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In the summer of 2019, Natalie went on a 23 state road trip to connect with friends and spend time discussing Holiness thought with a broad selection of its preachers. In her words, “I asked question after question trying to understand the reasoning behind the plethora of rules I’d grown up under. I asked questions about make-up, about jewelry, about women’s pants, about sleeve length, about nail polish, and the list could have gone on and on to include beards, competition sports, modern Christian music, alcohol, movies, bowling, and much, much more. My bottom line was clear, “Why do we teach total abstinence from these things if the Bible does not?” We went back and forth through Scripture trying to see both sides of the issues, but at the end of the day their answer was equally clear, ‘We have to draw lines for our congregations, and this is where we’ve chosen to draw them.'”
On its face, this seems to be a compelling question. “Where do we draw the lines?” The problem with this question is the hidden assumptions under the question, and the questions which are never asked at all. Allow me to address some of the deeper questions about who should be drawing lines and what principles should be applied in their creation.
Before we get into this discussion, I will define a few terms. A biblically explicit rule is something the Bible says outright: Don’t worship idols, love your neighbor as yourself. There is a fine line between “principles” and “rules.” A principle is essentially a broader rule with many applications, and a rule is an instruction with either one or a few specific applications. Both rules and principles are found throughout the Bible, and we must follow them all (subject to a proper theology of how to understand the Old Testament).
What I call a “line” or a “man-made rule” is any rule or principle that isn’t explicitly found in Scripture. Don’t paint your toenails, don’t let your kids play on a baseball team, don’t go bowling, don’t hang out with your girlfriend past 10 o’clock. Such rules can be helpful as we try to apply biblical principles; I draw many lines in my own life. These lines could represent a conviction about what behavior you believe is moral for you or merely a practice you think is helpful. The question is not about whether such lines have value, but about where and by whom they should be drawn.
Who should draw the lines?
Whenever it is said that “we” have to draw the lines somewhere, the implication is that there is some kind of consensus. Does a sort of Nicaean counsel meet to openly debate the merits of the three quarter length sleeve versus the fully long one? No, that’s not how these lines are drawn at all. The reality always involves one person drawing the lines for another. Often a preacher drawing lines for his congregation or perhaps older people drawing lines for younger people. There is no collective “we” in line drawing as practiced by the Holiness movement, there is only me drawing lines for you or you drawing lines for me.
The problem with that scenario is that not only does the language mask control as consensus, but the underlying concept is distinctly unbiblical. Scripture does not teach that new truth comes from the mouth of preachers, it teaches that it comes from the mouth of God, as revealed in his Word. While Paul does instruct the members of the early church to respect their elders and learn from their general wisdom, he never tells them to turn to their elders to interpret the Bible. Nowhere in the epistles does a writer instruct the church “and when the elders assemble, they shall inform you of the will of God in your lives, and set the standards by which you may please him.” The power to proclaim sins not listed in Scripture is simply not given to church leadership, no more than it is given to them to forgive sins.
But the Bible does talk about drawing lines. Romans 14:1-10 is fairly self explanatory about who gets to draw them:
“1 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. 2 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. 3 Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. 4 Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. 6 He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks…
10 But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”
This passage makes it clear that different people have different convictions about things not specified in Scripture, and they can openly practice them side-by-side, without one conforming to the other. This passage also explicitly forbids us from telling other people to conform to our convictions.
The Bible does discuss not causing other people to stumble, both in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians. However, that commandment is limited in scope to real harm to real people. It is often used to prevent hypothetical harm to hypothetical people as a backdoor way of making people conform to our convictions and thus violating Romans 14. I can advise you that you might want to be careful about listening to Christian rap around unbelievers so that you don’t make them think you are listening to morally offensive music. However, if I tell you that you can’t listen to Christian rap in your headphones, clearly I am not concerned about you making people stumble; I’m just putting my convictions on you (and if you think you have another way to universally ban listening to Christian rap, you’re most likely leaning on the failed principle of guilt by association).
Rights forgone due to stumbling blocks are always limited in Scripture by context and subject to personal conscience. One example is when Paul chose not to ask the Corinthians to pay him for his ministry. Even while he did that, he made it clear that he had a right to ask for money, but he didn’t want to make them stumble (1 Corinthians 9). “Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.” If Paul had a right to request they pay him, and did request that in other places, it stands to reason that he would not have been sinning to do so in Corinth. That is his whole point “I could have asked, but I didn’t.” Their weakness shaped his action, but didn’t constrain his morally acceptable options. Paul had more than one moral choice, but chose the most loving of the two. He did that as a matter of personal conscience, not because someone told him to.
Ergo, I argue that the Bible gives no one the authority to add rules to Scripture. We are free to follow rules that are not in Scripture, but we do so as a matter of personal conviction, not corporate conviction. Even when we do so, we should have a reason, either to secure our own faith, or to protect others.
Why do Holiness leaders only draw lines on certain topics?
The other question which our line-drawing brethren must answer is this: if it is they who draw the lines which apply God’s ancient truth to the modern era, why have they forsaken to stake out the boundaries of godly living in such broad swaths of culture? For all the talk of the necessity of these lines, almost all Holiness lines fall into two narrow categories. They cover outward appearance (e.g. jewelry, tattoos, and shorts) and unacceptable entertainment (e.g. sports, television, dancing). But there are massive categories of Christian life, no less emphasized in Scripture, where Holiness people do not have any broadly accepted lines, and may have no personal lines at all.
Several examples come readily to mind on this topic. For instance, the Bible says a lot about money: “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Matthew 1:24).” With such strong warnings about money and wealth, and considering that the average American is 90 times richer than the average person Paul was writing to, it would seem like we need a lot of boundaries in regards to money. Why shouldn’t the preacher tell us that with so many people still living on $2 a day, and unable to afford access to basic medicine, education, and the gospel, it’s our duty to give away every penny over $20,000 of income? Why not draw a line and say that no one ever needs a sports car – it’s showy and a waste of money? Why not preach against having more rooms in your house than five? Why not at least preach against having a $5,000 gun collection or taking $2,000 vacations? Why don’t preachers set a single guideline about money? The same logic can be used as is used for appearance – “We have to be different from the world, we have to avoid the appearance of pride and arrogance, we have to care more about the gospel than pleasure.”
For another example, take family life. The Bible has a lot of guidance for how husbands should interact with wives and parents with children, but it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. And in modern society, there are more questions for people to answer than ever before. Why don’t preachers feel comfortable telling us whether women should work outside the home, and how much? Why don’t they tell us that men have to help out around the house, and what percentage of the work they must do? Why don’t they tell us whether we can have our kids in daycare or public school? Should we send our girls off to college (a practice which was a direct goal and result of the feminist movement)? These are all difficult questions that people face which can have significant impact on their lives and even the souls of their children. Why do Holiness preachers feel like these topics are, largely, none of their business?
Many more categories of rules may be helpful. How often and for how long must we pray, fast, meditate, read, and study Scripture? How many times in a month must we undertake a personal evangelism project? How often must we confess our sin, to whom, and what level of sin is worth confessing? What about lines in matters of health? How many pounds over a healthy weight are we allowed to be before we are considered to be abusing our body? If we say that smoking a cigarette is sin because it will kill you, how can we not say that eating fried chicken is wrong when you’re already 60 pounds overweight?
Despite protestations that, “we have to draw the lines somewhere for our people,” there are massive and critically important areas of our lives in which even holiness preachers expect us to work out our own personal application of biblical principles. There is nothing about appearance and entertainment which is more important than matters of money, family life, health, evangelism, and spiritual discipline. If Holiness preachers think their congregations are capable of surviving without preacher-drawn lines in these numerous areas, why do they think they are so incapable of surviving without them in the areas of entertainment and appearance? I would actually agree that a lot of Holiness people in particular do mess up in the areas in which there are fewer commonly accepted lines. This is in large part because they never learned how to draw lines for themselves, they expected the preacher to do that.
Why did Holiness leaders choose these particular lines?
I would agree that there are occasions when a bright line is necessary to define reasonable standards. To take an example outside of religion, consider gun control. The most ardent supporter of gun control would still agree that people have the right to kitchen knives, baseball bats, and fists. The most committed libertarian would probably agree that millionaires shouldn’t have private nuclear weapons. So somewhere on a spectrum between nuclear weapons and baseball bats, we as a society have to determine where the line is about what weapons are appropriate for private use. Cruise missiles? Belt-fed machine guns? Handguns? We have to draw a line somewhere. Note that in this case, because it is a matter of law, the line has to be drawn by central authority. But even in this case there is not just one line, but several slightly different lines for different people. Licensed collectors have a different line from regular citizens, who have a different line from convicted felons.
In matters of religion, drawing the lines centrally isn’t required – or even biblical as per the case I make above. However, some lines are still required. Like on the gun control spectrum, we could all agree that is wrong for a Christian to walk around naked and unnecessary for a Christian to walk around in a full black burka. Somewhere between those extremes, a line, or at least a series of different lines for different people must be drawn. In a minute, I will address what I see as the biblical way for an individual to do that.
I contrast the idea of multiple lines, drawn by individuals for themselves against the Holiness idea that these lines must be drawn centrally, by a few spiritual elites for everyone else. They often claim that the lines they find are universally true – that while they are not addressed directly by Scripture, these lines are the only way to properly apply scripture. They act as if the only reason their rules aren’t in Scripture is because of a time gap, and if the Bible had an additional book added today, it would read like the Holiness-Handbook. If this is true, we would expect their lines to have particularly profound logical reasoning and not be movable a few inches to the left or right without dire consequences. Let’s hold some of their lines up to the light – not to see whether they are worth anything, but rather to see whether they are inherently better than any other imaginable lines.
In the matter of women’s pants and unisex clothing, let’s put aside the whole theology of whether a verse in Deuteronomy is applicable to today and pretend like it was found in Romans instead. If pants are wrong for women, why not t-shirts? Why not socks, baseball caps, leather jackets, or hoodies? These are all articles of clothing that bear at least as much resemblance to men’s clothing as women’s pants do to men’s pants. Many of those articles are actually sold as “unisex” – something that can’t generally be said of pants.
In the matter of entertainment, if movies are wrong, why aren’t YouTube videos? If you think they’re both wrong, then what about plays (a movie is essentially a recorded play)? If plays are wrong, then what about novels? A novel is essentially the script for a play. There is no dramatic line of logic that really separates a book from a movie. It is the content of the movie or book that matters.
If bowling is wrong because you are around drinking, then what about Applebee’s? If Applebee’s, then what about flying on an airline which serves alcohol? If painting your toenails is wrong because it draws attention to you, then what about having colored sandals? If TV is wrong because it wastes time when you should be about the Father’s business, then what about hunting and fishing, which makes some Holiness wives seasonal widows?
My point is not that any single line is going to be vastly superior to any other line, my point is that the lines which Holiness people have chosen as a universal standard, and for which they refuse to fellowship with other churches, are not really that special. Theology aside, the lines themselves are rather arbitrary and there is nothing about their exact position that is universal or logically unassailable. While I don’t think they must be abolished, these fences could be moved to the left or right with no harm to anyone.
How do we draw the lines?
It is fair to put the same question back to me. Where do we draw the lines? Although it is important to point out that when I use the word “we”, I don’t think I should be drawing lines for you – you draw them for you, I draw them for me. We draw lines for ourselves and our young children until they are old enough to draw them for themselves. I would submit that there are two biblical principles that individuals should use when drawing lines about personal conduct – conscience and effect. Note that these principles should only be applied once it is clear that the Bible has nothing explicit to say on the matter.
The first principle, restricting yourself to what your conscience allows, is found in Romans 14 and in the passages about eating meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8). It’s important to remember that Paul doesn’t say that the stricter standards are held by the more holy people, he explicitly says that the weaker brother needs to hold the more strenuous standard (1 Corinthians 8:7). “Stricter” is not inherently morally “higher.” If it was, then we could all maximally please God by wearing burkas and eating only bread and water. Standards are not synonymous with righteousness. Two people with different standards can please God equally, and someone with a stricter standard could be pleasing God less, if his heart was not right. Given that we are all weak in certain areas, acknowledging your weakness is wisdom. If you listened to country music that put you on a bad path before you were a Christian, and you are concerned that listening to Christian music in the same genre may cause you to turn back to you old habits, then don’t listen to Southern Gospel. That doesn’t mean you get to tell other people they can’t listen to Southern Gospel.
The second principle is effect, by which I mean that the effect of your lawful action should not cause you or someone else to sin. You may have Christian liberty to read a classic novel, but if such a novel always makes you bitterly discontent with your life, then you should put it down. You may have liberty to travel, but if traveling always makes you have uncontrollable blowouts at your kids, you should probably try a “staycation.” The Bible doesn’t define exactly where the lines of your clothing must end, but if you find that your appearance is causing a number of people to stare at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you should consider taking those articles out of your wardrobe. What if a Christian’s conscience doesn’t convict them of a matter in which they are almost definitely harming others? If harm can be shown to a particular person, then it’s biblically fair for other Christians to address the issue as per the steps laid out for addressing someone else’s fault. I don’t have a right to cause other people to stumble, but that stumbling has to be real or at least probable, not a far-fetched imagining designed to control me.
I also don’t believe that these personal lines are fixed and immovable; they can change as you mature and change. A purchase like an RV that may have been wasteful in my youth might be a wise use of resources when I have a couple of kids. A book that may be inappropriate before you are married may be valuable once you are. That’s precisely why God didn’t try to legislate all of these things.
So how do we teach young believers to make wise choices and draw healthy lines in these complex arenas, without just handing them to them? The short answer is, discipleship. That is a complex topic and the subject of another article.
In conclusion, lines are valuable in our Christian life, but the Bible makes it clear that we draw them for ourselves, subject to our love for others. Nowhere in Scripture does God give New Testament church leaders the right to declare new universal standards. And even if he did, the ones they came up with fail to address large chunks of our lives and are rather arbitrary. It looks like there was never any intentional deliberation behind the lines they chose. It’s almost as if they’re just doing what their grandparents did, just because that’s the way “things have always been done.”