Religion and rules

Rule-Based Religion: A Non-Relational ‘Righteousness’ that is not Righteousness

We can now move on to our second main focus under the heading of ‘de-relationalisation’ by noting that, abstract discourses aside, another big result of suppressing relational wisdom is rule-based religion. 

First, biblically, righteousness is relational, something you do in relation to someone, whether God or neighbour, or at very least in ‘relation’ to the created order.

Rules, however, can sometimes provide a false way of being ‘righteous’ apart from relationship, a ‘righteousness’ you can do on your own, a DIY ‘righteousness’ that avoids the real thing. Rule-based religion, then, takes the ‘relationship’ out of ‘righteousness’ to produce a ‘righteousness’ that is not real righteousness.

For example, the early Luther tried to gain a relationship with God by observing ever-harsher rules of self-discipline. His rule-based religion was not relationship, but something designed to earn relationship, something that occurred before relationship as its prelude. The turning point for Luther came when he realised that he already had relationship with God, and that no system of self-imposed discipline could change that.

Thus, the harsh regime became redundant, and he could get on with reforming the Continent of Europe. Jesus also criticised the Pharisees on this point for neglecting right relationship with their parents in order to observe a religious tradition. Paul too criticises rule-based religion in Colossians 2:23 as lacking any value in ‘restraining sensual indulgence’.

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