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Why do we sometimes feel that the Church has so many rules?

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February 28, 2018

Why do we sometimes feel that the Church has so many rules?

Sometimes, Orthodox youth, or even adults, feel like the Church has too many rules… Some ask why the Church has rules in the first place. Isn’t the Church Divine? Isn’t God above rules? Why does the Coptic rite, for example, require us to remove our shoes before the partaking of the Eucharist? Why do we need to fast nine hours before communion? And the list of questions goes on. We begin to appreciate the purpose of such rules when we realize that the Church is different from any other entity in the universe. The Church is theanthropic: She is both divine and human. She is the intersection between both. In other words, the Church is Divine, but the Church is also us—humans. We are the Body of Christ. And where humans are, weakness exists. Therefore, the human element in the Church requires rules to function. However, these Church rules are in no way similar to secular law for example. Their purpose is our salvation and our holiness. Their purpose is for all of us to live the will of God. These rules are similar to a canon, a measure, or a ruler to which we evaluate ourselves against to ensure we are walking in the right direction, just like St. Paul mentioned to the Thessalonians: “we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” Here, St. Paul is referring to certain commandments given to the Thessalonians that help them in knowing how to live Christianity and please God. It is the same with the Church spiritual rules. Through them, the Church ensures that we live a healthy spiritual life according to God’s will. That we are walking toward our sanctification—toward sainthood.

But again, why so many rules? Some seem like details, no? The Church’s response would be to remember the little foxes that spoiled the vines that King Solomon spoke about. These little details, these little sins that we do and we think they are harmless. They actually do affect us. When God was condemning the Pharisees, he said to them: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Not only Christ’s teaching was focused on love and justice, but also on giving attention to the little details. Truly, sainthood doesn’t come easy, and to attain it, we have to work toward perfection in every aspect of our lives. You might say, “Well, I don’t want to be a saint,” and that is your choice. Nonetheless, God’s will for you is your sanctification, your sainthood. The Church, being this divine-human entity, attempts through the Spirit to make God’s will present in us humans. Thus, these rules reflect this objective.

Another aspect to be mentioned in such a discussion is the understanding of the Body of Christ. As you know, we are all One in Christ through the partaking of the Eucharist. All members of that One Body ought to live a communal spiritual life. We need to pray together, fast together, read together, which leads to this concept of kenonia (fellowship). This concept is more than just people sitting in the same room, rather it is people being ONE with one another—mirroring the Holy Trinity. In this understanding, it is quite normal that we find standard spiritual rules established by the Church across the board. These rules apply to Orthodox Christians throughout the world regardless of their location, age, and so on. The main issue we face, however, is in the applications of these rules. Some resist or reject them altogether, thinking these rules are not spiritual, although they are. As explained earlier, these spiritual rules are there for our edification. By rejecting these rules, we put ourselves above them and create for our own rules. Usually, our rules are more relaxed than what the Church has planned for me. This ideology leads to spiritual dryness, which is not God’s will for us. Others go about these rules in a very legalistic way. In other words, they remove the spirit from the rule and apply it as secular law. This is no better! Without the spirit, these rules don’t bring any fruit. Therefore, we always need to approach those rules with a spiritual mindset, and allow those rules to edify us through our obedience. I therefore encourage any church servant or leader to properly teach the purpose of these rules and to focus on the spirituality behind them, to know them, live them, and teach them.

For instance, why do we fast for nine hours before the Eucharist? The idea is simple. Before tackling the 9 hours, we should first address the need to fast as we pray. Referring to Mark 9:29, the Church says in the fraction of the great lent: “And He [Christ] taught us that fasting and prayer cast out demons when He said, ‘This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer and fasting.’ Fasting and prayer are those which raised Elijah to heaven and saved Daniel from the lions’ den…” and so on… The fact that a certain type of demon cannot be exorcised other than by fasting and prayer clearly implies that, along with faith, there is a certain power to this combination. There is a certain spiritual depth. Hence, as we are about to live a journey of repentance in the liturgy and to the partaking of God Himself in the Eucharist, it is very proper or even essential for us to fast as we pray the liturgy. Now, why nine hours? Does this mean if I fast 8 and a half hours I cannot partake of the Eucharist? Of course not. If we were asked to fast before liturgy without being given a specific number of hours, than some people would fast three hours, while others 12 hours, or even more. But again, the idea is that we are One Body. We are knit together in the mystery of the Church. In consequence, it is very proper to collectively follow the same spiritual rule. St. Justin Martyr, in the early second century, says: “Those who believe in the truth of our teachings, first of all, promise to live according to that teaching. Then we teach them how to pray and entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins; and we the faithful pray and fast with them.” He says we pray and fast with them. He is emphasizing the meaning of the One Body. Simply put, the Church has therefore decided a certain amount of hours that is achievable for nearly everyone. As HG Bishop Raphael puts it, if someone eats lunch at noon and supper’s at 5-6 pm, then he is not eating for those five-six hours, but do we consider him to be fasting? No, because he already ate. Nine hours are just enough to say that we are fasting in the body. With this bodily fasting though, we also need to fast in the spirit. Fast from sin. In obedience, let us all therefore keep those nine hours of fasting that we may approach the Eucharist with reverence.

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