“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 just 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 most young Fundamentalists are inclined to. Here, I offer a third argument, then respond to some objections.
“Young Fundamentalists” are generally not fond of rules, especially in ministry settings. Exactly why this is the case is an interesting study in itself. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that many of them grew up in rules-heavy Christian schools in an era full of glowing idealism about what these highly-disciplined, conscientiously spiritual educational environments would produce. The inflated hopes of those days were sure to result in disappointment. And maybe the current rules angst is the result of a generalized disgust with the whole concept and all that seems connected to it. In defense of those who feel this way, it is only too easy to find examples of rules excesses and absurdities.
Whatever the reasons, young Fundamentalists are often eager to cast “man-made rules” in a negative light and to argue from Scripture that these rules are dangerous at best, and downright hostile to Christian growth at worst.
My aim here is to offer a “young Fundamentalist” perspective that differs from that of many of my peers, but one that I believe answers better to Scripture and wisdom.
In the introductory article to this series, I suggested that Christ’s confrontations with the Pharisees are a great source for determining whether or not we are practicing legalism.
This was not at all from the “all Fundies are Pharisees” perspective so frequently hurled in accusation against Fundamentalists. In fact, I assume that the prominent place the Pharisees and our Lord’s rebukes of them have in the gospel suggest that our Lord is broadly concerned with such legalism. I believe that such texts serve as a warning to all of us who are religious (in the nicest sense of the word). Legalism is entrenched deep in the fallen human heart, and easily expresses itself in the lives of the redeemed unless we are very careful.
There are doubtless many fine Christian schools which do not operate in a legalistic fashion. But I believe that the majority of Christian schools operate with three fallacious legalistic premises prominent in their thinking.
In the introductory article to this series, I suggested that Christ’s confrontations with the Pharisees are a valid source for determining whether or not we are practicing legalism. I was not writing at all from the “all Fundies are Pharisees” perspective so frequently employed against Fundamentalists. I assume that the prominent place the Pharisees have, and that our Lord’s rebukes of them have, in the Gospels suggests that our Lord is broadly concerned with such legalism. I believe these texts serve as a warning to all of us because legalism is entrenched deep in the fallen human heart and easily expresses itself in the lives of the redeemed unless we are very careful.
In the first article, I admitted there are many fine Christian schools which do not operate in a legalistic fashion. But I believe that the majority of Christian schools operate with three fallacious legalistic premises prominent in their thinking.
Last May, discussion here at SI about Heritage Christian School in Findlay, OH and the senior who chose a public high school prom over his own graduation ceremony revealed a rift on the issue of legalism. The majority were certainly comfortable with the rule against students attending a high school prom. But some thought such rules were legalistic. While I have had some deep misgivings about the rules culture in Fundamentalist schools over the years, a recent three-year study of Luke helped me to crystallize my views on this. During this study, I spent much time reflecting on our Lord’s confrontations with the Pharisees.
At this moment, most of you want to skip this post. “Oh, it’s the old ‘all Fundies are Pharisees’ argument,” is what you’re probably thinking. Nothing could be further from my intentions. It’s clear to me that our Lord did not cause an enormous volume of His teachings against the Pharisees to be preserved for the ages merely to warn us about a sect that would be extinct by AD 136. These teachings serve as a warning to all of us who are “religious” (in the nicest sense of the word). Legalism is entrenched deep in our hearts. It is a strong tendency in all humanity, at one level or another. It is basic to all false religions and creeps into adherents of true religion unless we are very careful.