Gary Friesen, in his book ‘Decision Making and the will of God’, mentions being a pastor at a church where people strongly believed that a Christian should not eat in a public restaurant on a Sunday. It had never been an issue to him before. One Sunday on his way to evening church he stopped off to visit some parishioners in hospital, and then had a quick snack afterwards in the hospital cafe. He mentioned this in the service. Almost as soon as he got home after church that night the phone rang. The voice on the other end asked ‘Brother if you had died in that diner tonight where would you have gone’. Friesen answered straight away ‘why to heaven my friend’. ‘Nothing of it, said the other man, you would have gone straight to hell.’
Us Christians manage to get upset over some pretty weird things. Friesen then writes ‘the American church has managed to divide itself over a whole range of issues.’ He then lists 34 issues which he says he has ‘personally encountered, (where) … in every case there are sincere believers who consider the activity in question prohibited by God, while equally sincere brothers maintain that participation is permitted with the Christian’s freedom.’
Here are some of those issues. I wonder what you think about Christians –
Attending movies watching television mowing the lawn on a Sunday
Drinking alcohol in moderation cooking with wine eating food in a church
Playing sport gambling for recreation insurance dancing
Smoking listening to rock music going to a psychiatrist
women wearing makeup or having short hair Men with beards or long hair
unmarried couples kissing
They are all issues over which Christians have or do disagree. Are Christians free to do these things? In 1 Corinthians Paul talks much about Christian freedom, he upholds and urges Christians to make much of the freedom they have in Christ. Yet is our freedom the be all and end all, or is it limited by other, more important principles?
Let’s turn to 1 Cor 10:23 and see what God says.
The end of chapter 10 concludes the discussion on eating meat sacrificed to idols which began way back in chapter 8. Here Paul sums up his argument, and as he does so he sets out some general principles for Christian behaviour, which we need to hear today.
He starts in v23 by quoting a slogan which some of the Corinthian Christians seem to have used – which he’s also quoted before back in ch 6 – ‘everything is permissible’. Now that I’m a Christian and Christ has died for my sins, I’m set free from the law. I am free to do anything I like, whenever I like, because I have the right to do so. Sadly such thinking leads to pride and self-centredness, as it did for some of the Corinthians.
What’s Paul’s response? You’re not quite right. Yes you’re free and yes, you have rights, but … there are higher principles than freedom and rights. My personal freedom is not the deciding factor in life and making decisions. Freedom actually means I am free to serve others above myself.
Look again at v23 – not everything is beneficial. Not everything is constructive – especially in building up the body of believers, which Paul will explore more in chs 12-14. Not everything I am free to do as a Christian is actually helpful for building up myself or other people. And that matters. So, v24, nobody, no Christian, should seek his or her own good but the good of others. The principle of love for others overrides freedom.
Let’s stop and think about v24 for a moment. It is so radical and extreme isn’t it – don’t seek your own good but the good of others. Do you ever seek your own good ahead of others? I do, and I’m sure you do. Paul says don’t. There’s a big challenge. Christian freedom is not to be thought of in terms of my self and my rights, but others.
How does this work out? And how does it tie in to eating meat sacrificed to idols? Paul gives us 2 illustrations:
- firstly to illustrate my own freedoms in Christ, look at vv25-26. Paul talks about buying meat from the market, the local butcher. Not a problem, no need to worry about it, Christians are free to buy and eat, even if it has been sacrificed to idols, which it probably had, because it is no longer connected to the pagan temple and demons. All food is from God backed up the OT quote in v26 – the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. If meat has been sacrificed to idols, well, no problem, for we know idols are nothing, and we know that our God owns everything, and we’re not going to eat it in a pagan temple. God made this meat, he made food, for our use and enjoyment, so go ahead. Buy it, take it home, put it on the barbie, cook it up, tuck in and enjoy. Don’t worry. All food is clean, nothing contaminates it on the way through, for it all comes from God’s good hand, and what I eat doesn’t affect my relationship with God. I am free to eat it.
- but secondly, in vv27-30, he talks about being invited to someone’s home for a meal, where they serve you meat sacrificed to idols. Same deal – Christians are free to eat whatever is put in front of them. What a contrast to the Jewish traditions – Jews couldn’t even eat with gentiles, they couldn’t eat anything sacrificed to idols, and there were certain foods they wouldn’t touch whether they had been sacrificed to idols or not. But Christians are free. So – v27 – eat whatever is put before you, without worrying about it, and be thankful to God for it.
But, v28, what if someone else at the meal tells you it has been sacrificed to idols? Then do not eat it. Why? Paul has just said I’m free to eat, so why the change? Because there are other people involved now. So Paul won’t eat, not because Christians are not allowed to eat meat, but for the sake of this other person, quite probably a Christian brother or sister – for a pagan wouldn’t be worried about it - who has qualms about eating such meat. For their sake Paul will restrain his freedom, so as not to offend their conscience. Last night - dinner with a vegetarian, she had to be careful what she ate, special food prepared, I just tuck in, enjoy, don’t complain about no meat. Don’t worry. Food is food.
Remember the principle – seek the good of others. If eating this meat is going to damage the conscience of someone else who is there, going to cause this person to sin because he thinks it is wrong, then Paul won’t do it.
Do you see – his freedom is secondary to love for others. He knows he is free to eat, and v30 recognises that others shouldn’t denounce him for doing so, his own personal choices in free matters is not to be judged by others, but he is willing not to insist on his freedoms for the sake of others.
And now in vv31-11:1 Paul wraps up his whole discussion with some key principles about Christian freedom.
Paul sets out 4 principles that he believes should govern all Christian behaviour, principles which govern his life, and which are based on the example of Jesus himself. Remember the issue - how do we exercise our freedom in Christ? What principles guide our behaviour?
a) The first one is the most important – v31 – whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, it’s no longer just about meat, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. What a great principle – do everything for the glory of God, not to establish Life is not about my freedoms and rights, it is about God’s glory. Will what I am about to do glorify God - does it conform to his standards, his priorities, his character? Whatever you do? Chuck Swindoll says ‘my goal is not to please me, nor to please you, but to please our Lord, Jesus Christ’. Do it all for the glory of God - that is our highest priority.
b) Secondly, then, we will be concerned for others. Look at v32 - Don’t cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – other Christians. Pretty much covers everyone. Will what I’m going to do build up the church? Is it beneficial to others? Will it hurt someone else’s conscience? Am I willing to limit my freedom for their sake?
c) Thirdly, which is the positive spin from the second one – try to please everybody in every way. Am I proactively seeking to build them up? Am I intentionally not claiming my rights? Am I willing to restrain my freedom for the sake of the ‘weaker’ brother or sister, especially those who I find tiresome, or narrow-minded? Or is my concern boosting my own reputation and making myself look good?
d) Why do this? Vv 33-34 – I’m not seeking my good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Will what I am going to do encourage the unsaved to turn to Christ? Will what I’m going to do stop someone hearing the gospel, or alienate fellow-Christians? I will seek their salvation - not by changing the message, but by the way I live. I will make sure I don’t unnecessarily offend people’s consciences and so keep them from hearing and receiving the gospel.
Doing such things is no more than the Apostle did, and he in turn did no more than the Lord Jesus did.
Martin Luther put it like this: ‘the Christian is a most free lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is a most submissive servant, subject to all.’ Christian freedom is exhilarating, using it well is hard work.
I started tonight listing some of those issues over which some Christians have disagreed over the past 100 years.
How do we work out who is right? Most of them aren’t specifically addressed in the Bible, because God’s commands tend to be general in character. There are some specific commands – no adultery, no stealing, no murder – but even these are linked back to the more general command of love. Biblical principles are often general in nature and can be obeyed in different ways in different settings.
So Christians are free to engage in things which are morally neutral, and not specifically commanded - free to engage in them and, let me say, free to enjoy them. So often us Christians are seen as kill-joys and boring, that Christianity is just a list of do’s and don’t’s. God is not like that, and we ought not be either – we can, and should, enjoy, as we are able, the freedoms God has given us in Christ, and enjoy the life he has given us and the creation he has made.
But … our freedoms are not the end point. They are not what Christianity is all about. Love is. And sometimes love requires that we voluntarily put aside our freedoms, for the sake of others. And we are free to do that. Jesus is our supreme example. Because he loves us so much Jesus freely gave himself up for us, sacrificed his own rights as he lived on earth and willingly died on the cross for us, that we might be saved. Jesus calls all his followers to be like that. Paul was. What about us?
So let’s just spend a few minutes thinking through some of those issues Friesen noted. Let’s see if we can make a few comments, remembering – not just what is permissible, but what is beneficial, what is constructive?:
So - attending movies – the Bible doesn’t say don’t watch movies. So I am free to watch them. But .. are all movies are helpful or constructive? No. So for the sake of my personal godliness, and for God’s glory, I won’t watch an R movie, or those with heaps of sex in them, or realistic extreme or psychotic violence. And if I’m taking other people - I will be aware of their sensibilities and be willing to watch what is appropriate for them, even if I thin I can handle more. So I won’t take my kids to an M movie. I have certain expectations of what FNG might watch as a group. I wouldn’t expect GFS to show anything above a PG, and even then to be careful what they watch, because there are some very young girls in that group.
Watching television – same sort of deal as with movies.
Mowing the lawn on a Sunday, or working on a Sunday – I remember having a discussion with a parishioner elsewhere, who said we shouldn’t put working bees on Sundays. I take it the Sabbath rule has gone, although the principle of one day with God remains. So I’m free to use Sunday in ways I want, provided I understand that God commands us to have one day a week where we spend time with him, with our physical and spiritual families, enjoying him.
Drinking alcohol in moderation – the only Biblical injunction seems to be not to get drunk. So up to that limit I am free to drink. But If I’m having dinner with someone who is a recovering alcoholic, or I know has the tendency to drink too much, then I won’t drink in their presence, nor offer them one. Or if I’m if I going to the pub with a group of people under 18 I won’t buy them any alcohol, and in fact may refrain from drinking myself so they don’t feel uncomfortable or tempted. But even once you turn 18 doesn’t mean you have to go and drink as much as you can – in an age of binge drinking Christians need to be able to be different. Some Christians may choose not to drink in protest against the damage the alcohol industry does to society – they are free to restrain their freedoms in that way, but ought not condemn those who don’t join them..
Eating food in a church – you probably don’t even think about it, so common it is here. We have supper here most weeks – and we are free to do that. This building is not off limits for food, there aren’t many biblical restrictions on the use of churches. And likewise drinking alcohol in church - although subject to the comments about drinking generally, and Paul’s principle – does it glorify God?
Playing sport – God gives us leisure time and capacities, and I am free to enjoy my leisure time as I want within the limits of God’s commands. Playing sport is a way to keep myself healthy, which is good for the other parts of my life. So I played soccer this afternoon. As did my wife. I am free to play, but how I play is restricted by doing what is loving to others. If I can’t play in a godly way then I need to think seriously about playing that sport in that way. And if it gets in the way of church…
Gambling for recreation – in the past I’ve been against it. In light of these principles I have perhaps mellowed, and think if it is for recreation and fun then perhaps that’s OK. If it starts becoming a way of earning a living or making money then it involves taking money off other people, and causes much harm to some members of society then that will be unloving to promote.
Dancing – is not a problem for me; I can’t dance anyway, it’s up there with my singing and clapping skills. But is there any prohibition in the Bible against it – not that I can see. So enjoy the freedom. But if it causes others problems refrain. And I think if it becomes sexually provocative, then it’s not glorifying God nor loving of others.
Smoking – again, no prohibition in the Bible, so free to enjoy. But – is it loving to inflict cigarette smoke on others? Medical opinion suggests otherwise. And is it good for smokers – in most instances no, although some do claim it eases stress, etc. So I’m free – but again – is it beneficial and constructive and loving.
Listening to rock music – again, free to listen to music, music is a gift of God, God delights in our sung praises. And I don’t think the style of music matters – the problem, if any, comes with the words. So I need to be careful in what I listen to – not unlike what movie or TV show I watch, and I need to be sensitive to what others do with the music I like. Think about our music here at church - will I put up with things I may not like for the sake of others who do like them?
Or lastly, what about unmarried couples kissing? Is there any command of God not to do this? No. But God commands us to avoid sexual immorality. And because of the nature of our sexual make-up we need to ask is it helpful? Does it glorify God – remembering he says sex is for marriage only? Is it loving to the other person, or to others around us? Is it helpful and loving to those who are weaker than we are, or to those who are single? Is it a good model to show others? Couple going away for weekend together. Only if chaperoned.
Those are just some issues - there are many more that we face regularly – what I do in church, what music we play in church, whether to eat McDonalds, how I drive, what clothes to wear, whether I read Harry Potter, and so on.
Let me say again in summing up - Christians are free to engage in things which are morally neutral, free to engage in them, free to enjoy them. Enjoy your freedoms.
But remember – they are not the goal. We must not be the sort of people who do what we want regardless of others. Pro-actively we must be people who seek the good of others, not ours. We ought to be more keen on building up the other person and the whole church, rather than my self-interest. Why? We know Jesus. We have his example. He lives in us. He came for the sake of others, and gave up his rights and freedoms for our sakes. WWMMMLJ – doing the same. True Christian freedom means I am now free from living for myself to live for God, and to glorify God by being like Jesus.