Replacing Rules with Discipleship

A common objection to the dismantling of any system of non-biblically explicit rules is “if we don’t have the rules, how will we keep ourselves and our fellow Christians out of traps?” Given that this is the purpose the system of rules serve, it is fair to say that any objection to those rules should provide an alternative, biblical method for keeping people on the straight and narrow. I believe that Jesus modeled such a method, which is notably absent from many, though not all, American churches. The alternative to teaching a system of rules, is discipleship, and good discipleship does not blend well with a system of man-made rules.

Before we get into that discussion, let me define a few terms. A biblically explicit rule is something the Bible says outright: Don’t worship idols, love your neighbor as yourself. There is a fine line between “principles” and “rules.” A principle is essentially a broader rule with many applications, and a rule is an instruction with either one or a few specific applications. Both rules and principles are found throughout the Bible, and we must follow them all (subject to a proper theology of how to understand the Old Testament).

What I call a “man-made rule” is any rule or principle that isn’t explicitly found in Scripture. Don’t paint your toenails, don’t dress like a hippie, don’t watch Disney movies, don’t hang out with your girlfriend past 10 o’clock. Such rules can be helpful as we try to apply biblical principles; I apply many rules in my own life. However, they become problematic when we start to hand out our personal rules of thumb and convictions to everyone to apply to their lives.

When I say “young believers” I am referring to a status of Christianity defined not by age or time in church, by a certain amount of immaturity, which is nothing to be ashamed of in a new Christian. This concept comes from 1 Peter 2, where Peter speaks of giving biblical “milk” to new believers. Ideally, after a couple of years, new believers will be better grounded in their faith and more able to handle deeper truths from Scripture. Unfortunately, there are many people who have warmed church benches for decades who have little to no idea of how to read and interpret Scripture and are functionally “new believers.”

The intent of a rules based instructional method is to keep these believers out of trouble. To keep them from making errors from which they can’t fully recover. This intent is admirable, and the fear of releasing people into error is both understandable and old. It was the same fear that drove the Judaizers to insist that believers also followed the Old Testament law. It was the belief that drove the medieval Catholics to ban the printing of the Bible into common languages – they feared that the common man wouldn’t be able to understand it, so he needed the church to interpret it for him.

Why focus on discipleship?

There are inherent theological problems with drawing those rules for other people which merit their own discussion, but besides that set of problems, the practice of making rules is actually not very effective at developing mature Christians. The logic of the system of man-made rules is simple. It takes a long time to pore over 66 books of ancient Scripture and understand the explicit biblical commands, as well as derive personal convictions and “guardrails” to help keep you from sin. In order to prevent people from error, various churches offer “pre-interpreted Scripture” and “pre-packaged personal convictions” in the form of a system of rules, not open to discussion, debate, or Scriptural critique. We just skip the Scripture, and the messy interpretation, and offer you only the application: “don’t wear short sleeves.” In taking that shortcut, young believers either don’t learn how to form their own convictions, or they learn actively bad methods for interpreting Scripture, such as reading by analogy.

If those believers ever question their faith due to routine temptation or trials of life, or perhaps because someone in church did something wrong to them, they have almost no personal conviction about their church’s rules. They very often abandon all of the rules at once, and because they were never taught the difference between a man-made rule and a biblically explicit rule, they often toss out all of God’s rules along with man’s. Blurring the lines between man-made rules with biblically explicit ones is a recipe for disaster. When cracks start to appear in the man-made rules, they’re so entangled with God’s actual rules that Christians can’t tell them apart. Furthermore, they have been taught no good principles for how to derive application from Scripture, so once the interpretation they have been offered falls apart, everything collapses quickly.

Contrast this with Jesus’ method of instruction – discipleship. The Bible and many other writers have much to say about discipleship, and I’m not going to provide a particularly profound coverage of the topic. But these are the traits that a healthy Christ-follower must have, and discipleship is a broad term for the process that gets him or her there.

What does a well trained disciple have to know how to do? (this list is not exhaustive):
1) Have an independent relationship with God, characterized by prayer
2) Be able to rightly interpret and apply the Scripture to their own lives
3) Be aware of the sins that are prevalent in their own lives and how to combat them
4) Demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit
5) Witness to unbelievers effectively
6) Mentor new believers to make them into better disciples

Why can’t we merge man-made rules with good discipleship?

Ok, so if that’s what discipleship is, why can’t that be done concurrently with teaching people some extra rules to help keep them from sin? Why is it a problem to teach people all of the above traits, while also teaching them that the Bible says jewelry is wrong, they should never watch a Pixar movie, and skirts must extend 11 inches past the knee. Can’t we blend discipleship with a system of pre-ordained “guardrails” against sin preached from the pulpit?

The problem with that strategy is two-fold.

First, time competition tends to de-prioritize good discipleship in favor of teaching rules. Imagine that we taught new converts that they had to live like the Amish – plain clothes and no technology. Such a teaching would necessarily consume a lot of pulpit, Sunday school, and one-on-one time. When people are new to Christ, they would spend much time asking “why can’t I have electricity?” in addition to “do I really have to love my enemies?” All time spent teaching, admonishing, and reminding people to live the Amish life would probably amount to half or more of all the Bible teaching. And of course, given that all of that teaching is not biblical, it would be time wasted and result in longer maturation times for new believers.

Second, and more importantly, the method employed to teach people a list of extra biblical rules directly undermines the discipleship process. It does this in many ways, too numerous to list here, but I will provide some highlights.

It undermines a personal relationship with God through prayer by layering a lot of things on God that he never said. The new believer now has to deal not only with the difficult things that God said – like that anger in your heart is comparable to murder – they also have to deal with difficult things that God never said, like why they can’t listen to their favorite genre of music with Christian messaging, they have to listen to it in the Southern Gospel style.

It undermines their ability to interpret Scripture because the method employed to teach rules not found in Scripture has to be an appeal to authority or bad Bible interpretation. If we teach that tattoos are sin because of a single verse in the Mosaic law, then we teach an awful method for reading the Old Testament at the same time – which can lead to many other incorrect beliefs. If we teach tattoos are sin because they are associated with evil, then we teach another distinctly unbiblical principle which will be sure to confuse our disciple in other areas of life. If we teach our disciples that tattoos are wrong because the preacher said so, then we are teaching them a third unbiblical rule which makes a better cult follower than Jesus follower.

It causes them to be less able to deal with sin in their own lives by making healthy guardrails for their own situations, because they are too busy applying the guardrails designed for someone else. There is a very appropriate role for personal convictions and safeguards in Christian life. But when new believers apply other people’s convictions in an effort to please God, they fail to learn how to form their own, customized to their own weaknesses and strengths.

It undermines their ability to witness to unbelievers effectively, because they spend more time explaining their new appearance standards than they do explaining how Jesus changed their heart. The conversation goes to the outward expressions which are not as biblically grounded and stays away from the heart of the Gospel.

You can see that teaching man-made rules is in direct conflict with teaching people how to be independent, mature disciples. No wonder that if they fall away from Holiness teaching, they often fall hard. They weren’t trained to do the basic things that Christians should know how to do.

How do we make disciples?

If discipleship isn’t fully compatible with man-made rules, how do we train disciples without the rules?

Many of the things that are done in Holiness circles are already beneficial to discipleship. Preaching, prayer, Sunday school, and fellowship are all fine things. However, there are a a few critical components which must be added.

1) Modeling Effective Study of Scripture

Teach the whole Bible. Preach large passages of Scripture, not just on two words in one verse. Preach through the whole Bible deliberately, book by book, in addition to topical sermons. Teach through the whole Bible in Sunday school and Bible studies. The Bible commands us to preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). It is not enough to just talk about pet topics.

Focus Bible teaching on the “how we learned this” not just the “what we learned.” Being a disciple of Christ is like learning math. In the study of history, it may suffice to learn the facts. In the study of math, facts are relevant but not sufficient. If I tell you that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, very well, you know the fact. If I tell you that in the equation -0.25x + 1.3 = -0.55x – 0.2, x equals -5, I haven’t told you much. You still don’t know how to solve the problem, and the odds that you will run cross this exact problem again are slim to none. Training disciples does involve teaching absolute truth (1+1=2, your own righteousness is not sufficient to save you), but it also involves teaching problem solving principles, biblical interpretation principles, and many other general principles.

Don’t treat any one person’s opinion like it is absolute. Encourage civil disagreement about non-essentials of the faith (anything not explicit in Scripture). A preacher can do this by acknowledging that not everyone interprets a passage the way he does, and by explaining the alternate interpretation, even if he doesn’t quite agree with it (I’m not talking about a heretical alternate interpretation, but a reasonable one). A teacher can encourage discussion in a class or after a class. Unlike in math, many times the answers to life’s problems are not universally applicable, and a bit of healthy discussion can help us learn more than if all disagreement is silenced. A Bible study with a high degree of guided interaction (50%+ discussion) can be very helpful in teaching people how to read their Bible independently.

2) Modeling Spiritual Disciplines

Emphasize spiritual disciplines. Bible reading, Bible study, prayer, fasting, meditation, service, giving, worship, fellowship, and evangelism are all drills that God gave us to make us stronger, heartier Christians. There has to be an emphasis on these disciplines from the pulpit as well as in corporate church practice. New Christians should soon learn what these things are and be challenged to apply them to their lives. The church should provide plenty of opportunities for community service, meaningful conversations with believers, evangelistic outreach, and Bible study. The things learned in church can then be applied in private.

3) Encouraging Universal Accountability

Build systems for personal accountability – for everyone. This includes both mentor-mentoree relationships, as well as deliberate peer relationships for everyone. Such a relationship involves multiple meetings a month where spiritual topics are discussed not only in general, but also in specific regard to each other’s lives. Accountability isn’t just about keeping people from sin, it’s also about building good habits in the spiritual disciplines listed above. However, it also provides a great forum for confessing sin, and the church has to teach that confessing your sins in the right way is not only healthy, but required to please God (James 5:16). Discipleship involves one on one investment at all levels of spiritual growth. Sunday school is great, but it is no substitute for mentorship.

A focus on the Word, spiritual disciplines, and authentic relationships is a great way make good disciples and it is ultimately modeled on the very personal methods that Jesus used to disciple his own followers. Discipleship is messy, time consuming, and the only way to build effective Christians. This method stands in stark contrast to teaching rules, which rely on constant focus on narrow parts of the Bible, questionable (and yet non discussable) interpretations, and a focus on how holy we already are, rather than on how far we have to go together.

When churches employ these principles, believers are thoroughly equipped for every good work. They have an independent relationship with God and do not wish to displease him. They have practiced evangelism and service in church events, so they know how to initiate those projects in their own life. With coaching from their mentors and peers, they set up wise boundaries in their own lives. They may stumble occasionally (Proverbs 24:16), but with good coaching, they won’t live in silent shame, they will learn from their mistakes and be less likely to make them again. This is a far more mature and resilient believer than any system of rules will ever create.

-Nathan Mayo

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