So there I was, frantically squeezing my feet into my brown school shoes, eyeing the wall clock with alarm and breathlessly leaping onto the back of the school bus as it pulled away from the bus stop.
My heart was pounding as I rehearsed suitable excuses for missing roll call. My throat tightened with a familiar anxiety. I’ve always hated running late. Teachers and principals get upset when you’re late, and the last thing I wanted to do was upset anyone.
If only the bus would go faster, if only I had been ready on time, if only I didn’t mess up so often, if only my head would stop aching. These were the inward thoughts of my fifteen year old school girl self as I rode uncomfortably to school in the too-slow bus.
Except….I am not a fifteen year old school girl; I am a middle aged woman who finished school over forty years ago. I can’t remember the last time I ran for a bus and brown mary janes are definitely not my current choice of footwear.
I was caught in a rather stressful dream.
Rules! There are natural rule breakers among us, those born rebels who delight in upending every rule they come across because…..well, who really knows? And then there are the rule keepers, those of us who for various reasons figured out at an early age that the safest way to navigate this unpredictable life is to keep all the rules.
For over half my life I was an avid rule keeper. As my recent dream reminded me, rule breaking was just not in my DNA. And for a very long time church life rigidly reinforced in me a certain inalienable belief: keeping rules was essential to Christian living and pleasing God.
Turns out that was bad information. Who’d have guessed?
Jesus was an unrepentant rule breaker. Seriously. If you find that hard to believe consider just a few examples:
*Twelve year old Jewish boys didn’t usually lecture theologians on the meaning of scripture while their parents combed the city streets searching for them; Jesus did (Luke 2:42-46)
*Jewish teachers did not converse with, or offer to enter the houses, of Gentiles – ever. Jesus did both (Mark 8:5-13)
*Jewish rabbis were expected to uphold the law. The law said an adulterous woman must be stoned. Jesus refused to cast the first stone (John 8:2-11)
*Jews in general did not socialise with Samaritans and rabbis in particular did not acknowledge or even speak with women….period. Jesus failed on both counts (John 4:5-30)
*Misleading your relatives by telling them you’re not going to the festival, only to secretly attend without them was not family-friendly. Jesus had no qualms about it (John 7:2-10)
*In Jesus’ day it was considered highly improper to disrupt an important religious festival by shouting at the crowd; Jesus did anyway (John 7:37-38).
*Under no circumstances was it socially acceptable to overturn tables, scatter money and merchandise and chase people with whips in the Temple forecourt. Jesus did all of these things and never came back to apologise (Mark 11:15-17)
We could go on.
I wish I’d understood earlier in my Christian journey that rule following is not proof of Christ following. I wish someone had told me my salvation didn’t depend on how compliant I am. But no one in my field of reference could tell me, because they didn’t know either.
Now I know. That’s why I’m here to tell anyone who’ll listen: breaking rules won’t cause the sky to fall in on you, the oceans to run dry or the earth to swallow you up. I found out God is bigger than that, and some people have been keeping it a secret.
What rules am I talking about? Well, not the commandments or any other part of the Old Testament law. Jesus fulfils those in us, so let’s just get out of His way and let Him do so. The rules I’m talking about are Christian culture rules. Here are a few examples:
- The rule of perpetual niceness – we find it hard to genuinely love one another so we substitute a sickly sweet niceness to camouflage our lack of true sacrificial care. We are masters at being polite while we fail at genuine empathy;
- The rule of positivity – this often unspoken rule says you’re not a real Christian unless you keep smiling, never complain, and are always praising God, Who of course is “good, all the time, amen?” Any hint of anxiety, or worse, actual depression, must be banned from the assembly of the righteous as they are evidence that someone, somewhere, must be sinning. God forbid! Brokenness not allowed.
- The rule of commitment: the religious system runs on voluntary, unquestioning service. If you are not getting ‘involved’ in serving, whether it is cleaning the church toilets, preparing the communion elements, or visiting the sick, you are not really pulling your weight. You are uncommitted….to the system that is; and according to the rulebook that means you’re uncommitted to Christ.
- The rule of witness: under no circumstances must your ‘witness’ be compromised. You must not act, speak, or associate in such a way that would negatively impact on your Christian niceness (see Rule One). Subtle (or not so subtle) expressions of disapproval will soon bring you back into the uniformity of the majority. There are ways and means, after all.
- The ‘touch not my anointed’ rule: in some Christian circles breaking this rule is the quickest way to find yourself being shown the left foot of fellowship with the doors locked firmly behind you. Under no circumstances must leadership be expected to be accountable to ordinary pew sitters. Be warned: breaking this one will put a blot on your Christian resume that will follow you from church to church for years……and I mean y – e – a –r – s.
These are just a few Christian culture rules among many; I’ve no doubt you could add more. Those who imply, teach and impose them are usually able to quote chapter and verse for every rule on their very long list. The problem is they’re attempting to apply a carnal mindset to spiritual principles. Can’t be done.
I still struggle with being a rule keeper, but not nearly as much as I used to. Jesus steadily continues to untangle the chains of man-made religion that entwined themselves around me for so long. Every so often I have a dream nightmare like the one in the opening paragraph and wake up freshly grateful for the knowledge that nothing can separate me from the love of God or hinder the completed work of the Cross.
We have made an idol of our Christianity, an idol in our own image we call ‘Christian’ who looks, sounds and acts just like us in our Sunday best. Outwardly Christian is a very nice, morally upright, rule abiding person, but Christian is not the image of the living Christ. Christian will insist on us being ‘good’ but the fruit he/she offers us is from the wrong tree. One thing Christian can never give us is freedom. Yet Christ has called us to freedom (Gal. 5:13).
What about you? Which Christian culture rules are you struggling to offload? I’m planning to follow up this post with a series on some of these Christian culture rules we commonly wrestle to be free from. Are there Christian culture rules you’d like to see discussed on Bread for the Bride? If so, drop me a line, using the comments section or the contact form.
In the meantime, go ahead, live dangerously.
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2015 and beyond. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.