In the winter of 1965 I stepped into the retreat center with anticipation; the annual gathering of our conference ministerium was about to begin. Two of my contemporaries were playing Ping-Pong while others stood around watching idly. When one of the spectators called out, “What’s on your mind, Everett?” the player facing me paused before serving, and with a delighted smile on his face said, “Sex is what’s on Everett’s mind! Sex!”

I knew, more or less, what he was referring to. I had recently published in our denominational publication Covenant Youth Today a fictional piece that began something like this: “Peg had never gone all the way, you could say that for her. But sex was still the main reason to go out with Peg, you had to face it.” From that opener the story went on to be a highly evangelistic tale about the conversion of a football player. But after the Ping-Pong game, my friend told me he knew some local church leaders who had been so offended by my suggestion of sex among Christian teenagers that they would not distribute the paper to their Sunday-school classes.

Fast-forward to 1979, an airport restaurant. Several ministers, on our way home from a convention, are having coffee together. The subject is sexual morality. A pastor in the church that had rejected my story years ago remarks, almost casually, “It seems now as though sexual intercourse is just the payoff for a nice evening.”

“Even among Christians?” I ask.

He nods. In 14 years, fornication had not become ethically acceptable, but it had made a giant leap from scandalized silence to open acknowledgment, if not tacit acceptance.

The widespread change in attitude toward fornication is more than a commentary on society after the “sexual revolution.” It is also one example of a growing lack of discipline among evangelical Christians. Routine divorce, drunkenness, sharp business practice, and the politicization of church relationships are some of the others.

The Hope Of Accord

When “worldliness” infiltrates the church, American evangelicals traditionally respond with prayer for national revival—“Let God get us back on track!” I am all for prayer, but it is not our only available strategy. Praying for revival alone will not give us the common discipline we need. Besides turning to God, we must talk with each other in order to achieve an ordered, common understanding of Christian ethical behavior.

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I believe that such accord is possible. In the past 35 years or so, evangelicals have arrived at a largely common understanding of Christian doctrine. Even debates over inspiration and inerrancy, while straining the consensus, have had the positive effect of emphasizing for all sides the undisputed authority of the Bible as the Word of God and the standard of all doctrine.

But as we were achieving this remarkable coming together in doctrine, we were not giving the same attention to discipline. A historian would ask why we weren’t. I ask, “Why shouldn’t we now?”

I do not, of course, mean by this the elimination of sin among Christians, but rather a common definition of the sins that beset us, and a common standard of holiness to which we may appeal. The materials for our ethics are as close at hand as the materials for our theology: as close as the Bible. If we could manage a workable common doctrine while agreeing to freedom of interpretation on such volatile subjects as baptism and the Second Coming, we ought to be competent enough to set forth a common discipline without getting stalled on issues like social drinking and movie ratings.

We will, of course, need a certain graciousness. The doctrinal coalition works because we have not let our disagreements stand in the way of our even more vital agreements. If we are ever to state a common discipline that will give evangelical Christians a recognizable standard of behavior, we will need a similar generosity of spirit. The isolated opinions of this or that popular best-selling preacher, or the memories of what Mom liked and did not like 40 years ago, will not do to form a consensus. We need the concerted voice of many teachers and leaders declaring a common understanding of the biblical message concerning Christian behavior.

Our Starting Points

Unfortunately, apart from the high-profile issues of abortion and pornography, we hear very little about even working toward a common discipline. But what about virginity before marriage, permanence in marriage, honesty in business, and sober, temperate habits? Is there not something to be said on the subjects that we can all say? We can go as far with a common discipline as we have gone with a common doctrine, but we need to keep in mind some things.

First, we will need a hermeneutics that is free from biases formed by contemporary practices. For example, no matter how convinced we may be in our own minds and habits, we cannot hope to insert abstinence from tobacco and alcohol into Paul’s teaching concerning the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:18–20). As individual interpreters we may infer it from the text, but in a common understanding we may not impose it on the text.

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The common discipline Paul mandates is to treat the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit; since Paul’s application of it forbids fornication, a prohibition against fornication becomes part of our application. On the other hand, some inferences from the text will lead to specific—but not common—application. A common discipline tells us what to do, but not all the ways in which it may be done. Individuals, families, congregations, and even denominations may establish more explicit guidelines, while still acknowledging that other Christians accept biblical standards without applying them in the identical way.

Second, we need to remember that antinomianism is a heresy. Grace has fulfilled the law, not cancelled it. In his sermon “The Law Established Through Faith,” John Wesley reminded his followers that “the nature of the covenant of grace gives you no ground, no encouragement at all, to set aside any instance or degree of obedience; any part or measure of holiness.”

But obedience to what? The Ten Commandments are a good starting point. Of them Wesley said, in one of his discourses on the Sermon on the Mount, “But the moral law, contained in the Ten Commandments, and enforced by the prophets, he did not take away. It was not the design of his coming to revoke any part of this. This is a law which can never be broken, which ‘stands fast as the faithful witness in heaven.’ The moral law stands on an entirely different foundation from the ceremonial or ritual law, which was only designed for a temporary restraint upon a disobedient and stiff-necked people; whereas this was from the beginning of the world.”

Wesley is worth quoting because his was the last sustained, worldwide evangelistic effort to tie in the requirements of specific and systematic Christian disciplines to the lives of its converts. Some of Wesley’s requirements went beyond the hermeneutics stated above, but that does not give our generation a warrant for requiring nothing.

Of course, we will best treat some ethical issues, such as observance of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day, as we have dealt with theological issues like baptism and eschatology—leaving them to more cohesive groups, like denominations and seminaries, to deal with according to their specific doctrinal positions. But such issues are certainly appropriate for discussion, even when complexities will not allow for consensus.

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The Boundaries Of The Field

Fortunately, most ethical issues are far more straightforward. Here are some examples.

All Christians may not agree about drinking as part of their stewardship, but they can agree that the Bible is very clear that drunkenness is unacceptable.

Grounds for divorce may be debatable, but the biblical standard of permanence in marriage is not.

The Bible may not address the degree to which sexual matters should be discussed in a secular classroom or shown on a television screen, but it does tie permission for sexual activity to the married state, and forbids fornication and adultery.

The Bible does not discuss the morality of a boycott on South Africa, but it addresses very directly our responsibility to the poor and requires of us that our contracts be honest.

We may not agree on what model for church government is either biblical or workable, but we can hear the Word of God when it says, in relation to congregational life, that “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3:16, NRSV).

Perhaps a fear of legalism or a distaste for laying down rules that Christians may not keep have kept us from committing a common discipline to paper. But I am not calling for a manual of discipline. To use a sports metaphor, our common doctrine is not a detailed rule book of evangelical theology, but it is pretty reliable in showing us where the boundaries of the field are. A common discipline can perform a similar task for evangelical ethics.

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