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.
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.
21 thoughts on “On discussing church rules”
Excellent post, Rosina!
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This is a good post, Rosina!
(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! 🙂
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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!
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.
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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.
I know you care about listening to the Spirit, Harry. God bless you and your family!
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
God bless your journey!
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!
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.
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I love your sincere heart in this and the non-judging way you write. This was a blessing to me. Thank you very much.
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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!
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I love that your church is listening to each other!
Excellent sis! Love you!
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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!
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The “late to church analogy” is a good one, and I really appreciate the distinction between protocol versus rules. Let’s take this thought experiment a little farther.
In the analogy given, it seems apparent that I am still trying to comply with a cultural standard ie church starting at 9:30. What happens if my behavior indicates deliberate noncompliance?
Lets say that, instead of getting to church five minutes late, I routinely get to church an HOUR late? What kind of response will I get from the fellow members of my congregation….?
The responses will vary, quite a bit, based on the congregation and its culture. In my own congregation, I know that I would probably be the subject of some attempts at intervention. At the least, I will probably get some invitations to meet for a one-on-one breakfast from my concerned brethren. If, in those breakfast discussions, I show an uncooperative attitude and insist that we need to be starting services at 10:30 AM instead of 9:30 AM in order to more closely imitate the apostolic church’s example of meeting at night, I will probably become a source of real concern. I may even become the topic of some discussions of leadership meetings.
And I guarantee that I would not be voted in as the next pastor!
Congregations may vary. But, in my congregation, the approach to an infraction in dress would much more resemble the handling of the above “hour late to church every Sunday” example, rather than the handling of sins specifically named in the Bible.
And I would further propose that, in many Anabaptist circles, the deliberate adoption of distinctively non-Anabaptist garb is a comparable cultural equivalent to deliberately showing up to church an hour late every Sunday. Some dress styles may even be the cultural equivalent of flipping someone off!
The obvious objection to this proposal is “But we shouldn’t have such ridiculous non-Bible based cultural standards!”
My response: Is a cultural standard on dress somehow less Biblically based than a cultural standard on being late to church?” Both are indeed extra-Biblical – but both can have significant spiritual impact on my fellow church members.
“For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.”
I don’t understand the connection between being on time and clothing rules. Being on time doesn’t make it hard for outsiders to join. There is nothing in the Bible against timeliness.
But the Bible speaks strongly against making religious rules. Should we teach and model Spirit-filled living? Yes, absolutely. Should we regulate it? That is a different question altogether.
In your example above, being late is not the issue. A rebellious heart is the issue, and should be dealt with according to Scripture. Outward regulation, in this case MAKING him be on time, will never get rid of the rebellion. Only an encounter with God can do that.
I believe in being respectful of cultures. I still look Mennonite. 🙂 But in the end, what truly matters is what God says.
My name is Anthony Hess. I am a German Baptist and grew up in a culture with distinct clothing guidelines and found them to be mostly a blessing. I believe that there is a large relative component to modesty. It’s wishful thinking to believe that modesty is an objective standard. I don’t believe that it is inherently wrong or always immodest for women to wear pants. What I do believe is that we have the Holy Spirit directed privilege to band together in respect both to tradition and in resistance to the constant pressure of the world of fashion. The fashion industry is very subtle. I personally believe the skinny low rise pants styles are very much a part of the gender bender movement.
I was privileged to grow up with a mother and sisters and brothers who were not constantly feeling and responding to the pressure of fashion. Dresses are a tradition not a Biblical mandate. Furthermore, I struggle to admire our Anabaptist cultures where the women are subjugated to looking extremely different due to the “Biblical” mandate to wear a head covering. I consider it a privilege to stand with my wife apart from culture, and let me tell you, she is one secure and beautiful woman in my eyes. I think when men are willing to at least “match” their wives, the women are more secure. Just an observation.
So I have several questions.
#1 If I want the blessing of belonging to a group of believers who are willing to collectively stand together against enormous cultural identity pressure, are you certain the Holy Spirit would not guide us to covenant together this way? If there are thousands of other churches claiming to follow the Bible, may I have the privilege of being a part of a church that attempts to create distinctive counter culture as just one part of being saved “salvaged” from an untoward generation?
#2 If I want to raise children in this environment, may I?
#3 Finally, having made quite a bit of sacrifice to belong to a church that attempts to foster an environment where tradition trumps pop-culture, how do you think I should respond to people who join, knowing full well what the expectations are, and who work against those expectations after gaining the privilege of membership?
Hi Anthony, thank you for your interesting response! I’m familiar with German Baptists–there’s a settlement in Sawyer, KS which is 20 miles from where we live, and we’ve made friends with some of them. The group has many similarities to the group I came from.
I share your tenderness for tradition in many ways. Being raised in a close tradition where everyone knows how to act and dress with little thought to what agenda the world is pushing is safe and secure in so many ways. I also appreciate your desire for men to help share the burden of being different, and not putting that solely on the women. Some groups definitely do better with that than others.
The drawback, of course, to such a tight-knit tradition, is that even though the expectations are perhaps not unreasonable for those born into the culture, it is extremely difficult for others to join. This is a big hesitation for me, because God has not called His people to simply exist in a small circle of comfort. The Church is called to aggressively evangelize, to bring people to Jesus before it is too late. The requirements of being a Christ-follower are great, and when we add to what the Bible asks with a long list of cultural requirements, the leap is simply too great for most people.
Also, what do you do with the multiple verses in the NT warning against making rules? I can see the benefits of making some rules; and yet, God’s ideas are always better than our own. If God says it is not a good idea, it isn’t.
To your specific questions above: #1. Yes, absolutely God’s church is one that stands together against societal pressure. I think where you and I differ is in whether we ought to heavily regulate that “standing together.” #2. I’m sure you’re doing a good job of raising your children. 🙂 #3. The first question that comes to mind is are these people indeed rebellious, or are the expectations of your group unreasonable? This could take some discernment to distinguish. If they are rebellious, Scripture has detailed how to deal with that. If the expectations of your group are actually a greater burden than God has meant for them to carry, that is a different story.
I hope that explains at least a little of where I’m coming from. 🙂 I’m sorry it took me so long to respond–we just got a foster child a few weeks ago who has proved to be very challenging so life has been intense!
Thank you, and God bless you for your desire to serve Him wholeheartedly!
Thank you for your kind reply. I happen to belong to a small congregation that chooses not to have open internet in our homes. I was not aware you had replied. Please put me on your email list.
To answer your first question. Are people who challenge church standards sometimes simply being rebellious?Absolutely. We work continuously with people who have deeply entrenched issues. Sometimes they pull support from other churches who criticize rules in order to justify themselves. Rebels are not simpletons that are fixed when you give them a sticky note with a scripture on it. In fact, a Christian rebel is obligated to know the Bible if he wants to be an effective rebel. I think this is precisely why the Christians who place so much emphasis on “Bible Only” have such a high rate of church schism. This approach allows each persons personal interpretation of scripture to be the trump card. Since our core issue is self-love this sets the stage for the Bible control game.
I myself have always been a critic of my own culture so the whole discussion of whether or not our distinct culture is a barrier to people from outside is a familiar topic to me. However, one thing I have noticed is that we Anabaptists tend to oversimplify cultures outside our own churches. The first thing that I think is helpful to realize is, that other Christians, though they may not wear plain dress, are deeply formed with very distinct traditions of their own. For example, Anabaptists often attract people from conservative Fundamentalist style Baptist backgrounds. This is rather ironic because these believers are typically formed in a very individualistic and theological tradition that is considerably more narrow than my own. Discipling someone from this background is entirely different than discipling an individual from many other backgrounds. I have found that there are many barriers to people joining our churches. Some of those barrier are good and some are not. We encourage our members to have homes that are open to others and some people are terrified of giving up personal space and privacy in this manner. In other words, our tradition of hospitality is frightening to most Americans but most Muslims are more hospitable than we are and would not be in the least threatened by this tradition. I personally think we lack rich traditions and we Anabaptists are actually on the thin side when it comes to Christian formation.
I hear you taking two approaches on this subject of church rules.
#1 What does the Bible teach?
#2 What works?
Both are legitimate perspectives but please do not switch from one to the other in avoiding my points. I would like to respond to both and pose some more questions.
argument #1 What does the Bible teach?
The Bible teaches that ALL scripture is given by inspiration. However, it does not teach that ONLY scripture is given by inspiration. This is a flaw that many believers seem to carelessly make with 2nd Timothy 3;16,17. The goal stated in that passage is for the man of God to be completely furnished unto all good works and this scripture declares that ALL scripture is profitable for that end goal. However, to insist that a verse out of the Song of Solomon is more profitable than a church agreeing on guidelines about Internet or clothing strikes me as Bible legalism to the max. However, if you take the “Bible Only” position to its logical conclusion, you should arrive there.
But the bigger question we all need to wrestle with is this. On what grounds do any of us have to insist the Bible is the rule book? Neither Jesus or the apostles commanded the canonization of the the New Testament. The church decided to canonize the scriptures in the late 300’s and they disputed over books like 2nd Peter and Hebrews. Therefore, when we accept Bibles, we accept the work of the church. Furthermore, I believe you would find that the church by that time had many, many extra-Biblical rules so this leaves us with a quandary. How do we receive a book from an organization we reject? No I am not Catholic. But I believe the Sola Scriptura camp is not being honest with their claim to be Bible Only. “Bible Only” is a logical fallacy. The Bible does not advertise itself even once that way.
I believe that the Bible is entirely true and inspired. I believe it is written not as a moral handbook, but as a revelation of God himself and of God working with his people. I believe that Jesus is accurately revealed and that his death and resurrection IS the Gospel (Good News). I believe that if Jesus granted us permission to cut off our right hand if it is causing us to sin,than certainly we can collectively cut off things that have taken church after church down a road of apostasy. I believe we are called to build on the foundation but build we must. I believe we have the privilege of building culture that is Biblical and the Spirit can guide us to make wise choices together. I am not aware of any New Testament verse that opposes that. Please share with me the verses that you believe teach that.
argument #2 What works?
Your point that our culture is too difficult for many to embrace seems to indicate that at a basic level, these requirements do not work in spreading the Gospel.
I personally believe our over emphasis on family is more of a barrier to outreach then our dress tradition. I moved to an isolated community and when you do not have countless weddings, and other family events to go to, you need your local community more. If you want to tackle a tradition, tackle our thick family ties. Or tackle our tradition of extensive traveling. Most of our poor neighbors take very few trips. If we are always heading home for Christmas, they will become discouraged. I’ve experienced this.
The Bruderhof communities have many rules and many converts from various background. They greatly diminish biological family ties and this allows those with broken homes to have equal family benefits.
Pure Life Ministries, Fresh Start, Teen Challenge are all Christian organizations that have very clear extra-Biblical guidelines. Those entering those programs will not always understand the connection between their spiritual well fare and those guidelines. However, those who run the program do understand the connection and the disciples have agreed to cooperate on entry.
My final question is this.
Do you know of Christian churches that you appreciate and support, that do not have extra-Biblical rules, that are more fruitful in discipling and turning people around than what the organizations I mentioned are doing?
In other words, are the churches without extra-Biblical rules, more fruitful in discipleship than Pure Life Ministries, Fresh Start, and Teen Challenge?
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply! I’ve had an extended illness that’s drained me both physically and emotionally, so I will not answer in-depth at this time and perhaps I can revisit this later.
I’m not a “Bible Only” person, as I believe the Holy Spirit must be depended on as well to show us how to live. Even though the Spirit doesn’t disagree with the Bible, it helps flesh out what God wants for each of us.
My beliefs on rules was shaped by a very intensive reading of the Scriptures over a period of months. There are actually quite a few verses once you start seeing them. Colossians 2 is one such passage.
You are definitely right about tight family ties and extensive traveling. Our family moved to a town where we knew no one and where there was no Mennonite church, because it forced us to connect to the community. It’s been very stretching but incredibly special, too. We try to spend at least some of our holidays serving people in town, and it blesses us as much as it blesses them!
I’ve seen some churches with very few rules do quite well with interacting with the community while being distinctively Christian. Most of the ones I’ve seen are small groups at a grassroots level, not so much large organizations.
I’m sorry I can’t contribute more right now, but I’ve enjoyed this very much. I always like looking at issues from different angles. If you’re ever through Kansas, you are most welcome at our table!