I read recently about a Christian woman who asked her unbelieving friend what she had against Jesus. The friend replied “Oh, I have no problem with Jesus. It’s just everthing SINCE Jesus that I have a problem with!” I think this is true for a lot of people. Faith in Christ is one thing. The religion that has developed in Christ’s name is something else again.
To me, a formal religion is defined by two things: To Whom do you pray? and What are your rules? As we look at the history of the church, we can see that many different rules have come into play that have little if anything to do with Jesus. Oftentimes these rules have done more to drive people away from faith than to strengthen their spiritual lives.
Rules were a major part of church experience when I was a child. I’m sure they weren’t written down anywhere, but they were certainly prominent and consistent in the little fundamentalist church I attended. They didn’t make much sense to me then, and even less sense today. Here are some of the rules that were enforced in my church and my home:
1- No card playing. No game that used the classic playing cards (aces, clubs, hearts, and diamonds) was acceptable. However, if we played the same games with cards that looked different (e.g., Rook) that was OK.
2- No movies at the theaters. But most of us watched a lot of TV.
3- No drinking alcohol. I remember hearing sermons that said that Jesus drank only unfermented grape juice. Of course, there is no historical or translational basis for that assertion.
4- No dancing. But the church actually sponsored roller skating parties where it was fine to skate with a partner.
Just when I thought I had heard all the rules, a high school friend declined my invitation to play a game of chess. She said her church had a rule against that. That one really baffles me.
Those rules that I experienced as a child were really pretty harmless. However, in the history of the church there have been some rules and practices that were much more damaging. The rules that led to the Inquisition and the witch burnings are probably the most egregious.
Jesus gave us only the simplest of rules: Love God, and love our neighbors. I’m sure that most of the rules that the church has added to Christian faith and practice since then have been intended to help us in our spiritual walk. But the rules themselves can easily become the primary focus in our lives. People can even fool themselves into thinking that adherence to a given set of rules is what saves us. I believe that Christianity would be much more vibrant today if there were less focus on The Rules, and more focus on The Ruler.