When we sit down to play a game that we’ve never played before, we ask, “So, what are the rules?” People often think of Christianity in the same way. They want to know, “What are the rules?” I must admit, I struggle with this myself. But I’m beginning to see how destructive it is to think of Christianity primarily in terms of rule-keeping.
It seems to me, most of the metaphors in the New Testament that describe our walk with Christ, have to do with relationship, rather than rule-keeping. Christ is the bride-groom and the church is His bride (Ephesians 5). Christ is the Shepherd and we are His sheep (John 10). Christ is the Master and we are His servants (Luke 17:7-10). Even the metaphor of the body (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12) is about the church’s relationship with each other and with Christ, the head.
Even though there is a sense in which relationships have “rules,” we don’t typically think of relationships in those terms. After all, a couple who primarily thought of their marriage in terms of “rule-keeping,” wouldn’t have a very healthy marriage, would they? Similarly, it is not healthy to think of our relationship with Christ primarily in terms of rule-keeping.
Here are some of the problems a rule-keeping spirit creates:
1. A Rule-Keeping Spirit Promotes Sin
In the same way that game players say, “I checked, it’s not against the rules,” many people do the same thing with the Bible. They believe, as long as the Bible doesn’t specifically say something is a sin, they can do it.
What if I treated my marriage that way? Imagine a husband who says, when he comes in at 2:00 AM, “You can’t be mad at me, because there’s no rule saying I can’t come home at 2:00 AM.” That’s not the way marriage works and that’s not the way Christianity works.
This type of rule-keeping spirit motivates people to look for loopholes and “alternative interpretations.” Motivated by a rule-keeping spirit, I have personally heard people make statements like these:
- “I checked, there’s nothing in the Bible against gay marriage.”
- “I checked, there’s nothing in the Bible against going to clubs.”
- “I checked, there’s nothing in the Bible against pre-marital sex.”
This rule-keeping spirit has caused many to fall into sin. Instead, we ought to have an attitude like Paul, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).
2. A Rule-Keeping Spirit Encourages People to do the Minimum
Rule-keepers love to know the rules, so they know the minimum they have to do in order to “win.” Rule-keepers love lists and checklists, because once they’ve done everything on the list, they don’t have to do any more.
Again, what if I treated a friendship or my marriage this way? Imagine me saying to my wife, “Hey, there’s no rule saying I have to give you flowers on our anniversary.” How well does that kind of an attitude work in a relationship?
In the church, we have gone through the New Testament and come up with several lists. These lists are non-negotiable matters of salvation, worship, church organization, and Christian living. Everything on these lists may be biblical, but they leave a person feeling like once he has checked everything off the lists, he has arrived (see Mark 10:17-31).
I’ve heard people say things like, “Fasting was something they did in the New Testament, but it’s not something we have to do today.” Why don’t we have to do it? Well, because it’s not on our checklist. The average Christian sees fasting as something that’s a good thing to do, but the average Christian doesn’t do it because it didn’t make their list of things we “have to do.”
How about we stop making checklists and just do every good work we have the opportunity to do (Galatians 6:10)?
3. A Rule-Keeping Spirit Fosters Competition
Rule-keepers are – by nature – competitive. We like to know the score. We want to know how we’re doing in relation to others.
But, when I forget my wife’s Birthday, can I say, “Well, at least I have more points than that husband down the street?” No, of course not. Relationships are not competitions, and neither is Christianity.
Unfortunately, we still struggle not to be like the Pharisee, who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). He was keeping score. He thought he ranked higher than the tax collector, but he had no real relationship with God.
God doesn’t grade on a curve. You’re not in competition with your neighbor, your brother, or the folks at the church across town. Stop comparing yourself to others, and just walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
4. A Rule-Keeping Spirit Turns Us into Referees
Rule-keepers love to play referee. They love to throw penalty flags and blow whistles when someone breaks a rule. They may even add a few of their own rules to the game, where they believe they are necessary.
Imagine meeting a friend at a restaurant, coming in a couple of minutes late and hearing, “Whoa! You’re late? That’s a violation of the friendship rule. Don’t do that again or I will have to dock you one point.” That’s not how you treat a friend.
As Christians, we have created all kinds of “rules” based on our traditions. We’ve talked recently about wearing suits and ties to worship and insisting on having a worship assembly on Sunday nights. These are two examples where Christians act like referees, blowing a whistle and shouting, “The rules clearly state that you must do such-and such.”
If someone’s soul is in danger, restore them with a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1), not the spirit of a self-appointed referee.
5. A Rule-Keeping Spirit Creates a Sense of Entitlement
When it comes to rule-keeping, it’s all about winning, isn’t it? We believe that if we play by the rules, we play better than everyone else, and the judge is fair – then we are entitled to a victory trophy.
The New Testament uses several sports metaphors to inspire Christians, to run the race and win the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). But this is simply speaking of the discipline and perseverance Christians need to have. It is not to say that going to heaven is a matter of going through all the right motions, checking all the right boxes, following all the rules, and then being entitled to eternal life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Among other things, our relationship to God is like that of a slave and a Master. A slave works hard and does everything he’s supposed to do because of his relationship to the master. He has not – by doing his job – earned anything (Luke 17:7-10).
Everything God gives us is a gift of grace. We are not entitled to anything. Especially concerning salvation, how could anyone think, “Of course I’m going to heaven. I kept all the rules”? Trust me, you don’t want this to be about rule keeping. If it were on a basis of rule keeping, you’d be forever lost. Thankfully, it’s a matter of grace.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Stop Being Rule-Keepers, but Don’t Stop Being Obedient
Don’t think that I’m saying we need to not be obedient. Quite to the contrary. When we stop being “rule-keepers,” we can become obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17).
This will cause us to stop asking, “What can I get away with?” and start asking, “What pleases God?” It will cause us to stop thinking of our Christianity as a game. It will cause us to worship differently, serve differently, and interact with one another differently.
I’m still working on this. How about you?
I love you and God loves you,