So What’s All This Talk About Standards?
In my experience, growing up in a Christian home, a pastor’s home, no less, graduating from a Christian school, and then attending an independent Baptist college, standards are not a foreign concept to me.
However, not everyone who hears the word “standards” has the same background on which to frame a working definition. This could include Christians who were saved in other ministry contexts, or those who are new to the faith.
Standards are many times wrongly presented as absolute rules and boundaries based upon explicitly designated commands in the Bible which are therefore not subject to question. In many circles, violating this definition of standards can stir up nearly the same amount of passion as rejecting the fundamentals of the faith. The idea is that if you don’t abide by any given rule or “standard”, you are disobeying the Word of God, and consequently, not right with God.
Over the course of many years, after observing the lives of Christians and also hearing the perspectives of others from different spectrums of Christianity, I would like to offer a balanced viewpoint.
First, in case someone should wrongfully accuse me of not believing in “standards,” let me say categorically that I am in no way against the setting of reasonable boundaries. However, I believe that they must be kept in the proper perspective.
It is true that the Bible contains some very specific teaching about what is right and wrong. There are certain things that the Scripture teaches us are sin no matter what the situation or context. No worshipping idols. No other gods before the true and living God. No stealing. No adultery. No lying, bearing false witness. No murder. And the list goes on.
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus gives us an even clearer vision of what the Scriptures mean by these clear and obvious commands. We are guilty of adultery even if we only entertain it in our minds and it never escapes to our actions. We are guilty of murder even if we just hold hatred without cause in our hearts towards others.
Once we get beyond clearly defined, prohibited motivations and behaviors, we enter into a large swath of “gray areas” about which the Bible directly has little or nothing to say. These “gray areas” do not cross the line of any explicitly defined commandment.
However, this is where standards come in. The Bible is full of general principles that Christians can use to guide them in setting appropriate boundaries for their lives. These boundaries are often found useful by those who are weak in the faith and have not grown to the level of maturity where they have learned to depend directly on the Spirit of God to keep them in the right and away from the wrong.
So, to many, standards are the boundaries that different people or groups set to keep their distance from crossing the line into sin. What many fail to realize is that within these principles, there are many different ways to apply them and many different degrees of interpretation.
Trying Them on For Size
Standards were never meant to be a one-size-fits-all set of rules and regulations. Christians live in different cultures, come from different backgrounds, and have different strengths and weaknesses. With that in mind, the particular “standards” that are set are going to vary sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly, between individuals, families and churches.
Take families for instance. My family may have a “higher standard” in a particular area (i.e. be farther away from the line of sin) than another. And I’m sure there are others standing behind me who are even further away from the line of sin. But, the motivation for honest Christians is the same for all. We do not want to fall into sin. We don’t want to cross the line. We want to be faithful to our Savior. We want to glorify and honor God no matter where we draw the line.
The problem with standards comes in when one individual, family or church wants to set the same homogeneous set of boundaries for all. And it becomes worse when those with more “standards” begin to judge others who apply things and interpret things less stringently than they do.
It is at this point that standards can subtly, even subconsciously, be brought up to the same degree of authority as the things the Bible delineates clearly as sin. This can cause an attitude of superiority because those with different standards can be accused of “not loving God” or “not being faithful to the word of God.”
This is the point where perspective is lost. The lines betweens “thus saith the Lord” and “thus saith our group” are blurred, obscured, if not completely lost. This can set people up for the sin which is in all reality the underlying cause behind all sin – self-righteous pride.
Keeping Them in Perspective
So what is the way to prevent the loss of perspective when it comes to “standards?”
First, let the word of God be the word of God. Preachers must love it, study it, practice it and teach it. The pulpit can’t be the podium where a preacher teaches his own particular interpretation of boundaries for gray areas (at least not conveying it as binding doctrine).
Secondly, if a preacher wants to use an illustration about the boundaries he has set for himself in the gray areas, it should be presented as “Here’s how I apply this in my life” not “It’s my way or the high way.” It is the job of the Holy Spirit to take the word of God and show the listener where he needs to set the standards in his life.
Thirdly, we must deliberately and consciously check our attitude towards those who have set the boundaries lower than our own. Never should it be said of them that they have “no standards” simply because their standards are different.
Fourthly, we must understand that the distance from the line of sin is not the measure of holiness. Practical holiness can only be measured by our Spirit-empowered obedience to the explicit commands of God. Any distance away from the line of sin should be motivated by a desire to fulfill the commands of God.
A Final Note
In conclusion, there is one important truth that should stand out above all others.
At some point, Christians should reach the level of maturity where standards are no longer the means of keeping them away from sin. The more you try to use them as safeguards against sin, the more you realize how powerless they are against temptation. The victory comes only when we learn to depend upon God, not our boundaries, to protect us from sin.
On the other hand, neither is it advisable to live with the complete absence of standards. To the mature Christian, they should be a means of not creating stumblingblocks for weaker Christians who are still relying on standards to keep them from sin. It takes time for God to do His work, and stronger Christians should not allow their liberty in a given area to slow the progress in the life of a weaker brother or sister in Christ.
So, in the area of standards let us not forget there is a difference between the commands of God and the standards we set up to keep our distance from sin. Standards serve a cautionary role for the individual and a charitable role in one’s relationship to other Christians.