Why So Many Rules?

The Ten Commandments.

If you think that Ten Commandments are more than enough, you should read more of the Old Testament.? There are whole books of the bible, like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that add a few hundred more detailed instructions on what to do and when to do it.? The Torah, which observant Jews in Christ?s time followed, contained 613 rules, and the commentary of Rabbis over the years added thousands more.

Like most other Catholics, I was introduced to the Ten Commandments as a young boy.? But each Commandment, I soon learned, generated dozens of other more detailed rules explaining all the things that were forbidden by that particular Commandment.? We also had our own Commandments of the Church, we also were told.? Then there were all the other laws we were expected to observe.? There seemed to be no end of the rules to be followed if you wanted to be a good Catholic.

So, it?s not too surprising that some people react to a religion like mine, with its multiplicity of rules, with a mix of bewilderment and anger.? If God is as loving and compelling as you priests and preachers say he is, why can?t I find him without having to observe all these rules?? Or is the church simply trying to flex its authoritative muscles and force us to obey?? Must the church spell out every obligation for its followers?? Aren?t we capable of making some choices on our own?

Good question.? I wondered about that myself from time to time.? But I also noticed that the church wasn?t alone in its rule-making.? The first Rotary Club meeting I attended, on Saipan, was an eye-opener for me.? Members were getting fined for not knowing the pledge, not wearing their pins, not being on time for the meeting.? Here is one organization, I thought to myself, that makes the church seem almost libertarian.? Or how about a visit to any government office (and Palikir can?t hold a candle to Washington when it comes to rule-making)?? Applying for Social Security benefits is a good case in point, I discovered two years ago.

Organizations need rules, it seems.? Societies need to spell out, sometime in painful detail, what is acceptable and what is not, what furthers its ends and what does not, what will keep the peace and promote a sense of community among its members.? The church is certainly an organization, not just a number of solitary pilgrims who have happened to meet along the road and who may go their separate ways at the next turn.

Rules are also good teaching devices for the young and inexperienced.? You might be able to say farewell to a mature son with the advice to keep his family?s honor intact.? He might know what that means.? But try that on a ten-year old kid and see how well it works.? Young people need things spelled out for them.? I don?t know too many parents who would be willing to let their teenage child go out at night with only the vague admonition not to break their girl friend?s heart.? Most kids need more detailed instructions than that.

But are adult church members ?kids??? Should they be treated as such? Perhaps not, but even adults need constant reminders of the various ways in which we ought to act responsibly.? We humans have a nasty little habit of ignoring different groups of people as we pursue our own careers and feather our own nests.? The US Declaration of Independence summed up so much when it stated that we all have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.? But it didn?t exactly leave the matter at that.? For 230 years congresses have been cranking out libraries of volumes exploring the practical meaning and explaining the limits of these fine words.

Much of what passes as church rules falls under the same heading.? These are the elaborations that communities of believers feel they need to keep the organization on track.? The Jesus who is presented in the New Testament, although he was an observant Jew, wasn?t much interested in lawgiving.? He was more intent on getting people to burrow down to the heart of it all so that they might deepen their personal relationship with the Father.

The rules might serve a purpose in any human society, but let?s not get too distracted by them.? At bottom, the quote from Micah that former President Jimmy Carter quoted so often says it best: ?What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God??? All the other rules are no more than an elaboration of that.

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About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.