Why Thinking the Bible is a Rule-Book is Killing You


One of the reasons the Bible is hard to read is because of the “noise” around it.

People have used it to support slavery, racism, homophobia, hate, exclusion, patriarchy, fear mongering, war, genocide…the list really is almost endless. The effect has been to create “noise” 0around it.

So here you have the Bible, arguably the world’s most influential book, meant to give life and instead, the “noise” around it keeps it from being heard.

Here’s an example.

I have an air compressor in my garage. And it’s loud. It’s so loud that I put in ear-plugs to drown out the noise and protect what’s left of my hearing. Many times, my kids have come out to the garage while it’s on and tried to tell me something. But the noise keeps me from hearing them. It’s too loud and overpowering. They may have even come out to tell me that dinner was ready, or that they love me, or best of all, they’ve decided to stay little forever, but I cannot hear them because of the noise.

My need for food, love and hope is in effect drowned out.

This is what I mean by the “noise” around the Bible.

It’s not possible to resolve this issue in one blog post, but let me point out what I think is one of the largest sources of the “noise:” Reading the Bible as a rule-book. And it’s killing people. 

This way of understanding it is so common, so pervasive and so assumed that I would argue it’s the default way most people see the Bible. I’d even argue it’s the same for people who rarely or have never read the Bible. People seem to share this assumption: The Bible is about rules you have to keep to keep God happy. 

This doesn’t come from the Bible (though there are certainly rules in it), this comes from human beings.

We humans endlessly work to justify our existence. We scramble to prove our worth. We climb the ladder to validate our value. We pull other people down to prove we’re better. It’s not even a religious thing. It’s just a human impulse. I want to know if I matter and if I have value. And I want to know how I have to go about doing that.

We’re all in the same boat on this one. We all want to know: What rules do I need to follow to make sure I matter? 

Now we might call those rules “principles”, “ideas” or simply “how things are”. Whatever we call it, it’s an impulse that starts on the playground and keeps showing up on the field, in the office, at the shop, in the classroom, at Church and at home.

It’s everywhere.

That begins to make some sense of why we read our experience of life and our methods for finding it back into the Bible. After all, people have beenfingerpointing striving for thousands of years. We want to know what the rules are to justify our existence to others and–if we are Christians–to God, so we latch onto the divine rules in the Bible. “These must be the REAL rules. Hey everybody, here they are. Keep them and don’t screw up!

Here’s what I’ve found about human nature: When we latch onto a rule we tend to think, even if only privately, everyone should keep it.

As one of my friends says, we should on people.

It’s why son-in-laws and mother-in-laws don’t always like each other. It’s why parents shame children. It’s why we have personal trainers. It’s why people dress alike, cut their hair alike and think alike.

We think we have found–to use one of Jesus’ metaphors–the pearl of great price and so we need to make sure everyone knows they should follow it.

If you think this isn’t true, or I’m just off base, consider this. We constantly judge between the people keeping the rules (as we understand them) and those not. The ones keeping them are in, the ones not keeping them are out. It creates exclusion.

  • The people who eat clean and work out are in, the people who load their burger with an extra side of mayo are out.
  • The people who ride Harley’s are in. The people who drive a foreign car and wear khakis are out.
  • The people who work hard for a living are in, the people who have knowledge jobs are out.

We become the self-appointed judge of the people who don’t measure up to our standard of rule-keeping.

So maybe you can begin to understand how seeing the Bible primarily as a rule book is the larger part of creating the problem. People who do it think they now have THE BIGGEST LEVER IN THE WORLD (all caps yelling intended) to make people play nice with others.

But this is misguided.

To learn what’s in the Bible, we often have to unlearn what we thought the Bible was about.

The Bible is not about God’s rules, it’s about God’s grace. 

Paul, in his brilliant letter to a group of Christians in Galatia (in modern day Turkey) debunks the “Bible-as-a-rule-book-so-look-out-Jesus-is-watching-look-busy” approach. He points out how it doesn’t work, what it does to us, and the kind of people we become when we do it.

Here are some of his brilliant insights quoted from The Message paraphrase of that New Testament letter of Galatians.

I’ve inserted some comments in parentheses. Hopefully you can see that the Bible itself is against seeing the Bible as a rule-book.

  • “I greet you with the great words, grace and peace! We know the meaning of those words because Jesus Christ (not our rule-keeping!) rescued us from this evil world we’re in by offering himself as the sacrifice for our sins.”
  • “…you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message (The message they embraced: Keep the rules! In other words, when you insist that people keep the rules to keep God happy you are acting as a traitor to God.“)
  • “If anyone (Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes, Rick Warren, Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Oprah, any pastor, any spiritual leader), regardless of reputation or credentials preaches something other than what you received originally, let him be cursed.”
  • We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it–and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen!” (emphasis added)
  • “Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.” (emphasis added)
  • “I tried keeping the rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quite being a ‘law man’ so I could be God’s man. (Paul saw that his choice was Jesus as savior or the rules as savior)”
  • “Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God?”
  • “If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.”
  • “How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you?”
  • “Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates more rule-keeping.”
  • “Those heretical teachers (Note: The ‘heresy people’ were the one’s insisting on keeping the rules. Let that sink in for a moment.) go to great lengths to flatter you, but their motives are rotten. They want to shut you out of the free world of God’s grace so that you will always depend on them for approval and direction, making them feel important.” (Rule keepers hate it when people act free in any way and can’t stand to see the freedom of people who don’t seem to be bound up by something)
  • (Keeping the rules) “…is a slave life, producing slaves as offspring.”
  • “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”
  • “When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.”

As Paul wraps up his appeal to stop trying to keep the rules to keep God happy, he outlines the results of a rule-based religion vs grace.

“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions…”


“What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives–things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

It kills you because you become smaller while thinking you are becoming holier. And you almost always take other people down with you.

Rules at their best (sometimes they are anything but) are meant to outline what’s helpful and good. But they are always terrible for trying to get God’s attention and approval.

One thought on “Why Thinking the Bible is a Rule-Book is Killing You

  1. Well said. As I mature in my faith. I have learned that the bible isn’t a rule book. Rather it’s a love story between God and His people. That those “rules” that He has are boundaries to protect us. God created us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. I believe this because we are so adept at lying to ourselves. He doesn’t have those boundaries to be a killjoy. But rather because He knows us throughly. God knows that when we step outside of our boundaries. We bring destruction on ourselves, either physically, emotionally, intellectually, relationally, etc or all of the above. Yet God loved us so much that He gave us a way to redemption that will never cost as much as it cost Him. That cost was through the cross and resurrection of His son, Jesus.

    The church becomes legalistic when the rules are elevated above God. When the rules are valued over people. The bible should never be used as a hammer, but rather as a mirror.

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