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Obedience is better than sacrifice: The church and the challenge of good governance

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Nana Ogbodo. Photo/tachistudios

It was with great trepidation that I accepted the invitation to deliver this keynote address to this august assemblage of ecclesiastical doyens of the Methodist Church, Owerri Diocese.

My trepidation was predicated on the fact that as a Methodist, I will be placed in the unlikely position of a student pontificating to his teachers.

Nonetheless, may I place on record my appreciation to His Lordship, Rt. Rev, Dennis Mark, the Bishop of this great Methodist stronghold, and the conveners of this Synod for this rare opportunity to briefly share a few thoughts on the topic ‘Obedience is Better than Sacrifice’, which incidentally is the theme of this year’s Conference, and which I have taken liberty to modify to read: “Obedience is better than Sacrifice: The Church and the Challenge of Good Governance.”

In the last couple of years I have observed with some concern, the despondency with which many persons, including charlatans, have chosen to assess the contemporary role of the church in enthroning good governance in Nigeria.

The severe criticism of the church in that regard even by devoted adherents of the Christian faith is indicative of the fact that all is not well. It underscores the notion that there has been a detour in delivering the earthly mandate of the church.

A detour emanating from the misplacement of two key kingdom concepts: “obedience” and “sacrifice”. These two key concepts call for clarification.

The Chambers Dictionary defines the word “obedience” to be ‘the act or practice of doing what one is told’ while the word “sacrifice” is defined as ‘the slaughter of an animal, person, etc on an altar as an offering to a god’.

Situated in perspective “obedience” denotatively carries with it the idea of complete self-abnegation and surrender to an overarching authority in contradistinction to the propitiatory implication of “sacrifice”.

The terse and mandatory biblical injunction that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ is a testament to that diametric relationship. But notably sacrifice predicated on obedience defines the whole essence of our Christian faith.

In the book of 1 Samuel 15:2-3, the Lord instructed King Saul through Prophet Samuel to undertake a military expedition.

The purpose was specific and the instruction clear: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

If King Saul did not understand any aspect of the instructions he would have asked questions and I am sure that the Lord would have made clarifications. He embarked on the mission but carried it out with personal relish or predilection. He took Agag the King of the Amalekites captive and spared the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lamb.

On inquiry by Prophet Samuel, King Saul gleefully and dishonestly reported that he had dutifully carried out the instruction.

The prophet’s further inquiry about the bleating of sheep and lowing of cattle he was hearing apparently from King Saul’s backyard was explained away by Saul as the spoils of the war, which were intended to be sacrificed to the Lord. This drew the ire of the prophet, and he queried in verse 22:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

The Psalmist also acknowledges the banality and futility of sacrifices over obedience when he in broken spirit in Psalm 51:16 intoned: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Obviously, if God’s problem was the offering of sacrifices then no man would be able to offer enough to please Him.

For Jehovah proclaims in Psalm 50: 9-12: “I have no need for a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.”

What pleases God is obedience. ‘The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, the prayer of the upright pleases him,’ says Proverbs 15:8. Obedience to the precepts of God must be total not partial; it must be blind not rational; it must not be arrogant but must be rendered with fear and trembling. Indeed, it is a complete package that admits of no half measures or self.

Obedience to God’s word attracts divine reward and assures good success. When the Lord commissioned Joshua to continue the journey to the Promised Land from where Moses stopped, He warned Joshua: “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you: do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7)

As Christians we profess our love for God, but at the same time we strive to divorce it from obedience to His precepts. We pretend that love for God and obedience to His word are mutually exclusive commitments.

Certainly, it would be a contradiction in terms to love and not to obey because they are two sides of the same coin. 1 John 5:3 says: “This is love for God: to obey his commands.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us love and obedience by example. Although He is God incarnate, He knew that He was still bound to do the will of His father, Who sent Him, which was to vicariously die for our sins. He never allowed the encomiums or hatred of men or the seemingly innocuous temptations of Satan to sway Him from His obedience. He remained holy and deprecated double standards.

Consequently, the Lord cannot reduce His standards because of our weaknesses. When He came in the form of man, Jesus Christ felt what we feel and also suffered the same deprivations and injustices.

One cardinal attribute of obedience is that it is ubiquitous. It must be felt in our homes, in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our factories, in our schools and more so in our churches and leadership circles.

In whatever aspect of human endeavour we are located, we must as Christians operate as beacons of light by our obedience to God’s precepts. Instructively, our Lord Jesus Christ said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put under a bowl.

Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

It follows that how we conduct ourselves may bring about praise or excoriation to our faith and God. God forbid that the majesty of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ should be derided as a result of our rebellious and impious activities! But the reality today is that we live in a country where the basic tenets of our faith are observed more in the breach; a country that celebrates vices over virtues and villains over victors; a country where our social, religious and political institutions have collapsed and become the epicenters of infamy. It is sad commentary that many of the major actors are after all Christians.

The fabrics of our social cohesion have been corroded by strife, envy, greed, jealousy, etc. These have been exacerbated by the near disintegration of the family unit in Nigeria as a result of crass opportunism. Families are known to have encouraged their children and wards to do what others are doing to “make it”.

Similarly, known and reputed criminals have been garlanded by their families and communities with titles and customary offices as an endorsement of their villainy.

Regrettably, any attempt to criticize such shows of shame is considered as the product of envy. Such corruptive social endorsements of deviant behaviour destroy the very ethos of a just and progressive society. They have emboldened the flatulence of our inept political class, encouraged corruption and impunity and ultimately worsened the misery index of Nigerians.

The question is: where is the church in the equation of diffusing moral rectitude or reordering of the moral compass of the society?
 
The truth must be told and we must be brutally frank in doing so! My Lords of the ecclesiastical realm, there is dire need for moral rearmament in keeping with the precepts of the Bible. There is need for a radical departure from the hitherto accommodating and reconciliatory posture of the church with any axis of evil and oppression in our society. The church must rise equal to the decadence in our society by speaking to power and the powerful.

The church must abort any unholy dalliance with theaters of corruption and resist the allure of filthy lucre.

One is saddened by the many tales and shows of compromise and endorsement by the church of the villainous impulses of many adherents just because of what they do or will do for the church. The upshot of this flirtation is the erosion of truth and creation of the poverty of courage. Unfortunately, it inversely attests that “sacrifice is better than obedience”.

Indeed, the posture of the church reinforces the growing mindset among many who lay claim to the Christian faith that their endowments in church can mollify for their sins! This belief can only be from the pit of hell! Little wonder, therefore, that there is the pervading practice of the sons and daughters of Belial building churches in their local communities, which are often dedicated with pomp.

If nothing is done about the present situation of contextualizing sin on the lame excuse that it is not for the church to judge, then my worst fears would have been confirmed that the last bastion of truth and morality has sold out its mandate. It is high time we started praying to God to give His church in Nigeria men and women of courage and truth in good measure.

My Bible tells me and I have been taught in Bible study classes and Sunday sermons that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7).

God please give us men who have not been compromised; men like Daniel who will resolve ‘not to defile himself with the royal food and wine’; (Daniel 1:8).

Most times I wonder, when again shall we have men like Prophet Samuel of the Bible who when giving account of his stewardship at Gilgal shortly after anointing Saul King over Israel threw a challenge to all Israel thus: “Here I stand.

Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these, I will make it right.” (1 Samuel 12:3)

To this challenge the people replied: ‘You have not cheated or oppressed us. You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.’

What a wonderful testimony. This explains why Prophet Samuel was able to seriously rebuke King Saul when he went astray.

He could have justifiably rationalized King Saul’s disobedience on the ground that the spoils were to be sacrificed unto God.

I leave it to your imagination as to how many priests would do the same today without rationalization or contextualization where the disobedient person is in a position to extend material perquisites.

I must not be understood to be advocating that the church should be on collision course with the government, highly placed persons or the wealthy in society.

My theses are, firstly, that the church should shun flirting with power and the powerful so as to maintain its boldness.

Secondly, the church should begin to apply the holistic gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in a manner that will be in sync with the hopes and aspirations of the people.

The Bible says that ‘when the righteous is in power the people rejoice.’ This hints at the direct correlation between good governance and adherence to the precepts of Christ. A righteous man will govern with the fear of God and pursue the welfare and security of the people with vigour.

My Lords spiritual, more than ever in the history of our nation, it has become imperative that the church should be attuned to the progressive aspiration of creating strong democratic institutions as the surest way of checking tyranny and maladministration. We have top public office holders, judges, legislators, the intelligentsia, bureaucrats and security personnel in our churches who are critical in creating the strong institutions.

How successful the church will be in this reordering will depend on its ability to dispassionately and courageously utilize the pulpit.

The eras of grandstanding, manipulation and tolerance for the duplicitous worship of God and mammon must be jettisoned. I sincerely look forward to a new era when our pulpits will once again be exclusively the vortex of admonition, teaching and edification. I call in aid Alexis de Tocqueville’s anecdote of how the power of the pulpit helped to shape democracy in America.

In his book Democracy in America he wrote: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbours and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairie, and it was not there; in her rich mines and vast commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.”

The church must shed the poverty of courage and in obedience to the word of God frontally confront every form of oppression and malfeasance in public office.

Thus far I have ruminated on the role of the clergy in promoting good governance, but it is axiomatic that the church represents a synergetic relationship between the clergy and the laity. The work of the clergy will be made easier by the obedience of the laity.

As members of the laity we are expected to apply ourselves, in accordance with the scriptures, to the sustenance of the church and church workers. Here, obedience can be bifurcated: the first is obedience to scripturally lawful ecclesiastical rules, regulations and policies. Disobedience to such scripturally lawful orders amounts to rebellion.

In heaven and on earth, rebellion is a very serious offence. Instructively, the sin of rebellion has exponential effects on the life of any person. It breeds arrogance, idolatry and eventual destruction. This explains why 1 Samuel 15:23 says that ‘rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.’

It was the rebellion of Lucifer against God that led to his being hurled down from his high angelic splendor. It was for the same rebellion that King Saul had the Kingdom of Israel thorn from his hands. We must, therefore, be careful not to be caught in the web of disobedience.

Second, it is biblical that the laity should endeavour to take care of the clergy and other church workers. By divine prescience, God decreed the payment of tithe to meet such exigencies. Malachi 3:10 says: ‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may food in my house.’

God acknowledges that if there is no food in His house, which means lack of care for the priests, there may be murmuring and despondency among priests. Such disposition will be inimical to their priestly calling.

To show how God enjoys thanksgiving rooted in obedience and His desire to provide for the priests, the Lord goes on in verses 10-11 to say: “Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit, says the Lord Almighty.”

Recently, in virtually all the media of mass communication there have been so many hullabaloos about the propriety of continuing to pay tithe in the present dispensation, especially in view of the ostentation exhibited by some men of God.

I will not engage in such idle discussions but my personal conviction is that payment of tithe is mandatory and is evidence of thanksgiving to God for His provisions. Whether you pay ten or more percent will depend on the level of one’s appreciation for God’s provisions to one.

Furthermore, it is my belief that when you pay your tithe or give any form of offering in church it is not your duty to scrutinize its use or application. It is as unto God and we do not have the capacity to assist God. Do your part and leave the rest to God.

My pride and assurance is that the God we serve is a true and living God. He will at His own time judge in righteousness. In the same way that God will judge those who rob Him in tithes He will also judge those who misapply tithes.

Apart from payment of tithes, the laity has an obligation to jointly and severally attend to the needs of the clergy. It is often easy to criticize the clergy based on perceived attitudinal expectations.

Such criticisms miss the important fact that the priests are first and foremost human with their own genuine needs and expectations. We must desist from seeing our priests as super humans whose needs are instantaneously met in a manner reminiscent of manna from heaven.

Spiritually, the clergy sows inestimably in us; therefore, they have a right to partake of our material harvest. After all, Apostle Paul queried in 1 Corinthians 9: 7-12: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I merely say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely, he says this for us, doesn’t he?

Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?”

He went further in verses 13 and 14 to say: “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered at the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.”

As God showers His blessings upon us, we should in the same spirit of thanksgiving materially bless the clergy through whose prayers and sacrificial penance the countenance of God has shone on us.

It is my submission that unless the laity begins to understand and adequately appreciate the clergy, and thereby arrest the creeping poverty of mind and courage, which are fostered by material poverty, then the much desired frontal assault against bad governance and moral decadence in our society would remain specious.

This is particularly so in our contemporary Nigerian society that is witnessing the vestigial erosion of social cohesion and family values as a result of crass materialism.

Overall, the incontrovertible fact is that we need a new church! A new church in which the clergy and the laity will transcend the platitudes of churchianity and churchism and be immersed in obedience to evangelistic pursuits and exploits for the kingdom of God. A church that is not bogged down by epicurean concerns or that loathes the old time religion.

A church filled with brethren who know and trust our God. Brethren who like apostle Paul would say, ‘woe is me if I preach not the gospel’; brethren like those who brought the Azusa Street revival would pray their sole prayer – ‘Lord give us men that will spread your fire in the streets of London’; brethren like those who during the Indonesian revival prayed ceaselessly with the prayer point: “Lord the harvest is ripe… if it pleases you, please use us.” This should be the mindset of the contemporary church if it desires to solve the challenges of this era.

My Lords spiritual, men and brethren, I implore us all at this Synod to individually and collectively resolve to make a new beginning and ask God for the wisdom and courage, which are so necessary for this tortuous but inevitable undertaking to always obey than to sacrifice. I am sure that he will answer.

Thank you for listening.

(Being a keynote address delivered by Nana Ogbodo Esq. B.A (Hons.), LL.M; at the 35th Synod of the Owerri Diocese of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, 4th May 2019.)


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