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The Sins of the Church I – Rules and Regulations6 min read

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One theologically liberal blog I read recently listed the sins of the modern church, and I thought the list was worth discussing from an evangelical position (ostensibly, one that balances love and truth, while not abandoning either one, as liberal/fundamental churches often do).

We ought to be both self-critical and concerned about correcting such errors biblically, without throwing out the truth with the abuse of truth, nor grace with the abuse of grace.

So, the original article had this to say about churches (and it may have been alluding to conservative churches):

Rules, regulations, do’s, don’ts, creeds, dogmas, doctrines, etc. have, unfortunately, become stumbling blocks to the the living out of the Gospel of grace, which has been replaced by the false gospel of legalism, perfectionism, and exclusion that has come to characterize most of the institutional Church. Those things, coupled with the preoccupation with incestuous socialization and building beautification programs, have caused most churches and denominations to align themselves with the State, taking their cues from those in political power; thereby, merely being handmaidens to those who oppress others.

Each of these is a valid complaint, which I would like to address from a biblical, evangelical perspective.  In this post, we cover rules and regulations.

Admittedly, when a living faith has degenerated to to point of do’s and don’ts, you have left a relationship with God for a formalistic, outward obedience.   It is like the man who assumes that if he does everything right outwardly, like bring his wife flowers, and pay the bills, that he is experiencing and giving her love.  But love involves relationship, not just outward observances.

This is, of course, why evangelicals emphasize that faith is about a “personal relationship with God, and not religion.”  In fact, the term “religion” is used in evangelical circles to describe spiritually dead denominations and practitioners who, though they may identify as “Christian,” have not ever consciously entered into a relationship with God.

Instead, they suffer from any of these outward and false conceptions of Christian faith:

  • Cultural Christianity – many believe that they are Christian because they grew up in a Christian family, or because they grew up in the U.S.  And while they may believe some spiritual truths that coincide with Christianity, they have no real conscious faith in Christ, and they may in fact not understand or agree with the gospel message.
  • Ethical Christianity – some enjoy the Christian ethics and wisdom, such as being kind to your enemies, yet they again lack an understanding of the gospel message, nor have they exercised faith in Christ – trusting in this substitutionary death.
  • Ritualized Christianity – some people are extremely and sincerely devoted to their faith, but in many cases, they are under the impression that their good works or their devotion are what God requires for their salvation.  However, such a works-based Christianity is not only unbiblical (Ephesians 2:8-9), it can interfere with having a personal relationship with God because it is performance and fear-based, and gives the false impression that God requires obedience to rules rather than faith for salvation.

Of course, this last category begs the question, “Is there a proper place for rules and regulations in the Christian life?”  There are a few answers to this, depending on how you interpret the term “rules and regulations.”

  • Works-based salvation – as discussed above, if people are using obedience to rules and regulations to obtain or keep their salvation, they are in direct opposition to the gospel (Galatians 3:10-11).  Such slavish obedience is condemned soundly by scripture as bringing death rather than life.
  • Protection from Sin – The Pharisees were masters at creating rules and regulations that served as hedges against sin.  We have often seen this behavior in the many contemporary “holiness” movements, not to mention fundamentalist movements that forbid somewhat innocuous activities like social dancing because they could LEAD to sin.  And while this type of wisdom can be implemented in areas where we know we have weakness, to make them global practices by which we accept or judge others as spiritual or righteous is absolutely wrong.  As Scot McKnight so ably describes this type of zealotry, it’s roots are in a failure to trust in Christ and His power, it misunderstands how God keeps us from sin, and it leads to judgmentalism, not holiness:

Zealotry is the choice to protect holiness by living beyond what the Bible says, and it finds in that zeal a source of immunity from being wrong. I contend that zealotry reflects an absence of trust in God’s Word. Its motivation is the fear of freedom. Its implication is inevitable: judgmentalism and boundary-marking that together destroy, in separable ways, the unity in Christ.

  • Liturgy – in this case, we must not throw out the ritual with the abuse of outward-only faith.  Liturgy and ritual can be wonderful ways in which we remember what God has done and done for us, and we can re-affirm the essential beliefs of our faith through some ritualized actions.  HOWEVER, there is a real risk in the over-use of liturgy, and that risk is that it may communicate to people that participation in liturgy and ritual have some sort of salvific effect.  This is one of the problems with the Catholic Church, and other Protestant “high churches.” They obscure the gospel through too much liturgy (not to mention failing to clearly proclaim the gospel).
  • Means of grace
    – spiritual disciplines such as regular prayer, bible study and
    meditation, fasting, giving, and service ARE part of a mature Christian
    life, yet from a biblical perspective, when we engage in such exercises, we are not EARNING something from God, but rather, we are cooperating with God by putting ourselves into a position for God to change us.  However, if such practices become empty ritual, we should not think that they alone are really efficacious.

In conclusion, rules and regulations certainly are the currency of external, dead religion, or extreme fundamentalist faith that adds rules in order to ensure holiness, but formal practices can be useful in limited use.

Next: creeds, doctrines, and dogmas.