Liberty, Love, and Life with Christ Part Three
Christian liberty is a gift from God. Scripture says Christians are free to practice whatever God’s moral absolutes do not prohibit (Gal. 2:4; 5:1), providing they do not violate their own consciences (Rom. 14:22–23).
However, believers should restrain their liberty if exercising it offends another’s conscience (v. 21).
Why, some Christians wonder, must we curb our liberty for the sake of someone else (1 Cor. 10:29–30)? Scripture clearly answers this question by describing four problems that may develop if believers offend others in exercising their liberty.
Problem #1: Church unity may become disrupted.
Because of different cultural and/or subcultural backgrounds, some believers may feel a certain action is sinful and become repulsed if they witness another Christian practicing it. They might conclude they can no longer fellowship with that person.
The church council of Jerusalem faced this type of situation and reacted to prevent division within the church (Acts 15). Christians should “pursue the things which make for peace” (Rom. 14:19). Unity and peace within the body of Christ take precedence over the full exercise of personal Christian liberty.
Bible scholar F. F. Bruce explained, “Christians are not isolated individuals, each living to himself, but members of a fellowship, and it is the responsibility of all, and especially the stronger and more mature members, to promote the well-being of the fellowship.”1
Problem #2: Weaker Christians may stumble.
If Christians see another believer doing something they consider sinful, they might engage in the activity but then suffer spiritual and psychological problems because their consciences condemn them. God holds freer Christians responsible for the harm and considers their actions sin against weaker Christians and against Christ (vv. 13–23; 1 Cor. 8:10–13). Theologian Charles R. Erdman said, “Even indulgence which in itself may not be wrong may be sinful if it causes others distress or if it leads others astray.”2
Bible scholar James M. Stifler said stronger Christians who lead weaker Christians to offend their consciences fight against God by “pulling down the gracious work which he has done in the weaker brother” (Rom. 14:20).3
Stronger or freer Christians should not seek their own good but, rather, the good of their weaker brethren, even if it means restricting their own liberty in order to “bear with the scruples of the weak” (15:1–2; cf. 1 Cor. 10:24). Stronger Christians must recognize that a weaker Christian’s spiritual welfare takes precedence over the full exercise of their own Christian liberty.
So is it best to avoid weaker Christians? Or try to argue them out of their views? The answer to both is no (Rom. 14:1). Bruce explained, “A Christian’s ‘faith’ in many respects might be weak, immature and uninstructed; but he must be welcomed warmly as a Christian and not be challenged forthwith to a debate about those areas of life in which he is unemancipated.”4
Stifler said a weak Christian should “be received into Christian fellowship, but not to be disputed with about his thoughts….He cannot be argued out of his views; argument would only confirm him in them.” He further explained that weak Christians “must grow out of them.” Stronger Christians must love weaker Christians, not criticize them.5
Problem #3: Unbelievers may become deterred from becoming Christians.
The apostle Paul urged Christians to “give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks [Gentiles]” (1 Cor. 10:32). The terms Jews and Greeks (or Gentiles) refer to unsaved people because the same verse separates them from “the church of God.” According to Gustav Stählin, avoiding offense “must be a guiding principle not only in relation to brethren in the congregation but also in relation to those who are outside as represented by the two groups [Jews and Gentiles].” He said Paul meant Christians should avoid doing anything that might “keep them [Jews and Gentiles] from faith and thus prevent their…salvation.”6
Most unsaved people misunderstand Christians. They think believers have simply reformed their moral behavior based on a higher code of conduct. But Christians are individuals who, through faith, have experienced an inner transformation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Many unbelievers hold professing Christians to a higher code of conduct than they do others, including themselves. In fact, many even expect more from Christians than God expects from them.
Because of this misunderstanding, Christians should sometimes restrict their liberty so that their actions do not hinder someone’s salvation. The unrestricted exercise of Christian liberty can become a stumbling block for the unsaved in two ways: (1) If unbelievers see Christians doing the same things they do, they might conclude that Jesus has nothing more to offer them than what they already have. (2) If the unsaved see Christians acting contrary to how they think Christians should act, they might reject Christianity. Many times, after seeing Christians exercise their liberty, unbelievers have made such comments as “If that’s what Christianity is, I want no part of it.”
Christians must recognize that the eternal destiny of the unsaved takes precedence over the full exercise of personal Christian liberty. Christians must not try to avoid unbelievers because doing so would make evangelism impossible. Instead, they should associate with the unsaved but conduct themselves wisely before them.
Problem #4: Ministry may be rendered ineffective.
Even if the unwise exercise of Christian liberty does not cause weaker Christians to sin against their consciences, it may cause them to lose confidence in other Christians and their ministries. And even if it does not deter unbelievers from seeking the Lord, it may cause them to lose respect for and disregard the testimonies of Christians who have unwisely exercised their liberty.
Paul expressed concern about this problem when he ministered in Corinth (1 Cor. 9). Paul had the liberty to marry a Christian woman and collect income from those to whom he ministered, but he voluntarily refused to exercise those rights so that people would not question his motives or lose trust in him and his work.
Bruce described Paul’s actions this way: “The interests of the gospel and the highest well-being of men and women were paramount considerations with him, and to these he subordinated everything else.”7
Erdman provided two helpful principles for applying Paul’s standards: First, he said Christians “should be willing to sacrifice much that may seem innocent to us in case our indulgence might in any wise endanger our work for Christ.”8
Second, he explained “indulgence in a practice which he [the Christian] regards as innocent may destroy a man’s influence over whether his course is theoretically right but whether, in itself innocent, it may be open to such criticism as to jeopardize his work for Christ.”9
Paul acknowledged that, as a believer, he was “free from all men.” Yet he voluntarily became “a servant to all” so that he could minister effectively (v. 19). All Christians should strive to do likewise, restricting their personal liberty when necessary. This restraint for the sake of another’s salvation is what Paul meant by becoming “all things to all men” (v. 22). Today people commonly mistake Paul’s statement to mean he condoned complying with the wrong actions and immoral practices of others. He was not approving the maxim “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”10 To the contrary, Paul repeatedly urged Christians not to conform to the sinful pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Lest believers conclude that suppressing their liberty places an unfair, unbearable demand on their rights, they should remember that, as Paul pointed out, even unbelievers practice this principle when in pursuit of things they consider more valuable (9:24–27).
For example, athletes voluntarily deny themselves legitimate things while in training so that they can do their best during competition. Sometimes, to do otherwise could even disqualify them. Enslavement to liberty might even cause them to lose the valuable prize.
Likewise, businessmen willingly restrict themselves from certain practices to gain more customers. Musicians make sacrifices to spend more time practicing. So if others willingly forfeit their rights for the sake of temporal, corruptible rewards, how much more should Christians do it for the sake of Christ and eternal, incorruptible rewards?
The effectiveness of Christian ministry takes precedence over the full exercise of personal Christian liberty. Although all questionable things are lawful, not all are profitable, not all edify, and not all can be done to the glory of God (6:12; 10:23, 31).
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 251.
- Charles R. Erdman, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1925), 145.
- James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Fleming Revell, 1897), 246.
- Bruce, 243.
- Stifler, 239.
- Gustav Stählin, “proskopto,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 6:753–754.
- Bruce, 243.
- Charles R. Erdman, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1928), 81.
- Ibid., 86.