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Are Catholic Rules a ‘Yoke of Slavery?’

For an institution of its size, the Church actually has relatively few rules

It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has rules. Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday and every holy day of obligation. We have to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meats on Fridays during Lent. We have to confess our sins at least once a year, and so on.

Some Protestants have a problem with this since they tend to associate rules with the kind of vain, works-based religion that Christ has done away with. A favorite passage of those who make this challenge is Galatians 5:1, where Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

With all its rules, is the Catholic Church submitting Christians to a yoke of slavery?

In my book Meeting the Protestant Challenge, I give some reasons why the answer is no. Let’s look at them here.

First, the yoke of slavery that Paul is talking about is clearly intended to be the yoke of the Mosaic Law, not laws in general. For example, in the verses following the passage in question, he writes,

Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love (Gal. 5:2-6).

Notice that circumcision, which is an example par excellence of a precept from the Mosaic Law, is the focus of the passage. This is a clue that it’s the rules associated with the Mosaic Law or “works of the law” (Gal. 2:16) that Paul is calling the “yoke of slavery,” not rules in general.

Second, all communities and families need rules—Christianity is no different. Virtually all Protestants agree that rules can serve a good purpose. Nations and communities need laws. Sports need rules and referees to enforce them. Households have family rules for how children should behave. You can’t just do whatever you want in a family if you want peaceful coexistence.

If rules are good for family life, especially in a home where parents love their kids and one another, then they are good for the Church—since the Church is the family of God (1 Tim. 3:15). If God’s Church is his household, then it’s reasonable for him to have rules to govern its members for the sake of maintaining peace and order.

Of course, Protestant communities aren’t strangers to rules and laws. For example, many say that a person has to be fully immersed in water for his baptism to be valid. Some forbid the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Other examples involve the governance of marriage. Many Protestant groups require that spouses profess their vows in the presence of witnesses. Most have the precept that divorce and remarriage is permitted only on the condition that a spouse has committed adultery. If Protestant communities have these sorts of rules or laws, then wouldn’t they be subject to this challenge as well?

Third, the New Testament gives evidence that rules were a part of the Christian life in the early Church. Let’s start with Jesus.

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus stipulates that the nations would be made disciples through baptism. So, baptism is a New Covenant precept or rule, if you will. Another is the celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus commands the apostles in Luke 22:19 to offer the Last Supper as a memorial offering: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals his intention that rules would be a part of the Christian life. For example, he gives us a variety of ethical precepts:

  • We must not be angry with our brother nor insult him (Matt. 5:22).
  • We must reconcile with our brother before we offer our gifts at the altar (Matt. 5:23).
  • We must not look at others lustfully in our hearts (Matt. 5:28).

These are just a sample of the ethical rules that Jesus intends Christians to live by. Jesus also intends certain pious actions to be part of the Christian life: almsgiving (Matt. 6:2-4), prayer (Matt. 6:5-15), and fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). He even gives instructions (rules) on how those who disobey the judgment of the Church are to be dealt with: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).

Paul follows suit, stipulating a number of rules to govern the local churches. For example, he instructs the Corinthians to keep the feast of the new Passover, which is the Eucharist (1 Cor. 5:8). He even gives instructions concerning the reception of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, forbidding anyone to eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner.”

In 1 Timothy 5:9-11, Paul lays down certain rules concerning proper implementation of consecrated celibacy with regard to “enrolled” widows. He instructs the Thessalonians in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to “hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives rules to govern the Corinthians and their practice of speaking in tongues as they gather in church.

Now, some Protestants will probably concede that at least some rules can be part of the Christian life, especially in light of the evidence presented above. But they still might reject the number of rules in the Catholic Church.

But how do we know how many rules is too many? What’s the magic number of rules that a church should have? Whatever number someone comes up with, it would be completely arbitrary—whatever feels right. But Christians of all kinds have different feelings, and their different churches have varying numbers of rules.

And despite the charge that Catholicism has too many rules, in truth it has relatively few when compared to other groups of comparable size. For example, the United States has around 325 million citizens. The 2012 edition of the United States Code (federal law) totals 45,000 pages in thirty-four volumes. By comparison, a standard English edition of the Code of Canon Law, the main legal text for the large majority of the Church’s one billion members, totals a little more than 500 pages in a single volume. (According to the Census of the 2020 Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook), the number of baptized Catholics in the world was about 1.329 billion at the end of 2018).

Finally, we can also point out that not only is the Church’s code of laws relatively short, but many of those laws apply to specific situations that an ordinary Catholic rarely—if never—encounters. So only a fraction of them impact his daily life. As for the rest, Catholics can be instructed on the “dos and don’ts” as the situation arises.

In the end, it’s simply unreasonable to think that no rules are binding just because the Bible says that some rules aren’t binding. And on top of that, the Bible gives plenty of positive evidence that rules are a part of the Christian life. When it comes to rules, the Catholic Church turns out to be a bible-believing Church after all!

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