The Christian Life: Sanctification

Should a Church Give Its Members a List of Do's and Don'ts?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
God's Word declares that all such man-made regulations, even the most well-intentioned, are completely wrong for two reasons.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

God's Word declares that all such man-made regulations, even the most well-intentioned, are completely wrong for two reasons.

Should a church give Christians a man-made list of taboos and ready-made positions designed to govern their conduct? Many organized churches do this. Evangelical churches of various descriptions often have written covenants binding the membership to abstain from dancing, card-playing, smoking, consuming alcohol, or going to the movies.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as many Eastern religions, give their followers various "rules of discipline," many having their roots in medieval monasticism. Cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Mormonism impose regulations that often include lists of forbidden foods and even contrive to regulate the conduct of husbands and wives in the bedroom.

In Evangelicalism these regulations sometimes go to even worse extremes. I have known of churches in which the leadership dictated to the member families when they could have children and how many, when they could buy a car or a home and what kind they could buy, where their children could go to school, and where the husband could work and in what line of work.

But what does Scripture say? God's Word declares to us that all such man-made regulations, even the most well-intentioned, are completely wrong for two reasons. First, they add to, and sometimes subtract from, the Word of God. Second, they quench, and often even oppose, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

The Church Must Teach People How to Think

Many of these regulatory efforts evince one of the greatest failings of the postmodern church: Christians are not taught how to think Biblically. This is not a new problem. For more than a decade beginning in the 1940s, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones moderated a Friday evening discussion meeting at Westminster Chapel in London that was designed to meet this great need. Hundreds of people attended these meetings, including members of other churches and their pastors.

The format of the meetings was straightforward. As Iain Murray, Lloyd-Jones' biographer, describes it,

anyone was free to propose a question... arising out of the personal circumstances and problems which Christians encounter in their lives; the merely theoretical was not allowed. [Dr. Lloyd Jones'] objective was to bring people to apply the teaching of Scripture and to see that "it is failure to understand doctrine that causes failure in practice." So if a question was accepted as the subject for the evening, he made no attempt to answer it himself immediately. Rather he aimed to stimulate a discussion in which the people themselves would think their way to the relevant Biblical principles and to their correct application.

All points made by the participants had to be supportable from Scripture, and not merely from a single proof text but from the Word of God as a whole. Murray continues,

The discussion might often begin with ML-J asking for Scripture references appropriate to the question. If a speaker thought that one or two texts proved that the right answer to the question was perfectly simple, he might well suffer an interrogation from ML-J which would leave him convicted that his solution was premature.... Sometimes a critical cross-questioning was only to test the strength of the speaker's convictions (with whom ML-J actually agreed); or he would temporarily allow speakers to pursue a wrong track so that ultimately the whole gathering could understand more clearly the reason why it was wrong.

Frequently the main question could not be answered until other preliminary questions were also dealt with and so one theme might extend over several weeks. Even so, there were conclusions (towards which ML-J had been judiciously steering and directing the discussion) reached every week.

It was in the latter part of the evening that he usually said more and at times became involved in a more protracted debate with one or two individuals who were not willing to be carried to the conclusion to which they suspected they were being led.... His final summing up was generally impressive and heart-searching and the intense attention given to it was akin to the spirit in the Chapel at the conclusion of a Sunday service.

Murray goes on to describe what took place in March 1948, when the Friday night discussion group took up the subject of

"the problem of conduct" - a problem, in ML-J's view, because Evangelicalism tended to give young Christians a list of taboos and ready-made positions which they were expected to accept. His criticism of this... was as follows:

While younger Christians should follow the example of older Christians (1 Corinthians 11:1) they must be taught to examine things for themselves and to "prove all things" [1 Thessalonians 5:21]. If this was not done, when a practice is assailed, it will collapse. We must not give a ready-made Christian position. If we do, what will happen to the young Christian when he encounters something that is not "on the list"? If the guidance we give becomes dictation, it is no longer guidance, and that does despite to [i.e., is an act of defiance toward] the Holy Spirit and to the man's own personality.

Is it right to advise a young Christian against a thing though he does not see it? If he acts on your dictum it will be because you have spoken and not because of his understanding. The New Testament appeal for holiness and sanctification is always an appeal to the reason of the believing man: an appeal to work out the doctrine in terms of practical life. We must ask: is it right for us to take the position of conscience to another? That procedure produces smug, self-satisfied Christians. It makes them think they have "arrived" and therefore they stop thinking. It is a negative view of holiness. The thing that matters is not the figure we cut before people: but our "pressing unto Him". The more people live the dictated life (as also in Roman and Anglo-Catholicism) the poorer the spiritual life. When a man has to fight and think these things out for himself it makes him a strong man in Christ.[1]

The Biblical Position

This position is entirely in keeping with the whole counsel of God. The issue is not the word or authority of man. The issue is submission to the authority of the Word of God, of Christ, and of His Spirit. It is by submission to this threefold authority that the Christian gains the knowledge and supernatural power that are the resources necessary "to live godly in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:12). The Holy Spirit stated this principle many times in Scripture, especially in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. To the Colossian church Paul wrote that he prayed

that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and long-suffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:9-14)

To the Corinthian church Paul wrote that his approach to them, and in particular to their ungodly behavior, was founded upon the principle of

commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.... For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bond servants for Jesus' sake. For it is God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:2, 5-6)

Paul also declared to the Corinthians that the issue of authority in the sanctification of the believer rests not with man, but with God, and has its focus upon conformity to the image of Christ:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

No Lack of Lists in Scripture

This does not mean that Paul failed to deal with specific sins in the life of the church. His first epistle to the Corinthians confronted a wide range of offenses to God that are clear violations of His commands, including preacher-worship, immorality, sinfulness in the observance of the Lord's Supper, disorder and confusion in worship, spiritual pride, and false teaching regarding spiritual gifts.

Paul likewise wrote to the Thessalonian church to confront nagging problems of immorality and promiscuity which were holdovers from their previous pagan lives; problems of laziness among those who should have been earning their own living; and false teachings concerning Christ's second coming which adversely affected the life and thinking of the church.

The Body of Christ needs no man-made lists of Do's and Don'ts. The Holy Spirit names specific sins that are to be put to death in our lives and from which we are to separate ourselves in the world. We find such detailed lists in Romans 1:26-31, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:5-31, Colossians 3:5-7, and 2 Timothy 3:1-7. The people of God need to be taught these things, and their teachers and leaders within the church must devote themselves to intercessory prayer that the Holy Spirit will cause these commands to take root and bear fruit within their own lives, and the lives of the people God has placed under their care.

Likewise, the Holy Spirit names specific virtues that a Christian is to strive for in the pursuit of holiness, in passages such as Romans 12:9-21, Romans 13:8-14, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Galatians 5:16-26, Ephesians 4:25-32, Ephesians 5:1-10, Philippians 4:4-9, Colossians 3:1-17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, 1 Timothy 3:2-11, 1 Timothy 6:3-12, 2 Timothy 2:22-26, Titus 1:6-9, James 3:13-4:4, and 1 Peter 3:8-9. All of these are summed up in Paul's exhortation to Timothy to be

an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)

The Two-Fold Failure of Many Churches

Sadly, few churches in the postmodern age teach these things. The un-Biblical attitudes of most contemporary churches come in two forms.

The first is, "Come as you are, stay as you are." In other words, the leaders of these churches are telling their congregations that there is no obligation to bring their lives into conformity to God's Word and to the true image of Christ.

A second attitude found in many churches is, "If you come here, you must conform to our man-made list of Do's and Don'ts." They equate conformity with Divine authority with conformity to fleshly authority. In this second category of churches, what really matters is not the authority of Scripture and the sovereign work of the Spirit in conforming souls to the image of Christ, but man-made regulations enforced through forms of coercion ranging from the subtle to the tyrannical.

In some churches, especially those in the Purpose-Driven movement, one even finds a bizarre mix of these two attitudes.

Authentic Christianity in Contrast

Pastors and church leaders, and every member of their congregations, must have the heart of David:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:5-7)

They must understand that

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever. (Psalm 111:10)

Therefore they should rightly ask themselves the Holy Spirit's question to the church:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. (James 3:13)

May Paul's expression of his heart for the churches at Colosse and Laodicea be the heart-cry of every pastor and teacher of the Word:

For I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea... that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3)



1. This and the quotations preceding are from Iain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990) pages 167-173.


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