Rules. Rules. Rules.
One of the most common complaints about Christianity is that it is merely a pile of rules. These rules are sometimes ones about what you should do (ie, “read your Bible”), but more often are about what you shouldn’t do (“do not have sex… well, maybe a little after you get married… but don’t enjoy it…”). This criticism – which emerges out of many people’s experience – upsets us because these rules seem to be primarily there to exert power over people, and to steal away some of their fun.
Now, I could rail against this in a whole host of ways. Or I could also suggest that many of the rules that Christians live by are there to protect people from the un-fun consequences of a false kind of fun. And that would be true, at least for some of them. But I think there’s a better answer:
Christians don’t follow rules. They follow the One Who Rules.
Of course, I recognise that there are some – if not many – people claiming to be Christian, who most certainly do seem to follow rules. One option from that, then, is that those people are not really Christians. And, sometimes, I suggest they are not. But, sometimes (and I’d like to think most of the time) Christians are actually keeping the rules, not following them. That might seem like semantics, but it makes all the difference.
Following is a walking metaphor. It is about letting something determine where you go, letting it rule and direct you. That “something” that you’re following can be a person, or perhaps a goal. If you’re following a person – perhaps a king, or a master, or a teacher – they tell you (or show you) where you need to be going in order to follow them, and out of that emerge your “rules”. You then have two potential pitfalls: you could potentially forget about following the person, and just follow the rules in-and-of-themselves; or you could ignore the rules, as an expression of not being committed to following the person any more. But in either of these options, whether you follow the rules or you stop following them, the result is the same: you stop following the person.
Christians believe that Jesus is the King, the Master, the Teacher – and I might suggest they believe that for good reasons. And Jesus said, “Follow Me”, quite a lot. When asked what following Him would look like, Jesus boiled it down to two directions: “Love God. Love other people.” He also showed what following Him would look like, by loving God passionately, and loving people sacrificially. And then He said again, “Follow Me.” The specific examples that He either taught (ie, “don’t lie”) or did (ie, healing somebody), emerge out of loving God, and loving other people.
Jesus also emphatically criticised any people who claimed to be following God, but who were only interested in following the rules. That’s because most of the time, they were so busy following the rules that they had forgotten Who they were really meant to be following. They had forgotten Who so badly, that when He walked right up to them, and said, “Follow Me”, they didn’t even recognise Him.
Practically, what difference does this make today? Well, a good example is from World War II Germany. Those who just kept the rules and forgot Who they were following, said, “Jesus said not to lie, so when the Nazis ask us where the Jews are hiding, we have to tell them the truth.” The real followers said, “Jesus said following Him was about loving God and loving other people. So when a bunch of guys want to kill some people, we’ll lie to keep those people alive. Because letting them be killed is not loving them.” Most of the time, lying would not have been loving to God or others, and so they had kept that rule. But when it wasn’t loving to God or others, they saw the higher priority, which was following Jesus.
So Jesus isn’t asking you to follow a system, a belief, a mantra, or a set of rules. He’s saying the same thing He’s always said:
Great post Matt. I heartily agree with the fact that we follow the Ruler more than we follow rules and this distinction helps helps us sort through legalistic dead ends and get on with what it means to follow Jesus.
However, the idea of ‘following a rule’ in the monastic sense has been beneficial to me. Years ago I embarked on an experiment in urban ministry with a program in Atlanta (Mission Year). As part of the program I agreed to certain rules (no drinking, no being out by myself after dark, following a set daily and weekly work schedule, time in the neighborhood,corporate prayer, mandatory Sabbaths, etc.). I know that many who were on my team felt these rules constricting and balked against them. But I loved them.
The reason is, that though some of the rules seemed arbitrary they actually enabled me to live a sort of life I wanted to live in the neighborhood I was serving. I could have easily broken rules (and I did bend them, when I felt like they stood in the way of caring for people), but they enabled me to maintain proper boundaries, attend to self care, avoid ethically grey areas (like drinking with addicts), and in general, get things done.
By nature, I don’t think I am as self disciplined as you are. So having some sort of ‘rule’ thrust on me was a good discipline. Yes, ultimately are allegiance is to a Ruler, but there is still abiding value in following rules!
And no, I am not just trying to be contrary. :)
I totally see where you’re coming from here, James. I know that I really am big on Spiritual disciplines, largely reflecting an appreciation of monastic Spirituality, and things like the Benedictine Rule (for example). Really, this article isn’t about abandoning rules, it’s about making sure that “the cart doesn’t come before the horse”. I keep rules because they help develop a greater sense of love and obedience to Jesus. The monastic rules helped facilitate obedience to Jesus, often by putting in a “stupid” rule that didn’t make sense, since that meant you had to trust Jesus would make sense of it. The point is, I’m astonished how people – both non-Christians and Christians – have this remarkable capacity to forget Why they’re doing this stuff, and become fixated on the how. Once the how is all we’re wondering about, and the Why gets lost in the crossfire, we’re pretty much stuffed.
Agreed. Jesus came not to abolish the law (rules?) and the prophets but to fulfill them. I am just wary of talk against rules the same way I am wary of talk against religion (like a certain video that is now viral claims). You see the danger in people forgetting the WHY and focusing on the HOW, but I see the danger of people knowing the WHY but then not having a clue WHAT to do.
Of course are relationship with Jesus is at the center and we shouldn’t absolutize the means but the means are still important. I know you aren’t a complete anarchist and you aren’t saying stuff the HOW, but I just worry that sometimes when we attack rules we end up giving a false impression of the demand that the Ruler really has on our life.
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Hi Matt, I know we’ve talked about this topic, but I thought I’d make a contribution to the online discussion. I find ‘spiritual disciplines’ a more useful term than ‘rules’ for myself. I once heard the author Calvin Miller speak, and one particular statement he made has always stuck with me: “Grace is what God does for us and discipline is what we do for God.” I asked him where discipline finished and a theology of works began. Miller said that he thought the difference lay in the attitude of the heart. He illustrated it by saying that some people will do things for you and never let you forget it and others will do things for you and never think of it again. The attitude of the heart is the key. Do you exercise discipline because you want to or because you expect something in return?
So, yes, it comes back to relationship: Love God. Love other people. Spiritual disciplines are offerings of love and devotion to God which help to cultivate and nurture our spiritual growth and relationship with God (and with other people).
I also like these quotes from Richard Foster:
“Spiritual disciplines are the main way we offer our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. We are doing what we can do with our bodies, our minds, our hearts. God then takes this simple offering of ourselves and does with it what we cannot do, producing within us deeply ingrained habits of love and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
“Spiritual Formation is a process, but it is also a journey through which we open our hearts to a deeper connection with God. We are not bystanders in our spiritual lives, we are active participants with God, who is ever inviting us into relationship with him.”
Great points, Ann! I think the other big factor often neglected here (especially for us evangelicals) is the role of the Holy Spirit here. While I do play a factor in my works, really the only way I do anything godly is because God is in me doing them through me. Your quote from Foster really starts to highlight this – it is Spiritual formation, our formation into Christlikeness through the Spirit of Christ forming us.
Absolutely, Matt. Thanks for drawing that out further.