A question United Methodists seem to love to hate is about our rules. Are our rules, mainly delineated for us in our Book of Discipline, made to be followed or to be broken? Are rules absolute and unquestionable or are our rules evolving and bendable? Why have rules if we do not follow them? If there are no consequences to breaking rules, why even bother having them? But if rules are never challenged or violated, how can we “move onto perfection?” In our history, we have had rules about owning human beings, borrowing and lending at interest, authority and acceptability of female leadership, divorce, and segregation — all rules that we elected to change for a wide variety of reasons and justifications. We have had to create rules to prevent child abuse, domestic violence, gambling, and labor rights because our Christian brothers and sisters weren’t clear that we shouldn’t do these things. The point is, our rules are created by us to give us guidance and define boundaries, but they are not now and they have never been fixed, static, and concrete, and without exception the catalyst to change the rules came through a process of bending, forcing, violating, and breaking them until change was made.
The root of the word rule — regular — means “a straight stick,” or more loosely, “a pattern.” What defines the straightness of a stick? In a broad and general sense, we can say a stick is straight. At a fine and microscopic level, virtually no stick is completely straight. There is “wiggle room” in what straight means. And this drives us crazy. We want a definitive, absolute, yes or no. A stick is straight or it is not. We can’t work well with “a little straight” or “straightish.”. We deeply desire the total elimination of ambiguity.
This is one of the reasons why we want to use the Bible to settle our “ish-nesses”. If the Bible says it, then that settles it! Except the Bible is a straight stick. We have some who read the Bible as infallible, absolute word. This approach wants to “honor” our clear biblical standards for moral purity. However, this is a slippery slope. Divorce, slavery, child abuse, money-lending/borrowing at interest, civil rights, etc., make this a tricky and dangerous approach. People who want individual freedom to interpret scripture as they please concerning homosexuality look for a standardized one-size-fits-all condemnation that would “settle” the issue for all time. Consistency and avoiding a double standard would essentially clear the churches and close our doors. The day we close our doors to sinners is the day we end the Christian faith for all our members. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We would not need a Savior if we weren’t an imperfect people. Sinners belong in church because God so loves the whole world that Jesus was sent to save. So rules that restrict who we offer the saving grace of God to are deeply problematic.
Rules used as weapons are destructive and do not reflect a healthy spiritual tradition through the Hebrew as well as the Christian church. Rules are tools; tools are used to create, what they create reflects the core values of the rule makers. But tools are means to ends, not ends in themselves. We should not become so enamored by our human-developed rules that we elevate them to the level of sacred writ and holy scripture.
We are working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Much of what comprised conventional “rules” twenty, sixty, and a hundred years ago no longer apply. Many things not considered important in the same time frames is now “the will of God” and “Christian tradition.”. The reason we have a Book of Discipline is because our mores and morals do evolve and change. Why divorce, homosexuality, masturbation, mixing bloodlines, and adultery were sinful in a pre-modern cultural context has very little (if anything) to do with the post-Enlightenment/Puritanical/Victorian modern morality we force on them. Virtually no one today would create rules to justify and defend slavery, though the whole canon of our scripture takes it as normal and acceptable.
It is very possible that God’s Holy Spirit is actively working in and through God’s Christian people to speak to our contexts and cultures. It could well be that there are not a set of universal truths and moral rules that apply equally to all people in all places at all times. It could be that God works through us in community to reveal to our discernment what is right and good and helpful and useful to make us faithful and fit for the tasks of Christian discipleship. Rules are made for God’s people, not God’s people made for the rules. We work together to do the very best we can to comprehend, understand and perform God’s will. Rules cannot make us who we need to be, but as we strive together to become who we need to be, our rules could very well take care of themselves.