How I’ve abused rules as a Christian
I’ve used rules in my faith in the same ways I’ve used them in the rest of my life:
1) To keep healthy boundaries
2) To make sure I’m doing it right so nobody can get mad at me
One of those is great and one is not so great.
Rules for a purpose. Take the Ten Commandments. They’re meant to keep boundaries between people so that everyone can live in harmony. If society agreed that murder was okay, life would be a lot scarier and more stressful. If children honor their parents in general, they will be more likely to survive because parents are older and (usually) wiser. If everybody takes some time to rest at the same time, people will connect with each other instead of seeing each other only as objects for their own self-preservation.
Behind each rule is a purpose. When the rule helps that purpose become reality, that rule is pretty great.
However, when I follow rules to make sure I’m doing my life right so nobody can be mad at me or exclude me from their circles, I’m not thinking about the purpose behind the rules. I’m thinking about getting an A.
Getting an A in salvation
If students think that all their homework and classes are for the purpose of good grades, they’re going to enter the real world and wonder what the point of any of it was. On the other hand, if students see that they’re reading great works of literature because those works teach people about themselves and society, they might still think literature is valuable when they live in a world without grades. If students understand they’re learning math because math undergirds engineering and architecture and accounting and a million other things, they might not totally ditch the whole subject once they stop receiving report cards.
And, as a Christian, when I used to follow rules out of the Bible so I could be sure I would go to Heaven – same deal. For example:
I decided that if I went over the speed limit, I could potentially go to Hell. Sounds weird, right? But I read this verse:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2 NRSV)
And I didn’t see any kind of purpose behind this command. Nothing about the governing authorities putting rules in place that are meant to protect society, so maybe don’t go 60 in a 30 mph zone or someone could die. I just saw one word. JUDGMENT. And the speed limit had been put in place by governing authorities. So if I went 31 mph in a 30 zone, I could be facing damnation.
Okay, one more. When I got baptized in high school, I was not intellectually certain in my mind that Jesus was the one true God. I thought at the time that was a requirement for my salvation. So I forced my mind into proof-boxes I had created and tried to hold those thoughts as my youth pastor dunked me into the water. When I came up, I couldn’t think – I felt terrified. Like I had entered a new world and I didn’t really know anything about it. Appropriate for baptism, I think now.
But early on I wondered if that made my baptism “not work.” I went to a church in college that believed you needed to be fully immersed under water in order to have a correct baptism, and you needed to be baptized to go to heaven. They encouraged me to get baptized again “just in case.”
That turned baptism into a magic trick that I may not have performed right the first time. But there is a purpose behind baptism – many, actually – and to get baptized to try to control what God does with me in the afterlife is to completely depart from the purpose of baptism.
I’ve come to realize that rules can be good when they have a good purpose, but when they are used to decide salvation, things get thorny. Jesus had something to say about that to the Pharisees.
If I’m so busy looking at my speedometer to make sure I’m at exactly 30 mph that I stop paying attention to the road and hit a pedestrian, I’ve followed the speed limit and completely lost sight of the purpose.
Coffee Talk will be at 10 a.m. June 3. The topic is “Faith and Rules” and the discussion will be held at Saranac Commons, 19 W Main Ave. Schmidt is a panelist.
K.S. Elizabeth lives in Spokane. She grew up knowing nothing about Christianity, but then experienced a sensational conversion to evangelicalism in her youth. Now, she still considers herself a Christian but doesn’t feel comfortable with many evangelical practices.