Rules can guard the sacredness of ordinary life.
Reading the Acts of the Apostles can be exhilarating. We get an inspiring picture of life in the infant church. Christians gathered for joyful times of prayer, instruction, and fellowship. Financial resources were pooled into a common fund. The apostles went about healing, with some dramatic results.
We admire this picture of early church life. Since then many Christians have aspired to recreate it. Back in the early 1970s, I once visited a charismatic Catholic community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was trying to replicate life in a Christian community modeled on the infant church of Acts. Among other things, when they corresponded with other like-minded communities, they modeled their letters on the style of Pauline epistles.
The shock of the Pastoral Epistles
With this Acts model of church life in our minds, it can feel like a real downer to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), as I have been doing recently. We don’t find here the kind of spiritual sky-diving we find in Acts.
We find instead churches that feel so commonplace. The author (whether Paul or one of his disciples) seems consumed not with spiritual fireworks, but with ordinary, day-to-day issues like:
- praying for those in civic authority, even if they are pagans,
- choosing right leaders for the congregation,
- caring for the churches’ widows and dependents,
- ensuring the teaching of correct doctrine,
- avoiding the allure of money,
- being diligent in the public reading of Scripture, teaching, and exhorting.
- living a godly life.
At one point the author even advises Timothy to drink some wine rather than water. It seems that Timothy has a somewhat temperamental stomach. We don’t expect such a commonplace concern to be on the mind of an apostle.
As we read these letters, we can feel like we are in the world of our own churches. Life in a local congregation can often feel less than spiritually elevating. We live with the imperfect task of finding right pastoral leadership. Churches struggle with raising the funds that finance their operations. Disputes arise among church members. Sometimes they are so severe that a church splits. Members can burn out after too much volunteer service. And we can be very critical when sermons don’t rise to our high standards.
Maybe this is why many Protestant Biblical scholars have detected in the Pastoral Epistles the beginning stage of the catholicization of the church. In the Pastorals we seem to be on the road to church life governed by rules, policies, and regulations. All this will ultimately be codified in the massive corpus of canon law. Where has the spontaneity and spiritual vitality of Acts gone?
Taking a positive view on the Pastorals
I do not hold to such a negative view of the Pastorals. As many young people in the 1960s who flocked into hippie communes learned, it is not easy to maintain a community in perpetual, ungoverned spontaneity.
The demands of everyday life begin to intrude. People acting spontaneously find that their spontaneous actions start to come into conflict with the spontaneous actions of others in the community. If the wellbeing of the community as well as the sanity of individuals are to be preserved, some rules governing behavior must be adopted.
This is just as true of congregations as it was of the ‘60s communes. I think it was inevitable that the infant churches would come to need the Pastoral Epistles. They needed their emerging rules, structure, and regulations if the spiritual wellbeing of the community as well as of all its individual members was to be respected, honored, and nurtured. The sacredness of their ordinary life needed to be protected.
The best motivation for these rules was to nurture the kind of love and service to which Christ calls his church. Within the boundaries of those rules, policies, and regulations, the life of love might be given a chance to flourish.*
Learning to respect the goodness of rules
This was brought home to me a few years ago by an incident in the presbytery where I serve. I chaired a presbytery committee that had the task of nominating candidates for various offices in the presbytery’s structure. In one case we had two candidates for one office that we were considering. One was white; the other African American.
We decided to nominate the white man because we thought him the best qualified. The African American challenged our decision, wondering aloud if we had let racial bias affect our decision. I decided to have lunch with him and talk over his concern.
He asked if we had followed all our rules in making the decision. Why, I asked, was it so important to him that we follow the rules punctiliously? I will never forget his answer. He said, “For African Americans, abiding by the rules strictly is the only way we can assure there is a level playing field for us.”
His comment has forever changed how I look at the place of rules, policies, and regulations in the life of the communities in which I participate, including churches. At their best, they are needed to ensure that community life is fair and nurturing to all who form a part of it. They are the servants of Christ’s call to love one another. I now dodge the rules with a lot less alacrity.
When rules need to be broken
This is not to deny that many rules and regulations are not servants of love, but agents of oppression. Every community, including churches, can go overboard with structure and law to the point that we stifle the demands of love and compassion as well as the energies of spontaneity and initiative.
There is Biblical warrant for this viewpoint. The gospels tell the storyof a time when Jesus and his disciples are walking beside a wheat field on a Sabbath. Because they are hungry, some of the disciples pick and eat some of the ripe wheat grains.
The Pharisees charged Jesus and his disciples with breaking the rules for keeping the sabbath. Jesus responds to their criticism by saying,The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.(Mark 2:27) For Jesus, there are times when the rules can be and may need to be broken for the sake of love and compassion in meeting human needs.
This is why the life of faith is full of risk. It is sometimes not clear cut when we need to abide by the rules for the sake of love, respect, and compassion, when order takes precedence over violation, and when the demands of love call for breaking the rules, for violations of the law. For the breaking of the rules can have serious consequences for the rule-breaker regardless of his or her benevolent motives.
But it is certainly not wise or spiritually mature to simply regard rules, policies, and regulations as impediments as we live out our Christian calling to love and compassion. That I think is one of the contributions the Pastoral Epistles make to the New Testament’s picture of life in the church. Let us have ardor but let us also have order in a healthy balance.
* In my opinion one of the best exemplars of this point is the Rule of St. Benedict, which has governed much of Western monastic life for 1,500. Benedict writes with the heart of a pastor caring lovingly for the wellbeing of the whole flock. We should not limit the wisdom of Benedict to just monastic communities. I recently attended a presbytery meeting where a candidate for ordination talked about how she drew inspiration and guidance from Benedict for her upcoming pastoral ministry.