A Balanced Approach to Liberty

Jesus, our King, has given us a law to govern our lives. We find that law in the New Testament. From Matthew to Revelation, we find laws and principles that govern the activity of the church (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:15) and even our personal behavior and conduct (e.g. Gal. 5:19-26). When we violate this law, whether it’s by committing fornication, getting drunk or disregarding God’s plan for the organization of the church, we are guilty of sin (1 John 3:4).

As Christians, if our desire is to submit to Christ, then we must “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). And what is the standard by which we determine whether something is “good” or not? We’re told that the Scriptures are what “[equip] us for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But, not every aspect of our lives is specifically governed by Christ’s law.

Sure, there are principles that ought to guide our decisions in these areas (and all areas, for that matter), but because there are no explicit rules, these decisions must be relegated to personal judgment.

Because these are matters of personal judgment where there is no predetermined right or wrong – what Paul calls “doubtful matters” (Rom. 14:1) – we’re to refrain from judging and condemning those with whom we disagree, allowing them to make their own choices for their own reasons. It’sromans 14 like Paul says in Philippians 2:12 – we each have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”

In matters of revealed law, we need to hold each other accountable to God’s law, recognizing that sin threatens our fellowship with God. But in these matters of liberty, or personal judgment, we cannot take the same approach. We can advise and counsel, but at the end of the day, we cannot pass judgment (Jas. 4:11-12). To pass such judgment is a direct affront to Christ, and I’m afraid that there are many Christians out there who will have to answer to God for their Pharisaical approach in many of these areas.

Having said that…

The fact that we have liberty in Christ doesn’t mean that we are free to do whatever we want. The fact that I “have the right” to do something doesn’t mean I should, or that others don’t have the right to disagree or share their counsel with me.

Consider with me a few principles that ought to govern our understanding of the liberty we have in Christ:

  • The fact that something isn’t inherently sinful doesn’t make it right, or wise. This is the entire point of Proverbs. Paul echoes this thought in Ephesians 5:15-16 when he writes, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Now, there are going to be things that some people view as wise and others view as unwise. This is where we have to be patient with each other.
  • In both Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, we learn that we should be willing to sacrifice our liberties in cases where we have weaker brethren whose faith will be destroyed by our example. It’s important to recognize that Paul isn’t talking about brethren who are offended by your actions, or who disagree. He’s specifically telling us to forgo our liberties if exercising those liberties will cause a weaker Christian to stumble and fall.
  • In Galatians 5:1, Paul tells us to, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” But then he says in verse 13, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Many Christians abuse their liberty. They use liberty as an excuse to be worldly, and to satisfy their fleshly desires. This is wrong! We cannot forget that while we are free in many respects to make our own choices, that we are still “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). In everything that we do, we must seek to make sure that Christ is honored.

The fact that we have personal liberty in Christ is a blessing (Gal. 5:1). In Romans 14, it’s interesting to note that the stronger, more matureChristians were the ones who had a greater understanding of liberty and felt free to exercise many of those liberties. And it’s clear that we must allow for diversity in these areas, and leave ultimate judgment to God.

But, I hope I have shown that liberty is not a license to just do whatever we want, without any concern for the consequences. We have an obligation to walk in wisdom, to be considerate of our brethren, of our influence in the world, and of the reputation of Christ.

Because even though something might not be inherently sinful, we are guilty of sin when we willfully cause weaker brethren to stumble (1 Cor. 8:12), and also, a carnal mind is “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:6-7).  So the consequences of our decisions as well as the attitude motivating our decisions can make something absolutely wrong that is not inherently wrong. We must, therefore, handle our liberties with extreme care and caution.

 

I’d like to close this article by sharing two guiding principles that, if followed, will resolve most of these disagreements and help us tremendously in our walk with Christ:

  1. Each of us must “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). This should be a mantra for each of us as we seek to serve and honor Christ.
  2. In terms of how we deal with disagreements in these matters: “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ…Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:10, 13). Advise and counsel, study and pray…yes, yes, yes! But at the end of the day, leave judgment to God, and seek peace with your brethren.

So often, there is a one-sided approach to liberty. I’ve tried, in this article, to share a more balanced approach.

I hope it helps.

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Fighting for Rights I Don’t Necessarily Endorse

In the last couple of months, as I have articulated the importance of recognizing and respecting Christian liberty (the realm of personal judgment) in numerous articles, Facebook posts, and in-person discussions, many have incorrectly drawn the conclusion that I am endorsing certain behaviors and activities that I believe fall within the realm of liberty.

I have spoken often of things such as prom and tattoos. My point has not necessarily been to endorse these and other such choices, but to point out that these ARE, to varying degrees, matters of liberty or personal judgment, and that we cannot, therefore, unilaterally condemn those who make such choices (to get a tattoo or attend the prom). Both of these are either widely condemned or, in the very least, STRONGLY discouraged by those in “conservative churches of Christ,” so my argument that we cannot unilaterally condemn or judge such actions has been interpreted as endorsement or approval.

This is not a fair or logical response.

One isn’t endorsing a thing simply because he/she doesn’t condemn it.

Think of the American soldier who goes to war to preserve our freedoms and liberties as Americans, even though he doesn’t necessarily personally agree with the exercise of some of those liberties – for example, the right to protest the very war being waged by the soldier.

On a spiritual level, I absolutely do not endorse the prom. In fact, I would try to discourage any young Christian person from going – for many of the same reasons touted by those who condemn it outright. But at the end of the day, because prom isn’t condemned in Scripture (or even dancing, for that matter), but rather lust, lasciviousness, ungodly attire and the carnal mind, I’m not going to condemn prom outright. And just like that American soldier who fights to protect even those liberties that he may not personally endorse, I will stand against brethren who condemn that which God has not condemned just as I will try to reason with the young Christian who has expressed a desire to attend.

In texts such as Matthew 12:1-14 and Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus staunchly opposed the Pharisees for creating laws and bylaws that God had not Himself created in the written Word. There is a real problem when we draw lines that God has not drawn and condemn others for not complying with our lines.

“He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” (Prov. 17:15)

“In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9)

“There is ONE Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (James 4:12)

Oh, and just read Romans 14 again…and then again, and go ahead and read it a third time for good measure.

I agree that we have to walk in wisdom (Eph. 5:15), but wisdom is often adjusted and/or defined by one’s particular personality and circumstances. I agree that we are not to make provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14), but, again, each of us has to make this decision based on our own unique circumstances. I agree that we are to shine as lights in this dark world (Phil. 2:14-15, et al), but that may look differently for different people.

We can and must teach these biblical principles, but we have to be careful to avoid condemning others based on our own personal, somewhat subjective application and commentary of these Scriptural principles. Teach the principles and counsel others based on your wisdom, but let each one work out his/her own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

These are points I’ve made before.

My main point in this article is that just because I fight to preserve the realm of liberty that Christ died to establish, and just because I oppose those brethren who, like the Pharisees of old, teach as law their own unspoken set of bylaws and rules…does NOT mean that I unilaterally endorse each and every liberty that I mention or speak of.

I know that this is a battle worth fighting because it’s a battle Jesus fought time and time again. Why? Because God alone is the Lawgiver and Judge, and it is flat out wrong, if not blasphemous (and arrogant) to assume these roles for ourselves.

I hope this makes sense.