As I reflect on my Christian journey, one inheritance from my church, the Brethren in Christ, that I treasure is the simple teaching to be obedient as a disciple of Christ. It is a teaching that is life-changing, in that it calls for sacrificial commitment and dedication to Christ and his cause.
Obedience simply means “submission to authority.” It requires a willingness to carry out that authority’s instructions. This is how the early Anabaptists understood Christian discipleship. Run through the pages of history of the early Anabaptists – furnish yourself with the stories of the sacrifices they made – and you will not fail to appreciate that their underlying motivation was to be obedient and faithful to Christ, to the church and to the scriptures as they understood them.
Confessing and embracing Christ as Lord is a call to view Him as the highest authority in our lives. Therefore, whatever he says must be carefully and painstakingly followed by his disciples. In that spirit, the early Anabaptists took the words of Christ – especially the Sermon on the Mount – seriously, as failure to do so could result in “a great crash,” as indicated in the last verses of Jesus’ sermon (Matthew 7: 24 – 27).
So what does it mean to practice Christian discipleship? Put another way, what is obedience to Christ?
Trust that sometimes leads to suffering
The need for obedience is fundamentally the need to trust in God and God’s son, Jesus Christ. Failure to put one’s trust in God potentially leads to idolatry. It displeases God. Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are dotted with stories that emphasize the need and importance of obedience to God and to His Word.
Amazingly, obedience to God – although commended and blessed – does not necessarily lead to a life of bliss. Indeed, for many Christians around the world now and in the past, it often leads to suffering. The early Anabaptists found in this truth their source of strength, and persevered. These disciples, due to their obedience to God, suffered at the hands of those who were opposed to God’s will. In the midst of their suffering they found encouragement in the biblical stories of people like Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Shadrack, Meshack and Abednigo – and especially in the life and teachings of Christ.
Our forbearers would have shouted “amen!” to the words of American pastor and writer Chuck Swindoll, who once wrote, “When you suffer and lose, that does not mean you are being disobedient to God. In fact, it might mean you’re right in the centre of His will. The path of obedience is often marked by times of suffering and loss.”
To lead a life of obedience is a choice that one makes. God does not coerce us to obey him. We willingly obey God in all circumstances, knowing that God always knows what is best for us and what best can be accomplished through us as we journey together through life’s trials and triumphs. In the words of missionary Elisabeth Elliot, “God is God. Because he is God, he is worthy of my trust and obedience. I will find rest nowhere but in his holy will that is unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what he is up to.”
It is in this lifestyle of trust in God that one can confidently sing with the faithful: “Where he leads me I will follow / I go with Him all the way.” As disciples of Christ, we must understand that suffering is unavoidable. And though we should not blindly embrace it, it is nevertheless a mark of true discipleship – of our trust in God.
Reliance on God in poverty and plenty
The call for obedience in the church has always been understood as a call for faithfulness to the scriptures. For this reason, Anabaptists view the Sermon on the Mount as a normative guide to conducting their lives in relation to God, one another, their enemies and earthly institutions such as the state.
Consider the lives of the early Anabaptists. The majority were poor, and some were forced into poverty as a result of persecution that came upon them because of their faith in Christ and understanding of the scriptures. It is not surprising that these believers were drawn to passages such as Matthew 6:25-34, which calls for reliance on God for provisions of life. Day-to-day survival was indeed in God’s hands. For them, God was indeed all in all.
Such passages have the same draw for our communities today that experience situations of oppression, conflict or injustice. For those brothers and sisters around the world whose daily bread is the uncertainty of life, obedience to such words as Christ spoke in this passage is not an option – it is a mark of faithfulness, a necessity for perseverance.
On the other hand, those privileged to assist the needy in obedience to the scriptures are challenged to give in ways that will not make their “left hand know what their right hand is doing”; they are thus rewarded by the Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:1-4). Obedience in this respect means faithfulness to words of Christ in addressing questions that are ethical in nature. It means constantly checking our motivation for the decisions we make and the resultant actions we take, so that we can say with Paul: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Living in truth without need for oaths
True disciples of Christ live in truth and by the Truth. There is never an excuse for living a wishy-washy life. Truth must be the signature of their being.
Early Anabaptists modeled this kind of truthful living. For instance, these believers refrained from swearing oaths. In that time, swearing oaths was perceived as an admission that there were times when one’s “yes” was not a “yes” and one’s “no” not a “no” (Matthew 5:33-37). Shouldn’t true Christians live lives of truthfulness all the time – not just when speaking to government officials or doing business?
Obedience to Christ in this respect – in a world which glorified taking oaths – meant refusal to engage in such acts and living up to the consequences that followed.
The path of obedience to Christ is infested with practices that are diverse – some national and others cultural, some which may appear innocent yet are cancerous to one’s faith. As Christians, we should never be naïve and fail to carefully study our contexts together, in the light of the scriptures, letting go of practices that inhibit us from living the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no”! Our obedience to Christ must be seen in how we address ourselves to both ethical and moral questions of our time.
A spirit of love and humility, not fear
One cannot talk of Christian obedience without looking at Christ as our model. Jesus, when expressing his obedience to God the Father, said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and finish his work” (John 4:34). Jesus subjected himself to the authority of God the Father because he loved him. In the priestly prayer in John 17:20-26, we get many glimpses of the intimate relationship between Jesus and God. Phrases like “Father, just as you are in me and I in you” and “as we are one,” give us great insight into the relationship between the two. A concluding remark – “I know you, and they know you sent me, I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them” – shows how that intimacy manifest itself in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The point I want to make here is that Jesus had an intimate relationship with God the Father and that the love between the two was intense. Most significantly for our discussion of obedience, we note that Jesus obeyed God out of love rather than out of fear and coercion.
We, in turn, obey Christ out of love – the same intense love we have for him, as articulated for us in this powerful prayer. Jesus was willing to go all the way and pay the ultimate prize – death on the cross – because he knew God and unconditionally loved him. The church of Jesus Christ today can only stand out by reflecting the glory of Christ as it gives unqualified submission and love for Him.
The life of obedience as demonstrated by Christ not only flows out of a loving heart but also calls us to embrace a very important virtue – humility. The New Testament hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 enables us to see how humility relates to true obedience. There was on the part of Christ a willingness to shed off his God-nature for the less glamorous human/servant nature. He willingly submitted his authority to that of God. Christ willingly listened to that higher authority in order to effectively carry out the mission for which he had come. He was willing to lose that which in the present would be viewed as valuable and important, in order to gain what was not yet seen – but of greater cosmic importance.
Therefore, obedience as exemplified by Christ – to put it in romantic terms – is where love and humility kiss! Genuine obedience as taught by the church is the willingness for one to submit to the Lordship of Christ and out of love for him and in humble submission to him be willing to do whatsoever the Lord has commanded us to do.
Loving and praying for enemies
Jesus was not apologetic when he said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). Therefore, we need to take seriously one of the important – yet sometimes difficult – commands given to every true follower of Christ: “You have heard that it it is said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you what reward will you get? ... And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” (Matthew 5:43-44, 46, 47)
These verses are intimidating, but very profound. Today’s church cannot afford to read such scriptures without engaging in some soul-searching; the church of yester-years did the same. It is no wonder, therefore, that our theology of nonviolence as Anabaptists is based on such passages.
One cannot obey Jesus’ command to love one’s enemy and then by the same token go out and take the so-called enemy’s life. Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [his enemies!] Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In other words, God loved his enemies – us – such that instead of annihilating us, he gave us life through Christ! Obedience to Christ means we must love those who persecute us and, like God, wish them life instead of death.
We are commanded to pray for those who persecute us. Many Christians believe in the power of prayer. Many are able to say without much thought: “Prayer changes things.” Many times Christians are not willing or are reluctant to pray for their enemies. Let me propose a few reasons why this is true. First, they know that prayer changes things. They are afraid that God will show mercy to their enemy. They would rather see their enemy suffer or die! Second, they do not want God to open their enemy’s eyes to the truth and thus accept God’s salvation. They do not want to share with their enemy the glorious inheritance of God’s kingdom.
When we pray for our enemies, God usually and certainly deals with the negative attitudes that we hold against our enemies. These attitudes cultivate and nurse the spirit of revenge. Therefore, harbouring them derives from a rebellious spirit that says, “God, leave me alone! I will deal with my problems my way.”
It should not surprise us that Christ, at the conclusion of his teaching on prayer (Matthew 6:5-13), makes a strong statement about forgiveness: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). This teaching goes hand in hand with the teaching on loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.
Those who love and follow God through Christ will love their enemies to the bitter end – even when it is at the cost of their very lives. They will pray for them with anticipation of seeing them accept the Christ as Lord and Saviour. In so doing, they will qualify to be “invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
This is the teaching I call my inheritance. It is my treasure, and I seek to pass it on to the next generation so that they might do the same.
The world is better served with an obedient church – disciples of Christ committed to surrender all to him in order to gain all from him. Such is our church when it realizes it has all the resources it needs to be an effective transformative force in today’s world.
by Danisa Ndlovu
Danisa Ndlovu is president of Mennonite World Conference and bishop of Ibandia Labazalwane kuKristu eZimbabwe (Brethren in Christ Church of Zimbabwe).