St Stephen Lewisham,

2nd September 2012


Commandments and Rules


Naturalists (or ‘Secularlists’, as we shall call them from now onwards) believe that the only things that really exist are those we experience ‘naturally’, by touch, taste, feel or scientific experiment, for example.

There’s literally a world of difference, between that belief and what we ‘Supernaturalists’ believe: because we have discovered, by God’s grace and, by learning to do His Will, that there’s another whole Universe (called the ‘Supernatural’) which exists alongside the Natural. God Who created the Natural, reveals Himself as the source of the Supernatural. Having this belief turns us into Supernaturalists.

Secularists have to deny that the Supernatural exists, or they’d immediately stop being Secularists; but we Supernaturalists believe in both. So the two beliefs aren’t just different; they’re a different sort of belief.

Secularists deny even the possibility of a Supernatural God – a Supreme Being who is Righteous, All-Sovereign, All-seeing. So they find it almost impossible to devise a workable set of Moral Rules which everybody is willing to follow. That’s why some Secularists feel they can do whatever they like – providing they can get away with it! Their only Commandment is, ‘If you can’t be good, be careful’. But even if they could work such set of Rules, they wouldn’t be much better off. Rules, by their very nature, are local, temporary regulations which can be changed by agreement. For instance, in this country the rule is Drive on the Left; whereas other countries it’s Drive on the Right. But the Rule could be changed: Sweden changed it in 1967. Cricket and football Rules have often been modified to improve the game. Such Rules, and changes to them, are made by a committee, or by a vote in some congress or assembly.

God has also has given us commandments: ‘Honour your father and mother’, ‘Don’t murder’, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, ‘Don’t tell lies’; ‘Don’t steal’. Coming to us, as they do, directly from God they demand, of course, our immediate and unquestioning obedience and they cannot be changed by vote. So Commandments and Rules are two very different things. Unlike Rules, Commandments are short and to the point they come from someone who is in authority: our mother, our teacher, a superior officer, or a policeman. Commandments, unlike Rules, are short, and demand our instant obedience: ‘Stand up!’, ‘Stand still!’, ‘Come down off there!’, ‘Stop talking!’, ‘Be quiet!’, ‘Don’t do that!’ God’s Commandments are like that. But Rules have to be laced with definitions, and are therefore long-winded

Because Secularists confuse Commandments and Rules, they think we can change either of them by human consent. That false belief has infected many people not just Atheists, and Secularists, but even Christians, particularly those who’ve abandoned their belief in the Supernatural – like Jack Spong, an American Bishop, who said in a sermon, ‘As far as I’m concerned everything is up for grabs!’. Secular-minded Christians have been misled into thinking that God’s Commandments about Marriage, Holy Orders, the Eucharist, Sexual Morality or the lives of unborn children, are mere Rules which can be changed or done away with by an Act of Parliament or winning a vote in the General Synod. They can’t!

Because God doesn’t change; and His Commandments are part and parcel of the faith which He has revealed. They change only very seldom – and if they do, it’s usually not the Commandment itself that’s changed, but our understanding of it. So Christians believe that murder, adultery, theft and telling untruths are as wrong today as they were when God gave them to Moses, as we heard in our first reading:

You must add nothing to what I command you, and take nothing from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God just as I lay them down for you. Keep them, observe them, and they will demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding.

Now let’s hear what Jesus said in today’s Gospel about Rules and Commandments:

'It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture: This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations. You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.'

Jesus was speaking, you remember, to the Scribes and Pharisees, who were the Church Leaders of the day. They had become so obsessed with devising and teaching people Rules based on human traditions that, as Jesus told them, they had ‘chucked away the weightier matters of the Law’ – such as God’s Commandments to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. So it’s no surprise that St John, in his Gospel, says that when ‘He [God the Son] came to His own People [they] failed to recognize Him’ – especially the Scribes and Pharisees. They rejected Him because he told ordinary people that it was more important to obey God’s Commandments than slavishly to follow the Rules put out by those Scribes and Pharisees.

But don’t imagine that it’s a simple matter of ‘Commandments are good, Rules are bad’. Without Rules, Church life (or any other) would be chaotic – like people driving on whichever side of the road they happen to prefer. So we need Rules. But once we star confusing Rules with Commandments, and fail to grasp their different natures and importance, we shall soon turn into the Scribes and Pharisees of our day.

So every church needs its own set of rules – about what robes the Clergy wear; whether we start our service with a Hymn or a Period of Silence; whether we stand or kneel to receive Communion, sing or say the Creed; begin at 10 or 11 o’clock – not forgetting the Rule that Mrs Blenkinsop always does the flowers on the first Sunday of the month. These are Rules not Commandments. They differ from church to church, depending on tradition, and local needs. But none is right and none is wrong – so they can, and should, be changed or varied when it becomes necessary – and, providing that Mrs Blenkinsop herself has been party to the discussion – which should hardly need saying, but, regrettably, isn’t always the case!.

But God’s Commandments, by contrast, can only be changed by God Himself. It’s not only the Pharisees in First Century Palestine who confused Rules with Commandments. We Christians of today sometimes do just that. When we allow our discipleship to focus exclusively on keeping our own Rules, rather than on loving God and keeping His Commandments, we run a serious risk of turning ourselves into Scribes and Pharisees and, like them, failing to recognize our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for Who He really is!

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