Church standards today: where are we going?

What function do church standards serve? And what effect does the passage of time and the growth of the church have on the relevance of those standards?

Monte Sahlin is an associate director of the North American Division Church Ministries Department.

Most Seventh-day Adventists observe, the practice of daily prayer and Bible study. They choose not to use alcohol and tobacco, eat unclean meat, or wear jewelry. A little more than half of them tithe their incomes, attend church regularly, and follow a vegetarian diet. An influential minority regularly gives time to community service, donates a portion of income beyond the tithe, and refuses to use firearms or attend the cinema.

In the nineteenth century, during which the Adventist Church was founded, it was common for Protestant bodies to establish church standards minimum behavioral expectations required for full membership. But what rationale supports continuance of the practice by modern Adventists? In the past 20 years I have led scores of weekend retreats and small groups in which the participants explored their personal religious commitments and experience. I have also interviewed hundreds of Adventists who no longer attend church. I have learned that church members define church standards in a wide variety of ways, and that their understanding of the nature and function of church standards has a lot to do with their attitude toward them.

Some regard church standards as definitions of sin. One woman told me, "The Ten Commandments were given long ago, and God has now given us a better set of rules for the last days." Those who understand church standards in this way often emphasize their need for simple rules that define sin clearly and concretely. They are impatient with the abstract theology of sin that is presented in the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs and generally taught by Adventist ministers.

For others, church standards form the identity of Adventism. They use such phrases as "Adventists just don't do that" or "The standards identify the true Adventists." This view emphasizes the boundaries of the Adventist community, helping to define what it is and who be longs in it.

Perfectionism shapes the understanding of church standards that some members hold. The standards have become a useful way of defining the sinlessness that they believe they must attain to have salvation. Often this is an unconscious, unexamined belief rooted more in personality traits than in theology.

A few Adventists still relate church standards to social protest. They point out that in its early years the Adventist Church forged its standards around such social issues as the temperance movement. Adding apparent support to this view is the fact that the official statement of standards in the Church Manual says that Adventists "shun" secular entertainment, such as the theater and the pool hall. Shunning is a practice still used by Old Order Amish to protest unacceptable behavior. Somewhat like the modern boycott or strike, it is a method of taking a stand on social issues.

Others go further and state that originally the Adventist Church was a countercultural subgroup much like the Mennonites today. For them, the function of church standards extends beyond defining sin, demarcating identity, measuring personal perfection, or even raising key issues in the conflict between Christian faith and the secular world. Instead, church standards help form a comprehensive lifestyle that separates the Adventist community from, and opposes it to, the contaminated culture of the outside world. This view arises out of a notion of communal witness not widely understood among North American Adventists today, a notion that views the church's life together as set before a watching world in a larger evangelism.

There is another way to understand church standards that is closer to the roots of the concept but largely lost in the contemporary Adventist Church. Basic to this understanding is the notion of spiritual disciplines.

As have serious Christians in all ages, John Wesley and the early Methodists wanted to live holy lives primarily so that they could more effectively communicate the gospel and influence society for good. They believed that Christ's kingdom permeates the rebellious world largely through the embodiment of His values in the lives of His followers. The "method" of their Methodism involved "class meetings" small groups in which people encouraged and supported one another in Bible study, prayer, and careful examination and correction of their lives.

Although for centuries "Christian brotherhoods" (orders of monks) had adopted spiritual disciplines aimed toward the same end, it was the Wesley an groups that gave birth to the Protestant concept of spiritual disciplines. The Protestant concept differed from the Roman Catholic concept in two ways: it was built on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and it emphasized living in the world rather than retreating to isolated separatist communities.

Coming primarily out of a Wesleyan background, the founders of the Adventist Church naturally brought class meetings and spiritual disciplines with them. One of Ellen White's articles in the Re view and Herald (May 30, 1871), "How to Conduct Meetings," teaches the Wesleyan method for small group meetings. Other articles she wrote during the same period address such issues as our duty to the poor, dress reform, temperance, slavery, Christian recreation, and systematic benevolence.

How do spiritual disciplines work?

Christians who see themselves as servants of Christ with a call to ministry in the world want to be prepared for that calling. Much like athletes training for the Olympics, believers develop their personal resources toward the goal of serving effectively in Christ's name. They select certain disciplines or behavior patterns that enhance their awareness of God's will and their ability to do that will. As Richard J. Foster points out in his book Money, Sex., and Power, certain aspects of life have great potential for good or bad, and unless they are carefully managed, they tend to get us into trouble. Spiritual disciplines are ways of man aging the life of the believer--tools for stewardship of a faithful existence.

It is important to note at this point that spiritual disciplines are not the same as the moral absolutes embodied in the Ten Commandments. These disciplines are practical ways of implementing moral and spiritual principles in one's life.

While disciplines help to prevent believers from unintentionally slipping into unfaithful patterns of living, they serve another, even more important role. They represent Christians' efforts to open and submit every aspect of their lives to Christ. And so by facilitating this more comprehensive submission, spiritual disciplines allow a more effective flow of the Spirit's fruit and gifts into the lives of the believers.

As Richard Lovelace says in Dynamics of Spiritual Life and as Ellen White implies in numerous places, all spiritual disciplines contain two primary elements. One of these elements involves the attempt to place under the lordship of Christ one's health, dress, sexuality, politics, economics, art, culture, professional life, recreation all one's existence and resources. The other entails being increasingly intentional about every aspect of life, applying the principles of Christ's life and teachings to each element of life in a progressively more careful and thorough manner.

The 14 church standards Adventists have come to accept during the past 100 years resemble the spiritual disciplines that have been accepted throughout Christian history (see the box that ac companies this article). For example, Foster speaks of 13 disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. And Thomas Merton and Richard Lovelace trace much the same outline.

There seems to be general agreement that in order to live significant Christian lives, believers must communicate regularly with God; they must control their health, money, possessions, time, leisure activities, and sexuality; and they must work actively in the world for faith, healing, and justice. Whether it means nineteenth-century farmers staying out of saloons or twentieth-century yuppies jogging three miles every morning, those who are concerned about the quality of their lives with Christ make rules for themselves.

Starting point of spiritual growth

Some people attempt to live a disciplined Christian life on their own. In fact, privatistic religion has become the norm in modern Western culture. But sooner or later most discover, as John Wesley did, that authentic Christianity is rooted in community.

One of the ways in which a fellowship of believers can support and encourage one another in their spiritual journey is by agreeing on certain minimum disciplines that will undergird their individual walks with Christ. Church standards are minimum spiritual disciplines that all members of a particular Christian fellow ship agree to be the starting point for their spiritual growth. Those in that fellowship covenant that they will support one another and hold one another ac countable for at least these minimum standards of spiritual discipline.

We should not regard believers who choose not to enter into the covenant as evil or deficient in commitment and fervor. But in making that choice, those believers have also chosen to live outside that particular fellowship, because the covenant of accountability and encouragement is integral to the fabric of that fellowship.

This approach to Christian living will not work unless each member of the fellowship follows individual spiritual disciplines that surpass the minimum standards. Gordon Cosby, pastor of the interdenominational Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., points out: "Unless we set a more demanding maxi mum discipline for ourselves, we will continue to fail at the point of the mini mum discipline."

In Adventism the matter of diet illustrates well this principle of setting individual maximum disciplines. The mini mum standard, or discipline, forbids the eating of unclean meat. But nearly half of North American Adventists have set a maximum discipline of a lactoo-vegetarian diet, and some have adopted an entirely vegetarian diet or other, more radical standards. These more demanding disciplines benefit us primarily by freeing us from failure to meet the minimum standards.

Why standards are difficult

Many Christians react to the concept of spiritual disciplines and a fellowship with a covenant of accountability by saying something along the lines of "That's a great ideal, but it's almost impossible to do." Admittedly, implementing this concept poses its difficulties.

In the first place, individualism runs riot in our society and makes it exceedingly difficult for any communal structure--even the family--to survive. In this environment it is difficult for one adult to hold another adult accountable without alienating that person. It takes exceptional relational skill to maintain accountability within a Protestant, free church heritage.

Second, a covenant of mutual accountability for minimum standards of Christian life requires tending. The meaning attached to certain behaviors changes in various cultures and times. As new peoples and new generations are won, they bring their own perspectives into the covenant community. Unless they are somehow allowed to participate in the formation of the covenant, they will increasingly feel that they are being subjected to someone else's definition of spiritual disciplines.

The debate in the Adventist Church during the 1970s and 1980s over the wed ding band exemplifies this kind of tension. In some cultures it was part of the covenant to define a wedding band as jewelry, while in other cultures that has never been true. Until recently, Adventists in the various cultures had limited contact, so this difference raised little discussion. But as church members began to travel and communicate more and contact increased, the discussion began to grow.

The fact that the younger generation of Adventists in the culture that had historically defined the wedding band as a symbol of unfaithfulness began to see it as a symbol of faithfulness added further complications. The generations that saw the wearing of the wedding band as marking a breaking of faith to the covenant were shaped by a time when the family unit was relatively strong and Adventism was much more concerned about materialism. The new generation has come to maturity in a time when the economic environment has changed and marriage and the family are under attack. The differing historical circumstances have shaped the differing significance these generations attach to this symbol.

Finally, mutual accountability in spiritual disciplines works best in a small group. Face-to-face fellowship makes possible the balancing of the personality and needs of each individual with his or her aspirations for spiritual growth and holy living. But as congregations and denominations grow larger, holding together a covenant relationship built around very specific behavioral standards becomes increasingly difficult.

In many ways the heartrending forces of change in the Adventist Church are the fruits of success. A century ago when a few hundred Adventists, all a part of New England culture, began to hammer out a covenant to support one another in their high aspirations for Christian living and service, things were not nearly as complicated as they must be in a fellow ship of 6 to 8 million spread across hundreds of cultures. We could easily solve most of the current issues regarding church standards if we could reduce our movement again to a few hundred thou sand members in a handful of cultures.

But the mission enunciated in the three angels' messages of Revelation 14 has called us together. If we were to sacrifice faithfulness to that mission in order to duck the difficult issue of church standards, then our fellowship would be meaningless. In the light of that mission, we must bring about among Adventists a renewal of covenantal Christian living.

Reforming church standards

There is a considerable need today for a reform of Adventist Church standards, especially in the church of the First World. Those who fear a loss of church standards have grounds for their fears. At least one of the 14 church standards listed in the Church Manual (see box p. 16) has been entirely lost in Western culture: the discipline of chaperonage.

Some may argue that, since some Adventist parents in North America require their 15- and 16-year-old children to double-date or group-date, this means that this standard still exists. But parents rarely require this practice of 17-year-olds, and the chapter in the Church Manual clearly intends that adults, not other youth, serve as chaperons and that the standard applies to youth as well as children.

Interestingly, even as some standards (such as chaperonage) disappear from the scene, new standards begin to emerge. There is a growing opinion among some North American Adventists that we should take a position against abortion, and much of the discussion of the Davenport affair and other recent financial losses is not so much a criticism of specific business decisions as the emergence of a new standard concerning how faithful Adventists should use power and wealth.

More specific evidence of the erosion of church standards can be seen in a survey of church members conducted in 1988 by the Department of Church Ministries in the Pacific Union Conference. Only 42 percent of active church members there are willing to disfellowship members who smoke, and only 45 per cent are willing to disfellowship members who use alcohol. In fact, only the issues of adultery and illegal drug use elicited majority support for disfellowshipping, and then by a very thin margin.

But we must be careful to understand what is going on here. While less than half the active church members supported disfellowshipping church members for any failure in church standards, 60 to 66 percent agree that those who have not begun to live according to the standards should not be baptized. And fully 70 percent believe that the church ought to increase its emphasis on some of the standards.

It is the mechanism of covenant and accountability, the way the members of the fellowship support one another in spiritual disciplines, that the church is losing--not the values expressed in the content of the standards. Even in the most secularized areas of Western civilization, Adventists still believe in our historic stands. Yet they are uncomfortable with the methods that we have tradition ally used to take those stands.

In other words, our problem with church standards is not so much a problem of laxity as it is a problem of diminished fellowship. As the church has become large and institutionalized, members find it increasingly difficult to live in covenant with one another in loving, personal ways.

Slowly, step by step, the march of time and social evolution pushes a radical sect toward becoming a tradition-bound denomination. Through the past three decades, Adventist leaders have repeatedly expressed concern about the impact of this process on Adventism. Each step in this process makes its impact on church standards:

1. In the beginning phases, a small group works very hard at being radically faithful to Bible principles. Those in the group direct much attention to extracting these Bible principles from the encrustation of tradition and institutions. With regard to how each member lives the Christian life, the group allows considerable freedom--and even a bit of anarchy. Fanaticism lurks nearby.

2. As the group grows, the members give increasing attention to ordering their common life. They shift their focus from discovering Bible principles to learning how to embody the Bible principles they have found. They enter into a covenant that may include minimum standards for spiritual disciplines and growth.

3. As time passes, the members of the group begin to focus solely on the embodiment of the biblical principles, losing sight of the principles themselves. Many members can no longer explain theologically why the rules exist, but they zealously observe the rules. At this stage principle surrenders to tradition, and the group becomes inflexible, incapable of change.

4. If sufficient time passes, the group may find itself, without realizing it, using tradition to encourage behavior that now, in fact, violates biblical principles. Churches that have gone this far have reached the apostate condition that the Adventist Church was raised up to witness against.

Church groups move through these stages because though God's laws remain constant, human culture is continually changing. The church, riding the moving vehicle of human culture, must constantly reposition itself in order to keep its eyes fixed on the unmoving point at which divine principle is enthroned. But sinful human nature being what it is, we find it easier and more comfortable to fix our eyes on something closer at hand that appears not to move the edge of the vehicle.

For example, the translators of the King James Version of the Bible used thee and thou instead of you and your. They did so precisely because these terms were part of the more personal mode of address that they believed best represented the fatherly relationship God maintained with His followers. But in the 1950s I was taught as a child that when praying I must use thee and thou because they were part of the more formal mode of address that is best in approaching what amounted to an austere, exalted God. Same behavior; different principle.

When a church clings to unexamined behaviors, seeking rationalizations to support unchanged practices, it runs the risk of losing its hold on Bible principles. Certainly modernism and secularization can dilute the faith, but so can an idolizing of "that old-time religion."

The dangers of conservatism

Ellen White observes that "as real spiritual life declines," people tend to "be come conservative, and seek to avoid discussion," and "worship they know not what." 1 She warned the church often of the worldliness that would seek constantly to creep in, but she also feared a "conservatism" that "grieves the Spirit." 2

Her vision of the Adventist Church was that of a vigorous fellowship with a dynamic faith, deeply immersed in a ministry that integrated evangelism, service, and social action. Throughout the formative years of the movement, Adventism's covenantal standards always had both an individual and a countercultural focus. Adventists "shunned" the saloons and pool halls because of both the personal spiritual needs of the members and the social evils these institutions represented. Adventists refused to take up arms in the U.S. Civil War not only because they felt it a violation of the sixth commandment but also because they believed the North was not fighting the war for the right reasons. Adventists were willing to break civil law in order to obey the higher law of God that they believed gave human rights to the slaves. Adventists joined the temperance movement and struggled to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Adventists participated in the movements for health reform, women's dress reform, and other reforms.

In fact, leading social reformers were attracted to the Adventist Church because of its willingness to confront the culture. Mrs. S.M.I. Henry was the national evangelist of the interdenominational Women's Christian Temperance Union when she became an Adventist and, under the sponsorship of the General Conference, launched a program to improve the lot of women. Sojourner Truth, a noted Black activist, is believed to have become an Adventist.

"We are a prophetic people, called to confront and transform the culture, not merely to reflect it," states Dr. George Akers, director of education for the General Conference, in the May 18, 1989, Adventist Review. But for the most part, our church has lost that emphasis in recent years. Very few Adventists realize that one of the church standards enjoins members to work for social justice (see box). 3

Because even spiritual growth can become a self-centered activity, an indiviualistic approach to high standards of Christian living poses dangers. In seeking personal holiness without involvement in social action, the believer runs the risk of a privatistic, selfish faith. This danger has borne its ugly fruit in the modern fundamentalism that teaches that it is because of their laziness that God does not bless the poor, and that, on the other hand, He bestows on the faithful a life style of limousines and mansions.

The renewal of church standards re quires a serious recognition of their historic countercultural function as well as their use in supporting the spiritual growth of the individual member. Asking the believer to refrain from a worldly practice makes no sense unless we can show that the church is actually taking a stand against the world.

In summary, if we want to strengthen our church members' commitment to Adventist standards, we must help them to understand and live in real covenant fellowship, we must constantly seek the participation of every member in reforming the covenant, and we must renew the culture-confronting and culture-trans forming aspect of Adventism. We must not fear the process of give and take, because if we submit this process to the lordship of Christ, He will lead in it and speak through it, bringing His faithful people to their destiny in this world and the next.

1 Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville:
Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 39.

2 Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 1, p. 260.

3 If you consult an old copy of Bible Readings for
the Home (pp. 641-643) or the original set of evan
gelistic Bible lessons, Stephen Haskell's Bible
Handbook (pp. 132, 133), you will see that at one
time "our duty to the poor" constituted a part of our
basic beliefs. Today no one gives Bible studies on
that topic. Our Statement of Fundamental Beliefs
discusses church standards only in terms of individ
ual holiness. It does not mention those standards
that have a societal orientation.


Standards of Christian living of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

1. Daily Bible study and prayer.

2. Support of all proper efforts for social order and betterment, maintenance of an uncompromising stand for justice and right in civic affairs, and loyal citizenship.

3. Care in guarding the Sabbath.

4. Reverence for the time and place of worship.

5. Intelligent observance of the laws of health having to do with pure air, ventilation, suitable clothing, cleanliness, proper exercise and recreation, adequate rest, a wholesome diet, and abstinence from the use of intoxicants, narcotics, liquor, and tobacco.

6. Modest dress and abstinence from adornment.

7. Simplicity; abstinence from needless, extravagant expenditure of money to gratify pride.

8. Reading only good literature.

9. Discriminating use of radio and television.

10. Shunning of commercialized amusements, social dancing, the motion-picture theater, and theatrical films.

11. Exercising great care in the choice of music, shunning any melody
partaking of the nature of jazz, rock, or related hybrid forms, or any language
expressing foolish or trivial sentiments.

12. Abstinence from social relationships that might lead to adultery, sexual abuse, incest, or homosexual and lesbian practices.

13. Chaperonage.

14. Not entering into marriage with an unbeliever.

Adapted from the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 1986 revision, pp. 141-151.

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Monte Sahlin is an associate director of the North American Division Church Ministries Department.

October 1989

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More Articles In This Issue

How Adventist teenagers perceive their church

A recent survey reveals what Adventist youth think of their church, whether they plan to remain in it, and why.

The historical basis of Adventist standards

A look at how our standards originated and have changed through the years can help us address the need for change today.

Standards define relationships

Are some standards absolute and some cultural? Do we need to change some standards?

Gospel, culture, and mission

The applications of the same biblical principles vary in differing cultures. These differences, which Scripture warrants, comprise part of the fertilizer that stimulates church growth.

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