Christian Liberty and Offenses

“I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself, but to him (the weak) that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14). No material thing is inherently sinful, but the consciences of some are not fully free to realize this. “There is nothing unclean of itself.” Nothing neither commanded nor forbidden can be unclean. Meats having been offered to idols are not unclean. Bacon, ham, pork, rabbit and crab meat are no longer unclean, for the Messiah made all meats kosher. “This He said, making all meats clean” (Mark 7:19, ASV). The prohibitions of Lev. 11:4-8 have been removed by the authority of God (Acts 10: 15; I Tim. 4:4). It is the weak brother who regards something to be profane. It is not so objectively; but subjectively, in his own mistaken mind, it is. Still, the fact remains that in itself it is pure. If he should do something which is against his own conscience, if, for example, he should drink some wine, he would sin, not because he drinks wine, but because he thinks that this act is inherently sinful, and does so contrary to the dictates of his conscience. He does what he thinks is contrary to the will of God. He ought to be further instructed, and never be encouraged to do what he thinks to be contrary to God’s will. When he so sins against his conscience, he sins against the first Commandment. The unenlightened believer, because of his ignorance and error, subjectively (not in reality) contaminates that good thing by his weak conscience. Unbelievers pollute their own conscience and infect everything by their profane touch (Tit. 1:15). “I know this and am persuaded” of it, says the strong believer, “by the Lord Jesus.” This is not a private opinion of my own, he avers, but the revealed will of my Master.

Many do not have the freedom of conscience provided in the Christian faith and life. To them many things seem to be wrong in themselves. These Christians feel it is wrong to do these things. Their consciences are not sufficiently trained according to Scripture. But the conscience cannot be forced. It must be persuaded and convinced.

“For if because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love…” (14:15, ASV). A flamboyant exercise of Christian liberty may bring pain to a weak brother. When you do so, “you are no longer following the evidence of love” (Weymouth). Our exercise of the liberty we have in Christ is to be limited by the law of love as expressed in I Cor. 13:4,5. Then you will not cause anyone to do with a doubtful or erring conscience what you do with a good, educated conscience. Liberty is to be enjoyed in conformity to love, not at the expense of love. Love sometimes calls for abstinence. Yet although Christian love is an essential duty, it, in turn, is not to over-ride Christian liberty. The free Christian in order to exercise love is not required to become a feather blown about at the whims of others. Love is intended to guide liberty, not to smother it. The principle of love does not require me to yield my principles, especially to a weaker Christian; it does not require me to offend my own conscience, nor to become the slave of every fanatic I meet. I need not abstain from ham permanently or from beef on Friday. For Christ has swept the Christian stage clean of all the rubbish of the traditions of men. What love enjoins is continency, moderation, the control of my desires and seeking the good of my brethren. However, I need not subscribe to their narrowness and so rob myself of the right of private judgment.

“Let not your good (i.e., your Christianity) be evil spoken of” (i.e., blasphemed), (14:16). This is not the weak brother who criticizes the liberties of the strong as doing evil, for the Christian, whether weak or strong, is not one who blasphemes anyone or anything. The reference is to inimical outsiders who look for anything and everything whereby they may slander, not your Christian liberty, for they see little in that to criticize and excoriate, but your Christian faith, the Gospel.

“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God and approved of (lit., for) men” (w. 17, 18). The kingdom of God does not consist in our activities or outward observances, not in food and drink, whether meat with the blood or without, or whether meat inoffensive to the Jew or to a Friday-observing Romanist, it makes no difference. Much less, is the kingdom a socialist campaign to establish bureaucratic uplift movements toward better living conditions and a controlled economy. Such things have nothing to do with the kingdom of God! The kingdom, rather, consists in spiritual blessings and graces wrought in us by God. We serve Christ in the strength of these blessings, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Notice that the sphere of the kingdom is in the Holy Spirit, not in the flesh, not in the things of the flesh, nor in Jewish or Romish customs. All sorts of forms, ceremonies, days, seasons, forbidden meats, kosher meats, fish dates (or diets) are not Christian. They are Gentile, Jewish or pagan religious distinctions — not Christian. and not at all in the Holy Spirit. Notice, further, that the operations of the kingdom of God move in the service of Christ. “If any man serve Me, him will the Father honor” (John 12:26). If any man does not serve Christ he does not honor the Father, but is a dishonor to Him. A conscientious, free servant of Christ is well-pleasing to God and tested and approved for men (not “of men”). It is not that men approve of him, or that the world lauds Christian character, but that God approves of him for men, i.e., for the good of men.

“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another” (19). Peace in the church is destroyed when fanatics and extremists, who deprive themselves of these indifferent things which God has not prohibited, urge their opinions as a standard for others. Usually they demand abstinence, whereas the Word of God requires temperance, moderation. To them, “temperance” means “abstinence.” This is clear from their “temperance days,” “temperance lessons,” and “temperance unions.” Such usage is not the result of honest handling of the dictionary. That many abuse their privileges is no reason why I in the interest of peace should abstain from the use of them. It is no sin to use knives merely because some knaves with such tools have committed crimes of violence. I need not remove my wedding ring because some claim they are offended by the wearing of jewelry. Christian love does not require me to become an extremist in order to avoid offending others. Nor would I contribute to their edification if I conformed to their scruples. To do so might rather encourage them in superstition, ignorance and self-righteousness. The moderate and the temperate person is, generally, content to leave in peace those who differ from him, and to keep to himself. Christians who use wine in moderation (as many European Christians), do not go about in the attempt to get others to do the same. Yet many “total abstainers” will pester their brethren with their fads, customs, traditions and opinions, and say the most uncharitable things about those who refuse to live by their rules. They are not exactly addicted to peace. Now, eating and drinking are for the purpose of living (not vice versa); still, as I have a right to enjoy living, I have a right to enjoy eating and drinking, as long as I direct my actions in the service of Christ. To keep peace with some brethren I need not limit myself to a John-the-Baptist-diet.

“For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence” (20). The term “meat” is synonymous for “exercise of Christian liberty’.” We are morally obligated, under certain circumstances, not to insist upon our liberty, as it is evil to do anything with offence. Now “offence” does not mean something which strikes me rather disagreeably, as an “offensive odor,” or “his laughing at me offended me.” Nor does it mean any taking offence. In my home town, Germantown, Philadelphia, there is a sect known as “Brethren in Christ.” In 1723 they were called “River Brethren.” These take offence at the other churches because they do not practice foot-washing. They have even taken offence at each other, and have split over the question whether in the foot-washing one man should both wash and dry the feet, or whether one wash and another dry! There are some Christians who see nothing wrong in an organ solo or a trumpet solo at the worship service, who, nevertheless, take offence at a flute solo. There will always be some, no matter what we do, to take offence at us. But we need not subject ourselves to the imperious laws of others.

What we are to avoid is the causing of offence. We may give offence by (1) causing others to do what their conscience condemns. We may embolden one to go beyond the dictates of his conscience, and so bring himself under a sense of condemnation. Also, we may give offence by (2) doing what will cause others to get the impression that we are not sincere in our Christianity. We must reckon with their prejudices and ignorances. But this does not mean to say that we are to make another man’s conscience the rule of our own. It does not mean that we may do only that which appears agreeable to others. For then we will do nothing, unless we can both do it and not do it at the same time. We must not only be careful not to give offence, but be careful about charging another with giving offence. No one may demand the exercise of church discipline merely on the ground of having been offended. Has offence been given? or merely taken? Show first from Scripture that what has offended is something prohibited by Scripture. Yet there is a sense in which we may give offence: When a Christian makes his own opinion a condition of fellowship, or proof of Christianity, then we must pay no regard to the putting of personal views on the same level with Scripture. It may be necessary to assert our Christian liberty at the expense of offending good men in order that true principles of conduct be preserved (Titus 1:13- 15).

“It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (21). Some indifferent things, and therefore perfectly lawful things in themselves, may carry a bad implication to the minds of some. Then before such individuals we ought to refrain from the use of such things, or from the exercise of that liberty. There may be no wrong in entering a friend’s house unannounced while marking a social or neighborly call. But to enter it silently and in the middle of the night might appear somewhat suspicious. A Romish cathedral or a heathen temple is not in itself an objectionable place for a Christian to visit. But lest he stumble or scandalize a weak and recent convert to the faith, let him not enter the heretical shrine at the hour of worship. For that might convey an implication and presumption to idolatry. It would be no sin whatever for a missionary to have in his home a brass image of a heathen Chinese god (into the mouth of which he may occasionally drop his waste paper); but that idol may very well be an offence and cause of stumbling to a novice, or an ex-heathen, newly converted from idolatry. “We know that an idol is nothing in the world . . . Howbeit, there is not in every man that knowledge . . . and their conscience being defiled is weak” (I Cor. 8:4,7). A safe rule to follow is, if the matter appears evil to others, but not to ourselves, then in some cases, and under certain circumstances, we ought to abstain, in others, not.
(To be continued)