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.
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.