Principles vs Good Rules

2020 Nov 13

Rules and principles are related by pragmatism. Rules come from application of principles to a context, and then these rules can be re-used efficiently. note However, this order of precedence must not be forgotten. This is particularly important for spiritual living because Jesus commanded us to live by a value principle of love.

I have seen this called slow and fast thinking based on a noteworthy book that was similarly titled.

The usual way that young humans are taught to govern themselves is a progression from rules to reasoning. We teach the immature by starting with the concrete and then advancing to the abstract.

Biblical law is related to this teaching progression. However, having the view that we must comply with law, particularly Jewish Old Testament laws, is not a good position.

This is because Jesus has a different expectatation of us. He wants us and has commanded us to be like him in love. Jesus expects us to become mature enought to self-govern by love. note

See Galations 3-4. Also see The Commands of Jesus

Why and Where for Rules

Note that rules exist because they have been derived from a principle. The principle precedes the rule and it has authority over the rule. Following some rule without understanding the principle from which it gets its authority is a place of ignorance.

Note that rules themselves are not a problem. Rules are very useful as an efficient way of making decisions. Think of them as trained instincts. note When a good rule fits the context, we apply it for a quick result. This is excellent use of our time and mental energies.

A trained instinct in this context is very similar to a conscience, which also is a product of training.

However, a rule might not fit a context, or mis-applying it to a context might actually go against the principle out of which the rule was derived. Then we must immediately put a pause on the ill-fitting instinct. We must always be aware of if a rule is appropriate, and we must not apply our personal rules for living in a blind way. note Blindly following a rule as law or being uninterested in where the rule came from is an indication of immaturity. When following a rule is wrong in the context, we must do something different.

This means we need to know the principles on which all our rules are based. We should question rules based unknown principles. We should especially question rules based on bad principles.

First Principles and also Rules

Our first principle as Christians is to love each other like Jesus loved us. If we live by thoughtful rules that model Christ-like love, we can live efficiently. However, if we notice or we are shown a context where our personal rule results in un-love to others, we must stop. Then we must do the work to think through what sacrificial love for the benefit of others would do, and we must train ourselves for new instincts. This thinking is sometimes mentally expensive and is hard work, but Jesus specifically expects this of us.

God is not expecting us to avoid using rules of thumb for living. We should always be developing good rules for living, and refining them through personal thinking. This is simply proper pragmatism. Training our instincts for love enables us as limited humans to live well. And as we go, we will develop new rules for new contexts, always by application of the first principle of love.

We can seek the help of others to figure this out. This is the process of being discipled. Asking wise people about this and having discussion with them is good. Even our seeking shows that we are growing. The goal Jesus has for us is that we will grow to understand for ourselves how to apply this kind of sacrificial love toward others. When we live it and and can help others learn to live love, then we are becoming mature spiritually. note However, if we don’t understand this love or don’t apply it in some area of life, that is a place where we are not spiritually mature. Jesus expects us to think and to live by love.

Spiritual maturity is a continuum of growth in love:

  • -1: Considers self always the most important.
  • 0: Follows general socially accepted rules for considerate treatment of others.
  • 1: Knows that sacrificial love for the benefit of others is the primary first principle and accepts help for learning to conform life and personal rules to the principle.
  • 2: Both personal rules and practice consistently conform to the principle of love. Helps others grow to be the same.


Jesus came to show us sacrificial love for the benefit of others with his life. He commands us to love others this way. We can learn to apply this love quickly (from rules) or thoughtfully (from principle). As we learn to apply love to determine for ourselves how we should live, then we are entering into mature Christian living.


The value system perspective used here is based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa.