Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.

10 min. to read.

From time to time you’ll hear some preacher hold forth on the state of our country. He’ll (It’s almost always a man) point out the terrible ills in society and the ever-increasing immorality.

With waving arms, he’ll decry Biblical illiteracy. He’ll say if only there was more Bible reading, more Bible-believing, more following of rules in the Bible, the tide would be reversed.

His prescription, however, won’t make a difference.

I spent fifteen years working with high school students who had grown up in a particular conservative Christian denomination. Most had been in Bible classes since they could sit still. They had been memorizing scripture their whole lives. I have never met before or since a group of kids with so much exposure to the Bible.

Yet they were generally not any more spiritual than other kids I’ve met. Many of them didn’t have any sense of a relationship with God. As this cohort of students grew up and started their adult lives, I watched a large swath leave the church of their childhood. Quite a number left Christianity altogether. Even though they knew the Bible like the back of their hands!

Or maybe they left, exactly because they knew their Bible so well. They had been taught the Bible. They had memorized Bible verses. They sat through sermon after sermon. But what they heard, for many of them, made no difference. Why?

Most people don’t have a relationship with an encyclopedia.

I was sitting in my office where I was serving as a chaplain. This was a private Christian school where the kids were inundated with the Bible. She was a senior, ready to step into her adult life in the coming months. Her story was one I had heard again and again.

The Bible had been introduced to her as a rule book, a religious HR manual, an encyclopedia for living. She’d heard the famous Bible stories—Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath. As she grew the emphasis moved from stories that engaged to rules that governed. This is where she, and so many of her peers, got lost.

When they got to a place in life where they could make their own choices, they set the Bible aside. For them it was little more than a Policy and Procedure Manual. Come on. Who’s inspired by that?

That’s when I told her, “Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible for now.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth. She looked stunned. I felt stunned. But those words were the beginning of an incredible conversation about faith, hope and Jesus. They were the start of a spiritual journey that took her closer to God, rather than farther away.

Your story may be different from these students, but many people share this same belief about the Bible. They think it’s nothing more than an antiquated book of religious rules meant to govern your behavior.

When we read the Bible out of context, we start making up our own story.

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This isn’t a crazy belief to hold. The Bible certainly does contain its share of rules. The books Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are, in many parts, a collection of the laws of the ancient nation of Israel. The prophets often condemned people’s behavior. Even in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul left us a handful of lists citing good behaviors and bad ones. There’s no question that there are rules and standards in the Bible.

Most of the time, though, specific verses that condemn certain behaviors are quoted in isolation, like religious bumper stickers. We strip them of their context, the story they took place in. Who was this said to? Why was it said? Without the context, we lose any connection with the real meaning of the text itself—and then we start making up our own sense of meaning.

We communicate the impression that the main purpose of the Bible is to guide behavior. It’s not.

Wait, what?!

Nope. The Bible’s main purpose is not to guide behavior. Behavior is one aspect of our lives, and it matters. The Bible, however, is much broader than the things we avoid or the things we do. Listen to the claims in the Bible about the purpose of scripture.

To Guide us to Jesus.

At the end of John’s gospel, the author gives us insight into why that book was written.

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name. – John 20:30-31

John’s gospel was written for a specific purpose: so that you could be engaged by the story of Jesus and moved to believe in Him. While the context of this verse is specifically about the gospel of John, it points us in an interesting direction for scripture as a whole.

To give us hope.

In Romans, Paul makes a similar statement:

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures. – Romans 15:4

Here Paul is referring back to the Old Testament—what was written in the past. Does he say these scriptures were written so that we could know all the rules and behave better? Not at all. He says that all the scripture written in the past was written so that we might have hope and encouragement. Hope and encouragement! That’s something altogether different than rules and regulations.

There certainly are rules and standards in the Bible–many of them serve to make life better, and assist in our ability to love God and the people around us.  But when you pay attention to the context, you’ll find that some of them apply to us today and some of them don’t. While the Bible claims to be good for teaching and to have authority in our lives, nowhere does it claim to be a comprehensive manual governing every choice we have to make.

How to see the Bible as more than rules.

The belief that the Bible is just an anachronistic rule book pushing an outdated morality is a roadblock to experiencing God. If this is your struggle, how can you change that mindset?

1. Get some Perspective.

Remember that verses that talk about behavior, rules and guidelines are literally a fraction of the entire book. The Bible is made up of something more than 31,000 verses. By the widest possible definition about 6000 of those verses are instructions or commands. That’s not 6000 separate commands. Most of those are duplication and repetition. From the broadest viewpoint, less than 20% of the Bible is made up of rules. That means that more than 80% of the Bible is something else. 80%. That seems important. So, what might that be?

Quote - Out of Context

2. Pay attention to context.

Every rule or command in the Bible falls within a certain context. We glean the context by knowing who wrote the words, who they were writing to, where those words fall in the story or argument, what book they are in, what was the historical circumstance of the author and audience, and where this passage falls in the over-arching narrative of the whole Bible.

When you start to examine the context of these verses, you’ll discover a variety of things.

Some of those rules were for very specific people in specific circumstances. That means they don’t apply to everyone all the time. Some of the rules or commands were given for a specific time and culture. Some are commands and standards that apply to your life today.

It’s always fair to ask if those culturally conditioned commands represent a principle that might apply today. We should ask that question, so long as we keep in mind that getting to the answer will require more study than simply reading this one verse.

3. Pay attention to Maturity.

Even iron-clad rules are about something more important than behavior. Think of a good parent and how they relate to their children. Parents enforce certain rules strictly for their toddlers. You can’t cross the street. You can’t touch the knives in the kitchen. You may not hit your sister. The rules are black and white and strongly enforced.

As that kid matures, do the parents keep enforcing those rules in the same way? No, not in a healthy family. Some rules change. Some rules fall away. Other rules are added. You can cross the street on your own, but you can’t drive the car. You can use the kitchen knives with permission, but you can’t own a gun.

Does that mean the original rules were wrong? No! It would be naive  and superficial to make that claim. Behind each of those rules were principles. A good parent wants to see their children healthy and whole. The rules were just a developmentally-appropriate expression of the principle that mattered. When that kid becomes an adult, the rules will fall by the wayside, but hopefully the principles they expressed will have been embedded deeply in the fabric of their character. In every case, the rule serves a more important governing principle. When you come across rules in scripture, keep this in mind.

4. Remember the Big Story.

Finally, remember that every rule or standard falls inside of a much larger story. All the books of the Bible come together to tell this larger story. They come from different cultures and contexts, different authors, but they weave together into a greater tapestry. The theme of the tapestry is not the rules or your behavior. The theme is what God has done among a certain group of people and how God is inviting you to participate in God’s work in the world.

If you’re stuck with the derailing belief that the Bible is nothing more than uninspiring rules, it’s time to set that aside. The Bible carries a story for you. A story meant to inspire, motivate and shape you. A story meant to introduce you to God, and help you understand yourself and your calling in the world.

There are some instructions, some guidelines, some rules. But those only matter in the context of a relationship with God and that’s the point. Get to know the One who wants to speak to you through these ancient words. I promise that as you do, the rules that matter will be brought to your attention, and the ones the don’t will fade into the background, as you start actually hearing from God.

This post is part of a series about ways we get in the way of our experience of scripture. The series is called Jumping the Hurdles.

  1. Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.
  2. Is the Bible human or divine? The problem is in your either/or question.
  3. 2 Reasons why using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.
  4. Has familiarity with the Bible left you bored and jaded?
  5. New to the Bible? Wandering around confused?
  6. Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.
  7. When the Bible has been used to bash, clobber or hurt you.

11 thoughts on “Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.

  1. Great stuff Mark! If we are using our faith as a behavior modification tool for others we have missed the point of the great commission (and we are probably missing the point in our own lives as well). We need to point people to Jesus with the only motive of seeing them in heaven.

  2. How do you think this applies to sexual morality? I would love to move beyond a rules-based sexual morality into an ethic that is built more on the idea of “What is loving to me and my partner?” (which seems more in line with Jesus’ teaching regarding the greatest commandment). But the Christian culture that I grew up in very much had an ethic that “Anything sexual outside of marriage whatsoever is a terrible, terrible sin.” I don’t like feeling trapped by those rules, but I also don’t want to ruin my life or my future marriage by breaking them. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Hey Jonathan, what a great question! I don’t have a good, concise answer. I know for certain that we (the church) need to stop treating sexual sin like it’s the worst kind of sin, and that people who transgress sexually are perverts or beyond redemption. (thoughts on that:

      As for how to move beyond the simplistic rules-based morality? I think more thought needs to go into that. I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the heart of sexual morality ought to be honesty. Essentially, as followers of Jesus, we ought to never misrepresent our intentions or deceive. Physical intimacy is a form of communication. It says “I accept you and value you.” Intercourse is, in the context of marriage, saying “We are one. I am with you, you are with me.” It’s covenental language, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.” If that’s what you believe about sex, then it would make sense that you ought to never “say that” physically until you mean it in terms of commitment. Which means marriage in most cases.

      But there are other aspects that need to be thought through too. What about the power dynamic? Followers of Jesus are to never use power to hurt or take advantage of others. What might that mean for sexual behavior? How does that say to the mindset that sexual desire is a hunger, and sexual behavior is just a way to feel satiated? And of course, once you start talking about power, you have to start talking about privilege. Just because you CAN do something because of your privilege doesn’t mean it’s loving. Even if both people *seem* to want it. That’s the problem with privilege. You can’t always tell when consent is really consent.

      Other avenues of reflection:

      * What does our call to be self-sacrificially other-centered say to our sexual behavior? We’re also to treat everyone around us with dignity as the image-bearers of God that they are.

      * How might this mindset influence our sexually saturated world-view where objectification is built into the system?

      * When thinking about what is “loving to me and my partner” are we thinking about our greater call to love beyond what “feels loving” in the moment? For example, my choice to have sex before marriage–which seemed great at the time–ended up having an enormous impact on the woman who ultimately became my wife, and on our marriage. The choice seemed loving at the time, but as time passed it turned out to be unloving in some pretty insidious ways.

      And of course, there’s a whole separate line of thought that has to do with how we (as the church) treat people in the church and around us, who have different sexual standards or experiences than we have.

      I think this is a critical area where the church needs competent thinkers to work through the scripture, and the ethics, and the cultural context we are increasingly finding ourselves in, and offer new ways to think.

  3. This is an awesome article, and I love the imagery of parenthood in relation to the rules we give our children (I have a 2 year old, and often reflect on the rules we create for him). Having black and white rules makes for a more simplistic society as everybody knows when they’ve done wrong, but that kind of society doesn’t seem to fit what we see Jesus creating. How does the church function in a less structured, more organic system? Is it possible to live in relationship without some kind of system, though? Historical study seems to indicate that every generation pushes against the rules of the previous one, only to create their own rules they expect the next generation to follow.

    1. Hey Matthew, thanks for leaving a comment and for the RT on Twitter. I appreciate that so much.

      Your questions seem like the right ones. I’ve been a full-time pastor for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen exactly what you say. This tension between systems that create efficiency and organic processes that actually bear fruit. The age old question: Does our church create decisions or disciples? I suspect there is a different way to think about it.

      Gardening is a metaphor I’m finding much help in. There are “systems” in gardening. You create a garden bed. You weed. You fertilize on a seasonal schedule. You water, or build a watering system. These things all create a “supportive structure” fore you garden. But the thing that matters most is the fruit, and the fruit cannot be forced or made to happen by a system. The fruit will naturally happen when the plants have the environment they need to grow in a healthy way. I wonder what this picture might do for the way we plan and build church. How can our systems create a “supportive structure” for the natural and organic process of spiritual growth and fruit-bearing?

      1. That’s actually great imagery. Considering Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:15–20, I suspect most rule-based preachers would say it’s not the system that’s wrong but a bad tree that needs to be cut down. I wonder what Jesus would say about the system in place producing the tree. Given that a bad tree formed, can we assume a good tree will form in it’s place if the gardening system isn’t changed? Not likely. Hmm…

        1. Right. We “religious gatekeepers” tend to be very concerned about the quality of the tree. I suspect that the quality of the tree is one of the things outside of our control. In the gardening metaphor, you plant the seeds you plant, or you plant the starts you plant. You can’t control their DNA. You can’t always tell if they are already diseased. You do what you can to create a nurturing environment–that part you are responsible for. But you are not responsible for the fruit, and–I think–you are not responsible for the original state of the seed or plant. Come to think of it, there are lots of things you’re not responsible for. You can’t control the weather, the total hours of available sunlight, whether there is a particular bug infestation in your area, or if there are enough bees in your neighborhood, etc. How might this inform the work of pastors in church?

          1. I’m stretching my knowledge of gardening (have never been that good at it), so I forget the correct word: there’s a term for the way planting should be which is where the natural properties of one plant works in harmony with those of another. Cross-pollination, but also natural herbicides and insecticides. I have a hunch that we like to create our systems like most commercialized farmers do, which is to say in rows. But this requires herbicides and insecticides to control that which would kill off the rows. It makes church neater, and you can produce a bunch of little minions, but I wonder if we’ve burned through all the good fruit they can produce. Scarier, perhaps, is taking those plants and mixing them up together. But they probably produce better and tastier fruit.

          2. Is “companion planting” what you’re going for? In any case, I can’t “like” this conversation enough 🙂

          3. I confess I had to look “companion planting” up on wikipedia. 🙂 Not being a gardener I’m pushing hard on a metaphor that I don’t have much depth with. But I’ll tell you what, the companion planting idea is a wonderful expansion of the metaphor. I need to chew on this more, but I think this whole gardening-as-church-planting metaphor may need to be a future post.

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