Have you noticed our tendency to try and control others with rules?
We started with Ten Commandments. That led to Jewish scholars noting that the Torah actually contains 613 commandments, which can be divided into 365 “negative commandments”, and 248 “positive commandments”.
Not content to stop there, those scholars went on to delineate further on those commandments, explaining them and broadening them and eventually writing the Mishnah, an extensive collection of rules and guidelines.
Not content to stop there, those same scholars expanded the Mishnah into volume after volume of intricate and tedious rules and laws called the Talmud. These massive works are filled with rigorous and complicated guides to every aspect of living.
Jesus came into a religious society dominated by the rule of the Law proclaiming the radical notion that HE was the fulfillment of the law. Conflict was inevitable. Whether it was “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath or touching a leper or engaging a Samaritan, he soon became known as a repeat rule-breaker.
Remember his disdain for the law-obsessed in Matthew 23:25-26? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”
Jesus claimed it was the interior of a person that was the place where the work of God’s Spirit begins. He repeatedly invited his followers and hearers to resist the temptation to settle for rule-keeping when what he wanted was life-transformation.
Across the years, the church has wrestled mightily with the polarities of law and grace, and today seems to be another chapter in that struggle.
I am hearing an increasing number of stories dealing with church discipline gone awry. This contentious issue has been with us for centuries, but seems to gain a foothold in times of uncertainty and high anxiety. When congregational life becomes stressful, our tendency is to revert back to our rules-fixated past and attempt to control others with rules rather than persuade them with the love and grace of Christ.
While the Inquisition will always serve as the low-water mark of our fascination with judging others, there have always been those among us who fancy themselves arbitrators of truth and justice. The recent surge in interest in church discipline has spawned a whole generation of clergy more than willing to serve as prosecutor, judge and jury for wayward congregants. In some situations, it is laity who relish ruling with an iron fist.
Assuming an air of authority, with enough scripture texts cobbled together to make some sense, modern disciplinarians embody the spirit of the Pharisees. What usually results is stern condemnation of others and insistence upon correcting a wandering minister, parishioner, organization, family or staff member. Rules almost always reign supreme.
In addition, we know that when trust is low in a congregation or organization, infatuation with rules, policies and procedures balloons. When authority is threatened, it is easy to fall into the pattern Jesus noted in Mark 10: 42 “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”
Tyrants who lord it over those they serve describes far too many of those who are advocates for harsh discipline and a return to congregational life dominated by rules.
To be sure, leaders are called to exhort and rebuke the Body. However, the fine line between “lording over” others and winning them over with a servant spirit is a delicate one. Healthy congregations go about managing this polarity with humility and a good dose of fear and trembling. When a church recognizes that a member is in error, the biblical instruction for intervention is focused on restoration and healing. Breaking fellowship is a last resort. Our spirit is to be marked by humility and kindness (Mark 10:43, Colossians 3:12-17), rather than anger and harshness.
Making clear the expectations for members and clergy is an important ingredient for avoiding the need for such efforts. Fuzzy expectations have been the cause for many a minister’s downfall, and clarity around expectations for membership is sadly lacking in many congregations.
Patience, owning our ulterior motives, practicing the Golden Rule, praying for insight, and speaking the truth in love are to guide our actions.
For those with a quick trigger, it pays to remember that Jesus modeled a depth of forgiveness and grace with Peter that we are called to imitate. Even after Peter denied even knowing the Messiah, Jesus forgave and restored him, and used him mightily to build the church. Such was the power of the love he taught and lived.
Is it too much to pray that such a spirit would emerge in our day?