Should a church have rules?

Mar 19, 2018 by

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Growing up, I was mostly very compliant with rules of any sort. I didn’t just accept everything at face value — I often turned things over in my mind and tried to make sense of them — but I didn’t usually challenge those things even if I thought they might be wrong. For me, keeping peace and avoiding hurt feelings was more important than pushing my agenda.

I was one of those people who was extremely conscientious about doing what the church said, even when it was impractical. As long as I can remember, I have longed to follow Jesus, and if following rules was one way to draw near to him, I wanted to do it.

After Will and I were married, he spent seven years as a school teacher and principal of our church school. Will and I loved to work together as a team, so we both put quite a lot of time into the school. We were good Mennonites, and probably a little proud of it.

The last year of school, our world came crashing down. In addition to a huge disappointment with the church community, a special-needs child presented us with challenges we didn’t know how to handle. During this season of loss, I realized that being a good Mennonite was not enough to protect me. The church I loved could not protect me. And I did not have the inner resources I needed to deal with the level of betrayal I experienced.

What followed was an intense journey of seeking to know the heart of God, and a filling of the Holy Spirit. I began reading my Bible like I had never read it before because I was desperate to know what God really wanted from me.

The issue of church rules was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. All I cared about was finding meaning in life, finding an anchor for my soul, and finding a closer relationship with God.

During this season of wrestling and praying and reading the Bible, I began to notice things that made me ask hard questions. I didn’t want to do anything different from the way I had always done church, because I believed in the church. I certainly didn’t want to become one of those hoity-toity people who thought they had a special edge on the Holy Spirit and never listened to anyone else.

But what was I supposed to do with the growing convictions I was feeling about the things I was reading in the Bible?

One godly person helped me during this time by telling me, “God will accept whatever you are willing to offer him. If you want to keep your Christian life at this level, he will accept you there. But you will miss out on what you could experience with him.”

I didn’t like those words; they made me uncomfortable. But I couldn’t forget them.

Will and I began seeking for a purpose because we noticed that our current lifestyle simply was not working for us. Jesus’ last instructions to the disciples were to “go into all the world and preach” (Mark 16:15), and we weren’t going anywhere. The few people who came into our church from the “outside” never stayed very long because it was too hard; the church only allowed people in who were willing to take on the culture in addition to following the Bible.

To make a long story short, Will and I answered God’s call to move into a new town. Life in town exposed us to a different side of what we had seen growing up Mennonite. On one hand, it was easy to see how our culture had trained us well — we were family-centered, hardworking and devoted to Jesus. On the other hand, we could see areas in which our culture had not equipped us well to deal with current problems in society.

While I worried and prayed about the druggie on our street, fed neighbor children at my table, and tried to help my single-parent friends who were barely making a living, my church at home discussed at length what kind of fabric the ladies ought to wear.

I knew the young man doing drugs on the street did not know or care what the difference was between solid-color fabric or plaid fabric. Showing him Jesus was a hard enough task. I would watch him through my kitchen window, with a lump in my throat. How could I offer him something that could free him from his addiction? Was God big enough to save him? Yet, at church we were talking about fabric. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to explain the splitting effect that has on your mind and soul.

The church did not spend all its time talking about fabric — we heard many solid Biblical messages there. The people were devoted Christians who cared about living a life separated unto God. But I saw that if the church spent the bulk of its time making and changing and enforcing rules, we wouldn’t have much time or energy left to do anything else.

Still, I’m a traditional person, and I loved the church and my old way of doing things. What was I supposed to do?

Living in that tension drove me to my Bible again. I decided one winter to read through Paul’s letters 20 times. I’m not sure if I read quite all of the books that many times, but it was close. That season of reading was transformational for me.

I still remember the morning I was reading through Colossians for close to the 20th time. Over and over again, I read the verses with a sinking feeling in my heart. I can’t do it, I thought. I can’t live by man-made rules when the Bible repeatedly says not to. I wanted to be true to my tradition, but I also wanted to be true to the Bible. I wanted to experience Jesus while being able to bring others to him.

Reading the New Testament repeatedly in the space of several months brought me to where I am now, that I don’t see a Biblical foundation for having church rules in addition to what the Bible already says, especially if they exclude Christians from the communion table. Perhaps we have freedom to make a few rules in a local context, depending on the people who are coming into the church (Acts 15), but they are not to be burdensome (Acts 15:28). In general, I don’t think that I am capable of improving on what God says the Christian life ought to look like.

This article by Dwight Gingrich, “The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standard,” was also influential for me in seeing that living with a lot of rules wasn’t even the Anabaptist way.

I know I am not perfect and my understanding may change over time. I do not have the heart or energy to judge my dear friends who are faithfully serving God within a rule-based system. I still love so much about the Amish-Mennonite tradition, and in many ways I feel more at home there than anywhere else.

I firmly believe that some are in the tradition because God called them there, and they are able to live above the rules in a way that honors and pleases Him. Some of my best friends are there, people whom I deeply respect and admire. Others are probably in that tradition because they have trusted in fear instead of in God, hardening their hearts against Him.

Something within me dies if I am not living where the Gospel is going out into the world. I want to present the pure Gospel, with nothing added or taken away. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, and its power for salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16).

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col. 2:20-23, 3:1-2 ESV).”

Rosina Schmucker lives in Medicine Lodge, Kan., and has Amish-Mennonite background. She blogs at Arabah Rejoice, where this post first appeared.

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