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’t 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.
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, because 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 anger, 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 liberty 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.