Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.—2 Corinthians 3:5–6
Many organizations have and maintain standards. Of course, over the years churches in particular have preached and upheld certain standards of belief and behavior. The concept of doctrinal standards, creeds, and statements of faith in religion is normal and expected. The idea of standards of conduct for church leaders, church members, and the Christian way of life is also generally accepted. Most people do not question whether churches should have standards. All religious movements and organizations do.
However a controversy has grown up over standards in conservative churches. There is a movement against the standards fundamentalists have followed, and there are some who question whether they should have standards at all. In all the fussing on “both sides” of the standards issue, some very basic facts are being lost. When Christian thinkers come back to the basics, the truth about these matters becomes clear, and we can clear up the mess! So let’s take a constructive approach, and consider four important and indisputable facts.
1. The Arguments over “Standards” Are Really Arguments about What the Bible Teaches
Somehow we have forgotten that the standards Bible-believing churches have maintained over the years were developed from the teachings of the Bible. Before anybody debated standards, preachers and teachers in the churches were preaching that the Bible has things to say against certain things and for certain things. They preached that Scripture condemns drinking and intoxication, speaks against the lasciviousness of social dancing, advocates modest apparel, calls for personal restraint, mandates sanctifying the body, and exhorts believers to stay away from worldly amusements. That’s where we started. Christians were living by the Bible. They studied God’s Word to learn how to live!
Do Christians today know that holiness in the Bible is separation from evil and to God? Do they know that Christians are called upon to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:13–16)? Scripture requires both ecclesiastical and personal separation (2 Corinthians 7:1 and 2 Timothy 2:16–22). The children of light, according to Ephesians 5, must not do what the children of darkness are doing (verse 7), nor endorse what they do (verse 11), nor even unnecessarily talk about what they do (verse 12). That’s what the Bible teaches! But somehow separation has become a controversial topic among critics of the standards.
The Bible makes an issue of clothing and the covering of the body from the beginning to the end (you can see this first in Genesis 2:24–25; 3:6–11, 21, and follow it throughout Scripture). Scriptural promises (such as Matthew 5:18 and 24:35) are the basis of believers insisting on the traditional text behind the King James Version and rejecting the revised text followed by so many of the new Bibles. Keeping the law will not save anybody’s soul; but grace doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules, that the Lord has no opinion, or that saved people have no obligations about how they behave. The “rules” or standards that spiritual Christians followed and taught for years were not arbitrary or based on tradition. They came from Bible teaching.
The real issues in the “standards” debates are questions like, “Does the Bible have anything to say about gender roles and distinction?” “Is there Bible doctrine that would motivate a Christian to abstain from using tobacco?” “According to the Scriptures, does it matter what Bible a church uses?” “What teaching of the Bible would affect whether or not we go to the movies?”
The real and legitimate discussions regarding standards are discussions about Biblical interpretation. They are not arguments over whether or not certain old “standards” are still appropriate for our day. They ask whether our spiritual fathers were right or wrong as to what they understood the Bible said. Many of us think they were right! For example, reasonable people see that Christians who dress modestly and appropriately for their gender are following Scriptural principles. These are not petty squabbles over personal tastes. They are serious issues about the revealed will of God.
2. The “Bottom Line” of Bible Teaching on Points of Christian Living Eventually Had to Be “Standardized”
As conservative churches grew and added to their ministries and staff, it was necessary for them to set standards of life and belief for those who led and represented them. These standards were actually applications of the Bible teaching that had led those churches for years. In other words, although it normally takes time for new church members to arrive at the same conclusions about Christian living which are followed by their teachers, when they joined the ministry team, they had to follow standards that reflected the corporate viewpoint of the ministry.
When people take positions of responsibility in the ministry of the church, they are expected to uphold and live by these standards even before they have come into total agreement with all of them. Leaders are responsible to some degree for the behavior of those who have joined the team! This is why the conclusions of Bible teaching were “standardized.”
What the New Testament says about polluting oneself with idols (Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Corinthians 8–10; Revelation 2:14, 20) by eating the meat sold at the pagan temple was applied to modern issues by setting the standard not to attend movie theaters or night clubs or other places associated with sin. What the Bible teaches about gender distinction (in places such as Genesis 1:27, Leviticus 18:22, Deuteronomy 22:5, 1 Corinthians 11:1–16, 1 Timothy 2, and Revelation 9:8) led leaders to call on coworkers and followers to dress with their gender in mind. Teaching and interpretation led to the specific standards, when behavior necessarily had to be “standardized.”
Bible teaching always leads to behavior adjustment. Sometimes the conclusions or “bottom line” of the teaching had to be stated at the beginning and came to be regarded as a set of standards. Ordinarily believers who are being instructed “to observe all things” that Jesus taught (Matthew 28:20) will grow in knowledge over a period of time, and come to correct conclusions after a while. But when the conclusions are “standardized” for workers up front, the period of instruction and growth is not in the mix, and there can be problems.
Certainly church workers can follow the rules without really buying into them, and often this set-up has helped people grow. Many adopted the standards from their hearts, based on what they saw in the Bible, only after following them for other reasons as they grew in grace. This isn’t really a bad idea. The man who smokes may save his own life by giving up tobacco because the preacher said he should (Hebrews 13:17) well before he really understands why. However, standards must eventually be backed by persuasion from Scripture if they are to do the good they are supposed to do. And before they are, there can be misunderstanding and problems.
Note that the setting of standards for God’s people to help them in their lives was done in both the Old and the New Testaments. Deuteronomy 4:5–8 teaches us that following standards can help us live with more wisdom than we really have. Adopting the rules will give us a head start on living wisely while we are growing in grace and knowledge. Acts 15 records the setting of standards for the benefit of the Gentile Christians, at the same time that Legalism was rejected (notice especially verses 1, 5, 10–11, 19–29). Standard-setting is not necessarily Legalism. Legalism requires rule-keeping for salvation or spirituality.
Standards followed under the truth of God’s grace can really help growing believers, as we can see in Acts 16:4–5. So standards are good, not bad, but they cannot stand alone. They must be backed by the Bible.
3. People on Both Sides of These Arguments Focused Too Much on the Standards and Not Enough on Bible Teaching
Critics of standards complain that the kind of Christianity they knew growing up was “all about the rules.” They identify it with Legalism, and sometimes make fun of having to keep a bunch of “rules.” Supporters of the standards zealously defend the “old-time” expectations and taboos while sometimes neglecting to defend them from the Bible. Both are wrong.
Christianity is not just about rules. Rules and guidelines have always been part of church and Christian living, but they have served only as helps and props. The Christian life is really about love!
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God: and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another”—1 John 4:7–11 (Read also verse 12 through 5:3)
According to Galatians 5:22–23, walking in the Spirit keeps us within the boundaries of the rules (“against such there is no law”). Those who are absolutely surrendered to Christ observe higher ideals than those who just live by rules. They live the way they do because they love Jesus with all their hearts. Carnal people who hate the rules can only see the rules, and resent them. Prideful and unspiritual people who keep the rules also only see the rules, and miss seeing Jesus. Both kinds of Christians are carnal.
Some folks who complain the loudest about the old standards as they were taught in their families or churches are really hurting from the hypocrisy of their parents and leaders, and not the effect of the rules. Proud and harsh attitudes are not spiritual. Efforts to cover up inconsistencies in the homes we grew up in were not the result of following the Bible. They were products of making the standards the big thing and not making love for God the heart of the home. Making mean and harsh statements against others isn’t spiritual either. Jesus taught us not to judge others (remember Matthew 7:1–5). Yet the Bible does say that spiritual people, while not judging people, should judge things: “But he that is spiritual judgeth all things…” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
We are to discern from Scripture what things are right and what things are wrong, from God’s perspective. There is nothing wrong with saying, “That’s wrong.” But we are taught to love the erring brother, instead of scorning him and proudly holding up ourselves as better (see Galatians 6:1–2). Much of the heat in the arguing over standards is generated by carnal people engaged in combat with other carnal people. Take a look at Galatians 5:13-16:
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
4. Standards apart from the Spirit-Filled Life Are Dangerous, Although They Can Be Helpful in Connection with It
The Bible has very many good things to say about following spiritual guidelines, while also warning us against giving rule-keeping a role it should never have in the Christian life. We find this help in 2 Corinthians 3:5–6: “Our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”
The Law of God expresses the opinions of God, and therefore is “holy, and just, and good” (Romans 7:12). However a set of rules in itself does not enable me to keep the rules. “The law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin” (see Romans 7:13-24). In other words, the Law is good, but not good enough to help me. Just knowing what is right does not give me righteousness. But Jesus Christ came to give me His righteousness. It is His righteousness that saves me, and it is His righteousness that provides me with the Christian life.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.—Romans 8:2 (Also read Romans 7:22–8:4.)
Those who are in Christ have the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is the key to living the Christian life! Our sufficiency is in God alone. Christian living only happens when we are living by faith and relying on the Holy Spirit to provide the life of Christ!
We can use guidelines to set the standard for how we ought to live, but they can’t get us to that standard. Standards describe for me what a spiritual man looks like, but they do not make me spiritual. It is the Holy Spirit that does this. The letter of the law only can condemn us when we fail, and the Bible says that it kills people. Standards without the Spirit are deadly. A revival that acquaints believers with the ministry of the Spirit will liberate the unhappy believer and give him the victory he wants and needs.
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.—2 Corinthians 3:17-18
The devil got us into this mess of looking at standards apart from the bigger picture. The rule for the Christian is, “What does the Bible say?” And the Bible calls upon us to conform to the will of a holy God. Doing so will require self-denial and sacrifice, as Jesus told us. But the Bible tells us that the Christian life is Christ’s life in us.
Loving Him and yielding to the influence and power of His Spirit within us is what causes us to experience the abundant life He came for us to live. When we come back to these simple truths, we will get out of the mess we are in, and get back to reaching our dark and lost world for God! Revival will deliver us from the standards mess! Those who rebel against good standards must humble themselves and learn the reason for the standards, which is love for Jesus Christ. Others who have been killing those under them with the letter of the law must go deeper than the rules, and learn to be filled with the Spirit!