As humans, we are “rules” people. We live by lists and by rules, and often can’t function without them. We make lists at home to remember what jobs need to be done around the house. We make checklists for our trips. We buy books that give us the easy and reliable steps to an improved life. At work we have lists of things that we have to accomplish, and the deadline for the new project. We even have job descriptions that are lists of what is expected of us. And so it’s only natural that we approach our spiritual lives with a list mentality. We have the Ten Commandments, the Two Greatest Commandments, the lists of virtues and vices, a list of the Fruit of the Spirit, and a list on our mirror of how we hope to live today to be better people.
What if Jesus told you to throw out all your lists and rules? What if Jesus said you didn’t need any of that any more, that all you needed to do was follow Him and to respond to the Holy Spirit inside of you? What if Jesus wanted you to live by grace and peace rather than by the five easy steps to spiritual enlightenment?
I think there would be stampedes of protest. But are you saying to throw out the Law of God? And what about morals—are we getting rid of those, too? Are we saying the Bible doesn’t have “rules” because rules need to be followed to get the desired result? And grace makes it so we don’t need to follow anything to get that result? So even though the Bible is full of stating sins, they are not “rules” that need to be followed?
That is absolutely right! We, as believers, should not be confined by the things we would consider “rules.” But this is an absolutely scary thing to say, and Paul dealt with it in Romans 6. “Won’t taking this ‘freedom’ truth to its logical conclusion result in lawlessness? People are weak, and their sense of moral responsibility is flawed. Aren’t you setting people up to fall into sin, or even encouraging it? If they don’t have rules to follow, the plan will fail! People will fail!!” What God has for us is not more sin, but new life (Rom. 6.4ff). What is to come from the freedom is more life, not more sin! It’s a thing of beauty.
“We consider rules to be the things we base our morals on.” No. Our morals are based on the character of God. Again, Christianity isn’t religion, it’s a relationship. Things are right because that’s what God is like (kind, love, forgiving, loyal, pure, as in Phil. 4.8-9), and they are wrong if that is not God’s character (lying, cheating, stealing, etc.). It’s not a list of rules that our morality comes from, but the character of the living God. Rules, then, are man-made structures to try to help people follow the character of God, but we need to see them for what they are, and that the essence of morality is the nature of God.
So you are right: If someone looked at the rules of the Bible and came up with their own personal morals, they might vary drastically from person to person. It’s what Romans 14 is all about. Also Matthew 7.1-6. But all that matters is God’s will and God’s kingdom, not our lists. It may be true that if a person is intentionally swearing to reach a group of people you may be unable to reach, that may be OK (1 Cor. 9.22), but that person has to deal in their own heart with their behavior (Eph. 4.29, which is not a rule), and it is not our place to judge them (Mt. 7.1).
We don’t follow rules to get the desired result. We follow Jesus. Literally. Christianity is a lifestyle and a person, not a list. Galatians is teaching us there is no list. The disciple is the one who loves God, not the one who obeys the law. The sins listed in the Bible are not a list of rules, but revealing to us what God is not. All morals are based on the character and nature of God. It’s not fluid in the sense that it changes, since God never changes, but it’s fluid in the sense that it isn’t a list of rules to follow, but a person to emulate, and it’s open to different recipes, as long as we keep the character of God in focus: Love God, God’s will, God’s kingdom, love neighbor.
In people making their lists of rules, they are becoming arbiters of right and wrong, rather than living in a dependent relationship. It’s the need for control, and a response to fear. We create systems because we don’t trust people to stay true unless we make it easy for them by making a list of rules. But then, just like the Pharisees, before long the list of rules becomes “The Word of God,” and the whole notion of relationship with God is lost, and the list is rules becomes the practicing of our faith. It’s a noxious twisting of trust, where faith becomes religion rather than relationship, and our lives become rules instead of liberty.
Ethel Barrett said, “There is this compulsion among Christians to set up a list of regulations, which always leads to confusion. For your list may not agree with the list of an equally fundamental and earnest church across town, or indeed with the person sitting next to you. And it certainly may not agree with the lists of your fellow Christians in other countries, for their customs and cultures are different. The dangers of the ‘list’ are that you will invariably compare yours with others, which may lead to judging (strict and not-so-strict—the judging works both ways), and then we are just playing God. Or you may become so involved with the list and put so much importance upon it that your list becomes your Christianity.”
We can so readily see Paul’s frustration with those who cannot figure out how to live by faith and by the Spirit and continue to cater to the rules, so much so that he calls it a “different gospel” in verse 6. The problem is not that these people have been snatched away, like the seed in the Parable of the Sower, but they have willfully walked away after careful consideration! Now wonder Paul is so upset. They have willfully and deliberately chosen the lie when the truth was right in front of their eyes. They have been taught well, and had the right choice in front of them, and still chose to rebel. It sounds so much like Adam and Eve. How could they possibly have made that mistake?
There are many falsehoods, but only one truth. Oddly enough, people in our culture (and probably in theirs) act as if it’s exactly the opposite, that there are many truths and only a few falsehoods. But truth, by definition, is very narrow. Across the entire spectrum, there is only one wavelength that is true red. In reading piano music, only one note among the 88 corresponds to the written note on the page. In math, only one formula defines the law, and so it goes. But people are prone to treat religion in a different sphere, and whereas they would admit to a narrow definition of truth in real life, they want to enjoy a wide definition of truth in the religious sphere. I would guess this is so because people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to believe whatever they want to believe, and for that to be sufficient. In real life such a philosophy is folly, but in religion they feel they can make up what they want.
Truth matters. It is the foundation of the universe (physics, math, philosophy, theology, etc.) as well as the essential element of society. Without truth everything becomes anarchy and chaos.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo asked Sam why he was coming with him. Sam said, “Because I believe there is still good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for.” So also Paul knew there was truth in the world, and it was worth fighting for.
Errol Morris said, “The truth is out there. Truth may be elusive, it may even be unknowable, but that doesn’t mean, as postmodernists aver, that reality is just a matter of subjective perspectives, that one way of seeing things is just as good as another. You still see this nonsense all over the place, that truth is relative, that truth is subjective. I believe there’s a kind of frisson of ambiguity. People think that ambiguity is somehow wonderful in its own right, an excuse for failing to investigate. What can I say? I think this view is wrong. At best, misguided. Maybe even reprehensible. People still cling to it. These ideas are repulsive, repugnant and false. We are in possession of certainty, truth, and infallible knowledge. Truth and falsity is invested in language, and is knowable by investigation. Truth arises out of the relationship between language and the world. The proper route to an understanding of the world is an examination of our errors about it. There is such a thing as objective truth, and people can grasp it, even though the world is unutterably insane.”
So how can truth be such a threat and freedom so dangerous? It’s because truth and freedom both open a door, and people don’t deal well with open doors. They lack the knowledge and self-control to handle the risks well. People find security in black and white categories, in someone telling them exactly what to do (as long as they agree with it, otherwise they’ll rebel), and in an environment of control. We do better with categories than we do with grace, because boxes, lists, and categories give us a sense of structure, discipline, and security.
Jesus and Paul are continually pushing us in different direction: listen to the Spirit whom God has put in you. Follow the person of God’s Son, not your own intuitions or a great book you read. It requires a total change of life, mindset, worldview, and behavior. But nothing worthwhile is easy. We have to somehow grasp that God made us for freedom. The Holy Spirit of God wants to burn out of us everything that keeps us from being free.