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UPC/Standards

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.

14 Responses to “UPC/Standards”

  • Cristina says:

    Thank you. I have considered myself a recovering pentecostal for a few years now. Until I read this I couldn’t put into words the issues I had with the standards taught by my very strict church. Now I have the words to use to explain my feelings and a starting point to find my way back to a good place with God. I would say this is the best Christmas present I will get this year!

  • Jack says:

    Very good. We must keep “the main thing the main thing”. That is, still loving the truth that God and his word had revealed to us.. God Bless You!!!

  • Karie says:

    I am a backslider who after 25 years or so, found her way back home. I was raised UPC, and left to live how I wanted, but came back by way of almost every religion out there. There is nothing else that can compare with the Holy Ghost experience! I didn’t want to return to the UPC church. God had to drag me back. I could not find peace elsewhere. No other church had the powerful presence of the Lord that I yearned for. You can turn up your nose at the standards, but when you open your ears and submit He begins to talk to you thru the Spirit. God has quietly spoke to me about things He wanted me to change. I wasn’t doing it for anyone else, but out of pure love and devotion. Yes, my pastor has strong standards, but they don’t press anyone to do what they don’t want to do. There are rules to participate in leadership or on the platform, but if you just want to come to church, you can dress how you like. I am not in bondage, I am free! I have perfect joy and peace! I live like I do because I love Him more than anything else! I pray everday in the Spirit, and ask Him how He wants me to live. The ecstasy of His presence is more than enough to keep me where I know I can get what I need. I do not judge anyone else for how they dress. I may not like it or agree with it, but we all have to answer for our own salvation. I must say that in most churches today, women are showing off their bodies and I ache for the lost paths of yesterday, when we had more respect for the house of the Lord. If we don’t set standards, sin will come into our lives. I for one have noticed in churches where there are no standards, there is no powerful presence of the Lord like I see in the strong UPC churches. I wonder why that is? You may be recovering from the UPC church, but I pray I never do!!!

  • Jenni says:

    Hi Karie,

    I understand how you feel… and if you’re happy in that setting, I’m not going to tell you to change.

    But I will tell you that God’s presence & guidance are available far beyond the narrow borders of the UPC. Standards can be helpful — and every church has some form of expectations, even if they aren’t codified as Holiness Standards. But standards do not prevent sin. People who live by UPC Holiness Standards are susceptible to sin too :) They might not be as likely to dress immodestly… but dress standards aren’t going to do much prevent greed, envy, strife… or pride!

  • Ellie says:

    Hi Jenni,
    I really appreciate your outlook, and for putting your experience in words! I am also a recovering Pentecostal, raised in the UPC. It’s been hard to find support for the process of “deprogramming,” because either people (1) on the outside don’t understand the experience, (2) are still on the inside and only want to re-convert me, or (3) have also left and don’t want to talk about it. You’re right, many people who leave the UPC choose not to maintain any kind of Christian faith, but I know if must be very hard psychologically just to bury that whole experience. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. I’ve actually been looking for a recovering Pentecostals “club” of sorts!!!

  • charles says:

    I would like to thank the ladies that find the stregnth to really look at the truth and not base their status of salvation on how they dress. I spent six years of my life in a UPC where there was alot focusing on other issues (standards) besides salvation. Adam & Eve at first had nothing on (as God intended) until they later aquired a conciousness of their nakedness. I’m not claiming we run around in the buff….however, I see that God was looking at our hearts and not at what we are wearing. I believe a gun is not what kills but rather the individual that pulls the trigger.

  • Cindy says:

    Hi Jenni
    I came across this discussion after searching UPC standards. I have been in UPC for over 10 yrs. Within the past 2 yrs I have witnessed too many sisters and leadership condemn women for wearing jeans or even a wedding band. The bible talks about the pharisees and sadducees. How they had the “holy” look but their hearts were afar off. where in the word does it say that women are supposed to wear skirts? where in the word does it say that a woman is not holy if she doesnt wear a skirt? the bible says not to add or take away from it. Man’s standards are NOT the Golden Rule. God is no respector of persons Karie. So to say that His presence is not felt in other churches except UPC is wrong. The word says For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
    I dont ever want to get to a place where I think I am “holier than thou” because I follow “man’s” standards..but let me remember the GREATEST commandment of love..1 CORINTHIANS 13…
    1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

    4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

    13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

  • Melena says:

    I am also a recovering pentecostal. I was raised all of my life or childhood in the UPC. When I became an adult I started to question standards and felt all of the experiences that you share in your story. I knew I loved God and wanted whatever he wanted in my life but I was clueless as to the answer of how is “standards” going to progress my relationship with God. I then made a decision to start to pray about what I was feeling and ask God to show me the right path or way in his word. It was from then on a personal thing, a personal relationship that I started to develop with God. Something that I never really done before. God has became my “everything” not church but “God”. There is one question I really dont understand how anyone would think that you cant experience God if you dont belong to a church? And to say his presence is not felt at home, in the bathroom, walking in the yard, driving my car, would all be wrong. I cant wait til Sunday to “feel” God I need him every day of the week.. Something I read that I liked a couple of days ago was a prayer- Father I pray for your will, nothing more and nothing less. Now dont you think that puts everything including “self” out of the way. I am a 14 year recovering pentecostal. I will agree with this group that in no way would I ever disrespect ANYONE who wants to serve God but I have to question myself to the things I do and why I do them. I have realized that its is ok to agree to disagree and God still loves me and you just the same “equal” we are all his children. If you have children then your know no matter what they do you still love them. You may get disappionted or not agree with something they have done but bottom line you will still desire a relationship with them. I feel God desires that personal relationship with us more so that a relationship felt on Sundays. Love is so important between God and I and I and others :))

  • Jenn says:

    I am a 10 year recovering Pentecostal. I am the “backslider” that everyone from my former UPC church (very large) looks down upon. Even my own family considers me “backslider” and thinks I need to “come back”. Its so hard because I see them all as brainwashed now. Its a constant struggle reprogramming my brain from all the scare tactics that were used on me for 18 years.

  • Potatoe says:

    Jenn, I feel the exact same way. Fourteen years of believing things that I just don’t see in the Bible. I have recently taken the time to fast, pray and study the scriptures regarding “standards” and see none of what they say in the word. I feel severely distressed at times when I think of their faces and words, yet completely comfortable before God. I get upset that I actually was stupid enough to believe what I believed. The only way I will ever end up in heaven is b/c of what Jesus did. That’s the ONLY way!!! It’s just hard to get all of those thoughts out of my mind that have been planted. It’s not a nice thing to go through. I know the Bible says “be not dismayed at their faces” but I am talkin about church people. It’s really sad that I can be myself around everyone but them. This is hard.

  • S says:

    Hi Jenni,

    A friend of mine emailed me a link to your blog yesterday & I am so glad that she did! I left the UPC fully about 1 year ago however, I still have many ties to it like basically all of my friends are UPC so I still attend some events & weddings & such so its so hard to be between 2 very different worlds. I too don’t want to be one of those people that leave the UPC & Christianity both. I want to remain a Christian but sometimes I feel like I am so damaged & at times feel as if it would have just been easier to stay in it. I’m still not even to the point where I can post pictures on Face book in earring or pants. I’ve gotten over the feelings of looking like I have 10 heads when I wear pants : ) My fundamental questions really started while I was in Bible School the very place where I thought I would finally accept everything as growing up in a UPC ministers family inside I could never quite accept that this faith was right. I still struggle so much with the idea of grace & if I am good enough as a person & good enough to go to heaven. These thoughts drain me to no end & I feel like my twenties have been such a struggle. This is cliché but in many ways I feel like I missed a big part of my childhood struggling with my life’s beliefs & so much guilt & I don’t want to miss the rest of twenties as well. I identify fully with your blog & am looking forward to reading the whole thing in the next week. I really really appreciate that you took the time to make this blog as it is such a relief to read it. My desire is to be an authentic Christian. Thank you for helping my life : )

  • Noemi says:

    Thank you! It’s been 13 years since I walked away from the UPC and am just now finding the courage to face the process of “reprograming.” My departure from the church was very painful and filled with confusion, guilt, and doubt, however, my love for God and truth would not allow me to stay another day. For 13 years I have tried to ignore the emotional, spiritual, and physical consequences of questioning and leaving this religion that ruled every aspect of my life since I was a child. I hoped ignoring them could make them go away, but this has only prolonged the recovery process. Your site and others I have recently found have given me the strength I need to revisit that fragile,complicated space in my heart and mind. My spirit is broken and needs to be renewed, but I know I wont find peace until I face my past and recuperate from the trauma, yes trauma, that experience caused in my life. Thank you, and everyone else who shares, for speaking up, not with bitterness or malice, but with love. I am looking forward to being healed and finding peace in God’s love.

  • Sara says:

    I am also a recovering pentecostal, going on 3 years now. Thank you SO much for sharing your story, it is almost identical to mine! When my husband and I left the UPC, we lost friends and actual family members and we’ve not yet fully recovered. Even through the losses we suffered, we know beyond a doubt that leaving was the right thing and we do not regret that decision. If anything, the behavior of our so-calld friends has re-affirmed our choices. Once again, thank you so much for sharing!

  • Tracey says:

    I left the UPC with my husband about three months ago. It has been one of the most confusing and difficult things I’ve ever done. I still have UPC friends whom I love, but they are telling me to repent and turn from my wicked ways if you will. I stumbled upon your website and felt an instant relief as I began to read. To find that I am not the only one who has gone through this and that it is okay to still call myself a Christian and rebuild that relationship with God. You know, three months ago, I looked in the mirror and saw a Pharisee. It completely repulsed me and I realized that I was further from God than I was BEFORE I even got the Holy Ghost. Like you, I don’t want to go in the other direction – I don’t want to look down on anyone including the UPC for their beliefs. My main goal is to get back to a relationship with God but I am still stuck in my tracks when I try to move forward because I feel like I’m losing my salvation. Such a sad place to be. I honestly just want God. I want to feel His Presence again and I’m afraid I’ll never feel it again unless I go back to the UPC. Scary… Hopefully it will get better…

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