Raise the Standard

On occasion, we hear that someone or some in the ministry has a reputation for “raising the standard”. It is doubtful that any of the individuals mentioned have ever identified themselves with this phrase, but there is a message in it that rarely needs explanation. It invariably implies an effort on their part to reform the practices of lay people who are considered to have become slack about either their appearance, their associations, or some other aspect of their visible life. Whether or not such a “raising of the standard” is required, and whether or not the reputation of “standard raiser” is deserved, it is disturbing that the word “standard” has been applied to such concerns because it distracts from what Christ’s standard is.

What is a Standard?

A traditional standard is an object, such as a flag or banner, that is used as a symbol for a people, a military unit, or a sovereign. Another definition for “standard”, and the more commonly applied usage, is that it is a test by which measurement can be made and a judgment of something can be formed. These definitions seem unrelated, and when used to discuss spiritual matters may be confusing. This is because the “measuring” definition often is applied to abstract and spiritual considerations.

The word “standard”, as used in all instances in the Bible, is in accordance with the first definition.1 Such a standard was also referred to as a “banner”.2 A standard was displayed as the unique identifying symbol of a people, and it was the emblem of primary focus around which an army rallied. It was what the lost and confused looked for if they got separated from their own people. Reference is also made to the standard being an ideology, such as love, as in the Song of Solomon.3 The standard speaks of the highest value of a people and is the focal ideology of a fellowship. These references to “standard” are an appropriate analogy to the purpose of a Christian standard.

In modern times such standards are still displayed. They are not merely symbolic representations – they are evidence of a presence, a hope, or a victory. For example, a royal banner is displayed at all times when the king or queen is present. When the sovereign is no longer in residence, the standard is no longer displayed. In battle, the waving standard is a hope of victory, because a lowered banner represents defeat.

There is also another standard of note in the Scriptures – one for measuring, and thus judging. It originated with the law God gave Moses, which we commonly refer to as the “Ten Commandments”, and through Old Testament times was greatly added to and elaborated upon. By the time Jesus came to earth Jewish law bore more resemblance to a modern code of laws than to the simplistic original commandments. Nevertheless, it functioned as doctrine, and it was effective as a means for measuring such righteousness as laws can promote.

The Two Standards

As mentioned, the standard that is commonly associated with Christ and Christians is “love”. We sing of “love” being the “kingdom’s banner”. Many have made the “cross” a banner of Christianity, but Jesus Himself claimed that “love” would be the criterion by which His disciples would be recognized.4 As with the lovers in the Song of Solomon, it is the law above all others, a point which Jesus emphasized by proclaiming it not only the first commandment of importance, but also the second, on which “hang all the law and the prophets.”5 Not only, then, is it the ensign of the kingdom, but it is the “standard” to which any other commandment will conform.

The Pharisees had another standard – their righteousness. It was their widely recognized fastidious, even fanatical, demonstration of obedience to the law. Jesus Himself recognized this standard and made mention of it. He even said that “except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” 6 By so saying He clearly identified the standard of the Pharisees as one that could be measured up to. But the question is, how are we expected to “exceed” what was considered the highest standard of the day? Moreover, Jesus Himself did not fully measure up as did the Pharisees.

The Lesson

Jesus did not condemn the law, but neither did He raise it as the banner of His gospel. Neither did He condemn the Pharisees’ preaching,7 but he did condemn them for what they required of people.8 He acknowledged their exemplary compliance with all the law, but still denied them salvation because of what was in their hearts.9 Let us not forget that the Pharisees were the ones who sat in Moses’ seat!10 In Jesus’ day they were the model of righteousness, and in all fairness had never previously heard the gospel of Jesus.

How can it be, then, that such a One as Jesus could expect that we exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? He Himself was reported to have been a blasphemer who consorted with sinners and such despicable types as tax collectors.11 He broke the law without apology,12 He was referred to as a glutton and a drunkard,13 He sought out society’s misfits,14 and He defended His questionable manners before His critics.15 This is a worthy question because these accusations smack loudly of the concerns of people who are concerned about raising the standard among us in these times.

Such righteousness as He expects is only accomplished by accepting Him on the promises of His gospel. He asked not that we exceed the Pharisees’ “compliance with law”, but that we exceed their “righteousness”. The righteousness of the law was nothing more than the avoidance of punishment for observable wrongs. The righteousness of the gospel, on the other hand, was the provision for salvation because of repentance and Jesus’ graceful sacrifice in love for our sins. Jesus made it clear that He had not come to call the righteous, but sinners.16 Conspicuously absent in Jesus’ ministry was the securing of salvation through compliance with law. The flaw, He pointed out, was that all was done to be seen of men. Such observable conformity can always be enhanced and exaggerated. It is the plague of law codes even today that man tries to regulate “intent”, but in the end, the judgment is all about observable behaviors. Jesus’ unmistakable preoccupation was instead with hearts and imbuing them with faith and love. Salvation, not the law, is to be our “helmet”.17

How then do we raise the standard of Jesus? Paul gave us an exhaustive list of the component works of this ensign. We learn that love is patient, is kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no records of wrongs, does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres, and never fails.18

This review would appear to demonstrate that the celebrated standard raisers among us are raising a different standard. The first quality of love is patience, yet some have been given not days but hours to comply with a standard raising request or be excommunicated. The second requirement of love is to be kind, yet the widespread reaction to the disfellowshipped is to ignore or shun them. When the list of prevalent and grievous violations of these principles is considered, one shudders at the conspicuous contrast between them and what constitutes “love”. At the same time, it should be a consolation to those who have been offended by the practices of such reputed standard raisers that they have recognized that standard for what it is!

The Conclusion

Considering that this is the standard Jesus raised, one wonders why the standard raisers among us have become so concerned with things that are clearly Pharisaical in nature. Invariably “love” is not an element of today’s “standard raising” efforts, and the outcomes of such efforts are typically as laden with personal interpretation and controversy as any matter in Old Testament Law

The hypocrisy of the situation is evidenced in the extent to which individuals will go to procure the honor bestowed for such conformity. Not only is the reward of honor an obvious motive for conforming, it becomes acceptable common practice to emphasize the conformity at such times and in such company as may yield the greatest honor. The most notorious aspect of all this is that it panders to the self-esteem of the “standard raisers”. The hypocrisy of this form of standard raising is most emphasized in the quiet but unmistakable judgment that is passed by the conformers on the non-conformers. This is Pharisaism.

Perhaps we are unwilling for the real cost of raising the true standard. Patience costs in terms of time and personal comfort. Kindness demands that we control our tongues. To deny our pride is to allow our name to be slandered for our opposition to wrongs that others consider righteousness. Unfortunately for the faint of heart, Jesus’ example was not one of compromise with such legalities. To raise His standard is always an affront to Pharisaism, and we quickly learn that Pharisaism does not yield. It becomes violent in its own defense, and its standard was the justification for Jesus’ crucifixion. Let us with fervor raise the banner of love among us, and may Pharisaism be known for what it is.

— 1. Num. 1:52; Num. 2:2,3,10,18,25; Num. 10:; Is. 49:22; Is. 59:19; Is. 62:10; Jer. 4:6,21; Jer. 50:21; Jer. 51:12,27.
— 2. Ps. 20:5; Ps. 60:4; Song. 2:4; Song. 6:10; Is. 13:2.
— 3. Song.2:4
— 4. Jn.13:35
— 5. Mt.22:37-40
— 6. Mt.5:20
— 7. Mt.23:2
— 8. Mt.23:4
— 9. Mt.5:21-37
— 10. Mt.23:2
— 11. Mt.9:3,11
— 12. Mt.12:2
— 13. Mt.11:19
— 14. Mt. 8:14-18; Mt. 9:1-2,36; Mk. 2:1-12
— 15. Mt.15:2
— 16. Mt.9:13
— 17. 1 Th.5:8
— 18. 1 Cor.13:4-8

By Bob Williston
Posted December 6. 2000