I think I share something in common with many people–I have a strong ambivalence towards rules. There are some rules that I follow carefully; some that I regularly ignore and some that I work hard to break and change. Added to the ambivalence is the fact that for me, these categories are not particularly bound by rules themselves–a rule can be in one category one day and by the end of the week, have worked its way through all the other categories until is returns to where it started.
Some rules just make sense. In my woodworking, I pay serious attention to the rule, “Measure twice, cut once”. Obeying that rule has saved me countless board feet of lumber, which is probably balanced by the number of board feet of lumber I have wasted by ignoring the rule.
I am part of the Baptist spectrum of Christian denominations not because I always like Baptist rules but because I deeply appreciate the freedom that is foundational to the historic Baptist position. I like to tell people that I choose to be Baptist because I don’t have to be a good Baptist–our denominational house has room for a great deal of variety in its historical development.
Sometimes, when I am driving, the speed limit seems totally arbitrary–when the divided highway is clear and dry and the traffic is almost non-existent, 110 km per hour seems like a such a waste of time. But when that same road is covered with wind-blown snow over ice and traffic is backed up and heavy, the 110kph speed limit seems criminally stupid and I think–and occasionally say–nasty things about drivers who try to drive at that speed.
I know that a society needs rules and that when we all follow the rules, things work out much better for all of us. If you doubt that, take a drive on the Mombasa highway between Nairobi and the Machakos turnoff at Makutano during rush hour. Most of the standard rules of driving are applicable in Kenya but many drivers regularly ignore them so they pass on both sides, use the shoulders as an extra lane, ignore right of ways, stop on the middle of the road, use the opposing lane as their own private lane all of which leads to sky high accident rates. That drive will quickly show you the value of everyone following culturally accepted rules.
On the other hand, I also know that some rules are arbitrary and simply wrong. A rule that enables discrimination of any kind, whether official or unofficial is wrong. We might pretty it up and dress it in sophisticated reasoning but when rules negatively affect people because of their colour, origins, language, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or any other reality of life, the rule is wrong and needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately, every culture and society has many such laws that it protects and promotes.
Even the Christian faith gets burdened with rules and regulations that often have little to do with the purpose of faith. And these rules bother me more that a great many other rules because if the Christian faith is supposed to be a vibrant relationship with God through Jesus Christ, any rule that gets in the way of this relationship needs to be challenged and brought into the grace of the Gospel.
I think this is part of the message and example of the Gospel. Jesus himself both endorsed and gave rules. He endorsed the Old Testament rules about loving God, loving others and loving self. (Matthew 22.32-40). He gave rules telling us to love each other as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35) and to carry to news of this love to the world (Matthew 28.19-20). The other New Testament writers expand on and apply these rules in a variety of ways. So we don’t have a faith without rules.
But we do have a faith where the rules are mean to help us relate to God. This reality is at the root of essential struggle between Jesus and his opponents in the New Testament. The old rules reached the point where there were getting in the way of really loving God, others and self as God planned. Jesus challenged these rules and showed a better way, a way where the few rules make sense because they help us love God, others and self the way God wants us to.
May the peace of God be with you.