Lifestyle standards: A middle approach

Well-balanced perspectives on a potentially divisive issue.

Rob Wilcox works with Adventist Frontier Missions as a church planter in Albania.

What is the actual relation ship between the practice of lifestyle standards and belief in the Christian gospel? Discussions over this issue cover a broad spectrum of approach and opinion, all the way from total indifference to an obsessive preoccupation with every behavioral detail. To resolve the dilemma, we need to take a look at the whole issue of standard formation. We need to expose the underlying principles and ultimate implications of such standards and their relationship to true spirituality.

Perhaps we should begin with two basic principles. First, standards are not the heart of the gospel. Second, the gospel impacts the whole of human life and behavior.

Standards not the heart of the gospel

Paul's primary mission was the proclamation of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, not vegetarianism, a specific dress code, or any particular form of behavior. Christ was the great and consuming focus of all that the apostle did, and for a very good reason.

Paul had grasped clearly that the mere adoption of certain behaviors never creates new life. One may do everything that might be expected and still miss the essential element. Laws, prohibitions, rules, and self-discipline simply cannot accomplish what Christ has accomplished and they mustn't be put in where they don't belong the place that belongs to Christ alone.

I could eat only vegetables, walk three miles every morning, and listen to nothing but Gregorian chant and still be as cold as a bucket of ice. But if I knew Christ truly, I would begin to thaw.

Yet the assertion that standards are not the heart of the gospel often leads to the extreme opposite of saying that standards are inconsequential and should be left to personal preference. This is a wrong conclusion. It ignores the whole essence of what a standard actually is.

The definition of a standard

A lifestyle standard is a choice made in the light of our primary interest and commitments in life. In a nonspiritual context we see many who make choices because of a chosen goal. Athletes may choose a particular diet and exercise to be in shape for an upcoming race. Musicians may organize their schedule around their practice hours, carefully keeping away disrupting influences. Thought leaders develop a lifestyle that allows them time for quiet reflection. The point is simple: Lifestyle, both in a Christian and a secular context, is shaped and affected by primary chosen commitments.

Of course, we must recognize that Christians will find that their faith commitments and values will often run counter to their surrounding culture. Where that occurs, the struggle between faith and culture is inescapable. We cannot simply go with the flow of our culture, especially when to do so is inconsistent with the claims of our faith. Hence Christians need a lifestyle standard that is distinctly Christian, that is genuinely responsive to the way of Christ.

The middle way

As alluded to above, our need for and emphasis on standards at once produces two competing positions. On the one hand, standards can become so central that they can turn into a form of destructive legalism. We can enforce standards to define a particular life, in which standards are desperately clung to as the ticket into the good graces of God or even one's fellow church members. Standards are thus insinuated into the heart of faith, and the gospel is all but crowded out. That extreme is, of course, unacceptable.

On the other hand, in a system of belief where standards are minimized, we tend to forget that the gospel by its very nature must impact the whole life. No single lifestyle choice can escape the probe and judgment of the gospel. When the gospel's judgment and influence are so pervasive, it necessitates the rejection of certain aspects of the culture in which the believer lives.

The gospel also calls us to die to the outlooks, activities, and attitudes that characterize the heart of "the world," thus holding up highly the need for Christian standards (1 John 2:15-17).

As opposed to the two positions, I suggest a middle way. This is found where the heart is learning to truly care about bringing glory to God. Preoccupation with and fear concern ing one's own destiny, either in the eyes of God or of certain other people, are no longer the motive as it often is in the legalistic mind set. Neither does this middle way allow the easygoing attitude of many who have "embraced" the gospel but forgotten that, by its nature, it calls for a thorough transformation of the whole life.

For example, this middle way demands rigorous and careful think ing about how we spend our time, resources, and money. This way challenges us to consider what we really value and where our heart truly is. It invites us to search and root out those choices and lifestyle patterns that reflect the passions and lusts of the fallen nature. This middle way does not trumpet an easy, relaxing ride into the kingdom, but neither does it call for an austere, hard, and cramped outlook that receives its life breath from the fear of stepping outside a boundary.

A standard lived out in terms of this middle way should invigorate both the life of the individual Christian and the church at large. A standard that is truly an expression of my commitment to God's free grace should lead me to love actively and serve others. Standards, when operating in their true role, are the servants of the deeply held goals and aspirations at the very heart of one's life. Their foundation and the power to live according to them is truly found in the life of the Spirit.

Walking in this middle way, how ever, raises several issues to which we must give special attention. If we fail to deal with them, they will hinder us in our aim to "prove what the will of God is, that which is good and accept able and perfect" (Rom. 12:2, NASB).

Issues in the middle way

One issue is the context in which we discuss, apply, and live out standards. The only proper context for lifestyle change is that of the convert ed heart. The transformed heart alone can produce a behavior that is pleasing to the Lord.

This means that if we are to uphold high standards as a church, we must look carefully at our theology of con version. We must learn to intentionally cultivate in our teaching and preaching those attitudes of the heart that allow the Spirit to lay down in us the foundation for a new life.

We cannot bullishly approach standards head on in our dealings with each other within the church. Such an approach may produce a certain conformity and uniformity, but it will never bring us to a powerful expression of the life that is in our Lord. We must aim at helping each other wrestle honestly with what it means to be deeply challenged and loved by the living God. Such wrestling will inevitably lead to that wonderfully painful mix of broken helplessness in the light of our own sins, and a hungry passion to be continuously transformed. This alone will provide a solid foundation for the formation of a truly Christian lifestyle. Embraced by God's grace and empowered by His Spirit, we will have a keen sense of sin and the need for radical change in our patterns of living.

The greatest impetus to change is a vision of what we are intended to be as children of God. My lifestyle will only change positively when the change has come out of a realization of my failure in some particular area of life to image the living Christ. When I seek the empowering of God's grace working to effect that change, then I can truly embrace the gift of a new lifestyle pattern with gratitude.

Change coming from any other direction may look good, especially in the immediate moment, but in the end it will not prove to be something of depth and permanence. It will not remain afloat in rough waters. When lifestyle change comes as a result of a deep heart hunger to please God in all areas of life within the context of a salvation experience, only then is it meaningful.

Have standards hardened into a wall?

Members of a church with high standards must ask themselves, "How do I feel around people who do not share my standards? What are my attitudes toward them? Am I critical? Do I feel superior? Am I threatened? Do I befriend people not meeting my standards? Am I able to see their good qualities? How do I feel and react when the expression of their lifestyle standards cuts across my own?

As stated above, standards are inevitably related to culture. As Christians we form a culture which is different from the unbelieving world around us. Our new culture, if formulated in a healthy way, expresses the deepest spiritual commitments of our lives and serves those commitments.

We must be careful, however. It is easy for the cultural molds we develop to harden into a thick wall which shuts everyone else out. When this happens we lose our influence in the wider world. We become isolationistic and cannot fulfill our calling. Such a condition can lead to pride and a sense of exclusiveness.

The answer, of course, is not to throw away our standards so that we can relate better to the world around us, but to make sure that our standards have the proper foundation. If we are adhering to standards out of legalistic fear or legalistic superiority, then we are erecting a wall between us and others.

In this case, our standards have become the source of our identity, instead of reflecting our status as children of God who have been freed from sin in order to love people truly and powerfully. When standards are truly servant to our relationship with God, they will not encumber our relationship with unbelievers who do not adhere to those same standards.

If questions arise concerning our behaviors, they will be explained in terms of how they serve the central goals of our life, rather than being set forth as ends in themselves. It is these central goals of life that have the greater power to bring conviction into the life of the unbeliever.

Standards in house

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the question of the place of standards in our lives comes within our own fellowships. All of us are extremely sensitive to having another tell us how we should live. Here there arc no easy answers, but there are far-reaching principles to understand and implement.

To begin with, we must accept that standard formation takes place continually; it is a task that is never completed. One reason for this is that young people are continually being raised within the church.

We cannot automatically assume that these young people are converted. It may be that they are asked in certain contexts to abide by certain standards, but if we stop here, we fail them. We must aim at bringing them to genuine conversion. Then we can help them learn how to meet the hard questions that arise where faith commitments meet culture.

Our upcoming generations must learn to make choices based on their deep heart commitments and know the reasons why they have made these choices. Lifestyles formulated in this way will be held to with firmness and resiliency because they will flow out of heart commitments and clear understanding.

On another front, those who come in as new believers must also be helped to grapple with the meaning of their Christian faith within their cultural context. All too often we assume that these new Christians will naturally know how to relate to the thorny issues of lifestyle choices. This is by no means a given.

The local church should assume responsibility to help new members understand the fundamentals of Christian lifestyle. When congregations regularly pursue such a course, they will see the development of a mature understanding of lifestyle standards. The whole congregation needs to be involved so that we avoid the twin dangers of falling into legalism or the trap of cheap grace and watered-down faith.

This process demands patience, remembering the long, twisted path which we ourselves may have trod in our search for an authentic conversion and in the development of our own convictions in regard to lifestyle.

We also must be discerning with those who might advocate a different set of standards from our own. In situations that do not involve theology but only standards, our greatest concern should be on the spiritual dynamics operating in our lives. We need to trust one another and examine whether lifestyle choices flow from a desire to honor God.

The individual's process of wrestling with choices and the spiritual issues beneath such wrestling must never be shortchanged. When spiritual transformation is in process then we can be confident that we will be moving toward the unity promised the church.

In essence: The church must learn to grapple with the middle way, not only as individual members but also as a body. In fact the more solidly this middle way is pursued, the less the church will be plagued with the divisive forces that gather among us.

Where past meets future

One more crucial area remains to be considered: the meeting of the past and the future in the formulation of standards. We cannot fully depend upon the decisions and out looks of those who have gone before us as if they were infallible. Yet neither can we casually write them off as if our ecclesiastical ancestors were out-of-touch ignoramuses.

To relate to our forebears as if they were infallible in every aspect of their lifestyle development is to forget that they too had their dilemmas. Something is not sacred just because it has been held and practiced. Yet we should not scoff too quickly at what might seem stuffy and narrow to us.The people who upheld and established lifestyle standards were seeking to wrestle with a crucial issue: How does one arrive at maturity in Christian living?

The point is that they were grappling as we must grapple, and it is arrogant of us to write off their experience as if we are on a higher plane then they. It may well be that they were on a higher plane spiritually than the one on which we stand at present. Thus, the voices of the past can be immensely helpful to us in our attempts to work out what is pleasing to the Lord and genuinely helpful to the community of faith.

While our spiritual ancestors may have had their blind spots, we too have ours. Interacting with ideas and solutions from an age other than our own helps us to see where our own cultural milieu may have pulled the wool over our own eyes.

It is a delicate dance, this dance with the past. As we look back into the past, there is a great temptation to simply freeze the specific cultural and lifestyle patterns of a previous period, adopting them lock, stock, and barrel. This appears to make it much easier to work out answers to lifestyle issues. Anything that does not fit the pattern previously lived out by our forefathers is rejected.

It may be easier, but it is irresponsible. It sidesteps the challenge of the middle way, circumvents the process of learning to think and choose in the presence of God, and fails to perceive and then live out the perfect will of God for us here and now.


I have attempted to set forth a constructive approach for working out the implications of the gospel in regard to lifestyle standards within the fellowship of our churches. I have also sought to point out some of the pitfalls that exist along the way.

It would be very naive of me to believe that the effort to walk the middle way would free us completely from the sometimes twisted labyrinth of standard formulation. Difficulties will remain. However, if we can truly strengthen the spiritual core, we might revolutionize the whole. We would do well to remind ourselves that the tone of the church is not often set by those who are just beginning to enter the roaring maelstrom of life where all the crucial issues are met with and decided. Rather, it is set by leadership and the more mature members who have either wrestled well or poorly with the crucial issues of life.

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Rob Wilcox works with Adventist Frontier Missions as a church planter in Albania.

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