Rules have a pretty poor reputation. They are accused of manipulation, control; they conjure thoughts of small-mindedness and that most un-Christian of virtues: legalism. Surely all we need is love?
It was recently suggested that “rules set an external standard and boundaries set an internal standard”. The point being we make conscious choices to do or not do certain things and that exercise of discipline is different to someone else deciding for us and punishing us if we don’t make the mark.
Freedom is seen as the opposite of rules. It’s when we can set our own course. It’s when we can throw off the shackles of obligation and live unhindered.
Unhindered. This is what rules prevent us from being. They hinder us, they hold us back. They stop us from being free, and because the Christian life is a life of freedom, hindrance is an unwelcome accomplice.
The very end of Acts paints a picture of the unhindered life: “He [Paul] proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – with all boldness and without hindrance!”
The model for our life free of hindrance was under house arrest.
Is it possible that the most unhindered life is one lived by the rules? What if the rules didn’t hold us back but paved the road to freedom?
Paul wasn’t under arrest because he kept to the rules, he was in Rome because he had been passed through the judicial process more times than Julian Assange, and was awaiting his chance to plead his case before the highest court in the empire. But his liberty was taken, his life under threat, his beliefs questioned and his authority questioned. Yet he was without hindrance.
Hit rewind on the biblical narrative a millennium or so. The people of Israel enslaved by Pharaoh, their liberator exiled to the desert only to return in a whirlwind of plagues and passionate demands. Freedom came to Israel, delivered by the blood of the lamb, enemies crushed under the weight of the Red Sea. And then the 11-day trek across the desert turned into a 40-year nomadic existence.
Israel had its freedom and it used its freedom. Its people took their jewellery and they melted it down. And decided they needed a golden calf, a tangible, physical object they could worship. They wanted to feel their way to fulfilment.
And they did this at the very time Moses was receiving the rules from the God they spurned.
The 10 commandments, easily filed away as quaint relics of a bygone era, were the rules for living as a community. They first ensured that God’s place was at the centre of the community and then built sensible, practical, measures in place to regulate relationships within the community.
We don’t like rules because it shatters the illusion that we’re in control. We prefer boundaries because that accommodates our aura of autonomy. We cannot build relationships without an externally agreed upon framework, otherwise it is my boundary versus yours.
We need other people to build community, and it cannot be done on our terms alone. We are not just asked to love each other, we’re commanded: “And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
But as Eugene Peterson writes:
“Community can flourish only in freedom. So the love that defines our common lives, even though commanded, has to be unforced, personal, freely given by the members of the community: ours must be lifetimes of accumulated acts of love – likely flawed, imperfect, juvenile, sputtery, but still love.”