Have you every played a board game with someone that played with a different set of rules than you normally play with? It can be frustrating to say the least. Monopoly is the king of “home grown” rules. It seems like everyone has a different twist or tweak for that game. When it comes to life, I wonder if some people are making up or customizing rules as well. This is very evident when it comes to religion. C.S. Lewis told a story about a little boy that was asked to describe God. The boys answer gets at what I am talking about: “As far as I can make out, God is the sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.”
One example that I found (which will remain “link-less”) is a website full of such rules. This site defines the gospel (which ironically means “good news”) by reminding everyone that God demands perfect obedience and “whoever does not obey God will punish and destroy.” What are these areas where perfect obedience is expected? It is not, as you might expect, in areas of love, mercy, or justice. Instead, issues of the heart have been replaced by a long list of things NOT to do. This list includes: television, movies, newspapers, magazines, ALL organized sports (this website spells out that they mean amateur and professional sports of any kind), holidays like Christmas, and parties of any kind. It appears that people always have the tendency to make Christianity about following a set of external rules.
This was a problem in the early church, though it was a little different then. The big issue for many of the Greek churches that Paul planted was what to do about all the Hebrew code of laws. The 600 different biblical laws and the thousands of laws from the Hebrew Oral tradition were somewhat problematic for the Greeks coming to faith in Jesus. Things like circumcision and food laws had become external stamps of righteousness to the Jews and there was pressure to force the Gentile believers in Jesus into these bonds. The book of Galatians has this tension in the background. Paul makes the argument that Christ’s work on the cross has set us free from the burden of the law. This does not mean that people are free to behave however they want no matter who it hurts, but it does significantly change the motivation for right action. In Paul’s view, it is not about trying “keep the rules” but about meeting the obligations of a love relationship with Jesus. So in one sense we are free: free from the obligation to keep all the rules because that is what we ought to do. In another sense we are bound: we have an obligation to return the love we have been shown.
So if externalism is not the kind of righteousness God is looking for, what is God looking for? This is the question we will be asking this month in Echo. We will be looking at morality in terms of “virtues:” internal characteristics that define who a person is or is becoming instead of external rules that define what they do or do not do.