Notice the picture on the left. Everyone is dressed alike; everyone is doing the same thing. A whole group of people all holding to the exact same convictions, ethics, practice, day to day life, year after year. How, if you had to do it, would you bring that about?
For a long time now -- the last thirty-five years straight -- one half of my friends have persisted in telling me it happens only through enforcing a Scriptural church standard. A little book of rules set up (and constantly up-dated) by Scriptural churches to guide their people right.
On the other hand -- also for the last thirty-five years straight -- the other half of my friends have insisted, just as vehemently, that standards are a bad idea. We must drop our standards and go only by the Spirit of God. Only as people do what they feel inwardly convicted is right, will they come out at the right place.
May I suggest that neither one side nor the other is quite on track?
Whether I suggest it or I don't, it does not take an expert to notice that neither one side nor the other has been doing too well over the last thirty-five years. On one hand the "standards people" have grown ever more set in their ways, ever more rigid and dogmatic (even with worldliness and carnality creeping in the back door), while losing touch with the healing, saving, truly life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
On the other hand the "Spirit-only" people have grown ever more unstable, cast about by the winds, finding a whole new set of issues to disagree and divide about, while a tide of worldliness and carnality threatens to engulf them as well.
To illustrate my point, I will share with you a letter I got this morning from a conservative Mennonite whose church, apparently, has just passed a new rule about wearing dark buttons on light shirts, and tearing around with amphibious vehicles (Gators). Obviously disaffected with the decisions made, he writes this scathing little story:
"It has been our policy in the Ambassador Fellowship not to wear shirts with contrasting buttons, especially not for church . . . " the bishop reads seriously. Our church has gathered to go over the standard, a delightful and unifying tradition we indulge in several times a year. I got here late, and am sitting in the back row, so I'm watching people. Some are nodding, blessed by the security of having every tiny detail of their lives decided for them, happy in the knowlege that they are completely kosher, and therefore completely godly. Some look bored. They've been doing this all their lives. It's not something they really think about anymore. A good few, mostly youth, look absolutely expressionless. They have been hiding their feelings for so long that it has become instinctive for them to look 'blank' at occasions like this.
"We have accepted utility vehicles for work purposes only", he continues, and then pauses. "Would driving a gator to the end of a long lane to get the mail be a work purpose?'' he asks. After a little discussion they decide that would be OK. All the ministers look cheerful at having helped provide the direction we need. It's obvious they are feeling blessed by the unity and security and spiritual safety of our church. If only they were right! If only the hearts of their members were as perfect and peaceful as their expressions.
How can they be so blind? The ministers are not stupid, they mean well, but come on!!! Behind those sweet, innocent, attentive faces are: Ben and Faith... here only until they are old enough to marry, and get out. Judy, suicidal. Anita, depressed. Mark, miserable. And on and on and on. Some are fed up, frustrated, desperate to be free, waiting for the right moment to get out; by which time they will be so angry and reckless they will make very poor decisions. Some are leading double lives. ...breaking the standards ( and their vows) regularly and gleefully, and getting a big kick out of the whole shebang. They have almost no concept of God's view of right and wrong. Water-skiing and hard-core porn are equally sinful in their minds, because both are outlawed in the all-important standard. Others are just sad and confused. They have a vague idea that something is not right, that they shouldn't feel so hopeless and discouraged all the time; but they figure it has a lot to do with the fact that they don't feel as submissive all the time as they ought to. After all, they have been taught from babyhood that peace and submission go hand in hand. Which is close enough to the truth to be devastatingly dangerous.
That is the worst! Truth twisted just a tad. It is all so close to right, and it is presented as the real thing. Many of the members sincerely think it is. So people try it. It doesn't work. And they give up on God. But God is not the problem. When we get to know Him and follow the Bible, it always works. Always. It's only when we get "smarter", or "more spiritual" and start adding and taking away, that things get disastrous.
We have 'improved' Christianity to the point that it has lost all the things that make it alive, and powerful, and life-changing, and glorious.
Even people who despise organized religion respect people with Christian characteristics...integrity, humility, compassion, justice, wisdom, peace....those people make the best friends, bosses, employees, spouses.
"If CHRIST is lifted up, He will draw all men unto himself". That is a fact. So, if our religion, personally, or as a church disgusts, frightens, discourages, or repels people, we don't have the real thing, no matter how righteous we think we are.
You know what this little paper reminds me of? It reminds me for the world of the things I wrote in my teens or twenties. My first reaction is to smile and agree -- with a lot of it. The young man writing this story is certainly correct in his observation that slapping down more standards will never cure spiritual problems and real issues within the church. If church members really sit together, just pretending to be Christian, while immoral, suicidal, unconverted within, their ministers surely ought to do something more constructive than worry about the colour of the buttons on their clothes.
On the other hand, our bright young critic also missed some important issues.
Not a soul on earth has ever gotten spiritually damaged, hurt, or hindered in his walk with Christ by being told what colour of buttons to wear or not to wear. Young people that chafe under being told what to do have a carnality problem that makes them chafe under any rule, any restriction made by any church or school or government in any country of the world.
Do you think the young people of Burkina Faso all shine in stability, inner peace and encouragement, prospering in steadily-growing maturity because they have no Mennonite church standard to give them grief?
Carnal people the world over -- Mennonites, Mormons, Toronto Blessing Charismatics, Hindus, atheists, whatever -- will all find something to rebel against, to keep them unhappy, to give them a reason to break loose and go their carnal way. Nobody that still feels trapped by having to wear (or not wear) a certain colour of buttons, or having to take the car instead of the Gator to see his friends, strikes me as anything too Christian. (So it's your buttons that keep you from praying? Your buttons that keep you from reading your Bible and getting on with Christ? Your buttons that have shrunken your horizon and stopped you from thinking of eternal Truth? You must be joking!)
How do such standards issues get handled in Christian community?
Where clothes are made or bought in bulk, the sister making the choices (obviously not a young person out for kicks) will use her common sense. We like our general uniformity because we like living together and want to identify one with another.
And as to where or how to use the Gator (or the tractor, or the bikes, or the combine and the semi-trailers), everything is owned by the entire brotherhood, so to have the mature members speaking their thoughts on the matter comes naturally. Young people expect it, and early learn to live with it in peace.
Do not fool yourselves. Having a written church standard, or not having one, neither makes it nor breaks it. Our problems and our divisions come, Leo Tolstoy said, not from following the Truth which is one, but from following falsehoods that are many.
The sooner we all come to one Lord, one Savior, one Redeemer, in our hearts, and learn how to walk with him, the sooner we will agree on how to do everything in unity at every place we live.
After thirty-five years of having heard the pros and the cons, I have come to the feeling that every local church must constantly work at keeping itself in Gospel order (I firmly and steadfastly reject the idea of any universal extra-Biblical church standard). And that order, I believe, will only be as good as the spiritual level of every local church. A level best diagnosed and maintained through a daily life together, through constant, frequent communion meetings where we all hold ourselves and one another accountable to the high standard of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May we hold fast to what we have until he comes again.
Rocky Cape Christian Community
19509 Bass Highway
Detention River, Tasmania 7321