Who Makes the Rules? : Brendan Arnold

For your stay-at-home enjoyment this month, our blog post is brought to us by NazToo-er Brendan Arnold. Brendan is Associate Minister at Restoration Community Church and a student at Trevecca. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jessica, and their two kids. For fun, Brendan enjoys running sound, working on computers, and getting in arguments on Naz2.

            I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we decide what the rules are. “We” in this case being the peculiar community of the Christian church. Christians throughout history have had a strange relationship with the rules; we love to make, debate, and break the rules. Sometimes we say these rules are directly handed down from God, sometimes we say the rules are what we hear God tell us in our hearts, sometimes we say there are no rules, — only love. Depending on when and where we grow up, we inherit various rules for being a Christian person, and various assumptions about how important those rules are and where they come from.

            But I want to focus on that question of how we decide the rules. Because I don’t think it’s something we think about very much. And when we don’t think about things often, we tend to just go with the flow, without really assessing if the course we’re on is best. I think the default answer for many people is essentially fundamentalism. And being fundamentalist about where the rules come from doesn’t mean one is necessarily a fundamentalist overall. I know quite a few people who don’t see themselves as “fundamentalist Christians” (and I agree with them) who would still probably give a fundamentalist answer about where the rules come from.

            The fundamentalist answer is an easy one. Something along the lines of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me,” is much easier than trying to critically think through the various issues surrounding Christian rules. It takes work to think about where our rules come from, where our scriptures come from, how we know any of that, how sure we can be in that knowledge. And the point of this post isn’t to criticize fundamentalism. I, personally, am not a fundamentalist, but I know many devout, loving Christians who are. Fundamentalism in its various forms has been an answer for many people in the church. And that’s one answer to the question of, “Where do the rules come from?” It’s an answer many of us probably grew up with. I certainly did.

            But if we move away from fundamentalism, if we decide that the rules for being a Christian are not just directly handed down to us from God, then what? I think for many people, the first option that comes to mind looks something like the guy in that Little Caesar’s commercial who immediately rips off his shirt and screams, “There’s no rules!!!” Especially for those who grew up with fundamentalist logic drilled into them at a young age, it can seem like the logical consequence of removing a fundamentalist rationale for Christian morality, ethics, action, etc. is some sort of anarchy. And while I’ve personally seen this more as a straw man argument from fundamentalists (and at times I’ve even made these arguments to myself to keep myself inline with the fundamentalism I grew up with), I do believe there are people who truly believe this. I think a lot of people function this way, even if they haven’t consciously thought it through. I hear echoes of it in the kind of “relationship over religion” language which is sometimes popular. The idea that our faith is somehow “just between us and Jesus.” Again, the point of this post isn’t to dismantle such a position, but I will say that the communal nature of the church seems to make such “personalized” views of Christianity pretty problematic.

            What I actually want to do, however, is propose a “third way” between the extremes of fundamentalism and anarchy. A mentor of mine, Steve Hoskins, referred to the church in Acts as “council-ors,” and I think he’s onto something. I’ll say more about what I mean, but first, I want to let you know where I’m coming from: I believe that God is real, and that he really acted in history, and I believe God’s action is most clearly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that the Bible is the attempt of a particular community, the people of God, to wrestle with the experience of encountering God’s action at various times and places. I believe that the Bible collects those diverse experiences and attempts to understand them and pass them on to future generations of the People of God. I believe that those diverse, human explanations of God’s work are the result of various “councils” at different times: sometimes those councils had different answers.

            That last point is what I’m driving toward here. I think it’s easy to prove this was the case in the New Testament and beyond. In Acts 15, the Apostles meet to discuss issues of Gentile believers and circumcision. The church has had numerous councils, importantly those that formed the Creeds. But I think you can see this process play out in the background of the Old Testament as well. If you closely examine the different lists of laws in the Old Testament, (say, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), you will see lots of similarity, and lots of repetition. But interestingly, there are differences that pop up as well. It’s as if the community giving us these laws, these sets of rules, are updating things for their own time. Perhaps a law did not go far enough to protect the innocent before, or a new issue has risen. I won’t bore you with too many details here, but I think these differences are significant, and I think they point to a way forward for the church today.

            If we are not going to be fundamentalist, but think there should be rules to guide us as we live out our faith, perhaps we should see ourselves as “council-ors.” Perhaps we pray, learn, study, and discern all we can as individuals, and then meet together and decide the rules as a community. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is truly at work among us and will guide us as we do so, and perhaps this will allow us to come up with better rules than if we went with the simplicity of fundamentalism or anarchy.

            As our society changes, especially in the face of rapid technological advancement, the church will find itself facing many obstacles, and having many debates about what the rules should be, and how much they should matter. I think the church will do well to face these issues as a council — a body of equals who discuss the issues in depth and decide how to move forward — guided by the Holy Spirit and the work of church councils before us.