Following the Rules/Living the Standards

Subtle differences that can make all the difference.

There are many things in the gospel that can appear to be relative or changing. There are even more that feel like they should be, but we often discuss them as if they are not.

For example, most know that temple garments used to extend to the ankles, wrists, and neck and were one entire article of clothing. The garments I’m wearing now extend to my knees, mid-bicep and cut low onto my chest and are separated into two articles of clothing. For something many consider to be part of a holy ordinance revealed by God, it is difficult to understand how this could change.

On the flip side, we have the law of chastity. The “For Strength of Youth” pamphlet, under the heading “Sexual Purity,” states “Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing… [do not] lie on top of another person… Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.”[1][emphasis mine] I don’t know about you, but man, if I adhered to this as a literal guide to my conduct, I’d never have spoken to a cute girl in my life! Maybe I’m hyper sensitive or perhaps the author of this statement has a non-existent sex drive, but that’s precisely the point – sexual interest varies so dramatically between people, I have a very hard time seeing how this could be a universal rule – it would turn everyone who is hyper-sexual into hermits, and leave asexual people to be conquerors of the world!

Thinking in Rules and Standards
Much of these troubles go away however when we begin to think of the gospel in terms of rules and standards. These are terms used frequently in the world of law and economics. We are all familiar with rules. Speed limits are great examples – you have either exceeded the speed limit or you haven’t. There isn’t any grey area. There may be reasons to justify why you’ve exceeded the speed limit but that doesn’t change the fact that you broke the rule.

Standards, on the other hand, are more difficult to monitor. Imagine that the law required cars to drive at a “reasonable speed” instead of “no faster than 65 mph” on a certain stretch of road. This would be a standard. There isn’t any single definition that works at all times and all places, but it definitely seems that if all cars drove at a “reasonable” speed, we’d be just as well off, probably even better off, than if all cars drove no faster than 65 mph. Problem is, standards are harder to enforce than rules and they usually require more consideration as to what factors are relevant in the analysis. When a cop pulls you over for going 80 in a 65, hopefully there is some pretty compelling evidence – a reading on the radar gun. But if the cop pulls you over for “exceeding a reasonable speed” it’s difficult to know what evidence should be mustered. Is statistical data linking speeds to accidents relevant? What about the weather? Or maybe your driving experience should be considered. And how does the public know what speed is reasonable? Is a reasonable speed for a professional racecar driver different than for the newly licensed teenager? And how would the racecar driver signify to the cops that 120 mph in a 65 was, in fact, reasonable for him? Instead, we eliminate these difficulties by simply setting a rule. The rule overly penalizes some (like the race car driver who could safely go at 120 in a 65) and fails to penalize others (like the newly licensed driver who probably can’t drive reasonably at 65). But generally, we hope the 65 mph limit approximates what is a reasonable speed for a sizeable part of the population.

Church Parallels
Perhaps you have already noticed parallels in the Church. I think the temple garment is seen by many as a rule of modesty (don’t reveal anything above your knee or beyond your shoulders), when in reality, it may be a standard (be slightly more conservative than modern fashion, just to remind you that you are different). The law of chastity may be the reverse: something most see as a standard (don’t do anything that arouses sexual feelings) but may possibly be a simple rule (don’t have sexual relations outside of marriage).[2]The ambiguity in the term “relations” is a topic for another time. Among the Young Single Adult population, there is a notorious rule that many feel should be a standard: the age cut-off for singles wards.  31 or older?  You’re out!  Yet there are certainly 31 year olds that have the maturity level of 21 year olds, and they are overly penalized by this rule. And there are others that couldn’t be happier to get out of the YSA scene and would have benefitted from leaving earlier except for the social stigma associated with being a young person not attending a YSA unit.

Standardizing Rules
So there is a tendency in the Church to see a rule and wish it were a standard – in my mission field, people of this stripe were called “Pharisees.” They want to hedge up the law with many standards so that we never get close to breaking the rule. The For Strength of Youth may sound a lot like this when it states “never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression.”[3] The natural question that arises is “why mustn’t we do anything that could lead to sexual transgression?” The answer is probably “because sexual transgression is really bad, so don’t even get close.” However, if we create too many hedges around our rules we may wind up missing the mark, focusing so much on the safety standards that we forget what the core rule protected us from – this may be part of the difficulty for some in the Church who struggle severely with sexual relations once they are married.

Ruling Out Standards
There is also a tendency to see a standard and wish it were a rule. The Word of Wisdom may be a good example here. We all know the prohibitions: no coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. But how often do we think of “eat meat sparingly” when we are asked if we live the Word of Wisdom? I’m betting not often. It is easy to focus on the rules because we can easily check them off as things we definitely do. Standards require more thought, more planning, and may leave us in a constant state of wondering if we are really living up to the requirements of the law. Rules are just so much easier! But that’s just the danger of turning standards into rules – standards can transform our lives by forcing the issue to our minds constantly but if we turn all standards into rules we’ve screwed it all up!  Yes, we can now easily check them off and move on with our lives, but we’ve forfeited the change that the standard may work in our heart.

It seems to me the Lord requires that we live by both rules and standards. It also seems to me that it is important we understand which laws are which and that we stave off the temptation to flip them from one category to another. Each has its place in the life of a disciple of Christ, but if we mis-categorize, we we may find ourselves living below our privileges as we hedge up our way.  Or we may throw ourselves into needless turmoil when we discover some historical fact that violates what we understood to be “the rule” – when in fact “the rule” in question is actually a “standard.” Not all things are rules and not all things are standards – fortunately the Holy Ghost will help us discern.

One Comment

  1. boo said:

    Interestingly I had a conversation earlier today with someone about a GA speaking at their Stake conference yesterday. He is reported to have said since the Sabbath was holy we should remain in our church clothes all day . If we did the implication was that we would be less likely to ” break the sabbath”. I immediately thought of the difference between the Jews multiplying rules about how far you could walk and not starting a fire and the standard the Savior taught. I note that 6 children burned to death on a house fire in NYC last week because a hotplate was left on by observant Jews so that it would not have to be turned on during the Sabbath ( ie the switch turned on) . The Saviors injunction that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath seems particularly poignant now. I enjoyed your thoughts. Keep it up.

    13 April 2015

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