Obedience to the Unenforceable

 

 

Where do we go from here, now that all of the children have grown up?

Alan Parsons Project

 

But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:14

 

 

I recently came upon a speech by the British jurist and parliamentarian Lord John Fletcher Moulton in which he discussed the various elements that make up a civil society. I was amazed to find how much his message, given just prior to his death in 1921, resonated with needs in our churches at the present time. What follows is a discussion of the place of rules, freedom and the heart.

 

Drawing a memorable analogy, Moulton began by categorizing all human activity into three separate domains. First he described what he called the domain of “Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us [that] which must be obeyed.”1 Clearly, for any group of people to function together requires that certain absolute rules and limits exist. Various behaviors are deemed to be right or wrong. No to stealing. No to murder. Vandalism is out. We get the picture.

 

Second, there is an equally important domain of “Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.” We have rights and freedoms that no one should be able to restrict or regulate. Included here might be the freedoms of speech and expression, the freedom of religious choice and so forth. Courageous men and women have given their lives to purchase such liberties that those of us in Western democracies often take for granted.

 

This is where it gets interesting. Although rarely mentioned, Moulton called attention to the presence of a third large and important domain between these two, ruled by “neither Positive Law nor Absolute Freedom. In that domain there is no law which inexorably determines our course of action, and yet we feel that we are not free to choose as we would.” He refers to this third realm as the domain of “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” Ranging from feelings of consideration for another’s opinion to a sense of duty almost as strong as Positive Law, behavior here involves “the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey.” It is the domain of doing right when there is no one to make me do right; the realm of actions that are not dictated by what is required on one hand or permissible on the other.

 

Discussions about ethics and behavior almost always center on these first two domains, with the result that they are constantly expanding and encroaching upon the territory of the third. For instance, in the wake of a tragic shooting, we are almost certain to hear a clamor for more laws to regulate the sale of firearms, or to punish the offenders more severely—even though the shooter in this instance may have violated a dozen existing laws that proved powerless to constrain his actions. Nonetheless more and more rules and external controls are demanded, evidence of the unceasing advance of the domain of law.

 

Libertarians are not about to give up ground without a fight, however. We live in one of the most litigious times in history. The United States, for example, has twenty-five times more lawyers per capita than Japan. What is more, more students graduate every year from law schools in the United States than the total number of lawyers present in the entire nation of Japan. My rights, my freedoms, my feelings, my losses, my missed opportunities, my unfair situation—these are the bywords of a “me generation” that is consumed with its own personal freedoms.

 

The tension between these two “superpowers” of law and freedom has been poignantly brought to light in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. We realize now more than ever that the benefit of greater security always comes at a price. With every increase in our protection, we have witnessed a proportionate loss of freedom and privacy. To guard our interests, we now put up with more stringent and intrusive searches at the airport, we allow suspects to be detained in prison who have not been formally charged, and we cede to government agencies the right to spy on our telephone and e-mail communications. It would appear that freedom and control make up a “zero-sum game.” And in the meantime, both of them encroach upon territory that ought to be governed by obedience to the unenforceable.

 

In many ways, this third domain is the only guarantor of a truly civil society. For instance, there are no earthly laws to prohibit lying in most situations. (The obvious exception is when a person is under oath, and such behavior is penalized as perjury.) What is to keep a person from speaking dishonestly in everyday speech? Certainly not his or her “freedom.” No, a person who speaks truthfully does so as a result of a willing obedience to something unenforceable, a choice to respect another individual or to value integrity. This is the realm of self-imposed discipline and restraint, capable of producing a quality of decency that neither law nor liberty can ensure.

 

In my opinion, the breadth and width of this domain of “obedience to the unenforceable” is the true measure of the greatness or poverty of any society. And more to the point for the discussion that follows, it represents the truest measure of the greatness or poverty of any church. This third domain alone holds promise for producing a spiritual society.

 

It should not surprise us that, in spiritual terms, the domain described by the British judge coincides precisely with that land which God desires to cultivate most. It is here that the gospel finds purchase, grows in its native soil and bears fruit. It is the land of mature faith and heartfelt spirituality. In the words of Jeremiah and of Paul:

 

“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33–34)

 

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

      So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Galatians 5:13–18)

 

The new covenant is characterized by obedience from the heart, springing from a true knowledge of God. It is a covenant distinguished by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a Spirit that teaches us to live neither according to the sinful nature nor under the law.

 

The genius of the gospel lies in part in its ability to produce willing obedience to God by the power of the cross and apart from human controls. History is littered with attempts to attain similar goals by human means. In an effort to match the communal sharing of possessions modeled by the first Christians (Acts 4:32–37), Communism in the twentieth century tried to bring about economic equality through the forced redistribution of property—the property of unwilling and unregenerate individuals! It failed miserably. Three centuries earlier, Puritans in New England, desiring to become the “city on a hill” spoken of in the Sermon on the Mount, dominated the legislature of Massachusetts and enacted a myriad of laws to ensure the “spirituality” of the “faithful.” Their utopian dream did not last. In fact, all human efforts that have dared to stand in the place of grace and all human wisdom that has dared to displace the word of God, have served only to empty the cross of Christ of its power (1 Corinthians 1:17). No, it is the gospel alone that “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16–17). And it is the gospel alone that can produce “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5). The enduring work of God in our hearts takes place in the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.

 

As we look at what has happened in the past twenty years in our fellowship of churches, surely we must admit that much good has been accomplished. Remarkable things have taken place; so why such a clamor to change it all now? What is so bad about the way we have done things if it has resulted in churches being started all over the world? A careful study of history shows that in the short term, those secular governments most “successful” in bringing about rapid uniform changes have been the ones whose leadership style was controlling and authoritarian. Recent examples include Russia in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s. I am by no means equating the objectives, motivations or methods of anyone in our movement with those totalitarian regimes. To do so would not only cheapen the suffering of another generation, but also grossly distort the sins of our own. My point is simply this: authoritarian leadership and imposed controls can be the most efficient means of bringing about sweeping and uniform changes in a brief period of time—but this does not make them right. In stark contrast to the worldly examples given here, I am of the opinion that nearly all the ends in our cause have been noble. But some of the means employed to achieve those ends have been externally imposed and even unrighteous, often tolerated only because of the short-term results they produced. As witnessed by the growing number of unforeseen but damaging side-effects wrought by of this way of doing things, many well-intentioned practices in our churches have now been weighed and found to be very, very wanting (Daniel 5:27).

 

In the brief history of our movement, we have witnessed God’s hand bring about the demise of many barriers to the advancement of the gospel. The demolition of walls of race and language, the fall of apartheid, the destruction of the Iron Curtain and the penetration of the Bamboo Curtain—surely these represent miracles of God! We now find ourselves standing, with sledge hammers in our hands, among the remains of yet another Berlin wall, one of our own making. Many vestiges of external control and motivation are being effectively (and at times brutally) dismantled. It is a scary time, but one that I believe God is orchestrating just as he has many times before.

 

We are growing up. We have had enough of childish ways and inappropriate control. But as this wall comes down, where do we go from here? Shall we flee headlong to the land of “free choice” and personal liberty? It seems the most likely place to go, and many are choosing to do so. Unfortunately, the Bible warns that all we will find there are tyrannies of a different sort. As Jesus said to some Jews who had put their faith in him,

 

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:31–34)

 

Freedom to do whatever we please inevitably means enslavement to sin. Freedom that is truly free can only be lived out on God’s terms. Consider Paul’s words to the Romans:

 

Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. (Romans 6:16–22)

 

Real freedom involves “wholehearted obedience”—obedience to the unenforceable.

 

So, where do we go from here? Down which path does the pleasure of God lie? Surely we are being called once again to take up our crosses and follow the Lord where he asks us to go. Anger, rage and bitterness may be real, but they can never take us where he leads. Are we willing to go the way of the cross to our intended destination? Are we willing to pay the price to build anew in the domain of obedience to the unenforceable?

 

In the land of external rules, the truth is not always spoken, or else it is whispered in hushed tones. In the land of personal liberty, we speak truth—so just “put that in your pipe and smoke it!” In the land of obedience to the unenforceable, the gospel calls us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). This does not mean soft-coating or avoiding the truth, but it does involve a commitment to

 

…not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29–32).

 

In the land of external rules, advice is binding—it’s “my way or the highway!” In the land of personal liberty, advice is despised or avoided altogether. In the land of obedience to the unenforceable, we recognize principles such as our need to seek out and weigh the advice of godly men and women, and the dangers of stubbornly going it alone. The book of Proverbs still rings true.

 

In the land of external rules, we give a tithe of our gross salary based on some shaky exegesis and a heavy-handed appeal. In the land of personal liberty, we give if and when we feel like it—and only if church expenditures meet with our personal approval. In the land of obedience to the unenforceable, we realize that financial sacrifice to God is a part of our service to him, and we seek to “excel in this grace of giving…not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 8:7, 9:7).

 

In the land of external rules, we pride ourselves on doing everything the same way in every church. In the land of personal liberty, we plant a thousand different flags of independence and thumb our noses at needs that require sustained cooperation between congregations. In the land of obedience to the unenforceable, we answer the call to “be completely humble and gentle; [and to] be patient, bearing with one another in love. [We] make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. For there is one body…” (Ephesians 4:2–4).

 

In the land of external rules, we share our faith with five people every day. In the land of personal liberty, we mean to get around to sharing about Jesus, but rarely seem to find the “natural” and spontaneous occasion to do so. In the land of obedience to the unenforceable, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14) and so we “cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

 

The painful process we are going through now will devastate our faith if we forget that such discipline is the very proof that God is treating us as sons—sons destined for maturity (Hebrews 12:1–15, Romans 8:28–30). It is difficult to see the church we love confronted with the need for repentance on such fundamental issues. And yet, if we respond humbly to the discipline of God’s gracious hand, I believe we will end up in a far better place as a result of his gracious purposes. If we do not give up, we will taste the fruits of maturity and lay claim to a genuine and sincere faith in the land of obedience to the unenforceable.

 

Near the close of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had these words to say about rebuilding a nation that had been torn apart by a protracted and bloody strife:

 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”2

 

Surely we can do no less as we struggle to build the church of Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

1. Quotations are from a speech delivered by Lord Moulton at the Authors’ Club in London and reprinted under the title “Law and Manners” in the July 1924 edition of Atlantic Monthly.

2. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.