Friday, May 27, 2016

Unwritten Rules

     I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
-1 Corinthians 4:6 (NRSV)

If you’re much into baseball, then you’ve probably seen “The Punch Heard ‘Round the World” — Rangers infielder Rougned Odor catching Bluejays outfielder Jose Bautista with a right cross after Baustista’s hard slide in a game last weekend. It’s just the latest entry in a long series of baseball altercations that revolve around what pundits refer to as baseball’s “unwritten rules.” 
     The fight really started during the playoffs last season, when Bautista flipped his bat in celebration after a clutch home run against the Rangers. That’s one of the unwritten rules — you can’t celebrate a home run in a way that the other team might consider showing up their pitcher. So, you can pump a fist as you round the bases, or high-five your teammates at the plate, or even go back out of the dugout and tip your cap to the crowd. But you can’t flip your bat. You might hurt the pitcher’s feelings. 
     So Bautista was on base in the game last weekend because Rangers pitcher Matt Bush had hit him with a pitch — almost certainly intentionally, almost certainly in retaliation for the bat flip. That’s another unwritten rule: there are times a pitcher must throw at a batter. In the logic of baseball’s unwritten rules, Bautista had earned a beaning by celebrating a home run he hit off an entirely different pitcher in an entirely different game that happened last season. Oh, and Bush wasn’t even on the team last year when the bat flip happened. 
     And then there’s the matter of the hard slide. Bautista slid late, and he slid at Odor instead of at the bag. This is most commonly done to break up a potential double play, which is ostensibly what Bautista was doing in this case. But it really looked more like he was trying to hurt Odor to get some payback for getting plunked. It’s another of those “unwritten rules” of baseball, though in this case it runs counter to a new written rule that says a baserunner can’t interfere with an infielder trying to turn a double play. 
     If you’re confused, don’t be surprised. You’re not a Major League baseball player, and so the minutiae of the unwritten rules understandably eludes you. But note this: at any time, the progression of events that led to the punch could have been interrupted, either by application of the written rules or by one player choosing not to escalate. But, with everyone reading off those unwritten rules, the two teams moved inexorably toward the punch.
     That’s the problem with unwritten rules: they generally have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. 
     It’s a good thing the church has never had a problem with unwritten rules.
     All right, I’ll wait while you catch your breath and wipe away the tears from the outburst of laughter. 
     Historically, I guess it’s true: the church has created, lived with, and divided over a lot of unwritten rules. The excuse we’ve used is the importance of being doctrinally correct, and so strong-willed leaders have forced their understandings of what “right” is on the church at large. And so we’ve been inundated by unwritten rules about everything from the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit  to the relationship between grace and works to the amount a believer should give every Sunday. We’ve had, at various times and places, unwritten rules about how many converts a Christian should make, how many drinks a Christian can have, and how churches should be governed. In my own little fellowship of believers, I’ve known folks with hard and rigid unwritten rules about how many cups we can use in communion, whether it’s OK to have Sunday School classes or not, and whether or not it’s OK to clap in a worship service.
     But the church does have written rules: the Bible, of course, though sometimes certainty on what is written in the Bible can be hard to come by. There are some disputes in the church that could be settled by an appeal to Scripture, but the fact is a lot of our disputes come from the fact that honest people who want to please the Lord read the Bible differently. And, maybe, once we’ve made our cases to each other, it’s important to assume the best of one another and agree to disagree. Instead of going beyond what is written and judging brothers and sisters who see things differently, we could give each other a break and praise God for our diversity. We aren’t, after all, the Lord’s people because we have the Bible exactly right.
     We’re the Lord’s people because of Jesus, the One through whom God has made himself known most clearly. John the Evangelist calls him the Word made flesh, and so maybe we should turn to him as the “written” rule to displace our unwritten ones.  Through Jesus, God says “this is who I am and this is what I care about most.” The early church even read their Bible, the Jewish scriptures, through the lens of this new thing God had done in Jesus. Those Old Testament texts had meaning back when they were written, but they took on new meaning as the church saw them in a different light, the light cast by Jesus.      
     Remember the lesson of baseball: unwritten rules have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. When we go “beyond what is written,” we get in trouble. When we make our opinions on the Bible equal to the Bible itself, when we make tradition into law, or when we read the Bible without “reading” the Word made flesh, we invariably get it wrong. We hurt people, we divide churches, we fail in our responsibility to be salt and light, and we bring shame on the name of Jesus. 
      This is a particular danger for people who take their identity so heavily from Scripture. We can easily allow ourselves to make the mistake of those who ended up opposing Jesus’ work because of their unwritten rules. 
      If you can’t imagine Jesus doing what you’re doing, saying what you’re saying — then you’re wrong.

     That’s a rule you can write down.

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