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Why Are There So Many Rules in the Orthodox Church?

This is the transcript of the Theoria video which can be seen here. Posted here as an article by its

This is the transcript of the Theoria video which can be seen here. Posted here as an article by its author, Benjamin Cabe.

Why are there so many rules in the Orthodox Church? Didn’t Christ do away with the Law? 

These are common questions. And for the most part, they’re asked by those on the outside of the Orthodox Church looking in. Perhaps they are “ortho-curious” – inquiring into the Church – but are put off by seemingly rigid structure or rules of the Liturgical life. Perhaps it strikes them as pharisaical rituals that are bound to law not grace. Why do I have to do all of that if I’m saved by faith through grace? (Ephesians 2:8)

It’s a good question – one that is founded upon Holy Scripture. But it is based in a very specific reading of scripture which itself is based in a specific historical context. In other words, these are questions founded in scripture but not consistent with it. 

For instance, Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Which is to say, the temple worship of the Old Testament prefigured – or pointed towards – the reality of Christian worship in the New Testament. The lamb slain for the sins of the people was never an end in itself. It represents Christ Jesus, who takes away the sins for the world (John 1:29; Revelation 13:8). Similarly, the Passover meal after the slaying of the lamb represented communion, that those who eat of it shall live. Christ did not do away with the law, but fulfilled it. “For the Law was a shadow of the good things to come…” (Exodus 12; John 6:54)

What Christ did away with was the shadows – the temple worship, the sacrifice of lambs, and the Jewish rituals related to these, for “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:10). For shadows on the wall point to a reality beyond themselves – they point to a source. So the shadows are gone but the reality remains. 

Consider another example, the ten commandments were a part of the law… There is not a single faithful Christian that would claim that Christ’s coming did away with the ten commandments… In fact, Jesus Christ upped the ante in his sermon on the mount (Matthew chs 5–7). The time of the law allowed an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth, but the time of grace requires that we turn the other cheek (Exodus 21:24; Matthew 5:38–40).

So in a sense, though we are indeed saved by faith through grace, the time of grace requires more from us than the time of law (Romans 3:20). How can this be? 

Let’s answer this question with another question. When we start following Christ what do we find? Do we find that we are automatically prone to turn the other cheek, simply because we have started the journey? In some cases, in the early stages of the spiritual life, the answer might be yes, as God has allowed a special grace to permeate our souls. But is this always the case? Or do we have to work on sanding the edges of our fallen hearts in order to live the Christian life required of us. 

The simple answer to the questions we have been asking, specifically about the so-called rules of the Orthodox Church is that we do not have to do anything that the Church recommends. We don’t have to. Just like we do not have to take medication that our physician recommends. But why does the physician recommend it? Because it will 

In fact, we live by rules all the time: we stop at stop signs and obey the laws of traffic, why? Because if we don’t there could be serious consequences. Fatal consequences. We don’t eat doughnuts for every meal, why? Because again, there would be serious consequences. We try to get to work on time and attend to our bosses, why? Because if we don’t, we might lose our job and face serious financial consequences. 

The consequences to disobeying these kinds of unspoken rules are easily discerned. But spiritual rules and their consequences are often subtler. And so the Church asks of us what it knows, by its long history of human interaction and human sanctification, in the Saints, to be spiritually healthy. To keep the commandments. To deny our desires in fasting. To bear shame in confession. To enter into the rhythm of the liturgical life over and against the rhythm of the world. Because it is good practice for the health of our souls. 

Just like a child who is told not to chase a rolling ball across a busy road may see it as a deterrent to his play – a downright mean thing to require – the concern of the parent is greater than temporary pleasure. It’s long term health. Life. 

Which brings us to the last point. To those outside the Church, the life of the Orthodox Christian may seem laiden with rules. But to those inside of the Church, we experience these guidelines as a life-giving source. A direction in a directionless world. 

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