Check Your Christian Liberty

“Christian liberty.”

What does that bring to your mind? Perhaps you’re thinking of those Facebook debates over the Christian’s use of alcohol or arguments over personal standards. Perhaps it conjures bitter memories of judgmental Christians and legalistic churches.

What if, when we thought of Christian liberty, it brought to mind ideas such as “love,” “God’s glory,” and “service”?

Sadly, this isn’t typically how we frame the topic of Christian liberty—but it’s exactly how the Bible frames it. I fear that, in our discussion regarding Christian liberty, we jump straight to the application and ignore the overarching biblical principles that are designed to govern and regulate our exercise our Christian liberty.

First of all, what is Christian liberty? It is the reality that, because of Christ’s obedient life and sacrificial death, we are no longer bound by the Legal demands of the Mosaic law. Christ fulfilled the law and has brought us in union with Him. Now, we serve the law of Christ, the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25). Christian liberty is, without a doubt, a wonderful truth.

But Christian liberty has some qualifications. New Testament passages about Christian liberty come with both a warning label and an instruction label: Peter warns we must be careful not to use our Christian liberty “as a cover-up for evil,” but rather as “living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). Paul warns that we should never use our freedom “as an opportunity for the flesh,” but rather as an opportunity to lovingly “serve one another” (Gal 5:13). In short, if you’re using your Christian liberty for your own benefit and not the benefit of others, you are abusing your liberty. You’re ignoring both the warning and the instruction.

Scripture not only describes Christian liberty as an opportunity for service, but also as an opportunity for gospel witness. In 1 Cor. 9:8-23, Paul rejoiced in his Christian liberty because it gave him the opportunity to give up certain rights that are prescribed “in the Law of Moses” (v. 8) in order to more effectively share the gospel. Paul says, “though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (v. 19).

Finally, my Christian liberty must be exercised out of a commitment to God’s glory. Romans 14 states that, no matter what conclusions we come to regarding areas of Christian liberty, we must do so “in honor of the Lord.” My Christian liberty is not for my own sake, it is for the sake of the One who both freed me and bought me.

My Christian liberty must be governed and controlled by my love for God, His gospel and His people. Without these, my exercise of Christian liberty will be governed by only one thing: my love of self—which will inevitably result in using my Christian liberty for “an opportunity for the flesh” and “a cover-up for evil.”

Why is it, then, that most of our discussions about Christian liberty are not governed by a love for God, His gospel and His people? Too often, we ask, “What does my liberty let me do?” instead of asking, “What does my liberty let me forfeit?” We are fueled by nothing more than a desire to enjoy some particular activity without being judged by others.

Now, to be sure, because we have Christian liberty, we are commanded not to “pass judgment” on others in regards to amoral, non-scriptural issues, neither are we to allow others to pass judgment on us (Col 2:16). It is indeed the tendency of sinful humans to “pass judgment” on those with the looser standards and to “despise” those with the stricter standards (Rom 14:3). The reality of our freedom in Christ demands that we treat one another with grace and peace.

But if I reduce my Christian liberty to mindset that says, “I have the freedom to enjoy this, so stop judging me and mind your own business,” we are dangerously close to abusing that liberty, if we aren’t abusing it already.

By writing this, I’m not trying to poke at any particular “hot-button” issue of Christian liberty. I just want to make a simple point: If I don’t prioritize God’s glory over my own, if I do not value His gospel above my agenda, and if I do not consider the growth of the church as more important than my own personal happiness, then I cannot trust my own conclusions regarding areas of Christian liberty. If my thought process never moves beyond, “The Bible never says I can’t,” then I haven’t matured enough in my Christian walk.

Instead, we must always be thinking,

  • “Which decision would most honor my Lord?”
  • “Which decision would remove barriers to the gospel?”
  • “Which decision will edify and strengthen my brothers and sisters in Christ?”

Are you asking these questions when you determine your personal convictions regarding the “hot-button” issues of our day?

A heart of love must come before a celebration of liberty. Christian liberty is not an invitation to “chill out and stop being so uptight about stuff.” It is not an invitation to make your life more fun and enjoyable. It is not an invitation to “stick it” to your legalistic upbringing. It is an invitation to use your freedom for the glory of God, the good of others, and the growth of His church. And if that doesn’t sit right with you, ask you yourself why.

Reposted, with permission, from Pursuing the Pursuer.

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There are 20 Comments

josh p's picture

Good article. This is the perspective we should have. Particularly in fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism, we have boiled the discussion down to a small list of items. So instead of evaluating the whole of our lives, it’s easier to just evaluate ourselves by the shibboleths of our respective group.

Bert Perry's picture

....is how we prioritize God's glory. Along those lines, we ought to evaluate the thesis "what does my freedom let me forfeit?" in terms of the example of Christ and the Disciples, no?  Does it square with Christ's first miracle in John 2, or with His pattern of eating and drinking with Pharisees and tax collectors to the point His detractors (ascetics apparently) called Him a glutton and a drunkard?  How about the reality of the Philippian church meeting at Lydia's home? Given her trade of selling precious purple, she almost certainly had a nice home and servants to guard her wares.  

Along the same lines, if we read 1 Peter 2:16 and Galatians 5:13, that opportunity for the flesh is defined as an opportunity for sin.  So (how?) do these verses apply to situations where the behavior in question is not in itself sinful?  Moreover, regarding ascetic practices, doesn't Colossians 2:16-23 tell us something about how useful those ascetic practices are in reducing the indulgence of the flesh?  As in "counter-productive"?  

For that matter, when we are talking about abstaining for the sake of a brother, we should also remember that Romans 14 is doing so in the light of Jewish scruples over non-kosher meats and Jewish holidays, and 1 Corinthians 10 refers to things used in idolatry.   Do our scruples today carry similar weight, theologically speaking?  Or are we really saying "this isn't culturally familiar to me, so I am going to characterize it as wrong even though I have no Biblical evidence of this"?

Don't get me wrong; there are certain times when one does choose to abstain from a legitimate pleasure for the sake of Christ.  But there are other times when Christ is glorified in partaking, and the notion of our default position being "what does my freedom let me forfeit?" simply does not seem to be compatible with the testimony of the New Testament, especially the Gospels.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Aaron, thanks for this fine bit of re-framing.

These are indeed the right questions.

Instead, we must always be thinking,

“Which decision would most honor my Lord?”

“Which decision would remove barriers to the gospel?”

“Which decision will edify and strengthen my brothers and sisters in Christ?”

Aaron Berry's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

we ought to evaluate the thesis "what does my freedom let me forfeit?" in terms of the example of Christ and the Disciples, no?    

Mr. Perry,

Thank you for your reasoned and thoughtful response! You provide a very helpful & needed clarification for those who might misidentify my thesis to be "what does my freedom let me forfeit"? However, my main point was not to limit the use of Christian liberty solely to "abstaining" and never to "partaking." The full sentence read, "Too often, we ask, 'What does my liberty let me do?' instead of asking, 'What does my liberty let me forfeit?'" My point was, not that we should always say, "what does my freedom let me forfeit," but rather that we don't say it enough. The Scriptures that deal with Christian liberty seem to emphasize this servant-minded willingness to limit oneself as the primary motivation of the heart.

You are absolutely correct in that sometimes "partaking" is what glorifies Christ. My main point of the article was to address the heart attitude—one that asks those three questions I included near the end. It is clear that the examples you gave (wedding at Cana, Jesus eating with sinners, meeting at Lydia's home) are instances that were motivated by love for God, love for his gospel, and love for his people, which is the proper use of Christian liberty. 

 

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Berry,

I appreciate many things that you have written in this article. If you would care to do so, I would like to hear more from you about what are the "amoral, non-scriptural issues" that you speak of in the following statement from your article:
 

Now, to be sure, because we have Christian liberty, we are commanded not to “pass judgment” on others in regards to amoral, non-scriptural issues, neither are we to allow others to pass judgment on us (Col 2:16).

In particular, I am interested in hearing more about what you see to be the relationship between issues that you consider to be "amoral" and those that are "non-scriptural." For example, do you see them to be amoral because they are non-scriptural in the sense that the Bible does not talk about them explicitly?

 

 

 

Aaron Berry's picture

I intentionally avoided naming specific issues in my article, as that wasn't my intent, but your question regarding the relationship between "amoral" and "non-scriptural" is a good one. And, perhaps, I didn't think through my choice of words carefully enough! 

The Scriptural example I had in mind was that of foods and festival days as described in Col 2:16 and Rom 14. These were things that did not have inherent morality/immorality connected with them. Christians were free to partake or abstain, based on their conscience and convictions, but because they were "amoral" issues they were instructed not to judge others who differed from them in application. Our modern-day equivalents of "foods and festivals" is a whole separate discussion :) 

You bring up a very important concern: "Do you see them to be amoral because they are non-scriptural in the sense that the Bible does not talk about them explicitly?"

This would definitely not be my view. Just because something isn't mentioned in the Bible, does not mean it is inherently amoral. If such were the case, discernment wouldn't be a necessary virtue for the believer, and we would be reduced to show-me-a-verse Christians. Eph. 5:10 says that discernment is necessary in order to please the Lord. 

So, as I said earlier, I probably didn't think it through enough when I chose the words "amoral and non-scriptural." I would be interested in hearing if you have a better description! 

Thanks for your comment.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Rather than"amoral," it may serve your purposes to use "morally ambiguous" or ethically ambiguous...  Or "uncertain"instead of ambiguous.

This seems like what you had in mind as the category?

Historically, but kind of obscure, they used to use the term adiaphora. I don't remember why. The term suggests "something not carried around" (?) but I don't recall the connection. No time at the moment, but I'm sure googling adiaphora would be interesting. 

Dave White's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
... they used to use the term adiaphora.

This helped me:

https://carm.org/questions-adiaphora

In Christianity, adiaphora means that something is debatable, spiritually neutral.  There are essentials of the Christian faith such as the deity of Christ, monotheism, Christ's physical resurrection, etc.  But there are also topics that deal with issues that are non-essentials.  So in a general sense, adiaphora means those Christian teachings which are neutral, things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.  An example of this might be what color of carpet to have in a church, or what time of the day a service should be held.

Sometimes there is debate within Christianity on what may or may not be adiaphora.

https://www.gotquestions.org/meaning-of-adiaphora.html

Adiaphora is the plural of the word adiaphoron, which, in philosophy, refers to a thing that exists outside of moral law. An adiaphoron is an action that is neither condemned nor approved by morality. Adiaphora means “indifferent things,” that is, things that are neither right nor wrong, spiritually neutral things.
 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Spiritually neutral" is about as good as "amoral." Nothing is either of those things. But I think I get what they mean. It's "neutral" in the sense that there isn't a clear word from God on the matter and individual conscience is a key factor...   Romans 14. So I'd prefer to say ambiguous, or not revealed, or "a matter of conscience." But in the end, it's both morally and spiritually non-neutral.

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Berry wrote:

You bring up a very important concern: "Do you see them to be amoral because they are non-scriptural in the sense that the Bible does not talk about them explicitly?"

This would definitely not be my view. Just because something isn't mentioned in the Bible, does not mean it is inherently amoral. If such were the case, discernment wouldn't be a necessary virtue for the believer, and we would be reduced to show-me-a-verse Christians. Eph. 5:10 says that discernment is necessary in order to please the Lord. 

So, as I said earlier, I probably didn't think it through enough when I chose the words "amoral and non-scriptural." I would be interested in hearing if you have a better description! 

Thanks for your comment.

You are welcome. I appreciate your explaining your positions further. For now, I do not have more to add other than saying that I definitely think that "amoral" is a highly problematic term to use in connection with this topic.

Aaron Berry's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Rather than"amoral," it may serve your purposes to use "morally ambiguous" or ethically ambiguous...  Or "uncertain"instead of ambiguous.

This seems like what you had in mind as the category?

Historically, but kind of obscure, they used to use the term adiaphora. I don't remember why. The term suggests "something not carried around" (?) but I don't recall the connection. No time at the moment, but I'm sure googling adiaphora would be interesting. 

Yes, "morally uncertain" or "ambiguous" would fit my intention better :) 

Larry's picture

Moderator

I continue to think that the category of "amoral" or "spiritually neutral" is useless. Are there really things that God has no view of? I don't know of any reason to think so. The traditional three categories of pleasing, displeasing, and neither don't seem to make sense.

God created everything good (pleasing) and some of it was corrupted by sin (displeasing). Nothing became neutral. I would not think that God's mind (if such an anthropomorphism can be used) has a category for things such as "I don't know what I think about that" or "I don't care one way or the other."

Perhaps part of the problem stems from someone think that we must do everything that pleases God. And I think that is wrong. Everything we do must please God, but we do not have to do everything that pleases God. The face that we can eat at two or three different restaurants that are pleasing to God doesn't that God has no view. He is pleased by all of them. Pick one. Nor does it mean that we must eat at all three. Pick one.

There may be things we are confused about which category they fit in. But that is not because God is morally neutral. It's because we don't know. 

josh p's picture

I agree Larry which I why I think that “morally uncertain” is the best way of saying it. It sounds like Mr. Berry agrees. God created and sustains the whole universe. Indifference is not an attribute of God.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s always clear what God’s will is in a matter not specifically outlined in the scriptures. If I understand the article correctly, he is suggesting that in those areas we need to recognize the other lerson’s liberty. Would you agree with that?

Larry's picture

Moderator

I don't like "morally uncertain" because that seems to attach the uncertainty to the issue. For the same reason I don't like "ambiguous." Neither is true. The problem is us. It's better to say we don't know for sure and so we live by our conscience, and that may differ from others' consciences. But that's okay. It takes a few more words and doesn't give us a handy label, but it's more clear IMO.

Aaron Berry's picture

Larry wrote:

I don't like "morally uncertain" because that seems to attach the uncertainty to the issue....It's better to say we don't know for sure and so we live by our conscience, and that may differ from others' consciences. 

I don't see much difference between "uncertain" and "we don't know for sure so we live by our conscience" :) 

One note concerning things that are "amoral": Scripture indicates at least one "amoral" thing in 1 Cor 8:8 "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and not better off if we do." It's pretty clear that Paul is saying there is no inherent morality in Food. Now, someone would be sinning if they are eating in violation of their conscience, but that does not attach inherent morality to the food. So, if I were to stick with the "amoral" label, I would be referring to the thing itself, and not the potential moral/immoral ways in which human beings can partake of that which is inherently "amoral." 

Larry's picture

Moderator

I don't see much difference between "uncertain" and "we don't know for sure so we live by our conscience" Smile

There's no difference in that. The difference is in what comes before it. When says "X [item, thing, practice] is morally uncertain" you are speaking of a thing. That is different than saying "I am am uncertain as to its morality." The thing is either pleasing or not. To call it uncertain is at best unclear. Now to say that I am uncertain is far more accurate. 

When you say, " So, if I were to stick with the "amoral" label, I would be referring to the thing itself," that is exactly my objection. On what basis do we declare that God has no view of a thing itself? Where does this third category come from? God declared everything good and then some of it has been distorted to evil. It God has said it is good, how then we do say is "neutral"?

It's pretty clear that Paul is saying there is no inherent morality in Food.

I don't think it is clear at all that that is what Paul is saying. Wasn't food something God created before he declared everything to be "very good"? That's what I don't get. How can you take something God has declared to be "very good" and downgrade it to "morally neutral"? 

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Berry wrote:

One note concerning things that are "amoral": Scripture indicates at least one "amoral" thing in 1 Cor 8:8 "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and not better off if we do." It's pretty clear that Paul is saying there is no inherent morality in Food. Now, someone would be sinning if they are eating in violation of their conscience, but that does not attach inherent morality to the food. So, if I were to stick with the "amoral" label, I would be referring to the thing itself, and not the potential moral/immoral ways in which human beings can partake of that which is inherently "amoral." 

No, Aaron, Scripture does not indicate that "there is no inherent morality in food." God created it as good, and it is still good:

1 Timothy 4:4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:

Paul is not saying that food is "amoral" or "neutral."

Kevin Miller's picture

Larry wrote:
On what basis do we declare that God has no view of a thing itself? Where does this third category come from? God declared everything good and then some of it has been distorted to evil. It God has said it is good, how then we do say is "neutral"?

I like the definition of adiaphora above, in which "neutral" was defined as "things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture." The color of carpet was given as an example in the definition. No particular color is commanded or forbidden. Carpet itself is not commanded or forbidden. Are there any Scriptural reasons to think carpet itself is pleasing or displeasing to God? I can think, perhaps, of a situation in which the use of carpet might be displeasing. If I was a missionary serving in a very, very poor community where everyone had dirt floors, and I decided to use donation money to carpet our meeting place, that might be a displeasing use of carpet, (or it might just be a displeasing use of donated money), but even if God is displeased with that use of carpet, does that mean God gets displeased with the carpet itself? I really don't understand why we would assign God's pleasure or displeasure to an inanimate object like carpet, so i have no problem saying God has no view of the thing.

Aaron Berry's picture

I believe we might be making a false equivalency between "good" and "moral." If something is inherently "moral," then some would be practicing righteousness by partaking in it. Conversely, if something is inherently "immoral," someone would be practicing sin by partaking in it. Yes, food is a good gift of God. That doesn't make food inherently moral. As Paul said in 1 Cor, we're no better off if we eat food or don't eat food. If food were inherently moral, then we would, in fact, be "better off" by eating! 

But, I fear that this discussion is swiftly drifting away from my intent of the article, but I appreciate the interesting feedback! May we all continue to live our lives out of love for God, his Gospel, and his people. 

 

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Berry wrote:

But, I fear that this discussion is swiftly drifting away from my intent of the article, but I appreciate the interesting feedback! May we all continue to live our lives out of love for God, his Gospel, and his people. 

I understand, Aaron. Because I think that continuing this discussion is important, I have started a new thread so that anyone who wants to continue the discussion can do so in that thread. Thanks.

 

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