Love vs. Legalism: The Bible Is Not a Rule Book

Open Bible
I spent a lot of my childhood combing the Bible for rules on behavior. It was easier to see the world in black and white than deal with confusing moral questions. I didn’t ponder what the most loving act was in each situation — I just followed the rules to justify my actions, condemning others when their lives didn’t align with my interpretation of the text.

I disassociated myself with people who were “breaking” the rules: smokers, drug-users, girls who got pregnant at sixteen, pro-choice advocates, people who lied to me, those who said one thing but then did another.

One evening after a classmate said a swear word, I searched my Bible and copied down a verse from James: “Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” I was determined to confront my classmate with this clear proof that swearing was wrong. Regardless of the morality of swear words, I misunderstood the meaning of this verse, which is actually talking about taking vows and truthful speech. More importantly, I didn’t grasp the importance of relationship over judgment. I didn’t realize this kid would just see me as acting “high and mighty” by pointing this out, and he’d be right in doing so.

I was like a Pharisee, more concerned with keeping myself clean than considering how I could serve others.

Jesus ate dinner with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10). When the Pharisees saw this, they questioned why Jesus would associate himself with such people. They constantly called out Jesus and His disciples for not following particular laws, when His disciples didn’t fast (9:14), when they plucked grain and ate it on the Sabbath (12:2), when they didn’t wash their hands before they ate (15:2), and so on. They were more focused on the rules than the relationship. Jesus repeatedly rebuked them for this, saying they were more concerned with their public appearance than truly worshiping God:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (15:8-9)

When I started to read the Bible as a book about God’s relationship with His people instead of a list of laws, I stopped trying to control people and focused on loving them instead.

God calls us to differentiate ourselves from the world in our morals, beliefs and hearts, but His model of authority is not the legalistic society many of us have come to believe in. If that was the case, the Bible would simply be a list of laws instead of a collection of stories. And the relational aspect Jesus highlights in His interactions on earth would not be present at all.

“Authority is not the power to control people, and crush them, and keep them in little boxes,” wrote N.T. Wright on “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” in Vox Evangelica. “The church often tries to do that — to tidy people up. Nor is the Bible as the vehicle of God’s authority meant to be information for the legalist…. Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.”

Wright goes on to say that God doesn’t simply want to pass or fail us in our Christian lives on earth. He wants us to become intimately involved in the work He is doing. We read the Bible, not to learn how we must act in order to be saved, but to learn, grow and understand the relationship God wants to have with us. Wright wrote, “Because, again and again, we find that, as we submit to scripture, as we wrestle with the bits that don’t make sense, and as we hand through to a new sense that we haven’t thought of or seen before, God breathes into our nostrils his own breath — the breath of life. And we become living beings — a church recreated in his image, more fully human, thinking, alive beings.”

The Bible is an important book and does give insight for how we can obey God and glorify Him in our daily lives. But we often twist it into a judge’s gavel instead of an open invitation. It’s about relationship, about God revealing himself. If we read it that way, we may find we start thinking about others more and ourselves less. We may begin to wonder how to mirror Jesus’ behavior, shedding our fear of “being contaminated” and focusing on relationship over rules.

About the Author

Allison Barron

Hailing from the cold reaches of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Allison is the general manager of Geekdom House, executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is usually preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.