“Hey kid, get a haircut” is a resonant symbolic statement from my youth, the 60s when America seemed to turn upside down and inside out. It was a time when the Counter Culture pushed us, pushed the Church, to explain the “Why?” of our lifestyle standards.
“We don’t drink or smoke or chew, or go with girls who do,” said the Church.
“Why?” Culture asked.
It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, the Church’s rejoinder on these and a host of other “lifestyle choices” was not always coherent, credible, Christian, or Christ-like.
And The Beat Goes On
Questions and opinions about lifestyle standards and choices form a never-ending debate. It’s one some people consider healthy but others find disconcerting, even threatening.
I call this debate the "In the World/Not of the World Tension." It’s right out of John 17. Figuring out how to live “in the world”—physically and culturally—while being “not of the world”—philosophically—while going “into the world” is tough. It’s an everyday-in-every way tension because things keep changing.
Youth keep acting like youth. Long hair—short skirts—knee high boots—tie-dyed bellbottoms—beads have given way to multiple piercings—tattoos—bling. And that’s just pop fashions. So now what?
Too often, I think, the Church tended to answer “Now what?” with a “List of Dos and Don’ts”—Memorize this, Do/Don’t this, and you’ll be OK. In other words, keep checking the boxes on someone’s “Holy List.”
But then it got complicated because different Christian leaders, churches, and other authority figures came up with mismatchedHoly Lists. From there it got more complicated because the Church turned in on itself and started fighting over whose Holy List is The Holy List.
Conviction vs. Preference
So why do people fight over Holy Lists? One reason is they confuse "convictions" and "preferences."
Convictions are beliefs we hold based upon (one hopes) “sound doctrine,” unchanging (timeless) biblical principles. One example: God's statements on sexual morality. God’s will on this and a few other moral matters are “non-negotiables.” God does not alter his moral will from one generation to the next and he expects us to obey…for our own good and the good of others.
Preferences are different. Preferences are a host of non-moral practices, the so-called “non-esssentals.” They are (time-bound) ideas and attitudes each of us develop based upon personal tastes and perspectives rooted in different life experiences. Our preferences may vary at times in our own lives and certainly will differ from one person to the next.
Because God commands holiness (1 Peter 1:16), our preferences must not violate the moral will of God. You can’t claim, for example, it’s your preference to shoot an annoying person, steal candy from the discount store, or engage sexually with someone other than your spouse. These acts are not legitimate preferences. According to God’s Word they are sin.
But examples of harmless and permissible preferences are limitless. You like to sing using a hymnbook; your friend likes to sing choruses displayed on a wall, screen, or monitor. You order pizza; your spouse wants a taco. You “dress up” for church; your neighbor wears “holely” blue jeans.
If we maintain our own preferences and let it go at that—assuming those preferences do not in themselves violate the moral will of God—than things are copasetic (1 Corinthians 10:23).
But sadly many Christians aren’t content to live with their own preferences.
License – Liberty – Legalism
This is why, for a long time now, I've been warning people: "Don’t add to God's list." It’s another way of emphasizing the Lord's command to "stop passing judgment on one another" (Romans 14:13).
In his Word, God gave us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). Yes, you could say God gave us a “list” of rights and wrongs, which we ignore them at our own peril. But if we ignore God’s commands and throw off his will entirely, we’re not living in liberty but license, or maybe licentiousness.
On the flip side, in an effort to be “really holy,” Christians come along and "add to God's list." We create our own list because apparently we believe God didn’t get it right and needs a little help. Then we judge other people by our list. When we do this, we’re not living in liberty but legalism.
Free to Disagree
To avoid license on the one hand and legalism on the other we need to live according to the principles of Christian liberty (Romans 14). Certainly, we need lifestyle standards, God’s list of right and wrong, so we may prosper. We need to develop a mature understanding of how to apply his Word in the world and live with godly preferences (choices).
So it’s OK to have preferences. It’s OK to disagree with others’ preferences. It’s even OK not to like another’s preferences. The point, though, is to extend to them the right to live by preferences different from your own.
God gave us basic moral principles to guide our lives, but He did not choose to speak to everything. He gave us room to think, to decide, and to be different. God gave us Christian liberty and within this we develop our convictions and preferences. And that is a great beauty of the Christian faith.
We don't have to like what our Christian friend likes and there’s nothing wrong with this. It's OK for Christians to be different.
And if that's true, than we have no business criticizing other Christians because we don’t like their preferences. If we criticize another Christian because his or her preferences do not match ours, than we’ve just elevated our preferences to the level of doctrine in the Scripture. We've made ourselves divine, and that is a sin.
Preferences differentiate us. We are distinctive people. God's Word provides the unity. Our preferences provide the diversity.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).