Exact Obedience in an Imprecise World
One Sunday evening in November, I found myself in a little chapel in Talence, France, waiting for Elders Andersen of the Twelve and Kearon of the Seventy to speak to a group of missionaries. I am not currently a missionary but was in attendance with my husband to celebrate twenty years of the first stake in Bordeaux, organized on the last day of his mission there. My husband introduced me to one of the “goldens” — the large group of young adults who had been baptized while he was there in the Bordeaux mission. One of my husband’s missionary friends mused that he didn’t know why there were so many, these “goldens,” and why they found them, but the lovely woman knew. She said, “You were obedient. Obedience brings power. It brought you to us.”
Later in the meeting, Elder Andersen told a story of a former elder, not in attendance, who wanted to be perfectly obedient. One evening, even though they had no more appointments for the night and even though it was pouring rain so meeting street contacts was unlikely, it wasn’t yet 9:30, so he wouldn’t go inside the apartment. His companion stood inside the doorway, begging him to come inside, but he stood out in the rain and (not so) miraculously, a man walked up to him. The elder asked what he knew about Jesus Christ, and the man’s heart was pricked: he knew this elder knew something he needed to know. He was taught and accepted the path of gospel discipleship, because an elder wouldn’t go in out of the rain until it was time.
My mission president (in Brazil) often spoke of obedience. He counseled us to seek out the predicate laws for the blessings we needed. He implored us to be exactly obedient, to seek that power. Even though we served in Brazil, where the church is being accepted readily and seemingly easily, we served in the heart of historical Brazil, where the Catholic church is strongest (at one point I served in a small town with two different convents and a monastery), where people seemed most inclined to cling to tradition, even if it brought them no peace, no light. President Smith taught us that we would find power in obedience, the power to teach, the power to find those who were ready for change, for light.
Exact obedience is a funny thing. The world would have us believe that obedience is mindless, is a sign of cult worship, is something no thinking person would engage in without firm rewards in view. But we know different. We know that “when we obtain any blessing from God it is by obedience to that law upon which it was predicated.”
Frequently, we are reminded of obedience. Bruce R. McConkie said:
Obedience is the first law of heaven. All progression, all perfection, all salvation, all godliness, all that is right and just and true, all good things come to those who live the laws of Him who is Eternal. There is nothing in all eternity more important than to keep the commandments of God (The Promised Messiah, 126).
But world wars, nameless conflicts, and unfathomable atrocities have scarred the world’s history with nightmares of fascism and terrorism brought to power in part by mindless obedience. Exact obedience is not the same thing as blind obedience. Missionary obedience is a different and far less nuanced thing than obedience as a regular workday citizen and member in God’s kingdom.
We are charged to be thinking and educated participants in the Lord’s work, but still to support our leaders. We are to counsel together in the councils of the church and in our families, but to obey the counsel of bishops and stake presidents and leaders. How do we learn and practice intelligent obedience, perhaps even dissenting obedience? How do we express frustrations to the bishop, but still be willing to serve and do what he asks? How do we teach our children to be obedient, to sustain and support and to think for themselves?
To a certain extent, I think the distinction is one of vocabulary: We obey the Lord; we follow the counsel of the bishop. Some leaders don’t appreciate the distinction. Some even have a very my way or the highway approach. Often we won’t agree with the leadership style of a leader. How do we sustain him/her nonetheless?
In the law there is a concept called black letter law: the express written terms of a statute. Everything else is how law enforcement and the courts interpret the law. In the Church, I see the scriptures and the General Handbook of Instructions to be black letter. The words of all our leaders fall somewhere closer or farther away from that black letter.
I once had delusions of becoming a professional seminary teacher, so I took the teacher prep classes offered to that end. Our instructor offered the notion that words from our leaders may be placed on a continuum of weight, giving the most weight to what the prophet says (obviously with highest weight to the current prophet among the words of all the prophets) and the least doctrinal weight to statements by local leaders, seminary and institute teachers, EFY speakers, or charismatic and inspirational writers. There is worth in much of it, but not necessarily weight.
In my mind, I wonder if there isn’t some way to combine the two concepts of black letter law and authoritative weight based on ecclesiastical position (an apostle trumps a seventy; any General Authority trumps John Bytheway). We offer our souls on the altar of complete and exact obedience to God as fulfillment of our covenants, seeking understanding for those concepts and commandments that chafe or that defy our understanding. We follow all the black letter commandments first, seeking to understand even as we obey. We counsel with our local leaders, seeking both to understand and inform in those matters that we disagree or fail to understand all while sustaining and supporting even in our disagreement. And counsel from other leaders falls somewhere in the middle.
I seek the power that exact obedience brings. I have felt it. Just recounting experiences where obedience has brought blessings brings the Spirit to a discussion. But non-missionary life is not replete with black letter law in the way that missionary life is. Exact obedience is harder when it is less clear what is expected. Sustaining leaders often means counseling together with them and there isn’t the same feeling of rectitude and power in submission, in dissenting obedience as in the clear black letter lines of missionary obedience. But obedience is still the first law of heaven.
- How do you cultivate obedience even while disagreeing with your leaders?
- How do you work toward exact obedience in real life?
- What blessings have you seen in seeking submission even in your dissension?
Image credit: invisible bordeaux