Imaginary Rules

A (seemingly humorous) conversation from my childhood has stuck with me for years. The details are a bit fuzzy, but it goes something like this... My Mom was hosting an upscale lunch and was preparing to kick off the festivities by lighting candles for ambiance when my Grandmother interjected ‘Candles? At lunch?!’ Grandma was MORTIFIED. What would posses my Mom to even consider breeching the rule of etiquette that candles should never be lit at lunch? How could she?! How dare she! Over the years this story has become somewhat of a joke in my family — “Are you really going to light CANDLES? At lunch?! Oh the horror!” ;) But let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here because interactions like this are more than a joke or cute story. 

I feel that it’s helpful to peel back the layers of this issue so let’s start with etiquette and politeness. Unless you are a recluse, you are exposed to what many call societal norms, including etiquette. These are behaviors accepted by a larger group, but I would also add that they are more than accepted, they are required. In fact, “etiquette” comes from a French word that means “prescribed behavior.” So the point is, what is “right” and “wrong” has already been pre-decided for you by other people. Let that soak in for a minute.

Some quick examples of polite norms that I was taught in the 80s in the rural, Midwest are: 1. Say please and thank you  2. When greeting someone shake hands (in close proximity) or wave (from a distance)  3. Respond when spoken to  4. Eat all the food on your plate  5. Make eye contact when speaking to someone, etc. Please understand that I am not railing against all of these rules but I do believe, that this type of instruction naturally sets the foundation for customs, obligation and rituals. 

Customs say “You must [insert superficial etiquette]” or “I cannot say [insert generally disapproved comment].” Obligation seems to pop up a lot around Christmas and sounds like — “Oh no! She got me a gift, but I did not have her on my list! I’ve got to go purchase something immediately so that I can reciprocate!” Finally, ritualistic thinking says “We’ve always done it this way, so that’s how it is and will be done.” Fleshly customs, obligation and ritual do not mix well with faith and walking in The Spirit. In fact, in Colossians 2:8, Paul and Timothy call rituals by a different name. They write

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

Here, the men that God appointed to lead His people plainly call ritual “the tradition of men.” Paul is well acquainted with these manmade laws as in Galatians 1:13-14 he tells the brethren

You have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

Paul began life as religious zealot. The natural inclination of these religious men (just to be clear, I am not using the term “religious men” in a complimentary way) is to take God’s Word and then morph it into a permutation that includes them and their superficial, fleshly rules. Again, this is what Colossians 2:8 warns of — principles or rules of the world that are not from Christ. I suspect that you already know examples of this behavior, such as how the Bible based modesty quickly turns into teachers with rulers measuring skirts, or how Deuteronomy 6:8 leads to the elaborate rituals relating to the tying and use of phylacteries or how warnings about drunkenness become strict rules completely forbidding alcohol and disparaging those who have legitimate reason to drink wine (see 1 Timothy 5:23). In addition to these examples, you may be able to think of other rules of men that fit here.

God is holy and holiness does involve rules or drawn lines that sometimes must be crossed (think separation from evil, see Romans 12:2, 9) and lines that must not be crossed (like “thou shall not commit adultery” in Exodus 20:9). The difference between imaginary rules and true rules is the source of the command. God’s rules are just that — rules that originate from The Father’s throne in heaven, while imaginary rules are either legitimate laws that are tweaked or regulations that are completely fabricated by men.

I’ve already mentioned Paul’s experience with imaginary rules, but Jesus also encountered regulations created by the religious Jews and He directly and pointedly attacked this sin and arrogance. In Matthew 15 Jesus upbraids the scribes and Pharisees saying

Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? Hypocrites! [In] vain [you] worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Imaginary rules squash freedom and attempt to shackle The Holy Spirit. Imaginary rules lead to death.

Jesus, who is called The Truth, walked in The Spirit and lived His earthly life by faith. The Spirit, faith and The Truth produce freedom. After all

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) and Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (from Galatians 5:16-18).

I encourage you to refuse to be bound or paralyzed by the fake, religious laws of men. Follow God’s Word and The Spirit Who He has given to His people. True freedom is not easy, but it does start with a simple choice to be free through The God who from the beginning has wanted His children to be free.

How will you choose to be free of man’s imaginary rules today? Or, what stand do you need to take to be free indeed?

Additional verses: Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-13, Acts 21:39-22:5, Romans 2:1-29, Galatians 2:1-21 and Galatians 4:1-5:26.