In the next article, we will be looking at some suggestions for crafting a rule of life- part of the journey to becoming a “regular Christian.” Before we do that, however, we need in this article to face up to the fact that most of us are not so sure about things like vows, promises, and this whole “rule of life business”- in fact we are quite suspicious of it. Given our cultural context in the modern world, this is not at all surprising. As our value for autonomy has increased and the institutions in our society have begun to crumble, such concepts can sound like needlessly shutting down our options at best, or superstition and theological methods of control at worst.
When we think of vows, most of us think only of marriage. As Scott Bessenecker writes, “Vows are practically unheard of in twenty-first-century Western society. Marriage vows are about all we have left, and they’re not holding up too well.” As for promises, we see the truth in our common language: “if I am able” or “maybe” often replaces a simple “yes, I will.” As for any kind of rule of life, on the one hand it is co-opted by performance-driven self-help, or on the other is dismissed as “too Catholic,” too controlling, or- worst of all- too boring. Despite a long tradition found in Scripture, Church history, and even in the broader culture, binding commitments of any kind seem at first to be a relic of the past.
I say “at first,” because this appearance is deceiving. To live in society is to live by certain governing principles, patterns, and habitual behavior. Our walk with Jesus is no exception. As Peter Scazzero points out, “The reality, however, is that every person has an unconscious Rule for developing his or her spiritual life. We each have our values and ways of doing things.” This makes intuitive sense once we consider it. So, the question is not “vows, promises, and rules,” but rather do we want them to be conscious or unconscious choices?
What kind of slavery?
As shocking as it may sound, at issue is the matter of slavery- chosen or unchosen? Space does not permit a full explanation of this concept, but a few points are worth making. That slavery is both an uncomfortable concept and even an uncomfortable word goes without saying, and yet Paul uses that language quite deliberately with regard to the spiritual life again and again. All of his letter to the Romans will help us understand this, but let’s just consider this passage for now:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (Rom 6:16-18, NET)
As I have written before, there is deep truth in the old Bob Dylan song: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We so often tell ourselves we are free, however our unconscious choices, habits and rule make us a slave, but to what? Paul is challenging us to see the paradoxical truth that what we think of as freedom is actually a kind of slavery, whereas a bound life to Christ is not slavery but freedom. We are free when we are bound to Christ, and free when we live in an intentional manner in him. All our so-called “free choices” apart from him are actually a kind of spiritual bondage- just ask those suffering from addiction. It can be a confusing concept at first, so let it settle in awhile. But for now, it is enough to see that vows and promises and rules aren’t so much the issue as is the question of who is our master, and have we chosen the rules we live by, or simply slipped into them without giving them much thought? As Brother Roger of Taize once wrote: “You are afraid that a common rule may stifle your personality, whereas its purpose is to free you from useless fetters, the better to bear responsibility and exercise all the boldness possible in your ministry”
But we’re Protestants…
There still remains that Protestant objection to vows and rules as being something contrary to freedom in the Gospel. We need to admit that this was indeed the teaching of both Luther and Calvin. Luther, for example, insisted that the Christian is to be free from all in order to be free for all. What is often missing here, however, is some context. First, the Reformers saw no value in what Calvin termed “bondage to external things,” as if the things themselves procured our salvation. That is true- only Christ saves us, so trying to earn our salvation through vows or promises or rules is not the way to go. Secondly, they were deeply concerned that the idea of monks and nuns as the “spiritual elite” be abolished. There are no “second-class” Christians.
The most interesting context, however, is this, from Dennis Okholm:
the Reformers… did recognize the benefits of vows under certain conditions. If vows connected with religious life are not employed as a means of justification, if they are not permanently binding, and if they do not go against or beyond what Christ commanded, Luther thought that one might use them as means to discipline the body to better serve one’s neighbor and meditate on God’s Word… Luther nicely summarizes his position here as he considers Romans 14:2–3 and 1 Corinthians 7:18–19:
And so, if you vow to take up the religious life, and if you live with men of like mind, with a clear conscience that in monasticism you seek nothing to your advantage in your relationship with God, but because either your situation has brought you to embrace this kind of life, or it appeared to be the best way of life for you, without your thinking thereby that you are better than he who takes up a wife or takes up farming, then in that case you are neither wrong to take vows nor wrong to live in this way, insofar as the propriety of the vow is concerned. But if love should demand that the vow be broken and you were to hold fast to your vow, you would be sinning. ( From “Judgement of Martin Luther,” p. 304)
Hopefully, dealing with our honest concerns and general wariness regarding the idea of things like vows, promises, and living under a rule has been helpful. While such things can indeed be an unhelpful bondage if entered into without due consideration, under the burden of a false theology, or because of some sense of pressure, they can also be a “liberating bondage” to Christ which frees us from the slavery we have to our unthinking, habitual, and often times sinful patterns of life. In short, they can truly be a means of grace. In closing, let us consider two hopeful quotes from Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove:
To make promises is to proclaim that a culture of mistrust has been interrupted by One whom we can trust. It is to live as a sign of God’s faithfulness, even as we struggle to grow into fidelity ourselves. We make promises because we’ve glimpsed a picture of hope and know that it points us toward the life we were made for.
Whether it’s in a monastery, a community, a church, or a marriage, we make promises in hope that the God who made covenant with Abraham has made faithfulness possible for the whole world in Jesus. Our vows point to Jesus as a sign for the whole world: by grace we are being saved.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 - it is true that some liturgical Christians make baptismal vows, but that they are seldom actually treated as vows is also sadly the case. Likewise, the oaths of political office holders, members of the military and promises to uphold various professional codes of ethics are faltering in our current time.  - Bessenecker, S. (2006). The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World's Poor (p.16). Intervarsity Press.  - Scazzero, P. (2017). Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It's Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature, Updated Edition (p. 190). Zondervan.  - sadly, many Bible translations change the most common Greek word for slave (doúlos) to either servant, or bondservant, obscuring this important spiritual reality.  - Dylan, Bob, (1979) Gotta Serve Somebody. Slow Train Coming, Columbia Records.  - Brother Roger of Taize (2012). The Rule of Taize (p.1). Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.  - Thankfully, modern theology focusing on our common baptismal identity in Christ has largely dealt with this issue intellectually. Sadly, spiritual elitism still reigns in the hearts of many and we need to be serious about examining this potential pride within ourselves.  - Okholm, D. (2007). Monk habits for everyday people: benedictine spirituality for protestants (p. 125). Brazos Press.  - Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2016) Promises. In C.E. Moore (Ed.), Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People. (Pages 138, 142). Plough Publishing.