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Maybe Rigid Church Folks Need Some ‘Penalties’

Harsh “rulemaking” does not maturity make, either religiously or psychologically.

Nowhere do we see this more than in rigid religion in a person. All-or-nothing thinking – and in this regard, dogmatic atheism and fundamentalism look very similar in spirit – makes the building of community with others quite difficult. It requires a spirit of “it’s this and nothing else” in life.

This is not to say there are no absolute truths – merely that to trust that such things are true is not exactly identical with my absolute knowledge of them.

My friend, Travis Collins, is pastor of First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. His hobby, remarkably, is being a referee for high school football. When I heard him speak on this, I thought, “What a nice idea for churches.”

Here are some possible penalties:

  • Personal foul: Being tacky in the church business meeting.
  • Offsides: Leaving the sanctuary before the service is over – $15 and last in line at the restaurant.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct: Gossip, grudge-holding, unforgiveness, chronic criticism and all sins – $30 and sincere repentance.
  • Interference: Making others’ lives miserable by loveless condescension. We need a penalty box for this one.
  • Delay of game: Called during long-winded sermons without a point called on the pastor, but also in Sunday School for raising your hand and going on too long. Officials may suspend player immediately.
  • “Too Many Men on the Field:” Condescension and refusal to let little girls and women answer the call from God to ministry. Loss of down and required to read Scripture a little more carefully.
  • Unnecessary roughness: Usually occurs during financially difficult times, discussions about colors and carpet selections, and conversations about complicated moral issues involving real people – 15 yards from the microphone during the debate.

When I played high school basketball, two kinds of games were frustrating to watch or play in – one where the refs called too many fouls, and the other where they didn’t call anything.

In the first, the game was crushed, the joy of playing suffocated by the obsessive attention. On the other hand, a game where people “got away” with dirty play was a sense of unfairness.

“Love” in the Christian faith, and indeed in all of creation, at its best instincts of God, is not merely sentiment or piety, but a guiding principle that informs all else.

Rabbi Joshua Heschel, quoted in the Daily Quotes of Church of the Savior, once wrote, “When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

We are at our best when, guided by love and compassion, we find a balance between authoritarian rulemaking and the complete disregard of moral boundaries.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Furr’s website, The Flatpickin’ Pilgrim’s Progress, and is used with permission.

Gary Furr

Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.