Read Part 1
“Rules were meant to be broken,” an old adage goes. Christians tend to have a different attitude, but we recognize a kernel of truth in the folk wisdom. Rules are so often wrong-headed, excessive, or motivated by foolish fears or lust for power. Sometimes they get in the way of the very things they are intended to accomplish.
Christian ministries can have too many rules and develop a cold, offense-focused culture. They can also err by according some rules a spiritual significance and power they don’t possess. These problems require that we give serious thought to what rules we have and what they are really accomplishing. But we should not overreact to the excesses and errors, criticize rules systems too broadly and blame them for problems that have other causes.
In Part 1 of this series, I presented two arguments for valuing rules more than many fundamentalists and evangelicals are inclined to nowadays. Here, I’ll offer a third argument, then respond to some objections.
Argument from the nature of rules
A common complaint against rules systems is that they are prone to become what the Pharisees loved and Jesus condemned in Matthew 23 and Mark 7. The Pharisees had a habit of binding “heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4). In addition, they were guilty of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
These “commandments of men” were often fences: man-made rules added to Torah in order to avoid violations of Torah. Though the fence rules were not from God, the Pharisees routinely vested them with all the authority and seriousness of those God had revealed. They even went so far as to use their man-made rules as reasons to disobey God’s rules (Mark 7:8-13).
A side-by-side comparison seems to suggest that rules-heavy fundamentalist ministries often do the same thing: erect fences and either officially, or by neglecting important teaching, encourage people to believe these commandments of men are equal to doctrine from God. I do not dispute that this happens. But this offense of the Pharisees is not as easy to commit as it may seem. This is true for several reasons.
First, the Pharisees were far from God and not truly interested in living holy lives (more on this later). Though often unsuccessful, fundamentalist rule makers almost always hope to produce behavior that honors God.
Second, in my experience, constituents of rules-heavy institutions are not all that likely to see the rules as “doctrines of God” unless someone presents them as such (and even then it’s a hard sell). Believers are usually well aware that many of the rules reflect the consciences of those who are in charge in matters where Scripture is not entirely clear (or are simply regulatory rules to help things run smoothly). In our highly individualistic age, most Christians are more than willing to question whether these rules are truly biblical.
And even with these rules in place believers are free to think matters through and arrive at their own beliefs. Today’s rule makers are Pharisee-like when they equate their rules with God’s revelation, but they are not committing this offense by simply saying “these are the rules” and leaving it at that.
Third, it’s significant that Jesus never actually faulted the Pharisees for making rules. Rather, when speaking of their rules, He faulted them for the hypocrisy of laying them on others when they had no intention of obeying them themselves (Matt. 23:4) and for the outrage of using their rules to subvert the commandments of God (Mark 7:8-13).
Fourth, we are all called to apply Scripture in ways that extend beyond what is directly revealed. Hebrews 5:13-14 calls us to develop discernment regarding the use of Scripture. Why would we need these skills unless God expects us to go beyond what He has directly commanded or prohibited and apply principles to other choices we face?
As we do that, we declare things to be right or wrong. We form rules. Since Romans 13:14 commands us not to set ourselves up for failure, a certain amount of fence making is also commanded. So “man-made rules” are essential—not only those we impose on ourselves by application, but also those imposed by leaders who watch for our souls (Heb. 13:17).
To summarize, the argument from the nature of rules is that the motivations and results of rule-making match the error of the Pharisees—and fall under Jesus’ condemnation—only when certain other errors are made. Rules themselves are not the problem and are, in fact, integral to biblical living.
Part 1 argued that the nature of sin and holiness are such that rules are often a real help in Christian living. Sin is so damaging, and obedience so helpful (to believers), that avoiding the former and choosing the latter always contributes to a believer’s growth. Though a discipler’s aim should always be obedience with faith and love, avoiding sin and doing right are always better than the alternative, even when faith and love are incomplete.
But this idea does raise questions. For one, if rules can help believers avoid sin and choose obedience, why not make as many of them as possible? Part of the answer is that a rule can fail in many ways and a limited number of them can actually accomplish their intended purpose. If a rule is the result of misunderstood or incorrectly applied Scripture, it fails. If a rule is an overreaching of authority, it may succeed in preventing the targeted sin yet do more harm than good in other ways.
Rule-making does carry risks, but not making rules poses many dangers as well. The attitude that “rules are dangerous and individual freedom is healthy” is naive.
Another objection asserts that doing right is useless if not motivated by love, and rules often replace love with self-interest (avoiding punishment). “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor…and have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). The point of this passage is clearly that love is of supreme importance in Christian living. But taking the passage to mean “if I lack love what I do has zero value” requires a selectively literal reading. That is, if we take “profits me nothing” literally, we must also take “have not love” literally. The result is “zero love, zero value.” And when does a believer act with no love for the Lord at all? More likely, the poetic cadences of the passage indicate that we should not read it so literally. The apostle is not teaching that if love is lacking we might as well go ahead and do wrong.
“Touch not, taste not, handle not”
Some who object to a more positive view of rules point to Colossians 2:20-23. But the context is critical to understanding Paul’s point. Colossians was written to combat a growing proto-gnosticism that spread erroneous ideas about the nature of Christ as well as the nature of body and spirit. Asceticism played a key role in this philosophy and appears in v.23 (“neglect of the body”). Paul’s point was that those who have been buried and raised in Christ do not attempt to achieve their own righteousness by punishing their bodies. To the degree modern leaders adopt this way of thinking, they too become the targets of Paul’s rebuke. But rule making does not encourage gnostic thinking any more than rule un-making encourages antinomian thinking.
The most popular objection to a more positive view of rules centers on the Pharisees. The idea is that the Gospels’ frequent and intense criticism of the Pharisees indicates that believers are highly vulnerable to the problem of “legalism” and that rule-making tends to feed this error. But a close look at Jesus’ rebukes of the Pharisees suggests the Pharisees had deeper and more serious problem.
Jesus unmasks the Pharisees most thoroughly in Matthew 23. What we find there is that the Pharisees imposed rules on others they themselves had no intention of obeying (Matt. 23:4), that they were in love with the praise of men (Matt. 23:6-7), and that they tried to look good in public while committing “extortion and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25) and “devour[ing] widows houses” (Matt. 23:14) behind the scenes. But their greatest error was pervasive and determined unbelief. They refused to enter the kingdom of heaven and sought to prevent others from entering as well (Matt. 23:14). Both John the Baptist and Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7, 23:33), indicating that they were the spiritual kin of Satan himself.
A closely related error was the Pharisees’ belief in their own righteousness. They set up their own selective standards of righteousness (Matt. 23:23-24) and believed they could achieve righteousness before God by their own efforts (along with the vast majority of their countrymen, Romans 10:3). The Pharisees were self-righteous legalists not because they had strict and numerous rules, but because they were proud and unbelieving. This deep darkness of the soul drove all they did and said.
There was only one cure for the Pharisees, and there remains only one cure for Phariseeism today: the gospel. The gospel confronts us with our utter inability to achieve our own righteousness and commands that we accept instead the righteousness of God which is credited to sinners who do not deserve it in the least. The gospel is deeply and profoundly humbling, and believers who keep its truths front-of-mind do not stumble into self-righteousness or legalism under rules, no matter how numerous or strict.
Are rules dangerous? Given human nature, rule-making certainly poses hazards. But due the the same human nature, not making rules is also hazardous. Leaders of Christian schools and other institutions must communicate the why’s and wherefore’s of their rules. But ultimately, what makes the difference is whether students and other constituents are reborn, adopted, Spirit-indwelt believers continually gripped by the gospel of Christ.