Reflecting on what to do about rules and restrictions
By Ray Roennfeldt
What a flood of memories those words bring to my mind. Sometimes they were offered as the last piece of advice given on leaving home for summer camp. They seemed to imply that the family reputation was riding somewhat precariously on junior’s shoulders during this short foray into independence. At other times “Behave yourself!” represented a sharp warning offered right in the midst of perceived misbehavior.
Is a certain standard of behavior expected of Christians as well? Are Christians meant to keep the law? Isn’t an emphasis on behavior and standards nothing more than legalism? This subject has always aroused controversy among believers.
Jesus’ heavy criticism of the Pharisees appears to complicate the picture. They seemed to have been obsessed with behavior. They had rules for everything: the allowable conditions for a marriage to be terminated; the requirements necessary for the washing of hands before eating; the necessity of tithing even the garden herbs; and activities restricted on the Sabbath.* In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces seven “woes” against the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He charges them with, among other things, shutting up heaven to people (verse 11); making their converts into children of “hell” (verse 15); using trickery to evade promises (verse 18); being overly scrupulous in tithing while ignoring justice, mercy, and faithfulness (verse 23).
This frontal attack must have surprised the Pharisees and their admirers, but Jesus was unequivocal in His opinion that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).†
Jesus’ attitude toward the Pharisees (along with His “You have heard that it was said … But I tell you …” statements of Matthew 5) has been construed by some as evidence that He has abolished the law. However, such a conclusion is unwarranted in view of His direct remark: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
In addition, at least from a cursory glance, Paul also appears to be opposed to “works.” He affirms that “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:28; see also 3:20, 21; 8:3; and Gal. 2:16).
So if salvation is not by works—as clearly taught by both Jesus and Paul—why the constant stress on behavior, at least by Seventh-day Adventist Christians?
The Basis of Christian Behavior
First, it should be observed that salvation is based on a divine gift, not on human performance. Paul, in writing to the Ephesian believers, is emphatic on this point: “… it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). And it is probably at this point that Christianity differs most widely from the other world religions. Salvation is offered as a gift, period! Nothing that I do, give up, or become can earn favor with God. Instead, in Jesus Christ, God guarantees that He will treat me with favor (grace) and give eternal life freely. All I need to “do” is accept or believe (John 3:16).
Second, it should be recognized that the giving of a gift will often elicit a response. Immediately following his affirmation in Ephesians chapter 2 in regard to salvation by grace, Paul says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Jesus, of course, used the vine/branches metaphor to say the same thing: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
What kind of fruit does Jesus expect in the Christian’s life? In John 15 it is expressed in terms of love and care for others (verses 9-17; cf. Gal. 5:22, 23). It seems obvious that Jesus’ gift of life will impact every nook and cranny of our lives. For instance, in his discussion of sexual immorality, Paul argues that we have been “bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20; cf. 1 Thess. 5:23).
We are called to be a godly people who think, feel, and act in harmony with the principles of heaven. For the Spirit to re-create in us the character of our Lord we involve ourselves only in those things which will produce Christlike purity, health, and joy in our lives. This means that our amusement and entertainment should meet the highest standards of Christian taste and beauty. While recognizing cultural differences, our dress is to be simple, modest, and neat, befitting those whose true beauty does not consist of outward adornment but in the imperishable ornament of a gentle and quiet spirit. It also means that because our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, we are to care for them intelligently. Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures. Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them as well. Instead, we are to engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness. (Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 John 2:6; Eph. 5:1-21; Phil. 4:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 3:1-4; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20; 10:31; Lev. 11:1-47; 3 John 2.)
You might say, “But, that’s too intrusive. Why should Christianity influence every aspect of my life?” But then again, relationships tend to be like that, don’t they? My marriage to my wife, Carmel, has affected every area of my life. Here’s a short list: how tidy I keep my clothing; where I go for recreation; what time I eat my meals; what I eat; how often I use the phone; what kind of friends I make; and how I drive the car. These are just a few examples, but some of them are quite major items. However, I haven’t noticed that I’m particularly restricted, except perhaps when I want to “hang” my trousers on the floor overnight! It is natural for me to want to “behave myself” because I am in a relationship.
Then how will Christians behave? The following suggestions are not exhaustive because Scripture itself is not exhaustive on this matter. Rather, the Bible offers principles of behavior that are to be applied in the situations and cultures in which we find ourselves.
It is not surprising that Christians will behave as good citizens. They will pay their taxes and follow the laws of their country (Matt. 22:21). The exception to this is when the legal requirements of the nation infringe on one’s primary responsibility to God (Acts 5:29). Christians will also behave in a quite distinctive way toward others. They will care for and even forgive their enemies (Matt. 5:44-48). Paul indicated that the common barriers of status, race, and gender were not to divide the early Christians (Gal. 3:28). Perhaps contemporary Christians need the same reminder.
Christians should be obedient to God’s law. In fact, obedience will be the natural outgrowth of a covenant relationship with God. The relationship factor changes one’s whole perspective toward law. Instead of “thou shalt not,” it is now a matter of “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt [or wherever], out of the land of slavery [to whatever]” and therefore “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2, 3).
There is much more that could be said, but in reality Christians should be careful in every area of their lives so that they properly represent their Savior (see 1 Cor. 10:31). That means carefulness in what I eat, what I say, how I dress, what movies I watch, what I drink; in fact, in everything! However, that carefulness is not of the obsessive kind that absolutely demands exactly the same kind of behavior in every other Christian. God calls on us to live for Him personally and in the context of a church family. The strength of a family is shown by how well it copes with the differences between its members—differences of maturity, temperament, gender, etc.—and what happens when one of its members does not “behave” himself or herself as the family expects.
†All Scripture citations are from the NIV.
*See “Shabbath,” in Herbert Danby (ed.), The Mishnah: Translated From the Hebrew With Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 100-121.
Ray Roennfeldt is dean and senior lecturer in systematic theology atAvondale College in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.