Over the past couple of months, I’ve been reading my way through the archives of a blog called Farnam Street. Among other interests, the blog maintainer is a big fan of Warren Buffett (Buffett’s home and office are both located on Farnam St. in Omaha). In a recent post, he noted that even though Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, has over 300,000 employees, its central office is so small that it doesn’t even have an HR department.
Why? Because Buffett’s management style is so minimalist as to be nonexistent. Rather than trying to dictate policy and procedure for every Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, Buffett hires competent managers and tells them, “You do you.” His success is based not on micromanaging, but on trust.
This pattern, though extremely successful, is rejected by nearly every other large company. Most CEO’s prefer to manage through bureaucracy, not trust. As the Farnam Street blogger observes, “It’s a seductive illusion to think that we can create a system where people can’t mess up.”
Oh, wow, is that ever true! Nor is its application limited only to the business world. In fact, I think a lot of well-meaning Christians have embarked on the spiritual equivalent of bureaucracy-building.
RULES AND PRINCIPLES
Let me explain. There are certainly rules in the Bible. “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” is one such. It’s concrete, it’s simple, and it’s clear. Having read that, I know one thing that I can’t do if I want to please God.
However, many of God’s commandments are couched in principles, not rules. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a principle. It is not simple. In fact, Paul reveals that everything else in the law of God is an explication of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Nor is it always easy to discern what loving my neighbor should look like in any given situation. There are about a million possible applications.
In order to follow Jesus, then, we can’t limit ourselves merely to following rules. Instead, we have to develop the wisdom and judgment necessary to apply spiritual principles. I think this is both necessary and part of God’s intent. If the Bible contained a rule to cover every possible spiritual situation, it would fill a library by itself and be completely unusable. Additionally, the development of better judgment is nearly inseparable from spiritual growth generally. If we are never called upon to exercise our judgment, we will never grow into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
PRINCIPLES TO RULES
However, the fact that the Bible gives Christians freedom to make moral judgments makes a lot of brethren nervous. The problem, they think, is that others are doing it wrong. Given the opportunity to succeed or fail, many Christians mess up and make choices that are at least unwise and possibly sinful.
With the best of intentions, then, these nervous brethren seek to convert principles into rules. If the Bible doesn’t provide a black-or-white up-or-down answer, they will derive one and defend it with the same certainty as “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Consider, for instance, the subject of modesty. “Be modest,” is a principle. As best as I can tell from 2 Timothy 2:9-10, modesty means dressing in such a way that our outward appearance doesn’t distract others from our character. We should be concerned not with proclaiming our wealth or good looks, but with proclaiming our Lord. If others look at us and see Jesus, we are dressed modestly.
That’s profound, but it isn’t concrete. What clothing, exactly, will allow others to see Jesus in us? Conversely, what kind of clothing will focus attention on our bodies or our bank accounts, revealing our attributes while concealing our Master?
God evidently wants every Christian to think about and answer that question for themselves, but some feel much more comfortable answering it for others. They don’t trust their brethren to do the spiritual math right, so they hand them an answer key. They turn to texts such as Exodus 28:42, which prescribes thigh-length undergarments for priests “to cover their nakedness”, and argue from them that (contrary to English usage) anybody with partially-uncovered thighs is naked. Better keep those skirts and shorts knee-length, ladies!
That’s a rule, all right, but it’s not what the text says. Additionally, in an effort to avoid judgment calls, it only leads to more judgment calls. How tight can that knee-length skirt be? How sheer? How ostentatiously emblazoned with the label of a high-end boutique?
By the time you’re done answering all the questions, as well as all the questions that spring from the questions, you have left 1 Timothy 2 far behind and filled a library with rules about modesty. Even this library will still leave questions unanswered. What’s more, clever teenagers will see the disconnect between 1 Timothy 2 and the library and begin to question whether every teaching of Christianity is as tradition-bound and divorced from the word of God.
Like bureaucracy will choke the life from a corporation, so the process of reducing Biblical principles to human rules will choke the life from our faith. Every one of us is responsible for making judgments from those principles as best we know how. However, we must allow others to make their own judgments too.
Yes, it is seductive to try to keep others from messing up. I completely get that. There’s a part of me that would love to control others, to force them to make the right judgment rather than the purely idiotic judgment they’re making.
However, the rest of me knows that taking decisions out of others’ hands is a great way to make them weak and immature. Besides, I’ve made plenty of dumb decisions in the past. What makes me so sure that I’m right this time? Humility is a useful antidote for self-righteousness.
Ultimately, we have to trust. We have to trust in the good hearts of our brethren. Practically speaking, there’s no other option. If that good heart isn’t there, no amount of rule-making on our part will keep somebody with a wicked heart from falling away. Why bother trying?
Most of all, we have to trust God. Spiritual judgment calls are a perilous thing. Of course, free will itself is a perilous thing. Any of us can free-will ourselves straight to hell. However, God wants us to be free, both to choose and to judge. We have no right to take that freedom away from others.