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Holy Living

by Jeremy Taylor





Of Obedience to our Superiors.


Our superiors are set over us in affairs of the world, or the affairs of the soul and things pertaining to religion, and are called accordingly ecclesiastical or civil. Towards whom our duty is thus generally described in the New Testament. For temporal or civil governors the commands are these: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s;” and, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God; whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation:”[153] and, ‘Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, and to obey magistrates:’[154] and, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and the praise of them that do well.”[155]

For spiritual or ecclesiastical governors, thus we are commanded: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account:”[156] and, Hold such in reputation: and, “To this end did I write,that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things,” said St. Paul to the church in Corinth. Our duty is reducible to practice by the following rules.


Acts and Duties of Obedience to all our Superiors.

1. We must obey all human laws appointed and constituted by lawful authority, that is, of the supreme power, according to the constitution of the place in which we live: all laws, I mean, which are not against the law of God.

2. In obedience to human laws, we must observe the letter of the law where we can, without doing violence to the reason of the law and the intention of the lawgiver; but where they cross each other the charity of the law is to be preferred before its discipline, and the reason of it before the letter.

3. If the general reason of the law ceases in our particular, and a contrary reason rises upon us, we are to procure dispensation, or leave to omit the observation of it in such circumstances, if there be any persons or office appointed for granting it; but if there be none, or if it is not easily to be had, or not without an inconvenience greater than the good of the observation of the law in our particular, we are dispensed withal in the nature of the thing, without further process or trouble.

4. As long as the law is obligatory, so long our obedience is due; and he that begins a contrary custom without reason, sins: but he that breaks the law, when the custom is entered and fixed, is excused; because it is supposed the legislative power consents, when, by not punishing, it suffers disobedience to grow to a custom.

5. Obedience to human laws must be for conscience sake; that is, because in such obedience public order, and charity, and benefit, are concerned, and because the law of God commands us: therefore we must make a conscience in keeping the just laws of superiors: and although the matter before the making of the law was indifferent, yet now the obedience is not indifferent; but, next to the laws of God, we are to obey the laws of all our superiors, who the more public they are the first they are to be in the order of obedience.

6. Submit to the punishment and censure of the laws, and seek not to reverse their judgment by opposing, but by submitting, or flying, or silence, to pass through it or by it, as we can; and although from inferior judges we may appeal where the law permits us, yet we must sit down and rest in the judgment of the supreme; and if we be wronged, let us complain to God of the injury, not of the persons; and he will deliver thy soul from unrighteous judges.

7. Do not believe thou hast kept the law, when thou hast suffered the punishment. For although patiently to submit to the power of the sword be a part of obedience, yet this is such a part as supposes another left undone; and the law punishes, not because she is as well pleased in taking vengeance as in being obeyed, but because she is pleased she uses punishment as a means to secure obedience for the future, or in others. Therefore, although in such cases the law is satisfied, and the injury and the injustice are paid for, yet the sins of irreligion, and scandal, and disobedience to God, must still be so accounted for, as to crave pardon and be washed off by repentance.

8. Human laws are not to be broken with scandal, nor at all without reason; for he that does it causelessly is a despiser of the law, and undervalues the authority. For human laws differ from Divine laws principally in this: 1. That the positive commands of a man may be broken upon smaller and more reasons than the positive commands of God; we may, upon a smaller reason omit to keep any of the fasting-days of the church than omit to give alms to the poor; only this, the reason must bear weight according to the gravity and concernment of the law; a law, in a small matter, may be omitted for a small reason: in a great matter, not without a greater reason. and 2. The negative precepts of men may cease by many instruments, by contrary customs, by public disrelish, by long omission: but the negative precepts of God never can cease, but when they are expressly abrogated by the same authority. But what those reasons are that can dispense with the command of a man, a man may be his own judge, and sometimes take his proportions from his own reason and necessity, sometimes from public fame, and the practice of pious and severe persons, and from popular customs; in which a man shall walk most safely when he does not walk along, but a spiritual man takes him by the hand.

9. We must not be too forward in procuring dispensations, nor use them any longer than the reason continues for which we first procured them; for to be dispensed withal is an argument of natural infirmity, if it be necessary; but, if it be not, it signifies an undisciplined and unmortified spirit.

10. We must not be too busy in examining the prudence and unreasonableness of human laws: for although we are not bound to believe them all to be the wisest, yet if, by inquiring into the lawfulness of them, or by any other instrument we find them to fail of that wisdom with which some others are ordained, yet we must never make use of it to disparage the person of the lawgiver, or to countenance any man’s disobedience, much less our own.

11. Pay that reverence to the person of thy prince, of his ministers, of thy parents and spiritual guides, which, by the customs of the place thou livest in, are usually paid to such persons in their several degrees: that is, that the highest reverence be paid to the highest persons, and so still in proportion; and that this reverence be expressed in all the circumstances and manners of the city and nation.

12. Lift not up thy hand against thy prince or parent, upon what pretence soever; but bear all personal affronts and inconveniences at their hands, and seek no remedy but by patience and piety, yielding and praying, or absenting thyself.

13. Speak not evil of the ruler of thy people, neither curse thy father or mother, nor revile thy spiritual guides, nor discover and lay naked their infirmities; but treat them with reverence and religion, and preserve their authority sacred, by esteeming their persons venerable.

14. Pay tribute and customs to princes according to the laws, and maintenance to thy parents according to their necessity, and honourable support to the clergy according to the dignity of the work and the customs of the place.

15. Remember always, that duty to our superiors is not an act of commutative justice, but of distributive; that is, although kings and parents and spiritual guides are to pay a great duty to their inferiors, the duty of their several charges and government, yet the good government of a king and of parents are actions of religion, as they relate to God, and of piety, as they relate to their people and families. And although we usually all them just princes who administer their laws exactly to the people, because the actions are in the manner of justice, yet in propriety of speech, they are rather to be called pious and religious. For as he is not called a just father that educates his children well, but pious; so that prince who defends and well rules his people is religious, and does that duty for which alone he is answerable to God: the consequence of which is this, so far as concerns our duty - if the prince or parent fail of their duty, we must not fail of ours; for we are answerable to them and to God too, as being accountable to all our superiors, and so are they to theirs: they are above us, and God is above them.


Remedies against Disobedience, and Means to endear our Obedience; by way of consideration.

1. Consider, that all authority descends from God, and our superiors bear the image of the Divine power, which God imprints on them as on an image of clay, or a coin upon a less perfect metal, which whoso defaces shall not be answerable for the loss or spoil of the materials, but the defacing the king’s image; and in the same measure will God require it at our hands, if we despise his authority, upon whomsoever he hath imprinted it.

He that despiseth you, despiseth me. And Dathan and Abiram were said to be ‘gathered together against the Lord.’ And this was St. Paul’s argument for our obedience: ‘The powers that be are ordained of God.’

2. There is very great peace and immunity from sin in resigning our wills up to the command of others; for provided that our duty to God be secured, their commands are warrants to us in all things else; and the case of conscience is determined, if the command be evident and pressing: and it is certain, the action that is but indifferent and without reward, if done only upon our own choice, is an act of duty and of religion, and rewardable by the grace and favour of God, if done in obedience to the command of our superiors. For since naturally we desire what is forbidden us, (and sometimes there is no other evil in the thing but that it is forbidden us,) God hath in grace enjoined and proportionably accepts obedience, as being directly opposed to the former irregularity; and it is acceptable, although there be no other good in the thing that is commanded us but that it is commanded.

3. By obedience we are made a society and a republic, and distinguished from herds of beasts, and heaps of flies, who do what they list, and are incapable of laws, and obey none; and therefore are killed and destroyed, though never punished, and they never can have a reward.

4. By obedience we are rendered capable of all the blessings of government, signified by St. Paul in these words: “He is the minister of God to thee for good;”[157] and by St. Peter in these: “Governors are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well.”[158] And he that ever felt, or saw or can understand, the miseries of confusion in public affairs, or amazement in a heap off side, tumultuous, and indefinite thoughts, may from thence judge of the admirable effects of order, and the beauty of government. What health is to the body, and peace is to the spirit, that is government to the societies of men; the greatest blessing which they can reveive in that temporal capacity.

5. No man shall ever be fit to govern others that knows not first how to obey. For if the spirit of a subject be rebellious, in a prince it will be tyrannical and intolerable; and of so ill example, that as it will encourage the disobedience of others, so it will render it unreasonable for him to exact of others what in the like case he refuses to pay.

6. There is no sin in the world which God hath punished with so great severity and high detestation as this of disobedience. For the crime of idolatry God sent the sword amongst his people; but it was never heard that the earth opened and swallowed up any but rebels against their prince.

7. Obedience is better than the particular actions of religion; and he serves God better that follows his prince in lawful services than he that refuses his command upon pretence he must go say his prayers. But rebellion is compared to that sin which of all sin seems the most unnatural and damned impiety, - ‘ Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’

8. Obedience is a complicated act of virtue, and many graces are exercised in one act of obedience. It is an act of humility, of mortification and self denial, of charity to God, of care of the public, of order and charity to ourselves and all our society, and a great instance of a victory over the most refractory and unruly passions.

9. To be a subject is a greater temporal felicity than to be a king: for all eminent governors according to their height, have a great burden, huge care, infinite business, little rest, innumerable fears; and all that he enjoys above another is, that he does enjoy the things of the world with others go at his single command, it is also certain he must suffer inconveniences at the needs and disturbances of all his people; and the evils of one man and of one family are not enough for him to bear, unless also he be almost crushed with the evils of mankind. He, therefore, is an ungrateful person that will press the scales down with a voluntary load, and, by disobedience, put more thorns into the crown or mitre of his superior. Much better is the advice of St. Paul; “Obey them that have the rule over you, as they that must give an account for your souls, that they may do it with joy and not with grief; for (besides that it is unpleasant to them) it is unprofitable for you.”

10. The angels are ministering spirits, and perpetually execute the will and commandment of God: and all the wise men and all the good men of the world are obedient to their governors; and the eternal Son of God esteemed it his ‘meat and drink to do the will of his Father,’ and for his obedience alone obtained the greatest glory: and no man ever came to perfection but by obedience; and thousands of saints have chosen such institutions and manners of living, in which they might not choose their own work, nor follow their own will, nor please themselves, but be accountable to others, and subject to discipline, and obedient to command; as knowing this to be the highway of the cross, the way that the King of sufferings and humility did choose, and so became the King of glory.

11. No man ever perished who followed first the will of God, and then the will of his superiors; but thousands have been damned merely for following their own will, and relying upon their own judgments, and choosing their own work, and doing their own fancies. For if we begin with ourselves, whatsoever seems good in our eyes is most commonly displeasing in the eyes of God.

12. The sin of rebellion, though it be a spiritual sin, and imitable by devils, yet it is of that disorder, unreasonableness, and impossibility, amongst intelligent spirits, that they never murmured or mutinied in their lower stations against their superiors. Nay, the good angels of an inferior order durst not revile a devil of a higher order. This consideration, which I reckon to be most pressing in the discourses of reason, and obliging next to the necessity of a Diving precept, we learn from St. Jude, viii.9, ‘Likewise also these filthy dreamers despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities. And yet Michael the archangel, when, contending with the devil, he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation.’

But because our superiors rule by their example, by their word or law, and by the rod, therefore in proportion there are several degrees and parts of obedience - several excellencies and degrees towards perfection.


Degrees of Obedience.

1. The first is the obedience of our outward work: and this is all that human laws of themselves regard; for because man cannot judge the heart, therefore it prescribes nothing to it: the public end is served, not by good wishes, but by real and actual performances, and if a man obeys against his will, he is not punishable by the laws.

2. The obedience of the will: and this is also necessary in our obedience to human laws, not because man requires it for himself, but because God commands it towards man; and if it, although man cannot, yet God will demand an account. For we are to do it as to the Lord, and not to men, and therefore we must do it willingly. But by this means our obedience in private is secured against secret arts and subterfuges; and when we can avoid the punishment, yet we shall not decline our duty, but serve man for God’s sake, that is, cheerfully, promptly, vigorously; for these are the proper parts of willingness and choice.

3. The understanding must yield obedience in general, though not in the particular instance, that is, we must be firmly persuaded of the excellency of the obedience, though we be not bound, in all cases, to think the particular law to be most prudent. But, in this, our rule is plain enough. Our understanding ought to be inquisitive, whether the civil constitution agree with our duty to God; but we are bound to inquire no further: and therefore beyond this, although he who, having no obligation to it, (as counsellors have,) inquires not at all into the wisdom or reasonableness of the law, be not always the wisest man, yet he is ever the best subject. For when he hath given up his understanding to his prince and prelate, provided that his duty to God be secured by a precedent search, he hath also, with the best and with all the instruments in the world, secured his obedience to man.




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