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Answers to Common Questions

Christianity: Rules or Relationship?

Matthew Ferri February 27, 2015


Rules. No one likes that word. It’s daunting, ponderous. It goes in the same box as ‘terms and conditions’ or ‘wait time: three hours’. Terms that make you glance round for the exit.

Christianity is distinguished by its lack of rules, which is great because rules were never very cool to begin with. It’s all about relationship.

Relationship: now there’s a word we can get behind. It’s deep and meaningful, and does away with the intimidating factor intrinsic to rules.

But if it’s true that Christianity is all relationship, then… why are there all these dos and don’ts? Why is this book so flippin’ big? What has a fruit of the Spirit got to do with me and heaven?

Let’s be clear: Christianity is hard to reconcile. Here we have a God who wants a relationship (John 17:3), who states that all we need to concern ourselves with is loving Him and loving our neighbour (Mark 12:30-31); and who assures us that no deeds good or bad can add to or subtract from our salvation – which is found in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9).

He says all these things — and then throws us a bucketload of commandments (Exodus 20), scatters about fleeting take-homes like “keep the law of the land” and “put on the armour of God” (Romans 13Ephesians 6), and offers bonus advice about not causing our brothers to sin and when it’s not okay to drink wine (1 Corinthians 8Romans 14). Thanks, Paul. Thanks a lot.

No wonder so many of us  have trouble ‘finding the right church’, only to end up winging it because ‘church isn’t for me’. Every church thinks they have the best recipe, which of course makes no sense, because if every church knows best, why are there so many?

I empathise with Goldilocks, who had to sift through two servings of porridge before landing on the right one. It didn’t take her long; nonetheless it would’ve simplified matters had there been but one bear with one perfectly-made bowl of porridge. 

In some way or other, every church is either too rules-y or too relationship-y. ‘Just right’ is just a fairytale. No one’s got the best recipe. It’s the Bible that’s confused, and God’s mistake for writing it through silly human agents.

Yeah, you heard right, God’s mist– 

Wait, what? That can’t be right. Okay, okay, let’s start over.

Rules. Rules are things you follow, often religiously, for the sake of a common purpose. There are rules for safe driving – hundreds of them – and following them all keeps the traffic flowing, and you from getting arrested. There are rules for effective writing, too – hundreds of them – and following them all keeps everyone on the same page.

But driving isn’t about rules; it’s about getting somewhere. And writing isn’t about rules; it’s about communicating a message.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – is about rules; but rules are still super important. If the road code didn’t exist, there would be chaos. If grammar didn’t exist, you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. Naturally, we’re going to be far more successful reaching our goals if we follow the respective rulebooks.

The same principle applies to relationships. A successful marriage tends to have good rules, so too a close friendship. Problem is, when it comes to relationships, it can be hard to call to mind any of the rules you might be following. Your interactions with your friends and family are so habitual and automatic that it seems ridiculous to bother thinking about them. The only ‘rule’ is that you love them — and why wouldn’t you?

Thing is, love isn’t a rule, not really. Love is a reason. Love is the purpose for following the rule, and following a rule, in this case, is a demonstration of love.

Most of the time, when it comes to relationships, you probably don’t think of anything you follow as being a rule. More like a value instead. But… who ‘follows’ a value?

Rules and values

The two are almost identical. A rule can be a value, and a value can be a rule. But if rules are things you follow, values are things you possess. A rule belongs to someone else; a value belongs to you. In other words, the difference is in their displacement.

You could say that: values underpin the things we care about; rules underpin the things we’re told to care about.

‘Don’t interrupt others while they’re speaking’; ‘say please when requesting and thank you when receiving’; ‘do people favours’; ‘return something after borrowing it’. These can all be rules; they can also be values.

‘Going to church’ is no different. For instance, going to church is a rule if you do it because ‘Christians go to church’. It can also be a rule if it’s because ‘God wants you to go to church’. The latter is like me going to work because my boss said to. It has rules written all over it.

But the act of going to church can start to become a value (and not a rule) when we begin to answer the question, ‘Why do I care what God wants me to do?’ In other words, ‘What is the purpose for following this or that rule?’

Some possible answers:

“Because God loves me and sacrificed His Son for me.”

“Because I want to reciprocate His love with mine.”

“Because if ‘God’ is defined by the person or thing I worship, then I should probably start worshipping the person or thing I call God.”

There are others, but ‘love’ should be the centrepiece for all of them. If you ‘do people favours’ because you love people, then it’s probably less a rule and more a value.

I love writing, so I’m passionate about delving deeper into its facets and learning everything I can about it. I’ll come across a new word or nuance of grammar and I’ll think, “Ooh, this is new. I need to learn this.”

Many people will see these as rules: words too long to spell, grammar too fiddly to bother with – and that’s fine. Not everyone is passionate about writing.

But for me, these are values, values that deepen my connection with written language; and understanding every mannerism of English heightens my engagement with it and enables me to team up with it with a familiar handshake whenever there’s a message on my mind to communicate. It’s a gripping process. It brings me joy and excitement.

Yeah, it’s hard work; it requires patience and discipline; and too much discipline is fodder for a headache. But the fulfilment is worth the patience, and giving up over a headache would be akin to filing a divorce over a dispute in the living room.

All in all, it’s the values, not the rules, that keep the relationship from vaporising.

Values begin as rules

I wasn’t born with a passion to write. I had to learn the alphabet, how to hold a pen, how to draw, how to read, how to spell, how to space my words, where to put a comma and a full stop. Only after learning could I start writing. And to think, twenty-five years in, that I’m just getting started.

I had to learn the rules, and follow them, before they could transform into values, and it’s no fun when the rules are long and tedious; it’s less fun living by them. But, sometimes, when you give it a good go, the rules begin to feel a little less rule-y. You begin to appreciate them because you realise why they exist.

Communicating effectively – I like that.

Drawing a picture in words – I like that more.

Creating an experience with scribbles on refill – I find it hard to imagine an art form more crazy-awesome than this.

Back to relationships

It’s not unusual for people to at first dislike the person they end up falling in love with. My point is, for whatever it is you’re passionate about, there was a time when you weren’t so passionate, when the thing you love now was a thing you didn’t love, a thing overflowing with rules.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what we love, what resonates with us. We sift through hobbies like bowls of porridge, trying to figure out which one tastes just right. We weren’t all made to be writers, granted, but there is something we were made for, and God has done us a huge favour by clarifying it for us. We were made to live in a relationship with Him.

God, through His word, has deliberately said, “Hey, you, you’re made to have a relationship with me. Oh, and here are the ground rules for how to build it.”

Rules exist for the things you don’t have great relationships with, but for the things you do have greats relationship with – sports, friends, music, carpentry – they’re pretty much non-existent. And if ever you do think on them, you think on them in a positive light. They aren’t restricting; they’re liberating.

There are hundreds of rules when it comes to effective writing, and I’m following a bunch of them right now. But I’ve no qualms with writing on horizontal lines, spelling words how they’re supposed to be spelt, or keeping paragraphs short for reader engagement.

There’s no question of, “Why are there so many rules?” or, “Why can’t I do what I want?” because all I want to do is write effectively… and, well, writing effectively means following the rules. It’s great! When your rules aren’t rules, but values, you know that the relationship is solid. Writing and I have a fairly solid relationship.

Solid relationships – that’s what God wants, with you. Unfortunately that may mean changing your lifestyle. It may mean doing things you’re uncomfortable doing. What it does mean is following a rather irksome set of rules. But they don’t have to be rules. In fact, they aren’t meant to be rules; they’re meant to be values. And they will be.

Love is a purpose, but it’s also an action

Love God. Love your neighbour. These are commands, yes, and they’re the purpose behind every other rule. But if everything we do is to love, then it follows that we cannot love without doing. So, for that, we need to know what to do. That’s where the rules come in handy. They’re a list of God’s values; and when we put them into practice, they start to become our values, too. They become enjoyable.

This isn’t to say that loving God isn’t something you enjoy doing. But, admit it, there are times when it’s less than appealing:

  • Choosing not to argue even though you have the best comeback.
  • Sharing your lunch even though your stomach is protesting – audibly.
  • Sharing the gospel even though it may mean life or death (or humiliation).
  • Getting out of bed and going to church even though you’re tired and introverted and don’t want to see people. (All right, this one’s for me.)

Yeah, it’s a pain, but it’s less of a pain when you remember why you’re doing it. Loving God. Loving your neighbour. For me it often requires conscious thought, and even then it can still be an effort.

But it’s always worth it. God responds with enough peace to not have to win the argument, enough endurance to forego my lunch, enough social energy to outlast the friend storm. I end up experiencing joy. I end up smiling at the end of the day instead of feeling two-ways about the choices I made. I end up wondering why I ever doubted.

God and I end up winning, and winning is never a bad thing where relationships are concerned. Rules and relationships – they’re two sides of a coin.

My relationship with God isn’t the best, but it’s the best it’s ever been; and it started to grow when He showed me that great relationships are cultivated within a framework of great rules.

Rules, like sheet music, can appear daunting and ponderous; but when you hear the notes played and you get lost in the music, the only thing daunting is the fear of it ending. That’s the relationship God wants with you. It just takes patience, discipline, and a lifetime of headaches.


Photo Credit: michael+yan via Compfight cc

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