This is part 3 of an ongoing series seeking to answer a reader’s question about the Biblical commandments and our relationship to them. While you can jump into this article cold, you will have a much fuller understanding about this topic if you go back and read Part 1 and Part 2.
Let us begin with a short recap.
God gave the Law, or the Torah, to the nation of Israel after they were rescued from the nation of Egypt. Being a new nation, now enjoying a freedom that they had not known for 400 years, God gave them instructions on how to live. This was not God’s original plan, but this was the way that God was going to return His faithful people to the relationship He wanted. What God truly desired was a love relationship with Israel, not a list of do’s and don’t’s. As much as His Law was authoritative, it was a step in His master plan, moving us towards a better relationship.
It wouldn’t be for thousands of years, but it would be the perfect time, when God brought about the Way to bring the faithful back into proper relationship. That Way would be through faith in Jesus Christ. He did not come to get rid of the Law, but He perfectly fulfilled what we could not, and offered us a loving relationship with God that we could not otherwise have.Now, to answer some of Katie’s questions.
Why do some people still follow these rules? Why do pastors insist on their followers strict obedience to the Law?
Why a particular individual strictly obeys the Law is a personal matter, and this would require them to personally answer, but I can give you a logical reason as to why some people do. One reason that people adhere to the Law so much is because it is easy. Not necessarily in the way of obedience, but in the way or method that rules work. The Law follows a very simple system, one that we still see in place today. We call it “cause and effect.”
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.” – Leviticus 26.3-4 NIV
“But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it.” – Leviticus 26.14-16
If you obey, good things will happen. If you disobey, bad things will happen. If you listen to your parents, they will buy you ice cream. If you don’t listen to your parents, you will be disciplined. Cause and effect.
This is a very simple way to live, and one that the Bible does in fact endorse. Read through the Book of Proverbs. Most of those verses are cause and effect statements. Do good, good will be done to you. Do evil, evil will be done to you.
We understand how this way of living works. It is very black and white. No room for grey space or in between ideas. For people that find the grey space to be troubling or problematic, following the Law, living by the rules is a matter of safety. As long as they do as the rules say, they will be fine. Their life will seem safe. This idea is not a bad thing, like I just said the Bible does preach a “cause and effect” idea. But this can also be a very detrimental way of living.
Only living within the rules does not give room for growth, mercy or love. The Law can become a series of walls or boundaries that you will not cross for any reason. How do you grow in forgiveness and mercy if you believe that you have to be so rigid that any wrong doing must receive capital punishment? How do you love your neighbour or your enemy when they do not do or believe as you do? How do you accept and welcome the alien and the stranger among you when you are so opposed to them? Strict obedience to a list of do’s and don’t’s actually traps you into a life that is void of love and lacks a warm and welcoming heart. This is not what God wants His people to live like. This is not how He wants them to act.
When God commands His people time and again, “Be holy, as I am Holy” this isn’t just a call to escape from sin and uncleanliness. He is asking His people to be like Him, to act as He acts, to do as He does. In the First Epistle of John, he writes that “God is Love” and out of that love God acts and speaks. Not from a list of rules, not from a handful of do’s and don’t’s. God works and moves in Love. This is what we should endeavour to do as well.
A second thought as to why people will cling onto rules and insist on others’ obedience looks like this:
To be right is a wonderful feeling. When you are in an argument with your spouse or coworker, and it turns out that you were correct and they were mistaken, there is a powerful feeling that takes over. It’s like a self assertiveness or a pride, or cockiness, if you will. The mind says, “Oh, I was right? Of course I was right. I know what I’m talking about. I have the correct information. Everyone should have just listened to me in the first place.”
This is the start of something the Bible calls self-righteousness. When it matures, self righteousness doesn’t stop with the thinking that a person has all the correct information. It makes sure that everyone else knows it and respects that. It states that this way is the right and only way to do something, so everyone should follow me or model their actions after my own.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, two different religious groups in Israel, were guilty of self-righteousness. They believed that their understanding of the Torah and the way that they lived it out was the right and only way. Should anyone decide to do different, they were to be cut off and rejected. For those that did try to follow their teachings, they wound up being slaves to their leader’s whim. In some cases, it was no longer about the Law or the Torah, it was about control. I do not need to speak on how dangerous control can be. I only need to point to events within our recent history like Jonestown and the massacre there as evidence of this.
At the same time, I do not want to be misunderstood, leading you to think that following the rules is always a bad thing. I will explain why they can be a good thing momentarily, but first, I wanted to address another question:
“Why do some people insist on following only certain commandments or rules in the Bible, and not others?”
As soon as I read this in Katie’s email, a short list of biblical commandments leapt into my mind.
‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.’ – Leviticus 19.28
‘Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.’ – Proverbs 20.1
‘Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit’ – Ephesians 5.18
‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.Therefore honor God with your bodies.’ – 1 Corinthians 6.19-20
‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.’ – Ephesians 4.29
Admittedly this is a short list. If I really tried the list would be considerably longer. And depending on what Christian circle you find yourself born into or a part of now, there could be more that would never have occurred to me.
This becomes a gymnastics act trying to maneuver through these issues, and while I will not tackle these issues in their entirety here, I will mention a few things in relationship to why they are preached with such fervour and emphasis on obedience.
There are times that people create a strict obedience to some rules to create a false sense of unity. They want everyone in the community or congregation to believe and act the same way. This eliminates squabbles or fights about theology or doctrine from breaking out. Everyone must simply adhere to the list of rules and everything will be smooth sailing. This however is not what unity is about. When people preach a strict obedience to the Law for the sake of unity, what they are actually trying to establish is a sense of sameness. They desire clones of themselves, or clones of what they think genuine Christians should look like. The danger here is that sameness is not unity, and unity, at its core, demands that there be differences.
Unity is the coming together of people with different ideas or opinions, and through that, working together for a common cause. Those things that would divide them are put aside or are seen as insignificant in comparison to the task at hand. This is not sameness. And this idea of unity is very hard to control. Yes, we return to that idea of people preaching strict obedience as a way of controlling others. This isn’t because I want to harp on this one topic, but because I see this as a foundational piece of the puzzle. I have witnessed numerous Christians declaring the need for a unity that is sameness, rather than real unity, because it is easier to create and control sameness. That is one reason why some preach such strict obedience to the law.
On the other hand, there are those that preach strict obedience to the rules, not out of a controlling desire, but out of an honest desire to live a life pleasing to God. It is often a reaction to avoid sin. For example, in my family, there is a history of alcohol use, almost to the point of abuse. When my father got saved, he made it a point to avoid all alcohol. He was aware that the Bible never said drinking alcohol was a sin, but he took it a step further to avoid any temptation or any lapse into sin. This is not a bad thing. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees did this, all in a honest effort to obey the commandments of God.
For some people though, it is not by a desire to obey God or to avoid sinning that they make the choice to take the spirit of the law a step further. There can be other factors involved. Someone people are worried about public perception—how acting a certain way will make them look in public. Other people preach “do this” or “don’t do that” because of the social climate they find themselves in—what the culture is like where they are.
These are not necessarily bad reasons to preach obedience, but these too can become traps or burdens that leave little room for love and grace. I believe that any action or inaction that we take in regards to the Law should be done out of a motive of love, rather than fear or control.
With all these potential problems wrapped up in the idea of obeying the Torah, the Law, the commandments of the Bible, should we abandon them? No. All good things have a bad side. The sweet taste of popcorn still has the potential to burn my tongue but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop eating it.
The Law is a good and powerful thing. Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew “I did not come to abolish the Law…” In fact, Jesus fulfilled the Law, even preaching what it said. Some religious leaders came to Jesus in an attempt to trip Him into saying something that they could throw in His face. They asked Him, “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?” (Matthew 22.36-40) By telling them this, He affirmed Moses and what he had taught—that the Law, the Torah, the commandments that God had given all those years ago wasn’t something to be thrown out. It was still something valuable.
But if a lifestyle of love is what we ultimately are supposed to have, what good is the Law? How are a list of do’s and don’t’s helpful?
Following the Law is a good place to start. When you don’t know how to live, how to act, or what to say, going to the commandments in the Bible is a smart place to start. Let me give you an example:
Imagine that the Holy Spirit is convicting your heart, prompting you to start tithing to your local church. But you have no idea what that means. You haven’t received any instructions from your church leadership. The many ideas that fill the Internet only lead to more confusion. People debating whether you should or shouldn’t tithe, whether to give 10% or more, or whether you tithe from your gross income or net income only serves to agitate you more. What should you do?
While it is good to listen to your leadership and it is good to consult your circle of friends, the best answer is always go to the Bible and see what God has to say about it. Don’t just take one verse from the back of the book. Look at all the verses about giving to God, whether it be money, your time, your energy, or your life. Go into Exodus and Leviticus and see how God designed the offering system to work, and see the attitude that accompanied it.
The Law can serve as a starting point for Christian living. When you don’t know what to do, when you are unsure of how to proceed in a spiritual matter, what God has written down as Law will be a guide for you. And I want to emphasize starting point because, as I mentioned earlier, God didn’t stop at having a do and do not kind of relationship with humanity. He moved into a deeper, more love centred relationship. With the Law as a starting point, you can easily move on, grow and change into the relationship God wants for you. This is a good pattern to use for new believers, children being raised in Christian homes, or Christians that are learning something that they didn’t know before.
Will some people continue to advocate for strict obedience to the Law? Probably.
Will some people emphasize certain laws or commandments for different reasons? Most likely.
These things are not within your control, unless you are the one teaching them. But what is in your control is how you react to the Law. I would encourage to start with the Law, use it as a guide, and let it move you towards a more love based relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
(Don’t think that we are done with this conversation. This is only Part 3. Part 4 are on the way. Stick around for more thoughts concerning obedience to the law and love.)
Thanks for reading this boys and girls.
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Grace and Peace be with you.