On discussing church rules

Dear friends,

I’m writing to you about how I think you could do a better job of arguing for what you believe regarding church rules.

Please, don’t think me hopelessly arrogant. I’m not too proud to know that I’m as imperfect as anyone else. But the advocate in me wants to enable both sides to be better heard.

I have been reading and hearing quite emotional and complex discussions on whether a church ought to have rules or not, and I’m going to attempt to give you a few thoughts on how I think you could strengthen your case. One tip for the pro-church-rules group, one tip for the no-church-rules group, and then one final suggestion for everyone.

If you are arguing in favor of church rules, please don’t compare procedures with rules. A very common argument I hear goes something like this: “Every church has a ‘rule’ about what time and what day of the week to meet for church. Therefore, rules are valid and a necessary part of the church.”

It’s not the same thing. Procedures of operation are not religious rules. The difference shows up in the spiritual weight given each thing. If you show up at church at 9:35 with your brood of uncooperative children, you’ll probably get sympathetic glances from the other nice parents in your church, or maybe some judgmental ones if people are uptight about being on time for things. But you will not be disciplined by the church for being sinful.

I highly doubt the preachers in your church got together and said, “We need to obey the Bible by meeting at 9:30 on Sundays, and here are the verses to support that.” No, your church meets then because it’s an organization and organizations have procedures such as when is a good time to meet.

Do you see the difference? If you wear the wrong clothes or get drunk at a bar or violate the rules in some other way, you will experience a consequence much more serious than if you merely show up late for services. The mental and emotional effect of a religious rule is completely different from the effect of following (or deviating from) a procedure.

Someone who has been in a church with rules knows how it feels to (intentionally or unintentionally) violate a rule. Being disciplined by a church is deeply painful. The man who is chronically late for church does not experience that painful separation; in fact, he could easily be your next pastor.

If you ever leave the church group, chances are you will struggle with self-consciousness and guilt if you no longer adhere to the rules you were once under. But I have yet to hear anyone feel intensely guilty for a change of procedure.

So please do not compare procedures with rules. Comparing procedures to rules is like comparing ants to elephants, and there are better arguments that you can use if you must defend rules.

If you are arguing against church rules, based on the Bible being your standard, then let the Bible be your standard. My friends, when you claim something as lofty as adhering solely to the instructions given in the Bible, you contradict yourself when you use a bitter, arrogant, and condescending tone. This condescension happens much too often in discussions about rules.

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:6 (ESV)

God calls his followers to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, and especially so in circumstances that make those qualities difficult.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 4:31-32 (ESV)

Even when others are wrong, God wants us to give honor as much as we can.

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10 (ESV)

And here’s one more of my favorite verses:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

Philippians 2:3 (ESV)

I know that these verses apply to the pro-rules group, too, but you have the heavier weight of responsibility since you do, after all, give the Bible a higher priority.

Many of you in the pro-Bible-and-Spirit-only group have been deeply hurt by the church. You’ve trusted in a community that let you down, and with broken trust comes broken hearts. There’s nothing wrong with feeling those negative emotions; you wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t. But there are safe, appropriate places to process your pain, and you further estrange yourself if you let your wounds color your debates.

I hope I don’t sound cold and hard, because I am actually quite sympathetic. I know how it feels to be deeply hurt by a church. I very well know the pain that makes you want to slice and dice the religious system and a few of the people in it. But I believe God has called all of us to a better way.

And that brings me to my last point. Regardless what you believe, consider putting the arguments aside for a bit and telling your story.

Here’s why: change is agonizing. Any of us who have experienced life change know that many times it is excruciatingly painful to lay aside what was once dear to us and accept a new reality. If you want someone to make a change, most times you aren’t going to draw him by roaring at him about his sins. I’m not negating the need for confrontation at times, but I think many times change is more likely following a gentle, non-argumentative approach.

One of the ways we can be tender in our attempt to bring change is to tell our stories. In telling our stories, we let others see the inner workings of our hearts, and we both find out that really we are not so different inside. “Oh, I can see why you feel that way!” each person realizes about the other. Even if we still think the other person has drawn the wrong conclusions, we have humanized them by listening to their story.

Logic is very convincing to me; I have been greatly influenced by careful Christian thinkers through their speeches or books or blogs. But logic alone is not always enough to help me change. I need to hear your story.

We all do our best to figure out life, but none of us gets it quite right. During the struggle, we need to exchange stories. We need reassurance that others have felt what we feel, and that if we leap into the frightening chasm of change, we will not be alone.

Sincerely,

Rosina


In a following post, I plan to practice what I preach and tell you my story about how I arrived at my conclusion about church rules. 

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15 thoughts on “On discussing church rules

  1. Dwight Gingrich

    This is a good post, Rosina!

    Two thoughts:

    (1) I, too, have noticed the apples-to-oranges comparisons between procedures and rules. I’ve noticed that many procedures, such as the one you gave (specifying a time for a church gathering) are logically necessary; it is impossible to have a church gathering without specifying a time to gather. Similar logical necessity controls decisions such as “Shall we pave the parking lot?” It is impossible to both pave it and not pave it at the same time. So when I hear people argue from such examples (everyone submitting to a specified time for church gathering, everyone submitting to a majority decision regarding paving the church lot) to make a point about cheerfully submitting to church rules, I grimace inside. It is not physically possible to meet for church without coming at the decreed time, and it is not physically possible to both pave and not pave the lot at the same time, but it is certainly physically possible to have some men wear beards and others not, to pick a random example of a rule. So we need to discuss instead whether it is biblical and wise to either restrict or allow variation on activities where variation is logically possible, not just point to the beauty of submitting to unavoidable procedural restrictions.

    (2) Telling stories… I like stories. But they can be a little sticky to tell. I suspect most people who have stories about church rules–at least stories about how they can to believe that less extra-biblical rules are a good thing–have some rather painful relationships bound up in their stories. I know I do. Which is one reason I’ve focused instead on trying to follow your second point, which is to present my understanding on biblical grounds and in a biblical manner. To tell all my story forthrightly would implicate some people I love with whom I disagree on these matters. That said, I’m looking forward to your story! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dwight, your careful logic and gentle presentation on your blog has been a huge help to me on my journey. I hope I didn’t downplay that.

      I know stories are tricky, and some of them shouldn’t be told publicly. What I meant was that hearing someone’s story often makes me feel much more sympathetic and willing to listen rather than just reacting.

      I don’t plan to use any names or identifying details in telling my story here. It will be more ambiguous that way, but I’m not interested in hurting people who are dear to me, and perhaps someone can still learn from it.

      Thank you for commenting!

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      1. Dwight Gingrich

        Yes, Rosina, I bless you in telling your story. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. 🙂 Thanks for your kind words. Keep on listening… and writing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Harry Shenk

    Interesting read, Rosina. I’m still processing. I wholeheartedly affirm your reminder to all of us to carry on all of our discourses and disagreements in the spirit of Christ.

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  3. I am wrestling with all this now……my husband is not a Christian and doesn’t want to be seen with me in public dressed by the standards of the church I attend. I love the church and would love to join yet who do I honour most – God, of course first, but then my husband or the church?? I know that I am accepted as a fellow follower of Christ and yet I may not break bread (or take communion, whatever name you want to call it by), which Jesus instructed us to do, because my clothes aren’t right….. I was born again almost 8 years after I was married, having been brought up in wishy washy evangelicalism I’d never even heard of modesty until I was a Christian and really wanting to obey the word of God, and I believe He helped me understand what Biblical modesty is even before I’d ever heard the words Anabaptist/Mennonite; I made a few bad choices in the early days – it was a steep learning curve which caused a lot of contention between my husband and I at the time because I no longer dressed sexy………We have come to a truce (helped a lot by the fact that I’m now in my late mid-40’s and dressing a certain way at my age would just be sad!!) It can still be an issue that comes up between us when he gets mad at me and says, Why don’t you just wear trousers/cut your hair etc. It seems as if, even though Jesus came to save sinners, because of choices made before I was a Christian I am not in a position to join the church I feel most at home in, because my husband is not saved. Surely Jesus didn’t mean only a few select people who have done everything right to be part of his church, he came to save sinners of whom I am chief, he did not come to call the righteous to repentance. Sometimes I wonder if I should go back to the Brethren (open Plymouth Brethren) of whom I was a part for many years, but when I think of leaving the Mennonite church I attend I know I couldn’t do it………Many of us coming from the “outside” have had these discussions over and over but the standard answer is always along the lines of “yes we know, but……..” Please forgive me if my words are in any way harsh or uncharitable, I’m known for being straightforward and I know I need to learn to be more gracious, I am a work in progress. I love the Anabaptist people, I consider myself to be one of you, and I don’t want to come along and try and change you, but there are real difficulties that need to be addressed for those of us who are not culturally Anabaptist. I have seen so many people leave, hurt and bitter from another group I was involved with before, and I saw that if I would pursue membership with that church it would cost me my marriage. The church I attend now has far less rules and I’m doing everything else already anyway, it’s just the clothes……..Thank you for bringing this up, and I really appreciate the comments so far – please anybody feel free to correct me if I am in any way out of line. Blessings

    Like

    1. My heart goes out to you, Pauline. You’ve given up much more to serve Jesus than many of us Anabaptists, and I know God sees and honors that. You are precious to Him!

      I am deeply saddened that so many of us Christ-followers have drawn up lines where God never meant there to be lines, and that we have refused to budge even when our boundaries are an unreasonable burden for those who didn’t grow up in the culture. My take on breaking bread with believers is that we ought not to withhold it from anyone who is a sincere Christian. I wrote about that here: https://arabahrejoice.com/2017/07/26/is-christ-divided/

      If you wish to communicate with me further by email, you are welcome to do so at rosinaschmucker@yahoo.com.

      God bless your journey!

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    2. Lovina Baer

      Pauline, please know, that those (like myself) who grew up in an Anabaptist culture are also from the “outside.”
      Only Christ can break down the barrier that separates us from God. May He bless you!

      Like

  4. plainlady

    I am with you on this. So many confused people do not know the difference between practices and principles. Blessed is the person who was raised knowing the difference between the two and how to put both of them to use correctly in a church setting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. These are excellent thoughts here. Good for anyone to think on, but especially so for those of use who lean towards the persuasion that less rules may be better. I have heard and read things (probably even said them myself), that while having an element of truth, were certainly not gracious and maybe even were bordering on bitterness. And the thing of “telling our stories” (and listening to the stories of others) is so important. You may still disagree with someone at the end of the discussion, but when you understand what went into them being who they are, (their story) you are much more able to look at them with love and respect.
    Partly as a result of my thoughts on how to best do church life, I now find myself as part of a fledgling congregation that’s been meeting for only a year. In keeping with our goals of trying to be more “Bible based”, we have been working thru what the Bible teaches on things like baptism and membership. On communion and headship. And that’s as far as we’ve got in our first year. And, whew, these things can get heavy and complicated. (who would have thought it, when we are all reading out of the same Book!)
    So, interestingly enough, recently we decided to take one evening a month and let someone tell their story. I think this will be invaluable as we try to do church life going forward.
    Thanks for this. And I will be watching for your story!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Heidi

    I appreciate your emphasis on listening to others’ stories…it’s ever so much easier to really hear someone when you understand where they are coming from!

    Liked by 1 person

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