But even though the message was clear that our eternal salvation was totally the work of Christ and that our works had nothing to do with it, we found ourselves (at least some of us) oppressed by a very works oriented religion as far as our daily lives were concerned. There were so many activities we were not permitted, some of which could be sinful or harmful, but many of which seemed to be banned simply because they were fun.
God providentially moved us out of that church and as we grew, we gradually shed ourselves of many of those rules and took on personal convictions of our own.
However, I've found that there are always new rules popping up, rules that are used to define proper Christian behavior. Of course, many of these are quite properly arrived at through study of the Scriptures and have to do with ethical or spiritual behavior. But not all are, or at least their derivation and value is questionable. As I have moved around, as I have pastored or attended various churches, as I have interacted with students while I taught at the College of Biblical Studies, I have been exposed to a great number of these rules. Some people's rules contradict other people's rules. Many would be laughable if they weren't so oppressive.
As just one example, rules about dancing. As a young teenager I loved to dance, but when I joined the above mentioned church, I had to stop. (I got "saved" from that.) No one was clear why, though the unexpressed understanding was that it had something to do with sex.
Years later in a class discussion on Christian behavior, one student said that dancing was permitted in her church but nowhere else. Another student in all seriousness said that dancing is permissible outside the church but certainly not in church.
Of course, there's the old joke:
Question. Why don't __________ (fill in the blank) believe in having sex standing up?
Answer. Because it could lead to dancing!
But the question that bothers me most doesn't have to do with what the various rules are, or with how appropriate or inappropriate they may be, but with why so many of us choose to be bound by man-made rules, rather than by grace.
We may come up with a number of answers: tradition, someone else's conviction, external pressures, fear of offending others, fear of offending God. Or the attitude, "This works for me, so it should work for everyone else." But I suspect that the main reason is that it is easier to live under law than under grace.
I know that many would not only disagree with the above statement, they would accuse me of talking nonsense. After all, many laws are oppressive, or at least hard to observe, whereas those who live under grace can do what they please. True, but:
· Rules, while they may be difficult to observe, save me from having to think. And thinking is hard work! It's easier to simply follow the rule -- to do or refrain from some action -- then to actually ask myself why in this particular instance, I should behave in a certain way.
· And the keeping of rules frees me from other obligations. If we can simply check off items on a list -- "did this, did that, didn't do this, etc.' then I can feel free from any responsibility that's not listed.
· Rules not only give me something to live by, they give me criteria for judging the behavior of others. I can compare myself to their behavior as spelled out in my rule book.
· A list of rules spelling out appropriate behavior is also an excellent means of maintaining control -- not only in parent child relationships (where to a great extent it is appropriate) but also in spousal and church relationships.
The New Testament does give many commands and instructions having to do with ethical/moral behavior and character. It contains many do's and don'ts and grace doesn't allow us to escape those. However, most of these commands are not related to how to behave in particular situations; they have to do with seemingly vague concepts such as following, submitting, "walking in the Spirit." So the person who lives under grace does not simply have a list of do's and don'ts to live by; he or she has to analyze behaviors in various situations in the light of biblical principles. Even more, they must develop habits of following which may or may not change with time and various situations.
I realize that the word "relationship" is one of those overused words; however, I can't think of a better one in this instance. Just as one grows in a relationship with one's spouse, so one grows in a relationship with God. Though there are ethical rules behind the marriage relationship it does not consist of rules, but of a desire to please the partner. Thus with God and thus with our neighbor.
"Owe no one anything except to love one another. For the one who loves the other has fulfilled the law. For this: 'You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,' and if there's any other command, it is summed up in this word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Romans 13:8, 9).
Might I say that if God-given laws can be summed up in this way, can't we sum up man-made laws in a similar fashion?