As best I can I try to share ideas and experiences that touch my life in some way. At times, the target seems large and easy to hit. Other times, I find myself wondering how I could ever strike a chord that resonates with readers on a particular issue just because it resonates with me. That’s how I’m feeling now.
Recently a good friend of mine found himself in the shadow of that elusive idea of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is a concept that attempts to outline a sense of freedom when it comes to personal behavior and set what often are arbitrary standards for moral and spiritual conduct for individuals. For example:
* I might think it is fine to discuss theology with my neighbor over a cold beer or glass of wine and others would find that appalling.
* I might find it “sinful” that a fellow believer would buy lottery tickets. In reality, if it’s their discretionary money, then who am I to judge. Could they do better things with that money, of course – in my opinion, but am I right in judging them? (I think I just did.)
* I wear jeans almost every day of the week, even to church on Sunday. Some folks might be offended by that. Does that mean I should not wear jeans to church?
* We could continue with many things that have fallen into the camp of Christian liberty over the years; movies, dancing, long hair, tattoos, women’s attire and make-up, smoking, certain television shows, certain books, etc..
* On a higher scale, women in ministry, speaking in tongues, prophecy, can all fall into that circle called “liberty.”
What exactly is Christian liberty? How wide is the net called “liberty?”
The Apostle Paul talks about Christian liberty in a variety of texts ***, one in particular is 1 Corinthians 10:23-33:
“All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience– I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience?
If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. (NRSV)
In essence Paul tells us that we are free to do many things that others may find objectionable. Does that mean we are really free to do them? He indicates that our exercise of freedom ends at the door of offense for a fellow brother or sister in Christ. But what does that mean? People today get offended at the most trivial stuff – what are called “matters of consequence”. So how exactly do I manage my liberty in Christ within the guidelines of Christian conduct outlined in scripture? It seems that Paul’s caveat, all things are not beneficial neither do all things build up, is the lynchpin. If my behavior is at a level which is beneficial to my relationship with other believers within the community, if it is significant enough that it builds up and does not tear down, then it’s likely I’m on solid ground. However, there are some things in the scope of Christian liberty that give me pause:
- Is it an issue regarding what I do in private or public places?
- Will my behavior, determined to be acceptable among one group of people, be unacceptable to another and thus basically unacceptable – period?
- Does it matter that the Bible doesn’t speak directly to a particular behavior but the overall theme of Christian conduct might dictate that the behavior is questionable?
- Is liberty based on cultural norms when it comes to acceptable comport or is it a matter of universal norms?
- Is the measuring rod a simple self-examination – If I have to ask “will this offend someone?” then I should not do it, say it, or even believe it? (Can you sense a slippery slope there?)
Over the years, I’ve seen many instances where personal liberty has been abused both by the person doing a particular behavior and the accusers. There’s nothing easy, although the accusers usually see things as black and white. As Paul indicated in the passage noted above, “…why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience?” In the same church you’ll have people opposed to abortion and another group in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Can they both be right? Does the “right to choose” group have the liberty to exercise their belief within a Christian community?
Christian liberty is not an easy landscape to survey. The horizon is never as defined as we’d like it to be. The more morally neutral our particular culture becomes the more fog there is shrouding the rising sun on the horizon. Nevertheless, we can get a bit of clarity when we remember these words:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
** The idea that this topic could be covered sufficiently in a blog post is a bit extreme. Nevertheless, hopefully it will stimulate some thinking and help you to see examples of Christian liberty in your own faith community or personal lifestyle.
***See also Romans 14:1-23, 1Cor 6:12-13, 8:1-3, 9:19-23