When Gray Areas Are Black and White

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I have been thinking a lot about Christian liberty lately. Not because I tend to ruminate on this subject, but because in the last month or so I have noticed a ton of chatter about it in the Christian blogosphere  It isn’tblackorwhite that a lot of writers have decided that now is the time to discuss the doctrine of Christian liberty, it is that the comment sections of various blogs have erupted into a chorus that seemingly thinks that Christian liberty is the ultimate defeater argument.
Christian liberty can be defined as the freedom believers have in Christ to allow their redeemed conscience to guide their actions when scripture is silent on a topic or an issue. And while Christian liberty is a true blessing, it must never be used as an excuse, or an unthinking response, when a given attitude or behavior is questioned. To that end I would offer a few suggested ways to evaluate your use of Christian liberty, and when to lay it aside, because sometimes what seems like gray areas are really black and white.

1. You must be honest about whether you are truly in a gray area

There is a certain soft core pornographic movie, based on a hard core pornographic book, that has been recently released (and yes it is unambiguously pornographic, you can tell by the way its fans giddily refer to it as mommy-PORN). Bafflingly there has been a fair amount of discussion about it among Christian thinkers. The baffling part is not what is being said, all that I have read from christian writers has been on point in saying, in no uncertain terms, that it is a sin to see this movie or read the book. The baffling part is that these articles and blog posts are needed at all. I was truly puzzled, then I read the comment sections whereI learned things like movies and the MPAA rating scale are not mentioned anywhere in the bible, that the bible is utterly silent on the movie in question, and that to suggest that there are any principles in scripture that shed light on this issue is legalistic, Pharisaical and surprisingly also misogynistic.
cmon_man

In the oddly wise words of Keyshawn Johnson, c’mon man. Of course scripture has something to say about taking in pornography, no matter how it is marketed; a great place to start is with Matthew 5:28, or Romans 1:32, or Hebrews 13:4, or Philippians 4:8, but you get the point. It is not just pornographic or otherwise inappropriate movies either, I have heard people say that paying your federal taxes, hiding income/assets from the government, using foul language, ignoring the speed limit, and lying on school district forms about the vaccination status of children are all gray areas, and thus within the scope of Christian Liberty. They’re not. To claim that scripture is silent on an issue that it clearly speaks about to excuse your own behavior is nothing more than garden variety rebellion against God, and it has no place in the life of a believer.

2. You must look for and apply the analogous wisdom principles found in scripture.

Often in an area where there are no thou shalts or thou shalt nots, there are often wisdom principles in scripture that must be brought to bear on that topic. I recently read a post by a man explaining why he left a podcast that was devoted to the discussion of the two great passions of the hosts and their guests, beer and theology (I’m not going to link to it because I don’t think it is edifying to do so). This man pointed out that he came to the conviction that it was simply unwise to participate in a podcast that melds theology and drinking. And this was not merely his opinion, he cited scripture, Proverbs 23:29-32 which says:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.

This seems like a passage that contains some wisdom principles that clearly are applicable to believers who have a podcast that spends copious amounts of time celebrating the “virtues” of certain alcoholic beverages. Yet not only was that vigorously denied in the comments, longer responses were penned and published attacking the applicability of the passage to a podcast that literally tarries long over beer and talks about how smoothly it goes down. It was said that the passage was dealing with wine and not beer, that it was written to a prince and is not applicable to non-royalty, and that it was an Old Testament text and is thus not applicable to New Testament believers. Of course all of those arguments fly in the face of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, but I think the larger issue is a rejection of biblical wisdom. To reject biblical wisdom is to reject the council of God, and that has no place in the life of a believer.

3. You must ask yourself, “Am I causing another believer to stumble?”

Recently much ado has been made over the issue of Christian women wearing a certain item of clothing that is very popular with the world, stumbling blockbecause it may contribute to men thinking lustful thoughts about them. It all seemed to start when an obscure Christian blogger wrote a piece about why she had purposed to stop wearing that item of apparel. Then her post went viral and everyone seemed to want to weigh in on the subject. One of the saddest things I have ever read is a professing Christian woman’s musing (again no link for reasons of edification) that even if she new for a fact that this item of clothing caused Christian men to stumble, she would wear it anyway, because it’s comfortable, because it’s up to the men to control their thought’s and because she has the freedom in Christ to dress however she wants.

Putting aside the question of what this author does or does not know, her attitude shows a real lack of love for her fellow believer, and a profound ignorance of scripture. Paul writing to the Roman’s said “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide to never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother…So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:13-19). Or consider his words to the church at Corinth, “Therefore if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor 8:13). Paul writing to two different churches, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says to never put a stumbling block in front of a brother. If you are unwilling to lay aside a liberty for the spiritual well being of a fellow believer, that is sin, plain and simple.

4. You must evaluate your own heart, and be on the lookout for idols

John Calvin undeniably spoke the truth when he observed, “The human heart is a factory of idols.” And one of the surest ways to detect idols in our hearts is our reaction when said idol is threatened. If you react with crazyguyfromcommandoanger, outrage or secret bitterness when someone suggests that you may not be exercising your liberty in a particular area in a manner that is glorifying to God, that may be an indicator that you are not dealing with a liberty issue but with an idol. And the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
A little over a week ago, a well respected and above reproach pastor wrote a blog post about child vaccination, and the comments quickly evidenced outrage and anger and seemed at times question the salvation of this well respected, ordained, and honorable man (and that’s only the comments that the mods let through). Whether the issue is vaccinations, or drinking, or modesty or any other gray area, if when you feel your liberty is threatened you lash out, you are not protecting your liberty, you are protecting an idol and you need to kill it before it kills you.

5. You must ask yourself, am I flaunting my liberty?

It has almost become fashionable in some circles to practice Christian peacockliberty in such a way as to make the point that society’s idea of stodgy Christians does not apply to you. [Honestly I think that is the primary motivation behind an awful lot of things that make me shake my head, from sermon series based on risqué movies to the theological boozecast I mentioned above.]

Scripture, however, is very clear that practicing your liberty in such a way that it draws attention to yourself is unacceptable. Paul again writing to the Romans (in context of discussing liberty issues) says “The faith that you have keep between yourself and God” (Rom 14:22). If you are flaunting your liberty, that is simply gauche and sinful, and you need to stop it.

6. You need to ask yourself, am I following the example of Christ?

This is both the simplest and the most important point. Again writing in the context of Christian liberty Paul wrote these words to the Romans: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with those who are week, and not to please ourselves…for Christ did not please Himself” (Rom 15:1-3). Paul (writing in a different context) gave the same command to the Philippians: “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). As in all things, when you exercise your liberty, concern for others must be paramount. If you can’t imagine Christ doing something, or if you wouldn’t do it if Jesus were physically in the room with you, then you ought not to do it at all.

Christian liberty is a tremendous blessing, and it comes because believers have had the law written on their hearts (Jer 31:33). It is one of the blessings and benefits of the New Covenant. I enjoy my liberty, and I hope you do as well. But I hope we both enjoy it with our eyes fixed firmly on Christ, and with the well being of our brothers and sisters in the Lord at the forefront of our minds.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.
  • Jason

    Thanks John! I live in a city where Christian liberty surfaces in many discussions. I really do think there are a lot of freedoms for Christians (from drinking – to smoking – to eating cake for dessert – to enjoying food with trans fats). I think you have nailed the issues on the head. I often ask this question, “Do you tell people you had a coke for lunch yesterday, if not, then don’t tell people you had a beer last night after dinner?” Most people don’t think it worthy to share their soft drink habits with others so maybe treat other liberties the same way.

    The only thing I would add to your list is this, “Do you enjoy your liberty with a thankfulness to Christ?” There is something about enjoying the freedoms and being thankful that sets the mind on the work of Christ to free us from law and grant us freedom to serve and love Him. 🙂 1 Cor 10:30-31 Great Job!

  • Karl Heitman

    Great post, brother. The whole “yoga pants” discussion is mind-boggling and extremely troubling. When I started noticing that fashion trend a few years ago, I really wondered why is it cool and why are Christian women buying into it? Well, I think part of the reason is the misunderstanding of “Christian liberty,” which pretty much boils down to biblical illiteracy.

  • Pastor Darren Paulson

    I’ve got a question regarding point #3 above. The issue of “causing a brother to stumble.” Let me give an example of why I think passages like Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8 are often misunderstood. I’m not trying to erect a straw-man, only attempting to point out the dangers in using the “you musn’t cause another to stumble” argument when cautioning against Christian liberty.
    I have an issue with over-eating. I’m not attempting to make light of it. It’s a sin issue for me. I’m about 30-40 pounds overweight. And a trigger for me is when I see others enjoying food that isn’t very good for us. Ice cream, potato chips, snack-food, that kind of thing. I can stay pretty disciplined in my eating habits until I see a person walk by with a burger or ice cream or something. Often, when I see someone eating, I walk down to the supermarket just a few hundred yards from my church and purchase something unhealthy. If I interpreted these passages in such a way as I often see them interpreted, couldn’t I suggest that nobody should eat junk food because “it makes a Christian stumble?” (And I would caution against seeing this as a silly example, because heart disease and poor eating habits cause many more deaths and health issues in our country than drinking/smoking combined.)
    Bottom line is this, if we ceased doing things for fear of making a brother stumble, there really isn’t much a Christian could/should do at all. Because there is such a wide variety of things that Christians struggle with, just about anything could be seen as an “encouragement” to sin for many believers.
    In my opinion, when Paul talks about “making a brother stumble,” he is cautioning against actively encouraging a believer to do something he believes is sinful. So, in other words, if you were to enter my office with two banana splits and say, “Here, Darren, don’t worry about your weight. There’s freedom in Christ – go ahead and enjoy!!!” That’s the kind of thing Paul is addressing. But simply eating a banana split on your part is not sinful — you shouldn’t worry about eating a banana split for fear someone who struggles with overeating may see it. This is an incorrect interpretation of these passages, in my opinion.
    Therefore, I would caution us when using these passages when discussing Christian liberty. We are free in Christ. Free means free. If a believer wants to enjoy a beer at a ballgame, he shouldn’t be burdened with worrying about it because “it may cause a believer to stumble.” Now don’t get me wrong – if the Spirit has put it on our hearts to abstain from alcohol (for whatever reason) then we ought to abstain. But using Romans 14 or 1 Cor 8 to defend “not drinking” or some other such activity is probably the wrong move. Thoughts?

    • Jason

      Darren, you bring up an excellent point. Unfortunately in America there are respectable sins we don’t think about and taboo “sins” lacking biblical support. I’m also reminded we are not to call evil what for others is a good thing (Rom 14:16). So when someone says alcohol (or banana splits) are evil and sinful, there is a discipleship issue there too where we ultimately want to instruct the believer to follow biblical counsel regarding judging other believers and sin defined.

      I’m not sure I agree with the “actively encouraging a believer to do something he believes in sinful.” In the context of 1 Cor. 8:7-13, Paul is talking about someone witnessing us eating meat and therefore becoming ruined and therefore sinning against Christ. . . .

      I also agree with you I don’t want to worry about eating a banana split. But if I knew you were in the room, struggled with it, I would forgo the split for your sake. . . .

      • Pastor Darren Paulson

        First of all, thanks for always being gracious in your response(s), Jason … I appreciate that — I find these kinds of discussions helpful, but too often people become offended when a difference of opinion arises. I really appreciate your willingness to knock these things around without getting fired up.
        Yes, the 1 Cor passage is a bit more complicated, but here’s how I twist the Scriptures to fit my theology. 😉 lol No, here’s my take on it … I think that Paul is speaking about a very specific activity in a particular context that was peculiar to the Corinthian Christians. In other words, eating meat — in an idol’s temple – meat that had been dedicated to that idol – was a no-no for Paul. So, I think Paul was saying something like this — “Look, you and I know that eating meat dedicated to an idol is a silly thing to get worked up about … what, the idol’s gonna eat it?! But because many immature Christians in Corinth still haven’t grown enough to understand that there’s nothing wrong with it, you should stay out of the temple restaurant.”
        so, Jason, I think this is closer to the scenario in which you bring the banana split into my office vs. me just happening to see you enjoy a banana split somewhere.
        Again, I want to stress that I think personal convictions are wonderful. My mother loves the movies, but the HS has moved in her and she feels as if it would be sin to see any movie “above” PG. And, therefore, it would be. I just think we need to be real careful when we try and make our personal conviction issues somebody else’s. 🙂

        • Jason

          Thanks Darren, I have so much to learn, so much I haven’t thought through and so much to consider . . . I get the sense you like to talk things out to help you think through them. I completely respect that (and I do the same).

          There is a lot I agree with you regarding this issue. I’m not always 100% sure alcohol (and other American freedoms) = “meet offered to idols” and that these are even viewed as freedom issues . . . but I think your last sentence is the key here. Using our own personal convictions and making others adhere to them seems to violate Matt 7:1-2. My guess is Jesus talks about this issue directly.

          • Pastor Darren Paulson

            Yes. I want to say, also, that I agree with those who get a little “concerned” re: Christians who boast in their freedoms. I think this reveals an immaturity as well. “Hey, everybody, I went to the ball game and had two beers!!!”
            But one of the things that gets overlooked a lot when discussing Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8, is that Paul certainly considers those who sweat these very insignificant things (like what someone eats or drinks) as being an immature believer. I certainly don’t think we need to throw our freedoms in people’s face. On the other hand, I think we have a responsibility as teachers to help Christians grow and understand that, “You know what? Being concerned for Bob’s salvation because you saw him having champagne at the wedding, or crack a beer at the picnic, is a very immature attitude.”
            So now I’ll really stir the pot … lol … if we believe what Paul says — that our spirituality has nothing to do with what we eat or drink (Rom 14:17), then aren’t “alcohol policy’s” legalistic? Why do I need to sign a document saying I won’t have a drink if I attend School XYZ, when the Bible makes it clear there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink? I have a problem with that.

          • Jason

            yeah, i hate legalism, it undermines the Gospel. Personally I think preach the Gospel, love your people, and be patient. The Spirit is alive in believers and I’m a slow learner so I don’t expect others to change over night either. 🙂

            Darren, you should read Dane Ortland’s book “Defiant Grace.” Here is a quote from it regarding this discussion.

            “The fundamental means of change is deeper and deeper reflection on the very gospel that rescued us in the first place. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. Disobedience is not healed with obedience. Morality can reform, but never transform, immorality. Immorality is transformed only by the free grace of God – grace so free that it will be misheard by some as a license to sin with impunity” (see Rom. 5:20-6:1). pg 37

      • Jennifer Gallaway

        Jason, I really enjoyed this article and have also found your and Darren’s comments helpful. I have a question about drinking alcohol as a Christian freedom. Its interesting that I just came upon this article, as at my church we have been in Romans and the last 2 Sunday’s our pastor preached about freedoms. He really hammered home liberty and how if one Christian drinks alcohol or eats meat, the weaker Christian shouldn’t condemn him. However, it didn’t sit quite right with me. The bible says a lot about alcohol and drunkenness. The point of alcohol is its effects (inebrieation), and if we are to not be drunk, why even go there? I am happy to be shown where I am wrong, but it just seems like initially drinking might seem like a liberty, but if you dig enough in scripture there is evidence to not drink. (Plus, many Christian drinkers I know personally seem overly attached to their freedom to drink which has me questioning if its really an idol for them)

        • Jason

          Jennifer, Thank you for your comment and questions! (I’ve been traveling all day and thanks for your patience to my reply). I resonate with your concerns because I think a lot of people show immaturity in handling their freedoms. But let me address your concerns in reverse order 🙂

          I agree bragging about your freedom seems to be a sign of immaturity among the “bragger”. I wouldn’t say this is the “alcohol’s” fault, but the Christian who brags about his freedom. I tell my church, if you wouldn’t tell me you had a coke for dinner or kissed your wife, then don’t tell me if you had a beer. I think you’re right to see something is wrong when we brag about our freedoms.

          I certainly have worked with a lot of drunks during my rehab ministry days therefore seeing how harmful alcohol can be to them and their family (most of the men were druggies). But I remain convinced alcohol isn’t the problem The real problem comes from the human heart. It is deceitful, wicked, and prone to lust. Mark 7:15, Jesus says, “There is nothing outside the man which can defile him.” Why? Jesus says because what goes into the stomach does not warm the heart, but goes to the stomach. But what comes out of man is what defiles him.” The human heart produces sin. This means the human heart produces drunkenness. Even if I eliminated alcohol from a man, it won’t remove the idols of his heart, it just removes alcohol.

          (for more info on the heart, read here: http://www.parkingspace23.com/most-dangerous-place/ )

          Do you think there could be multiple reasons someone drinks alcohol? I would say, one point of alcohol in unbelievers is drunkenness. LIving in Vegas, obviously people come here for free booze, but their drunk because their heart is sinful.

          But having Christian minister friends in Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, England, and Australia, wine for lunch and dinner is normal. One glass with lunch during business hours is not only normal, but as normal as having water for lunch. It’s just a cultural way of life for them, drunkenness isn’t even on their radar (this goes for both believer and unbeliever).

          If you look at Deut 14:26 commands people to buy strong drink, wine, or whatever your heart desires. Amos 9:14 talks about wine in the new Kingdom w/ Christ reigning. John 2, Jesus made great wine at the wedding celebration (and he drank wine too). Ecc 9:7 “Eat your food with joy and drink your wine with a happy heart . . . ” The common denominator in all 4 passages is celebration. I would argue a Christian should never drink during somber or hard days. Drinking is associated with celebration but Eph 5:17 says, “Do not get drunk with wine.” Paul clearly assumes people will drink wine, but says do not go too far. Christians want to be in control. So, maybe God sees alcohol as something to enjoy when celebrating the Lord and HIs work?

          If a man likes beer, worked hard all day on the job, labored with integrity, honor, love, and represents Christ well. Comes home, hangs with his family, loves them, disciples them, all the while having his eyes fixed on Christ then has one beer (never getting drunk) while relaxing with his wife after the kids go to bed, is this man in sin? I would say he shows moderation, did it privately, and his life honors the Lord therefore meaning the one beer probably doesn’t derail his worship.

          Remember, Jesus drank wine and celebrated with sinners. They called him a drunkard (Matt 11:19) He came eating and drinking. He was probably hanging out with the dirty, laughing, having a good time with them, and drinking wine and the Pharisees indicted him, but we know Jesus never sinned.

          Thanks for your time, hope this helps, let me know what I’m missing or questions. btw, I went to high school with a Jennifer Gallaway, OKC, PCNorth 🙂

        • Hi Jennifer, thanks for reading. I’d echo everything that Jason said, what I was getting at in the example was not the freedom to drink or not drink it was the celebration of beer. I think Jason may in the future write a whole post on this topic, so check back for it.

  • Carla Hester

    I enjoyed this, especially #4 — it’s a good reminder. I agree with the leggings. I’m glad there are some other women out there who do as well. I’m a happily married Christian woman and even I can’t help but check out other lady’s rear ends in those ridiculously tight pants. Not out of lust of course, but more out of “I can’t believe she left the house like that”. It’s hard to be modest with today’s selection of clothes (I know — I have two little girls that are getting harder and harder to shop for) so, we don’t have to make it look like we don’t even try.

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