I recently met up with a group of my friends from my home ward. Thirty years later, we are all far removed from the teen girls we were; our lives have followed their individual courses through children, marriages, divorces, remarriages, moves, deaths of parents and loved ones, etc., but we still feel that we deeply know one another from those years we spent together, attending weekly activities, putting on roadshows, participating in dance festivals, playing ward basketball games, camping out, and staying in college dorms for youth conferences. I was taken aback when they all laughingly said I was a “rule breaker.” Me? A rule breaker?

I mean, sure, I can think of some rules I broke, but we all did here and there. In my home ward, I was certainly not the only or even the most egregious rule breaker in our youth group. Among my non-LDS friends I often considered myself to be the mildest most compliant person ever, someone who fasted monthly at Church and gave talks and led the music and various youth activities. Squaring that with the idea that I was a rule breaker made me think about what they really meant generally and what they might have meant about me in contrast to others.

Aren’t we all breakers of some rules? What do we do when the rules don’t make sense? What if the rules aren’t fair?

Here’s a catalog of some of my rule-breaking:

  • When I was 5, I was mad that my brother could walk around with his shirt off, and I insisted that I should be allowed to do so, too, when it was hot out.
  • When I was in 5th grade, our class was doing a play based on A Christmas Carol. I flipped through the script and noticed that the largest role for a girl only had 2 lines! I felt this was incredibly unfair, so I tried out for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, and I got it!
  • At girls camp one year, we were told we couldn’t use matches to light a fire to cook, and since none of us was any good at rubbing two wet sticks together to make fire, I said we should just eat whatever was edible raw and toss the rest, which is what we did. Apparently cake mix isn’t great when eaten from a box with a spoon.
  • At an all day Saturday youth Church activity, a few of us got bored and were tired of being bossed around, so we snuck out and evaded leader capture for the rest of the evening, walking to a nearby restaurant to hang out, then hiding in the bushes and a window well at one point. It was one of the most fun nights we all had together as a friend group.
  • At a work conference, we had an evening group project assigned and were told that we couldn’t make phone calls after 4PM so our attention was focused on the group activity. Given the time difference to my home state, that meant I wouldn’t be able to talk to my kids at all that day, which wasn’t a sacrifice I was willing to make. I said, “I know what they said, but I’m going to call home anyway.” A bunch of the other executives in the training got riled up, “Yeah! We’re the customer here! They can’t tell us what to do!” I wasn’t trying to stage a coup; I just wanted to talk to my kids before bedtime!

Rules I didn’t break:

  • I was a pretty good faster, exhibiting amazing self-discipline when it came to not eating.
  • When our basketball coach suggested playing dirty (throwing elbows and stepping on toes), I didn’t do that. When a girl on another team who was bullying lied and accused me of swearing (which I didn’t), she got to shoot a free throw which was totally unjust!
  • Not only did I attend my Church meetings, but I often stayed and attended a second sacrament meeting while my Dad was in bishopric meetings. However, I did once paint my nails during that second sacrament meeting which was probably a bad call.

These friends of mine probably had a point, though. I remembered that I talked a lot about the limits of rules in my mission memoir, The Legend of Hermana Plunge.

I noticed that every rule came with unintended consequences. Sometimes rules were designed to reward the wrong things:

It was also evident that mission rules were driving bad behaviors and a negative competitive spirit. It was hard to focus on the right things when the wrong things were so rewarding.

Other times, following the rules meant you would get others in trouble:

I didn’t want to say anything either. It would just end up tracing back to them, and then they’d get in trouble. Once again, the rules made it impossible to do the right thing without throwing someone under the bus.

At a zone conference, one of the talks was about following the rules, something our mission was particularly bad at doing, so I decided to take stock:

The thing was, I wasn’t much for reading the fine print, so I decided I’d better take stock of the mission rules I may have been unknowingly breaking. The next day, after some searching, I found a copy of my “White Bible,” the missionary rule book they gave us in the MTC. Upon perusal, I discovered I had been breaking 14 mission rules, as I noted in my journal: #6 Learn and obey all the rules of the mission. (obviously) #17 Follow the Missionary Gospel Study Program. (meh) #18 Exercise regularly. (blah) #23 Use regular missionary clothing whenever I leave my home, except for recreational activities on p-day. (pfft) #24 Not begin p-day activities nor leave my house on p-day until 10AM. (What?) #31 Bear my testimony to my companion each and every day. #32 Be faithful and sensitive to my companion at all times. #35 Never telephone or write someone of the opposite sex in my mission #50 Pay a fast offering on Fast Sunday. #52 Get adequate rest every day. #55 Not unwisely spend my money, for these are sacred funds. #56 Be meticulous in keeping track of my budget and expenditures. #58 Keep at least 100,000 pts (roughly $100) on my person or in my house at all times for emergencies. #69 Not have more than 20 kilos of luggage. I mean, really, was he blaming our lack of success on my extra luggage or my failure to exercise? Ludicrous! But I was actually surprised about a few of these rules, like not leaving before 10 a.m. on p-day. Then again, I didn’t think these things really mattered in the grand scheme of things—they weren’t sins, after all—and I wasn’t done stewing over the injustice of his lecture.

I talked with a fellow missionary because this rules-focus really got under my skin.

President had told him that he didn’t value blind obedience in the missionaries. He said we should be obedient because of our faith, and if we were obedient for any other reason, we’d be unhappy.

The problem was (and still is) that obedience to rules that don’t make sense to me or that contradict my values never corresponds with happiness. The best I could do is obey rules I felt either positively or neutrally about, but if I believed that some rule got in the way of a higher law like putting people first, then obedience felt like a downgrade.

Too often, obedience was about something else anyway, like wanting approval from authority figures or trying to control things we couldn’t, like who got baptized. It was also a cudgel some missionaries used against each other to feel superior or manipulate them into doing something they didn’t want to do. These were all reasons Jesus broke the rules, instead pointing to higher laws that offended the rule-obsessed Jews of his day.

I decided to look up some articles on why people break the rules and whether that’s a bad thing. Looking back, I stand by the rule breaking examples I’ve listed. There’s nothing on there that I regret. I was living my best life. When we think of rule-breakers, we tend to think of something negative:

  • Criminals
  • Cheaters
  • Arrogance
  • Anti-social
  • Immoral
  • Lazy

Come to think of it, though, you can be a rule-follower and still be immoral or lazy or anti-social. You can use the rules as a weapon against others. You can find loopholes to punish your enemies or get away with things. You can be self-righteous about how well you follow the rules.

Not all “rule-breaking” is equal. Rules aren’t necessarily right. They are just norms or requirements for behavior set by people in charge who think they want things to work a certain way. The rules are there to control the group to the extent possible and to attempt to drive certain outcomes. You can be a rule-breaker while acting ethically or morally because most rules don’t have ethical or moral implications. Here are some positive reasons people break rules:

  • The rule is dumb. Not all rules make good sense. They are just theories. They can be outdated or ill-conceived or have really bad unintended consequences.
  • The rule doesn’t apply to them or their situation. They are an exception. On the flip side, this can be an excuse or a rationalization.
  • In the words of Oingo Boingo, “Who makes the rules? Someone else!” Rules are behavior guides created by an authority figure to guide behavior in a group; if the rules contradict our conscience or moral reasoning, disobeying them can be empowering and can create a morally superior result. For example, not ceding your seat on the bus may be morally superior to complying with laws that oppress an entire race. Refusing to follow unjust rules may result in more just rules being created. Civil disobedience leads to civil rights.
  • Some rules are inherently unfair; they may give an advantage to an in-group, but at the expense of other people. Some rules even the playing field, but others tilt it (unfairly) in someone’s favor. For example, missionaries in our mission weren’t allowed to attend Church if we didn’t have investigators with us (as a way to curb laziness), but leaders were the enforcers which meant the rule didn’t apply to them. Now who was lazy?
  • Rules may be unclear. When I was in first grade, our teacher had told us on the first day (probably in a fit of frustration with restless kids) that under no circumstances could a student sharpen her pencil during a test. When my pencil lead broke during a test, I shared my friend’s pencil by waiting until she was done, then using her pencil to answer my test questions. The teacher saw this and assumed I was cheating. She stopped the test and called me out for cheating, and I burst into tears and said what I was doing because of the rule. She looked at me like I was nuts, disclaimed ever having made such a rule, and told me to go sharpen my pencil for Pete’s sake.
  • A rule is new or a change to a habit. For example, if it’s now a “rule” not to use the term “Mormon,” but you’ve been using it for over 50 years, that’s a hard habit to break (if you even think it’s important to try).
  • A rule might make things less efficient. One type of rule-breaking is cutting corners, and people will cut corners if they feel that it saves time without eroding quality.
  • Breaking rules can signal your individuality. When someone violates dress code norms or other cultural norms, they often do so to express their creativity, so they don’t look like everyone else. Particularly when conformity has no concrete benefit, too much conformity will result in a less creative environment, one in which status quo prevails and individuals check out mentally, going on auto-pilot rather than being thoughtful or internalizing discussions and ideas.

So what do you think?

  • Are you a rule-breaker or a rule-follower?
  • Is there a place for rule-breakers in the Church?
  • What types of rules are you prone to break? Do you regret it?
  • Why is there such a focus on rules and obedience in the Church? Is it necessary and useful?