Legalism and Scripture 4: Pastor, Preach Standards

Standards are inescapable.  It isn’t a question of whether your church will have them – your church has standards.  Every church has standards.  The question is, who will set the standard, and what will be the basis of that standard. 

Every church has a dress code.  It doesn’t matter if the church uses fog and theater lighting like a nightclub or uses robes and collars like a cathedral.  Every church has a dress code.  Somebody sets the expectations for those who attend church regularly.  Everyone who attends knows what that expectation is and what the boundaries and limits are.  Your wife or daughters can probably tell you who sets it.  And those who attend the church regularly will, for the most part, conform to the expectation.

Of course, there are exceptions.  I am setting forth general observations here, not hard and fast rules.  I am pointing out the way things are in churches.  But I intend to argue something from these generalizations.  Since dress codes and standards are inescapable and there will be a standard wherever you go, the church’s leadership should set the standards intentionally.

I don’t intend to say what that standard should be in this article.  I think my view of these things is pretty well-known.  I have written on them in the past.  My point here is to say that there is a standard, and since there is, the church’s leadership should set out to establish a Biblical standard (as they see it) from Scripture.

This article is the fourth and final installment for this go-around on legalism.  In the previous three articles (here, here, and here), we have highlighted a few things about legalism.  First, it is not a Scriptural category – the Bible never speaks directly about legalism, and in fact, many of our notions about legalism do not fit with anything we see in Scripture.  For example, God doesn’t forbid law-keeping or treat it as if it were contrary to New Testament Christianity.  Jesus taught His disciples that their righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and that they should do what they said – but not what they did.  Second, legalism is, to some degree, inescapable.  We all have rules that we are very rigid about and would impose on everyone around us if given the opportunity.  Those rules can be all across the spectrum – from “live and let live” casual to super-uptight suit-and-tie fundamentalism.  Legalism isn’t found in any particular rule.  Legalism is a kind of spiritual pride that attaches to whatever standard one might hold, believing that I am spiritually superior to others because I have high, low, or even no standards. 

I want to extend this idea a little further.  It isn’t legalistic to establish a standard in your church that will be preached and taught and honored.  It is, in fact, necessary to the unity of the church and part of what it means for a pastor to shepherd the people.  So here are a few points for consideration.

First, preaching a standard is part of shepherding the church

People want guidance.  Nothing scatters the sheep like having no shepherd.  And unless the pastor intentionally seeks to establish standards by which clothing decisions will be made, the church will be pulled apart by competing interests.  Every group, whether church, school, or social club, will have those who lean more or less to the conservative side of the clothing spectrum, those who are a little more relaxed in their standards, and a few who push the envelope – no matter what that “envelope” might be. 

If clothing were a matter of indifference, all these competing factions would “live and let live,” as they say.  But we all know from experience how pressure can be exerted, especially regarding clothes (though that pressure can also be applied to music and entertainment).

For this reason, God gave pastors to churches (Ephesians 4:8-13).

For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: (Ephesians 4:12-13)

Unity is more likely in a church where the pulpit leadership provides clear guidance and direction.  And despite the possible pushback from people in the church (who might call you a legalist – and leave the church), the pastor was given by God to provide this kind of Biblical instruction.   

As I have argued, someone is establishing the standards for the church.  Since “standards” represent the rule or model established by some authority (so Webster), a pastor who wishes to shepherd his church according to Scripture will see standards as the careful application of Scripture to God’s people in this present age.  God blesses His churches with men who faithfully apply his Word to all of life.  This requires the pastor to know the Bible, the congregation, and the culture as he guides His church to faithfulness in this hostile generation. 

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In general, Christians don’t want to fight about clothing.  And in my experience, when guidelines are clearly communicated, they don’t.  Therefore, the pastor’s role is to take the risk and lead His church toward Biblical standards.

Second, maintaining a standard is necessary for unity

The goal is unity, not uniformity, though unity can sometimes look like uniformity.  In our church, we are very clear about what we believe a Biblical standard should be.  The church knows what to expect when it comes to teaching these standards.  But we don’t demand conformity to all of our teaching.  We give people space to grow, to sort through the things we teach, and even in some cases, to disagree.  Unity doesn’t require perfect agreement.  Our church, I believe, has a great deal of unity, despite some disagreement on the application of Scripture to cultural issues like clothing and entertainment. 

This is what I believe (and practice) in these kinds of things.  As pastor, I have a responsibility to preach and apply God’s Word to the hearts of our people.  The church is responsible to receive the Word with readiness of mind and to search the Scriptures daily, whether these things be so (Acts 17:11).  Together, we are responsible for protecting the unity of the church.

Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  (Ephesians 4:3)

Paul says nothing about “building” unity or “creating” unity.  On the contrary, God gave His church unity, and He demands that we keep it.  So, we preach and teach standards to protect the unity God has gifted to His church, not to impose uniformity on the church.

I don’t believe that I have authority to tell Christians how they can and cannot dress.  I am happy to explain my standards and defend them from the Bible.  But I don’t believe my explanations are sufficient to bind your conscience.  As a preacher of the gospel, I have the authority to say what Scripture says and what I think that should look like if we apply the Bible faithfully and practically. 

Outside of my church, my preaching and teaching (and writing) are offered as a help to fellow believers.  The authority only extends inasmuch as Scripture alone is authoritative.  But inside my church, my preaching and teaching play an essential role in preserving the unity God has given us and bringing the entire church together (Ephesians 4:12-13).  This is why I believe it is vital that we preach and teach Biblical standards.  We want our church to understand the what and why of personal holiness.

I must approach these issues in humility.  But God has made me responsible for shepherding and guiding our church so that we treasure our unity.

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; (Ephesians 4:1-2)

Third, teaching a standard is part of the Great Commission

Christ commanded His church – note that – to preach the Great Commission.  The Great Commission was given to the disciples as a church, not merely as individuals.  Perhaps the most overlooked part of the Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:20 —

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…

Biblical standards are part of the faithful application of Scripture to all of life.  So, preaching standards is part of the discipleship ministry of the church. 

For this reason, a pastor does his church a great disservice if he sets forth all that the Bible says in a particular passage or topic but then says nothing about what this should look like in the real world.

My wife and I have been greatly helped by the ministry of Douglas Wilson.  At times, we have also been surprised by some of the ways he applies Scripture – applications we had not heard before but that made sense to us Scripturally.  For example, he made one application that we found very helpful as we raised our children.  He pointed out that the “never aim a toy gun at anyone” rule is impractical and wrongheaded.  Guns were made for war, and parents should teach their children the difference between war and murder.  For this reason, Wilson suggested that if the kids are playing war, it is perfectly appropriate for them to aim their toy guns at each other and pull the trigger.  However, if one of the children walks through the living room with a toy gun and shoots a non-combatant sibling, he should be marched off for a spanking. 

This is an example of the kind of faithful application of Scripture that fulfills Matthew 28:20.

Fourth, establishing a standard is not the same thing as “imposing” a standard

By “establish,” I mean that the pastor should carefully teach his church what the Bible says regarding clothing, entertainment, music, associations, etc.  I don’t believe “shepherding” requires micromanaging, though I recognize differences in styles.  I certainly object to the idea that unity requires uniformity.  As a rule, I believe in patient instruction and discipleship from Scripture.  So, I do not believe in “imposing” a standard on the church.  But I do think the pastor should actively seek to lead his church to Biblically faithful standards that please and honor God.  This is part of the pastor’s ministry to the church: to teach what the Bible requires of us and to lead the church in the discipline of God-honoring standards. 

Along with this, I think it necessary that the church not only have a clear idea of what Scripture requires but also of what Scripture allows.  The church should set forth what a faithful application of Scripture should look like and identify the point at which the conscience is bound.  How strictly will the teaching of the church be enforced?  I believe churches and pastors must communicate this to the church and prospective members.  No surprises after the fact.  If strict enforcement is the rule, then that should be known from the start, not sprung on people after they have joined (and can’t “un-join” without risking ex-communication). 

Just as every church will uphold a standard – intentionally or by default – so every church will make allowances.  We cannot possibly define every allowance, but I think the church should do its best to describe how strictly it will enforce the standards it holds. 

In our church, we set aside time yearly to review our “worker standards.”  In these annual “worker training nights,” we tell the church what we expect while people are serving in ministry.  This includes their walk with the Lord, time spent in prayer and preparation, appropriate conduct, and appearance.  These things do not apply to what they do in their homes or outside the church.

We also set forth our standards for those who serve in leadership in the church.  Our idea is that we want those in leadership to model the standards we teach from the Bible.  The hope is that leadership in the church will set the kind of example that others will want to follow. 

It isn’t a perfect system, of course.  No doubt, some members might object that if they disagree with a particular standard, they can never serve in leadership in our church.  We understand this, but we also believe that we are responsible for speaking with a consistent voice to the church. 

But I would also argue that God never intended for a single church to attempt to be for everyone.  That seems impossible to me.  I, for one, would have a hard time attending a church that uses a rock band, foggers, and theater lighting as part of its worship.  I’m not surprised when some who visit our church think it is too rigid.  We certainly don’t lack for outreach, and we are diligently making disciples for Christ.  Occasionally, someone will tell me – as an accusation – that our church is only suitable for people who grew up in church.  That isn’t true, of course.  About half of our church came to Christ as adults and more than a few at our church.  Several come from a background far removed from a “Christian school upbringing.”  Yet, God is doing a work of grace in their hearts, and we are delighted for the opportunity to fulfill the entire Great Commission in their lives.

But discipleship requires patience as we seek to see the Word of God established in hearts.  This is the ministry, and just as God doesn’t impose His will but instead makes us willing, even so, the church should seek to make disciples with patience “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

Finally, preaching a standard makes for happy people

We are always happier when we know what is expected.  This is a rule for life, and it certainly applies to Christianity.  Do I believe that I have a right to attempt to bind the conscience in areas outside of Scripture?  No.  But I also deny that there are areas in life where Scripture is silent.  God hasn’t filled His Word with lists of rules, and Scripture is not a rulebook.  But God has given us principles that apply to every area of life, and it is our job to discern what Scripture says on any given issue.  We strive to live by the Word of God.

This is why I say the church will be much happier if the people know what to expect from the pulpit.  And though it is impossible to avoid the occasional surprise, the church should make every effort to communicate that expectation as clearly as possible.  This avoids some of the angst of discovering that things were not as they appeared.  From what I have observed, difficulties come when Christians are blindsided by the strictness of application in a church or by the relaxed application when they expected strictness. 

But, of course, forbearance will always be necessary, both from the pulpit and the pew.  It is impossible to avoid offense (Luke 17:1).  God puts His people together into an assembly of saints in part to teach us patience, to help us learn forbearance, to teach us the hard work of laying aside self to enjoy a greater unity.  We will always wrestle with boundaries and limitations; as far as I can tell, this is a design feature as we learn to love one another.  Believers must learn the balance between personal faithfulness (my expectations for myself and my family) and Christian liberty (my expectations for others). 

But within the church, the pastor must provide leadership and guidance so the church knows what to expect. 

In conclusion, let me say that standards need not mean crankiness.  I don’t have to be angry about my standard, and I most certainly shouldn’t establish boundaries with harshness.  Unfortunately, we tend to enforce our standards this way too often, especially in churches that hold to a “higher” or “stricter” standard.  In the more rigid churches, the standards are often enforced with frowns, growls, and animosity towards anyone who doesn’t cheerfully comply. 

I am not arguing for a chart in the church lobby describing acceptable clothing and hairstyles for men and women in attendance.  Instead, I say that we should define our standards from the Word of God, intentionally, communicating that standard through the pulpit ministry of the church while bringing people along to that standard without imposing it.

How then would a church establish a standard?  It is good, I think, for the people who come to your church to know what they can expect to hear preached and taught from the pulpit.  This is why we have a statement of faith and a constitution.  This is why we generally encourage people to investigate the church – ask questions and observe what is happening – before joining the church.  Churches should be upfront about what they believe and what standards are preached and upheld within the church.  There should be no surprises after the fact, no bait-and-switch used to hook people and then take them captive. 

Ultimately, a church shouldn’t seek to grow by attracting believers to its congregation.  I shouldn’t have to say this.  But unfortunately, much of the growth in growing churches comes from other churches in the area where people have grown tired or bored.  Along comes an exciting church/pastor and then begins the migration.  Churches should aim for growth through evangelism.  And when they do, they should diligently teach converts to follow Christ in all things.   So, when mature Christians visit and show an interest in joining, we should diligently explain the standards we honor so they can decide whether or not they can hold those same standards or live with the church’s promotion of that standard.  Churches should communicate their boundaries, expectations, and limits, so prospective families can make wise and informed decisions.  And, when we reach a family through evangelism, we should diligently work through discipleship so they will understand the Biblical reasons behind the church’s standards. 

Pastors should faithfully teach and preach the Biblical basis for the standards promoted in the church.  I believe in expository preaching, so I don’t often find myself in a passage that explicitly preaches all of our standards.  As a result, I don’t preach on standards a lot.  Instead, we take a mid-week service at the start of every year to review our “worker standards,” and we include in that session the basic standards we hold to as a church. 

Our church has standards for those who serve in ministry – what we expect of them while serving in the church.  These expectations do not extend to them in their home.  We firmly believe that the husband sets the standards for his home, and we strive to honor him as the head of the house.   But we also think that we have a responsibility to teach what the Bible says in areas of clothing and music, and entertainment, so we take some time to explain that.  We primarily promote standards in our church through those we put in leadership.  Unity is essential to us, and nothing will cause disunity faster than open disagreement on standards.  For this reason, we strive to ensure that those in leadership are setting an example in all areas of their Christian life, including in the standards they live by. 

Ultimately, we don’t want to be fighting over dress codes – and in 25 years of ministry, we have rarely had a fight over it.  We don’t have anything like code enforcement and aren’t confronting people about their clothes.  We teach what we believe the Bible says about these things, encourage our people to honor that, and strive to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  We don’t have total agreement within the church on these things, and we are okay with that.  We try to have it clearly in our mind what the expectations are, along with the limits to those expectations. Pastor, you aren’t a legalist if you teach and preach standards in your church.  You are, in fact, a shepherd if you do.