In 1988, Nike Inc., unveiled its new ad campaign by airing a commercial with this message:
Just kick it. Just bounce it. Just spike it. Just ‘arrghhh’ it. Just zap it. Just flip it. Just smash it. Just slam it. Just rock it. Just face it. Just do it.
And with that, three little words became cultural icons.
For over two decades, Nike has doggedly promoted its appeal to “just do it” through the endorsements of high-rolling athletic stars like Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Mia Hamm, and Lance Armstrong. Whether on billboards, TV, the radio, or the internet, these celebrities have reached consumers with Nike’s message, a demand for unequivocal obedience: Don’t ask questions. Don’t make excuses. Don’t complain. Just obey. And apparently, we have, with Nike garnering almost $20 billion in revenue in 2009 alone.
Yet true obedience extends well beyond brand loyalty. When God calls believers to trust and obey, God isn’t hoping to persuade us into buying some product. Nor does God shush our questions or command us to “just do it.” So how does God communicate instructions to us? And what should our obedience look like? Questions like these lie at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
Beyond just doing it
A “just do it” approach to obedience might make it seem as though it’s based upon action. Too often, we train children to think that obedience means the outward performance of an authority figure’s instructions, watering down the message to “you just need to do it” or “you just need to follow the rules.” And I’ve heard my share of sermons that define trusting God as simply doing what God (or the Bible/pastor) says to do, without questioning the purpose or intentions of the mandate.
While obedience is certainly about action, that accounts for only half of its meaning. True, holistic obedience is a matter of the heart and head as much as it is a matter of the body. It comes not only when we do what we are told or asked to do, but also when we willingly submit ourselves to the one offering the instructions.
This idea of holistic obedience—one of body, mind, and soul—is ingrained in the lifeblood of Pietism, one of the key sources of inspiration and theology for the Brethren in Christ. In a sermon entitled “Marks of the New Birth,” 18th-century theologian John Wesley teaches that a vital mark of conversion is “universal obedience to Him we love, and conformity to His will; obedience to all the commands of God, internal and external; obedience of the heart and of the life; in every temper, and in all manner of conversation.”
According to Menno Simons, the 16th-century Anabaptist reformer whose ideas have greatly influenced Brethren in Christ life and thought, obedience is not only the most vital aspect of the Christian life, but also a defining aspect of the true Church. When the body (the Church) fails to obey the head (Christ), it dies.
As children of God
In his writings, Simons refers to Christians as “children of God,” comparing believers’ submission to God with children’s submission to their parents. By exploring our relationship with God in terms of a parent–child relationship, we can better grasp our divine parent’s call to obedience.
In 1966, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind first proposed three general styles of parenting in her book Child Development: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative.
Authoritarian parents affirm the “just do it” slogan, telling their children precisely what to do and expecting their complete, unquestioning obedience. Permissive parents, on the other hand, give their children a large degree of freedom (too much freedom, in fact) and let them do whatever they would like to do.
Looking at the extremes, authoritarian parents are all rules with no respect for autonomy or freedom, while permissive parents are all freedom with no respect for the value of expectations and guidelines.
Authoritative parents lie in the middle of these two extremes. They provide their children with clear expectations and rules for behavior without becoming taskmasters.
A major difference between authoritarian and authoritative parents is that the latter respects the individual freedom and autonomy of their children. Authoritative parents make it a priority to provide reasons for the guidelines and rules that they put in place in order for their children to understand why the rules exist. This enables their children to obey with their hearts, minds, and actions.
A few years after Baumrind proposed this theory, E.E. Maccoby and J. A. Martin identified a fourth parenting style: neglectful. Neglectful parents, as one can guess, put their own needs and wants first, often disregarding those of their children.
A divine parenting style
As a number of biblical passages bear out, God, our heavenly parent, offers a fairly clear example of authoritative parenting. The first chapter of Isaiah, for instance, records the Lord’s words to Israel about the consequences of the nation’s choices. After laying out God’s expectations, God says, “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
The gift of the Bible itself also attests to God’s authoritative parenting style. Through it, not only can we learn what we must do to be obedient, but for thousands of years, we have sought to uncover the intentions behind God’s commands.
On the other hand, some of the Bible’s passages might seem to paint God as a domineering and authoritarian parent. In Genesis 22, for example, the Lord gives Abraham a command to sacrifice his son, and Abraham attempts to fulfill it without asking for or receiving an explanation from God.
At first, this might seem to indicate that God holds an unyielding relationship with humanity. However, recent scholars have suggested that questioning God’s intentions and instruction actually plays an integral role in this passage.
In The Child in the Bible, author Terence Fretheim points out that just a few pages back, in Chapter 18, the Bible depicts Abraham inquiring after the Lord’s intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This earlier account, Fretheim argues, demonstrates that God invites—and even seriously considers—our questions. We learn that it’s not wrong for us to wonder about and even directly question God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son.
From this perspective, the story of Abraham and Isaac becomes a testament to God as a loving, authoritative parent, with clear expectations and respect for human autonomy and freedom.
God trusts that we will ask questions when we are unsure about the instructions, commands, and guidance that God offers to us. After all, without comprehension, we can obey only with the body but not the mind, the external without the internal, and our obedience would be incomplete.
Authority as love
The Hebrew verb for “to obey” (šāma‘) is the same verb for “to listen.” In order to follow God, we must first be listening for and open to God’s voice. Then, as God offers us instructions and expectations, we’re encouraged to ask questions so that we can obey fully, with our bodies, hearts, and minds.
God’s authoritative approach to “parenting” serves as a model for anyone in a relationship of authority—employers and employees, teachers and students, pastors and congregants, parents and children. Following God’s example, those in leadership should provide guidance, invite questions, and respect the personalities and autonomy of others.
When we model authoritative leadership or practice wholehearted obedience, we reflect God, for at the core of both leadership and obedience is love.