“Ask a Priest: Why Don’t We Seem to Follow All the Rules in the Bible?”

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Q: I have a few questions. 1) If the Catholic Church wrote the Bible, then why do we as a body not follow all of the commandments? For example, regarding head coverings from 1 Corinthians 11, and dressing modestly, wearing makeup and jewelry, and cutting women’s hair? 2) If Jesus said to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies and to forgive seventy times seven, then why do we believe in just war? 3) The Bible says for women not to cut their hair and for men not to shave their heads. Then why do nuns cut off their hair and why did monks used to shave the tops of their heads? I live among and work with Mennonites so I have quite a few questions. I am a Catholic, though. I just can’t get anyone to talk to me about these things. Thanks! – M.T.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good that you want to learn more about your faith, working as you do among the Mennonites. It might help to review a few general ideas.

First, it’s misleading to say that the “Catholic Church wrote the Bible.”

God is the ultimate author of Scripture. He inspired certain humans to rewrite and redact (edit) the texts that comprise the Bible. What we accept as texts of the Old Testament came through the community of Israelites/Jews.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church eventually discerned which texts of both Testaments are divinely inspired and belong in the Bible. This is called the canon of Scripture, and the Catholic Church doesn’t accept any other texts as divinely inspired. Among Christians there is some disagreement on which books of the Bible are divinely inspired.

Second, the whole Bible isn’t meant to be read as a textbook. Neither Catholics nor your Mennonite friends, for instance, are sacrificing animals to Our Lord daily as the Old Testament directed.

The Bible is not written as an instruction manual. It contains exhortations, stories, histories and other literary genres. This is why understanding the literal meaning and context of each thing in Scripture helps us to see its spiritual meaning as well.

Third, the Catechism teaches that the Gospel that Jesus entrusted to his apostles is transmitted in two ways: in written form (Sacred Scripture) and in oral form (Sacred Tradition). It continues to be transmitted through the bishops as successors of the apostles.

Some Christians believe that it is only transmitted in written form, or that the entire Christian community interprets it authoritatively, or that different opinions on its interpretation can be held.

In contrast, when a doubt arises, the Catholic Church believes that the bishops receive a help from the Holy Spirit to determine the authentic interpretation. This is called the magisterium.

Scripture itself indicates that not all of Jesus’ teachings can be captured explicitly in writing. “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Without Tradition, we wouldn’t even have Scripture. Before things were written down, they were transmitted orally.

Tradition also teaches us how to interpret Scripture correctly. This is how we know that certain rules in the Bible no longer apply, or that certain practices, customs and rules simply reflected the culture of the time and were abandoned as culture changed.

The apostles and their successors the bishops discerned which traditions came from God and were to be preserved, and which traditions (or customs) could be changed or discarded.

As for the issue about clothes and hair: True, women (and men) should dress modestly. I won’t try to defend how a lot of people dress nowadays; in this regard the Mennonites could teach the wider society a thing or two.

On the other hand, the style of dress can change from generation to generation. It’s up to people to apply the principle of modesty to their own lives.

As for turning the other cheek: This has been understood as a call to be patient in the face of opposition and even abuse (within bounds). It’s not a demand for pacifism. Peoples have a right to self-defense, which is one condition for a just war.

If you saw someone physically attacking your young niece or nephew, for instance, you wouldn’t just turn the other cheek and let the person get away with it. That would be negligence. You would be justified, indeed obliged, to intervene, even if you had to use force to stop the aggressor.

I realize that some people are pacifists by conviction. Yet, the Church does not teach pacifism as a doctrine. Hence, it can be justified to fight armies that are invading one’s country or to use force to subdue a violent criminal.

As for religious and monks who cut their hair: Partly that was a sign of their detachment from the world (especially for women). It could also be a sign of humility. It is a custom whose practice and meaning has changed over the centuries.

The point here is that the Bible’s indications about hair weren’t meant for every age and every culture. They have to be understood within the context of the particular passage.

If you want to go deeper into your study of the faith, you can easily find lots of accessible books. Among them: The Essential Catholic Survival Guide; The Case for Catholicism; Catholicism and Fundamentalism; the Compendium of the Catholic Church.

A good summary of key elements of the faith are found in the Catechism, Part One, Section 1, Chapters 1-2.

And don’t be shy about reading up on the tenets of your Mennonite neighbors to help you understand where their religious principles and your Catholic principles differ.

For Scripture you might look at The Bible Timeline: The Story of Salvation.

I hope some of this helps.

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  1. Great response Father. I add this to M.T.’s question on why all the ‘rules’ written in Scripture are not followed. It was the words of our Lord and Savior himself, when those earthly temple authority (pharisees I think they were called?) grumbled when they saw Jesus ‘going against the laws of the prophets’ . . . healing in the temple the man with withered hand, or eating the grain on the sabbath. The Lord God, Savior, Redeemer (incarnate God) replied: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew Chapter 5 verse 17.

    We are to follow the Lord in SPIRIT (Love) and TRUTH. And the early church Fathers, as you indicated Father, prayed and discerned the ancient texts of the human authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to form the canon (church laws) laws to help us to GROW IN UNITY with Jesus Christ, Savior and Redeemer. Keeping Holy the Lord’s Day by coming to worship (Sunday, the day of His Resurrection) To be Baptized with water and the spirit into the household of God (church) to ‘take and eat’ as the Lord God spoke (John Chapter 6 verse 46 – 54) To become confirmed as adult members of Christ’s church (anointed with oil) While some see it as only ‘rituals’ . . . because of Jesus, God incarnate, who Himself went into the water to show what is to be done, who himself said ‘take and eat, this bread is my body and this drink is my blood’ and HE, himself was ‘refreshed’ when oil was poured over him… HE WHO WAS GOD who ‘touched’ the material elements of earth . . . is always present when the apostolic authority He called to care for His Church speaks the words of faith TO BLESS the waters with His presence, and the bread, and the oil to anoint and confirm the adolescents with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    Some human laws, as you said Father, the church can change. The church is always ‘evolving’ as the Holy Spirit speaks to the magisterium of the church. BUT GOD’S WORDS (LAW) NEVER CHANGE in the ONE, HOLY, APOSTOLIC, CATHOLIC (universal) CHURCH (Body) of JESUS CHRIST. This is what provides the UNITY of faith. THE ONE, HOLY, APOSTOLIC CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST ‘hears’ the WORD OF GOD (biblical words) and ACTS ON THOSE WORDS. The Catholic Christian church, is VERY biblical, in SPIRIT and TRUTH of how to grow in a HOLY COMMUNION with the church in heaven.

  2. The church of Jesus Christ is more than brick and mortar. It is ONE, HOLY, APOSTOLIC …. built by FAITH handed down through the generations since the days Jesus, God incarnate was born of a woman (girl) named Mary. The body of Jesus Christ is human and divine. Man and God working cooperatively. It is not the mere brick and mortar that holds it up these 2,022 years… worldwide. It is FAITH in God’s words and God’s grace. The gates of hell will never prevail against CHRIST’S CHURCH (Christ’s body)

    2nd Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness but the understanding of HIS WORD comes from our ACTS OF FAITH as He said to do: Be baptized, take and eat, (in state of grace) humble oneself via saying the sorry’s (Sacrament of Reconciliation as the Spirit so calls one to do) be confirmed in the book facts and anointed to begin the journey upward with adult maturity of spirit. (always a growing process)

    The Mennonites are doing their best to serve the Lord (not sin aka offend God) in their modesty of dress and lifestyle and worship on the Lord’s day. God will judge all on what we were capable of understanding. BUT, there is ONE FAITH, ONE BAPTISM, ONE GOD who is Father.

    STICK WITH YOUR CATHOLIC CHRISTIAN FAITH PRACTICE MT, don’t look over the fence of the ideas and teachings of mere humankind. GROW further in knowledge of your faith practice and the spirit will enlighten your understanding of ‘why Mass?’ ‘why Baptism?’ Attend to daily reception of the bread of life, if you can, It will bring further growth of spirit. Live your faith, in humble gratitude of being ‘in but not of the world’ . . .

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