Friday, November 09, 2007

Christianity and Rules

I had a conversation not too long ago with someone who seemed to think that living under grace meant that our lives do not have to be subject to rules. To illustrate what is wrong with this idea, imagine that a teacher came along one day and began teaching that marriage is reducible to having sex. Suppose further that throngs of married couples begin following this teaching, believing that having sex is what marriage is all about.

After following this teaching for a few years, one married couple begins to feel that something is just missing from the picture. “Surely”, the woman says to her husband one evening, “there must be more to marriage than just having sex all the time.”

The man muses for a moment and then replies, “You’re right honey. Marriage cannot be reduced to sex. In fact, I think the opposite must be true. Marriage is about abstinence.”

Now imagine there is a complete swing of the pendulum. This couple begins teaching that marriage can be reduced to abstinence, with the consequence that whole communities of married couples follow them, congregating together to agree to never have sex with their spouse again. Why would you want to have sex since marriage is about abstinence?

Now what did both these approaches share in common? Both approaches are defining marriage in relation to sex. One approach defines marriage in relation to having sex, and one approach defines marriage in relation to not having sex. Although you cannot have a marriage without sex, that does not mean that marriage is reducible to sex in either direction.

The point I want to illustrate by this example is that sometimes what appears to be two extremes is often simply two sides to the same coin. A temple prostitute for the cult of Aphrodite will define holiness in relation to having sex, while an ascetic medieval monk will define holiness in relation to not having sex, but the religion of both revolved around the same object.

Now let’s apply that same principle to Christianity and rules.

One of the things we find in shallow, unthinking evangelical Christianity is a tendency to view everything in terms of rules. This can lead to two extremes. On the one hand, it can produce a legalistic version of Christianity. Since everything is viewed in terms of rules, living as a Christian is reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts.

Realising that this kind of legalism is antithetic to the gospel of grace, many evangelicals go to the other extreme and say that living under grace means no rules. To be under grace instead of law, they say, means not being under the burden of rules.

In both cases, faith is being defined by its relationship to rules, just like in my above examples, both approaches to marriage were being defined in relation to sex. Whether the gospel is viewed as meaning that we are under lots of rules or whether the gospel is viewed as meaning that we are not under any rules, in both cases it is being defined by its relationship to ethics. As such, both approaches are fundamentally legalistic. (In logic, we would call these contrary approaches not contradictory approaches. A contradiction occurs when two statements necessarily have an opposite truth value: if one statement is true, then the other must be false, and visa versa. Statements can be said to be contrary, on the other hand, when they can both be false at the same time, even when they cannot both be true.)

The Biblical approach is not that Christianity is a list of rules, but neither is it that grace sets us free from being under any rules. This is because grace is not fundamentally about rules one way or the other. Rather, it is about what Jesus Christ has done and is doing in us and in the world.

Now it is true that one of the things the Lord is doing in us is to write His laws on our hearts (Jer. 33), just as it is true that one of the things that secures a marriage is sexual union. In the same way that you cannot have marriage without sex, so you cannot have Christianity without ethics (Matt. 18:15-18; Luke 6:46; John 13:34, 35; 15:5, 6, 10; Rom. 1:5; I Cor. 5:1, 4, 5, 11 cf; II Thess. 1:6-8; Rev. 2:5). But just as marriage cannot be reduced to either having sex or not having sex, so Christianity cannot be reduced to keeping rules or not keeping rules. Lifestyle is a necessary part of the Christian walk, but it is not what defines it, just as sex is a necessary part of marriage but is not what defines it. Lifestyle may tell us who is a Christian but lifestyle does not make a person a Christian since you can live a Christian lifestyle and still be unregenerate Similarly, sexual union may tell us who is married, but sexual union does not make two people married (there is such a thing is fornication).

There are many areas where my analogy could be shown to break down. But I think it gets my point across. It helps to explain why evangelical communities that have not understood the heart of the gospel inevitably fluctuate between the polarities of legalism and licence. Those who embrace the later, arguing that grace sets us free from being under rules, are unwittingly setting people up for the legalism they think they vigorously oppose since they are orienting people to think that grace is fundamentally defined in relation to rules.

As I suggest elsewhere (see HERE and HERE), when Paul says that we are under grace instead of law, he is contrasting salvation by Christ the Messiah, with its implications about the universality of his reign and the restoration of the kingdom of God, over against the narrow disgracing of the grace by those who would reinstate the old boundary markers as the distinguishing features of the covenant community. What were the old boundary markers that distinguish the people of God? Observance of Torah (law), circumcision, etc. So under the new covenant, God's grace has done away with the Torah as the distinguishing feature of the people of God. We are under the grace not law. Put another way, it is faith in Jesus the Messiah and not the works of the flesh (circumcision, observance of Torah) that now marks out God’s covenant people, and that faith is manifested in baptism and works of righteousness (see above verses).

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