Until recent times I’ve been a law-abiding citizen without having to think too much about it. And when I have needed to check the rules, the highway code, say, I could be fairly confident that it wouldn’t have changed by the next week. But the last few months have been very different. There has been an avalanche of government advice and regulation, which has changed on a weekly basis. Some of it I regard as vital. Some of it seems to make little sense. So, it has got me thinking about the Christian attitude to law keeping.
Jesus says that he didn’t come to overturn the law, but on the other hand he wasn’t very particular about keeping every bit of it. He got into trouble with the Pharisees for picking corn to eat on the Sabbath, or eating without ritual washing. He refused to let them dictate the small print of what he could or couldn’t do. In contrast to Jesus’ public disregard for the regulations, the Pharisees were hypocritical in the demands they made on ordinary people to comply, without having love for either God or people. They were the target of Jesus’ harshest criticisms.
Further on in the New Testament we have in the letter of Peter “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution”, a passage often quoted to support the idea that Christians should obey the letter of the law. At first glance this passage seems to be at variance with the teaching of Jesus, but the letter was written to Christians in the Roman colonies of Asia Minor – a very different situation to first century Palestine. It’s beginning to look as though there isn’t a simple answer. In the letter to the Romans Paul gives us a clue to a more nuanced approach. He tells those who have a liberal attitude to the Jewish law to obey it for the sake of those whose consciences are troubled by breaking the rules, so as not to confuse or undermine those with a less robust faith. Paul felt that he had a mature and well thought out position, but he recognised that those newly converted to Christianity might be unnecessarily troubled by seeing him disregard the Jewish law, and be distracted from what really matters in our faith.
Paul’s words have shaped my attitude to keeping the rules and regulations around coronavirus. Some of them I find unjustified. Why can I have a cup of coffee with my friend in Costa, but not in my back garden? Surely my garden is safer? But if my neighbour sees me breaking the rules, maybe she will feel it’s OK to break them, too. And perhaps she will go further and have more than one person, or go indoors, or even have a party… Setting a good example, even when you don’t altogether agree with the rules, is not hypocrisy. But there is a limit, in my view, as to how strict with yourself you can be. To live solely by rules was the creed of the Pharisees, not the Christians, and it led to hypocrisy and a judgemental attitude. Sometimes, there are occasions where to keep the rules leads to misery that is disproportionate to any risk taken, and if you do not follow your heart there is a danger of becoming bitter, envious and over critical of others, the Pharisaic sins which Jesus denounced more strongly than any rule breaking.
So, here’s my advice: whatever you do, stay safe, and don’t take risks. Be a good example, but never judgemental, even if that means not being perfect.