The Potential of Standards
Last week I wrote a blog post entitled The Problem(s) with Standards. You can read that here if you wish to do so. It was well received by many and not so well received by others. Of course, I was not surprised because the issue of standards always has the potential to not only stir some deep emotions but some strong defense. It is always a tricky issue to handle. Apparently that is nothing new. The same thing happened in the first century church in Acts 15-16.
The story opens by immediately drawing attention to a major problem. Men from Judea had begun teaching that Gentile believers needed to keep the standards of the Old Testament Law. It was “needful” was the word they used (Acts 15:1, 5). Now we don’t know all the details, but it would seem probable that they could have presented this in several ways. They may have said, “You cannot be saved without keeping the standards of Moses’ law.” Or perhaps they were simply stating that “if you are truly saved, then you will keep the standards of Moses’ law.” I suppose that all of us have heard variations of both. Some are more extreme than others, but variations abound. At any rate, the problem caused “no small dissension and disputation” (Acts 15:2, 7) and it lead to the apostles and elders meeting together to discuss and resolve this matter. Oddly enough, their answer involved standards! Here is an overview of what they decided and what happened as a result.
- A declaration was made that the early church did not have to keep the standards of the Old Testament law (Acts 15:19). The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to especially deal with this matter later in more detail in his letter to the church at Galatia. Because of the work of Christ, the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, and the new law of love, we are not under the law of Moses. His law only condemned and could not make anyone righteous. The standards of the law never can. Galatians 2:16 – Knowing that a man is not justified by the words of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
- A decision was made, however, to set some simple standards to help solve the problem that had risen (Acts 15:20). From an evaluation of these standards, it seems that two of them would be “Biblical Standards” (i.e. commands specifically stated in Scripture) and the other two would be “Cultural Standards” (i.e. standards developed to help address a cultural issue of their day).
- Letters were written to deliver to the churches that needed help with these matters (Acts 15:22-29). The letter was to encourage the believers that they were not under the standards of the law and to show them how they could solve the matter at hand with some simple standards of conduct and obedience.
- The letter referred to the standards as a simple but necessary burden (Acts 15:28).
- When the letters were read and the standards were declared, the congregations readily saw the value in the standards and rejoiced that the matter of whether or not they were under the law was resolved (Acts 15:31).
- As Paul and Timothy traveled and preached, they continued to teach the “necessary” standards to others (Acts 16:4).
- The result of the entire matter was that the churches were established in their faith, souls were won to Christ, and the churches grew (Acts 16:5). Talk about potential! That is the kind of standards I would want, wouldn’t you?
So what can we learn about standards from this story. Here are at least four lessons:
- Standards are a necessary burden. They require teaching and investments and time and perhaps meetings to discuss problems and to come to a consensus on how to address matters of concern. They require diligent Bible study and careful thought. They require the leading of the Holy Spirit and perhaps designated time for seeking God for proper application. Modesty standards, for instance, require that we carefully evaluate our dress, search diligently for clothing that satisfies the standard, and often spend more money because modest clothing is often more expensive. In the home, we also have to continually teach our daughters to understand the Bible’s teaching, to think carefully about what they wear or don’t wear, and simply how to be modest! And that is only one standard out of however many we may have. No wonder the early church called their standards a necessary burden.
- Standards should be carefully taught and developed. The church is not to be under the law, but there are a number of commands that the New Testament believer should want to obey. There are also principles that can help us to develop standards as they are needed. In the early church, these were examined carefully, written down in clear and simple terminology, and then wisely taught. Apparently these standards not only made sense, but were also reasonable and helpful. That explains why they were received with “rejoicing.”
- Standards can be changed as necessary. Of course, I refer here to cultural standards. Two of the standards given to the early church would not apply at all today and would serve no purpose at all just like standards of dress from 200 years ago would likely not work either. Not that long ago the churches in the USA stood against facial hair on men and short hair on women. One of those was a cultural standard (based first on a pro-military and extra-Biblical view of masculinity and also on a disdain for the “hippy culture” that was becoming prevalent during that time). The other was based on a Biblical teaching from I Corinthians 11 about hair and coverings and that sort of thing. Oddly enough, in many churches today, the one that was based on Biblical teaching is no longer taught and is actually challenged and sometimes even ridiculed, while the cultural one is still held and vehemently so. Strange isn’t it, that a cultural standard is a bigger deal than a Biblical one? Simply put, cultural standards can be changed and updated and should be. Biblical commands, however, are timeless. May God give all of us the wisdom to know the difference!
- Standards are to result in strengthening our churches, helping us to win souls, and seeing them added to the church (Acts 16:4). That certainly was the result of the standards in this passage. I call that the potential of standards! They apparently draw attention to what we believe and also adorn the grace of God. I want both of these to be true in my life. And that is one great reason to think carefully about standards and to develop them wisely!
May God grant us the wisdom to do it in the right way and with a Christ-like spirit of love and grace!
Thanks for reading.
Your sincere friend,