My Bible reading currently has me in Galatians, which is jolly interesting stuff. Situation in brief: Paul has previously been there and planted a church with both Jewish and Gentile believers. After Paul left, a group of 'Judaisers' appeared, teaching the need to obey a whole series of rules based on the Jewish faith as it was understood at the time, as a means to salvation. In exasperation that the Christian faith should have been subverted so much and so quickly, Paul has a good few things to say: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (3:1a) And then, speaking to the Gentile believers, "..but now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?" (4:9a) which would have been very shocking to contemporary Jewish readers, having their faith equated with pagan beliefs. What Paul was preaching, that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not through following a series of rules, is entirely consistent with Jesus' breaking of then rules on the Sabbath, allowing his disciples to gather ears of corn and eat them (Luke 6:1ff).
Do we conclude, then, that having become Christians, we can then do anything we like? No, absolutely not, there is very clear teaching that, having become Christians, we look to live as Christians. So Jesus said "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24), James wrote, "Faith without deeds is dead" (2:26) and Paul wrote extensively in Romans of his struggle between what he knows he should do and what he finds himself wanting to do. And it is not difficult, in modern church life, to find rules about foods we should eat, attendance of church services and, more subtly, clothes we should wear, music we should listen to, and many others.
So how do we make sense of this? What is the place for rules in living as Christians? In looking to suggest an answer, I want to look at some other examples of the use of rules outside of a Christian context then to return to this theme before I finish.
One concept which I think is quite helpful here is the distinction between first order desires (or volitions) and second (or higher order) desires. So to take a particularly clear example, a long term smoker may have a first order, an immediate, desire to smoke, in accordance with long established habit and enjoyment of the resulting experience. This person may also have a conflicting second order desire to give up smoking, a desire based not on immediate feelings but an understanding of the health risks and long term benefits of giving up. Clearly, these two desires are in direct conflict, if one is to act in accordance with the second order desire to give up, then ways need to be found of curbing the first order desires, whether that be through substitutes - patches, electronic cigarettes, etc. - or some other means.
Or to take another example, a child may have very clear second order desires to learn to play a musical instrument, based on intrinsic interest, enjoyment, also social benefits of being able to join orchestras and then to receive praise and encouragement from people around. But for that desire to be fulfilled means years of repetitive practice, including the learning of scales and arpeggios, which may not in themselves be enjoyable or motivating. So at the point of settling down to some practice, there can very easily be a first order desire to watch TV or play a computer game, activities requiring less effort and more immediate rewards. How many parents across the centuries have struggled with the extent to which it is appropriate to insist that their children should do that practice when at a particular point in time they clearly do not want to do so?
One may reasonably come to the conclusion that, if we are to fulfill second order desires, we may need rules to curb conflicting first order desires. These rules may be self-imposed or through some kind of authority structure, parents and children being an obvious example but by no means the only one. They may involve some kind of extrinsic reward - allowing myself to do something immediately enjoyable in exchange for buckling down to do something I do not immediately want to do.
The crucial thing about such rules, I think, is that there are very clear reasons for having them which can easily be explained. And, if we know the reasons for the rules, we are in a position to make judgements about when it is reasonable to be flexible with them. So it may well be appropriate to suspend daily music practice if the child is ill, there's a large amount of homework which needs to be finished, there's an unexpected visitor, etc. But if the second order desire is to be free of a problem with alcohol and the first order desire is to have a drink, then all we know about addictions would point to the idea that flexibility is inappropriate. Being flexible overall may mean being inflexible in particular situations.
When I was a school teacher I started the year, particularly with classes in the younger secondary age range, establishing some rules. My intention was not to agree the rules with the classes - I had no intention, for example, of agreeing to a situation where anybody could interrupt anybody else - but to try to establish their underlying rationale. So, one thing I was keen to be clear about is that the reason I required them to put their hands up before speaking was not because they were children but because there were a large number of them, the same rule applies in large meetings in adults in my experience. As a mathematics teacher I took the view that such rules were a means to an end so that we had a disciplined environment so that we could then learn some mathematics. In other subject areas - notably Citizenship - one might well take the view that actually the setting and agreeing of rules is integral to the subject, so that if rules are set by a democratic process which seem immediately appealing but actually end up leading to chaos, this is a potentially useful learning experience to go through. A well known example of a school which takes that right through to its logical conclusion is Summerhill in East Anglia which fell foul of OFSTED a few years ago - although I would tend to the view that imposing an OFSTED structure on Summerhill is roughly equivalent to criticising a fish for not being able to breathe out of water.
So where does all this leave us? St Augustine famously said, "Love God and do what you want." My understanding of this is, "If we truly love God with all our heart, soul and mind, then automatically our desires will be aligned to His will." Or, using language from above, our first order and second order desires become as one. Speaking for myself, I regard this as an unobtainable ideal, as a fragile, fallen, sinful being my first order desires are to go my own way. So in practice I do need a framework to lead my life, set times to read the Bible, regular church attendance in order to fulfill my second order desires when they may be in conflict with what I immediately want to do. The crucial thing here is that we understand the reasons for these rules, that they are means to an end to help us not to enslave us. Depending on the rules it may be appropriate to be flexible with them. We need to keep rules under review that they continue to serve the purpose for which they are intended. This approach, to my mind, resolves the apparent contradiction we find in the New Testament. As always, will be interested to hear other people's views!