Standards define relationships

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

J. David Newman is the executive editor of Ministry.

This special issue of Ministry describes how we got our standards and how some of them change as generations come and go. We seldom argue over some standards such as not killing or stealing. But others, such as what adornment and music are appropriate, we discuss and debate ad nauseum. How do we decide which standards are applicable and which, if any, are cultural and limited to certain times and places?

Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines a standard in several ways, two of which have special significance for us: "Anything recognized as correct by common consent, by approved custom, or by those most competent to decide; a model; a type; a pattern; a criterion; the support beams in a building. Thus, just as buildings need supports, so do relationships.

Whenever a group of people acts together, those involved need to define how each person will relate to the others. We need both principles and standards to guide our relationships. Principles are universal rules, usually given in the abstract, such as courtesy, obedience, love, equality. Standards are specific applications of these principles. While principles cross all cultural barriers, standards vary from culture to culture except for 10 important exceptions, which we will discuss later.

Thus we may start with the abstract principle of friendliness. But soon we will need to spell out what friendliness means we shake hands when we meet, we don't spit on the other person, we knock on the door before we enter the house, etc. These specific applications are standards, and they are given within the cultural milieu of a particular place and time.

Jesus came as a first-century Jew, not a sophisticated Greek. He grew up learning Jewish customs, not Greek customs. Most standards reflect a particular culture and customs, and thus may not be applicable in other times and places.

When God told His delinquent people to cut off their hair and throw it away (Jer. 7:29), He was not defining the ex act way people were to show repentance in all ages. He simply used the means of expressing repentance that was under stood in that culture.

Some people take Paul's command that women be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34) as a universal principle, while the majority interpret it as one application of the principle of decorum in worship.

Foundation is love

The foundation of God's government is love. And what is love? One definition stresses the placing of other people's needs before our own. Paul tells us that we should "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:3, 4).* Then in the following verses he describes how we should have the same attitude as Christ, who gave up His majesty, His power, to become like one of His creatures and live a life of infinite humiliation.

For countless ages the angels had been content to live a life of service to God and each other, guided only by the principle of love. But somehow Lucifer became dissatisfied with that principle and rebelled against God. He no longer had a perfect relationship with God. And we have inherited that broken relationship.

A perfect relationship needs only principles and a few standards to define it. The more mature and trusting the relationship, the less there is a need to spell out every detail of that relationship. A divorcing couple suddenly needs all kinds of rules to define how they must deal with their possessions. In a stable marriage husband and wife do not need many rules to tell them how to manage their money and other possessions. However, once the relationship is broken, multiplied rules (standards), sometimes court imposed, are needed to show how that relationship should continue to function.

What does it mean to love God? Loving God was simple for Adam and Eve. They were "to be fruitful and multiply;" they were to "subdue and rule over the earth;" they were to eat "of every tree in the garden" but "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" they were not to eat. However, they disobeyed God and He expelled them from the garden. After they had broken their relationship with their Creator, He gave them rules that more specifically described how they were to relate behaviorally to Him and to each other.

Levels of standards

There are three levels on which behavioral standards exist: absolute, temporal, and cultural.

1. Absolute standards are rules that apply at all times, to all peoples, and in all circumstances. As stated earlier, while principles are universal, standards are local. There is one exception to this definition the--Ten Commandments are absolute behavioral requirements. Covetousness is always wrong. Adultery is never permissible. Worshiping false gods is indefensible. These rules apply in Africa just as much as in America. Educated people need them just as much as the ignorant. If nations were to follow just these 10 simple rules, it would revolutionize international relationships.

Absolutes imply no exceptions. It is true that God sometimes overlooks in fractions, but that does not nullify the absolute. We may be sympathetic with the father out of work and penniless who steals to provide food for his family, but that still does not make it right. Bearing false witness is still wrong even when done from the purest of motives.

Because our faith is defective, we cannot keep the absolutes perfectly. So God has made salvation available to us through Jesus, outside of our "works." But that does not mean that the absolutes themselves are defective. They still express God's will for us--and as Christians, we will take them seriously. Justification, which we accept by faith, is God crediting Jesus' keeping of these absolute standards to our account, which we accept by faith.

Sanctification, on the other hand, is the lifelong process of learning to live by the absolutes. As long as we look to Jesus, He will give us the power to constantly overcome and keep every absolute.

2. Temporal standards are mandatory for God's people everywhere but not for all times. For example, no male could become a Jew, part of the people of God, without being circumcised. And all Jews celebrated the Passover no matter where they lived. But today neither circumcision nor keeping the Passover is a requirement for Christians. Abstaining from meat offered to idols constituted an absolute for all Gentile Christians at one time, yet within a few short years it had lost much of its significance (compare Acts 15:29 with 1 Cor. 8:1-13).

Examples of temporal standards for Seventh-day Adventists would include baptism by immersion, foot washing, and the Communion service. You cannot become an Adventist without being immersed unless physical infirmity makes it impossible. And foot washing, the use of unleavened bread, and nonalcoholic wine are universal within Adventism.

These will remain until the coming of Christ, yet none of them were mandated before the time of Christ.

3. Cultural standards concern practices that may be local or universal and sometimes overlap with temporal standards. I was forcibly reminded of a local absolute when, one unbearably hot Sabbath in a tropical country, I attempted to preach without a coat. I was told that in that particular culture no one could preach from the pulpit without wearing a coat and tie.

Cultural standards often refer to items such as dress and adornment standards. In the past the General Conference in session prohibited goatees and mustaches, but in current culture these do not convey the negative message they did in the culture that banned them. Later the church banned high heels and lipstick. The wedding ring is frowned upon in some areas but considered essential in others.

Universal cultural standards are sometimes confused with temporal standards that are also universal. And at times there may be some ambiguity. Temporal standards usually do not change unless there is a major change in the system: the end of Judaism, the end of the world.

Requirements and teachings

Who decides what are the appropriate standards: the local church, the conference, the union, the division, the General Conference in session? Can a local church decide absolute and temporal standards on its own? Does a standard like noncombatancy voted at an Annual Council have the same force as a standard like abstention from alcohol voted by the General Conference in session? And where do we go to find a list of all the standards? The chapter on standards in the Church Manual is not exhaustive.

W. H. Branson, former president of the General Conference, suggested some answers. He published an article in Ministry titled "What Are Our Tests of Fellowship?" (October 1951, pp. 12, 13) that distinguished between the requirements for church membership and the teachings of the church. For him the minimum requirements for entering the church were the 11 questions on the back of the baptismal certificate. (These 11 have since been expanded to 13. Numbers 8 and 10 in the current list were not part of the questions in Elder Branson's day.)

Branson wrote: "There are of course many things taught by the church that are not covered by the above list of questions. These things are important, but are not required of those coming into the church. The observance of these additional points of teaching must be left to the individual conscience and not become a matter of requirement.'' He cites vegetarianism, tea, and coffee as examples of teachings but not requirements. He then adds:

"In order to maintain the unity of the church, each minister and leader should always carefully distinguish between the teachings and the requirements of the church. No minister or church elder has the right to set up standards of his own that have not been made standards by the general church body. To do so could only result in confusion. There would be as many sets of standards as there were leaders."

However, there is one significant exception to the list that Branson cites. The removal of jewelry is taught as a requirement for church membership, but nowhere does it appear in the list of questions that Branson cites, neither does it appear in the 27 fundamental doctrines (only the principle is given). It would appear that it is a teaching of the church that has somehow been made a requirement. If it is indeed a requirement, then it should be so listed along with unclean meat, tobacco, alcohol and narcotics.+

Ellen White spoke to the issue of tests and requirements: "Some had been bringing in false tests, and had made their own ideas and notions a criterion, magnifying matters of little importance into tests of Christian fellowship, and binding heavy burdens upon others. Thus a spirit of criticism, faultfinding, and dissension had come in, which had been a great injury to the church. And the impression was given to unbelievers that Sabbath-keeping Adventists were a set of fanatics and extremists, and that their peculiar faith rendered them unkind, uncourteous, and really unchristian in character. Thus the course of a few extremists prevented the influence of the truth from reaching the people.

"Some were making the matter of dress of first importance, criticizing articles of dress worn by others, and standing ready to condemn everyone who did not exactly meet their ideas. A few condemned pictures, urging that they are prohibited by the second commandment, and that everything of this kind should be destroyed" (Evangelism, pp. 215,216).

The basis for standards

Whenever we discuss standards we must tread a narrow path. On one side we are criticized as legalists if we talk about standards, while on the other hand, if we talk about love and relationships, we are judged permissive.

If ever there was a people who cared about high standards, the Jews of Jesus' time were that people. The Pharisees were so concerned about seeking God's approval that they had hundreds of standards to guide them. Jesus showed that it is not an "either/or" but a "both/and": "You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" (Matt. 23:23).

Yes, Jesus said, standards are important--but so are relationships. In fact that is the whole point of having standards. If they get in the way of deepening relationships, then we have a problem with the standard. Of course this is nothing new. God had for centuries been trying to teach His people how standards fit into the plan of salvation. Too often people made them ends in themselves. God initiated the sacrificial system as a vehicle for His people to develop a relationship with Him. He became angry when they exalted the standards over the relationships:

"Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:6-8).

Do people or standards come first? Were the Pharisees exalting an absolute standard over a relationship when they brought the woman taken in adultery before Jesus? And didn't Jesus, by the way that He dealt with the woman, show that we don't always have to follow the absolute?

Not at all. Jesus did forgive the woman and He did not exact the full penalty, but that did not nullify the law. Paul wrote a whole epistle Romans describing how grace and law do not cancel each other out. Many of the patriarchs lived in constant violation of the seventh commandment, but God still blessed them. And while blessing them, He still hoped for the day when His people would keep that commandment.

When we love God, we want to do all that He wants us to do. But our maturity level, our culture, our biases, prevent us from seeing at once the totality of God's will. That is why salvation is a gift, freely bestowed upon people who are repentant, who are growing in the perfection of Christ, but who still do not follow absolutely every requirement of God. When in Christ we want to do His will, we will not look for escape routes. As we grow in Him, those standards that may at one time have seemed irksome become precious to us. We will recognize them as essential to our peace, joy, and happiness in the Lord.

Ellen White, who is often criticized for being harsh when it came to matters of dress and adornment, actually had a wonderful attitude. In the following quotation she summarizes the problem and supplies the remedy.

"There are many who try to correct the life of others by attacking what they consider are wrong habits. They go to those whom they think are in error, and point out their defects. They say, 'You don't dress as you should.' They try to pick off the ornaments, or whatever seems offensive, but they do not seek to fasten the mind to the truth. Those who seek to correct others should present the attractions of Jesus. They should talk of His love and compassion, present His example and sacrifice, reveal His Spirit, and they need not touch the subject of dress at all. There is no need to make the dress question the main point of your religion. There is something richer to speak of. Talk of Christ, and when the heart is converted, everything that is out of harmony with the Word of God will drop off. It is only labor in vain to pick leaves off a living tree. The leaves will reappear. The ax must be laid at the root of the tree, and then the leaves will fall off, never to return" (Evangelism, p. 272).

Jesus solves all life's problems. He yearns for us to display His love. His identifying mark is not the absence of certain traits but "the love that we have for one another" (see John 13:35).

Standards and people

This special issue reveals that standards vary and cultural values make their contribution. However, the church seems to have no formal method by which it evaluates which cultural standards need to be changed. In the process the other standards suffer. If some are not followed, it lessens the force of the other standards. "Maybe we shouldn't follow them, either," some may say.

Once every generation (20 years) the church should appoint a special committee to study the list of standards in the chapter on behavior in the Church Manual and ascertain what needs to be dropped and what needs to be added. Chaperonage may need to be dropped and a standard on abortion or the environment added. In fact, abortion may need to be placed in the absolute standard category.

The church needs to always keep clear which standards belong to which of the three categories: absolute, temporal, and cultural.

Since we all mature at different rates, we must expect the most exacting standards of ourselves while expressing the greatest toleration for others. Peter re minds us that we must "love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). While love never excuses sin, it does not look for every fault and expose every failing.

Paul counsels, "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Rom. 14:1). Later in the same book he says, "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Rom. 15:7).

This is the tension upholding the law, the standards, while loving everybody. When we preach Jesus and live Jesus, the Holy Spirit will do His work of convicting those around us as to what standard they need to be following at their level of maturity. And the Jesus who ate with "sinners and publicans" will eat with us today. Yes, Jesus wants us to keep His law, His standards, and He gives us power to do so. But let us never forget that it is only by His magnificent grace that any of us will make it to heaven

*All texts are from the New International
Version of the Bible unless otherwise indicated.

+ Some may try to use this statement to show
that our stand on jewelry is wrong. The issue of
jewelry is far larger than a matter of rings and
necklaces. In many people's minds a gold chain ceases to
be a necklace when you place a watch on it. The
issue is not jewelry but adornment and economy.
As Christians, simplicity should characterize our
homes, automobiles, and vacations, as well as our
dress. A tiepin or brooch is jewelry just as much as
an earring or necklace. But because we have chosen
to list only certain items, many feel that anything
not on the list is OK. We either need to make an
exhaustive list or have no list and teach just the

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J. David Newman is the executive editor of Ministry.

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.

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?

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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