My mom was never allowed to cut her hair short. She grew up in a very strict church and 1 Corinthians 11 says that women shouldn’t cut their hair, so she always kept her tresses long and holy. But then she noticed that black women were allowed to cut their hair short and no one stopped them. She asked her mother why. Her answer was, “It looks better on them.”
If that sounds like stupid theology, that’s because it is. It was one of the many encounters that led my mother down a path of questioning the rules. Like many Christians, Mom had grown up in a society of rules wrapped around her life like a turtleneck she couldn’t take off. Good boys and girls obeyed, bad ones did not. Simple as that. But her journey through the Bible led her to a startling revelation:
The Bible is FULL of rule-breakers.
David shouldn’t have eaten bread that was only for priests. Rahab was a harlot and a foreigner. Ruth slept in the same bed as a man who wasn’t her husband. First-century Christians defied Roman rule even though Paul said to submit to authority. And how many people in the Bible broke the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”? Yet every one of them is commended in the Bible for doing the right thing (okay not ALL the people who killed, but you get the point).
Jesus himself was the king of rebels. He did work on the Sabbath, spoke to a foreign woman with a bad reputation, ate with sinners, spared an adulteress from God-ordained punishment, ignored his mother, defied his elders, and pretty much ignored all public and social norms. Yet the Bible tells us to imitate him and that God was pleased with him.
Even outside the Bible, Christians have a history of rule-breaking. Martin Luther defied the church. C.S. Lewis wrote a book with magic in it. Switchfoot stopped writing praise and worship music. Christians in China are not submitting to authority and instead preach God’s word.
Why do so many imitable, God-filled people break so many of God’s own rules? Because they know why those rules exist.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that it’s okay to break the rules of style, grammar, voice, etc, but you first have to study them and know what they are. Kathryn Stockett made Swiss cheese out of grammar in many chapters of The Help. Yet it sold millions. Why? Because it made for an authentic voice for that character.
Rules don’t exist for their own sake; they exist for a reason. Grammar rules keep a book intelligible. Traffic rules prevent collisions. And the rules of God reveal God to us so that we know how to be like Him. When Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 NKJV), he said that human beings weren’t created to blindly follow black-and-white rules, but that the rules were made to help us. The Sabbath was made to give us rest, not shackle us from doing any good thing.
Back to my mother: she discovered that the rule in 1 Corinthians 11 about not cutting hair was far less black-and-white than she had been taught. Some translations say “shave,” not “cut,” so short is okay, but not bald? Or if not, how short is too short? What’s the cutoff (pun intended)? And where does it say Black women are exempt because they look good with short hair? It turns out the Bible actually had very little to say on the subject, and nothing beyond that one chapter. Her church had simply filled in the “holes.”
Sometimes, breaking the rule is the way to keep it. The point of a red light is to prevent death and harm. But if you have a gunshot victim in your car and he’s bleeding profusely, obeying the letter of the law will kill that person while breaking it will save them, therefore fulfilling the spirit of the law.
That’s one of the most powerful and revealing scriptures: 2 Corinthians 3:6: “…the letter [of the Law] kills, but the Spirit gives life.” It’s not verbatim rule-keeping that makes a Christian, but keeping the spirit. It is not Godly to mindlessly obey, but to understand God’s spirit. That’s why God gave us his Holy Spirit, so that we could understand Him and interpret His laws and know where they need to be broken.
God gives freedom, not legality. Christians are rule-breakers because they are wise enough to know which ones to break. Once more I return to my mother. She cut her hair, she wore jeans instead of skirts, and she disobeyed her parents by leaving her church. But she is not the wayward rebel they thought she would become. She loves God all the more now and has stood by him in thick and thin. Why? Because the Spirit of the law gave her life, and life more abundant. Now, she obeys because she wants to, not because the rules say so. God loves willing hearts far more than obedient ones. (Matthew 15: 1-8).
This isn’t a call to anarchy, rather a call to understanding the rules and knowing why they were made, and which rules trump the others. Live in the freedom God bought for you on the cross.
QUESTION: What rules do you think could use some bending/breaking? What are some circumstances where God says it’s okay to break his own rules?