What is this obsession we have with rules? For as much as we complain about rules and requirements we seem to run to them awfully fast. We are constantly defining who is in and who is out based on performance. And I get it—rules mean structure and structure means security because we know where we stand. Rules mean order and safety and things aren’t just mass chaos. I’m not against rules; not at all. I see their value and know they are needed, but sometimes I think we love rules too much, we love rules for the wrong reasons. Our preoccupation with rules just may be the very reason we often miss the real meaning of grace in our lives.
I went there because God revealed to me that I should go. While I was there I met privately with those considered to be leaders of the church and shared with them the message I had been preaching to the Gentiles. I wanted to make sure that we were in agreement, for fear that all my efforts had been wasted and I was running the race for nothing. And they supported me and did not even demand that my companion Titus be circumcised, though he was a Gentile. Even that question came up only because of some so-called Christians there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations. But we refused to give in to them for a single moment. We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you. Galatians 2:2-5
Paul is talking through his first days of interaction with the church leaders. In the midst of it he brings up a significant issue about rules and those who love them. The problem of the day was circumcision. It’s hard for us to fully appreciate this because it’s not a rule that is central to our identity as a culture. It’s not a rule that signifies our commitment to God. But for these people it had been…until now.
The coming of Jesus meant that there was now a freedom from the rules. Not a freedom to disregard the rules, but a freedom from being held under them. A freedom from trying to earn right standing through rule following. Pre-Jesus the followers of God who were male were required to be circumcised. That was God’s rule. After Jesus comes there is freedom from the Law and—as far as Paul and the other church leaders were concerned—this was no longer required.
What’s interesting is that there were some who showed up demanding that this rule be followed. Paul says they were secretly brought in; they came to spy and take away the freedom we have in Christ. Those are strong words, especially with regard to what we would consider a doctrinal or theological debate. We have these still today. The topics are different, but the result is the same. One group thinks this particular piece of their theology and practice is central, but another group doesn’t see it that way. Paul is not here condemning the group that holds this practice to still be valuable. He is condemning their desire to forcibly bring others under their same conviction.
There are few—precious few—real convictions or pillars of our faith. These are the things we should die defending and refusing to relinquish. The majority of our doctrinal arguments aren’t convictions. They are important and coming to some understanding on them is even necessary. But they shouldn’t be rules we forcibly impose on others. When these people try to do this to Paul he has a strong stance of refusing to bow to the pressure.
“But we refused to give in to them for a single moment. We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you.”
The truth of the gospel message is that in many things we have freedom. This makes us nervous. Not nervous for ourselves—we are sure we’ll handle this freedom well. But we are nervous about others because we don’t trust them to handle their freedom well. And so we start imposing rules.
When Jesus was asked about the rules he gave us two:
“‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40
It’s not as if Jesus is making it easier on us. If anything, these two commandments are much more difficult to follow than a list of do’s and don’ts for every situation. These are rules of right-heartedness and love. These are much more ambiguous and require maturity and relationship. It’s a call to freedom.
Maybe the problem is that we tend to associate freedom with a lack of responsibility. Being free doesn’t mean being self-serving. It means following and serving because I love not because I’m required.
“We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you.”
Through Jesus we are free to love and be loved. We don’t have to earn our place. This is the message Paul is preserving. The truth of the gospel message we should preserve as well. Be free. Love and be loved. That’s the most important rule.