Every church has rules, guidelines, and expectations — some churches just have more than others. Holiness Standards are a set of rules or guidelines or expecations that can vary from church to church, even within the UPC and similar denominations. In some churches, the standards are extremely strict; in others, it’s more liberal. But generally, the standards have to do with outward things — how you dress, what you can and cannot do, etc. Those who lead or serve publicly in any capacity are expected to live according to the standards… and others are strongly encouraged to do so.
I attended a UPC church that was on the more liberal side. They didn’t preach the standards very much. In fact, I had a hard time getting anyone to tell me exactly what they were when I first joined! I think they were afraid that I’d get scared off… but in reality, I just wanted to do things right. I wasn’t convinced (nor did anyone ever try to convince me) that adherence to the standards was essential for salvation… but if it pleased God, I wanted to do it.
When I joined the UPC, I was in a place in my life where I knew I needed a change — a radical change. I had pretty much been a tomboy up until that point. You’d never see me in a skirt or dress. In fact, I think I only owned one or two skirts when I joined the UPC, and I had only gotten them so I wouldn’t be disrespectful to churches like that when I visited.
So when I joined, the outward transformation was radical and immediate. After I got baptized in the UPC, I went shopping and got a bunch of skirts & jumpers. My hair wasn’t very long, but some friends would help me put it up for church. In fact, one Sunday after church I went grocery shopping after a service. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw another Pentecostal lady, and I turned to see if it was someone from my church. But this “other lady” was my own reflection in the glass door of the freezer case!
It takes a little bit of skill and grace to wear a long skirt, especially if you aren’t used to it. During those first few weeks & months, I had to re-learn a lot of “normal” things: how to walk up a flight of stairs, how to get in and out of a car, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I drove to church with my skirt caught in the car door & flapping in the breeze! There was also the time (within a couple of weeks of joining the church) where I was taken on a tour of the church building with a bunch of other newcomers. The tour included walking up some stairs. I stepped on the bottom of my skirt and nearly walked right out of it!
Being a tomboy at heart, I loved going into the woods and exploring. Even though my attire changed, my love of nature hadn’t… so one afternoon I took a hike down a familiar trail, wearing a long khaki jumper. The jumper didn’t have any slits in it, and it the material didn’t have any “stretch” to it… and I didn’t realize that this configuration wasn’t compatible with long jumps until I tried to leap across a small creek. I had jumped it easily in pants, but it didn’t work out so well in that jumper! I landed in middle of the creek… soaked!
I was also very self-conscious at first when I was out in public. There was a large UPC population where I lived at the time, but there were also plenty of folks who weren’t UPC. I wondered if the non-UPC folks thought I looked funny or thought that I was just silly for dressing that way. It’s true, there were some non-UPC folks in my circle of friends who thought that I was making a big mistake and weren’t afraid to tell me… but honestly, I don’t think the majority of folks really cared about how I dressed. I also wondered if the UPC folks thought I looked “holy” enough! Different churches took the standards to different degrees. Some only wore long sleeves, even in the heat of the summer. My church allowed short sleeves, but not tank tops. Occasionally when we’d go visit different UPC churches, some of the folks who were more familiar with all the different customs would warn me so I could dress accordingly.
It was quite an adjustment at first, but because the outward change was so dramatic, it served as a constant reminder of the inward change that I desired. It helped me “stay the course” and finally break free of some things I had been struggling with for years. The truth is… I needed the discipline. Joining the UPC provided structure and accountability that I had not had in my life before.
That was the positive side of the standards for me.
But somehow along the way, some real negatives started to creep in as well.
When I began to live by the standards, I didn’t believe that it was a life-or-death thing. In other words, I didn’t think it had anything to do with salvation. But over time, I began to hear others talking about backsliders and questioning the spirituality of those who abandoned the standards. Older folks — respected leaders — would say that the standards might not be necessary for salvation, but wouldn’t you rather stay faithful just in case they were necessary? That “just in case” logic stuck with me for a very long time.
When I began to live by the standards, it was primarily about me & my relationship with God. But over time, I continued in the standards out of a sense of obligation. I began to look down on those who didn’t live by them… not just “backsliders”, but even folks outside of the church who didn’t have any clue what the standards were. I forgot where I came from — how little I had known about everything when I had started. I was turning into a snob, and I hated it! Yet… I was afraid to back away from the standards for fear of losing my salvation.
I continued to live by the standards for a quite a while even after I moved to a town where there were no UPC churches to join. I was still somewhat proud of being different from other folks. I believed that my “faithfulness” was helping me earn brownie points with God.
The non-UPC church that I wound up joining had platform standards — a dress code for those who were in any sort of leadership position, but it only applied at church services, not 24/7. Since the platform standards said that women should wear skirts or dresses, I didn’t look out of place at services… but I sure stuck out at picnics and parties!
It was an awkward time — I knew and loved the folks at my new church. I believed that they loved God & were going to heaven. Yet… I also believed that if I lived like they did, I’d be in danger of losing my salvation. It was difficult for me to balance those seemingly contradictory beliefs in my mind. For a while, I just figured that I had been given more “good teaching” and since I knew more than they did, more would be required of me. Since they hadn’t been given the same “good teaching,” less was required of them.
Ultimately, I realized that there were some applications where a skirt really wasn’t modest at all… and some situations where it wasn’t even safe. I began to realize that I was trying to follow the “letter of the law” rather than the spirit. As I began to look into things more, I started to understand that it would be very difficult to follow the letter of the law on this issue, since nearly every church had its own version.
The first time I wore jeans again, it was a little weird. I felt like everyone who saw me was judging me — even though I knew they weren’t, and they weren’t even “holiness” people! The battle was all in my mind. It’s funny now looking back… I started and ended my time with the standards in fear of what others might think!
It’s easy to go from one extreme to another. When I first stepped back from the standards, I thought that freedom meant never having to wear a skirt again. But then I realized that if I allow my past experiences with a church to dictate how I’m going to dress in the future, that is still bondage! The self-imposed dress code that says “Since the UPC required that I wear a skirt, I’m never going to wear a skirt again” is just as much legalism as the standards ever were!
Since I’m often asked about this, I’ll go ahead and answer it here. Where am I today in relationship to the standards? Well, I cut my hair, and I’ve colored it too at times! I don’t have a problem wearing pants or skirts. I still won’t wear shorts, and all my skirts go to my ankles (but that is a personal preference / comfort thing, not a theological conviction).
Freedom for me today means that I can dress up or dress casual. I can wear jeans or I can wear skirts. And most importantly, as long as it doesn’t go against Scripture, I can freely to defer to church leadership, even if their preference isn’t my preference. When I read 1 Cor 9 now, or Phil 2, or any number of other passages, I’m absolutely floored by the example I see in the Bible — folks who had every right to claim privilege choosing to lay it down for the good of others.
If I can make a gross oversimplification: UPC standards were about me doing something I had to do for my benefit. Biblical submission is about me doing something that I don’t have to do for someone else’s benefit.