Rules are an important part of any well-functioning society. We follow rules every day. For example, when driving, we follow the rules of the road. We can’t steal things that aren’t ours, or punch someone in the face. There are consequences if you break a rule. For example, you might get a speeding ticket, or go to jail. Rules take away some of our freedoms, but they provide us with more security. It’s a trade-off that most people are okay with.
Rules and the Christian Faith
Rules have played an interesting role in the Christian faith over the years. In the Old Testament, God provided Moses with the Ten Commandments, which laid out ten foundational rules that God wanted the Israelites to live by. Some of these rules were similar to the basic rules found in just about every culture or society (e.g., Do not murder, Do not steal), whereas others were more specifically religious (e.g., Keep the Sabbath day holy, Do not have any other gods before me).
The rules didn’t stop there. The Israelites expanded on the Ten Commandments, and eventually there were hundreds of rules that governed just about everything—from what you could and couldn’t eat to how, when, and with whom you could have sex. There was also a detailed list of consequences that would happen if you broke a rule. It was all very systematic and organized.
Jesus, Rules, and the Principle Behind the Rules
Jesus had an interesting take on the role and purpose of rules. He didn’t come to do away with the Law, but instead he came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). He didn’t focus as much on the rules themselves, but rather on the principle behind the rules. For example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, he said this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40).
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments—to love God and love others. Why do we have a rule that says we shouldn’t steal? Because stealing isn’t consistent with the principle of loving others. Why should we keep the Sabbath holy? Because of our love and respect for God. The rule is important, but only because it helps us live out the underlying principle, which is to love God and love others.
Jesus hammered this point again and again in his teachings. Yes, murder is a problem. But the underlying principle is the anger in your heart. Sure, adultery is wrong, But the underlying principle is the lust in your heart. Time and time again, Jesus shifted people’s focus away from the specific rule itself and toward the underlying principle or heart issue behind the rule.
In fact, Jesus sharply criticized individuals who focused on the rule at the expense of the principle behind the rule. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23).
Why do we have rules in the first place? The purpose of rules is to safeguard and protect the principle behind the rule.
Rules, Parenting, and Child Development
Think about the relationship between a parent and a small child. When the child is very young, the parent has to have a lot of rules. For example, the child can’t cross the street by themselves. When the child is very young, this rule has to be very clear and enforced strictly. No, you can’t cross the street by yourself—period. No discussion or negotiation. If you cross the street by yourself, there will be a consequence.
As the child grows and matures, however, the parent works with the child to understand the principle behind the rule. The principle behind the rule of not crossing the street by yourself is safety. There are some very real dangers that occur in the street. Thus, it is wise to exercise caution. As the child grows up, however, there is more nuance to the rule. For example, the older child is taught to look both ways before crossing the street. If a car is coming, the child shouldn’t cross the street. On the other hand, if the road is clear, then it is okay to cross. The child learns the principle behind the rule, and then they can be flexible with the rules. This is a big part of growing up and maturity.
Religion and Rules
I think the same thing should happen with religious rules. Often what happens is this: There is a key principle that is important to the heart of God—for example, love, justice, or faithfulness. The principle is difficult to understand and follow, however, so religious folks create rules to safeguard the principle. There are some benefits to these rules, but if we aren’t careful, the focus can shift to the rules themselves, and not the principle behind the rules. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he confronted the Pharisees. They were really concerned about the rule (i.e., how much money you should give to the temple), but they disregarded the deeper principle behind the rule (e.g., justice and serving the least of these).
We struggle with these same issues today. In many churches, there are a lot of rules governing things like money, alcohol, sex, the role of women in church, and homosexuality. There are principles behind many of the rules churches have, but often we focus on the rule and forget the principle behind the rule. Sometimes we get so far off base that our rule actually goes against the principle behind the rule. This is what happened to the Pharisees, and we do the same thing today. We forget the underlying principles that are important to the heart of Jesus, such as love, justice, and faithfulness.
Whenever you find yourself becoming focused on a rule, take a step back and reflect. What is the principle behind the rule? Is the rule helping you move toward the principle, or is it moving you away from the principle? If we have forgotten the principle behind the rule, or if the rule isn’t helpful anymore, it may be time to question the rule.