The Destructive Force of the Evangelical Rule

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Evangelicals have come out judging this and that and condemning different groups of people. Largely they are literalists with selective readings of scripture, and I think they are establishing their individual ideas of a “Rule” then establishing this as a universal.

It’s a big problem, especially in denominations like mine, the United Methodist Church.

Casting this through the language of living by a “Rule” gives a lens on two ideas or ideals for me. First, it provides a lens of non-judgement through the understanding of living into a calling. Second, through the vocation or calling understanding it can provide a key to living in unity with disparate ways of living lives worthy of the call. This also allows evangelicals to not be cast in a grizzly light.

Above the word literalist was used, and that was intentional. We are all to greater or lesser degrees fundamentalists. Despite the fact that fundamentalism has become a pejorative, it is healthy to acknowledge that we all selectively read scripture and attempt to choose the most integrated path that is consistent with scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. All four help us answer the essential Christian question phrased by the North Umbria Community thus: “How then shall we live?”

Within the Catholic tradition of Christianity numerous movements arose and were incorporated. They were as the word incorporated states brought into the body. The joy of this is that the Catholic church is not monolithic, but it’s unified. It truly functions as a body. Several of these traditions have a “Rule” for ordering life. Each “Rule” has different layers of calling, but remains unified.

Quite simply, the followers of a particular “Rule” do not judge the followers of another “Rule” or consider them inferior or judge the ones with no order of living at all. There is no judgment between the degrees of following. While occasional condescension may occur, the followers are after all human, there is no systematic understanding that separates out those called to serve in different ways. While some allowances have to be made in that for Ordination, I would maintain that the ordained are not superior to the lay but are called differently than the lay.

This is the joy of viewing a “Rule” as a particular calling in to a particular way of living. A calling, or vocation, draws us into a way of life that we recognize as different but possibly equal to those around us. It can be egalitarian even though hierarchies can emerge. One person’s call in no way invalidates another persons call even when different.

Here’s the problem in a nut shell. Evangelicals get their hands on a Bible and read it. Then they sort out of scripture the ideas and concepts for living well. So far it’s exactly like the development of the Catholic orders. It’s a good way to go about seeking out what it means to follow Christ. If done well, self critique becomes an integral part and seeking to live without sin is a central issue. That means that the people developing the “Rule” take the time to think about how their reason and their interpretation may be misled. It’s a good practice and require research, patience, and humility.

The difficulty is that for the most part you can find someone who at some point agreed with you in the tradition. Even more likely, you’ll find someone who will agree with you. Sometimes that’s good. This is how a “Rule” for community living develops. However, the evangelicals get to this point and decide that what is true to them in their calling is true universally.

The unity of the church does take sin very seriously and desires earnestly for repentance from sin, but it also values or should value forgiveness and operate to aide people in seeking forgiveness or liberty from sin. When you create a strict “Rule” that names everyone outside of it as condemned and alienates anyone who cannot live perfectly within the “Rule” you set up an environment hostile to growth, reconciliation, or repentance.

Of course we are calling for people to repent, but a true “Rule” for living to follow Christ must incorporate ways of coming to Christ and following Christ outside that particular “Rule”. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Our ways of living have validity in and through Christ alone, and each “Rule” has it’s own part in the body of Christ as a whole. Some Evangelicals have forgotten that and have managed to become legalistic even on points such as salvation by grace through faith. Some Evangelicals have set themselves up as equal with God in their judgement and anathema from them is equal to condemnation from God.

I am evangelical. I believe the whole of the Nicene Creed. However, I see the condemnation that has been engendered though particular house hold codes and the single minded fixation on sexual ethics over all other forms of ethics as creating a “Rule” to bar the way to God. It is causing division within the United Methodist Church and frankly destroying the unity of the church. The humility of taking on a non-exclusive rule seems to me to be a course forward. My hope is that this conceptual frame work is helpful to you. If it isn’t helpful, please dismiss it.

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About Sean Smith

Husband, Father, Pastor, Swimmer, Writer, Reader, and attempted Adventurer!
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