Education beyond Obedience

· Ethics,Education,Bible

We are educated in the church way beyond the level of our obedience.

John Maxwell said this in a New Year’s Day lecture in 2017. His topic was Paul’s passion for the good news. Maxwell couches this statement in his interpretation of what Paul says about living out Jesus’s gospel message:

Let me transcribe those words for you.

“I didn’t just want to talk about it. I wanted to be in on it....I didn’t want to just have another Bible study about reaching people like my neighbours for Christ. Worthless. Worthless. We are educated in the church way beyond the level of our obedience. And the only transformation comes not from intellectual teaching. Transformation comes from application. Transformation does not happen until you act upon what you know. The greatest gap in the world is between knowing and doing.”


I wanted to know more about what Maxwell meant by this distinction between knowing and doing, and why he thinks education gets in the way of obedience. Watching the whole talk didn’t help. So, I did a Google search for “obedience.” Among the first websites on offer, I found a dog training school that advocated rewarding dogs for obedience rather than punishing them for disobedience.

No help there.

I decided to make my search more specific, quoting Maxwell’s words about education and obedience. A book that included this quotation came up. It was written by someone I had never heard of and titled The Profit Dare: Winning at Wealth Without Losing Your Soul. Not the kind of subject matter I would naturally be drawn to. But I took a look anyway and found this:

Jesus provides a strong warning about hearing the word and not doing it (James 1:22‒25). Those who hear the word but don’t practice it are only deceiving themselves. [Maxwell’s verbiage inserted here.] Nothing against knowledge but we need to practice some too. We must become accustomed to instantaneous obedience. Partial obedience is actually rebellion and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23 NKJV)!

Phew! There’s a bit of a leap between disobedience and rebellion, I thought. What’s more, the idea of “instantaneous obedience” continued the theme of being a trained dog, not a disciplined follower of Jesus.

Perhaps, I thought, a more classic writer would have some wisdom on the relationship between education and obedience. A new search led me to Oswald Chambers’s book The Shadow of an Agony. Now, most of Chambers’s writing I can take or leave. And from what I read of this book, I think I can safely leave it.

Moral problems are only solved by obedience. We cannot see what we see until we see it. Intellectually things can be worked out, but morally the solution is only reached by obedience. One step in obedience is worth years of study, and will take us into the center of God’s will for all of us.

Okay, I thought, so Chambers gets the idea that experience has a strong role in learning. But academics have a propensity to avoid using absolute words like “only.” “Only solved.” “Only reached.” As soon as we see an absolute, we look for exceptions. (I realize I just made an absolute statement. Take it apart as you like.)

Further, and perhaps closer to the flaw in his thought, obedience is not key to solving moral problems. First, there are plenty of moral problems that cannot be solved because we are finite creatures with limitations to what we can know and do. Obedience doesn’t come into it. And second, challenging moral problems are often solved when we think
creatively about how to bend rules and allow them to work toward what is right
or good. The sabbath, after all, was created for people.

As an ethicist, I believe there is a strong connection between knowledge and action.
To be a faithful follower of Jesus means knowing Jesus. Valuing what Jesus valued. Acting in the way Jesus acted. And seeing the connections between what Jesus valued and how he acted. Jesus didn’t have an academic degree. He wasn’t a scholar, but he was a teacher. Even as a child, he amazed the temple scholars with “his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:41‒51). Knowing Jesus as a teacher is just as important as knowing him as a healer or a feeder.

None of this means we don’t need to obey. But obedience is more complicated than sitting when we are told to sit. Another classic source, Karl Barth, understood the complexity of the Christian moral life. You’ve probably heard something attributed to him: A Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. What he actually said was to

take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.

Why? Because scripture helps us see the world around us through God’s eyes. For Christians, responding well to moral challenges depends on knowing the world as God knows it.

Jesus knew who was in charge in the religious and political realms. Jesus knew who the vulnerable people were. And his actions were prompted by a love for all people because all are valuable in God’s eyes. But those actions were shaped and toned by a particular concern for those whose lives were impoverished for the sake of the powerful.

It is the same for us today. We need to understand the world around us—particularly who is vulnerable and who holds the power—to care intelligently for those who need care and to share good news intelligently with those who need to hear it. This doesn’t take a degree. We just need enough knowledge to find creative, faithful ways to obey Jesus’s cornerstone commands to love God and love others.

The transforming power of the gospel does not depend absolutely on human intellect. There I can agree with Maxwell. But knowledge plays a unique role for us as we help transform the earth according to the values of the kingdom of God—values Jesus thought were important enough to teach.