One of the topics I explore in my new book Knowing and Doing the Will of God is the issue of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is the idea that there are certain practices in which believers are free to engage, or from which believers are free to abstain. These issues are sometimes referred to as morally indifferent practices. Examples of areas where Christian liberty has been invoked in the past include: worship practices, music styles, games of chance, military service, places of employment, matters of commerce, eating practices and the observance of special days, among many other issues.
Throughout church history, issues of Christian liberty have caused no small amount of debate among believers. With a view toward helping those in the church navigate such topics in the Christian life, and fulfill the will of God, in my text I discuss several principles of Christian liberty, which are summarized below.
1. Don’t impose your moral scruples on others.
First, no one should impose their own moral scruples upon another in regard to morally indifferent practices. We must keep in mind the fact that God is the ultimate Judge of mankind, not man. Paul instructed the believers in Rome, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13). This means that Christians who engage in morally indifferent practices ought not to despise those who do not (see Rom. 14:1; 15:1). Likewise, those who abstain from these activities must not judge those who do (see Rom. 14:3). All such practices should be rooted in a godly mind (see Rom. 12:1–2; Phil. 4:8).
2. Is it helpful, or enslaving?
Second, those who engage in morally indifferent practices must be convinced in their own minds that such acts are helpful to the Body of Christ, realizing that we all will be judged for our actions (see Rom. 14:5, 12, 14, 23). In writing about issues of Christian liberty at 1 Cor. 6:12 Paul noted, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” Similarly, at 1 Cor. 10:23 Paul wrote, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (see Rom. 15:2). Morally indifferent practices, then, must be profitable for oneself and for others, and ought not to enslave mankind—be it physically, emotionally or spiritually.
3. Do everything for God’s glory.
Third, morally indifferent practices must be done unto the Lord—that is, in service to God, exalting God, and for the glory of God (see Rom. 14:6–8; 15:6–7; 1 Cor. 6:13; 10:31). In other words, practices of Christian liberty should be done in Jesus’ name, and one ought to be able to thank Him for it (see Col. 3:17). This means that morally indifferent practices must be appropriate for the body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul instructed the Corinthian believers, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? . . . You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
4. Don’t be a stumbling block.
Fourth, morally indifferent practices must not become a stumbling block for weaker brothers (see Rom. 14:13, 15, 20–21). Paul cautioned the Corinthian church, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. . . . And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8:9–12). Acts involving Christian liberty, then, ought not to tear down, but should promote peace, joy, love, edification, and even evangelism among the members of the Body of Christ (see Rom. 14:17, 19; 15:8–13; 1 Cor. 8:1; 10:31–33).
5. Don’t transgress your conscience.
Fifth, as has been alluded to above, a morally indifferent act becomes sinful for a believer if it causes him to transgress his conscience. As he wrote about such practices, Paul taught, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Rom. 14:14). In this passage, Paul was not teaching that morality is subjective; rather, he was highlighting the importance of not violating one’s conscience. Paul later stated the same truth differently as he claimed, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). John, too, expressed this idea as he wrote, “If our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:21).
6. Put your weaker brother before yourself.
Sixth, a stronger brother must always be willing to sacrifice his Christian liberty for the sake of a weaker brother (see 1 Cor. 8:13; 10:28–29). Indeed, a truly mature Christian is strong enough to sacrifice his freedom for the welfare of and service to a weaker brother. In regard to morally indifferent practices, an unwillingness to accommodate one’s actions for the sake of a fellow Christian is a sure sign that one is, in fact, a weaker brother. Regarding this principle, Paul’s exhortation to the Galatian believers is helpful, as he writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).
7. Be like Jesus.
Seventh, the one who engages in morally indifferent practices must act in imitation of Jesus, for He is Lord (see Rom. 14:9). Paul concluded his discussion of issues related to Christian liberty in the book of Romans, writing, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself. . . . Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:1–3, 7). In short, then, as is the case with other areas of Christian living, so in regard to Christian liberty, believers must imitate Christ.
I explore Christian liberty in much more depth in my new book, as well as topics such as the role of the Holy Spirit in moral decision making, and the place of prayer in knowing God’s will. I trust you’ll focus your attention on the sufficiency and content of Scripture as you ponder issues related to Christian liberty.