Ask Steve: Christian Liberty

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The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World

by David Murray

Category: Christian Living

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Question: Steve, can you explain to me what Christian liberty means? What are principles of Christian liberty? To what issues do they apply? When must Christian liberty be strongly advocated, quietly practiced, or sacrificially limited?

Answer: Christian liberty are the non-moral activities that Christians are allowed to participate in. This subject is thoroughly developed in 1 Corinthians 9, which talks about the proper use of a believer’s liberty. Because they are not expressly forbidden in the Bible, these social preferences, activities, and beliefs are not sinful. These include food, drink, clothing, holidays, jewelry, sports, movies, music, dancing, hairdos, or going to concerts, theatres, or even marrying someone of the same or of a different ethnicity. It is called liberty because they are gifts that God has given to each person to participate in accordance with his unique character and personality. Whereas other religions forbid the eating of certain foods, consuming of certain drinks, and wearing of certain clothing, Yahweh gives incredible flexibility to people in many of these areas. That is one characteristic that makes the Christianity a joyous and free faith in contrast to the cultic and seclusionist practices of some other beliefs and world philosophies.

ClothingHowever, there is a word of caution that must be said about Christian liberty. Though Christians have liberty, they are not to abuse it or think lightly of it. Christians are not free to do whatever they want, because liberty issues are sometimes tied to moral issues. Christians are free to engage in activities as long as it does not cause them, or another brethren, to stumble into sin (Rom 14:12-16). Such liberties can be so tainted with sinful temptation or it can be blatantly misused in a spirit of pride that it is better not to participate in them. It is not only unedifying for personal spiritual growth, but also be of poor witness to other Christians and to unbelievers.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul describes how a Christian should use liberty. A Christian is suppose to glorify God in all that he does (1 Cor 10:31). If the activity does not glorify God in anyway, then it is to be ceased. That is suppose to be the standard for which all Christian activity, whether they are in regards to liberty or not, must be measured. That is what leads to a holy and pleasing life before God. The way you discipline your thoughts, speech, and action indicate both your spiritual maturity and love for God.

When examining how one is to use his liberty in Christ, three areas must be taken into consideration:

Personal edification. Is the activity personally edifying to me, or will it cause me to sin? Philippians 4:8 teaches, “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Paul declares in this passage that a Christian must reflect on and be involved in as much godly things as possible. It is beneficial to a Christian’s holiness, motivation, effectiveness in ministry, and witness to others.

For example, movies, TV, and music are not bad in themselves. But it’s no secret that modern entertainment mediums contain much reference to violence, sex, profanity, and promote poor virtues like pride, selfishness, revenge, and greed. Is it truly profitable for a Christian to indulge in these things? Every time a believer watches a sex-filled movie or listens to a blasphemous CD, he is taking in the material and dwelling upon this things, which overtime, can desensitize his conscience to secular trends that advocate sexual immorality, idolatry, and profanity. To take pleasure in these activities is certainly not wise and goes against teachings such as Philippians 4:8, which can actually lead to sin in thought (Matt 5:21; 27) if not action. That is why it is imperative that believers take caution and be selective in the entertainment mediums that he partakes in.

Even if the movie or music does not contain anything evil in it, but can be partaken in with a pure conscience, it is still good to think about whether it is profitable to watch or listen to. “Should I be watching movies when I could be reading Scripture?” “Should I be socializing four times a week when I could be out evangelizing the lost?” “Should I be listening to jazz music when I could be listening to a radio sermon?” Christians are called to be good stewards of their time and resources, because every believer will give an account of himself at the Bema Seat Judgment (2 Cor 5:10) for what he has done in his life for Christ. That is why every second counts. And if there is a social or entertainment activity that is severely hindering your rewards, then consider limiting liberty in these areas for the sake of your effectiveness on earth. Of course, we should not let music or movies overtake us to the point where it replaces our affection for God, making us guilty of idolatry.

Edification of others. Is the activity edifying to others, or does it cause them to stumble into sin? Romans 14:19 teaches, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” Paul teaches that in everything we do, it must be to build others up in the faith. This preserves the unity and love of the Christian church. We are not to exalt our Christian liberty at the expense of someone’s spiritual welfare.

One such example can be seen in the issue of clothing choice. Scripture does not give an explicit command, and the appropriateness of the apparel is somewhat relative to each person depending on their spiritual condition and sensitivity. But do our extravagant clothes cause people to envy or be tempted to materialism? Do our clothes cause others to stumble into sexual thoughts? If this is the case, especially with weaker brethren, then it is only fitting that the person acknowledges the situation and dress more appropriately. Why? Because of the Christian’s desire to protect the purity and conscience of others. To insist on continuing to wear clothes that stumble others in a spirit of pride is to blatantly abuse Christian liberty, and counts as sin to the Christian’s account (Mk 9:42; Jas 4:17).

EatingAnother example is with food. Jesus declared all food to be clean to eat (Mk 7:19), but is it profitable to freely eat of certain foods in all situations? You may be acquainted with a Jew who recently converted to Christ, and is slowly growing in the knowledge of the faith. However, he still feels conscientious about consuming pork because of his past association with Orthodox Judaism. Is it appropriate to eat pork in front of him and pressure him into eating it after the Jew expresses his concern? Here is another case in which the Bible teaches that liberty of eating should be restricted in front of struggling brethren (1 Cor 8:9). To insist on eating pork when you know that the brethren is troubled would be a display of pride and lack of concern for his edification, which counts as sin to your account.

Testimony to others. Is the activity going to be a good testimony in front of both believers and unbelievers? Matthew 5:16 states, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” It is not a question of whether our deeds will cause others to constantly praise us or agree with us, but whether our lives are truly reflective of us being genuine Christians, and not hypocrites? Are we truly in this world, but not of this world (Jn 17:16)? Do we demonstrate that are minds have been renewed, and that we do not conform to the sinful patterns of this world (Rom 12:2)?

SocializingFor example, a pastor may frequent a particular gastropub because he likes the food there, and maybe even the ambience. Although this visitation is not sin in of itself, the congregants in his church may be troubled with the pastor’s choice because it is not only a place associated with alcohol, but because many worldly people visit the establishment and express their profane, blasphemous ways there. What should the pastor do? If he is not there for evangelism or any specific ministry purpose other than recreation, then it is proper that the pastor refrain from visiting such a place in order that the congregants will not get a wrong impression of his motives, character, or actions in the pub. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 instructs us to abstain from every appearance of evil. Therefore, it is appropriate at times to refrain from certain activities or visiting certain places because they have a reputation of evil or worldliness, and should not give the appearance that we are associating ourselves with it, especially if it has nothing to do with the Great Commission.

These three principles should probably guide every Christian’s management of their liberty. It must be said that even though a Christian is called to wisely control the practice of his own liberties, he must not force, peer pressure, or condemn others for other’s liberties as if confronting actual sins. When this happens, it leads to legalism, as Paul forbids in Romans 14:1-12. God is the one who convinces every individual of his or her liberty choices, and is ultimately the judge of them. On the other side, when believers flaunt their liberty, put on appearances of evil, and cause others to be tempted, it leads to licentiousness, which Paul forbids as well (1 Corinthians 8:9). God allows liberty in all areas, but only to the extent that it does not malign Him, impinge on the welfare of others, and ruin the testimony of the church to unbelievers.

Recommended Resource: Concerning Christian Liberty by Martin Luther