"Rules" for Christian Living

by Randall Watters

Commenting on the intrigue of human relationships and the trials men place on one another, Watchtower Circuit Overseer Floyd Kite once jokingly told me that "half of us are here to test the other half." As a devout Jehovah's Witness and an organization man, I was determined to be the "half" that tested the others. I kept close watch on other's conduct, as a Bethel elder and overseer.

Actually, the world is full of "spiritual" policemen, but the efforts put forth by such ones to control the lives of others is often less than welcome. Yet some will say, "Doesn't the Bible have certain things to say about our conduct and our outward appearance?" Yes! Are these to be considered as laws, or just helpful suggestions? How far is a Christian to go in counseling others? How do we view Christians who go to war, or who vote or hold public office? Let a former "policeman" give you some ideas.

The concept of living under Law is not bad in itself. Yahweh established a perfect Law with Moses and the nation of Israel. Jesus later came, not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). That meant that the laws contained therein were not wrong, outdated or prudish. Jesus came, not to say that the Law was too hard to keep, but to establish an even more exacting standard. This he did when he summed up the Law in two commands: "You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and you must love your neighbor as yourself." He says, "On these two commandments depend the whole Law...." (Matt. 5:20; 22:39,40)

Jesus' death on the cross released us from a yoke of servitude to a written law (Col. 2:13-15). Yet, ironically, he promoted more absolute standards. He went a step further and clarified how one could fall short of God's standards by what is in one's heart, even if outwardly obeying the Law. In other words, Jesus revealed the principles undergirding the Law as being the standards to strive for. By teaching such a perfect standard of conduct, Jesus advocated a quality of faith and commitment that is actually unattainable for fallen humans, were it not for divine grace.

For instance: According to Jesus, not only is the ACT of adultery a sin, but the very passion of lust is a sin! (Matt. 5:27,28) Not only is stealing a sin, but coveting your neighbor's belongings or his wife in your heart is sin. Not only is marriage sacred, but getting a divorce can make one an adulterer in God's eyes! (Matt. 5:31,32) Not only is bringing harm to your brother a sin, but calling him a fool will make you liable to Gehenna! (Matt. 5:21,22) Additionally, if you are insulted, you should turn the other cheek. If a soldier asks you to walk a mile, walk two with him. If another asks for your overcoat, give it to them! You are to pray for your enemies and do good for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:38-40, 43-46).  Who can then say that the Christian has it easier than the Old Testament Jew?

The difference is, God has given us the new birth and a new nature (1 Peter 1:23). A "seed" of righteousness is planted in us when we are born from above. God comes to live IN us (through the Holy Spirit), enabling us to partake of his holiness (Romans 8:9-11). Jesus made this possible through his death and resurrection (Heb. 9:11-15). We are redeemed and declared righteous. Jesus then takes that "seed" in us and forms it into a mature Christian, thereby sanctifying us. He trusts us to walk in that new nature that we now possess. We die to the old, corrupted nature of the fallen flesh (2 Peter 1:3,4). Were it not for this new birth and its accompanying grace, our condemnation would be greater than under the Law of Moses, for Jesus' standards are more exacting and comprehensive than the Mosaic Law. Jesus said we are to be perfect (Matt. 5:48).

We can only hope to be "perfect" if we walk in the new nature (Gal. 5:16,17). We must be born again (John 3:3,5,7). How common is it to see the old nature of religious men and women trying to reach some artificial standard of conduct laid out for them by a religion or church, thinking that by doing so, they are somehow holy. Yet, the apostle Paul makes it plain that if we seek to justify ourselves by following laws or rules, we are still under condemnation, and Christ is useless to us (Gal. 2:15-21). All of the holy acts of all religious men are as filthy rags to God, unless they are performed by those whom he has regenerated by the Spirit (Isa. 64:6). It is the Spirit in us enabling us to do true works of righteousness, not our old nature.

Now the stage is set for comprehending the difficult sayings of Jesus, especially in his Sermon on the Mount.

Christ does not make concessions for our weakness by lowering his standards. He expects us to allow the indwelling Spirit to dominate our lives. To the extent this happens, we are able to follow his perfect standards.

While Jesus makes no concessions to his standards, he is rich in mercy and forgiveness when we fall short of them. He knows we will sin many times along the way (Heb. 4:15,16). He points us towards perfection. We are to keep our eyes on what he wants us to be at all times; not on some lesser, more attainable goal. Yet, he knows that we will grow old and die without attaining perfection (Phil. 3:12-14).

This can be most frustrating at times! It means that we will never reach a plateau in our Christianity. The "mountain" is higher than we can climb, and God has not set up "camps" on the slopes for us to live in; yet he allows us to make wayside rest stops to refresh ourselves and then continue on. Then, upon Christ's return, his work in us is completed as we are transformed into perfection as in the twinkling of an eye (1 Thes. 4:16,17; 1 Cor. 15:51-53).

So, just what part does the church play in making rules for Christians?

God's Work, Not Ours

In the realm of Christian religions, there are 3 approaches used in advocating standards of conduct:

(1) The strict approach - a code of conduct is laid out as "necessary," and it is strict enough that only a few Christians will follow it, producing an appearance of righteousness.

(2) The merciful approach - a middle-of-the-road code of conduct is promoted that is workable (attainable) for most or all believers.

(3) The perfection approach - Jesus' perfect standards are advocated, which are really principles to be followed from the heart rather than laws.

Some churches, and all of the cults, choose method #1; many churches choose #2.

However, not only do the first two approaches fall short of Jesus' moral precepts, but the system designed for the few (#1) condemns the many and exalts the few; whereas in actuality, if RULES are to be followed, ALL are actually condemned because ALL will fall short of perfect obedience to those rules! System #1, therefore, provides a false sense of security. It is also substandard to the third approach.

System #2 is unbiblical as well. To water down the principles Christ gave and to replace them with a substandard law code is not acceptable to God. He will not tolerate sin, nor lesser standards; that is why Jesus had to die for our sins. He will only work within the perfect approach.

As Christians, we expect God to mold us and to perfect our conduct and our character. We cannot by ourselves mute the power of sin within us (nor can others do it for us!). The typical "religious" way of coping with our flesh can be likened to monitoring our outward conduct so as to look holy. This was the game of the Pharisees, yet inside they were rotten to the core (Matt. 23:27). Though it may seem a noble cause to try and alter our own heart's desires, it cannot be done through living by a law code, whether it be strict or lenient.

So we drop the law code idea. We see Jesus' lofty standards for what they are and we realize that we will never obey them perfectly, at least in this life. That's why we are saved by grace! So we quit following rules and allow the grace of the Holy Spirit to do his work in us. We learn to become more like children as regards humility and simplicity (Matt. 18:3). We accept our inability to sanctify ourselves. Prayers are offered for the Holy Spirit to work changes within us, giving us a new heart; a pure heart. We are praying for a miracle; something that cannot be accomplished through obedience to laws and rules. God softens and shapes our hearts to the extent that we allow the Holy Spirit to work within us.

The Symptom Warriors

Chances are that you will come to understand these principles of grace versus law before some of your policemen - type friends do. Most of the time these "symptom warriors" mean well. They believe they can legislate spiritual growth. (Certainly life would be boring without someone to tell you how to dress and what movies to go see, what music to listen to, etc.)

The desire of the symptom warrior is to change your conduct so as to be more acceptable to God. Sort of like the Watchtower approach, right? Most of us have played this game at one time or another.

However, since we cannot really see the hearts of others or accurately perceive where they are in their relationship with the Lord, we often observe and react to outward symptoms. We are ever ready to point out symptoms to our brother that indicate his walk with the Lord is "not what it should be." Because we lack the faith that God controls this process of perfecting his saints, we suggest to our brother that if he would only correct the symptom, his heart will change for the better. We believe that if "Mark would only stop smoking, he would not feel so guilty and could approach the Lord easier." "If Joan would quit watching soap operas, she would love the Lord more and her marriage would improve." "If Johnny would quit watching Music Television (MTV), he could read the Bible more." Seldom do we stop and think that we are approaching the whole thing backwards. Why not get them interested in the things of God, and let God do the work? If you can't get them interested in spiritual things, stripping them of their fun certainly won't work! Besides, we may be reading the symptoms wrong in the first place.

But wasn't Jesus very strict as to what we can and can't do? Didn't he make many statements regarding the living of a sanctified lifestyle?

Misunderstanding Jesus' Words

When we consider the "difficult sayings" of Jesus regarding moral issues and our conduct towards others, we need to take several things into account. The setting, context, and intent of his words are vital. Yet we must not explain away the obvious moral messages there, reducing their impact by our misinterpretation of the passage. When Jesus says to love our enemies and to pray for those persecuting us, it is obvious that we are to be free of hatred towards persecutors of the faith, even though that may seem difficult or seemingly impossible to us under certain circumstances (Matt. 5:44-48). And, just because we can't quite live it perfectly, we should not change the meaning of Jesus' words, but allow his grace to cover us. This is the whole point - there are many areas of life in which we will find we cannot live up to Jesus' standards. Rather than changing the standards, though, we learn to live a life of falling short while the sacrifice of our Lord frees us from condemnation and guilt (Rom. 8:1). He works in our lives with a view to perfection (1 John 1:8-10; James 3:2).

Hard Decisions

While Jesus speaks out against lying, fraud, thievery, fornication, etc., there are some areas of conduct and responsibility in which he is silent. This is true with issues such as self-defense, going to war, involvement in community affairs, etc. Jesus does not tell us whether or not we should consider going to war as a part of our obligation to defend our brothers or our nation, nor does he tell us to stay away from governmental affairs or political office (though he does tell us not to put our trust in such things). He does not speak out against self-defense (though he does speak about our reaction to threats of aggression or challenge--Matt. 5:39. For a more complete discussion of the issue of self-defense, politics and war, see war  - the chapter on "War, Evil and Self-Defense"

Though the Bible says we are transferred into the kingdom of God even now (Col. 1:13), we must also function in this fallen world, the kingdom of Satan (Eph. 6:12). The two kingdoms are at odds with each other, yet we must function in both. On issues related to secular obligations and supporting the government, Paul's words in Romans chapter 13 can help us:

Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. (Romans 13:1)

While God has established the secular authorities so that there is a measure of order and justice in this fallen world, they are not a part of his perfect kingdom. At times, they are directly opposed to the interests of his kingdom, and we must obey God as ruler rather than men when our loyalties divide us (Acts 5:29). While this is sometimes a black and white issue, such as when a government requires us to bow down to its leaders or to stop reading the Bible, etc., it more often lies in the gray areas. Such decisions should be very carefully weighed.

We may say, "What would Jesus have done?" Well, Jesus advocated his own lifestyle. It is interesting to note that he made no concessions for other lifestyles. Because of his higher calling, it was not proper for him to concern himself with the affairs of government or secular obligations. But note that the reason is the higher calling; NOT that such concerns are wrong! He also did not concern himself with having a place to sleep or what to eat tomorrow! The lifestyle he advocates is not lived by many persons, to be sure. Yet there are many brothers in Christ who advocate that we follow PART of Jesus' lifestyle, yet are silent as to living the rest of it! Isn't that rather inconsistent? What it boils down to is this - Jesus standards are absolute; if you are reaching out for his lifestyle, then do not teach the need to embrace part of it and reject the rest, or you, too, will be a hypocrite. At the same time, love your brother who is aspiring towards a life like Christ's, and do not judge him. If he advocates going to war and you strongly disagree because Jesus would not have done this, ask yourself if you are living the rest of Jesus' lifestyle yet. Are you continually preaching the Word, allowing yourself little rest, and staying up till the dawn in prayer at times? Have you foregone marriage for a higher calling? Do you have no place to lay your head, and no steady income? Yet to use the argument, "Do what Jesus would have done" suggests that we should apply this across the board.

We do seek to do what Jesus would have done, of course; but a lifestyle is something you grow into, and help from above is necessary along the way. To tell a person just to "do what Jesus would have done" may be the right answer, but you had better be ready to help that person understand why Jesus would have done certain things, and that they can only be done through the help of the Holy Spirit. The individual needs to know that we cannot change our pattern of life all in one day, either; God is willing to patiently work with us.

On Giving Advice

Giving advice to a Christian friend is not something to take lightly! It is better to point to what Jesus said or did that bears on a subject, rather than telling them what to do in a given situation. Let them make their decision according to their faith and commitment. To insist that others follow certain standards of conduct such as dress codes, movie or music preferences, types of recreation, business decisions, etc. means that we are making our own standards for another to follow, rather than allowing them to make a personal moral decision based upon their understanding of God's perfect standards. God is the only one qualified to give us laws to follow, which he did in the case of the Ten Commandments. Yet, no one could keep them! Therefore, God did away with law, and established a better arrangement. Do we have the right to introduce laws when God has done away with law? (Gal. 2:16-21) To do so puts us under a curse (Gal. 3:10)!

Following rules for Christian living is of the flesh; letting the indwelling Spirit live through you is true Christianity. Paul says,

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (Romans 8:15,9)

We need to have the faith that if our brother loves God, he will seek to walk in the Spirit. If he seeks the things of the Spirit, God will perfect his heart. OUR part is to encourage our brother or sister in their walk so that this love for God will be there in the first place. As we encourage and strengthen the faith of our brothers and sisters, they come to love God more, and this seed of love is nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

The DEADLY Sins

We seem to have been taught that some sins are much worse than others. After all, adultery or murder are far more serious than lying or stealing, aren't they?

Not so, according to the Word of God. While more visible sins may have a greater negative effect than others, all sin is deadly, in terms of its effect on our relationship with God. God hates sin, because it separates us from communion with him - that is the bottom line. We were created in his image, and he cannot stomach our self-degradation. It is like seeing part of himself marred and distorted.

If all sin, including the "secret" sins of envy, lust, covetousness and slothfulness are evil, then why do many "symptom warriors" jump on Christians who fall into the more visible sins, but then wink at the secret sins? Usually because in their hearts, these "warriors" have a distorted view of sin. They do not understand that the whole issue is not outward appearances, but maintaining a relationship with God, and God hates secret sins every bit as much as the visible sins. Those who practice sin will not inherit the kingdom of God. Yet, the Christian who falls into sin can continually come before the throne of grace for forgiveness and restoration. Yes, even the "symptom warriors" can be forgiven of their secret sins!

How Rules Affect Your Flesh

From the first year of our life, it is a built-in mechanism of the sin nature that we will rebel. By far the most common word first learned by toddlers is "No!" Why "no" and not "Yes"? Because our flesh is selfish, it wants its way or it will pout, lash out or seek revenge.

Before we learn and really believe that certain practices are morally wrong, we may not suffer a guilty conscience. But once we believe they are wrong, our flesh becomes reactive and through its natural rebelliousness it prompts us to seek the pleasure of sin all the more. Things that we view as sinful (whether or not they really are in God's eyes) will titillate the flesh when we do them, not just because the act may bring pleasure to the body, but because rebellion is a fallen pleasure in itself (Pro. 9:17; Job 31:26-28).

This can be seen in its extreme form in ritual Satanism, where everything holy is blasphemed; pleasure being derived from the very act of blaspheming God. While that may sound revolting, the same sin factor is at work in all of us. It's just that some of us allow it to take us farther along the road to degradation than others.

Though we have died to the old sin nature if we are born again, the flesh can still plague us in the same manner if we fall under law once more. We need to understand the principle of being set free from the endless cycle of sin and guilt, by living in the Spirit:

For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Rom. 7:5,6)

If you have a tendency to put rules on other Christians where the Bible does not give rules, you might be surprised to know that doing so is like trying to cure the sick with the AIDS virus! There are far more effective ways of promoting good conduct in others. Study the methods of Jesus in relating to others, and you will have success.


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