In the online chatter resulting from my post last week about modesty, some people expressed concern about the chaos that would result from adopting my reading of the text. Who decides, for instance, when normal-people clothes cross the line to showy and expensive?
Different Kinds of Commandments
I think this points to a much more fundamental issue, the question of how we ought to read the Bible and apply it not just to ourselves, but to others. After all, some commandments in the Bible are straightforward and specific. When God tells us not to commit adultery, we know what He wants and what we’re (not) supposed to do about it. The only people who don’t get it (or at least claim not to) are those who are looking to muddy the waters to excuse bad behavior. This happens a lot, for instance, when it comes to marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
However, not all commandments are like that. Rather than drawing a bright line between righteous and unrighteous conduct, they set up a principle that can govern a number of different situations. The commandment to be modest is like this. When God says, “Be modest,” a host of other questions arise. What does it mean to be modest? What does immodest dress look like? Is it limited to gold and braided hair and costly clothing, or can other styles of dress be immodest too? The application isn’t spelled out for us; instead, we have to use our own judgment to determine what the application is.
Some people find this very frustrating. They like things to be black-and-white, with clear right and wrong answers. They would prefer a spiritual world in which every question can be answered with the clarity and finality of 2+2=4.
When the Scriptural witness on a particular subject doesn’t fit this pattern, folks like this have a tendency to want to make it fit. They insist that their perspective on modesty has the same kind of 2+2=4 inarguability as “Don’t commit adultery,” so that they impose their views on others and attribute evil motives to those who don’t agree with them.
There are at least two problems with this approach. First, it’s logically impossible. No single book, divinely inspired or not, can contain a specific, inarguable answer to every spiritual question that might arise.
Consider, for instance, the law of the United States. When you take the United States Code itself, add the hundreds of volumes of case law, and then include even more hundreds of volumes of regulations issued by various departments, the resulting pile of books will fill a law library.
However, even that law library is not exhaustive. In federal courts across the country, novel issues are litigated every day. All those specific rules are still not specific enough to answer every question! As a result, when it comes to all matters pertaining to life and godliness, there’s simply no other way that God could have done things than to give us an outline in some areas and instruct us to use our judgment to fill in the details. A Bible big enough to be comprehensively specific would also be too big for Christians to use.
Furthermore, I’m not convinced that God would have given us a specific answer to every question, even if He could have. God is interested in our obedience, yes, but He’s equally interested in our transformation into the image of His Son. He doesn’t just want us to act like Jesus; He wants us to think like Jesus. Demanding rote obedience doesn’t make us think. However, leaving us to apply a general spiritual principle does. By that process, we develop our powers of moral reasoning and come to understand the whys as well as the whats of the law of Christ. Bit by bit, we train our senses to discern good from evil.
Principles and Others
This gets complicated, though, when it comes to other people. Handling other Christians who are violating a thou-shalt-not can be difficult, but it does have the virtue of simplicity! However, what do we do when another Christian comes to a different conclusion than we have about what clothes are modest or what entertainment is godly or (to cut close to the bone) what hymns are suitable for worship?
First of all, I think persuasion is always on the table (and this extends to willingness to be persuaded too). There’s not a thing wrong with inviting a brother out to coffee and sharing our concerns with him. Of course, it always helps to have built a strong relationship with said brother before trouble began brewing, but even if not, a face-to-face meeting is a much better alternative than an argument on Facebook or gossip with third parties.
We must take care, though, to discern the difference between persuasion and compulsion. We don’t have the right to condemn what God has not. That’s when we bring James 4:11-12 down on our own heads. It reminds me of the definition of a fanatic as someone who knows what God would have said if He had understood the matter correctly. I can certainly think of brethren who would have preferred, deep down, to issue their own revision of the Bible on certain subjects. “Finally! A 1 Timothy 2:9 with measurements!”
Instead, we must accept that when it comes to application of a principle, others may disagree with us in good faith. Indeed, we must acknowledge the possibility that their judgment may be better than ours. By contrast, those who find themselves insisting in some debatable matter that they are 100 percent right probably should pause for self-examination.
Naturally, we aren’t required to credit everyone who disagrees with good faith. Some distort the Scriptures to their own destruction in dealing with specific commandments; others do the same when it comes to principles. We have to develop the discernment to tell when a different understanding is reasonable and when it isn’t. The Christian who visits a nudist colony either does not understand Biblical teaching about modesty or has refused to apply it. If we’re sure a brother or sister is acting in bad faith, we should be willing to go through the Matthew 18 process with them. When we aren’t willing, maybe we’re not as sure about that bad faith as we think.
None of this is something that we should expect to master quickly or easily. Instead, it takes a lifetime of study, practice, and patience. When we are tempted to hammer some immature Christian who doesn’t see things our way, we should remember that we once were immature Christians too, with plenty of poor judgments of our own. In dealing with such people, the lightest touch is usually the best, especially when accompanied by a godly example.
Of course, on some level, all of us are immature. All of us have plenty of growing yet to do, if we are truly growing into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. When it comes to proper application of Scriptural principles, all of us are works in progress. As we acknowledge this, it will help us to give grace to the work in progress that we see in others.