This post has been scheduled for some time, as it was to me a logical extension of what I knew would come up in discussing opposite sex friendships. The comments have been as expected, and some of what follows I have said in response to those. This will be a clearer, better-formatted treatment of the subject (I hope!).
One of my biggest frustrations with “the church” is those who want to impose their rules on others. I am not talking about God’s rules, nor am I talking about those who want to share suggestions, limits, boundaries, and so on. I get very frustrated when anyone tries to put man-made rules on others. (I think I am in good company, as both Paul and Jesus seemed to have many problems with the Pharisees, the rule imposers of their day.)
Of course if I am honest, I have done it myself – and by looking at that, I learned a lot.
Before I got married, I developed a massive lust problem. However, I spiritualised it, getting upset at all those horrible women who showed too much. They were wrong, and I became the self-appointed immodesty inspector who looked for every instance and did all I could to see just how bad it was. Yes, I was that guy. I eventually realised my sin, and dealt with me, but I held onto the indignation and horror at how immodestly so many women dressed. I took offence for other men who had not yet gotten past their lust problem, and I wrote a lot telling women how wrong it was to dress in certain ways, or wear certain things. I was trying to impose my rules of modesty on the entire female part of the body of Christ. Looking back, I realise I was motivated by my own sin and guilt. Even after I had dealt with my sin I had a lot of guilt, and I did not want to admit to myself how bad the sin had been. I also did not want to give up the feeling I was mostly a victim, and I would not have had the problem in the first place if woman had just been modest (which I now realise is a total lie).
I don’t mean to use this to say anyone who disagrees with me is just speaking out of his or her sin, guilt, or personal limitations. There are many reasons people try to impose man-made rules on others. Sometimes people really think valid one-size-fits-all man-made rules exist (they do not). Sometimes they or someone they know has been deeply hurt, and the rule(s) they want others to follow are designed to ensure no one else ever gets hurt the same way. Often people are just repeating rules they were taught, without knowing or caring the rules are from man rather than God.
A couple of scriptures to chew on:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! [Mark 7:6-9]
Here Jesus is condemning them for putting the teachings of men ahead of the teachings of God. God is not impressed with human rules, no matter how old they are.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. [Col 2:16-23]
Here Paul is talking about the rules men make which are supposed to limit others in a way that keeps them from sin. Paul says these rules have a false appearance of wisdom, and are useless in actually stopping the sins of the flesh. The reality is law has never been able to stop sin. If the law could have dealt with sin, Jesus would not have had to die. Law does not stop sin, it simply points out sin. What stops sin is surrendering to Jesus and walking in His truth, love, and power.
All of this said, I am all for self-imposed, or couple agreed-upon boundaries and limits. I think there is great wisdom in these things, but the real power and wisdom is in the fact a person or a couple makes prayerful decisions about the limits they should follow, based on who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, the fears of their spouse, and various other factors. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach; it is a custom fitting.
I have no problem with someone sharing their boundaries, especially if they can also share why those boundaries are important for them. A free exchange of such ideas is a great thing, and it can help others to make and refine their own boundaries. I become concerned when someone seems to think anyone who is not following the same boundaries is unwise. Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” [Ro 14:4a] We must be careful we do not slip into judgement, which is difficult because our flesh so loves to judge others!
As friends of mine are fond of saying, “rules are tools”. Tools can be used for good and for bad, and when used wrongly or by those who should not use them, tools can do a great deal of harm. If we force our rules on others, we may cause they great harm.