By Joe Wilson
Every generation is raised in a different context, and inside that context is a subset of culturally acceptable behaviors. They may or may not be moored in religious tradition, but they will be present.
For my parents, these behaviors were underscored in the Christian subculture of rural Pennsylvania in the 1940s and 50s. When he was young, my father’s parents and grandparents were strict about the “rules” of holiness. One of those rules surrounded going to the movies on the Sabbath (or at least their interpretation of Sabbath). It was an affront to God. It was perfectly fine to watch a Western any other day, but not on Sunday. There was to be no card-playing because that activity had associations to gambling. A man’s hair style was to be short and neat—and blue jeans were for Saturdays. These were just a few of the unwritten rules of holiness.
My parents did not adopt all of those prohibitions into their worldview or carry them into their child-rearing philosophy. I didn’t have near the amount of rules they did growing up. So imagine my surprise during my first year of ministry when I stopped at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. I was never told this was “wrong.” Our family needed milk. As I stood in line, a seasoned saint saw me and said (with more than a little surprise), “Pastor, what are you doing here on a Sunday? You’re not to shop on the Lord’s day.”
I’m not certain she understood the hypocrisy of the moment as we both held items for purchase. After a brief pause, I commented, “Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” She didn’t seem amused. Later that same year I received a phone call of complaint for mowing the church lawn in “short pants.” Again, my excuse that my “suit was at the cleaners” didn’t seem to suffice. What were these rules, and why was I being held to account for them? Was I really breaking the law of God to mow the lawn in shorts?
What do you think?
Is it wrong to go to the movies on Sundays? Is it wrong to play cards? To drink a beer? Can Christians play pool? Can they go to a pool where boys and girls are swimming together? These were all controversial activities at one time or another, and still are in some circles. Ask 10 Christians if certain activities are “right” or “wrong” and you are likely to hear 10 different answers. Does God care? And if he does, which ones does he care about?
The Apostle Paul wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). It is true that legalism has many disguises, but in the end, they conceal only one result: slavery.
Yet Paul also wrote, “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). How do we keep these verses in balance?
Father, Son, and Grandson Faith
My great-grandparents and grandparents lived by a strict code. My grandfather on my father’s side was a disciplined man with high expectations of his family, and of the culture in general. In many ways he represented the times. The Christian faith was not explained in the lingo of 70s pop psychology like it was to me in my youth. No, it was taught clearly with emphasis on behavioral expectations. It didn’t necessarily matter what was happening internally, as long as external signs of faith were clear and the signs of egregious sins were avoided (much like the Pharisees of the New Testament).
My faith comes as a reaction to the church of my father and grandfather. As a child of the 70s, there was much more emphasis placed on the personal nature of faith. External signs of holiness were not enough. Was Jesus your personal savior? Of course, in my life, the rules of my grandparents were still clear. Except now, we had grown beyond worrying about going to the movies on Sunday, playing cards, and mixed swimming. Only extreme fundamentalists concerned themselves with such things. Smoking and drinking were still off the table, of course, but we were more enlightened.
My son’s experience in church is even more evolved. Now, most of the external signs of holiness that my grandparents held tightly are rejected altogether. A new generation asks, “How could they be so concerned back then with drinking alcohol but not care about racism?” New churches embrace the idea of microbrew Bible studies and cigar shop theology. Tattoos, which my grandfather associated with a drunken weekend pass during his time in World War II, are now seen as artwork—beautiful expressions of worldview or perseverance in pain. All the while, my 99-year old grandmother can’t make sense of any of it. It leaves one asking: Are the signs of holiness associated with the Christian faith generational? Does acceptability of an activity before God change with the times? Are some things always wrong? What are the key issues of holiness?
The Heart of the Matter
Sometimes we get so caught up in our opinion of the rightness or wrongness of a specific activity that we forget to see the entire picture. The key issue in personal holiness is the idea of being set apart for God. Distinct. Different. The meaning of the word holiness carries with it the idea of peculiarity. Things that are holy are different from ordinary things. They have a special nature or a special purpose. These characteristics define the object in such a way that restricts its use. I might use a paper plate as a Frisbee, but I would never use my mother’s fine china in such a way. It has been set apart for a more formal use.
The Apostle Peter taught the churches of modern day Turkey about living in a culture that was hostile toward Christ followers. In chapter 1 of his first epistle, he wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
Peter assumed that all who read his letter would have a before and after story. Just like the pictures of successful dieters that pepper exercise and weight loss advertisements, there should be a discernable difference in the lives of those who follow Christ. Peter suggests that there was a time that you lived in ignorance of a holy God. But now . . . well, now is different. Now you know him. So Peter says, “so be holy (different, distinctive, peculiar) in all you do” (v. 15).
I’m not sure if I like that teaching, because I like to fit in. When I don’t fit in, I feel awkward. Today, different can be associated with small-mindedness. Some equate Christianity with bigotry and judgment. How horrible and backward from God’s intent! Peter would say that those things may have been a part of your life when you lived with evil desires and in ignorance. But no more! Now you have been set apart by God. And just like an obedient child, you are called by your heavenly parent not to be like everyone else’s child. You are to represent your parent well.
What’s the Verdict?
Was it wrong for my father to go to the movies on Sunday? I don’t think so. Is it wrong for me to listen to a band at a bar? Just what are the rules? Or is it less about rules and more about my nature and your nature as Christ followers? Do my current actions represent a time when I was ignorant to the holiness of God or do they reflect a cognizance of it? Is my behavior driven by a desire to fit in to my culture and a fear of being different? On the other hand, are we to become like the Amish and refrain from contemporary culture for fear of impurity? Or is there a way to love the people around us, participate in culture, and still be different for the sake of God?
We know there is no power in Pharisaism. If our actions are not driven by a depth of passion for God, we are the “white washed tombs” that Jesus referenced for those who acted holy but whose hearts were not pure. But if we are not different at all from the culture around us in our worldview and actions and motivations, are we really being a holy church?
I don’t think the answer lies in setting up a new list of rules. God’s own explicit rules are enough and we are incapable of following them. I think the answer rests in reflection: Am I comfortable being different in a culture that likes conformity? Can I find the strength to be different when my difference is driven by a call to God? There will always be a desire within me to be the same as everyone else. But I remember my before picture. I am called to a new nature that by definition may ask me to be distinct, even peculiar. I need to heed that call acknowledging the behavioral implications without becoming legalistic.
Joe Wilson works as a Training Coach for Pioneer Bible Translators. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.