Monday, January 26, 2015

Upholding BOTH Law & Liberty - Three Final Points

In the first two articles in this series (which can be accessed here and here), I made the point that when it comes to daily decisions and moral choices, we cannot condemn what the Bible does not condemn.

Based on a few comments that I received from good brethren, some may have gotten the impression that I was making a case for moral anarchy - everyone can do what they want to do and no one can condemn anyone's behavior. And even if you disagree, you're a judgmental Pharisee if you say anything.

Is that the necessary conclusion from such studies on liberty? 

I don't believe so.

In this final article, I'd like to make three points that ought to govern our moral behavior when in the realm of liberty.

We Must Acquire Wisdom
In many ways, the book of Proverbs epitomizes the main point of this series of articles. Even though Solomon, in this book, does condemn certain activities and behaviors (e.g. 6:16-19), the theme of this book is WISDOM.
"To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion - a wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel, to understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction." (1:1-7)
What is wisdom? Applied knowledge, right? Well...yes...but it's much deeper than that. You see, obedience is applied knowledge, too, but there is much more to wisdom than just obedience. Wisdom is not just the willingness to obey the specific teachings of Scripture (i.e. don't commit adultery), it's the ability to apply the principles of Scripture to those gray areas. 

As an example, the command to avoid lust in Matthew 5:28 will keep me from ever justifying pornography. It will also keep me from movies that include nudity, sex-scenes, suggestive material and even rampant immodesty. As a father, it causes me to teach my daughters the importance of modesty so that they are not a stumbling-block to boys in the future, and to teach my son the importance of guarding his heart. Because of the dangers of lust (and knowing my own weaknesses in this area), I try to avoid public beaches and swimming pools where there are bikini-clad women all over the place.

Is it sinful for a Christian to go to a public beach? Is another Christian family sinning when they have different views on modesty? This is where I think the previous two articles come into play.

In the New Testament, Paul instructs us to "walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:15). He adds in Romans 13:14 that we're to "make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts."

Not everything is black and white. There are gray areas. This is where wisdom comes in.

And while we cannot condemn folks for making choices that we believe to be unwise, we all do have an obligation to (1) encourage wise behavior, and (2) respond positively to godly counsel. Remember, Solomon said that "fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Prov. 1:7). Don't be that person.

We Must Love One Another
Americans often have a sense of entitlement. We have rights and we feel entitled to those rights. If someone tries to infringe on our rights, we freak out. I once knew a brother-in-Christ who, in response to the government's ban on incandescent light bulbs, said he'd shoot anyone who came onto his property to take his incandescent bulbs. 

Even though we have incredible liberty in Christ, Paul instructs us in Galatians 5:13-14...
"For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
It has been said that "with great power comes great responsibility." This is especially true when it comes to Christian liberty. We cannot have the attitude that because we have certain rights and liberties, we can and will do what we want to do, no matter what the consequences might be.

Isn't this the main point in 1 Corinthians 8? "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies" (vs. 1). In regards to the eating of meat offered to idols - a clear Christian liberty - Paul concludes in verses 12-13:
"But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if good makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble."
We have to give thought to how our actions will influence others!

It it worth it for me to exercise my liberty in an area if it's going to hurt my influence? Is it worth it if it causes a weaker Christian to stumble?

I have always taken a very strong stance against drinking, and still do. I have talked to brethren over the years, however, who believe that it is okay to have an occasional drink. My response has always been the same: even if you think it's okay to have a drink, is it really wise given the number of brethren who have struggled with drinking and even alcoholism in the past, or who might not have the same level of self-control that you claim to have?

Do you see the point?

There are a lot of things that we can do but shouldn't! And even when we have disagreements about what does and doesn't constitute liberty, our love for one another ought to keep us from pushing our rights to the point of division (see 1 Cor. 6:7).

Jesus is Calling Us To a High Standard!
I do believe with all my heart that we need to do a better job of understanding and respecting the realm of Christian liberty. But it's of equal concern to me that some brethren see liberty as an excuse to remain weak and worldly.

It's true that we all start out as "babes in Christ." We're weak and feeble and brethren may have to bear with our lack of knowledge (Rom. 15:1). But just as babies grow into children, and children grow into young adults, and so also should all Christians undergo spiritual development.
"For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food...But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:12, 14).
If and when seasoned Christians are consistently justifying unwise and worldly behavior, there is a problem. The more that we grow in Christ, the more holy and righteous our lives should appear. This is NOT because we lose sight of our liberty or become more prudish, but because we develop a deeper understanding of God and His will that inspires wisdom within our hearts.

If we are all seeking God's wisdom, a deeper love for one another, and spiritual excellence, I truly believe that we will find ourselves making wiser decisions in our upward walk with Christ. The result won't be moral anarchy or a surge in worldliness, but a deeper respect (from the heart) for God's word that will increase our morality and godliness.

So can we encourage wisdom by openly discouraging certain behaviors and situations? Absolutely! In fact, this is something that we must do. But we have to be careful not to erect barriers that God hasn't Himself erected. I know it's a scary thought, but there does come a point where we have to give brethren room to grow in wisdom.

Perhaps this is where "longsuffering" comes in.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Upholding Both Law & Liberty - Case in Point

I received a lot of feedback - mostly positive - on an article I wrote last Friday on the importance of upholding Christian liberty. Although several points were made in that article, the main point was that we cannot condemn moral choices on the basis of principle(s) alone. This is because principles are, by definition, generic (i.e. the application isn't specified).

The Scriptures identify in plain terms a number of sins (i.e. fornication, lust, idolatry, covetousness, etc.). We can condemn these things because the Scriptures condemn them. But can we condemn an activity on the sole basis that it may lead to lust or covetousness?  

I few years ago, I was studying the issue of Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 8. I don't remember if I was just going through the book of 1 Corinthians or if something came up in my life that caused me to reexamine this chapter. Regardless the circumstances, my studies forced me into an awkward conflict with my own assumptions about moral laws.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul raises the issue of eating meat that had been offered to idols. Was it right or wrong to eat meat that had been offered to idols? In a more subtle way, he even addresses the act of eating in pagan temples. In a society where the culture and economy revolved around these pagan temples, I can imagine that there were all kinds of practical implications! How were these Christians to approach this?

As I restudied this chapter, it occurred to me that had I been an evangelist in Corinth in the first century, I would have condemned the act of going into pagan temples. Wouldn't such an act have epitomized "the appearance of evil?" Wouldn't people have assumed that you were going into the temple to worship the idol? Even with the eating of meat offered to idols, why on earth would you buy such meat when you had the choice to buy meat that hadn't been offered to idols? In other words, if I were to approach the activities outlined in 1 Corinthians 8 in the same way that I approach a lot of these moral issues today, I would have to condemn them!
And yet that's not what Paul did...

In 1 Corinthians 8:4-8, the apostle Paul explained to the Corinthian brethren that even though the meat had been offered to idols, it was just meat. While some couldn't eat the meat without violating their weak conscience (vs. 7), "food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse" (vs. 8). So while it may have been wrong for certain Christians to eat this meat, it wasn’t inherently wrong.

Then, in vss. 10-12, Paul alludes to the act of going into the pagan temples. He writes…
"For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”
Paul wasn't arguing that it was inherently sinful to enter a pagan temple to eat. We know this for two reasons.

  1. The act of eating in the pagan temples only became sinful (vs. 12) if it negatively impacted weaker Christians. So it wasn’t the act of eating in the pagan temples that was sinful; it was the potential violation of this principle that was sinful. What if there were no weak brethren in the church? What if eating in the pagan temples was a problem in Corinth, but not in Ephesus?
  2. The use of the word “knowledge” in verse 10 implies that the more mature Christians knew that the meat was just meat and the idols were nothing (vs. 4). This “knowledge” potentially allowed them to eat in the pagan temples without violating their own conscience. Technically, they were eating just another meal in just another building. It wasn’t an act of pagan worship for them as it may have been for the weaker Christians (those who lacked this knowledge).

If Paul wanted to make the point that it wasn’t inherently sinful to eat the meat offered to idols or to eat in the pagan temples, he could have easily done so. Instead, his point to the brethren in Corinth was that even though these acts were not inherently sinful – and thus in the realm of Christian liberty – there were vital principles at stake that, if broken, could result in sin.

If the apostle Paul didn’t outright condemn the act of eating in a pagan temple – something that seems so obviously wrong to me even now – then perhaps we ought to rethink our approach to issues today.

Now, I’m not saying that we can only teach on the principles and never speak about specific situations or activities where these principles might be at stake. In fact, Paul affirms as strongly as possibly in 1 Corinthians 8 that we MUST take these principles seriously! This is something that I want to address in my next article.

What I am saying is that we have to give our brethren room to grow. The "knowledge" that Paul speaks of in places like 1 Corinthians 8 - and the maturity he alludes to in a number of other places - is not a destination that everyone reaches as soon as they step out of the baptistery. It's a journey, and we're all at a different place along the way. So instead of pointing fingers and micromanaging the daily and/or moral choices of other brethren, let's help them grow in Christ...and ask them to help us in the same way.
"Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense" (Rom. 14:19-20).

Friday, January 16, 2015

Upholding Both Law & LIBERTY - Three Guiding Principles

I can't tell you how many discussions (COUGH...arguments...COUGH) I've had over the years with fellow believers about moral issues, and specifically, whether certain acts are sinful or not.

Is it sinful to wear shorts or skirts that don't reach your knees? Is it sinful to go to public pools or beaches where there is rampant immodesty? Is it sinful to have one drink...or two? Is it sinful to buy a lottery ticket or gamble? Is it sinful to smoke? If recreational marijuana is legalized, would it be wrong to indulge on occasion? In 'dating' relationships, where is the line delineating appropriate and inappropriate behavior? Is it sinful to go to the prom? Is it sinful to cuss?

And the list goes on...

If you've been active in the faith for any real length of time, I'm sure you've seen brethren discuss these questions, and many others. If you have observed such exchanges, I'm sure you've seen brethren get heated, perhaps even animated or angry. Perhaps you've studied these issues and have your own convictions. Perhaps you've been involved in these arguments yourself and have accused others of either being "liberal" or "Pharisaical."

I'm not here today to answer all of the above moral questions. I am here, however, to share with you three successive scriptural points that might help you to better approach these questions. This might come across as revolutionary or "liberal" - I don't know - but in my mind right now, these points really seem very simple and absolutely undeniable.

First of all, if it is our desire to uphold God's word alone - to neither add nor take away from it and to "speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where it is silent" - then we cannot condemn what God has not condemned. And I'm speaking here, not of our worship and service to God, but of daily choices that fall into the realm of "Christian liberty."

Isn't this the point of Romans 14? Paul says, "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things" (vs. 1). There are certainly matters of faith and law where God has spoken and we must obey. In these cases, we should make efforts to help our brethren recognize and overcome their sin (1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1; Jude 22-23). But if God has not condemned something, neither can we condemn it.

The second point is this: we cannot condemn something on the basis of principle(s) alone. Now, what do I mean by "principle(s)," as this word may mean different things to different people. What I am referring to are guidelines or rules that are general, rather than specific.

The command to avoid fornication, outbursts of wrath and drunkenness in Galatians 5:19-21 is quite specific, and therefore quite plain. On the other hand, the command to "make no provision for the flesh" (Romans 13:14) is general and may manifest itself differently in the lives of believers who have their own unique circumstances, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. 

It is also a matter of general principle that we must be shining lights and thus examples of godly conduct in a sinful world (Matt. 5:13-16; 1 Cor. 10:31; Phil. 2:15). One person may believe that going to the theater to watch a certain PG13 movie will set a bad example for others, while another person believes that it is perfectly acceptable to see that same movie. Do you see the point?

Principles are not specific; they are, by definition, general. We can bind the principle and encourage people to make wise choices, but in the end, we cannot apply the principle to a specific situation or choice, condemn the specific situation or choice and then judge (criticize) others for violating the principle. Maybe the principle was violated. Maybe it wasn't. Can we say what was in their heart at the time? Or can we necessarily judge the effects of their decision on others?

Finally, if it isn't already clear from what I have said, we cannot erect barriers for our brethren that God Himself has not erected. To put it another way, we have no right to add to God's definition of righteousness or to have higher expectations than does God! Again, this is the whole point of Romans 14! If it truly is a matter of liberty (not law), we must leave it to the realm of personal judgment. Consider this lengthy excerpt from Romans 14...
"Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it...For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (vs. 4-10).
It's easier when everything is black and white. It makes things clearer for us and gives us the control that we so desperately want (over ourselves and others). But not everything is black and white. 

And sure, I understand that such open conversation about liberty may give weaker Christians the excuse they've been looking for to indulge the flesh. The proper reaction, however, shouldn't be to create our own system of bylaws to further restrict moral behavior (to ensure compliance), but rather to encourage these weaker brethren to grow in wisdom. This is why Paul writes, "For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).

I also agree that unity among God's people is critical! But true unity is achieved, not when we supplement God's law to forcibly fit others into our mold, but when we respect all of God's word - both what it does say and what it doesn't say.

In the end, we ought to teach the principles of Scripture and encourage our brethren to honestly apply these principles to their lives. But the second we begin micromanaging for all others how each of these principles relate to specific situations and condemn them where God has not...that's the very second we become guilty of usurping Christ's role as Judge...
"Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?" (James 4:11-12)
I can tell you that I've been guilty of this more than I want to admit. It grieves me in my heart to think of the numerous ways I have judged and condemned brethren in my heart. I am in anguish over the very notion that my judgmental attitude may have been a stumbling-block to others in the past. Have I turned truth-seekers away from the Lord or burdened babes in Christ beyond what they were capable of at the time? If I have, I pray for God's mercy and forgiveness.

But I cannot dwell on the past. All I can do is be committed today and in the future to upholding both God's standard of law as well as His standard of liberty.

Will you join me in this commitment?

NOTE: If you disagree with this article, you are burdened with proving from the Scriptures that we can unilaterally condemn something on the basis of principle(s) alone. PLEASE let me know if this is something that you believe can be defended from God's word.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Escaping Temptation By Prayer

This is going to be short, but sweet. I'd like to make a simple connection between two well-known verses.

First, there's this one...
"No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." (1 Cor. 10:13)
And then... 
"For we do not have a High Priest who cannon sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb. 4:15-16)
So perhaps a "way of escape" from temptation is prayer. 

If you're in the midst of temptation - whether it's lust, greed, anger, or whatever - and you don't know what to do or how to overcome, in the very least, know that you can (and should) pray. God says that He will give you a way to escape temptation, and then says that you can obtain help, through prayer, during times of temptation and need.

I told ya this one would be short and sweet.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Technology Can't Replace Love

A fellow Christian shared this video on Facebook. Check it out...

It's an amazing message, isn't it?

The application to family life is clear. And as a father of six children in a technology-driven society, this message hits close to home. In all honesty, there are some changes I need to make.

But this message applies not only to my physical family, but to my spiritual family as well.

It's easy for churches to get caught up in technology. We have our websites, our blogs, our Facebook pages, and even our fancy PowerPoint presentations on Sunday morning. It's easy to pride ourselves on being a "21st century church." We even sometimes criticize churches for being stuck in the past - not having PowerPoint or a good website.

But in the end, what makes a church is not whether it has the technology, but the LOVE!
"But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." (1 Cor. 12:25-26)
 "...from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:16)