Why is Obedience a Virtue?

File:Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (crop).jpg

Add “Obedience” to the long list of Christian topics I write about but personally stink at.  It’s an aspirational faith, and anyway, if my writing does nothing else, it amuses the people who know me in real life.

When I first became a parent, the concept that my children should obey me, and that I should teach them to obey me, was utterly foreign.  I knew you wanted the kids to behave well, but I wasn’t so sure that I was in my rights insisting on obedience.

I bring this up because Eve Tushnet has posted much more introspective thoughts on the topic of obedience.  I’m going to get practical, fast.

I have a teenager now.  A maturing little person, tall as me and with bigger feet, who is capable of many, many things.  Obedience matters.

People freak out about obedience, because they think it means servile behavior, or committing grave acts of evil in the name of “just following orders”.  It means neither of those.  What it means is much more simple: When someone who has the right to tell you what to do tells you what to do, that’s what you do.

The right is the key concept.  So:

1. The boss tells you to file newest documents in front, older in the rear.  That’s what you do.  Boss tells you, “I trust you completely to handle the new account, give me a monthly update,” that’s what you do.

2. The boss tells you to collude with the competition in violation of antitrust law, you don’t do it. Boss has no right to give such an order.

Rights vary.  Your commanding officer has rights your neighborhood association does not (and vice versa).

A good thing about the times that we live in is that certain abuses of power that we used to tolerate we no longer tolerate.  There do remain situations where people roll over and ignore evil in the name of some variation on “not my problem.”  We need to cultivate fortitude so that we can do what is right even when it is difficult.  Likewise, there still exist those whose concept of lawful authority is horribly deluded.  Hence, the continued need for properly ordered feminism.

Abuse Does Not Invalidate Right Use

That a person in _____ leadership role abused his authority does not mean that everyone in such a role no longer has authority.  That there are dangerously bad parents out there does not mean that my children should not obey me.  Parents who abuse their authority should lose that authority; but the fact that a parent exercises legitimate parental rights does not make that parent power-hungry, or dangerous, or abusive.  It makes that parent a parent.

We need obedience because it is the only way to have a functioning society.  Little things like what the various colors of traffic lights mean, or “darling, don’t touch the hot stove,” . . . these boil down to obedience.  Every community needs a leadership structure.  That structure can take any number of forms, and any leader who means to stay in authority for long needs to lead respectfully.

Obedience is a virtue because it calls on us to obey even when we think we know better.  It requires self-denial.  When I stop at the red light because I think it’s a good idea to do so, I’m not exercising that virtue.  When I stop at red even though, in my opinion, I could safely cross the intersection and it seems stupid to have this light out in the middle of nowhere anyway . . . I’m practicing the virtue of obedience.  When my son turns off the computer and goes to bed despite his parents’ obvious senility on matters concerning computers and bedtimes, he’s being virtuous.

That virtue is ultimately founded in trust.  Teenage boys, and all the other humans, only endure bad leadership until they find a way out.  In contrast, to choose to obey is to choose to trust: I don’t necessarily agree with the order, but I trust you can handle this well enough. Among parents and children, the assertion of parental authority can only be rightly founded on a solid track record.  When have I led you wrong?  I’ve reared you safe and whole thus far, trust me when I tell you that sleep is important.  And likewise among all the other bigger societies to which we belong.

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About Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists, and vice president of the Catholic Writers Guild. In addition to her pile of Catholic writing for Patheos, you can find her at CatholicMom.com, New Evangelizers, and Amazing Catechists. When she isn't blogging, teaching, or complaining about something, she likes to play outside.


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