Shall We Dance?

A basis for our lifestyle standards

Shall we dance? Yes, say the majority of Adventist young people surveyed in North America. No, say the majority of adults.

Is this indicative of an approaching death to Adventism's unique lifestyle? Perhaps not. Adventism is more than a way of life. Its heart, its foundation, its crown is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a living faith. Those who identify Adventism with behavioral doctrines or standards may not know the true anchor of their existence. And when it comes to Adventist lifestyle, they may not know why they believe what they believe.

The Valuegenesis landmark study, sponsored by the North American Division, confirms this dichotomy in attitudes between young and adult members.1 One part of this research dealt with how Adventist young people view lifestyle issues. Through factor analysis, researchers discovered that these issues clustered into three groups. The first cluster, labeled "Drugs," dealt with church standards on illegal drugs, tobacco, beer, liquor, and wine. The second cluster, "Adventist culture," included uniquely Seventh-day Adventist standards such as Sabbath observance, unclean meats, daily exercise, sex only within marriage, and modest clothing. The third one, "Pop culture," included jewelry, caffeinated drinks, rock music, dancing, and theater attendance.

The research found that a majority of Adventist young people still believed strongly in the first two clusters, but only a minority believed in the third. Parents scored higher, but questioned the same standards that the youth did. Adventist teachers showed a similar contour, with almost identical scores as parents. School principals scored slightly higher than teachers, but maintained the same contour. Pastors scored the highest of any group; yet they replicated the same contour, showing that they question the same standards as do the principals, the teachers, the parents and the youth (see chart).

Consider movies, for example. According to this study, a majority of Adventists in North America do go to the movies and only 18 percent of Adventist young people say that to be an Adventist implies non-theater attendance.2 With behavior well on its way to becoming a habit pattern, commanding a change is more likely to exacerbate the problem rather than correct it. The better course is careful study, prayerful reflection, and open dialogue.

Principles and applications

Perhaps we should begin with a distinction between principles and applications. Whenever we have confusion regarding a principle and its application, we're bound to have disagreement on standards and lifestyle issues. Principles are timeless and cross-cultural. What is true for one generation or group of people is just as true for another. For example, most people in most cultures throughout history have held modesty in high esteem. Modesty is a principle.

But principles are theoretical concepts. They need to be lived, to be applied in real life. Such applications require interpretation of the principle, and interpretations may change from one generation to another, and from one culture to another. For example, one generation might consider a particular swimsuit style immodest, whereas another generation might not. Both generations might agree on the importance of the principle of modesty, but disagree on the application of that principle. One culture may consider barefooted in public as being immodest while another may see nothing wrong in it.

Although it is possible for some applications of principles to be the same from generation to generation or from culture to culture, we should not expect that to be the case, especially in a pluralistic society in which change seems to be the only constant.

Many Adventists find it difficult to distinguish between biblical principles and lifestyle applications. It's as if for generations they were taught and memorized specific applications of biblical principles without ever pausing to discover the principles undergirding those applications. Ask such Adventists why they insist on a particular application and they may not be able to provide a convincing answer. The result? Either defensiveness or giving up previously held practices.

Because times change, the applications of one generation can be expected to be inadequate for the succeeding generation. However, the biblical principle should remain stable. Many members simply want shortcut answers. They cry for a quick fix of ready-made applications. For example, they want to know if a certain music group, or even a specific song by the group, is acceptable for Adventists. A simple "Yes" or "No" response might be quick, but it hardly leads to a careful decision based upon principle. Rather, those who raised the question are likely to compare their personal opinion with your verbalized application. As a result, one can easily get caught arguing about applications rather than getting to the root of the issue, which is the principle.

Freedom and flexibility

To allow flexibility in applications requires a tolerance that few of us are willing to permit. The reason is twofold. First, freedom of personal application is a threat to the image of unity that we like to preserve as a worldwide religious movement. Second, such freedom shifts the focus of behavior from externals to inner motives. To allow freedom and flexibility in lifestyle may be dangerous--but not to do so would be even more dangerous.

At what age should young people have such freedom? Normally not until the beginning of adolescence when a person is ready for operational thinking, a process necessary to understand the dynamic of principles and applications. Therefore, preadolescent children will need applications spelled out for them. Some youth and adults will also need such direction, since abstract thinking isn't guaranteed simply because an individual has passed through adolescence.

I've been an Adventist from childhood. However, it wasn't until the close of young adulthood that I discovered that locating the biblical principle behind a lifestyle issue makes its application far more encompassing than the church's standard. I have also found that some of the specific activities that were taboo weren't necessarily wrong, but also that I could no longer participate in some of the activities that were "acceptable" by the majority. It was almost as if I had to choose between a 19th century lifestyle acceptable to the church or a more relevant lifestyle of accountability to Jesus in all areas of my life today.

A few dangers

In any discussion of standards, we need to be aware of some dangers. First, the tendency to compare one's self with others. The Bible speaks of such comparisons as foolish (see 2 Corinthians 10:12). Comparison encourages us to think we are acceptable to God because we are more strict than others in certain areas of behavior. Conversely, we can come to believe that we are not acceptable to God because everyone else seems to be better. Some might even discard Adventism in its totality because behavior has been elevated to the status of principle. In any case, it's unwise to use lifestyle issues as a measure of one's spirituality. Although actions are observable, the underlying motives, critical for proper understanding, frequently are misunderstood.

A second danger is the frustration of inconsistency. It's so easy to change with the situation that we lose sight of the principles and values that should guide decision-making. Going with the flow requires little thought or self-discipline. It is possible to focus on one area of action and neglect other areas. We can tithe mint, dill, and cumin, but neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness, as Jesus poignantly observed (see Matthew 23:23, 24). It is easy to have blind spots. Since we tend to attract friends who agree with us, group-think tends to make us unaware of our own bias as long as we remain with the same group.

Third, the danger of overconfidence. When people are convinced that they have "the Truth," certainty rules the day. Defensiveness takes priority over tolerance. Questions must fit into prescribed answers. Unless our understanding of God's truth continues to develop, either our answers or we begin to lack relevance. That means that all of us need to be re-treaded periodically, so to speak.

A major re-treading becomes necessary during the teen years when abstract reasoning becomes a usable tool. For those who grow up within Adventism, this first retreading process could be quite a jolt. Another stage in this development occurs when a person enters the work force on a full-time basis. Indeed, the entire life span can be viewed as a series of stages in which perspectives change and a person needs to readjust his or her thinking as a result of new perceptions of God and life. Some think that once a person has made an assent to "the Truth," he or she is sealed for life. For a child baptized by the age of 12, there may need to be several shifts in understanding of principles and their application on the way to adulthood. Unless this deepening and stretching in understanding takes place, those who were baptized at 12 may abandon their Christian commitment before reaching their young adult stage in life. This dialogue and interaction with respected adults and committed peers is a vital ingredient in the maturing process.

A fourth danger is the fear that without specific rules or restraints people will go out of control. Parents and others responsible for young people take great pains to identify the areas in which freedom should be curbed. Adults who seek to protect young people are prone to make choices for them. Such action, even when motivated by love, prevents young people from maturing, and may even lead them to believe that they live in "slavery". Adults need special wisdom to steadily remove imposed restraints as adolescents move into young adulthood, making their own choices. The best protection adults can give young people is to provide them with Bible-based decision-making skills in an atmosphere of love and respect. Freedom must be accompanied by responsibilities. Thus they will be prepared for adulthood, when they will make decisions totally on their own, regardless of what parents or other authority figures demand.

A fifth danger in dealing with lifestyle issues is that the discussion itself becomes central, edging out Jesus. It's somewhat like the Jewish experience of surrounding the law with countless inconsequential rules. People living in Palestine in Jesus' time became so conscious of the rules that they never understood the core of God's law. Is it possible that we have surrounded Jesus with so many rules that in any discussion of lifestyle people see only the peripheral standards but not Jesus? Any dialogue on lifestyle should lead to the core of the matter--Jesus.

How to start

Many of you are beginning to make important decisions totally on your own. As you come to understand God's guidance in your life, you will want to distinguish clearly between principles and applications. How can you start a discussion on lifestyle in church or in a circle of Adventist friends? How can you arrive at conclusions that are meaningful to those involved while still being faithful to God's principles? Here are some steps that you can follow in a group study and discussion:

1. Set out discussion strategies. Don't begin by stating your own conclusions on a topic. Try to facilitate lively discussion. First choose a subject; it could be dancing or smoking or another topic that would interest the group.3 Brainstorm. Make notes on the issues, comments, questions, and inconsistencies that arise in the discussion.

Next, systematically identify the responses for each item listed. It may take 30-45 minutes to get through this step--perhaps longer if you get sidetracked, but it's worth the time. Unless people feel listened to, dumping the "right answers" onto them rarely leads to acceptance or personal application.

2. Expect a plurality of views as you go through the questions, comments, and reactions. What are the key biblical principles that relate to your topic? Identify these, including chapter and verse. For example, Paul's admonition that women be silent in church is an application of the principle of proper worship in Paul's day (see 1 Timothy 2:11, 12). Today, all would agree that proper worship is a timeless and cross-cultural principle. It is its application that may change with time and place. Even those opposed to the ordination of women will acknowledge that women can teach Sabbath School classes and lead in worship components in an Adventist congregation.

If you are dealing with guidance found in Ellen White's writings, remember that much of what she wrote dealt with specific applications of biblical principles. Going back to the original principle and reapplying it today in a different culture may provide a different perspective.

Identify related issues that still do not have satisfactory responses. With the help of a concordance, find out other Bible passages on the subject. Read the context. Use several versions. You may need to look up more than one word. For example, biblical passages on the problem of drinking wine might not even mention the word wine.

3. Formulate personal applications. Now that your group has identified biblical principles, move to personal applications. Choose a small group of fellow believers with whom you can be honest and accountable regarding your application of these principles in your life. Such people will not be police dogs, but fellow pilgrims with whom you can share and be honest. Such people care for you and can provide encouragement and "holy nudges" as you live out the life to which you have been called and convicted. Such people are the community of believers--the Church.


In this context, it's time to address again our initial question---Shall we dance? After studying the 27 biblical references to dance (dances, danced, dancing), one can arrive at the following principles:

  1. Dance can be a part of divine worship (Psalm 150:4).
  2. Dance is an appropriate expression of community joy (1 Samuel 18:6).
  3. Dance should not promote inappropriate sexual arousal (Exodus 32:6, 19; 1 Corinthians 10:7, 8).
  4. Dancing, like any activity in which the Christian engages, should bring honor to God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Steve Case (Ph. D., Andrews University) is president of Piece of the Pie Ministries (3732 California Ave.; Carmichael, California 95608; U.S.A.) and a frequent speaker in youth leadership seminars. This article is adapted from his book Shall We Dance? (La Sierra University Press, 1994), which can be purchased, along with tapes, from the address listed above.

Notes and References

  1. This broad study involved 12,142 students in 6th to 12th grades. 1,892 parents, 282 teachers, 176 principals, and 15 pastors in North America. See Valuegenesis: A Study of the Influence of Family, Church and School on the Faith, Values and Commitment of Adventist Youth (Silver Spring, Md.: North American Division, 1990).
  2. See, for example, "Adventists and Movies: A Century of Change," Dialogue 5:1 (1993), pp. 12-15.
  3. See "Gambling: An Adventist Option?" in this issue of Dialogue, p. 28.