We live in a world obsessed with the self. Pressed daily to enjoy the alleged benefits of our prevailing culture of self-sufficiency, self-promotion, and self-gratification, we confuse autonomy with selfish attitudes. Not surprisingly, in such an each-one-for-oneself culture the practice of obedience is increasingly associated with a loss of control and blind submission. One consequence of this attitude is that the more self-absorbed we are, the more indifferent and alienated we become.
Ironically and paradoxically, this self-centeredness creates other kinds of submission and dependence. Think, for example, of how obedient we are to the logic of consumerism when we give in to the temptations of buying things we actually don’t need only to satisfy our desires, no matter the economic inequalities it reinforces or what the consequences are for the environment. Consider also how easily we might become submissive or compliant to certain eloquent but misleading preachers, when our intention is to hear only what pleases us.
In his defense of the gospel to the Galatians, Paul offers us many hints on what genuine obedience is, how it relates to our faith, when it may be skewed or become dangerous, and why it is decisive to preserve the truth of the gospel.
Concerned with disruptive and divisive teachings by the Judaizers—Jewish Christians who, in addition to the gospel, advocated for the observance of the Mosaic Law—Paul writes a letter to the churches in Galatia to refute those teachings and reaffirm the absolute sufficiency of Christ (1:6-9). In short, Paul argues that the salvation offered to us in Christ through faith is a gracious gift from God, with no need for complementary works. Therefore, freed from the dominion of sin and no longer subjected to the law, we can freely and voluntarily decide to follow Christ, in whom we receive a new identity to live in newness of life with the help of the Spirit.
Early in the letter, Paul defends the authority of his apostolate, and consequently the validity of his message—not based on his own competence or achievements, nor on submission to the church leaders in Jerusalem, but first and foremost on his obedience to God’s call to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. That was not a matter of why, but of how Paul’s authority was legitimate: through acknowledgment by others that the grace of God was working in him, transforming his fiery devotion to Jewish legalism into love for and obedience to the gospel of Christ.
From this we learn that obedience is, above all, a response of gratitude in recognition of God’s saving grace. We can embrace the gospel of Christ and submit ourselves to God’s will, firstly, because we are free to do so, not because we feel obligated or forced to. Accordingly, obedience cannot be a way to obtain God’s favor, as if it were a bargaining chip that should be traded away for some concession. The obedience God wants is one that comes from within us as an earnest, grateful response to God’s grace, which expands to every area of our lives though the fruits it bears.
There is, therefore, an important correlation between obedience and faith in the sense that to be genuine, tangible, and discernible, faith must be embodied in practical ethical terms—otherwise it will be pointless. Our obedient attitude towards the gospel of Christ is the bridge that reduces the distances between what we say and what we do. Obedience is faith into practice, for we cannot be disciples of Jesus unless we confess him as our Lord and Savior and act according to his praxis. As the first Anabaptists highlighted, just as faith demands commitment to live out the radical ethics of Jesus, obedience through discipleship confirms one’s faith.
However, a wholehearted obedience must also be evidence of the active working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If on the one hand obedience must be a steadfast decision on our part, on the other hand its continual strengthening and renewal comes with the help of the Spirit. The practice of obedience bears witness to our walk in the Spirit, manifested through such fruits as love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Many of these fruits, though, draw our attention to the communitarian dimension of obedience. A life of obedience is not meant to nurture a boastful spirituality, but to create a heart inclined to compassion and service. By God’s grace we indeed become instruments of righteousness, but never for self-praise or individual rewards. Because it cannot be carried out divorced from the practice of communal life, obedience makes sense only if mediated by selfless love.
Such a radical obedience will always be a challenging task, for it confronts our personal interests, or the interests of the groups we belong to or agree with. It demands that we make difficult choices, to review the privileges and attitudes we enjoy and are reluctant to give up. One of the underlying issues of the controversy in Galatia was the cultural, social, and ethnic dispute between the Judaizers and the Gentile converts. In demanding that the Gentiles adopt Jewish religious customs, thus ignoring the sufficiency of Christ, the Judaizers made clear their intention to impose a kind of superior piety to the church. Because of their purist, excluding view of obedience, the Judaizers sent a message like this: “Only we do church the right way. . . . People will not be fully accepted by God unless they believe and behave like us.”
Instead of making us members of the same body, attitudes like that make us partisans of a particular faction– precisely the kind of submission we should not comply with, not even for a moment! Accordingly, we should never act like the law-keepers in Galatia, despising or rejecting our brothers and sisters in Christ by deeming their faith as imperfect or flawed. When ignoring the self-giving, all-loving radicality of grace, we run the risk of being trapped in non-essential doctrines or private interpretations that only disturb and divide the church.
Remember that one of Paul’s most passionate but overlooked defenses of the unity of the church is in the letter to the Galatians: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:26,28).
The life of obedience by faith in Christ enables us to realize that our existence goes well beyond this culture of self-sufficiency we live in. Only then can we move from being self-centered to having a Christ-centered life, which completely reframes our self-perception, frees us from the limitations of our social and religious bubbles, and helps us to find common ground with others, particularly those different from us.
Alexandre Gonçalves is a licensed pastor of Igreja da Irmandade (Church of the Brethren in Brazil) and a social educator with specialization in child protection. He earned his master of divinity from Bethany Theological Seminary.