What happens when it’s about the rules? What happens in your heart or mine when rules become the main thing? What happens in a family when a mom or a dad or a teenage child becomes preoccupied with rules? Or what happens in a church when its people are more intent on following rules than following Christ?
When it’s all about the rules, we begin to play certain roles. When it’s all about the rules, something comes over us, and we begin thinking and acting in certain predictable ways. This was true of those in Colossae, whom Paul is critiquing in Colossians 2:16-23. For some, it had become all about the rules, and Paul warns the Colossians about what happens.
You play the judge and condemn others (Colossians 2:16)
First of all, when it’s all about the rules, you play the judge and condemn others. When it’s all about the rules, you find yourself dressed in dark robes, behind the bench, gavel in hand, law-books open, holding court on other Christians. Evidently, some were doing this in Colossae, so Paul had to admonish and encourage the Colossian Christians: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival or New Moon celebration or Sabbath day” (2:16).
When it’s all about the rules, you interact with other Christians as though they were accused felons, and you assume it’s your job to decide their case in accordance with the law. “Are they guilty or innocent?” “Have the transgressed or not?” Oblivious to the planks in your own eyes, you eagerly and rather sanctimoniously look for little piles of sawdust in your brother or sister’s eye (see Matthew 7:3-5).
The biblical example of a life lived according to the rules and thus playing the judge are the Pharisees, about whom Jesus had a few rather blunt things to say. For the Pharisees, it was all about the rules, and thus they often assumed the part of the judge and felt it their moral responsibility to pronounce condemnation on others. Even the sinless Son of God came under their watchful eye and condemning gaze: “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Mark 2:16). “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24).
You play the umpire and disqualify others (Colossians 2:18)
Second, when it’s all about the rules, you play the umpire and disqualify others. When it’s all about the rules, you find yourself dressed in stripes, behind home base, playing the umpire on other Christians. When it’s all about the rules, you interact with the church and other Christians as though they were a baseball team, and you’re the umpire. And you view it as your responsibility to make the tough calls: Safe? Or tagged? Strike? Or ball?
There were some umpires in Colossae, evidently a real spiritually sophisticated bunch, who saw it as their responsibility to disqualify others. So Paul says to the Colossians: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize” (2:18). Don’t let them play the umpire on you! This is an ever-present danger within a congregation, when certain of its members begin donning the umpire’s apparel – and attitude!
You play the sergeant and call for submission from others (Colossians 2:20-21)
Third, when it’s about the rules, you play the sergeant and call for submission from others. When it’s all about the rules, you find yourself dressed in military fatigues, whistle clinched between your teeth, and a mean look on your face, playing the drill sergeant. The church becomes a platoon and you, the sergeant in command, barking out orders in commanding tones: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (2:20). Not only that, but you get irritated – sometimes downright offended – when your orders aren’t obeyed immediately and unquestioningly.
This is what happens when we are preoccupied with rules: we become judges or umpires or sergeants, condemning, disqualifying, calling for submission. We come to see other Christians and the church itself, not as people redeemed by grace and transferred into the Body of Christ, but as a group of convicts on trial, or a team on the verge of defeat, or a platoon needing to be disciplined.
Some of you have encountered others Christians like that. They’re brittle; they’re harsh; they’re edgy (in a bad sense!). Some of you come from churches like that: filled with drill sergeants or umpires or judges – and the consequences for the entire atmosphere of the church were devastating. Still others of you, to be blunt, have been guilty of acting like that; we all have. We’ve banged the gavel in condemnation of others too readily; we’ve blown the whistle and disqualified others too quickly; or we’ve shouted out orders at others too loudly; and, frankly, we’ve left a trail of human debris in our wake.
So let’s commit, by the grace of God, to not play the part of the judge or the umpire or the sergeant, either in our homes or in our churches. Let’s let God play those parts. Let’s let God be God and be the only judge with the wisdom required to justify and condemn. And let’s let God be God and be the only umpire with the authority to disqualify. And let’s let God be God and be the only sergeant with the right to call for submission to his commands. Let’s let God be God and play these parts, not us, because only God is holy enough to handle it!