Image courtesy of Naypong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Naypong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I love Big Macs. I don’t even remember the last time I had one, though – they’re really not good for you. One little hamburger. 540 calories. But it tastes sooo good!

It’s hard to believe that something like could cause problems in a church. How can one little burger cause division and tension among good Christian people? I don’t think anyone reading would object if I had this burger. Okay, my wife might object, but that’s purely for health reasons. But in the early church, whether or not you ate meat was a big deal. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes:

1Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, but one who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat, and one who does not eat must not criticize one who does, because God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to criticize another’s household slave? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand. For the Lord is able to make him stand.

Can you imagine? All this fuss is over whether or not people should eat meat. The real issue is not exactly vegans vs. carnivores. You see, in the ancient pagan world, people would make pagan sacrifices to their gods and then that meat would be sold in the market. There were some Christians who said, “We should not be eating any meat that has been sacrificed to false gods.” And since it is nearly impossible to tell which meat has been a sacrifice and which meat is clean meat, we just shouldn’t eat meat at all.” It was a spiritual decision, not a health decision. Other Christians said, “Why is any of it unfit for eating? Those pagan gods are false gods, and meat offered to a false god will not hurt a Christian.” They felt free to eat meat from the public market. So they would go back and forth – “We shouldn’t eat meat from the market!” “We can eat meat from the market.” “It may have been sacrificed to false gods!” “We serve the only real God, and that meat won’t hurt us!”

This is what Paul addresses in Romans 14 – Christian liberty and freedom – and he’s trying to tell us, “Hey, it’s okay to disagree on whether or not certain behaviors are appropriate for Christians. If you feel free in your conscience and spirit to do those things, don’t look down on others who don’t have that freedom. If you don’t think it’s appropriate for Christians to engage in certain behaviors, don’t judge those Christians who do feel free.” This is the central thrust behind the idea of Christian Liberty.

Christian liberty is the freedom from God to do whatever you wish in any matter the Bible does not address. Christian liberty is not an excuse to sin, break biblical principles, start arguments in the church, or to give Jesus a bad reputation. Let’s be super clear here: what God commands, we do. What God condemns, we avoid. When God seems silent, we have liberty to behave according to our own convictions. How does this play out in real life? God repeatedly condemns and forbids adultery. That’s a no-no. You can’t say, “I have freedom in Christ, so I’m gonna fool around on my spouse.” Liberty is not an excuse to sin. God condemns drunkenness. You can’t say, I have Christian liberty to get smashed every weekend!” Liberty is not an excuse to go against what God has declared.  God directs us to submit to the governing authorities and live lives of obedience. You cannot knowingly engage in illegal behavior (cheating on taxes, stealing, dealing drugs, whatever). What God commands, we do. What God condemns, we avoid.

So what kinds of things might be areas of liberty – areas that are not directly covered by God’s commands or prohibitions? Here are some examples: watching R-rated movies. Pornography is never okay, but what about non-porn R-rated movies? Freedom. Drinking alcohol. Drunkenness is never okay, but there are places in the Bible where the writers encourage alcohol and where wine is seen as a blessing. Freedom. Smoking cigars. Make-up on girls. Plastic surgery. Voting Republican or Democrat. Tattoos. Clothing. Hobbies.

The Bible does not address these things and so, Paul says, there is freedom to act according to our conscience. And don’t fight each other over matters of freedom and conscience.

But get this: Paul says, “If it is a matter that God doesn’t address and your conscience, your own convictions, tell you it’s wrong, then for you it is a sin.” The Bible does not condemn having a beer, but if something in you says, “I think it’s wrong,” then for you to have one is a sin. Wild, isn’t it? Paul says in vs. 14, “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean.” Because what is acceptable to some of us might be a sin to others, Paul writes that we need to act in love towards each other.

Love is acting in the best interest of others. Paul continues:

15: If your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according to love. 19 So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats. 21 It is a noble thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother stumble. 22 Do you have faith? Keep it to yourself before God.

God wants us to act in the best interest of the entire group. Am I free to engage in certain behaviors? Yes, and God does not condemn us for those areas of liberty! But if the exercise of my freedoms causes someone else to have a moral failure, then I have wronged that person and I have wronged God. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:13 that “if food causes my brother to fall, I will never eat meat again, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall.” Wow! Do you mean to tell me that God wants me to restrict myself? Yes, for the benefit of others. You have the freedom not to exercise your freedoms! And if you can’t live without your freedom, you don’t have a freedom, you have an addiction.

I’ve tried to talk to people about this concept before. I’ve said to people, “Be careful about your public behavior because you never know who is watching and how your actions will affect others.” I’ve had people tell me I’m being a hypocrite – allowing behavior privately but restricting it publicly. I tell you what, I’m stinkin’ tired of being called a hypocrite. The people who label that hypocrisy are then calling God a hypocrite. Look again at Romans 14:22 ~ Do you have faith? Keep it to yourself before God.  I didn’t make it up – God did. So you have freedoms in Christ – you don’t have to flaunt them in front of everyone else. It’s okay to exercise your freedoms in private and show grace and love towards people who might not share your freedoms while in public. The guiding principle here is that God wants us to act in the best interest of the entire group, not just our own interest. Am I looking out for my fellow Christians? Am I acting in their interest?

It all comes down to this: What God commands, we do. What God condemns, we avoid. In all other areas we have liberty to follow our conscience. But God would rather that we restrict our own liberties for the sake of promoting peace and building each other up. Put love above your liberty. It’s time to make a radical shift. I think too many Christians do not put love first. We fail to think and act in the best interest of the church. We prefer to act in our own best interest. In the way we behave, in the way we talk to each other. In the way we talk ABOUT each other to others. It’s time to leave self-interest behind and act in the best interest of the church of Jesus Christ. It is time to do a 180 degree shift, to let God change us. Some of us need to repent for flaunting our freedoms in the faces of others. Some of us need to repent for judging and criticizing those who exercise certain freedoms. We need to repent for the way we talk to each other and about each other. It’s time to put love above our personal liberties and freedoms.

How about you? What freedoms do you judge others for exercising? What freedoms have you been judged for exercising?