Liberty, Love, and Life With Christ Part Four
Christians are to honor God’s holiness by keeping His commandments. But what about gray areas where the Bible is silent? In those cases, followers of Jesus must not offend their consciences or those of other believers. This guideline raises several questions:
1. How far must Christians go to avoid giving offense?
If you look long enough and far enough, you can find people who are offended by everything. Should Christians try to please all Christians everywhere? Scripture provides no instant formula to solve this problem, nor do I.
But we cannot use this lack of formula as an excuse to ignore God’s guideline not to offend the consciences of fellow believers. Consider the expression “look long enough and far enough” as a clue to the solution. We must look long and far for those who are not close to us, so we probably need not be concerned about offending them.
We must only strive not to offend those within our direct culture and subculture. We should find out which questionable things offend the consciences of both unbelievers and believers in our immediate settings and then conform our actions accordingly.
2. Why does God require stronger Christians to sacrifice their liberty because of the scruples of weaker Christians?
Why does He not require weaker Christians to yield to the stronger believers?
The answer is found in Romans 14:22–23: “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.” The apostle Paul explained that if weaker Christians go against their consciences, they sin and will experience spiritual and psychological problems.
On the other hand, if stronger Christians restrict practices that their consciences permit, they are not sinning. Stronger Christians should be more mature and therefore more flexible to yield their liberty for the sake of their weaker brethren—unless they are enslaved by those practices. Enslavement is a sign of immaturity. Relinquishing certain practices should not be bothersome if the stronger believer is truly mature and thus not a slave to those practices.
3. Will stronger Christians be guilty of hypocrisy if they conform their actions to the scruples of weaker Christians?
Some weaker Christians believe attending movies at commercial motion-picture theaters is wrong, but they are fine with watching movies at home. If stronger Christians conform to this scruple, won’t they be hypocrites, following a double standard?
Scripture says no. Rather than being inconsistent, they are consistently following God’s guideline not to offend another’s conscience.
Paul followed this principle. He ate pork while with Gentiles but did not eat pork while with Jewish people (1 Cor. 9:19–22). God gives weaker Christians the right to have qualms about questionable things, regardless of whether a stronger Christian views their convictions as hypocritical or inconsistent (Rom. 14:1–12).
Paul instructed stronger Christians, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (v. 1). Stronger believers must not judge these scruples as inconsistent, hypocritical, or wrong.
4. Will stronger Christians become bitter and cause dissension in the body of Christ if they must restrain their liberty?
Paul answered this question in Romans 14:18: “For he [the stronger Christian] who serves Christ in these things [restraining Christian liberty] is acceptable to God and approved by men.” Since they will be approved by both men and God, they will not become bitter and frustrated unless they are immature and enslaved by certain practices.
Motivation for Following the Guidelines
Why should Christians follow God’s guidelines for Christian conduct? What should motivate us? The answer is found in one word: love.
If we truly love God, we will not violate His moral absolutes (Jn. 14:15; 1 Jn. 5:3). If we love ourselves, we will not offend our own consciences; and if we truly love others, we will not offend their consciences (Rom. 13:8–10; 14:15; Gal. 5:13–14).
True love shows more concern for the welfare of another than for oneself (Jn. 3:16; 15:12–13). This is why Paul wrote, “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification” (Rom. 15:1–2; cf. 1 Cor. 8:13; 10:24, 33). If we truly love others, we willingly sacrifice the full exercise of our liberty to avoid offending another’s conscience.
The opposite of love is selfishness: being more concerned for one’s own welfare than for the welfare of others. If we refuse to sacrifice our liberty or do so grudgingly, we are selfish at heart. We can talk all we want about love, but we really don’t have it (1 Jn. 3:18).
Abstaining from practices for the sake of others is not legalism. It is not giving up liberty for law; it is giving up liberty for love. And love characterizes Christianity more than liberty. Theologian Charles Erdman explained that a Christian “who determines to act solely in accordance with what is theoretically allowable has not yet learned the Christian way of life.”1
Bible scholar James Stifler said, “If it should seem burdensome and grievous to some strong [Christian] to live narrowly for the sake of the weak, the consolation and dignity of such a life are that Christ also lived it.”2
Christ set the example we should follow. To sacrifice what would benefit us so that others might benefit is to be Christlike; it is to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 10:32––11:1; Phil. 2:1–8). Wrote theologian F. F. Bruce,
Who was more free from taboos and inhibitions than He? Yet who was more careful to bear with the weaknesses of others? It is so easy for a man whose conscience is quite clear about some course of action to snap his fingers at his critics and say “I’ll please myself.” He has every right to do so, but that is not the way of Christ. His way is to consider others first, to consult their interests and help them in every possible way.3
In other words, Bruce said, “Christ came not to receive service, but to give it.”4 Christians are to do the same (Jn. 13:13–17, 34).
Applications of Guidelines on the Institutional Level
While biblical guidelines for Christian conduct certainly apply to individual Christians, do they also apply to Christian institutions, such as schools? Should such an institution require its members to adhere to a standard of conduct based on its application of scriptural guidelines?
Yes. The reasons are both logical and scriptural.
A Christian institution is an individual entity responsible to God for its practices, just like individual Christians. Because Christians are to follow biblical guidelines for Christian living, so Christian institutions must follow biblical guidelines for Christian conduct. Institutions that do otherwise are irresponsible.
A Christian institution is composed of many members. Since each member’s actions reflect on the institution, all members must conform to the scruples of conscience belonging to the saved and unsaved people of that community if the institution is to maintain a consistent Christian testimony.
In addition, following a common set of guidelines will help to prevent division among the institution’s members. Since unity is crucial to a Christian ministry’s effectiveness, the institution must protect the scruples of its weaker members.
The main incentive for a Christian institution to require its members to adhere to a set standard of conduct is love. If the institution genuinely loves God, it will require its members to conform to God’s moral absolutes. If it genuinely loves both the saved and unsaved people in its community, it will require its members not to offend their consciences. And if it genuinely loves its own members, it will seek to protect the consciences of those who are weak.
Membership in Christian institutions is voluntary. Therefore, if you disagree with an institution’s code of conduct, simply refrain from joining or voluntarily and cheerfully submit to the organization’s guidelines while in membership. You must decide whether your membership in that particular institution or the full exercise of your individual liberty is more important.
- Charles R. Erdman, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1928), 78.
- James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Fleming Revell, 1897), 250.
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 253–254.
- Ibid., 255.