Sunday, February 4, 2018

Christian Liberty and the Conscience

There is a large sign posted next to the first tee of the local golf course. The sign declares the local rules that govern play. The first rule is a preview of the specific rules that follow. It reads: THE FIRST RULE OF GOLF IS CONSIDERATION FOR OTHERS.

Consideration for others, in the context of the Christian’s liberty in Christ, is the theme of Paul’s teaching in Romans 14. With the advent of the new covenant, some rules that were important to the Old Testament were done away with. They were fulfilled by the ministry of Jesus and were no longer necessary.

When laws are revised it is difficult for people to make adjustments. One difficult adjustment for early Jewish converts was to the new situation in which Jesus declared certain foods clean which had been prohibited under Old Testament ceremonial law. Even the apostle Peter struggled with this new state of affairs. (See Acts 10:9–16.)

Questions arose in the early church about rules for eating certain foods and about drinking wine. Some believers were convinced that it was sinful to eat meat offered to idols or to drink wine used for pagan oblations. Others retained scruples about Old Testament dietary laws, while still others came under the influence of forms of religion that demanded a completely vegetarian diet. Such views represented immature spiritual growth and ignorance of the actual laws of God. Some converts to the faith were unaware of their liberty on such matters. These, who had not yet grasped the full measure of Christian liberty, were designated by Paul as “weaker brethren.”

The issue the mature Christian faced was this: How should he relate to a weaker brother whose conscience was bound by rules with which God never intended to bind them? Should the mature Christian forfeit his liberty for the sake of the weaker brother? Should the stronger brother indulge his freedom regardless of the feelings of the weaker brother? Should the scruple of the weaker brother become the law of the church?

Paul’s answer to this situation is based on the principle of loving consideration. Consideration was to be given by both parties. Let us examine some of the guidelines Paul gives in Romans chapter 14.
The first rule of Christian love is that we receive others who are weaker in faith as brothers and sisters. Every Christian is a servant of Christ. Christ is his master. Christ is his judge. I am not to judge those who are Christ’s.

In matters where God has set forth clear laws and rules of conduct we are to bring forth judgment. But in Romans 14 Paul is speaking about judging brothers and sisters in matters that are “indifferent,” externals where God has left man free. Does God prohibit dancing? Does God prohibit lipstick? Does God demand total abstinence from wine? Does God forbid eating meat?

Many church bodies have rules of conduct covering such matters. Some Christian colleges have codes forbidding hand-holding between members of the opposite sex. There are certainly no clear biblical mandates that make such rules. These are “matters indifferent” about which some Christians have scruples. Paul’s command is that I must receive such persons as Christians, and they must receive me as a Christian.

A second principle of Christian liberty is that a person should not be forced to act according to another person’s conscience with respect to “matters indifferent.” This rule presupposes that Christians are at various levels of personal growth.

Another principle set forth in Romans 14 is that the stronger brother ought not to cause his weaker brother to stumble but should be considerate. Suppose a Christian is convinced that partaking of wine is allowed. This person knows drunkenness is clearly a sin but is persuaded that he has liberty with respect to a moderate use of wine. How should he use his liberty with respect to the weaker brother?
He is not to flaunt his liberty in front of a weaker brother. He is not to coax his brother to indulge in wine. A guideline is set down in verse 22: “Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God.”

Someone will ask: “What happens if a brother has a glass of wine privately and his neighbor drops in and “catches” him? The neighbor is scandalized. He takes offense. The stronger brother’s discretion was an act of consideration. He gave no offense. We need to understand an important biblical principle here. There is a difference between an offense given and an offense taken. In this situation an offense was taken that was unjustifiable. The weaker brother is called to act with charity and consideration lest the church suffer from what has been called the “tyranny of the weaker brother.”

Paul declares that the kingdom of God is not in eating or drinking. It is not a matter of indifferent externals. In these things we are to have love for each other, respecting the scruples of the individual as well as their liberties. Patience and forbearance are called for. In matters of externals, the internal fruit of the Holy Spirit must be made manifest.