Personal Space Issues: Every Christian Has a Conscience! (Brick Walls, Picket Fences 12)

Do you know a “close talker” – someone who stands too close to you as they talk.  When conversing with a close talker, I find myself slowly backing up, trying to get some distance, to maintain my “personal space.”  There it is; a mantra of our culture.  “Don’t invade my personal space.”  It makes me very uncomfortable when someone stands too close.  Each of us has a sense of territory and we want people to respect our privacy, our personal space.

There are a lot of theological close talkers, who are not content to leave others their own personal space on issues of conscience.  On most issues, the Bible is clear and unequivocal and demands that we agree and conform.  But it is surprising to some that the same Bible leaves, on some issues, a great amount of personal space in which the believer is to live under the Lordship of Christ and follow his own conscience. It is what I am calling “Personal Space” truth.  There are some of my beliefs and convictions that I should live out but just keep to myself.  I should do what I believe is right and allow others to do the same, even if their conviction differs from mine.  We should respect each believer’s personal space.

Meat Sacrificed to Idols

The church faced a difficult issue in its early years – a personal space issue.  It is not an issue that we face today, but it can serve as a template for us in our discussions.  Should a Christian eat mat that had been sacrificed to an idol?  I’ve never had to make a decision about whether to eat meat that had been offered to a pagan god, but I have encountered many such issues myself.  What should a Christian eat?  What entertainment may a Christian consume.

Roman cities were filled with pagan temples.  When someone came to worship, in addition to the other corrupt and immoral practices of the temple, they would bring an offering.  If you wanted the favor of a god you would not bring leftovers, or stringy beef. You would bring the best cuts from our best animals.  These would be offered to the idol.  Idols are seldom hungry and never eat.  So, the meat was left over.  The Pagan priests would take their cut to feed themselves and then the rest of the meat would be sold in the meat market.  It was the normal course of life to eat meat from that market, much of which had been offered in worship to idols.

Then, along came Paul.  He proclaimed Christ and established a church.  These people were transformed from the darkness of idolatry into the light of the gospel.  They laid aside their idolatry and everything that went along with it, to follow the true and living God through the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.

And then they had a problem.  All their lives they had eaten the meat that had been sacrificed at the temple without a thought.  But now that their lives belonged to Jesus, things had changed.  And, of course, they came into contact with Jewish believers who were generally scrupulous about anything that had anything at all to do with anything idolatrous (did I overstate that?).

So, conflict arose.  Some Christians thought nothing of it.  That was where they had gotten their meat since they first sprouted teeth and they saw no reason to go elsewhere.  But the Jewish believers and those influenced by them were shocked that anyone would even consider eating meat that had been given in worship to a pagan god.  It was evidently a sharp conflict in many churches across the ancient world, since Paul spent a lot of time dealing with matters like this.  In 1 Corinthians 8-10 (especially the last half of chapter 10), Paul addressed the issue specifically.  In Romans 14-15, Paul looked at the big picture and gave specific guidelines for handling disputable issues such as this.

His teaching seems to shock a lot of Bible-believing people who like things to be black and white and are often unwilling to countenance disagreement when their conscience convicts them.  His basic advice was simple.  Do what your conscience tells you to do under the Lordship of Christ and allow others to do the same, even if their view differs from yours.  He gave each Christian some “personal space” to live his life under the Lordship of Christ.

Please note that I have not used the word doctrine to describe personal space issues.  We are not dealing with biblical doctrine or the clear admonitions of scripture.  We are talking about lifestyle issues on which the Bible does not speak, or at least does not speak with absolute clarity.  On these issues, Christians have freedom to make up their own minds under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

We do not have pagan temples inSioux City, nor do we have a meat market that sells meat that has been sacrificed to an idol.  But there are plenty of these issues around today.  Is it okay for a Christian to enjoy a movie made byHollywoodfolks who want nothing to do with Christianity?  Can a Christian enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, as long as he does not get drunk?  Can he smoke a cigar, or a pipe, or a cigarette after dinner?  What music, movies, TV shows, books or magazines are appropriate for Christians to enjoy?  Is it a sin if I mow my lawn on Sunday afternoon?  Is it acceptable for Christians to practice birth control?  Are Christians required to observe dietary restrictions like the Hebrews, or new ones dictated by the health experts?  It may be that we have more of these issues than they did in the early church era.

Before we dig into these teachings, I would encourage you to put this aside and read these texts.  Many Christians struggle with the teachings of 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15.  It would be helpful if you read the entire passage before we begin to pick apart the teachings of Romans 14.  Paul addresses meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but in Romans 14-15 he deals with the same concept under slightly different circumstances.

Two Tribes: Which Are You?

In Romans 14, Paul identifies the two primary warring tribes in the conflict over disputable matters.  These tribes had held their different views on these issues passionately and were not granting the other the freedom to disagree.  They were invading each other’s personal space.

The first group was the “NO-NO” tribe.  They were horrified at the idea that anyone would even consider shopping at the pagan meat market.  “No real follower of Christ would set foot in that place.”  It was worldly, carnal, and unthinkable.   They looked down on those who would dare to buy the meat, questioning their faith in and love for Jesus Christ.  The NO-NO tribe is still strong today.  In most disputable issues, they say a forceful “NO!”  Their motto is “No Christian would do that.”  And they often question the biblical and spiritual commitment of those whose conscience leads them in a different direction on that issue.

The other tribe was the “Yessie” Clan.  They emphasized the freedom in Christ won for us – that we are no longer under the constraints of the Jewish law, of human traditions or of the extra-biblical opinions of others. They tended to disdain the Jewish Christians for their continued loyalty to Jewish law and the others who joined the Jews in their disapproval of certain acts.  “Why can’t they lighten up?” they asked.  “Idols are nothing.  They don’t even exist.  Why not buy a good steak at a good price?  That’s good stewardship, isn’t it?  These folks are just silly and legalistic.  We are free in Christ, why do they insist on living in legalistic slaver?”  The Yessie clan is growing today.  Yessies believe that if there is no direct command against something in scripture, they are free to participate in the activity.  They can work on Sunday, drink socially as long as they do not get drunk and enjoy the entertainments offered by this world, as long as their conscience does not convict them.  And, just like first century Yessies, they tend to disdain the No-no clan seeing them as silly, petty and legalistic.

According to Romans 14, God loves both tribes, and even approves of both sides’ choices.  What He does not like is the way the two tribes treat one another.  In that passage, Paul gives us God’s plan for handling disputable issues.  On disputable lifestyle issues on which the Bible does not clearly speak, each Christian is free to decide for himself what is right and should grant to others the same freedom to make those decisions.

In the next post, we will begin examining the clear teaching of Romans 14 on this topic and will then attempt to apply those to some of the questions that have arisen in today’s Christian world.


Overview of (and 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.


  1. says

    I’ve experienced a few “meat offered to idols” issues, but I also have been involved in ministry to South Asians. So there still are some direct applications…

    • Dave Miller says

      I think the problem with these issues is that they run so directly counter to conservative thinking. We are black and white, right and wrong, truth and error kind of people. The idea that there could be issues on which Bible-believing people could disagree without condemnation is a stretch for some.

      • Jim G. says

        Hi Dave,

        We have several “idol food” issues, drawing mainly from our fundamentalist past. For the fundy, every issue is divisive. Whether or not a man has a beard (seriously) is right up there with the doctrine of the Trinity.

        Women’s attire, in my opinion, is one of those issues. As long as a person is appropriately dressed, does it really matter if it is a dress or pants? Notice men are seldom put in such positions!

        Jim G.

      • Dave Miller says

        Jim, we have the same issues here, since we have a large contingent that came to us from a very fundamentalist (I would say legalist) church – definitely a bunch from the “no-no” clan. I’m more of a yessie (on most issues anyway).

        One of our men was in the interview process for deacon ordination. We’d finished up the discussion when the chair asked him if there was anything else we should know. He got kind of somber and said, “Well, there is one thing. Sometimes, on Sunday afternoon, I like to go out and putter in my garden a little.” I laughed, thinking he was making a joke (call me Mr. Foot-in-Mouth.) He was dead serious. At his old church, that would have been a big issue in his ordination process.

  2. Bill Mac says

    Is being a psychic a meat/idol issue? Because my psychic powers tell me that charges of antinomianism are forthcoming.

    • Dave Miller says

      By the way, I consider the accusation of antinomianism to often be a signal of a lack of faith in the Lordship of Christ. The whole point in Romans 14 is that we have a Lord to whom we answer and we shouldn’t try to exercise Lordship over others on these issues.

      It is not antinomianism (though I’m sure certain bloggers will disagree) when I live by MY conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ instead of living by someone else’s rules.

      • says

        Antinomianism is a word thrown around too loosely (just as is the term “legalist” also, to be fair). Antinomianism is not that another Christian’s conscience allows them to participate in activities not forbidden by Scripture, even though your conscience won’t allow you. Legalism is not creating your own parameters to help you pursue holiness, even though some of those parameters go beyond Scripture.

        Call me when someone is teaching that there is no such thing as sin (or that it doesn’t matter). Then we’ll call them antinomian.

    • says

      In general, good article on thinking through what we are saying in our labeling. Maybe we should using biblical terms for our in-house (i.e. Christian) discussions like “weak brother” or “strong brother” and save “antinomianism” and “legalism” for the real deals.

    • Dave Miller says

      David, my concern would be that people who are sensitive and resistant to the charge of legalism would be just as sensitive and resistant to throwing out the charge of antinomianism.

      • says

        I noticed that in the first article David Brumbelow recommended that while “legalism” was carefully defined as only possibly applying to non-Christians, antinomianism was conveniently kept as possibly applying to Christians. so you are correct, Dave Miller.

      • says

        I have never called anyone an antinomian. I think the first time I’ve ever used the word is in the previous sentence.

        Why can’t we debate an issue without hurling charges of legalist, Pharisee, antinomian, weaker brother…? That tends to shut down any civil discussion. Why not just debate a subject on the merits of the issue?
        David R. Brumbelow

        • Dave Miller says

          If you will notice, I didn’t say you said that. But those who decry the use of one term often embrace the other.

          • Dave Miller says

            And the same thing would be true with that term. The theological use of the term refers to those who claim that since we are saved by grace it doesn’t matter how you live. Sin all you want, you are saved by grace not works.

            The term is commonly used to refer to people who, for instance, do not believe the Bible condemns moderate alcohol use, or who do not observe the sabbath, or who do not follow other rules.

            In other words, both legalism and antinomianism in their technical forms are heresies. In their more common forms, they are almost synonymous with the yessies and the no-nos I described in the post.

    • Dave Miller says

      FYI, far be it from me to dissent from the good Dr. Barber, but I think that he defines legalism narrowly and technically.

      There is, of course, the general concept of legalism as seeking to gain the favor of God by the works of the law. That may be the more technically correct theological use of the term, but it is not the only use of the term.

      There is a more common usage today – that is the imposition of rules that are not biblical mandates by one person or group on others. If one wants to argue that legalism is not the technically correct term to use there, fine.

      Whether legalism is the term or not, there is a phenomenon in which Christians and churches impose rules on people that do not have biblical justification. “Women shouldn’t wear pants.” “Boys and girls shouldn’t swim together.” “Playing cards and shooting pool are wrong.” We’ve made these rules that may or may not have some biblical logic behind them, but are not biblical mandates.

      I will let someone else tell me what the term should be. Until then, I maintain that this is contrary to Paul’s teachings in Romans 14.

      • says

        Do you believe gambling is wrong? Do you believe slavery is wrong? Even though these are not spelled out in Scripture? Is it wrong to say another Christian should not gamble, or own slaves; even though it is not spelled out in Scripture? Is a person a legalist if he is against gambling or slavery?

        The Bible speaks directly to issues. On the other hand, many concerns are not spoken to directly; but biblical principles may clearly apply to them.
        David R. Brumbelow

        • Dave Miller says

          I think gambling is unwise on a stewardship level, but I have a hard time classifying it as sin. Slavery, I think there is a stronger case in terms of the sinfulness of oppression and mistreatment of others.

          But I’ve had people in my church who play some poker on the boat downtown (since left the church for other reasons) and I didn’t condemn them to hell or excommunicate them from the church. They were making a choice I thought was unwise, but to call it sinful was not something I had the biblical authority to do.

  3. says

    I think you do a good job of defining personal space issues and present the concept in a fair manner. The problem comes, as I see it, when people try to take a clear biblical doctrine about which Christians have no question and turn it into a personal space issue. For instance, Broadway did that with the issue of allowing homosexuals to be members of the church. All Christians recognize that an openly homosexual couple cannot be a member of a church. Also, all Christians recognize the verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy of sciprture. However, there are those that want to turn that into a personal space issue and claim they are completely orthodox while denying a foundational doctrine like that.