Standards or Preferences
This issue goes WAY BACK into my background and roots. As a young person I often heard sermons on how we as Christians should have "high standards" and how it would be the lowering of standards that would bring a Christian to ruin.
The standards being preached were usually dress standards or standards concerning our appearance. No pants on women, no long hair on men, and no mixed bathing (unmarried men and women or boys and girls swimming together at the same time in the same pool): those were the staple topics of sermons. But I’ve seen preachers act stompin’ mad about stone washed jeans, jewelry on men, men using hairdryers, facial hair on men, short hair on women, anyone wearing casual cloths to church, and especially about anybody not being an Independent Baptist.
Hopefully you consider those to be strange things to preach about?
The passage of Scripture often used to address the favorite topic of such paragons of self-ascribed separation and holiness (that topic being: pants on women) was 1st Timothy 2:9, "In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array…” There was also an obscure passage in the Old Testament (Isaiah 47:2) about Babylon uncovering her thigh, which was a shameful thing in that culture. From that passage preachers concluded that skirts had to be to the knee. Interestingly enough, the word "modest" in 1st Timothy actually points to the price and impressiveness of the apparel, not the level of how sexy or revealing the style was.
But that’s just the beginning. Preaching against many other pet peeves was common: tattoos, CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), non KJV Bible translations (not that the accuracy and fullness of the Scripture is a small matter), the use of projectors in the church sanctuary, drums, skinny jeans, and I even heard a preacher once who preached against the use of anything other than a wooden pulpit for the pastor to stand behind in the sanctuary.
I certainly have preferences on many of those issues, but how do we know the difference between standards (or as they used to be called - convictions) and mere preferences? What direction from the Scripture do we have to help us make a proper distinction?
Doubtless there several good passages that could give us direction here. But for me, 2nd Timothy 2:14-15 will suffice. There, Paul wrote, "Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." To subvert is to destabilize, which is a pretty good description of what happens when preachers get distracted from the gospel and start fixating on legalistically imposing their own personal opinions, the collective cultural preferences of their ministry cronies, or their own private interpretations on others.
Perhaps you have heard or read about the following breakdown of different levels of doctrinal importance: primary, secondary, and tertiary. I did a quick Google search and found several articles about those subsets (including one from the Gospel Coalition called “When Should Doctrine Divide?”).
Though it’s a bit of an oversimplification, I can illustrate my view of doctrinal tiers as follows:
- Primary doctrines would include the fundamentals of the faith (the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the sufficiency of Scriptures, salvation by grace through faith, the resurrection of Christ, etc.).
- Secondary doctrines are things that make me a baptist (for example) - other than # 1, which is biblical authority. That one is obviously primary. (But the rest includes things like baptized membership, 2 ordinances, 2 offices in the church, etc.).
- Tertiary doctrines could be spiritual choices that I have to make based on culture, experience, my unique calling, and my personality (music styles, clothing styles, preaching styles, etc.).
Much of what many Christians get all huffy about actually fits into none of those categories though. It's stuff that is purely expressions of their own personal tastes and preferences.
It’s interesting that very, very few professing Christians (that I know) have ever left a church based on primary doctrinal issues, unless they were apostate. I’ve seen plenty leave for that reason. Also very few leave over secondary issues. Most leave over tertiary issues, or worse; over matters of personal preference.
I’m sure you’ve seen this statement before, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” Of course, if you want to be even more biblical, you would probably have to add, “In all things, patience.”
Admittedly, there are some issues that span several degrees or levels of importance. Music is one such example. It's not like God has nothing to say about music. He does. But He has also left the door wide open to include many, many genres and artistic expressions. Personally, I prefer diversity in music both in my private life and in corporate worship. A little dab of just about everything is wonderful. I could worship happily in a church that used all hymns, or all contemporary, or all country gospel, or bluegrass, etc. In any case, I sure hope and expect the spirit of it to be good, and it's important for the quality to be decent. But the style can vary.
How about in the Scripture? Do we find any biblical examples of either apostles or prophets choosing certain modes of worship or devotion that were clearly just their personal preference? I think of John the Baptist's diet and attire as an interesting example of what could very well be described as eccentric preferences (though perhaps led by the Spirit), but certainly not an expectation that he placed on anyone else.
Here is a decent conclusion to end with. For all of us, we should learn to appreciate and enjoy the freedom we have in Christ, but we must never abuse our liberty. We should be gracious. Peter wrote in 1st Peter 2:16 that we are “free,” but that we should not be “using our liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but [instead we must use it] as the servants of God." He added for good measure, "Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. ”
Although I'm focused on this issue in this blog entry, overall we must just remember to keep the main thing the main thing. Preach the gospel and make disciples. Do everything with humble dependance on the Holy Spirit for yourself and for others. Be tough on self and liberal with others. And, leave room for people to grow at the pace God works out in their life. And, we need to make sure that we aren’t majoring on the minors while simultaneously marginalizing matters of primary significance.