Where Logic Meets Love

Obedience or Service: How Do You Show Christ to Others?

Friday, May 25, 2012

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Obedience or Service: How Do You Show Christ to Others? | Faith Permeating Life

A while back, our church gave out free copies of the book Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly. I didn't get very far through it because it was poorly edited and Kelly kept interspersing good thoughts with vast false generalizations about people. But what really turned me off was his main premise, that the goal of the Christian life is "holiness."

It's not necessarily that I disagreed with this goal, as he defined it: "What is holiness? Holiness It [sic] is all the incredible things God will do in you and through you if you make yourself available to him." Something about his word choice just rubbed me the wrong way.

It wasn't until I ran until a similar concept in Scot McKnight's fantastic The Blue Parakeet that I was able to pinpoint why I had such a bad reaction to this idea. McKnight says that if we listen to God by focusing on what God wants us to do, we will be able to achieve God's goal for us: righteousness. He defines righteousness somewhat similarly to Kelly's holiness: "To be 'righteous' means our minds, our wills, and our behaviors will be conformed to God's will."

I realized that the words "holiness" and "righteousness" were, in my mind, one and the same with "self-righteousness," a Pharisee-like focus on one's own ability to keep all of God's laws.

It got me thinking back to this post about what kind of Christian I want to be, and this post where I said that forceful evangelization is more about the evangelizer than the evangelizee.

It seems to me that there are two main ways I see people trying to lead a "good Christian life": obedience and service.

These are by no means mutually exclusive, but in my experience people tend to focus more on one over the other.

Where do you fall?

You might have an obedience focus if...
-Your go-to Bible verses are Matthew 18:15-18, 2 Timothy 3:16, and anything in Leviticus
-You never miss church, no matter what's going on
-You saved/are saving sex for marriage, and it's important to you that others do too
-You worry constantly about non-Christians you know going to hell, and tell them so
-You would turn down a job you needed before you'd work on a Sunday
-You think the government should pass laws in accordance with Christian morality

You might have a service focus if...
-Your go-to Bible verses are Matthew 25:31-46, Mark 12:28-31, and anything about Jesus eating with sinners
-You volunteer regularly for causes you care about
-You have friends of different faiths, and you sometimes attend their places of worship
-You have an interest in knowing what is important to other people, and you listen more than you talk
-You provide support and comfort to others even when you disagree with their decisions, without telling them what you think
-You think the government's main concern should be that every person has access to food, shelter, and care

Obviously these are generalizations, but I would bet they ring true for a lot of people.

What it comes down to, I think, is this: Are you more concerned about your own fate in the next life, or your neighbor's fate in this one?

(Or as Rachel Held Evans wrote recently, are you willing to risk going to hell to be loving to others?)

I'm not saying that one of these approaches is "right" or "wrong." I understand the reasons behind both. What I want to suggest is that it's helpful to periodically ask yourself: What is my goal with living my life this way? And am I succeeding?

Here's what I've noticed:

If you ask someone, particularly a non-Christian, to describe a person who exemplifies the worst of Christianity, you'll likely hear about a person who lectures others on their sins, who tells them they're going to hell, who makes a big deal of adhering to their own religious obligations, and who puts everything church-related before their own friends and family. In other words, someone with an obedience focus.

But if you ask about the best of Christianity, you hear about that person who took the time to really listen to someone, the person who reached out with love when everyone else turned their back, the person who went out of their way to provide care and support when someone had made a big life mistake, without ever saying, "I told you so." You hear about the person whose door was always open, the person who was on fire with a passion to help the homeless, the person who said they would pray for you and you knew they really meant it because you were that important to them. That is a person with a service focus.

Recently in church we heard the Great Commission: Jesus telling His followers to go out into the world and make disciples.

It seems to me that those with a service focus are far more successful at opening people's hearts to Jesus than those with an obedience focus -- who sometimes even drive people away from Jesus!

I'll point back to the idea that we have limited time, energy, and money. We cannot be all things to all people. And we must make choices. We cannot simultaneously attend a church event and travel out of town for a family event. We cannot simultaneously listen without judgment and share our judgments.

We cannot both love and withhold love.

So where is your focus going to be?

Does this distinction ring true for you? How has your life been affected by having an obedience focus or a service focus, or knowing those who do?


  1. I certainly have a service focus. I like your "quiz". :-) This is a favorite hymn in my parish which I think expresses a nice balance between service and obedience.

    I can see an obvious counter-argument to your article: You say that if you ask people about their experiences with Christians, they all like the service type more than the obedience type--but what people like is not necessarily what God wants.

    Now, I wouldn't actually make this argument against your point, because in this case I think there is abundant evidence that Jesus supported a service-oriented, less-judgmental approach. But I've heard it argued that because most people feel it is more pleasant to waste resources getting whatever we want right now than to think about conserving for the future, therefore God wants us to use Creation however we like--and although it is possible to support that argument with some quotes from the Bible, I think it's wrong; I think God wants us to be responsible rather than greedy users of Creation. See what I mean?

    1. I see your point, but the argument I was making about people's experiences with Christians is not that the service focus is "what people like." It's that anyone who believes that we are called to make disciples needs to think about what actually draws people to Christianity vs. pushes them away from it. So those who are forcefully telling others that they are sinning and going to hell because they are disobeying God may be hurting their own cause, whereas those with a service focus, who focus on caring for others and not voicing their own judgments, may actually be more successful in getting others interested in Christianity/the Bible and thus eventually leading them to live better lives with less sin.

  2. This is interesting, because in my church to be obedient is to live a life of service. The two seem very much interlinked with my understanding of the Bible, and the way in which my church teaches it. To be obedient to God is to do His will, which is serving others by loving them as Christ loved us.

    Obedience in the way you describe can become legalism eventually, especially when people become judgmental of others (which is what the Pharisees were like), and can lead to Christians losing sight of who Jesus really is.

    I see obedience and service as one and the same, embodied in Luke 10:27. I believe that Jesus was completely obedient to the Father, which is why He loved and served others the way He did, and why we aspire to follow His example.

    Sorry if I'm not making much sense - it's really hot here and I'm not feeling too well at the moment, so I think I'm rambling. The thoughts make sense in my head, I just can't seem to put them into words very well!

    1. I do think that both obedience and service are important; there's nothing mutually exclusive about them. As you indicated, when we love our neighbor, are we not obeying Jesus' command?

      Where I see the difference in how people act is in the moments when obedience and service seem to butt heads, and you have to make a decision. For example, even though most people don't follow this anymore, the Bible says women's heads should be covered while praying (1 Corinthians 11:5-7). So if you saw a woman praying in church with her head uncovered, is it more important to let her know that she's not obeying the Bible and that she needs to leave and go get a hat... or is it more important to stay silent on that matter and ensure that she feels welcome and loved as a member of the congregation? That's the difference between an obedience focus and a service focus. When I guest posted for Emmy, I wrote about an experience in which a friend missed out on a rare opportunity to talk about faith because our youth minister insisted he had to go to Mass. She was so focused on making sure every single person went to Mass that it was to the detriment of his faith. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

    2. Yeah, I do see what you're referring to by 'obedience' and I understand what you're getting at. I recognise that behaviour in the church generally, but not in the majority of Christians I know. It seems to me that when people focus on the rules they can ultimately end up missing the point of being obedient to Christ. That's what I was getting at, albeit not very well.

      I'm talking about a different understanding of what it is to be obedient, rather than about following the rules.

      I think focusing on the rules too much, especially without a servant heart, leads to the legalism of the the Pharisees. That's not to say that rules aren't important as they are set in place to maintain a standard but if that's someone's main focus in life it seems that they are choosing to, almost blindly, follow a set structure whereby they are at real risk of missing the point.

      Surely true obedience is seeking God's heart on all matters through the Word and prayer, and what that all points to is Jesus - love Him, love others, which ultimately leads to service.

      I don't recognise the list of 'obedience' checkpoints you've described as being obedient, I recognise the list of 'service' checkpoints as being obedient. So therefore, as far as I believe, your 'service' list definitely comes above your 'obedience' list in how we should live our lives. Does that make a bit more sense? I feel if I could actually talk about this rather than write it, I'd be able to say it better.

    3. Jessica, I've just come back to this and read my comment again (various thoughts playing through my mind throughout this morning). I think maybe I'm getting hung up on the terminology, but essentially I agree with you! Just wanted to clarify that :)

    4. I do think we're just using different definitions of obedience :) I debated what to call the two groups, and the words I chose aren't necessarily the best ones, I just needed a way of distinguishing them.

      Interestingly, I finished up The Blue Parakeet this morning, and there's actually a passage near the end that says almost exactly what I said in my previous comment! He's talking about how the head covering verses were intended to prevent people from thinking that Christians were "loose women" and giving the wrong impressions of the Christian community:
      One of my close friends, and a brilliant scholar of the New Testament, made this observation about the situation at our church in light of the context of Paul's words: "Scot, some at your church don't seem willing to ask if insisting on head coverings might do the opposite of what Paul was actually doing." In other words, insisting on head coverings does as much (if not more) damage to the gospel today as not wearing head coverings did in the first century! How so? If we demand women do something so totally contrary to culture that non-Christians are offended or turned off, we should reconsider what we are doing. Paul didn't want the dress of Christian women to bring a bad name to the gospel, so he asked them to wear head coverings; by contrast, demanding women to wear head coverings in our world may do the very same damage to the gospel. (In fact, I'm quite sure it would.)


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