More Than Rules

August 4, 2019

Colossians 2:16-23

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.

Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

If you have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the way the world thinks and acts, why do you keep on following the rules of the world? “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!” Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s selfish behavior. 

* * * * * 

I for one like rules. Maybe that’s why I’m a Presbyterian and not something else – or maybe being Presbyterian helped make me that way. We like to do things “decently and in order”; for better or worse, that’s one of the things we’re known for. We have a whole Book of Order that’s part of our denomination’s constitution. It’s been simplified, but at one time it seemed like there was a rule for every occasion. Rules keep life orderly.


I think rules are useful. I like to know that when I get on the freeway, the people in my lane are all going in the same direction. I’m sure the people riding Pelotonia were happy when drivers followed the rules of the road and gave them berth. Rules help people be safe.

I like knowing there are rules.  I remember as a kid, we used to play card games and Board games together. But when I would learn a new game, it always seemed like my brothers were making up new rules as we went along, things that always seemed to stack the deck in their favor. Rules are supposed to make things fair.

I like knowing what the rules are. I was always that kid in school who wanted to know what you had to do to get an A on an assignment – never mind what you were supposed to learn. That didn’t seem important. The A was what was important. Rules are what help you succeed. 

So what’s Paul getting at here? Are we really supposed to toss out all the rules of the world? Isn’t that a recipe for anarchy? Are there no rules of common decency? It sometimes seems that way, that people can get away with saying or doing anything, at least if they’re powerful enough or have friends in high places. That doesn’t seem right. And religious people who act badly – isn’t that just the definition of hypocrisy? Don’t we expect people who claim the faith to behave a certain way? Isn’t that what rules are for? 

The truth is, Paul was criticized in his own day by other religious leaders for being too quick to throw out the rules. They accused him of blessing licentiousness – the idea that anything goes. And some early Christians took it that way. Paul tried to set the record straight – that freedom from rules doesn’t mean permission to do anything you please. But he still caught a lot of flak from leaders who thought he went too far.

Paul just thought there was something more important than the rules – even religious rules. Even ones as traditional as keeping the Sabbath, or dietary laws. It was almost like Paul was the first one to bless being “spiritual not religious.” Religion as an end to itself doesn’t cut it – it’s empty, it’s vacuous, it’s worse than pointless. It’s like keeping the rules can keep us from something way more important. Because there is something bigger going on here. And that ‘something,’ Paul says, is living in Christ.

Let me offer an example. I don’t know how familiar you are with AA, or with other 12-Step programs. In Alcoholics Anonymous there are a series of steps people take as they become sober. You’d think the first step is to stop drinking, but that’s not it. That step isn’t even in there. Nowhere in the twelve steps does it say to dry out.

The first step is to admit there’s a problem, and that life is unmanageable. Then to come to believe in a higher power that can restore you to sanity. Then to trust your will and your life to that power. The steps go on in a series, toward facing the truth about your life, owning responsibility, making amends, helping others, and so on. But nowhere is there a rule that says, “stop drinking.”

Isn’t that interesting? 

It’s not that it isn’t important. There’s no way for an alcoholic to become sober unless he or she stops drinking. It’s just that it isn’t enough. If all you do is stop drinking, then you’re just what they call a ‘dry drunk.’ Nothing inside has changed. Your spirit, your soul hasn’t changed. It’s just what Paul calls “pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s selfish behavior.”

Rules aren’t enough. They’re not an end to themselves. They’re not enough to change a person’s soul.

“These rules,” Paul says, “they’re only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.” 

If you’ve ever taken a class in Philosophy, that word “Shadow” might ring a distant bell. At least it did for me. Do you remember Plato’s cave?  

The cave was an allegory he used to describe what life is like. He describes a group of people chained to a wall of a cave; they’ve been there their whole lives; it’s all they’ve ever known. Behind them is a fire, and in front a blank wall. All they can see are shadows projected by the fire behind them. They don’t even know they are shadows, that something real and solid and substantive exists to make those shadows. Because this is all they’ve known, the shadows are reality for them.

That’s the image Paul borrows here. These rules? They have no substance; they’re just shadows of something that’s actually real. And that reality is Jesus Christ. Until we see that, we’re settling for something that seems real, but isn’t. Once we know Christ, why would we settle for anything less?

If Christ is ultimate, then the rules are penultimate. Always, always less than Christ himself. Which means that sometimes the rules can change. Sometimes, the rules should change.  

I had this passage about ‘rules’ in front of me when I read a piece this week in Richard Rohr’s daily email devotional. This week he was writing about Black Women Mystics – something I know almost nothing about. One story he told was about a woman named Jarena Lee. Born in 1783,

[she] was the first authorized woman preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.. Though born to free black parents, she was hired out from the age of seven and worked far from her family and home in Cape May, New Jersey. A mystical encounter gave Lee the courage and calling to preach.

This is how she herself describes it:

An impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me . . . to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.”

I . . . told [the minister] that the Lord had revealed it to me that I must preach the gospel. He replied . . . as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline . . . did not call for women preachers. This I was glad to hear . . . but no sooner did this feeling cross my mind, than I found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered...

O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. . . . And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? Seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man. . . .

If then, to preach the gospel by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? . . . As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard.. . .[i]

And I thought of how lucky I am, that the rules changed in the Presbyterian Church in 1956 to allow the ordination of women to the pastorate – it was just the year before I was born. And I thought about friends of my like Janice, and Jane Mykrantz, who entered the pastorate when women weren’t widely welcomed into ministry. I thought about women like Janie Drake, who were ordained as ruling elders when most Presbyterian Churches still had Sessions – Boards – made up entirely of men. I am so, so glad the rules changed; it’s hard to imagine life any other way now. I feel lucky.

I still love rules. They make life simpler; you don’t have to decide everything fresh every single time. That would be exhausting, and ridiculous. Rules can help keep us safe, keep things fair, keep things solid and orderly and predictable. That’s worth a lot.

But Paul’s right. They’re just a shadow of what really matters, what’s really real. They’re a tool, not a purpose, not a goal, not an end.

It’s Christ who is our end, and our beginning.

He is our path, our journey, and our goal.

It’s Christ who is really real,  

… and we are in service to him.


[i] Richard Rohr, “Meditation: Gift of Heaven,” Center for Action and Contemplation, July 31, 2019. - quoting Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pantianos Classics: 2017, 1836), 14, 15, 16.