In computer programming, I believe that one should never underestimate the ability of users to try things that no rational software developer would ever think of. In the same way, human nature confirms that it is impossible for lawmakers to anticipate all of the crazy things that someone might try to do, which should clearly be prohibited (if only because they are an affront to common sense and individual or common welfare), but are technically not illegal. A quick check of YouTube can easily confirm this premise.
At times, it seems that the answer to people trying ridiculous stunts (or trying to skirt the letter of the law with unconventional behavior) is simple: just make more laws! However, history proves that there will always be more stupid ideas than laws, no matter how bloated the lawbooks might become.
Now that you’ve read this far, I want to be clear, this is not going to be a rant about government overreach or burdensome legal procedures. The Bible teaches respect for authority (even under some pretty pagan governments), and so let’s serve God by being good citizens, as far as the two are not in conflict.
Instead, let’s look internally, to what it means to follow Jesus. The author of Hebrews writes the following, about the “original” law given to the Israelites:
For the law never made anything perfect. But now we have confidence in a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 7:19 NLT
Yes, Jesus pointed out that loving Him would align with following His commands, so clearly the Biblical writer here isn’t suggesting that it is wrong to obey God. However, when we try to solve the problems of sin, salvation, and sanctification with more rules, we aren’t going to make anything – or anyone – perfect.
On the one hand, there is traditional legalism. Like the Pharisees in the first century, parents, pastors, and authors continue to specify additional rules to prevent people from breaking greater laws (whether God’s commands, or the laws of the land). For instance, rather than teaching Ephesians 5:18 directly, believers may be instructed to avoid any establishment that serves alcohol. Or, families may be taught to keep off of the Internet entirely (which, believe it or not, is still possible), so as to not run afoul of Jesus’ instructions recorded in Matthew 5:27-28.
Of course, for many people, guidelines like this are helpful, and for those who choose to put boundaries on their life to help avoid temptations, I support and applaud them for making these decisions. Sometimes these self-protecting policies are challenging to follow and unpopular with others, but they can still be useful to the person choosing to respect them as “guard rails”.
However, note the order in which this works: First, someone must accept and follow Jesus, in order to have any hope of being saved from the eternal consequences of their sins. Why even consider living a better life while the consequences of our sins remain on our account, and (without Jesus’ gift of salvation) we would face eternity separated from God? And, without the help of the Holy Spirit, how can anyone expect to even get close to living up to God’s ideal, when our weak wills are no match for our sinful natures?
Only when someone has chosen to follow Jesus, and – as a result – desires to do a better job of following Jesus’ teachings, does it even make sense to decide what “guard rails” should be present in their own life, in order to live a life of obedience, out of gratitude and freedom to do so.
Before accepting Jesus, clearly laws cannot save us from our sins. No amount of church or government laws can make sinners holy, or restore them to a healthy relationship with God. And, after accepting Jesus, laws still do not save us from our sins. Specific rules and personal policies beyond the scope of the Bible may be individually adopted by those who wish to maximize their obedience and minimize their temptations, but these should come from the leading of the Holy Spirit, and can only be suggested as options – not mandated – by others in the church.
Here, we might say, “But I’m not a legalist. I don’t pile rules upon other believers.” Perhaps not, and if so, I’m glad to hear it. In our conversations with others, though, do we imply that those who make different choices from us are less holy, whether these choices have to do with church traditions, politics, or opinions? Do we suggest that followers of Jesus who are part of another congregation aren’t quite as saved, independent of their individual relationships with Jesus? Aren’t all of these things just adding more rules or “laws” to what it means to be an ideal follower of Jesus, as described by us? To me, these seem like piled-on tests of faith and fellowship, which were never given by Jesus.
As a result, I hope that all of the guidelines we might suggest for other believers are given in the context of suggestions that will help them (in love), and not rules that they must follow in order to be reconciled with God. There’s a reason God chose to give us the instructions that He did, and a reason that He stopped when there were enough in the Bible.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.