Christ the Vine, showing the Apostles who were first appointed as guardians of the Church
"Obedience is always freer and more faithful when it proceeds from love rather than from fear."
The Lord did not leave each man to his own will and thoughts: He did not leave us orphans. In addition to the Spirit that He grants to all, He also gave us the elders of the Church to lead us. The pope, patriarchs, bishops, and priests are given the task of guiding the Lord's flock, and they will have to render an account for their guidance at the Judgment. This burden of responsibility is heavy upon them, and heavy too can be our obedience to them, for their directives may not be according to our opinions. Yet, "that obedience is salvific which is hard: and that which you like and is easy is of little value" (Elder Michael of Valaam).
What the elders the Lord has placed over us proclaim, we are to follow, unless it be truly heresy. This does not mean that the directives of our leaders will always be the most prudent and correct option: yet we must still follow it. The words St. Paul writes concerning earthly authorities can be applied, in a sense, to our spiritual leaders as well: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment." In an even greater way than He institutes worldly authorities, does the Lord not appoint the guardians of His flock? Thus to resist His appointed leaders is to resist His will. Does it mean that they will be perfect? Not at all! Does it mean that each of their decisions will be correct? No! Sometimes a leader's rulings will be incorrect, and so he, or a successor, or a superior, will replace the ruling; other times, a ruling is only correct for a time. A common example in the West is St. Faustina Kowalska: at first, her writings were condemned by spiritual authorities, yet in time, the Church approved them, canonized her, and instituted a feast, Divine Mercy Sunday, based on her revelations. Thus each ruling will not necessarily be perfect. (Of course, none of this applies to doctrine, which can be further understood and developed but can never be contradicted.)
The Christian life is not one of independent, but mutual dependence on others, for we are all one Body in Christ. In the Body, there are different members with different roles, and some members are tasked with ruling and guiding the rest. For Paul stated that we must "be submissive to rulers and authorities...be obedient," including to the leaders of the Church; thus he declared to Titus, "Let no one disregard you." For we are not to disregard the loving instructions of our ecclesial fathers; and even if our fathers are not as loving as they are called to be, yet we must follow them. Let us, then, follow the command of St. Cyril of Turov, "Surrender yourself altogether to obedience"; for, as Father John (Alekseyev) wrote, "Holy obedience cultivates humility and strengthens will power." Remember the Lord's command regarding the Pharisees: "All things whatsoever they tell you to keep, keep and do"; if it applied to the Pharisees, how much more to the leaders of the Church! The saints often have difficult sayings about obedience, such as, "If you ever are conscious of impulses, thoughts, and judgments opposed to obedience, though apparently good and holy, do not admit them on any account, but reject them promptly, as you would thoughts against chastity or faith" (St. John Klimakos) and "It is not enough for obedience to do what is commanded. It must be done without debate, and must be looked upon as the best and most perfect thing possible, though it may seem and may even be the contrary" (St. Philip Neri). Yet despite the difficulty, let us always be obedient to the leaders has placed over us, doing as they order even when it seems imprudent. In this way we can sacrifice our own will, and in this way grow ever closer to the obedience of the Lord Jesus, Who was "obedient to death, even death on a cross." Glory to Jesus Christ!
Thy precepts truly I shall keep,
in whate'er place I find them,
whether from Scripture's vines I reap
or from bishop's voice they stem.
St. Cyril of Turov
Nota Bene: The opening quote is from Pelagius' Letter to the Matron Celantia §25, which is true despite the author. The quote from Elder Michael is from Interior Silence: Elder Michael: The Last Great Mystic of Valaam by Nun Maria Stakhovich and Sergius Bolshakoff, edited by Abbot Herman (Ouzinkie, AL: New Valaam Monastery, 1992). St. Cyril is quoted in Sergius Bolshakoff's Russian Mystics, volume 26 of the Cisterican Studies series (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1980). Father John is quoted from Christ Is in Our Midst: Letters From a Russian Monk, translated by Esther Williams (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980). The quotes from St. John Klimakos and St. Philip Neri are from the book 12 Catholic Virtues: A Year with the Saints by a Member of the Order of Mercy, given an imprimatur in 1891, found online at Catholic Tradition.