Why do some churches have “standards” in dress & behavior for their leaders and workers? Is it really necessary? We believe the answer is “Yes”. Perhaps the more important question is why such standards are needed.
That which makes such standards necessary is the self-centered, proud, independent condition of fallen human nature. If every believer was mature in the faith, knowledgeable in the Scriptures, filled with the Spirit, practicing self-denial in love, and had spiritual wisdom and discernment, then standards would NOT be necessary. However, human nature being what it is, standards and guidelines are necessary for the sake of orderliness, peace, and the testimony of Christ.
In any “household” there is a need for house rules. No doubt you have rules in your household. There is a certain time for meals, children need to be home at a certain time each night, each member of the household has his/her own chores and responsibilities; there are restrictions on the use of the TV, videos, clothing, and other activities. All of this is done, not because the parents are out to make life “miserable” for their children. Rather, it is done out of love, and with their best interest in mind. Let’s face it. Life is full of restrictions which are designed for our good. (Aren’t you glad others don’t have the freedom to drive on any side of the road they want!?! Aren’t you glad that 10 year olds do not have the liberty to get their license to drive a car?!)
In the home setting, God has given the parents the authority and responsibility to create “house rules” appropriate for their children. Children are to “obey” those whom God has placed in a position of authority over them. (Eph.6:1) They are to obey even those rules “created” by the parents which are not found in the Bible (what they may or may not watch on TV; what time to be home at night; etc.) .
So too the church is a family (Eph.3:15) and a “household” (Eph.2:19). It too has a need for “house rules” in order that it function smoothly, decently, and in order. In the local church God has also placed some men in positions of authority and those in the household are expected to “obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account”. (Heb.13:17a) The elders have the responsibility of setting certain rules and standards (times of services, responsibilities & expectations of members, proper attire for worship, deportment).
Of course, it is possible to go overboard with such standards. Some parents do. Some churches do. But the fact that some go overboard is no excuse for doing away with standards altogether. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water! Parents, what would happen in your home if there were no house rules? Each child would eat, wear, and do as they pleased! What do you think would happen in the local church if there were no house rules? There was a time in Israel’s history when the “house rules” were ignored. “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes”. (Judges 21:25b) The book of Judges ends on this sad note which describes the spiritual chaos in the nation at the time. Human nature has not changed. Today we have individuals in the churches who chafe at any mention of “standards”. Often times the reason is pride, self will, immaturity, and independence – a refusal to submit to authority. We should not be surprised. In the home some children rebel against their parents in the very same manner. Human nature is human nature! Yes, “house rules” are a necessary part of life, in our home, our country, and in our churches.
“Cries of Legalism”
One of the smokescreens used by those who chafe at the idea of the existence of standards in the church is a cry of legalism. The very mention of the term is supposed to cause all those who promote “standards” to shrink away in fear. The term “legalist” is designed to associate those who believe in upholding certain standards with the heretical Judaizers. The fact is, that the term “legalist/legalism” never appears in the Bible. Not once! It is a man-made term that seems to mean different things to different men. The closest we come to such an idea is the heresy (and it was a heresy!) of the Judaizers who attempted to put believers under the Law of Moses either as a means of salvation (Acts 15:1-5) or as a rule of life (Gal.3:1-3; 5:1-13).
What seems to be lost in the whole argument is the fact that those who try to maintain appropriate standards in church are NOT doing so as a means of salvation OR as a rule of life. If a church requires that male Sunday School teachers wear ties, or that nursery workers wear a modest dress or skirt, it is understood by all involved that such rules have nothing to do with salvation or sanctification. Linking such standards to the heresy of the Judaizers is an attempt to make the “down with standards” point of view appear Biblical. It is a hollow and inaccurate argument, without any REAL Biblical support.
Expecting certain standards from church leaders and workers is NOT robbing anyone of their liberty in Christ. If a man has such as strong conviction about not wearing a tie (for example) no one is forcing him to do so. He does not have to be a Sunday School teacher! If he has a strong conviction against wearing a choir robe, he does not have to sing in the choir.
What seems “odd” in their attempts to do away with all standards under the umbrella of “liberty” is that they are continually “demanding their rights”. Even a glance at the passages dealing with Christian liberty make one point crystal clear: our “liberty” or “rights” were not meant to be “clung to”. Rather, we are to be of such a heart attitude that we are willing to “give up” the exercise of those rights for the good of others, for the unity of the Body, and for the testimony of Christ. (ICor.9:12,15,19-22; Rom.14:13,19; Phil.2:3-7) This is the essence of Christian liberty and it is sadly lacking on the part of many who demand their “rights” in order to get their own way, and attempt to do away with standards which help maintain order, decency, and a testimony for our Lord.
“A Greater Purpose”
There really is something more important than getting one’s own way. The Bible is clear as to what the purpose of the Christian life is. “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or WHATSOEVER ye do, do all to the glory of God“. (I Cor. 10:31) Far more important than exercising my liberty to “do whatever I want” is the greater purpose of bringing glory to God. Why would anyone want to restrict the exercise of their liberty and submit to a set of standards? The fact that God has called us to be a witness for Him ought to be reason enough. That means that men are watching us and evaluating us on the only basis they can evaluate – by what they see (our appearance, our words, and our actions). “Man LOOKETH on the outward appearance”. (I Sam.16:7b) For that reason we are commanded to “provide things honest in the SIGHT of all men”. (Rom.12:17) How would you feel if you visited a church for the first time and as you went to bring your newborn baby to the nursery, you discovered that you had to hand that precious little bundle over to a young girl with punk-rock lime-green hair, wearing a low cut tank top, displaying several crude tattoos, with cut off dungarees, and with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth? Would you feel confident and comfortable leaving your baby with her? It is true that we are not able to see her heart. Perhaps she claims that she desires to glorify God. However, her appearance sends out a different message. Men cannot judge her heart, but men DO judge by appearance. With the speed at which standards are falling all around us in the world, this scenario is not far fetched. While the Bible is silent on issues such as cigarettes, lime green hair, and the exact length of dresses, our culture DOES dictate to us some norms or standards of decency which, if not observed, are offensive to many. Certain types of behavior and fashions make “statements” to our society. Therefore we want to make sure that our “statement” as a Christian is “Holiness unto the Lord“, and not: “I am a rebel” or “I am seductive” or “I am a slob”! The message that our outer man sends forth (appearance & behavior) ought to be consistent with the gospel message we proclaim. The inner heart attitude is reflected in our outward behavior & appearance. We should attempt always to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things“, which certainly includes our appearance. (Titus 2:10) We should NOT attract attention to self but to our Lord.
Yes we DO have certain expectations from those who are going to serve in the local church. We have a testimony to uphold. We ARE concerned about what men think of us (Rom.15:2-3). We want to do NOTHING that would offend the Jew, the gentile, or the church of God (I Cor.10:32). That is part of our Christian testimony as a “light”. Standards set by a church North America may not be appropriate for a church in India. But wherever believers are, there are always restrictions we must voluntarily place upon ourselves for the testimony of Christ and for the glory of God. Love, selflessness, & submission are essentials of the Christian life. But what is LOVE if it is not practiced? Love demands that we be willing to live a life of self sacrifice, willing to “give up” the exercise of our liberties or rights for others, and willing to deny self for the good of others. Are you willing to sacrifice in order to serve the Lord? If so, then submitting to a set of standards will not be a burden but a reasonable service done for the glory of God!