If you were converted later in life, or have friends that are non-Christian, then you have probably had the conversation about “what you are allowed to do.” The underlying question is always, “What kind of burdens have been placed on you now that you are a Christian?” And it’s a justified question because becoming a Christian changes a lot about a person’s life.
The Bondage of Christianity
The perception that most people have of Christianity in general is not that it is a way for us to gain freedom, but a way for us to give up our personal liberty in exchange for bondage. Christianity doesn’t have the reputation as being the place where people are set free… it is a place where people come to have handcuffs put on their life.
Sometimes that’s considered a good thing. Someone will be a bad-guy, or an addict, a thief, or a deviant, and so putting on the handcuffs of the Christian religion with all its rules and regulations about how to live helps them deal with all of their problems. God is seen as a divine referee who blows the whistle every time they want to do anything, so they can’t get in any trouble. So they sit quietly in church, don’t talk, don’t move, don’t talk to their old friends, read their bible and stay in church for the rest of their life. The idea is that some people become Christian because they’ve tried all the other alternatives and don’t have anywhere else to go – so they grab the shackles of religion and clasp them on their ankles as a last resort.
Maybe you’ve heard this, know someone like this, or perhaps even believe this yourself. Christianity isn’t about Jesus, it’s about a means to an end. They’ve tried making money and it’s not working. They’ve tried making friends, and it didn’t work. They’ve tried counselling, and partying, human relationships, and a bunch of other things, but none of them ever really took care of whatever their problem was… so they decide the only place to go is “faith”, or a “higher power”, or “religion” and give all their problems and sadness to God in exchange for the removal their happiness and freedom.
Christians talk about “getting saved” and “being forgiven”, but that’s not what a lot of people see becoming a Christian as. I give God my happiness, freedom, entertainment, and everything fun the world has to offer, and in its place He gives me a form peace, surround me with uninspiring, dull and boring people, piles on a bunch of rules, neuters any form of personality I have and instead gives me the desire to be nice to everyone, and then drives it home with an incentive to stay out of trouble or He’ll send me to hell.
Not much of a sales pitch to become a Christian, is it? That’s why a lot of people call religion a “crutch”. You only need a crutch when you are broken and can’t walk by yourself. If you can walk all by yourself, why would you use a crutch?
That’s why you and I get asked “what are you allowed to do?” I’ve worked a bunch of jobs. I’ve worked three-quarters of the positions at WalMart, washed dishes in a restaurant, and did every labour job conceivable at a pulp-mill. I’ve sold and repaired computers, painted fences, and rolled burritos and made pizzas at a movie theatre. I’ve worked in seven different churches in every ministry position and no matter where I’ve worked, I get asked the same questions about the boundaries of my faith. And I’m sure you have too.
“Are you allowed to drink? Are you allowed to get married? Do you have to pray every day? Do you have to go to church all the time? How much money do they take from you? You’re not allowed to watch movies, or go to the bar, or go to a dance, right? Did you watch that show, play that game, go to that club, try that new place…o, I forgot… you can’t do any of that because you’re a Christian.”
This has become a barrier to presenting the gospel to someone as well. I’ve heard people say “Yeah, I believe all that you’ve said, but I’m just not ready… there are things I want to experience first.” They say it as though as soon as they get baptized their life is over, they hand over their smile, pick up their Bible and have to walk around looking like they’ve been sucking lemons all day.
Flamboyant & Party Pooper Christians
And it’s partly our fault. Think of the Christian stereotype, or the Christians you know. What are the first descriptors that come to mine? Joyful? Positive? Free? In my experience we Christians talk more about the things that we aren’t allowed to do than the things we are. We talk more about the things we hate about the world, than the things we like. We spend more time hiding from and condemning those around us than spending time with them – let alone having fun with them. I was once reprimanded by the deacon of a church I was pastoring because during my pastoral prayer I asked God to “help us have fun in service today.” He actually said to me, “church isn’t for fun.” Being a Party Pooper is what that’s called.
Even among each other, we Christians spend more time bickering, complaining, or ignoring one another, than we do spending time playing, working, praying and serving together.
I’ve been a part of a bunch of churches and it is the rare exception that you find a group of people who are flamboyantly Christian, and have a positive reputation among both believers and non-believers. I love that term – Flamboyantly Christian. I don’t know many Flamboyant Christians. I know lots of Party Pooper Christians.
Think of it. If you know a Christian who has a good reputation among most believers, then chances are it’s because they never rock the boat, are always cheerful, never make noise, and do what their told. They put away the chairs at the end of the service, they nod or close their eyes during the songs, they teach Sunday school or gather the offering. I’ve known people who I’d never heard say a single word about Jesus, who had never led a ministry, who had never shown a single spark of inspiration as long as I’d known them – get nominated to be a deacon and elder! Why? Because they were quiet?
One of the qualifications for Elder is that they have a good reputation with outsiders. Are non-believers looking for leaders who are quiet, submissive, who never rock the boat and who show no personality whatsoever? No way! They want people who are inspired, passionate, authentic, and excited about their cause. They don’t want religious, judgemental, boring, preachy, artificial, party-poopers.
The people we want around us are folks who know how to have fun, aren’t always serious but know when to be, are authentic about sharing their problems, admit they have doubts and frustrations, and are willing to step out of their comfort zone to get involved in people’s lives. And sadly, those types are often ostracized by “church people”.
This isn’t about being introverted or extroverted, it’s about a person’s heart. You can be fun, interesting, serious, authentic in your relationships and get involved in people’s lives and be an introvert or an extrovert. This isn’t about your personality type, but about whether the Gospel of Jesus Christ has effected you in such a way that you have gone beyond religion and are now in relationship with your Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and have the Holy Spirit motivating your life and actions.
A Field Around the Fence Around the Well
This event in the life of Jesus, and the last few events that Mark has told us about, teach us a lot about this issue as we see the contrast of the heart of Jesus with the heart of the Pharisees. How can someone be authentic and passionate about our relationship with God, but also live the way He wants us to live? How can we get the most out of our relationship with Jesus, without becoming a religious nitpick? How can we be the disciplined, obedient Christian that God wants us to be, without becoming rigid and prideful about it?
That’s a tough balance to strike because we tend to lean one way or the other. We either exercise too much freedom, leaning on God’s grace, and sin all the more because we can be forgiven – or we lean towards creating rules and barriers, fearing God’s judgment and man’s opinion, and stay away from good things because we live in fear.
The key comes in realizing that Jesus is far more interested in our inner motivations (which we’ve talked lots about over the past couple weeks), than our outer performance. But not only that, He’s also much more interested in us obeying the spirit or intent of His Law – which leads to loving actions, rather than seeking some sort of perfect interpretation of the letter of that law it – which leads to callousness.
Understanding that liberates us from becoming religious. Let me explain what I mean using this event in the life of Christ. If you’re not already there, turn to Mark 2:23.
What we’ve got here are two Sabbath stories. In both cases you have Jesus, the disciples, and the Pharisees. In both cases you have a problem between the Letter of the Law and the Spirit or Intent of the Law. In both cases, Jesus asks a question of the Pharisees, gets no response, and then nails the point home by saying and showing that God is far more concerned about helping, loving and serving people than keeping their interpretation of the exact letter of the Law.
In the first story you have Jesus and the disciples walking along together through a field, when some of them get hungry, pick some of the grain and eat it. Not a big deal to us, but it makes the Pharisees lose their minds. Why?
God said in His Law, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but theseventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…” (Exodus 20:9-10)
The question was, “What does “work” mean? To answer this question, the Pharisees came up with 39 different categories of actions that they had decided would be considered “work” and would break the Sabbath. Now these were not rules found in the Law of Moses, but rules they had made up to be sure that no one would break the Law.
Think of it this way… In the middle of a field is an old well. The old well goes down 200 feet. The well represents breaking God’s Law. So, how do we keep people from falling down the well? We could post a sign that says, “don’t fall down this well.” That’s one way. Another way is to build a fence around the well so that no one can get to the well. A third way is to ban anyone from ever going into that field, so they never get to the fence, so they never have to disobey the sign, so they never fall into the well – that’s what the Pharisees were doing. They were the keeper of the laws that banned anyone from even going close to the well.
They had defined “work” so many ways that it would have been impossible for anyone to do any work on that day. Ironically, keeping those rules became a lot of work!
Consequently, what God had ordained as a blessing to Man — a day that was set aside for resting our bodies and worshipping Him together, became a day people dreaded. It was also a way that the Pharisees could control the people, judge them, lord over them, and show how superior they were.
So, when they saw the disciples picking the grain and rolling it in their hands, they immediately asked why they were breaking “the law”… not God’s Law, but their law.
Jesus answers with a story from 1 Samuel 21. David was hungry, went into the temple, and all that was left to eat were the 12 special loafs, the “Bread of the Presence”, which was a symbol of the Tribes of Israel. Every week there would be new bread baked and the priests could eat the old loaves. But David was starving, and so were his men, and the priest had no other food available, so he gave 5 of the loaves to David.
To get an idea of what this would be like think of it this way: What the priests did would be a bit like someone coming into a Catholic church hungry on a Sunday morning right after the priest has blessed the pile of host… and then instead of giving it out to the congregation, the priest gives half the pile to the staving person to eat.
It’s that time in a church’s life when they are in the middle of their traditional thing… like a worship service, a song, an outreach event… or whatever… and the choice comes before the church to abandon the tradition and take care of someone’s need. What’s the right thing to do? Keep the tradition, continue with the ceremony, or take care of the individual? Do we keep going with communion and let this man go hungry for a while longer. Do we stop the worship service and take care of that person? Do we give the money set aside for the outreach event to the hurting family who needs it? Do we take the Christmas shoeboxes we have wrapped up at the front and give them to the homeless people that just walked in?
This goes right back to the question about the letter or the spirit of the law. Do we be a Pharisee who lives far away from the well of sin, or do we dare to walk into the field so we can be merciful? What is more important, the person or the tradition? The person or the law?
Some people are going to struggle with this. The answer seems obvious when we are sitting here talking about it, but I’ve seen it go sideways. I remember one time sitting across from a Leadership Team in a dying church that was trying to figure out how they could turn things around. There was someone who wanted to start a playgroup ministry for moms of small children. The church had a huge basement and lots of space, so it seemed like a no-brainer. But do you know what the group got hung up on? The stairs. The question was raised, “What if one of the kids falls down the stairs? Do we have the insurance to cover that if they sue us?” And what became a very successful ministry almost died right then because some of the leaders were more concerned about the law, rather than ministering to the community.
Think back in your own mind about the times that you had a great idea, the opportunity to minister to someone, to bring them joy or comfort, and your mind was flooded with a million excuses as to why that would be a bad idea: “What if I give this away and people think I’m rich or showing off?” “What if I go there and make friends with that person and am tempted to do something bad?”
The Spirit of the Law
Jesus’ point in telling the story was that God had no problem with the priests breaking with tradition, abandoning the ceremony, and dare I say bending the law, so that a starving group of people could eat. David ate, no word came from God saying it was wrong, no punishment came from God on the priests – it was all ok.
And then Jesus then nails His point home by saying in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus then followed that up by saying, “Therefore, the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” In other words, the Sabbath was a gift from God to man not a burden to be endured, and Jesus was saying that as God He is the one who is the perfect interpreter of Sabbath Law.
In other words, Jesus is saying that He is the merciful One who came up with the idea of the Sabbath in the first place. He was the One who designed a day in the week where people would set aside time to rest and worship. He was saying to the Pharisees, “Even though you think you are the lords of the Sabbath because you have set yourselves up as judge and jury of all the people around you… you’re not the Lord… I am. As Creator, I outrank you.”
And the second story, at the beginning of Mark 3, makes the same point in a different way. Here Jesus is again doing something on the Sabbath that the Pharisees said wasn’t allowed. But this time, instead of waiting for them to have a problem with it, He looks at them and asks, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
His question is tied right to what He had said to them before. His question, restated, was “Was the Sabbath made for man, or was man made for the Sabbath?” “What’s more important, obeying the letter of your interpretation of the law and letting someone suffer, or even die because you weren’t willing to lift a finger… or is it better to do something merciful, even though some around you may consider it work?”
Jesus answer came in the healing the man. The answer was, “it is better to do good, to save a life, to help, serve and love people on the Sabbath in whatever way you can, rather than using God’s Law, or worse, man’s poor interpretation of God’s Law, as some kind of religious excuse to not be merciful.”
It was that answer that pushed the Pharisees over the edge and made them want to Kill Jesus. He had called Himself God, and then cut them right to the core of their hypocrisy. He exposed them for who they really were. Their zeal for obeying the letter of the law impressed the people around them, but it totally blinded them from the spirit of the law, and caused them to completely miss the heart of God.
Passionate, but Not a Pharisee?
So, let’s draw an application from what we’ve been talking about by answering the question from a little while ago:
“How can I be a passionate & disciplined follower of Jesus, without becoming a rigid & religious Pharisee?”
The answer is that we need to saturate our spirits in the Gospel of Jesus and be led by the grace of the Spirit of God. We really don’t need any more Christians out there telling everyone what they can and can’t do – we’ve got plenty of those. What the Kingdom of God needs are people who have chosen to live Gospel centered lives, who understand the depth of their sin, how far Jesus came to save them, how much it cost Him, and how loved they are – and who want to pass that love and grace on to others.
To use the illustration from before, the people who need Jesus area all jumping down that well. That’s where they are! They don’t need scared religious folks shouting at them from a distance, afraid to come near them. They need people who understand the grace of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and how He came into the world, broke down the barriers of sin and shame, exchanged His life for ours, died the death we should have lived – dived down the well and brought all who would believe in Him back up. We were all down at the bottom, and Jesus came there to get us. And I believe it insults Jesus and His Gospel when we consider ourselves too clean, to religious, to pure, to good, to go near the hurting, lost, broken and sinful. It is a terrible thing for us who have been saved from hell to forget where we came from and not do all that we can, to go where we need to go, to share the message of salvation.
If you are a Christian, you have been given the freedom and joy that comes with being a believer. People need to see that our faith frees us, not binds us.
Yes, there are some very helpful boundaries that we must draw because of our weakness and tendency towards sin. I’m not saying that we all need to tear down all of our protective boundaries in the name freedom. Be wise and put up your own personal boundaries against sin. Be careful in your life and do all you can to be obedient in your areas of weakness. I’m saying that we need to kill our law-saturated, religion-loving, fearful hearts and live in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How to Set Rules
Let me give you a few questions to ask when you are setting some rules in your life. As I said, we need to be wise and have boundaries, but we need to be careful not to be religious. Jesus lived and never sinned, and the Pharisees tried to keep every single law and were steeped in sin. So how do we created some rules for our life and not become a Pharisee?
Question 1: Does this rule serve God’s purposes for me, or is it meant to serve my purposes for me?
In other words, is this a rule that’s meant to make me more like Jesus, or more like my own person vision of myself? Am I setting this rule up so I can be more godly, or so I can be more worldly successful? Is what I’m doing saturated in prayer, or am I doing this out of fear of man?
That’s an important question to ask when setting a rule. Maybe you’ve set the rule “I will never drink alcohol.” or “I will get up at 6am and do my bible reading.” Ask yourself, Did I set this rule because it makes me a better servant of God, and helps me follow Him… or is it meant to serve my own purposes, give me a better reputation, make me a more impressive Christian…
Question 2: Does the rule reveal God’s character of being merciful, just and compassionate, or is it cruel, discriminatory or harsh?
I just read a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. The amount of abuse he suffered at the hands of racist people was incredible. And all of those segregation laws were upheld and supported by a lot of people who called themselves Christians.
There are parents who have some very harsh rules for their children, who have no biblical grounds for them, and the only reason they ever give is “because I told you so.” We have to ask ourselves, when setting any rule, does this rule reveal the character of God?
Question 3: Does the rule help people get into God’s family, or keep them out?
I’m amazed at some of the rules that churches have come up with that keep people out of the faith! I’m not talking about Christians holding other Christians accountable, I’m talking about rules that they set for non-believers too. I’d give you a list, but I’d just get depressed.
Ask yourself, does this rule that we are setting help more people hear about Jesus and invite them into the Kingdom of God, or does it create unnecessary hurdles for them to leap over before they can even hear about Jesus?
Question 4: Does the rule have strong biblical roots, or did I come up with this myself, or with worldly wisdom?
This is an awesome question that we all need to make sure we consider. That’s what I love to ask people who come up with crazy rules, and you’ve all heard me ask it: “What verse is that again?”
Someone will say, “Everyone knows you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re suppose to, you have to…”
And I’ll say, “What verse is that again?”
Let’s not set rules that are just comprised of worldly wisdom. We must make sure that whatever rules we come up with in our lives have strong, biblical support, or we will become Pharisees.
Remember 1 Corinthians 3:17:
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Let us not impose restrictions and harsh rules on people that go beyond the gospel and the requirements of scripture. We have to keep from adding rules, programs and policies in our church, or our life, that make following Jesus a burden for people. When we are dealing with each other, and with those outside the faith, let it be God’s love and grace that come through most clearly and most often.