By Richard O'Ffill
We live in a time of change. There are changes, even fundamental changes, taking place so rapidly that we can hardly keep up with them. I shouldn't say that we can hardly keep up with them. You really don't have to try keep up with them, because if you do nothing they simply carry you along with them.
Some people don't like change, but I don't know how we can avoid it. Nature itself is about change. A thing that doesn't change isn't alive. A rock doesn't change, or if it does, it is not very fast; but for the living, change is what life is about. Although change is what life is about there must be things that don't change. Can you imagine what it would be like if there were no natural law? Though it is necessary on one hand to change, there must be some things that never change or the result would be chaos.
In this sermon I am going to talk about Christian standards. I don't need to remind us that what used to be known as Christian standards are in some places now pretty much on the way out.
Now, just in case you don't know what I am talking about when I say Christian standards, maybe I ought to explain. Christian standards are the way that Christians are supposed to live. Christian standards have to do with every area of our lives including the way we eat, the way we dress and what we do for entertainment.
To a large extent the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not invent its own list of rules or standards. By and large it adopted those that were already in existence. You see, our forefathers and mothers were largely Methodists, and the Methodists in the nineteenth century when our church began were not particularly liberal in respect to lifestyle. By the way, the Methodists were not alone in this respect. In my own lifetime there were several denominations besides our own that didn't drink, smoke, dance, wear jewelry, or go to the movies.
I remember back when I was getting ready to go to boarding school. The application forms that you had to fill out asked if you went to movies. If you said yes, you would probably not be accepted, and once you were in school if you were caught going to the movies they could suspend you from school or worse.
There is a scriptural basis for having what we call Christian standards. From the beginning of Scripture until the end, God teaches us--more than that, He commands us--to be different from the world. Listen to these verses early in the Old Testament from Leviticus 11:44,45, “For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
The point in the text is that in order for the Lord to save the Children of Israel He had to take them out of Egypt. Egypt was a symbol of a sinful ideology and a subsequent sinful lifestyle that oppressed them. So they could not continue to be in Egypt and be free. To be free they had to be taken out of Egypt.
In the New Testament there are two texts that come to mind. One says, (1 John 2:15) “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” The other says, (James 4:4) “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
These two texts were the ones we were referring to when we used to say that Christians were not supposed to be “worldly”. We would say that a particular type of activity was forbidden because it was “worldly”. We used to preach and teach that as Christians we had to be separate from the world. Those days now seem to be something of the past. Believe it or not, in many places these days we are actually spending more time trying to convince ourselves that it is all right to be in the world than we do in trying to understand why we must remain separate from the world.
When we talk about Christian standards there is another thing that has complicated matters and that is that someone will always say we are not saved by works. So as a result when we talk about things that have to do with how a Christian should live, we often get into a debate on how we are saved.
Frankly, I don't know why there should be any confusion in this regard. How we are saved and how we live as people who are being saved are two separate issues. How a person is saved is always the same and that is we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the debate seems to be centered around how a person who has the Holy Spirit in their hearts should live and behave. There would be little debate in this matter if we only understood the meaning of the word “holiness”. I looked up the meaning of the word that is used for holiness and the meaning of the word in Hebrew is separate.
This being the case, the thing that we need to resolve then is what being separate from the world will look like. It definitely doesn't have to do with our mailing address. Jesus Himself recognized this when He prayed to His father in John 17:15, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” So being a Christian is not about moving to heaven…at least not yet. As Christians we still live in our houses or apartments and we have an address in this world: yet Jesus prayed that although we live here in this world of sin, we should be kept from the evil that is in the world.
This sounds crazy, but maybe our problem is that we don't know what evil is anymore. We really shouldn't be having any problem here because the Bible is clear as to what evil is. It could be though that the reason that we are having so much trouble in this respect is because we seem to cross back and forth so often between the things of the world and the things of God that we have lost the ability to tell the difference.
I have heard that there are people who are colorblind. It is not that there is no such thing as color; it is just that these people can't tell one color from the next.
There are some who argue that really everything is a matter of culture, and that what we say is right or wrong is simply how we may see it from our own cultural point of view. I recognize that to some extent this may be true. There are definitely such things as unique cultural taboos. But it is also true that whether you live in the Americas, Africa, Asia or Antarctica, the Scripture teaches in Ecclesiastes 12:14, “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” This means then that there is such a thing as evil, and God sees it as evil in whatever culture you may find it.
Inasmuch as our culture is the sum of the way that we live, this text in Ecclesiastes is saying that God will bring everything we do into judgment and will determine if it is good or evil. This means, Friend, that the problem that we have to be concerned about is not just that you judge me or that I judge you, but that we must all one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Romans 14:10, “...for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”
To me this means that what I think of your culture is not your problem but my problem, and what you think of my culture is not my problem but your problem, but how Jesus sees your life and my life is both your problem and my problem.
There is another thing that we must take into account when we think and talk about Christian standards, and that is, does God expect those who are being saved to live differently than those who aren't. Now maybe we should define what we mean by “live differently.” These days they are telling us that all we should be doing is love each other, and of course, we should be and we must be--but the question again is, how do people who love each other live? Does loving you have anything to do with the way that I dress, with what I eat, and what I do for entertainment? I say yes, it does.
I am convinced that there is nothing that I do in my life that affects nobody but me. The saying that “how I live is my own business” is a myth. Those of us who have lived in families where one of our loved ones has been into alcohol and drugs know that how we live affects everybody else.
Having mentioned alcohol and drugs, I might as well talk about the matter of health as a component of Christian standards. When we talk about standards of health we often refer to them as the health message.
The Word of God is absolutely clear that our bodies are not our own, and that if we insist on defiling our bodies we cannot be saved. The Bible tells it like it is when it says that those who insist on defiling their bodies will be destroyed. This is tough talking, but it makes sense and it is not only talking about being destroyed in the final judgment. Those who consistently violate the bottom line laws of health sooner or later tend to destroy themselves, to say nothing of the grief and suffering that they cause the members of their families all along the way.
I have come to the conclusion that, after God, my body belongs to my wife. When I say this I am not referring to intimacy, but the fact that should I one day suffer a stroke, guess who has to pick me up off the floor. Guess who will have their life ruined because of my careless lifestyle. When we stand before the preacher the day we get married we pledge to each other to love, honor and cherish each other until death do us part. It would seem to me that this carries with it the implied pledge to live as healthfully as possible so that our mate will not have to suffer needlessly because of our indiscretions in the matter of healthful living.
In our church health has been an important component of what we call the Adventist lifestyle. Early on certain health principles were incorporated into our list of Christian standards--that is, our list of do’s and don’ts. I am sorry to say these days that, to some extent at least, the New Agers are often more sensitive to the importance of healthful living and abstaining from harmful substances than are many that profess to be Christians. I recognize that there will be people in heaven who were not vegetarians, but it is difficult to understand why, at a time in which the society in general is becoming more and more convinced of the truth of what it means to follow certain principles of health, that among Adventist there would be so many who, for what seems to be almost a spirit of adolescent rebellion, are going the other direction.
Of course, we are not saved by the health message or because of the health message, but say what you want about it, the apostle Paul says it like it is. And that is, in the life of a Christian who is being saved, whether he eats or drinks or whatever he does, he does for the glory of God, and it goes without saying God cannot bless what He has already cursed.
Now that I have opened the can of worms I might as well take some of them out one by one. I said earlier I do not believe that in the past we were wrong in having Christian standards, but maybe the problem was that we did not understand why we were doing them. So now when nobody seems to be enforcing them anymore, many have begun to ignore them altogether.
I think of two texts of Scripture which I will use to introduce another standard of Christian living. One of these texts is found in Genesis 3:7-11:
“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked?”
The other text that I want to read in this respect is found in Luke 8:27, 35:
“And when he went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs... Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.”
If you haven't already guessed, I am going to talk about the principle of Christian dress. I believe in the texts that I have just read there are two obvious points: One is that when Adam and Eve sinned they lost the natural covering that they had when they were created, and when this happened they knew something was wrong and tried to cover themselves. The point of the other text is that the man who was possessed with evil spirits was naked, but later when he was healed the text says he has his clothes on. In plain language, when he was crazy he was naked and when he was in his right mind he put his clothes back on.
Now let me get down to the nitty-gritties. This generation seems to have some kind of fascination with taking off their clothes, at least in revealing as much as possible. This cannot be interpreted as being a step forward, but given the texts I have just read, must be seen as a step back toward the fallen condition. We used to have an expression, “Aren't you ashamed of yourself?” I believe this generation would answer “no” to this question. This generation seems to be willing to do about anything to be considered “sexy,” and to do that it feels that it needs to reveal as much as possible. It is no wonder that fornication and adultery are becoming a way of life.
If that were not enough, this tendency to take off the clothes is being more and more manifested in those who otherwise claim to be followers of Christ. There was a time in which our culture had a word. The word was modesty. A synonym for the word modesty is decency. If there were a word that can be used to describe our culture it would surely be the word “indecent”. Using so-called famous people as role models, our society has pretty well cast off all that used to be modesty and decency. There are still laws on the books that prohibit what is termed public indecency, but these laws are being less and less enforced, at least under certain circumstances such as in motion pictures and during certain events such as Mardi Gras.
The ones who are being affected, and I might say degraded, by this trend are women. Woman was the crowning act of God's creation, and therefore it would stand to reason that it would be Satan's purpose to degrade the beauty and sanctity of womanhood in every way possible.
There may be some who disagree with me, but I believe that what we refer to as masculinity and femininity are principles. The current trend to confuse the genders and to introduce what is called uni-sex is a strike and an insult to God who created us male and female. Frankly, it is getting so bad I don't know what we are going to do about this, especially in the context of the body of Christ, which is the church. Whose responsibility will it be to educate our children as to the principles of decency and the principles of masculinity and femininity? Is it the responsibility of the church, the school or the home? Or is the responsibility of all three?
Let's go on now. I won't talk about undress anymore but about dress. I have a question to ask. Is there such a thing as appropriate dress? In a moment you will see what I am leading up to. But then again the question, Is there such a thing as appropriate dress? Let me explain. Down in Florida where I live we are known as being a sunny vacationland. If you have ever been down there I am sure that you have seen the signs that are posted on the doors of stores and other places of business. They say, “No bathing suits or bare feet allowed.” No problem. No one gets mad or boycotts the store. They simply make sure that when they go in to shop it is with shoes and not in bathing suits. The point I am making is that generally it is not appropriate to go shopping barefoot and in your swimming suit.
Remember I told you I was going to talk now about appropriate dress. Though it is not appropriate to go shopping barefoot and in swimming suits, is it appropriate to go to the beach barefooted and dressed in a swimming suit? Yes, it is.
A really special dress-up event in our lives is a wedding. There is an appropriate way to dress when you go to a wedding, especially when you are a member of the wedding party. It is appropriate to work in the yard in your grubbies. It is not socially acceptable to go a wedding dressed in what you were wearing when you were painting the house.
By now you may be saying, Pastor O'Ffill, get to the point. OK, here goes. What I am leading up to in all of this is to ask another question. The question that I want to ask is, Is there then an appropriate way to dress when we go to church? Now let me say before I go on, I am not talking about a person who walks in off the street. I am talking about those of us who go to church every week. What I am trying to say is that I believe that we ought to dress the best we can when we go to church. Of course, we all recognize that the best you can depends on who you happen to be. But, nevertheless, I believe that it should be the best we can according to what our best happens to be.
Back in the old days people had what they called their “Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes.” I remember when I was a boy that I had clothes that I wore only for church. They were special and wearing them to church made going to church special. I believe that though we may not do that much anymore, the custom was based on a good principle, and that is, we should educate our children--and for that matter our people--that when we go into the presence of God it should not be the same as when we go anyplace else. It should be special. Now I am not talking about being rich or following the latest fashion. To go to church wearing the latest fashion is violating another principle, and that is that we should not go to church to draw attention to ourselves.
Though we may not have considered it very often, there is a lot being said by the way we dress for an occasion, because how we dress usually shows the importance that we give to the event. I don't believe that in church we should tell people what they must wear, but I do believe we are responsible to the members, in an age of indecency and disrespect, to educate them about decency and appropriateness. Once we, as Christians, understand the principles involved in a particular area of life, then I believe we are safe to allow each one to apply those principles in their own case.
When I come to think of it, in the past we probably made a mistake in telling people every move they ought to make in matters having to do with Christian lifestyle. We basically told them what to eat and what to wear and what not to wear and where they could go and couldn't go. Now those days may have passed, but I don't think that we were generally wrong in what we were taught. The problem was that we might have never learned the principles that were underlying what we were doing. Now that the checklist is gone, we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, and for some anything goes. Personally, I don't think that one mistake, if it was one, justifies us making another, because I am convinced that being a Christian has a direct application to our lifestyle, which includes the way we dress. You might be thinking, Pastor O’Ffill, I don't think the church ought to tell me how I ought to dress.
Let me say something. The world seems to be telling us how we ought to dress. Advertising is about how we ought to dress, and not only that, but about how we ought to live. If the world is going to be in our face in these things, I don't think there is anything wrong if we give heed to the voice of the Lord when He says to us, “This is the way, walk ye in it.”
There is another aspect that it seems to me we need to consider while we are considering the subject of how a Christian shall dress, and that is, that how we dress can actually identify who we are. There are uniforms for the branches of the armed forces and there are even uniforms in business and industry. These uniforms identify the people with the work they do. I don't need to go into much more detail in this matter of how the Christian shall dress, only to say that I believe that the Christian will not want to dress to imitate people who aren't Christians. Though Madonna has the perfect right to dress the way that she wants to or a rock group or what have you, I cannot see how those of us who are sons and daughters of God would want to identify ourselves with those people by letting them set the styles for the way we dress.
I have said it before and I will say it again, but I believe in difference for difference’s sake. If pedophiles are known to wear green neckties, you can rest assured that I will not own one. It may seem strange but it seems to be true, and that is, when Christians begin to dress like those who are not Christians, history has shown that it is not that long before they begin to act like their role models. This is exactly why the Scripture says in Romans 12:1,2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
For those of us who are in the church, another area of our lives that seems to be reducing itself “to do whatever you want” is the matter of entertainment. The matter of Christian entertainment used to be pretty clear cut. It was pretty well spelled it out for us. We were prohibited from going to movies and from other activities such as dancing. As I mentioned earlier, we weren't the only denomination that prohibited its members from doing these things. In the 21st century in more and more places what a Christian does for entertainment is pretty well left up to them. Before the days of television it was easier to get a handle on this, but now television has pretty well compromised our conscience in the matter of entertainment as it pertains to the Christian life.
Speaking of television, I am convinced that television as watched by the average Christian is incompatible with the Spirit-filled life. I really don't see how we would be able to explain to Jesus, were He here on earth again, a justification for the things that are being allowed into the homes of those who are praying that they will reflect His character.
Needlessly exposing ourselves to evil of any kind, be it real or simulated, has the effect of neutralizing the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We may not always be aware of what is happening to us, and actually be under the illusion that the programs that we are watching are not affecting our spiritual lives, but it is probably true to say that inasmuch as by beholding we become changed. What is happening to us is that we are simply becoming a fulfillment of those who are described in Scripture as those having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
I don't think that I am wrong when I say that in the life of the average Christian, television plays a much more dynamic role than the Word of God. I am glad to be able to say though, that more and more Christians are beginning to factor in the impact of television in their lives, and more and more families are actually getting rid of their sets. You may think that a family could not survive without the tube, but I am glad to tell you that there is life after television. We don't happen to have a television. This may sound strange, but I want my home to be a kind of a get-away here on earth for the angels who are ministering spirits and who are sent forth to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation.
While we are talking about Christian standards, while I am at it, I would like to say a few words about the Sabbath. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Sabbath is on the skids in the lives of many who are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but I greatly fear that if things continue as they are it could well happen that in just a few years a huge number of church members could well be relating to the Sabbath the same way as the people who worship on Sunday relate to the first day of the week. As you know, to the majority of those who go to church on Sunday, the day is just the day in which they go to church. Its hours are not considered holy, as are the hours of the Sabbath.
So in the not too distant future, the Sabbath, for many, will be about going to church, and after that, anything goes. In the meantime, the debate that seems to be going on now is how ought we “keep” the Sabbath. The word seems to be out that as long as you are not doing your own pleasure then it is okay. Of course, that would mean that a person would be free to mow their lawn, because I have never liked doing that in the first place and so mowing the lawn on Sabbath afternoon would definitely not be my own pleasure.
There are two texts that are being used these days to loosen up Sabbath observance. One is where Jesus says that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath and the other one is in Isaiah 58:13,14:
“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”
Someone was telling me a story a few months ago about a church where one of the members had to vacate her apartment on short notice. They announced in church that they would bring in the trucks and help her move on Sabbath. I am sure that the intention was to do good and to help the poor sister in her time of need. But it seems to me that what they saw as a solution to her problem was not a win/win solution, but a win/lose solution. To win/win they could have moved her on Friday or on Sunday. That way they could have helped the lady and also kept the Sabbath holy unto the Lord. But the way that they chose to solve it, the lady won and the Lord took second place.
Scripture tells us that Jesus went to church on Sabbath. We discover that He healed the sick a few times on Sabbath, but I don't read where He did much else that was considered by others as Sabbath-breaking unless it was eating some grain as they walked through a field. What I am saying is the fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath does not give us a carte blanche to move people out of apartments, mow the lawns of widows, or paint houses of the poor. If doing good work on the Sabbath makes it right, then I wonder why Jesus asked us to pray that our flight not be on the Sabbath. To escape for our lives would seem to be a justifiable humanitarian act if there ever was one.
Now it is not my purpose to perpetuate a checklist of do’s and don'ts, though you may say that is exactly what I have been doing. I guess I should be content to say that I am concerned with the direction that many of us are headed in respect to Sabbath observance. We have had people who have been imprisoned and even given their lives for being faithful to the Sabbath. I can't imagine we should leave them to have suffered in vain.
We teach that before Jesus comes there will be a great test, and this test will be around which day we shall worship. The Scripture teaches that the penalty for not complying with the law will eventually be death. It seems to me to be incongruent that we would be faithful unto death then when the Sabbath has little significance to us now.
My wife and I feel that there are wonderful blessings to be had if we will take our foot off the Sabbath from doing our own pleasure and speaking our own words and really dedicate the Sabbath to do those things that are God-centered. Back in the old days this was easier because there was pretty much an ironclad list of rules of do’s and don'ts. These seem to have disappeared. These days the matter of Sabbath observance is pretty much a personal matter inasmuch as the church is now tending to look the other way.
I am praying the Lord will lead us in the way that would be to His honor and glory because, as it says in the book of Hebrews, chapter 4, verses 9-11, “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest.”
Unfortunately, Christian standards including the Sabbath and other things that I have mentioned are, for many members of the church, getting to be a thing of the past. Yes, it seems that the church is looking the other way, and to some extent, in certain areas at least, almost anything goes as long as it is not too much in your face.
Does the fact that there doesn’t seem to be standards anymore mean that the principles upon which they are based have gone away? The answer is no. But inasmuch as they don't seem to be telling us how to live anymore we are now going to have to go to the Word of God for ourselves and discover what the principles for Christian standards are and then apply them to our own lives-- not because the other members of the church care, but because we know that God cares.
For those who are anxious for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, the matter of how to live to the glory of God will be increasingly more important rather than less important. This next stage of applying Christian standards to our everyday lives will be more tricky, but in the end it will be better, and even, if you please, enjoyable. I say more tricky because we will being doing it largely on our own, yet it will be enjoyable because Scripture tells us that when the Holy Spirit is writing God's law in our hearts, we will delight to do His will.
And so, my friends, let us not tear down the walls until we discover why they are there. When you are remodeling you are free to move all the walls except the ones that are holding up the house. Before you throw away a particular standard, make sure it is not part of an essential principle.
As I said at the beginning, change is all right. Life is about change. But if we are to avoid anarchy and chaos, there must be some things that never change. Principles in every age and in every culture never change. Let us pray that God will grant us grace to perceive what indeed are the unchangeable principles, and may the Holy Spirit give us the new hearts that will enable us to implement them into our lifestyle.