Christian Liberty vs. Judging and Despising

“Who art thou that judgest the servant of another? to his own lord he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be made to stand; for the Lord hath power to make him stand. But thou, why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:1, 10, ASV). He who does the judging here is the weak condemning the strong. The weak setting themselves up as strong insist that others conform to their ethical conceptions, and so regard those as “backsliders,” “carnal” or “worldly” who in conduct and habits differ from them. What right would you have to compel the servant of another man to conform to your regulations? How presumptuous, then, and proud it would be for you to condemn that in a servant of the Lord which does not suit you! Zeal for good order and God’s commandments does not require you to prescribe what you think is the course he ought to take, what he is to avoid; nor need he live according to ideas you prefer. Where Scripture neither prohibits nor commands, you have no right to judge his character or conduct. In that case, leave him to the Lord, before whom he stands or falls. In fact, because he too belongs to the Lord he shall be made to stand. This is good counsel to the inexperienced Christian. Conduct in matters of Christian liberty must be judged by the Word of God, and not by “community conscience” or our own opinion. Where the Word of God speaks, it renders a judgment which is neither another’s nor man’s; it is God’s. But no one has the right under pretense of maintaining God’s Word of imposing outlooks, mandates or preclusions and inhibitions where the Scripture itself does not. Avoid spiritual witch-hunting often conducted in the name of religion. In these indifferent matters, let the weak brother keep his Scripture-quoting moralisms and his pious appeals to superior knowledge of right and wrong to himself.

There are some brethren who can see the mote in your eye from fifty yards away. Yet in attempting to get near you to prove it is there they will stumble over a cow. They pretend to have such acute foresight, whereas they are really nearsighted because of the beam in their own eyes. They are gnat-strainers and muckrakers, forgetting the weightier matters of the law. Indifferent matters are not the weightier matters. The non-essentials are not our guide lines – the weightier matters are, such as justice, mercy and faith. It is possible to do the cause of Christ and the church of God much harm by causing others to stumble over our dissension, censoriousness, coldness, indifference, mere form of religion (all-in-the-mouth religion) and lack of spiritual enthusiasm. The comedian says, “Love your enemies – it will drive them crazy.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies…that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.” Perhaps we have, some of us, let us say, a tendency to regard just about every one we meet as a potential enemy. We may be troubled at times with a sort of persecution complex. Then we may very wrongly judge the servant of another. In this respect the weak often do more harm in the church than the strong, but even here the strong must take care lest they become weak.

The Lord shall make him stand. The reference is to the strong. The Lord may use the strong to keep the weak from falling, but He does not use the weak to keep the strong from falling. Weakness is no virtue; and the strength of the strong is no hindrance. In fact, the strong shall stand, and that without the assistance of the weak. Now, the strong are strong because they depend for their strength upon the Lord’s might. Weakness it is to trust in one’s own strength. Standing and remaining strong is by grace alone. But the standing firm of the strong is the matter over which there is no question. The question is whether the weak will be able to stand. The danger is that they may think their weakness is most commendable strength. Then they will not be depending on the Lord’s might. Our guide must be, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Eph. 6:10). For only in strength can we use and enjoy Christian liberty and its blessings. In order to that enjoyment the Lord must and will keep the strong brother from sin in the use of material gifts. The Spirit of God will keep him from abuse and excess. The weak brother does not seem to realize this, but thinks rigidities of his own must be submitted to by all and sundry as a safeguard to “right” conduct.

“But thou, why dost thou judge thy brother?” Christian liberty is not liberty to pass judgment on a brother in matters of personal taste. It is the weak brother who does this judging, regarding himself a better Christian than the other. He sets himself up as a standard, and in judging his stronger brother he really judges the law (Jas. 4:11, 12), for the strong is strong because he lives according to the law. “Who art thou that judgest the servant of another?” It is just as absurd for an equal (a servant) to judge an equal (a fellow servant), as it is for a criminal to mount the bench of his judge. The stronger brother, living as he does in the light of God’s Law, is fully persuaded in his own mind about what he has a right to eat, drink, wear, play, about distinctions in days and religious observances, and about the enjoyment of “every creature of God.” With his superior knowledge, he has a tendency to puff up his own ego when he ought to use it to build up his brother in the faith. He has a tendency to little regard the edification of his brother. Therefore, let the weak refrain from despising the weak for his naïve, narrow way, for we are all going to stand before the judgment bar of God.

Brethren often fall out of fellowship with one another because of a lack of mutual understanding. With almost every social contact they pass by one another, miss one another. Then there follow hasty, unfair judging and rash misconceptions on one side, and contempt and uncandid reflections on the other. Offenses at times mar the communion of saints. Often the offenses rankle when not only the Matthew 18 principle of discipline is not appealed to and applied, but is not even understood. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” We must remember that the center of our fellowship is in the same Lord, Jesus Christ, that the source of all our knowledge is in Him, and that He alone has authority over individual expression of faith and over Christian practice. The weak needs more understanding than the other. The strong needs more patience and condescension than the other. Both need more mutual respect for one another. The strong is not to be limited by the ignorance of his brother. The weak must not sin against his own conscience by doing what he thinks to be wrong. Therefore, effort must be exerted to understand and edify one another. When this is not always accomplished, at least there should be no forcing a change of views on one another. Where there is true faith in the fundamentals of the faith (cf. the Belgic Confession) and in the essentials of the faith (cf. the Canons of Dordt) there will be real unity among brethren. In that case, differences of opinion on minor matters need not stand in the way of brotherly love and Christian fellowship.

The Christian has liberty to do anything not forbidden by the Word of God. He may make his own choice in such matters. Where the Law of God says, “Thou shalt not,” he has no choice. Murder, adultery and theft are not left to his choice. Yet no one has a right to set up “thou shalt nots” where Scripture does not. It is a sin of treason for a man or any group of men to assume the right which belongs only to God by attempting to bind the consciences of others with obligations not commanded or revealed in His Word. The church has the right to use individual communion cups in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as over against the use of the common cup. The local church has no right to make a by-law stipulating what interpretation any given text of Scripture is to be understood to have. Nor are ecclesiastical rules to be made governing use of food and drink, clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, magazines, newspapers and such like. The church order would be in as many volumes as our Standard Bearer if we began legislating rules for all these things. It must not be thought that Christians who do not live by such rules are acting without love, are causing others to stumble, or are some sort of “heretics”. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (Westminster Confession, XX).

But thou, why dost thou judge, thou who art strong in faith? Thou again, why dost thou despise, thou who art less mature in the faith? Know you not that Christian liberty does not permit hindering the rights of others, whether great or small? So be more patient and tolerant. Understand, however, that true liberty is not absolutely liberty, but is limited, first, by the authoritarian principle under God the alone Lord of conscience; and, second, by the equal rights of our fellow-men. A man must be free to obey God without hindrance from other men. In such matters he is not answerable to others. “To his own Lord he standeth.” Christian liberty is liberty to obey God. Then he may not use his liberty to obey God as a plea to disobey God. He who has the right to eat all things has no right to force his liberty on others, nor has he the right to make himself a glutton. There is no liberty to use liberty to injure the other fellow. “Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak” (I Cor. 8:9). He who will not eat from such largess has no right to attempt conforming others to his self-imposed restrictions. Nor has he the right to assume that Christian liberty undermines all moderation, good order and morality. When the strong live in the consciousness that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” they will see that Christian liberty is tempered by the Law of God, by the law of (mutual) love, by moderation (I Cor. 9:25; Phil. 4:5) and even by abstinence. For the right use of Christian liberty does not consist in always demanding and exercising our right, nor even, exclusively, in the practice of moderation and legitimate enjoyments thereof. “It consists in abstinence as well as in use.” It is true that the abundance of God’s providence permits the free use of such good gifts as the delights of music, the enjoyment of art, of literature, fine dress, splendid homes, of laughter, the best foods, meats, possession of property and many other privileges. One need not shrink from the use of the best Irish linen tablecloths to the place where he does without a handkerchief. One need not demote himself from Italian bread to black bread. One need not become so extreme that he would not even use motsah or the smell of a cracker. One need not feel he sins because he drinks purer water than others. But neither must he lust after the lavish luxuries of this prosperous age. They are, indeed, things indifferent. But he must not become entangled with them, immersed in them nor intoxicated with them. At times the exercise of liberty will not edify. Then we must accommodate ourselves to the best interests of affected parties. We may and must at times practice abstinence, which, in turn, will be without the least infringement upon our free conscience. Liberty is granted us not for license but “that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.”
(To be continued)