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’s 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:
- 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.
- 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.