Sally was raised in a conservative Christian home. Growing up, she was taught to do certain things and not do certain other things. Though the reasons for these regulations were always rather vague, Sally dutifully held her parent’s standards while growing up. When she was younger, Sally was very proud of holding those standards. She looked scornfully at anyone who didn’t look like her, talk like her, and act like her. But the older she got, the more she began to resent the rigid standards and the cold manner in which her family held to their rules. She was also convicted about her judgemental, critical attitude.
When she became an adult, Sally threw out the standards all together. She embraced a life of “Christian liberty”, engaging in all the pursuits that had been denied her as a youth. At first, this was exhilarating. She felt free from the shackles of legalism and restraint. Sally was glad that she wasn’t like those hypocrites that held to high standards.
But over time, Sally’s excursions into freedom began to lose their charm and excitement. Then one day she made a startling observation. Was it possible she was still as judgmental as she ever was? All that had really changed was that she was judging people with high standards instead of people with low standards. The exhilaration of liberty had failed to produce the deep love for God that it initially seemed to. Could it be that pridefully rejecting standards displeased God as much as pridefully holding to standards?
My illustration is fictional but with a few details changed it could be the personal testimony of many Christians. It’s a tension I’ve felt in my own life. Those who’ve been brought up to hold to certain standards often discover that they had no real heart or love behind it. But their solution is often to throw out all standards. But this doesn’t necessarily produce a changed heart. A sinful heart that holds high standards will still be a sinful heart when it has low standards.
So what do we do with “Christian standards”? How should we dress? What should we put into our body? What should we listen to? What should we watch? These are issues that many Christians and churches wrestle with. This post will address how Bethany deals with those kinds of issues.
The heart of the matter
When addressing these kinds of issues, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the particulars. While we will get to some particulars, I think it’s important to take a step back first and examine the root issues. Ultimately, this isn’t just about theatres or skirt lengths. It’s about the heart.
There are two common approaches to Christian living. The first is legalism. This is an approach to Christian living that is governed by laws. The focus of the legalists is on what is allowed and not allowed. Legalists hold to specific standards, some of which might not even be bad. However, they gauge their spirituality by mere compliance with a list of rules.
There are a few problems with legalism. One, is that it sets up a false standard for spirituality. As long as we keep the list, we’re allowed to ignore other sins. Who cares if I’m an angry, jealous, bitter, divisive grump so long as my wife doesn’t wear pants?! Now it might be a good idea for women to wear skirts (we’re getting to that), but doing so doesn’t excuse other sins in our lives. Legalism tricks us into thinking that we’re more spiritual than we are.
The second problem with legalism is that it ignores the heart. Even if the standards themselves are fine (sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not), the focus is all wrong. A woman can wear a skirt and still have an immodest heart (which will eventually show itself somehow). A man can avoid theatres and still have a worldly or sensual heart (which, again, always finds a way of externalizing). Legalists comply with a list of rules without ever addressing the true, heart problems.
The second common approach to Christian living is license. The licentious person throws out (or so he thinks) all rules, all lists, and all standards. He believes he’s free in Christ and can do what he pleases, provided he’s not in violation of some explicit command.
As with legalism, licentiousness has a few problems. One, it’s focus too is, ironically, on external behavior. For those governed by license, the focus is on how much they can get away with. They try to find the bare minimum of holiness. If the Bible doesn’t overtly prohibit something, then it must be okay. But this attitude focuses on the Law, not on grace. Paul said, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) The licentious believe they can revel in the inexpedient simply because it’s not unlawful.
But the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, do not give us step-by-step instructions on specific matters and then leave us free to make our own decisions in every other area. Rather, it gives us principles that we’re then to apply to our situation. There are many actions – like using marijuana, walking down the street in a bikini, and poking your brother’s eye out with a stick – that are never explicitly prohibited in Scripture. But they violate the principles of sobriety, modesty, and love.
Secondly, the way of license fails to make the connection between the heart and our actions. Legalists think that so long as the actions are good it doesn’t matter what the heart is like. The licentious think that a good heart will somehow not affect our actions. Provided that “my heart is in the right place” no one is allowed to judge my actions. But Jesus said that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:19) What’s in the heart will eventually come out. A heart that is in love with God will change our behavior.
That leads us to a third approach to Christian living. It’s the way the Scriptures teach and the approach we try, by God’s grace, to follow at Bethany. It’s the way of love. We want to foster a heart of love for God. This love will want to know what God is like and how we can please Him, not to get Him off our back but because we delight to honor our Savior. By looking at the principles of God’s Word we discover how to honor our dear Lord. This desire will result in change, first in our heart. This heart change will eventually affect our behavior. Functionally, there will be a sort of “list”. But it’s not a list of regulations that govern our actions and distract us from comprehensive, internal holiness. Rather, it’s a record of ways to bring glory to God because we’re so grateful to be His children.
This way of love is hard. Both the legalistic and the licentious Christian can manage their own spirituality. But the one governed by love is faced with the impossible, joyful duty of bringing every thought, feeling, and action under the lordship of Christ. This is a daunting task that cannot be accomplished by human willpower or technique. Only the Spirit of God can give us the ability to honor God to that extent.
What does this look like?
I doubt that any Christian would deny that we should be governed by love for God. And yet, we so often disagree on what that should look like. That’s why it may be helpful for us to list some of the collective standards that we hold at Bethany. But we don’t want the focus to be the standards themselves, but the heart behind them. While we firmly believe in these standards, we also want to be patient and compassionate toward those who disagree.
All churches have standards. Even churches that are suspicious of standards have a “standard against standards”. There’s no way around it. We have to have standards. We believe it’s helpful to have our standards clearly stated. This makes it easier to evaluate them from the Bible and explain the rationale behind them.
Most people would consider our standards to be “conservative”. But we don’t want to be conservative just for the sake of it or because we’re in love with the 1950s. Rather, we want to “conserve” Christian theology, Christian practice, and Christian affections. And because Christian theology is counter-cultural, Christian practice also goes against the norms of our society. But again, this ought to spring from a desire to lovingly exalt Christ from the heart. So, let’s take a brief look at some of the heart-level standards we hold at Bethany.
Worship and music
As Christians, everything we do ought to be worshipful. But there’s something special about the corporate gathering of God’s people to worship the Lord together. During our church services, we want to our worship to be worthy of a holy, righteous, awesome God. We want our corporate worship services to foster ordinate affections in the hearts of the worshippers.
To that end, we believe that the entire atmosphere of the service should reflect the holiness of God. We want our songs to have lyrics that exalt God. But we also want the music itself to match that message of adoration and exaltation. Many churches use music that was intentionally designed to promote rebellion, sensuality, and worldliness. This just doesn’t jive with the environment we want to create during worship. For that reason, we use a variety of both old and new hymns whose musical sound matches the message we believe should be portrayed as we worship God.
Families and individual Christians have many choices about entertainment. We certainly don’t micromanage anyone’s choices on what books to read, movies to watch, and sites to visit. But we do want to give some overarching principles to help believers make those choices.
We encourage people to guard their eyes and hearts against anything that might detract from their relationship with God. Entertainment that promotes sin or appeals to our flesh should (at the very least) be treated with extreme caution. Also, while recreation has a definite place, we should be careful to be wise stewards of our time.
Many think it’s nitpicky and legalistic to even bring up the topic of what people wear. Like that brazen pastor who actually told women in the congregation to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.” Oh wait. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to say that (1 Timothy 2:9). Actually, the Scriptures address our clothing with surprising frequency (Deuteronomy 22:5, 1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 3:1-7). Our clothing matters because it’s an expression of our heart.
Because of the area of the city our church building is at, a variety of people come through our doors wearing a variety of different kinds of clothing. We welcome them all without regard for what they’re wearing (James 2:1-3). At the same time, we do believe there’s something special about the church’s corporate worship of the holy Sovereign of the universe. And what I wear says something about how I view the event I’m attending. This is why we dress differently at a wedding than we do at a football game. We therefore encourage our members and regular attendees to wear professional clothing that fits such an awesome occasion as the meeting of Christ’s church.
Likewise, we believe that both men and women should dress in a way that is consistent with their God-given sexuality (Deuteronomy 22:5). In this age of gender confusion, we want to paint the lines between men and women in bold, bright colors. We believe it’s important for the watching world to see that Christians value the blessed distinction between men and women.
Women in particular should be careful not to seek inappropriate attention to themselves by what they wear. They should love God enough to please Him, rather than being pleased by seeking attention (1 Peter 3:3-4). Likewise, they should love their Christian brothers enough to protect them from stumbling (Proverbs 5:3-23).
Social drinking is a hot topic in modern Christianity. Even in circles where it was once frowned upon, social drinking has become normal and accepted. Though there’s much uncertainty among Christians about this issue, I believe that there are at least three things we can say with certainty from the Scriptures about drinking.
The first is that the Bible never forbids drinking. It’s time that Fundamental Baptists like me acknowledge this fact. The Bible nowhere forbids drinking. And if New Testament Christians were governed by laws and regulations that would settle the issue. But if Christians are supposed to be governed by love then we have a responsibility to discover whether drinking is expedient and pleasing to God.
The second thing about drinking that we can know for certain is that drinking is treated with suspicion in the Bible (Proverbs 20:1, 23:31, 31:4-7). King Lemuel’s mother told him that “it is not for kings to drink wine.” (Proverbs 31:4) If it’s unbecoming of an earthly king to drink wine is it any more becoming for a joint-heir of the King of kings? She goes on to that say that drinking is for them that are perishing and in despair, contrasting it with the state she expects of her son (v. 6-7). Christians are not perishing and should not be in despair. Those who drink, even socially, are often trying to get something out of it that can only be found in God. Drinking promises release, peace, and happiness (hence the concept of “happy hour”). But these are qualities that should be found in God, not a bottle.
The third thing that is absolutely clear about drinking is that drunkenness is forbidden (1 Peter 4:3. Ephesians 5:18, Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:19-21). But what is drunkenness? Is it merely having a blood-alcohol content that would allow a police officer to give you a ticket for DUI? The Scriptures seem to indicate that we’re “drunk” whenever our mind and self-control is affected (Ephesians 5:18). This happens fairly quickly when drinking. Anyone will tell you that the first thing affected by drinking is a person’s judgement. We must be conscience of our own weakness and not arrogantly think that we can withstand temptation (1 Corinthians 10:12). But if you don’t drink then you can’t get drunk.
While it’s not, strictly speaking, unlawful there’s also nothing particularly spiritual about social drinking. Having a beer will not bring you closer to God. It has the potential to hurt your relationship with God. From a pastoral perspective, I’ve simply seen too many lives negatively affected by alcohol (interestingly, I’ve yet to see someone’s life positively affected by alcohol) to ever recommend that someone drink. For all these reasons and more, we counsel people against social drinking.
God deserves to be worshipped with our whole being. Neither outward conformity nor shallow sentimentalism will do. We want to love God from the heart and encourage that love to manifest itself in outward actions. At Bethany, we strive by the grace of God to avoid both the error of legalism and the error of license. Instead, we desire to follow the way of love and exalt our God and Savior.