To do or not to do, that is the question

What does the phrase Christian liberty mean? Webster defines liberty as “the state of being free from control or restrictions or the right to act, believe, or express oneself as they choose.”

Allow me to ask you some questions that are related to the subject of Christian liberty: Is it OK to shop on Sundays? Should Christian women wear make-up? Can a Christian play golf on Sunday morning and still win? Is there anything wrong with Rock music? Should I go to the movies? Is it ok to dance? Should a Christian drink a beer or wine or coffee?

Those are all questions that deal with Christian liberty and they have been debated and discussed by the church for decades. Liberty has to do with those gray areas, areas in which the Bible does not speak directly to. But doesn’t the Bible doesn’t the Bible say something about dancing? Yes, in Psalm 50 David danced.

Doesn’t the Bible say something about drinking beer, wine or coffee? Yes, it makes a general statement not to be controlled by any of them. Doesn’t the Bible say something about movies? No. There are no absolutes in the Bible that speak to those subjects. They are grey areas. They are the issues that fall between the black and white absolutes like lying, stealing, cheating and adultery.

In fact grey areas change with the culture and the times. At one time Christians would not go to a movie theater. Then Billy Graham made movies and people attended theaters to see his movies. At one time you could not eat in a church building but now you can in the basement or a fellowship hall. At one time ladies were forbidden to wear pants to church, now it is fashionable. At one time Billy Sunday and Harry Ironsides would preach as they smoked a cigar. I do not my members would appreciate me smoking a cigar next Sunday as I preach. The point being that some grey areas change due to culture and times. Some things that were once considered wrong are now socially acceptable in Christian circles and some things that were ok are now considered wrong. But how does one make decisions in those grey areas? We know as Christians we are not under the law and those grey areas are not necessarily right or wrong in and of themselves.

However, the principle that governs your decision to engage in those grey areas is not is it right or wrong. Although some things are all right, in doing them you can offend someone who thinks they are wrong. Allow me to offer some questions that you can use to filter your behavior in those grey areas, questions you might want to ask yourself before you engage in a grey area: (1) Excess: Will it have a negative effect on me? Heb. 12:1, (2) Expedience: Is it useful or profitable? Will it help my Christian life? I Cor. 6:12, (3) Emulation: Would Jesus do it? I Jn. 2:6, (4) Evangelism: Will it enhance my testimony to others? Col. 4:5, (5) Edification: Will it build me up I Cor. 10:23, (6) Exaltation: If I do it will it glorify my Lord? I Cor. 10:31, and (7) Example: If I do it will it weaken my brothers and sisters in Christ? I Cor. 8. That last principle, if I do it will it weaken my brother or sister in Christ, sets the stage for I Cor. 8. It is called the principle of love. The key ingredient to making decision in grey areas is love and Paul gives us three principles in I Corinthians 8 to govern our actions by love. First, We already have knowledge. Knowledge is important. In Rom. 15:14 he says be filled with goodness and knowledge. In II Cor. 6:6 he describes himself as having knowledge.

In Col. 1:9 he prays that believers would have knowledge. There is no premium on ignorance. However, just knowledge isn’t sufficient. Because v.1b says knowledge alone puffs up, love builds up. Ever met someone who has a lot of knowledge and no love? Ever met someone who has a lot of love but no knowledge? That word arrogant is only used 7 times in the N.T. and Paul uses it 6 times to describe the Corinthians. Some people get proud about their knowledge. They get this god-complex, “Know-it-alls.” In I Cor. 13 Paul says if I can speak with the tongues of men and of angels, if I have the gift of prophecy, if I have great faith and great knowledge, If I give all my possessions to the poor, and have not love, I am nothing. What should knowledge do for you? V.2 When you think you know everything, you don’t know anything. The first thing knowledge does is convince you that you can’t know everything.

One writer states, “Knowledge is the process of passing from the unconscious state of ignorance to the conscience state of ignorance.” Ignorance is not knowing you don’t know. Knowledge is knowing you don’t know. Then he adds in v.3 The only way to have knowledge of God is to love God. Get it, you have no knowledge of God till you love him and when you love him then you will know him. Love and knowledge go together. Let me give you an example. Someone walks up to you and says, ‘How do I look?’They think their dress is very fashionable but you think it is ugly. Knowledge would say that is ugly. Knowledge and love would say it looks nice with your ear rings. So what have we learned thus far? When it comes to making choices about what we should do and not do we have knowledge. When we study the Bible we learn absolutes like lying and stealing and we learn that the Bible doesn’t speak to many grey areas. Secondly, v. 4-5 We know there is no such thing as an idol.

We know there is only one God but they thought there are many gods. One female author of that day said it was easier to find a god in Corinth then it was to find a single man. So what does it matter if you eat food offered to an idol if you know there is no such god that is represented by that idol? V.6-7a Paul says we know that there is one God but other believers may not have arrived at that conclusion yet. It is like taking an ex-alcoholic out for a drink. Nothing wrong with having drink of beer or wine but you wouldn’t do that to a friend who was an ex-alcoholic, would you? Just being in that bar would be a temptation and bring back feelings of guilt and sinfulness.

So v.7c says it would make their conscience weak. That person was so accustomed to offering sacrifices to idols before he was saved that to eat meat offered to an idol would make their conscience feel defiled. So what should you do? Let that person obey his own conscience. Knowledge says you can eat. Love says I see how it may affect you so I won’t eat either. Final reason related to liberty. Food is no issue with God. V.8The word commend means to draw near. So the type of food we eat or the liquid we drink will not draw us nearer to God nor condemn us. God cares about gluttony and wastefulness. He cares about drunkenness. But he doesn’t care if you eat peas or broccoli. Why? Because it is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him but what comes out of his mouth. I Tim. 4 says everything is to be received with thanksgiving. But v.9 says don’t set an example that could cause someone else to stumble. Don’t force on another person what their conscience doesn’t allow. And might I add, don’t judge another person for doing what your own conscience doesn’t allow. v.10-11 tells us that by pushing your liberty on another you can ruin them. So in effect you limit your own liberty. It is like when my son was small and was crawling around. He would stick anything in his mouth that was near him. So sometimes I would lie beside him in a half circle limiting his freedom until he could understand what was ok to eat and what wasn’t. God uses a person’s conscience to limit our freedom until we have the knowledge of what is ok and what isn’t OK.

So there are times I must govern my life by how it might affect someone else. And I do it for Christ sake. What does that mean? I read a story of a man who jumped out of three story building and another man attempted to save him by breaking his fall. The man who jumped was paralyzed but lived but the man who broke his fall died. The father of the man who died spent the rest of his life caring for the man who jumped out that window. When asked why he was doing that he said, “If that man meant enough to my son to give his life to save him, then I will honor my son’s love by doing everything for that man that I can. That is how we should look upon one another. If that person was important enough for Jesus to die for him then I should govern my life so as not to hurt him either. Jesus said, ‘In as much as you’ve done it to the least of these my brothers, you’ve done it to me”. That is why Paul says in v.12, if you sin against a brother, you sinned against Christ. So what we learned? Grey areas can be a social event, amusement, pleasures, habits, things that each of us will face when we can’t find an absolute in the Bible. Some churches deal with grey areas by making a list of rules. Some people really love that. They feel comfortable in the kind of institutional Christianity where someone gives them a long list of do’s and don’ts that they must conform to. But they have never internalized the Christian life.

They do not understand concepts like walking in the Spirit, to grow in the Spirit, to live a Spirit-controlled life. They are living in legalism and need someone to say do this or don’t do that. The problem with that is not everyone can agree what the rules should be. It also sets the wrong standard for spirituality and liberty is stifled. You cannot judge spirituality by what people don’t so. Dr. Hamintree wrote, “There is a city that has 3 million inhabitants. None of them smoke, none of them drink, not one of them attends a movie, and no one ever dances or dare to play cards. None one of them however has a bit of spirituality. The name of the city is the Greenwood Hill cemetery in N.Y.” Understand that what you don’t do has no relationship to anything. Refraining from doing things is not necessarily spirituality. Walking in the Spirit is spirituality. On the other side you have people that are called libertarians. They think they can do whatever they want wherever they are. If it isn’t forbidden in the Bible it’s free game. But liberty is always governed by love. I don’t choose to not do something because in not doing it I feel more spiritual or that it will make me more spiritual than others. That is merely Pharisaical hypocrisy. But when you choose to not do something out of love for your brother in Christ, then you have kept the greatest commandment. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.


The Rev. Dr. James Barnes is currently the pastor of White Memorial Church in Milroy.


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