“You’re not going out wearing that!” How many of us have heard that before? I usually hear it when I attempt to leave the house wearing sweatpants. The truth is, many of us place a tremendous amount of importance on one’s outward appearance.
The first church I served at had an unwritten “rule” that pastors needed to wear a suit and tie on Sundays. We know this comes back from the tradition of wearing our “Sunday best” but it also was also used almost like legalism to control what a person looked like.
What to dress is not the only thing some people focus on. Some Christians frown on certain behaviors such as smoking or drinking, things that have no real scriptural basis. When they are confronted with their legalism, they will often default to it as being “tradition.”
This is not something reserved just for our present day. Even in Biblical times, a person’s outward appearance had significance in the lives of the religious. Jesus gives a number of indicators that the outside had become more important than the inside. The first one comes in Matthew 23:13 where we read: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
The Pharisees were notorious for making up new rules and policies in order to maintain control and have conformity in the lives of the people. In essence, they made it hard for people to come to God. They taught that God’s favor and salvation was something that had to be earned, not just by keeping God’s law, but also by keeping a bunch of other laws they added to it.
For example, God commanded His people in Exodus 20 to remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. That was a law established by God so His people would have a day of rest and spiritual renewal as they honored God and recognized his authority. It sounds simple enough to follow.
But the religious leaders added all kinds of laws to God’s law and instead of that day being restful for God’s people, it became exhausting. They taught that on the Sabbath you could throw an object in the air with one hand as long as you catch it with the other. Other rules were you could not take a bath on the Sabbath. If someone spilled something on the Sabbath you could not clean it up. You were not permitted to move a chair from one place to another… and the list went on and on.
Jesus spoke so strongly to these rule-loving religious leaders because He knew that when following Him becomes about following rules, people end up walking away from both.
The school I went to for my training had a long history. In their formative years almost 85 years ago, the rules for students were much different than today. In order to date or court as it was called in the day, required permission from the Dean. Alcohol was prohibited and there were strict rules if you wanted to go into the city (Moose Jaw). Girls had rules about how they dressed and if they wore makeup. Boys had to wear collared shirts and hair length was an issue. Unfortunately, many students learned to associate these rules and regulations with being a Christian.
Now I do not want people to misunderstand what I am saying here. I do not think any of these rules were wrong or inappropriate. I think it is fine and good for a school or parents to establish such rules or guidelines especially when minors are involved. But here is what happened: myself and a lot of my friends did not like the rules and regulations so we looked for loopholes, ways to get around them. Drinking would happen on weekends justifying they were not “in class” at that specific moment.
For years Christians were identified by their rules, especially the things they did not do. But when we reduce the Christian life to a bunch of rules and outward living, we miss the point of why Jesus came. He came to fulfill the rules.
On the other side, the danger sometimes happens when some Christians believe He came to abolish the law thereby making life all about doing whatever you want. But that is the extreme on the other side. Life is not carte blanche. When we learn to truly follow Jesus, we find that obedience to God comes from the inside out.
Submission to what God wants for our lives flows naturally out of that relationship. It is not to say that what we do or do not do doesn’t matter, but what we do or do not do must come from who we are as followers of Jesus.
When I got married, I made a commitment with vows as to how I would live my life in a relationship with my wife. These “rules” were written and spelled out for me in words of commitment. When I said “I Do” I understood I was committing to keeping certain expectations. These included and not limited to; being faithful to her for as long as we both live, to provide for her and meet her needs, to protect her and to be committed for better or worse.
But after I got married I soon discovered that there are other things I didn’t know about. But these “expectations” have since been clearly established. I need to pickup after myself. Outside tasks are my responsibility. The toilet seat must remain down (still working on that!). That being said, if I saw our relationship as a bunch of rules I had to keep, I would quickly become bitter and miserable. Like in school, I would look for ways to “break the rules.” But I love with my wife and that translates into a desire to please her.
As Christians, let us remember that change only happens when God works in and through us. It is not something we can manufacture or manipulate into being. When the relationship on the inside with God is right, the outside will follow.