In previous installments in this series, I have discussed Brick Wall issues, in which Christians should take an uncompromising stand for the essentials of the faith. I have discussed Picket Fence doctrines on which Christians should hold to their convictions on secondary matters while maintaining friendly relationships with their Christian brethren who have different convictions. I have discussed Dinner Table doctrine – matters on which we disagree but do not divide at all. And finally, I have been talking about Personal Space issues – lifestyle issues on which each Christian is supposed to follow his own convictions without condemning or disdaining those who disagree.
Identifying Personal Space Issues
What are the “personal space” issues? Note that I do not call these doctrines. A doctrine is a teaching of scripture. Personal Space issues are those lifestyle issues which the Bible does not directly address, or on which its teaching is unclear. Because it is not addressed directly, we can and do come to different interpretations of these issues and should follow our own convictions without judging those who come to other interpretations. There are three general categories of such issues that Paul addresses.
1) Meat to Idols Issues
At the risk of oversimplifying, the issue of “meat sacrificed to idols” is a template for many of our lifestyle debates today. The question is this. “How much of life in this sinful world can a Christian enjoy?” Can we go to movies, watch TV, read books and magazines? Can a Christian play a game of poker? We recognize that this world is in bondage to sin and to Satan’s lies, so we must be careful, wary and discerning as we approach its entertainments. But can we enjoy the things of the world without violating John’s command not to “love the world or the things that are in the world?” Must Christians lead lives of complete separation from this world and the fun things it offers? Many of the issues we argue over fall into this category.
There has been a huge pendulum swing during my lifetime related to these issues. There was a time when Christians condemned just about every form of entertainment or enjoyment this world offered. My Baptist Preacher grandfather would not have thought of going to a movie, shooting pool, drinking a glass of wine, or playing a game of card. He was not some sort of rigid oddball. That is just the way it was in the 50’s. Now, the pendulum has swung almost completely in the other direction. Christians today, by and large, watch what the world watches, go where everyone else goes, and play the games the rest of the world plays. In fact, my experience working with young people has shown me a disturbing lack of discernment about what might please God and what does not. They assume that if it is fun, entertaining or exciting, there can’t be anything wrong with it. The idea that there might be things in this world from which Christians should stay away is a foreign concept.
When my son was college-aged, we had an interesting discussion. He told me told me about a spiritual crisis in his own life and one that had also occurred among some of his friends. Growing up in conservative Baptist churches and Christian schools, he had heard all his life in Sunday School classes and elsewhere that this was wrong and that was a sin. He accepted that these restrictions must be in the Bible since everyone told him they were.
Then, he started reading the Bible for himself. Lo and behold, he could not find a lot of the rules that had been assumed all his life. He could not find in the Bible what he had heard in the church. He faced something of a crisis of confidence in the church. If what they had told him about these rules was wrong, could he trust the doctrines he had been taught?
This bothered me, of course. I tried to avoid this kind of strict rules-based faith and yet still these messages had gotten through. But he also agreed that among his friends there was a dearth of behavioral standards. His friends tended just to gow with the flow and live lives that are pretty much just like those of their lost friends. Both of these extremes are dangerous to the church’s future.
Paul’s teaching is the solution. Each of us, under the Lordship of Christ, should make a biblical and spiritual decision to honor Christ. Then, we should allow our friends and fellow-believers to make their decisions. And we should leave one another alone! We must not disdain those who are stricter than we are nor should we condemn and judge those who exercise more freedom than we do. Let Jesus be Lord and let the Spirit be the Spirit in the lives of others.
A Modern Example
The Christian world has been confronted in recent years by a classic “meat sacrificed to idols” issue – J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” book series. A man in my previous church came to me with a heavy heart. “What are we going to do about these Harry Potter books, Pastor?” He viewed the books as demonic writings that would seduce Christian children into the occult, into the clutches of our enemy the devil. I had another Christian friend, in the same church, a man of deep biblical understanding and discernment, who read the books and wondered what the fuss was all about. He saw them as simple books written in the tradition of “The Chronicles of Narnia” or the “Lord of the Rings.” Two Christian men – both of whom love Jesus and love the Word of God, both committed to the glory of God. Yet their view of the Harry Potter books could not be more different.
So, should a Christian read the Harry Potter books? I cannot tell you. You do not answer to me. You should study the scriptures and look at every relevant text. You should be sensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit as you study the Word. You must remember that whatever you choose, you will give account to Jesus Christ one day for your decision. Remembering these things, make a choice as your conscience leads you. If your conscience bothers you, if you feel the books are offensive to God, do not read them and do not allow your children to read them. If, after careful study and prayer, you do not feel there is any real problem with the books, read them. Live under the Lordship of Christ and allow others to do the same.
If you choose not to read the books, do not condemn those who think it is okay. They answer to God, not you, for their decision. Those who read the books, don’t disdain or ridicule those whose conscience dictates that they should not read the books. They are obeying God as their conscience dictates.
Both groups should be sensitive to the other. Don’t take the books to church or discuss them there. Why cause a point of contention? Be sensitive to those whose convictions run counter to yours. If we will apply these simple principles, we can each follow our conscience without dividing the church because of our decisions.
2) Issues of the Jewish Law (Sabbath)
The second issue Paul discussed in the two passages we have looked at here (Romans 14-15, 1 Corinthians 8-10) was the issue of the Sabbath and other days held holy by the Jewish people. Many Christian Jews thought that all Christians should observe the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days. The Gentiles had no tradition of observing these days and did not think the distinction was necessary. The issue is still alive today. There are still many believers who think that Christians should not work on Sunday, but should devote the day to the worship of God. Some Christians still maintain that Saturday is the Sabbath and that it should be observed. Others see that in the New Testament era, we regard every day as holy and do not have to set aside any particular day.
Paul could not be clearer on this issue. In Romans 14:5, Paul says, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” If you wish to observe a Sabbath, whether on Saturday or Sunday – or Thursday if you like, do it. If you do not feel convicted to observe the Sabbath, do not. If you observe the Sabbath, do not condemn those who don’t. If you do not observe the Sabbath, do not disdain or ridicule those who do. And be sensitive to those with other views.
3) Issues of Food and Drink
I have a good friend who is into health food, herbs, and such things. That’s fine. The problem is that she always wants me to eat the stuff she eats. She has given me herbal solutions to every illness I have ever had. I cannot tell you how many times someone has told me what I should eat or shouldn’t eat.
I would not try to justify my obesity – that is a spiritual issue that I am trying to deal with. But it is a violation of Personal Space when someone tries to impose their rules of health, of diet, of exercise or of drink on me. Each of us is responsible to God for what we eat and drink. But we sometimes get so focused on issues of food or drink that we forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” InColossians 2:16, Paul is dealing with what are sometimes call Judaizers and says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” Romans 14:17, at the conclusion of the discussion of these debatable issues, makes this summary statement. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
It seems clear to me, though obviously other Christians disagree. Matters of food and drink are not essential to the Kingdom and what we eat or drink is not inherently sinful.
The Forbidden Topic: Should a Christian Drink?
Obviously, this is a hot topic in some circles today, especially my beloved Southern Baptist Convention. Is it okay for a Christian to consume alcoholic beverages. Some maintain that such is always a sin for Christians. Others claim that the Bible only condemns drunkenness and allows for moderate consumption. There are other arguments that strike a balance between these two, variants of the “wisdom” argument, which states that while drinking may not be a sin, it is unwise and Christians should avoid it.
I come from a line of teetotalers. I think my dad would rather me rob a bank than take drop of alcohol. I could never drink alcohol with a clear conscience. So Ido not drink. Never have. But Paul’s teaching on this subject seems pretty clear. The issue is not so much whether someone has a glass of wine now and again, but how we treat one another. One Christian can make the argument based on a verse in Proverbs and a couple other references that alcohol is wrong. He should not drink if that is his conviction. Another Christian can read the same Bible and come to the conviction that while drunkenness is a sin, an alcoholic beverage in and of itself is not sinful. He can have a glass of wine now and again without his conscience bothering him and honor the Lord in doing so. Another can be convinced of the wisdom position and abstain from alcohol even though he may not see it as a sin.
Here’s the kicker. Each of these people is living in obedience to the Lordship of Christ as they understand the Bible. Each should live on the basis of his own convictions and do what he believes the Bible teaches.
What he should not do is try to impose his conscience on that of other believers. In fact, it would not be hard to make the biblical argument that trying to impose my convictions about alcohol on other believers is a more egregious violation of scripture than whether I drink or not. Why can Christians not be satisfied with simply living under the Lordship of Christ? Why do we also have to try to lord it over others who do not share our convictions? If you believe alcohol is wrong, don’t drink. Obviously, children should live in obedience to their parent’s convictions on this issue. But I believe if violates Paul’s teaching here is you condemn those who have a glass of wine with dinner. If you believe it is okay to have an alcoholic beverage and can do so without being convicted by the Spirit, then do so. But it is wrong for you to try to convince your abstentionist brother to change his convictions to suit you.
So, I follow my conscience. I choose not to drink because of the way I was raised and the horrible things that I have seen that result from drunkenness. I hope my children will choose not to drink – not because their daddy instills the fear of hell in them, but because they decide it is a wiser choice to say no. But I know that many faithful Christians see this issue differently. I will not condemn your glass of wine and I hope you will not ridicule me for abstaining.
Remember, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul told us that the Christian always lives for others, not himself. My conscience may give me the freedom to do things that your conscience will not. Yours might allow other things that mine will not. Both of us must accept the work of God’s Spirit in the other. And we must remember that just because we have the freedom to do something does not mean that we have to do it. It is a noble Christian act to limit my freedom for the sake of another.
I do not know why, but this is one of the hardest concepts for a lot of Christians. In areas of fundamental doctrine, we must stand without compromise. On other issues, we may erect a picket fence to maintain our denominational and biblical distinctives. But there are other issues, Personal Space issues, in which I must live by my convictions and allow others to do the same. I can live by my convictions without forcing others to do as I do. Let us each live under the Lordship of Christ and allow others to do the same.
Brick Walls and Picket Fences: Links to Previous Posts
- In the first post, I introduced the topic. I have had deep experiences in two very different Christian camps – the theological and the experiential – which often seem to be in direct conflict. One desires theological correctness and the other prizes unity over doctrine which divides. I have seen much good in both and desire to find a way to bring them together.
- In the second post, I identified the four levels of biblical truth and the appropriate unity response at each level. Level 1 is the “Brick Wall” – doctrine which is essential to the Christian faith and over which we cannot compromise. We must build a brick wall of separation around these fundamental doctrinal truths. Level 2 is “Picket Fence” doctrine. Some disagreements do not require division but separation. By separating into churches and denominations we can practice our beliefs without arguing. We recognize, at this point, that those who disagree with us are genuine Christians even though we disagree with them. Level 3 is “Dinner Table Doctrine” – truths which we can disagree on even within the same church or denomination. Level 4 is “Personal Space” truth – in which each of us can have our own convictions and not disdain or condemn those who disagree. The key is to learn to properly categorize doctrine.
- In the third post, I introduced “Brick Wall Doctrine” – truths that are essential to the gospel and cannot be compromised in the church.
- In the fourth post, I started listing what I believe are Brick Wall truths, beginning with the perfection of the Word of God.
- In the fifth post, I identified two more Brick Wall doctrines – the nature of God and the sinful nature of mankind.
- In the sixth post, I finished up my discussion of Brick Wall doctrines – examining the nature of Jesus, the gospel and the Second Coming of Christ.
- In a supplemental post, I addressed a few sticky questions about specific groups (open theism, Catholics, etc) and asked whether they are inside or outside of the Brick Wall.
- In the seventh post, I introduced the concept of the Picket Fence, a friendly boundary that provides private space for local churches by allows them to be good neighbors with other churches.
- In the eighth post, I ask the question “Is it a sin to disagree?” and then define four categories of Picket Fence doctrine.
- In the ninth post, I discussed three key steps to maintaining a friendly picket fence.
- In the tenth post, I discuss “Picket Fence Ecclesiology” – a view of the threefold nature of the church that helps with the picket fence process.
- In the eleventh post, I turn the discussion toward “Dinner Table Issues” – truths which may be important but are not worth dividing over in any way.
- In the twelfth post, I begin to examine “Personal Space Issues” – issues of conscience on which Christians may disagree and on which we should not attempt to force our convictions on one another.
- In the thirteenth post, I examine Romans 14 and demonstrate that each believer answers only to the Lord who died for us, and that it is wrong to attempt to exercise Lordship over on another.
- In the fourteenth post, I explore the question of why we disagree and the opposing concepts of legalism and antinomianism.