When Man-Made Traditions in the Church Keep People Out

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woman reading the Bible

Growing up in a church that had many written and unwritten rules was not a positive experience. To me, each rule presented a challenge: Either figure out a way around it or live without it.

I could not relate to a faith experience that was dictated by a group of male rule-makers and the rules they established. Some of the rules were understandable—such as not drinking or smoking. As an adolescent, I had no business doing either.

The problem came when the rules became more important than relationships. Our family took rule-following to the extreme, and it affected all our relationships.

My brothers and I could not even drink a soft drink out of a can for fear someone would see one of us and think we were drinking beer. Actually, we were drinking beer when Dad wasn't looking. But seeing us drink out of a glass container made my father feel better.

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As I said, this was one of those rules that made sense for an adolescent to follow. But rules that focus on a minor area of life can come to take precedence over the greater priorities of building character and connecting relationally. Why? Rather than creating a heart that is good, following a rule is something that makes the church and the family look good.

Majoring on Minors

Focusing more on minor rules than on the major issues of life was not the only problem I discovered when I was young. There were some unwritten rules that were just plain wrong.

One of the unwritten rules of our church was that we catered to white people, especially white Christians. Although the leadership would never ask a person of color to leave, they would not go out of their way to show proper respect or make it comfortable for him or her either.

Our church was the largest and closest one to an area with a high concentration of African-Americans, but our church bus program never ran through those black neighborhoods. Nowhere would you find the "no blacks" rule in print, but it was written on the hearts of the membership and its leaders, and it was wrong.

There are other rules that stand in the way of wonderful people finding a relationship with our Lord. None is more destructive than a "we versus they" attitude leveled at any group.

Jesus reflected a "me for them" attitude. Whether He was talking with a woman caught in adultery or a crooked little tax collector up a tree, He was a gatherer of broken people, and He was committed to breaking the rules. In fact, Jesus was so "pro-sinner" that he was willing to upset the religious leaders of the day to reach those who were in need of His mercy. When I discovered what a rebel He was, I could finally relate to the One who had died to save me.

When Jesus walked the earth, He valued relationships over rules. He liberally broke the Jewish laws by healing on the Sabbath, sharing food with a known sinner and doing the wrong thing (according to the rules made by pompous men of the law) with the wrong people.

Jesus acted so unpredictably, so radically, so unexpectedly that His whole life was a challenge to the rule-makers and rule-keepers of His day. Their attitude was that if the God of the universe was not going to keep the rules of man, then God would have to be killed.

Human systems and rituals had induced many to lose their first love as they focused on their own power rather than on the power of God. The religious authorities burdened people with heavy loads of "works" and offered no assistance to those they so heavily weighted. By the time they had established their self-made religion, people viewed God as a binder of hearts, a burdener of spirits, a vindictive, angry, distant and disinterested God who did not involve Himself with everyday people.

Jesus came to earth to change all that. As He lived out His life, His daily brushes with real people—real sinners—painted a different picture of a God who cared, who transformed and who loved more than anyone could ever imagine.

Relationships Over Rules 

The New Testament displays Christ's respect for people and His disregard for those who do not care about them. To Him, it was better to heal a man on the Sabbath than to wait for Monday to come so as not to cause a stir.

The Pharisees, because of their religious rules, could not get excited about a healing that would take place on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). They had no intention of celebrating a miracle that God had to break a man-made rule to accomplish.

A Samaritan woman at a well and an adulteress caught in the act were two more examples of Christ's respect for all kinds of people, even the wrong kinds of people. From His life, I came to conclude that a healthy faith is respectful of others.

In addition to Christ's example, we have the direct pronouncement of this tenet in Philippians 2:3: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself" (NIV). As simple as this verse is to understand, it has been quite difficult to fully believe and live out.

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