For Christians as well as those outside the Church, probably no topic is as misunderstood as obedience. And yet, obedience is foundational not only to our relationship with Christ but for the whole of the Church’s life. Obedience to Holy Tradition, to our bishop and our conscience all serve to keep us united to God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Again, for many people—Christian or not–obedience is morally problematic. In most cases this reflects not ill-will but a lack of understanding. In the Scriptures the command to be obedience is not a command that we give a mechanical submission to an authority (divine or human). Obedience isn’t passive submission of the vanquished to the victor, it isn’t “‘giving in’ or ‘surrender’ but freely chosen, voluntary mutual cooperation–or synergy” (here).
In Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios. Elder Porphyrios (+1991), a Greek monk and priest “tells the story of his life and, in simple, deeply reflected and profoundly wise words, he expounds the Christian Faith today.” Writing on obedience he recalls that as a young monk
My whole life was a paradise: prayer, worship, handicraft, and obedience. But my obedience was the outcome of love not coercion. This blessed obedience benefitted me greatly. It changed me. I became sharp-witted, quick and stronger in body and soul. … Obedience shows love for Christ. And Christ especially loves the obedient (Wounded by Love, p. 25).
At a minimum, obedience requires the absence of coercion. There can be nothing abusive or forced if obedience is going to be true to what it means to be human. Obedience properly so called is always an appeal to human freedom and an affirmation of human dignity.
For the fathers of the Church, freedom is “one of the manifestations of God in human nature. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Man became Godlike and blessed, being honoured with freedom (αὐτεξουσίῳ)’ (Sermon on the Dead). For this reason, the Church in her pastoral practice and spiritual guidance takes so much care of the inner world of a person and his freedom of choice. Subjection of human will to any external authority through manipulation or violence is seen as a violation of the order established by God.”
We can’t, however, make “freedom of choice … an absolute or ultimate value.” As it comes to us from the hand of God, our freedom is “at the service of human well-being.” This means that when a person exercises his freedom he “should not harm either himself or those around him.” Unfortunately, “due to the power of sin inherent in the fallen human nature, no human effort is sufficient to achieve genuine goodness” (see The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, II.1).
Elder Porphyrios is helpful here.
I can’t give you an example of what real obedience is. It’s not that we have a discussion about the virtue of obedience and then I say ‘go and do a somersault,’ and you obey. That’s not obedience. You need to be entirely carefree and not thinking at all about the matter of obedience, and then suddenly you are asked to do something and you are ready to do it joyfully (Wounded by Love, p. 19).
Freedom, love and joy; these are characteristic of Christian obedience. But these are also all inter-personal; they are social and not merely individual. Being obedient means learning to make choices that foster freedom, love and joy not simply in my life but yours as well. It isn’t so much a matter of my being obedient to you (or the other way around) but our being obedient together to God Who is the source of all good things. Obedience, in other words, is mutual; what we do together and not what I do alone.
To be obedient means to live as a member of a community in which we work together for the flourishing, sanctification and salvation of each other. It is the end of mere individualism and the beginning of life patterned after the Holy Trinity.