What my friend’s comments revealed (and I was happy to correct) was a view that Christianity is somehow made up of a list of rules. It is really sad that the greatest news that the world has ever heard has been turned into mindless regulations and God has been turned into an old grandmother, “Sit up straight. Cut your hair. Pull up your pants. Wash behind your ears. Don’t drink, don’t dance, and don’t play cards.” This is not the Christianity that I know.
An ancient Christian named Tertullian said that just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, there are two thieves that want to steal the truth of the Gospel: legalism and license. What he meant is that legalism is empty religion full of boxes to check off so we can prove by our actions how right we are to others and God. License is the opposite view that God loves everything we do so we can do whatever feels right to us. Both are equal errors. I’ll paraphrase Tim Keller to say that legalism stresses truth without grace and license stresses grace without truth. Jesus said he was full of grace and truth. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we have freedom from restrictive religion, but also that we have not been left without guidance.
Let me correct an unfortunate misunderstanding: God is not boring. I mean, Jesus’ first miracle was at a party. He invented pleasure, he invented joy, he invented parties, he even invented dancing. He is not sitting in heaven with a list of ways to make us stuffy and boring. The relationship that he is initiating between us is not a matter of us proving our worth to him by following a list of rules. He is concerned with our heart and our love for him.
Having said that, he does give us guidelines and tells us that if we love him we will follow them. Why? God describes himself as our Father, and like any good parent we need help in learning how to live. He wants to keep us from bad and lead us to good. Our desires and feelings are not always the best way to decide which is which. So, God has given us instructions and guidelines in his Bible to take out some of the guesswork.
For example, my niece is three. She desires to eat cupcakes for every meal. If her parents allow her to, she will be 300 pounds by the time she is six. So, they take away her cupcake and give her a vegetable or two every now and then. She gets mad sometimes, but that does not change the fact that they know what is best. As an adult if I let my desires rule me I would be in trouble with the bank, the law, and my wife. I need some help. For Christians, the reason we follow God’s guidelines is that we believe he knows what’s best too. We believe that his standards are for our good and that he works in us to help us live into them. It is not that we must lose all desire, it is that we must learn how to rule our desires with God’s help, rather than letting them rule us.
The real challenge for Christians is to not create standards other than God’s. We have to resist the temptation to think that everything that is different, challenging, or not to our taste is somehow displeasing to God. I recently heard a preacher on the radio talk about how jeans with holes in the knees are from Satan! God is okay with changing fashion or else we’d all be wearing robes and sandals. God is okay with changing music styles. Yes, you can listen to Rock and Roll. Here’s another example: I like beer. I drink it and I even brew it at home. If the Bible told me I shouldn’t drink it, I wouldn’t, but the Bible says no such thing. It says I shouldn’t get drunk so I don’t, but I can still enjoy a beer with dinner and while watching the Heels whoop up on Duke. Christians want to put stipulations on things like alcohol that do not exist, and we get chained by legalistic rules. I can almost guarantee that I will have a mad Christian e-mail me and tell me that I don’t love Jesus because I like beer. I’m not sure what one has to do with the other. We got over this whole thing with not eating pork, remember? Before we jump to say that God is not pleased with something let’s ask him first. Christians, don’t create a standard of holiness that God has not put in place.
For those of you who are not Christians, I’m sorry if we have represented ourselves as unthinking, narrow-minded, and shallow. I’m sorry if we have portrayed the freedom we have in Christ as somehow being chained up in rules. No, we can’t agree with things that God does not agree with. No, we cannot condone actions that God tells us to stay away from. We won’t agree on everything, but maybe we can sit down, have a beer together, pump the Barry Manilow, and you’ll see we’re not as stuffy and ignorant as you thought we were.
The Rev. Dan Alger is pastor of The Church of the Apostles in Hope Mills and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.