I believe that it is easy for Christians to hide behind rules. We don't always deal with the underlying issues of sin, and because of this, these rules may not even effectively prevent us from sinning.
In 1833 a man in Canton (now Guangzhou), saddened by the behaviour of many foreign sailors, thought about the common quote "Touch not, taste not". In his society, alcoholism had taken root and he came to the view that total avoidance of alcohol was the right move: "This is the easiest of all ways, and the safest of all, and the cheapest of all."
However, I believe that this conclusion does not solve the real issue. For the majority of sins "Touch not, taste not" is not the solution, but rather, is the end goal.
Because we have been rescued from sin through Jesus Christ, we want to avoid straying into sin. This is one of the ways we show the change He has made in us. It is an impossible goal without God's help, but sometimes we place rules to help us and forget to ask God for help.
Our rules can become a mask we wear to show an outward change while on the inside we are trying to control our own lives without God. This does not deal with the underlying issues of sin because we are shutting God out and because of this, these kinds of rules become self-defeating and cannot achieve the end goal they aim for.
In addition to this, in the context of the sailors in 1833, the alcohol is not the direct evil. If alcohol were evil in itself, Jesus would not have turned water into wine and nor would he use wine to represent his blood in the last supper. No, the sin was not alcohol; it was Alcoholism.
They were placing their love of alcohol above their love for God. For them it had become an idol. While it is clear that this was a very serious problem, one must be careful not to go too far the other way, sometimes just as alcohol became an idol for these sailors in 1833; rules can become idols for us if we place them above God.
Legalism in our lives can easily become disproportionately valued to the point that it becomes a hindrance to our faith.
There is a tendency to view our life as Christians through a lens of 'check boxes' where certain tasks like going to church and maintaining schedules for prayer and bible reading are the focus rather than having an actual relationship with God and growing in him.
We need to have the right perspective and make sure that our 'check list' is supporting us in having a relationship with God and not replacing him. Schedules are tools we can use, but talking to God and hearing from him as is done in prayer and bible reading are the actual aspects that build relationship.
Similarly, the act of 'going' to church should not be the focus but being part of the church will help you in your relationship with God and supports fellowship with other Christians. We should keep perspective of what the actual objective is and not over emphasise our tools to get there.
I want to encourage you to examine what the focus of any rule is so that you do not exaggerate its importance beyond where it should be, but even more, I would like us to make sure we are asking God for help rather than trying to replace him with rules.
Alex Gillespie is an undergraduate student from Wollongong now based in Sydney.
Alex Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/alex-gillespie.html