Pastoral Perspectives

To Obey or Not to Obey?

It was supposed to be a beautiful day for me until news came that a South Korean ferry had capsized and sank off Jindo Island. There were 476 passengers on board and many were secondary students on a school trip. The aftermath of the sinking might be strikingly familiar to many people watching media coverage because of another tragic incident that happened earlier, i.e. the disappearance of flight MH370. Though some 174 people were rescued this time round, we witnessed the same outpouring of grief and frustration with the authorities over initial rescue efforts and the demand for answers to many questions. And for many parents involved in the incident, it was hard to accept that their children had perished in the waters. Did they try to escape but failed?

And so I read of an article in Straits Times dated 23 April that suggests the culture of obedience is to be blamed. For Confucian values on respecting and listening to elders and seniors instilled during the Chosun dynasty still run deep in the country. So students might have listened to the voice of authority during the emergency, for it was told that the captain and crew had issued orders to stay put and not move when the ferry started to list. According to the article, ‘naughty’ students however disobeyed the orders and were counted among the survivors. So was it a mistake to have obeyed orders? I suppose we know of countless movies where people did not obey orders to stay calm but rushed to escape, thereby causing a pandemonium and making things worse. And we know how these reel scenes can play out in real lives as well. And so responses were mixed in the article as well feedbacks in Straits Times’ forum page. So parents are left to ponder whether they should continue teaching their children the age-old tradition of obedience. For it is no longer a simple matter of basic human courtesy and social grace but a matter of life and death at times as well. Yet what would become of the children if they are not taught to obey? And are they wise enough to discern if they are taught to obey only when necessary, i.e. flexibility as one suggested?

The church of Jesus Christ is also facing a similar dilemma. Like the victims caught in the midst of the sinking, the church is also caught in the midst of a massive revolution regarding the morality of same-sex acts and marriages. And like the parents of the victims grappling with the aftermath, the church also has to decide whether to hold on to the teaching that had been instilled since the apostolic time or revise it altogether in order to accommodate a changing society. The world is pressing hard and the church cannot remain silent anymore. There are already a great number of people and churches within the evangelical circles worldwide who are seeking to make peace and endorse the acceptance of openly-gay individuals and couples in the life of the church by making claims for it in both a persuasive and biblical manner. The Church of Scotland’s shift to the revisionist position is one such example among many. Soon the issue will also be pressing hard upon the church here in Singapore. So should we do likewise?

Well, I agree with a scholar who warns that if we should revise our position because of demands from the world and not because Scripture demands it, it would only lead to the loss of confidence in the church’s ability to understand and obey Scriptures and soon the loss of the gospel as the good news to sinners as well. Therefore it shouldn’t be a dilemma for the church when we are confident that our position is faithful to Scripture and needs no revision. What we really need is the courage to remain steadfast in faith. But how confident are we to say that Scripture is against same-sex acts and marriages? What about those from the evangelical circles that suggest otherwise and the numerous literatures which support their views so persuasively? Could they be right after all? Therefore the Presbyterian Church of Singapore is preparing a theological response to those views in order to help local churches understand the issues at stake and to be clear and confident of what Scripture is saying about these things so that we can remain firm in our position as we envisage the storm hitting our shores.

Now you may think that it is obvious Scripture teaches against these things and wonder why we are making a fuss out of it. Well, this tragic ferry incident reminds me that when we should find ourselves caught in the midst of a storm and facing all kinds of forces pressing upon us and hearing all kinds of voices yelling at us, emotions can run high and we can lose our senses and become confused as a result. When it happens, we may not be able to tell right from wrong. And like the ‘naughty’ students who disobeyed and survive, we might look at those churches that revise their position and receive so much affirmation and approval from the watching world that we think they were right after all. So it is better to be sure now than to wait till later.

Finally, I think this is where the similarity ends. While Confucian values on respecting and listening to elders and seniors is good (even the Bible teaches it) and should be taught even though it may ‘backfire’ at times, its weakness lies in the fact that not all elders and seniors are good people. And even if they are good people who seek to give good counsels, they are not omniscience and do not always know the best or right counsels. But God is good and he is omniscience. So we can trust in his Word for all kinds of challenges and questions we face in life and abide by it even if it may sound so foolish and wrong to the world. Therefore let us learn to obey God’s counsels while the water is still calm so that when sorrows like sea billows roll and whatever our lot may be, we can likewise echo, “it is well with our souls”.

Pastor Ronnie

May 4, 2014