Do religions have too many rules? Sometimes, the answer is an unqualified yes! But why do we need to have rules at all? Don’t religious rules rob people of their freedom?
Have you ever taken a look at the rulebook for a professional sports league? The Official NHL Rulebook lists hundreds of specific rules and regulations. Everything from penalties, to the flow of the game (“The time allowed for a game shall be three (3) twenty-minute periods of actual play with a rest intermission between periods.”), to the size and shape of the rink (“The official size of the rink shall be two hundred feet (200′) long and eighty-five feet (85′) wide. The corners shall be rounded in the arc of a circle with a radius of twenty-eight feet (28′)”).
If the rules and regulations were all a person knew about the game of hockey, they would likely conclude that it is not only probably quite boring, but also that it must be the most restrictive and oppressive activity in the world! Thankfully hockey is much more than merely its rulebook. Still, rules are necessary. Imagine trying to play a game without any rules! In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, the young boy Calvin created just such a game: Calvinball. The comics centered around the chaos that would result whenever they would try to play the game without any rules.
Similarly, popular speaker Nicky Gumbel describes his experiences trying to referee a childrens’ soccer game. The normal referee was late, and so he was temporarily pressed into taking the role:
There was a number of difficulties with this: I had no whistle, there were no markings for the boundaries … and I did not know the rules nearly as well as some of the boys. The game soon descended into complete chaos. Some shouted that the ball was in. Others said it was out. I wasn’t at all sure, so I let things run. Then the fouls started. Some cried, “Foul!” Others said, “No foul!” I didn’t know who was right. So I let them play on. Then people began to get hurt. By the time Andy [the official referee] arrived, there were three boys laying injured on the ground … but the moment Andy arrived, he blew his whistle, arranged the teams, told them where the boundaries were and had them under control. Then the boys had the game of their lives! (from “Alpha: Questions of Life,” 88-89)
But what about religious rules? Aren’t they just an impediment to our freedom?
In the same ways as a lack of sports rules will lead to less real freedom, lack of rules for life will eventually also lead to less real freedom. Dr Victor Shepherd describes the difference this way: “When the Bible speaks of freedom, however, it means something entirely different; it means the absence of any impediment to acting in accord with our true nature … The free person is simply the person for whom there is no impediment (inner or outer), no obstacle to her living as the child of God that she is by faith.” (from “Do you love me? And other questions Jesus asks,” 35-36)
The distinction between Christianity and all other faiths is that while Christianity has rules, it’s not about rules. C. S. Lewis, the late Oxford and Cambridge university professor who was also author of the popular Narnia series of books, was once asked what belief was unique to the Christian faith. “Oh, that’s easy,” he replied, “it’s grace.” Every other religion makes rules the basis of a person’s right standing with God. But in the Christian faith the rules first point out how a person has fallen short of God’s standard. That realization leads a person to God’s grace. Then those same rules serve as direction to live out lives of gratefulness. This is done not to earn anything, but in gratitude for what has been freely given.
Yes, many people (and churches) use rules like weapons to wound others through guilt and intimidation. Or they may be used as oppressive weights to burden people and drag them down. Perhaps you have experienced that yourself. But if you have, it may be time to consider that using rules this way is part of a broken system. And the true system is much more beautiful and burden-free. Watch the video Religion: Why it Isn’t Working to explore this idea further and let us know what you think!