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Christian Obedience

We have already seen, in discussing Christian liberty, the centrality of the doctrine of authority and obedience to liberty. It is important now to analyze more fully the significance of obedience.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from Salvation and Godly Rule [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1983], 387-393).

The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly declares, with respect to the duty of man,

Q. 91. What is the duty which God requireth of man?

A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.

We have already seen, in discussing Christian liberty, the centrality of the doctrine of authority and obedience to liberty. It is important now to analyze more fully the significance of obedience.

According to Moses,

The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29)

Moses had given God’s law to the people, and also prophecies concerning the future. He made clear also the plain-speaking of God’s law, its relevance to their daily life, and their knowledge of it:

11. For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.

12. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

13. Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

14. But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (Deut. 30:11–14)

What God asked of man was nothing difficult or impossible, but something practical and necessary to his welfare. His word was not something requiring a search of the universe in order to be discovered, but rather the word was revealed to them, the word was close to them, the word was in their very hearts as a part of their being. St. Paul declares that this word is known to those who have never heard the revealed word; the unwritten word is a part of their being, so that they are without excuse. They hold or suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:17–21).

Turning back now to Deuteronomy 29:29, we find that, as Wright noted, with respect to its import,

The secret things, i.e., the future, belong to God. In our limited knowledge we cannot know them. Yet sufficient has been revealed to us in the covenant that we may now live. We are to do what we should while it is day, for the night belongs to God.1

Man has been given the law, which he must obey. He has been told what the consequences of obedience and disobedience are. More than that, man does not need to know.

That which is revealed includes the law with its promises and threats; consequently that which is hidden can only refer to the mode in which God will carry out in the future His counsel and will, which He has revealed in the law, and complete His work of salvation notwithstanding the apostasy of the people.2

Man is more often prompted by curiosity than by obedience. St. Paul describes this as “itching ears” which “turn away from the truth” for fables (2 Tim. 4:3–4). For every question a pastor receives about the details of God’s law, he normally receives several which express little more than a curiosity about God, the life to come, and other things which are aspects of “the secret things which belong to God.” Curiosity wants a charted future. It says in effect, “If I do thus and so, will God do thus and so and do it precisely when I want it?” Curiosity is in essence asking two questions. First, what is the secret will of God, and what is involved in it? Second, why am I not consulted in the decreeing of that secret will, since it is so important to my future? All this is an aspect of man’s original sin, man’s desire to be his own god (Gen. 3:5). The regenerate and the unregenerate are both barred from this kind of knowledge. The sin of man was to be as God, knowing or determining good and evil for himself. To determine good and evil is also to determine the future, in that, if we can determine law, we can determine consequences. Man, in making the claim, had to be severed immediately from God and from life, from any remote ability to establish his claim by living forever. Man had been told that disobedience meant death, that, in the day he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would begin to die, or, dying thou shalt die (Gen. 2:17). As a result, he was cast out of the Garden of Eden and separated from the tree of life, from any possibility of both sinning, and living indefinitely (Gen. 3:22).

As against curiosity and a probing about “secret things,” we are plainly commanded to obey God’s law and to recognize that the law gives us a knowledge of the future which is legitimate. Deuteronomy 28 and 29 call attention to this prophetic aspect of law. The summons thus is to obedience. The unfolded or revealed things are with us for all time, to the end that we may obey all the orders of the law. The revealed word thus requires obedience. If we are men of faith, we obey. If we are unbelievers, we demand answers about “the secret things” as a condition of obedience.

Calvin said, of Deuteronomy 29:29,

To me there appears no doubt that, by antithesis, there is a comparison here made between the doctrine openly set forth in the Law, and the hidden and incomprehensible counsel of God, concerning which it is not lawful to inquire.
It is a remarkable passage, and especially deserving of our observation, for by it audacity and excessive curiosity are condemned, whilst pious minds are aroused to be zealous in seeking instruction. We know how anxious men are to understand things, the knowledge of which is altogether unprofitable, and even the investigation of them injurious. All of them would desire to be God’s counsellors, and to penetrate into the deepest recesses of heaven, nay, they would search into its very cabinets. Hence a heathen poet truly says,
Nought for mortals is too high;
Our folly reaches to the sky.
Hor. Od. i, 3-37.
On the other hand, what God plainly sets before us, and would have familiarly known, is either neglected, or turned from in disgust, or put far away from us, as if it were too obscure. In the first clause, then, Moses briefly reproves and restrains that temerity which leaps beyond the bounds imposed by God; and in the latter, exhorts us to embrace the doctrine of the Law, in which God’s will is declared to us, as if He were openly speaking to us; and thus he encounters the folly of those who fly from the light presented to them, and wrongfully accuse of obscurity that doctrine, wherein God has let Himself down to the measure of our understanding. In sum, he declares that God is the best master to all who come to Him as disciples, because He faithfully and clearly explains to them all that is useful for them to know. The perpetuity of the doctrine is also asserted, and that it never is to be let go, or to become obsolete by the lapse of ages.3

The purpose of the revealed things is to command our obedience. The subject of obedience is important to an understanding of Scripture. In analyzing Christian liberty, we have seen that the world requires an obedience to itself as ultimate, which would deny the sovereignty of God. Too often, as men require obedience as a Christian virtue, they speak of it in terms more like the claims of totalitarian humanism, as the absolute claim of man over man.

To cite a specific example, St. Paul in Ephesians 5:24 declares, “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” This is commonly interpreted to mean as total a subjection of women to their husbands as of the church to Christ. This would be a justifiable claim only if husbands were as perfect and sinless as Christ. Hodge, commenting on this verse, makes clear the fallacy of the totalitarian approach:

As verse 22 teaches the nature of the subjection of the wife to her husband, and verse 23 its ground, this verse teaches its extent. She is to be subject in every thing. That is, the subjection is not limited to any one sphere or department of the social life, but extends to all. The wife is not subject as to some things, and independent as to others, but she is subject as to all. This of course does not mean that the authority of the husband is unlimited. It reaches its extent, not its degree. It extends over all departments, but is limited in all; first, by the nature of the relation; and secondly, by the higher authority of God. No superior, whether master, parent, husband or magistrate, can make it obligatory on us either to do what God forbids, or not to do what God commands. So long as our allegiance to God is preserved, and obedience to man is made part of our obedience to him, we retain our liberty and our integrity.4

The men who demand a totalitarian obedience from their wives forget that Sarah rebuked her husband Abraham, and God not only backed her up (Gen. 16), but also made her a type of the godly wife (1 Pet. 3:6). Moreover, these men are not ready to render unto civil authorities (kings, presidents, governors, prime ministers, tax collectors, etc.) any such obedience as they demand of their wives, although the word of God uses the same word “obey” in both instances (Rom. 13:1–8; 1 Pet. 2:13–17, etc.). Still further, servants or employees are required to “be subject to your masters [or employers] with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward” (1 Pet. 2:18). “Servants” in Ephesians 6:5 means “slaves,” but in Peter the reference is plainly to paid employees. How many men who demand a totalitarian obedience from their wives render such an obedience to their employers? We cannot have a pagan obedience in one realm and a Christian obedience in another, requiring people to render us a pagan obedience while we reserve the liberty of a Christian to ourselves. The degree of authority in every sphere of life is at all times limited by the prior authority of God. While the extent of the husband’s authority is unlimited, i.e., he is the authority in every sphere of the marriage, in every area it is also conditional in terms of the word of God. The authority of God is absolute; the authority of man is always conditional.

Adam in Eden no doubt had at least one pet dog from the moment of his creation as a mature man. He was created mature into a mature creation. If all he needed was someone or something to boss and to order to come at his whistle, or his beck and call, a dog would have been sufficient. But God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). A helpmeet is not a doormat, but a subordinate and necessary partner.

One of the problems with respect to obedience is that too many commentators are still under the influence of a Medieval and Reformation perspective which at this point is very faulty. This influence is the divine right doctrine, which assumes that divinely ordained authority is beyond questioning. The divine right of kings gave way, for many, to the divine right of husbands, an equally pernicious idea. Indeed, all legitimate authority is established by God, but this does not entitle human authorities to the unquestioning obedience God alone is entitled to. All human authorities are to be obeyed in the Lord, i.e., in terms of a questioning and devout attention to the word of God as prior to man. The old divine rights doctrine is still promoted, as witness a reprint of the worthy John Bunyan’s comments, which are regrettably in this temper, in an evangelical periodical.5

Bunyan, however, is mild compared to most in the European tradition. A totalitarian obedience to civil authorities, churches, pastors and priests, employers, and husbands has deeply infected the European tradition, and European groups have brought the doctrine of divine rights to this country. (A liberal form is with us politically as the divine right of the people, the democratic consensus, etc.) In its every form, the doctrine takes a relative authority and a relative obedience and absolutizes it to give man the same authority as Christ or God. This is sinning in God’s name, or blasphemy. We are indeed to obey all due authorities “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13), not because man requires it. This means that we subject all human orders to the scrutiny of God’s word, because we are to have “none other gods” before Him, i.e., it is idolatry if we obey any human authority with the same unquestioning obedience with which we obey God. Such idolatrous obedience leads either to slavery or to resentment and senseless rebellion and revolution.

The requirement of unquestioning obedience by any human authority is a sin and defiles the very intent of God’s word. The unquestioning obedience which Scripture requires is only to God, never to kings, rulers, employers, husbands, or parents. To render unquestioning obedience is sin.

Obedience thus is basic to God’s plan for man, but all obedience must be to the word of God: “those things which are revealed belong unto us.” “The secret things” means essentially the hidden things of the future, and the “revealed” means “the unfolded issues of the day” in terms of the law-word of God (James Moffatt). In a secondary sense, however, all that the word of God forbids to us means not only the issues of the future, but also men and the things of today. We cannot treat the world as something totally ours to use: it must be used under God. We cannot treat people as our creatures. Even in marriage, in its sexual relationship, the boundary is sharply drawn. The menstruous woman cannot be taken (Lev. 18:19, 20:18): to do so is to treat her as totally man’s creature, which no man can do. The woman was also guilty, if she permitted it.6

“The secret things” of God extend to our own lives and persons. We are not our own: our todays and tomorrows are totally under the government of God, and, beyond our obedience to His law-word, we have no right to demand special knowledge, reward, or privileges. Precisely because God requires us to be obedient to Him, He at the same time sets boundaries on our authority over one another and our claims upon one another. We have Christian liberty to the degree that we have Christian obedience.

In the European tradition, rulers were compared to God, and husbands to Christ, employers to God, and priests and pastors to Christ, without any real stress on the difference between absolute and relative authority. In the American tradition, the Puritans began by resisting authority in the name of God, and they established a tradition of godly and relative authority as against idolatrous and divine right authority. As a result, America has not had the revolutions and social upheavals so common to Europe. Too many European groups in the U.S. today are reviving this dangerous tradition, wherein rulers expect people to be unquestioningly obedient, wives to be docile cows, employees to bow and scrape before their employers, and church members never to question the pastor or priest in his infallible wisdom. The result is either stupid obedience or wild rebellion.

The Puritan wives were not given to servile obedience, and they provided the strong-willed helpmeets necessary to the conquest of a continent. The Puritan men held that the Kingship of Christ was the only absolute power, and they acted on that principle.

Today, as anarchy and contempt for authority are spreading everywhere, the worst possible answer is a blasphemous and idolatrous doctrine of authority. The only valid answer to either of these two crimes is godly authority.

The position of Elizabeth I of England, with respect to her royal authority, has been summarized thus by Hume:

It was asserted that the queen inherited both an enlarging and a restraining power; by her prerogative she might set at liberty what was restrained by statute or otherwise, and by her prerogative she might restrain what was otherwise at liberty; that the royal prerogative was not to be canvassed, nor disputed, nor examined; and did not even admit of any limitation: that absolute princes, such as the sovereigns of England, were a species of divinity: that it was in vain to attempt tying the queen’s hands by laws or statutes; since, by means of her dispensing power, she could loosen herself at pleasure; and that even if a clause should be annexed to a statute, excluding her dispensing power, she could first dispense with that clause and then with the statute.7

The origins of this belief are in pagan antiquity and in emperor worship. They rest in the belief in the immanent deity inherent in earthly powers. This pagan concept has infiltrated and corrupted the Biblical doctrine of obedience. It must be resisted, and the people of God must be taught that it is a sin to require unquestioning obedience, and a sin to yield it. We are not God: we cannot require or expect for ourselves the absolute obedience due unto God. We are not man’s creature: we cannot yield to any man the absolute and unquestioning obedience due only unto God. The church must be cleansed of the requirement of pagan obedience or it will continue under the judgment of God.

[1] G. Ernest Wright, “Deuteronomy,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (New York: Abingdon Press, 1951) 507.

[2] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, Vol. III (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 451.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, Vol. 1, C. W. Bingham, trans., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 410f.

[4] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 314f.

[5] John Bunyan, “Duties of Husbands and Wives,” in Sword and Trowel, Vo. IV, no. 12, December 1972, 1–2, 9–10.

[6] See R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Co., 1972).

[7] David Hume, The History of England, Vol. IV (New York: Harper, 1852), 336f.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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