There is a notion that comes out of the monastic tradition of the early church that obedience to one’s superiors within the Christian community is a key practice of the Christian life. The notion is found especially in The Rule of Benedict, the set of instructions that has guided Benedictine monasteries in the West since the late fifth century. Christians who desired to live in the monasteries founded by Benedict of Nursia committed themselves to practicing obedience to their leaders. These leaders were called abbots, and they were spiritual guides to the community. The emphasis on obedience had not only a pragmatic purpose of preserving the order of the community; it also had a spiritual purpose of forming people as faithful disciples of Christ.
If we are honest, the notion of obedience to any superior is a difficult one for many of us today, especially those of us who reside in the U.S. After all, our country was born out of an act of resistance to authority. Moreover, in a culture where self-expression and self-realization are preached, the idea of submitting to the voice of authority seems outdated and repressive. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Be true to yourself.” These are the refrains we often hear. In our time, obedience is viewed with suspicion, as a threat to the cherished value of freedom. This cultural milieu has, no doubt, also influenced our perspective on obedience within the church. For that reason, it is instructive to consider an earlier time in the church, when obedience was regarded in positive terms.
For Benedict, obedience to one’s superior in the monastery is both an expression of one’s obedience to Christ as well as training for deeper obedience to the divine will. The logic is similar to that of 1 John 4:20, where we hear that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (NRSV). In the monastic tradition, if one cannot obey one’s visible superior in the community, one will have a hard time obeying the invisible God. In carrying out the commands of a superior, one develops the capacity to carry out the commands of God. In his Rule, Benedict observed that those who practice obedience to their superiors “immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished. With the ready step of obedience, they follow the voice of authority in their actions.” The forsaking of self-will in relation to one’s superior is an exercise to prepare one to forsake self-will in relation to God.
The obedience described by Benedict has two key features. First, it is grounded in listening. Benedict placed great emphasis on listening to the scriptures as well as to one’s superior. “Speaking and teaching are the master’s task,” he wrote. “The disciple is to be silent and listen.” He cautioned those in the community to restrain their speech, even when they had good things to say. Humble openness to the superior’s voice was crucial, for it would nurture receptivity to God’s voice. The key text for this point was Luke 10:16, where Jesus said to his disciples that “whoever listens to you listens to me.”
Second, Benedict stressed that obedience ought to be inward as much as outward. Having the right disposition when obeying the instructions of a superior is key. Joyful willingness, rather than grumbling reluctance, should be the proper state of the heart. Even when instructions are difficult or inconvenient, Benedict thought these attitudes could be present, for ultimately one’s obedience was directed at God.
It should be noted that obedience in the Benedictine monastery was not a one-way street. Benedict established high expectations for superiors themselves. The second chapter of his Rule, in fact, is a lengthy discourse on the necessary qualities of an abbot. The superior is to be like Christ above all else, for he represents Christ to the community. He is to lead not just with words but also with example. He is to know each person under his care personally so he can instruct them according to their unique situation. He is to demonstrate love and fairness toward everyone. Furthermore, the abbot must always remember his place in the order of things. He himself is subject to the authority of the Rule. Most importantly, he is subject to the authority of God. “Therefore, the abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions.” He must remember always that he will have to give an account for the care of the souls entrusted to him. Benedict was sensitive to potential misuse of authority, so he stressed the superior’s own obedience to a higher authority.
Our personal growth in holiness and our public witness to the world depend on our willingness to recover the lost practice of obedience—to God and to one another.
Benedict offers us a positive vision of obedience in the church. Listening to one’s superiors and carrying out their instructions with gladness is a crucial aspect of Christian discipleship. By accepting the will of the superior, you both demonstrate and develop your submission to God’s will.
Benedict’s is a vision worth retrieving. In the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, we speak of the necessity of full consecration to God’s will in the sanctification of the believer. The sanctifying grace of God works powerfully in our lives when we pray what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane: “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). However, we tend to view that journey toward full consecration as a private journey, a struggle between the individual believer and God. Yet, although this journey is personal, it need not be private.
Benedict’s insight is that the practice of obedience to another in the church is a means of grace that can nourish a life of full consecration to God. If you want to grow in the sanctifying grace of God, allow a superior to assume authority over you. Invite a spiritual director, a mentor, a pastor, a teacher, or a saint of the church to speak into your life. Listen to their voice. Accept their instruction. Heed their challenges. Embrace their correction. Obey their commands. Doing this will help you live a life of deeper conformity to God’s will.
Moreover, a people who choose to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NRSV) will not only grow personally in holiness, they will also bear witness to the paradoxical truth that real freedom is found not in a life of no restraints but in a life of complete submission to God’s will. Our personal growth in holiness and our public witness to the world depend on our willingness to recover the lost practice of obedience—to God and to one another.