbook that might affect many more students or other teachers than I can reach individually? Should I spread my learning thin in large lecture classes, or try to shape individuals in graduate seminars? Should I spend my hours outside of class writing exquisite lectures above the heads of my students or should I be talking to them in 15-minute segments, "warning them from their ways"? For my service, should I devote my attention to the scut-work of departmental advising, admissions, review procedures, hiring, because this is where effective action is possible? Or should I take part in campus politics -- which itself is almost infinitely demanding, given the confusion inherent in "faculty governance"?

Most of all, when things start (in my judgment) to "go bad," what does the obedience of faith require? Can I just "do my job," however that is defined, and avert my eyes from the ship that is sinking around me? Can I say to myself, "I teach my classes, I write my books, I am blameless"? What is required of me by faith in terms of the "corporate responsibility" of the department or college or university -- not first of all in terms of South African investments, but in terms of ideological commitments and personnel decisions? Trying to live by the Word makes things not easier but harder within the complexities of the social order.