So Many Rules!

I fondly recall the first time I was invited to have dinner at the home of Kevin Damitz and his family.  Kevin is the Director of Religious Education at Saint Thomas More parish here in Allentown, and he and his wife Susie are blessed with eight happy, well-adjusted children.  As we all gathered around the big dining room table, I naively asked, “Can the kids sit anywhere they want?”  “Are you kidding?” replied Kevin.  “If we allowed them to sit where they wanted, they’d fight.”

            I learned that in the Damitz household, there are rules, not only as to where the children sit at table, but also as to when they use the bathroom on school mornings and for how long.  Kevin told me that he and his wife are also firm believers in the principle of subsidiarity.  In other words, the job goes to the youngest person capable of doing it.  As soon as, for example, a Damitz child reaches the age when he can pour the milk for dinner, that task becomes his job.

            So many rules, I thought to myself.  As if reading my mind, Kevin confided, “Susie and I came from small families.  We never grew up with a lot of rules.  When we started a family of our own, there was, at first, no need to lay down a lot of regulations.  As our family grew, however, so did the number of rules.”

            After taking all of this in, I had an epiphany.  It was if a light bulb went on in my mind.  It suddenly dawned on me as to why the Church has so many rules.  You’ve heard people complain time and time again, “The Catholic Church has too many rules!”  Well, rules result from growth.  The bigger the organization, the greater is the necessity for rules.

This is exactly what we see in Acts 6:

At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists

complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.  Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.  They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.  The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were [sic] becoming obedient to the faith.[1]

Rules for the distribution of commodities in the early Church became necessary only when the Church reached a certain level of growth.  Large groups require many rules.  Very large groups require very many rules.

            The same dynamic is at work in Acts 15.  The infant Church, hitherto composed entirely of Jews, is forced to deal with the question of what to do with Gentile converts.  The Council of Jerusalem responds to this question with, you guessed it, rules:

It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.[2]

Here again, rules regarding Gentile Christians were necessitated by growth.  Rules are essential for the orderly operations of any group, and this is all the more true when the group happens to be large.

The next time you hear someone complain about all the Church’s rules, or the next time you yourself are tempted to gripe about so many ecclesiastical regulations, remember that the Church is just an extremely large family.  As any large family has rules, so, too, does the Church.  All the problems and joys that befall a family are inevitably magnified in the Church.  If the Church has lots of rules (and she certainly does), it is only because she is a BIG FAMILY.

[1] Acts 6:1-7.

[2] Acts 15:28-29.