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A number of Christian groups teach what they call “standards.” Standards, they say, are practical applications of the biblical principles of holiness, modesty and separation from worldliness. Standards relating to clothing and entertainment are the most common. Holiness, modesty and separation from worldliness are required by the Bible and they are topics perhaps more relevant today than ever before in Christian history. However, the standards typically found among churches that emphasize them, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, often cross over into legalism and promote works-based thinking in part because of a failure to fully recognize and consider a key element of sin.
When Jesus came teaching a message of grace and faith, He introduced a new way of understanding sin. Jesus taught that sin lies as much in ones intent as it does in the act itself. Jesus taught that one who harbors unjust anger in his heart for his fellow man is guilty of murder.(1) He taught that one who lusts in his heart has committed adultery.(2) No doubt this new understanding made those that relied upon their good works for justification before God quite uncomfortable.
It is human nature to look more to our actions than our thoughts when it comes to sin. This human reasoning suggests that what we do is what counts and that our motives and intent are secondary. Such thinking is a form of legalism in that it stresses the letter of the law while missing the spirit of the law. Certainly our actions count, but considering actions while ignoring or minimizing the true motivations behind them is a mistake. Sin is first conceived in the heart (3) and every sinful action is backed by sinful intent.
Two persons can commit the identical act and one stands guiltless before God while the other stands guilty. Consider the sixth commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill. Killing innocent life, killing for selfish reasons or killing out of hate is, without question, a sin and in violation of this commandment. However, Paul writes that God has given the power of the sword to the government, (4) allowing war and execution under just circumstances. To say that all killing is wrong is therefore legalistic, because it is permissible in some circumstances. The difference between justified killing and killing that violates the sixth commandment lies in intent and motive.
This brings us to one of the fatal flaws of standards -- they do not fully account for the motives and intentions behind the actions they label as sin. The relationship between actions and motives is crucial to determining what constitutes sin and what does not. To illustrate, let's consider a few examples of some of the more flawed standards. The following teachings are commonly found in some smaller Baptists groups, some Pentecostal groups such as the the Church of God-Pentecostal and the United Pentecostal Church, and other groups that emphasize holiness.
This is a telling example of looking at the action while ignoring or minimizing the real intent and motive behind it. Undoubtedly, some women that wear makeup are doing so for the purposes of inciting lust in the opposite sex, but to say that all women wear makeup for that purpose is simply not true. Happily married 80-year-old grandmothers do not put on makeup for the purpose of inciting lust in the hearts of other men. If the attempt to beautify oneself with makeup amounts to vanity and/or the desire to entice the opposite sex, then styling one’s hair (just as Jezebel did), brushing one’s teeth and bathing would all be sinful as well, not to mention the fact that these things alter one’s “natural” appearance.
Simply put, wearing makeup (an action) is done for several reasons (intentions and motives), some of which are sinful, such as the desire to incite lust and sexual desire, but most are not. Perhaps the most common motive for wearing makeup comes from the desire to be clean, seemly, and presentable, which are the very reasons we comb our hair, bathe, brush our teeth and press our clothes.
The scriptures teach that behind every sin is an impure intent or motive. If a woman puts on pants out of a desire to be a man, then a sinful intent exists. But if a woman puts on pants to be more comfortable as she works in her garden or to keep warmer in the winter, where is the sinful intent?
Just as some women wear makeup and pants with sinful intentions, there are those who wear jewelry with sinful intentions. Indeed, many wear jewelry to vainly advertise and flaunt their wealth. But, for millennia, jewelry has served many good purposes. Today, wedding bands speak of one’s commitment to the biblical institution of marriage. Class rings display loyalty to a school and demonstrate that one has achieved a noble and worthwhile goal. Christian bracelets, necklaces and earrings serve as a public testimony for some and often serve as conversation starters that give Christians the opportunity to share their faith. Jesus Himself positively describes the use of a ring in the parable of the prodigal son (6) and the Bible is full of examples where jewelry is described as godly.
Teaching that jewelry is wrong on the basis that it is nothing more than a means to vainly flaunt one’s wealth ignores the many non-sinful intentions and motives people have for wearing it. If every motive behind wearing jewelry were evil, surely Jesus would not have used it in a parable, nor would there be numerous positive references to it in the Bible.
The two elements of sin – action and intent – must be fully understood before one can label certain behaviors as sinful, and this is where standards get it wrong. Standards focus on the action without fully considering many of the true intentions and motives behind the action. One cannot say that wearing jewelry is a sin, or that women who wear makeup or pants are committing a sin, without first knowing their intent. If a woman wears makeup to entice men, she is in sin. If a woman wears makeup to appear more clean and presentable, where is her sin? If a woman wears pants to be more “manly,” she is in sin. If a woman wears pants to keep warm or to be more comfortable while working in her garden, where is the sin? If a man wears jewelry as a display of his wealth, he is in sin. If he wears jewelry as a display of his faith, where is his sin?
2 - Matthew 5:28
3 - James 1:15
4 - Romans 13:1-4
5 - II Kings 9:30
6 - Luke 15:22