Part of the False Dichotomies in the Church series

Is Christianity about Following Rules, or Is It about Having a Relationship with God? Yes

I knew I had crossed a line with her as soon as I said it. We’d never spoken about whether that was something we could say to each other. But with the clarity of hindsight, everything in our relationship up to that point had indicated that this is not how I was supposed to behave. And now, it was obvious to her and me that I had committed an unwritten wrong.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a relationship knows that there are rules—spoken and not—that keep the peace, enliven our joys, and sometimes, just guide us through dicey emotional stretches. This was also true for the man and woman in the garden of Eden as well as the Hebrews in their relationship with God. Jesus likewise had spoken and unspoken rules with his disciples. When they argued about having no bread—immediately after Jesus had supernaturally fed thousands with bread—Jesus used his disappointed dad voice to chastise them for neglecting an unspoken expectation between them (Mark 8:14–21): “Are your hearts hardened? . . . Do you not yet understand?”

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Our actions can either nurture our relationships or violate expectations. Back in the garden, God had unspoken expectations before anything went wrong. He never told the couple: “Don’t listen to anyone but me.” He just expected that His role as maker-of-man and builder-of-woman would have established some special credibility with them. When they crossed the line, God asked them, “Who told you?” and then blamed only the man for “listening to the voice of your wife,” whom he was with while they both listened to the voice of the serpent.

The biblical storyline teaches that rules are inseparable from relationships, even in the seminal story of humans alone with God. Expectations are part of the creation story that God calls “very good” and before the serpent enters.

What Does a Relationship with God Involve, Anyway?

In Christian preaching on YouTube or the radio, you can find influential Christians claiming something like: “God doesn’t want rules and religion; He wants a relationship with you.” You might have even heard something like, “The most important thing in the entire universe is your personal relationship with God.” The fact that this is not the most important thing in the universe doesn’t dissuade us from falling into the trap of believing it. After all, we have been exposed to this rhetoric for decades. Preachers are taught to get personal and specific if you want people to behave a certain way.

This kind of “make it personal” rhetoric reflects the genius of advertising. Think about the difference between “Let’s not be foolish with fire” and “Only you can prevent forest fires!” “We need folks,” versus “I want YOU for the U.S. Army!”

But, to separate rules from relationships creates a false expectation that we keep relationships authentically through some mystical deep “heart” connection. We might even imagine concepts like an “eternal bond of brotherhood” or a “soul mate” as the models for our relationship with God. Anyone who has had a rampant drug addict in their family knows that such “eternal bonds” may be bent until broken and only recoverable in the miraculous age of resurrection.

In reality, so-called “soul mates” develop rules for their relationship by practicing lovingkindness, which deepens their commitment to each other. It just seems naïve to promote an unreal and inhumane view of relationship as the goal and then hold God hostage to that standard. So much of God’s rhetoric in the Torah and Jesus’ speech in the Gospels aims at his disciples following his bizarre instructions. Jesus even rages at the average Jew for not meeting expectations, whipping and flipping his way through the Temple (John 2:15).

God does not take a “you do you, man” approach to our relationship with Him. For sure, we are “the apple of His eye” (Deut 32:10), but to insist that this affection is based on our soul-to-soul connection overlooks most of Scripture’s teaching, as well as our common experience.

The loving-kind covenants God established with us require a response from all creatures, including animals (Gen 9:5)! Since relationships involve people trying to love each other, they necessarily include rules and expectations—even before anything went wrong in Eden. Like the vocation of work in the garden, God regards ruled relationships as “very good.”

Why Would Anyone Ever Pit Rules against Relationships?

One reason might be our view of the human being (AKA theological anthropology). Our concept of the soul and body partly determines how we think humans relate to each other.

Maybe it’s the lingering effects of the intellectual movement called Romanticism. The Romantic wave certainly enabled a new kind of story about the inner authentic self as central to the most meaningful parts of our relationships. We might mistakenly think that when our souls touch, there could be no greater connection between persons. If we think of this deep connection as involving the whole body, including our actions, then biblical authors might agree. But often, we don’t.

We might think of our souls as deep and hidden inside us. Our physiology even provides the analogies for this. We feel physical sensations at the core of our being (i.e., in our stomach or chest) in the presence of beloved children, friends, or lovers. Conversely, we can feel nauseated, repulsed by the rare personality that we cannot stand. Our body gives us clues about our emotional state, and those clues can be confused for the soul.

This soul-to-soul metaphor for relationships fails when we see that the experience of lovingkindness can only be uniquely expressed in ruled relationships. From the deep roots of storied relationships emerges the non-physiological sense of deep interconnection that blows away the mere-soul-connection view of relationships. My sense of connection to my wife after 23 years of marriage—filled with adoptions, multiple international moves, childbearing and rearing, and our mutual submission to the unspoken measures of our marriage—towers above the excitement we felt at our wedding. It’s not a sensation within me; it permeates both of our bodies—souls and all.

Indeed, the biblical authors portray fidelity to a ruled relationship with God as: “You listen to the voice of YHWH your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Torah, when you turn to YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your being” (Deut 30:10). Conversely, when Israel’s “hearts turn away” from God it’s because they are not embodying his instruction (30:17). Jesus cites this passage in Deuteronomy as one of the two central principles for a proper relationship with God and demonstrates his allegiance by doing only what the Father does and instructs (John 5:19; 8:28).

Between the schmaltzy fiction of a deep-heart connection and the dour prospect of a rule-following transactional relationship, the biblical authors portray a middle ground for lasting and flourishing relationships. It was because of God’s love of Israel and the world more generally that He committed to her, rescued her, and punished her for her evils. The same goes for Jesus and his sheep.

The Misunderstood Pharisees and Their Relationship with God

This false dichotomy might be partly rooted in our caricatures of the Pharisees in the Gospels. Jesus often meets Pharisees who are strict rule-followers, which some readers have thought means that they had no relationship with God. This simply doesn’t make sense of the Gospels, Acts, or common sense today.

As a Jewish colleague once pointed out, when Jesus berates the Pharisees, it wasn’t for their rule-following, but for their hypocritical rule-following: following the rules in only in one domain and not in others as well. Look at how Jesus chastises them so strategically: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the torah: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done” (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42).

Let’s think a bit more about what, precisely, Jesus critiques here. We have to imagine that the rule of tithing has fuzzy boundaries, just as it does today. American Christians who want to follow the ten percent rule of giving often look at their paycheck and ask, “Are we supposed to tithe on the gross or net earnings?” At some point in Jewish history, someone asked a similar question, “Does our tithing extend to our spices even?” Deuteronomy only says to “tithe from all the yield” of the field. At some point, some principled person might have reasonably asked “does this extend to even our spices?” (14:22).

The Torah regularly requires such ritual improvisation in the practice of Sabbath and wedding ceremonies, where there is almost no instruction whatsoever on how to faithfully perform these two. Yet, they hail from the creation narratives directly and are presumed to be crucial for the life of Israel and later Christianity. Tithing from their spices appears to demonstrate faithful ritual improvisations on what was explicitly commanded from their fields.

Notice that Jesus’ solution was not, “stop making all these little rules and focus only on what matters.” Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop tithing from their herbs and spices. Rather, he says they should keep on: “These [“tithe mint and dill and cumin”] you ought to have done without neglecting the others [“justice and mercy and faithfulness”].” We see a similar teaching on hypocrisy with farmers who “read” the weather but not “this present time” (Luke 12:52-54). In the same vein of improvisation, Jesus rebukes a slavishness to the Sabbath, but not by obliterating it (Luke 6:1–5). Rather, he requires Hebrews to think about what constitutes faithful improvisation of the Sabbath.

Pharisees were easy converts to Jesus. They were already on the same page, theologically speaking, with what Jesus taught. Their affinities to the Jesus movement probably account for their desire to critique, but also their early inclusion into Christianity. The first apostolic council in Acts 15 records Pharisees among Jerusalem’s influential circle of apostles. In this case, they were still advocating the circumcision of Gentiles. But notably, the apostles do not ask them to stop identifying as Pharisees (Acts 15:5). Judaizing—the demand that Gentiles follow all the rituals and practices from the Torah—is the only extension of Pharisaism that Jewish Christianity ultimately found to be impermissible.

Pharisees such as Nicodemus and Paul would presumably continue to identify both as Pharisees and Jesus followers. Paul was a Pharisee who persisted in identifying himself as such and appeals to their shared view of the resurrection: “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6).

We later find out that Paul did seem to cease many kosher practices, but he did so for the sake of the Gentiles. Even still, James and the Jerusalem leaders challenged Paul to demonstrate his continued devotion to the Torah due to rumors that he was teaching Gentiles that the Torah no longer mattered (Acts 21:17–26). How does Paul respond to this challenge? In one of his last actions, before he is arrested for the last time, Paul goes to the Temple to offer sacrifices and show that he is not teaching the abrogation of the Torah to Gentiles.

We Need Ruled Relationships

If we stepped into a cage with an overly aggressively dog who’s suffered from an abusive owner, that dog will teach us the rules for how to approach it. And we’d do well to heed whatever rules that dog lays down for us. We might mistakenly imagine that in the new heavens and earth, where there is no abuse, the dog’s aggressiveness and need to rule the cage evaporates. However, that’s not the picture we get from Scripture. In the end, according to Isaiah’s visions of the new earth, rules are changed but not absent. Foreign nations are brought in and made Levites and priests of the temple in the new Jerusalem (Isa 66:18–22). Clearly, the rules will have changed, but not gone away. Perhaps we might say that we no longer discover the rules flowing within relationships by violating them. What a glorious day that will be!

Across the New Testament, the marks of authentic relationship with God and the community of God’s children bear out in embodying a ruled relationship. The man who proverbially built his house upon a rock turns out to be the one “who hears [Jesus’] words and does them” (Luke 6:47–48). It’s not oppressive slavery. And, as we see when Jesus rebukes the Pharisees’ hypocrisy for neglecting “the weightier matters,” the biblical authors show a sensitivity to the realities of rules ruling us too.  

Strangely, the biblical authors don’t show much concern for a perversion of ruled relationships. There’s little fear that we might slip into a rules-only view of transactional piety. When Jesus fictionalizes two men who went up to pray in the temple (Luke 18:9–14), he does not focus on the fear of rote or meaningless prayers but aimed this parable at those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (18:9). When he gives his disciples a way to pray, he does so without caveats about rote performance that might diminish its meaning and function. Jesus just says, “Pray then like this” (Matt 6:9).

By disdaining rules as inauthentic to relationships worth having and hyping fictions of what binds us together, we may be falsely indicting more than the ancient Pharisees. By saying, “Jesus wants a relationship, not rules,” we misconstrue what humans are and become numb to the subtle yet powerful levers of functional relationships according to our Creator.

Perhaps it seemed obvious to Jesus and others, by everything the Torah teaches, that wise practice wouldn’t allow for a rules-only transactional relationship. But a relationship with God devoid of rules and expectations? I’m not sure Jesus or any ancient Hebrew could get their head around that concept.

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