The Moral Bankruptcy of Evangelical Ethics, part 2: Obedience

Content warnings: violence in religious symbolism and against children

Obedience is a core principle in the ethical code defined by evangelical Christianity. It is at the crux of the cross story itself: according to the Christ myth, god gave his son to be sacrificed, and it was crucial that Jesus obeyed the will of his father, willingly succumbing to a torturous death. It’s a ridiculous story on all accounts, even Christians take pride in this fact, because they say only a clever god would come up with something so radical. It’s actually a violent story, unfit for children, depicting violent torture and the victim of it as good for enduring it. My intent with this essay is to show evidence that obedience basically encapsulates most of the commands demanded by the evangelical interpretation of the bible. Obedience also encapsulates sexual purity and proselytization, though I’m examining those subjects with closer emphasis in this series.

Every command comes with the expectation of obedience. I don’t have to go through each rule to prove this point. The ten commandments are all telling people what to do. The parables and teachings of Jesus are full of promises or warnings about the consequences of behaviors. Beyond the bible as a source, obedience is a broadly expected behavior in every hierarchy the evangelical church respects, upholds, and even worships. God is at the top of the hierarchy, and men are above women, and adults are above children. Pastors are at the top of the hierarchy in churches, with the staff forming into a hierarchy below them.

Because children are at the bottom of the church hierarchy, it is not only acceptable to abuse them, but it is encouraged. Hitting (referred to as “spanking”) is recommended to manage behavior and establish impulse control in children. They tell a horror story to young children about an innocent, kind man who loved and welcomed children being tortured to death slowly. This is used as a motivator for the child’s conscience for the rest of their life. This alone is physical and emotional and spiritual abuse, yet it’s the bare minimum of the abuse these people do. It is done in the name of ensuring obedience, and to that end, it is effective.

Obedience is expected at every level of the hierarchy, too. Women are expected to obey men, and the congregation is expected to obey the pastor. This doesn’t always work, as anyone who’s been through a church split knows, but obedience is championed as the goal.

I wrote a post back in 2018 about the importance of intelligent disobedience, an idea Ira Chaleff talks about in his book of the same name. There, I talked about some of the training my mom did with us kids, and how we had to parrot phrases and were forced to line up by our age at a moment’s notice. Sometimes kids were spanked incessantly for not obeying fast enough. The rest of us were expected to remain in line, without reaction to our younger siblings learning as we did how to obey.

Obedience fails as an ethical standard because you can be commanded to do something wrong. Being trained to instantly obey undermines your capacity to resist or think twice about what you’re doing. It takes away your own responsibility for your actions, because you’re “just doing your job” or “following orders.”

It is also dangerous to equate obedience with goodness and disobedience with badness, but this is what the concept of sin does. It puts all evil behavior on the same level as every other possible way to sin. There is extensive hypocrisy on this, since not all laws are interpreted as having the same weight under evangelical teachings. For instance, the old testament makes it clear that mixed fabrics are a sin to wear, but a cotton-polyester blended t-shirt is fine with most evangelicals.

The only kind of wrong behavior the evangelical church knows how to address is disobedience. There is no clarity on what to do about abuse of power. That is why they can’t call out the abuse from their leaders. Obedience is a more important value to them. Obedience is the basis of evangelical ethics, but it’s a terrible basis for an ethical system, for the multitude of reasons I’ve gone through in this post. In my next post, I’ll be discussing proselytization and what is wrong with it.