The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism

People believe the Bible is many things that it is not. Last time we discussed that the Bible is not inerrant; by extension of that we will see today that the Bible is not a rule book. The claim that the Bible is not a rule book is very alarming to some believers and raises two big questions:

1. If the Bible is not a rule book, then what use is it?

2. If the Bible is not the rule book, then how do I live and behave?

I think these are reasonable questions worthy of answers.

The Bible

If the Bible is not a Rule Book, What Use is it and How do I Live and Behave?

For some, hearing that the Bible isn’t filled with commands for us to observe is startling, because finding favor with God by following his commandments is the practical basis of their faith—they see this as their primary duty as Christians.

But, though the Bible does have a lot of rules here and there, believers are not to observe religious rules but are to follow principles taught by Jesus. In both his words and his personal behavior Jesus tells us the important thing is how we treat people. Aligning with the love of God and treating people fairly and with love, respect, empathy, compassion, and concern is what we are to do as followers of Jesus; if we do this then religious rules are unnecessary.

Both the Old Testament and New Testament contain things people are told to do or not to do, but they are NOT rigid commands of God. The Bible was written by people who felt close to God but wrote from their own cultures and limited understanding. Sometimes, they thought they were actually speaking for God.

But the God we now know through Jesus would not command genocide or execution of people for various social infractions. These orders were dictated by Israelite leaders who might have mistakenly thought they were representing God.

Other statements in the Bible that legalists mistake for God’s universal commands are simply proverbs, poetry, opinions of biblical writers, stories, or observations. Like any such writings, these might be useful for our personal consideration, but they aren’t commands from God that we must observe.

The Bible is useful in many ways. It has lots of helpful thoughts and tells us of Jesus—but it is not a rule book for us to follow.

Negative Results from Using the Bible as a Rule Book

Regarding the Bible as a rule book weighs believers down with observing rules instead of living freely and growing in love and maturity. But beyond this generally harmful result some legalistic rules really hurt people.

Consider Proverbs 13:

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.

Many take this as a command from God for us to hit, or even beat, our kids! But this is only a proverb in a collection of proverbs from a variety of sources. However, untold numbers of children are abused, traumatized, and alienated by misguided parents thinking the Bible is a rule book requiring them to do this.

Malachi 3 asks the question:

Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.

The Israelites are accused of not bringing the commanded tithes to the temple to support the ritual priests, but this passage is twisted by many ministers to cajole members into giving 10% of their income to the church to support the minister, staff, buildings, and programs. Members are often threatened with consequences of not obeying this ‘command of God’, and it does not matter if members cannot afford it. Entire families are hurt by this false ‘commandment’.

A church is not the temple, and ministers are not priests. Nowhere in the New Testament are we asked to build buildings or hire ministers. Now if we choose to do so, then we should support them; but we have no obligation to give 10%.

By the way, Malachi wrote these words and he is not God.

This is from 1 Timothy 2:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

This passage is taken in some churches as a stern order from God and has been used in dominating women for ages. Today, it is seen as a key command supporting the concept of spiritual patriarchy in many churches. But it is NOT a command from God; the author is not inerrant and even he says that it is his own personal practice.

I will Give You Rules

From Naked Pastor

Behavior Does Matter

I was taught to follow all these ‘commands’, but it is not God’s character to burden people with legalistic rules; Jesus teaches differently. Behavior DOES matter but is based in following Jesus’ teaching to love others and treat them accordingly.

Religious rules are not required. I am sure you can think of other religious rules that hurt people; there are a LOT of them.

But we are to follow a different way.

Other articles in this series: What the Bible is Not
What the Bible Is–And Is Not
The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts
The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism
The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible
The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man
The Bible is not a Magic Talisman: Biblical Power, Incantations, and Bibliomancy
The Bible is not Open to Narcigesis: Thinking the Bible is Written to You


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38 Responses to The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism

  1. Edie Taylor says:

    It’s also interesting how people select which “rules” to follow and which to ignore. Most Protestant churches, at least, do not now expect women to cover their hair during services, but there is more emphasis on this, even in the New Testament, than on, say, homosexuality.. It seems clear that the surrounding culture has a lot to do with how these “rules”are interpreted. Also, an over-emphasis on rules allows the priest/minister to dictate to the congregation. I was raised in a “store-front” nondenominational church with a minister who was totally independent (not part of any convention or alliance). His word was law, and anyone who disagreed got expelled. I often feel this experience (and some others,similar but less extreme) left me spiritually warped, i.e., when people say “God loves you” I can’t necessarily feel it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Edie, I certainly agree with you regarding people using different lists to follow. Sometimes their lists don’t resemble each other much at all.

      And if we are to live by God’s rules, guess what else we must have? JUDGES! One of the big problems of legalism is that it produces a culture of judgment and condemnation, including the ministers you mention whose word is Law. And, of course, the ultimate judge is thought to be God. How can we feel God loves us if he is always ready to strike us for messing up on keeping his rules?

      I also agree with you on homosexuality. It seems to be the most important ‘rule’ emphasized today–with vigor, while the Bible has only the most tenuous reference to the subject–and has nothing to say about committed gay relationships.


      • Edie Taylor says:

        Tim, thank you for your thought on learning about God as a judge. That was exactly how it was, a severe old man who was always on the lookout for me to do something wrong. I never thought about it before as affecting my ability to perceive a loving God, but it makes a lot of sense..

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Yeah, I remember that severe old man watching me–watching me. Gotcha! It was great to discover God is not like that.


    • Chas says:

      Better expelled than remain in a church under such a dictator!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Charlotte Robertson says:

    Thank you so much for yet another enlightening and re-assuring message.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Charlotte Robertson says:

    I shared it on Facebook.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. newtonfinn says:

    Perhaps no greater evil has come from a section of “scripture” than from these words of Paul in Romans 13: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good.”

    While it has been attempted many, many times to qualify and contextualize these words of Paul (with other things he said and actions he is reported to have taken in Acts), the brute fact remains that this language from Romans 13 has been seized upon by the “powers that be” throughout 2000 years of western civilization to justify every form of unspeakable oppression and exploitation, from abject slavery to aggressive war. No greater gift could have been given to the powerful; i.e., an ostensible “divine sanction” to grind the weak and vulnerable into the dust in God’s name.

    Again, we can respond to this uncomfortable and ugly truth with the parsing of words or some other theological balancing act, but I believe the better course is to face the fact that the spirit of Jesus and the spirit of Paul are not in total harmony. Long ago, I came to the conclusion that I must choose between Jesus and Paul as the ultimate guide and model for the living of my life, and once I put my hand to the plow of the gospel (although always feebly and often losing my grip) I have been extremely picky about the other parts of the bible in which I invest my time.

    By no means do I agree with everything said in the following link, but it provides a touchstone for further reflection about this fundamental dichotomy in Christian tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      I am certain that Paul wrote this for exactly the reasons that you outline: to intimidate the members of churches, to make certain that they would obey their leaders. There can be no greater authority than God Himself, so the example that was important to me was the early parts of Acts, in which Peter and John, and then all of the disciples, told the leaders of the Judaic religion that they must obey God rather than man, when those leaders tried to tell them what they should do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Chas, I agree with you that we must obey God rather than man, but see my response to Newton.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Newton, I certainly agree with you that Romans 13 has been misused to make believers subject to governments in every way. This is in complete conflict with Jesus’ teaching that our first allegiance is to the kingdom of God; this is why so many believers were killed for refusing to offer incense for the god, Caesar.

      Thanks for this excellent example of the harm of following ‘rules’ in the Bible.

      However, I don’t think of this passage in exactly the same way as you as Chas. I think all Paul is saying is to be good citizens and not rebel against the government, as that is not our place. Doing good works is very consistent with being part of the kingdom of God, and for the most part governments tolerate those sorts of citizens.

      I very much agree with you that we should follow Jesus instead of Paul (as many other people do, unfortunately). And I think Paul would agree as well–he was a genuine follower of Jesus, himself.


      • Chas says:

        Tim, with phrases like: ‘For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil,’ it can be argued that this does not apply to the civil authorities, but to the church authorities, but it is important to recognize that, whatever the motives of the writer, these parts of the bible are being used to overawe people who do not have the experience to resist people who use it in that way. Our problem is: how can we advise victims of this misuse of power, so that they do not suffer at the hands of church tyrants. One suggestion would be to treat the gospels as having more authority than Paul’s letters, since these latter, as you have pointed out before, were directed at specific people at a specific time. Another might be to avoid confrontation by submitting to such tyrants in the church, while recognizing that their attitudes are wrong. However, anyone wishing to use this latter course would need to be careful, since discussion of such misuses of the bible with others from that church might easily be relayed back to the tyrant (particularly as Paul’s letters have something to say about the divisive effects of people complaining).

        Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Chas, you raise an interesting possibility that this passage might relate to church authority rather than civil authority, but to me the passage seems to refer to civil authority–which is, in this case, Rome.

        It is true that Rome was a terror to those who did right, but so has been the church. I think what Paul is saying is that Rome does not generally oppress people BECAUSE they are law-abiding but because they are not. Of course, good people get caught up in the actions of any tyrannical power–church or state.

        You are absolutely right that this passage has been abused by many in the church, and I think it is by misunderstanding Paul’s general statement and then considering it some command of God by understanding Paul to be God’s voice–which he isn’t.

        I really like your suggestion of taking the Gospels to be more significant than Paul’s letters. To me this is always the best way to go.


  5. Chas says:

    Tim, I agree with you that we should not read the bible as rules that have to be obeyed. The Ten called Commandments would better be read as guidelines, or supplemented with a qualifier: ‘or someone might be caused to suffer.’

    The bible is very useful for the encouragement of people undergoing times of difficulty, or illness. We have examples such as David, who although having been anointed as future king, is reduced to feigning madness in the court of a foreign king, but eventually does become the king of Israel. We have Gideon and Elisha plucked from obscurity to become servants of God and we also have examples of perseverance such as Jacob serving for 14 years to obtain a wife whom he loves. It also has some useful warnings against behavior that ignores potential consequences in regard to causing suffering, such as David and Bathsheba.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I agree with you that the 10 Commandments are among the ‘rules’ we are not required to follow as commandments. Many people think the 10 Commandments are absolutely required rules–after all they were written by the finger of God!

      But No. The 10 Commandments are no more binding than any other rules. If we follow Jesus’ teaching on loving others–the 10 commandments, as such, are unnecessary.


  6. We focus on rules when we are more concerned with being right and having control and order, rather than living rightly or having concern for other people.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Marilyn Davis says:

    Have you all read Borg and Crossan’s book about Paul? A person who wrote that we are all equal in Christ surely has other positive attributes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Marilyn, I have read books by both Borg and Crossan but not that particular one. It sounds good from the bit you said about it. I do agree that Paul has many positive attributes.

      Some people do not like Paul because of his cultural statements or his speculations that have for many become expanded into very harmful doctrinal ‘truths’. But I believe a close reading of Paul reveals that he was energized by the very message of Jesus himself. I hope to do a series one day that points that out. Borg and Crossan might be a good resource for that.


    • Alan Christensen says:

      Aren’t there scholars who think Romans 13:1-7 is an interpolation by a later author and not Paul? I might be thinking of a different passage, but if this is not part of the original text but comes from a later author accommodating Christianity to the prevailing Roman culture, it certainly changes how one thinks of Paul’s theology. As Marilyn points out, Paul is extremely countercultural in other passages.

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. michaeleeast says:

    Religion is not about rules and regulations.
    True religion is about your heart.
    Opening your heart to God and to others.
    As Jesus taught.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man | Jesus Without Baggage

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  16. Marc and Ann says:

    Thank you for clearing this up! Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Carl Andersson says:

    If I interpret your message right, you may have changed my life completely.

    I have to tell a bit about my story. When I went to, what you can call junior high school here in Sweden, I had a strong belief in God and Jesus Christ, yet I had a lack of knowledge about Christianity. I was raised by the “childish belief”, to believe and love god, and he’ll love you back. That he will walk beside you no matter what. To pray about obstacles along the way and relax about obligations. I felt a harmony and response, that when I prayed, things turned out great in the end. I would say that I had a strong faith.

    When I entered senior high school everything turned upside down and I went down a very dark road. And it was not any enemy’s fault, it was the bible. I discovered that most things seemed like sin and you would burn in hell for eternity for it. This made me feel so outrageously bad that I ended up having a mental breakdown. I just didn’t have the power, the discipline to follow god and now I really felt that I walked alone. I prayed yet I didn’t feel any answer. I was so lost and sad. My view of god changed, from this loving and caring god to this angry god of wrath which motive was to send me to hell for all eternity. I saw the bible as a rule book.

    After all this, I spoke to my mother about it and she always said that everything’s okay and fine, god loves you.

    Those mental breakdowns have come and gone from time to time and the most recent one happened just a few weeks ago and I can say that to this day, I have felt utterly bad. The thing that really scared me about the last breakdown was that I’m so close to lose my faith entirely. I’m so tired of all the pressure that’s tied to following the rules that I have lost the power to cope with it.

    I still believe that sin exists. I think that you should be good to your peers. To not kill somebody, just to name a few. But I interpreted the whole bible as a rule book. Many people say that, “everything that does not involve god is sin”, does that mean that I can’t get a normal job, to not have any hobbies?

    Do you get what I mean? Do you believe that we can relax? The only thing I can say is that this post has given me hope in all the darkness.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Carl, one of the things you said was: “My view of god changed, from this loving and caring god to this angry god of wrath which motive was to send me to hell for all eternity. I saw the bible as a rule book.”

      I certainly understand this! Using the Bible as a rulebook is called legalism, and many people who are legalists actually view God as angry, harsh, and vindictive–and who will send them to the eternal hell you spoke about if they don’t toe the line. Well, I think Jesus gives us the clearest perspective about God and it is the one you first held–a loving, caring God. And that thing about eternal punishment in burning hell; the Bible does not even teach such a thing.

      Our behavior does matter, but it is not based on rules but on loving people and treating them right. This is what Jesus teaches us is important. God loves us unconditionally and wishes to take away our fear, heal us of our brokenness, and bring us reconciliation instead of alienation.

      You concluding question is: “Do you believe that we can relax?” And I say Yes–definitely ‘Yes!’ We should love God, ourselves, and others and treat people right as Jesus says–but we CAN relax from fearing that God is angry and harsh with us, because this is not the case.

      Does this help? Feel free to continue the conversation.


      • Carl Andersson says:

        Thank you for responding!

        You won’t believe how much it help me, how much light that’s shed into the darkness. The amount of pressure have been an awful struggle and it’s people like you that really help. And I have to say that this loving, caring and open mindset makes more sense, doesn’t it?

        I will try to regain my faith and “rest” in god’s hands, as my father often says. That we should just rest in gods safety and love. The truth can’t be as harsh as some may portray. I entirely agree with your point of view.

        I sincerely want to thank you for sharing your perspective and thoughts which helped me and certainly many others.

        Kind regards.

        Liked by 1 person

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