Should a Christian drink alcohol or not? Will it be harmful to your testimony if you play cards? Can you enter politics? Can you work for a company that manufactures war materials? To what extent can a believer adopt the standards of his times and society? Questions such as these are asked by most Christians at many different points in their lives; and they are important, for they concern the problems of regulating your conduct in areas of life where the Bible is not entirely explicit. How do you deal with them?
You need to recognize first that although many of the things that trouble Christians are silly and do not deserve much attention, not all of them are. Consequently you must not make the mistake of avoiding all serious thought about them.
For instance, in this country there are often many "don'ts" in Christian circles that I am convinced have in themselves little or nothing to do with Christianity. "Should I or should I not go to the movies" is one of them. In some circles these behavioral patterns are almost a badge of a person's commitment to Jesus Christ. And yet, in England among believers who are entirely as conservative and equally committed to the Lord these things mean nothing at all. Instead, the touchstone of real commitment is thought to lie in observing Sunday as a day of rest free from normal activities. In Switzerland women are noted for their piety if they wear long hair; if it is short in line with modern fashions, many will think that they are backsliding in their Christianity.
Some doubtful things are unimportant, but other doubtful items deserve more serious attention. Betty Elliot Leitch, the widow of Jim Elliot who was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador, has written on one of these problems in a little book called The Liberty of Obedience based on her experiences.
She had always had the idea, perhaps as the product of her Christian upbringing, that there was a certain type of clothing that was right for a Christian to wear. And conversely, there was clothing that was wrong. But then she went to Ecuador, and she found herself in the midst of a tropical people who wore little or no clothing at all. What did her standards have to do with them? Should she dress new converts? Should their standards prevail? She said that the problem became even more complex when she realized in time that, although the women in the tribe wore almost no clothing, they were nevertheless conscious of the proper ways to walk, sit, and stand that they thought modest. The entire problem forced her to ask herself if there is anything inherently Christian or non-Christian in the way we dress in America.
Another problem with an uncertain answer is alcohol. Should a Christian drink? Does the level of society in which a Christian finds himself matter? I tend to think that something as obviously harmful as alcohol has been in many instances should automatically be avoided; and I admire men, such as the chairman of the board of a large U.S. corporation, that I know do not drink.
But what happens to this conviction when you go to France, as I did as a young boy, and see the leading deacon of an evangelical Protestant church going around a large ring of children at a Sunday School picnic pouring wine. Oh, I know that part of the reason he did it was to prevent their getting sick on the water in a rural area, but the main point is his attitude toward alcohol. This was obviously quite different in France, even among people who believed all that the most conservative Christians believe about the gospel in America. Comparisons such as this defeat any approach to the problem through rules and regulations. And any such comparison throws the student back once more upon the principles of Scripture.
What are they? I should like to suggest three great principles that will at least help any Christian in 99 percent of his difficulties. All of these are found throughout Scripture, but they are summarized in three important verses. They are: Romans 6:14; 1 Corinthians 6:12 (also 10:23); and Philippians 4:8. They tell you that you are to live as you have been saved by grace; that you are to think first, last, and always of others; and that you are to pursue the highest things.
The first principle is that you are not under law; you are under grace. The text is Romans 6:14: "For sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law but under grace." This verse teaches that whatever the answer may be to the problems with doubtful things, it will not come as a result of regulation. That is, the way will never be found by organizing any body of Christians to declare whether or not movies, cigarettes, alcohol, cards, the Masons, war, or whatever it may be, is proper.
Historically, this problem was fought to a decisive conclusion in the first generation of the Church. You must remember that because of the wide dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman world in the centuries before Christ there was hardly a congregation of believers during the first Christian century that did not consist of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, even in the most Gentile cities of the empire.
Somehow, probably because of their own religious and social training, the Jewish Christians got the idea that the Gentile believers should submit to the ceremonial laws of Israel, and the result was a tremendous battle. For a time the apostle Paul fought almost single-handedly against them. For a time even Peter was carried away with the error, but Paul resisted him (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul later defended the case for Gentile (and Jewish) liberty before the other apostles in Jerusalem. On this occasion Peter sided with Paul and said, "Now, therefore, why put God to the test, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they" (Acts 15:10-11). In the early Church the battle against legalism was won for pure grace.
It is also true, however, that the same verse that speaks against a solution by means of rules also speaks against another error that is also a wrong approach to the problem. This error is the error of license, the teaching that because you are not under law but under grace you can therefore go on doing as you please. That is, "Let us sin that grace may abound." This error pretends to be logical, but it is not. It is infernal. And Paul does not hesitate to say so. The very next verse says, "What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid!" (Romans 6:15). He adds, "But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life" (verse 22).
Paul's argument is that life by grace actually leads to holiness and, hence, you should not fear to abolish rules as an answer to the problems of Christian conduct. The way it works may be illustrated by two types of marriage. There is the type of marriage that is founded on law. In this marriage the wife says something like this, "Now I know that you are going off to that office party tonight, and I know that dozens of those young secretaries will be there. Don't you dare look at any of them. Because if you do and I hear about it, I'll really lay into you when you get home. And be back by ten thirty." Well, if the wife says that, the husband is likely to go off saying to himself, "So that's what she wants, is it? Well, I'll just stay out as long as I please and do as I please." And there will be no end to the friction. Legalism does not promote happiness or fidelity in marriage.
The other type of marriage is one in which there is love rather than law. Each partner knows the faults of the other, but they know that they love each other anyway and have forgiven the faults in advance. Are they happy? Certainly they are happy. And they are faithful in the relationship. In a similar way, the grace of God never makes rebels; it makes us men and women who love God and desire to please Him.
The second principle for determining God's will in doubtful matters is that although all things are permissible for the Christian — because he is not under law but under grace — yet all things are not helpful and should therefore be avoided. This is true for two reasons: first, because the thing itself may gain a harmful control over him and, second, because through him it may hurt other Christians.
The first reason is given in 1 Corinthians 6:12: "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." Paul knew that God had not set him free from sin and from the law in order for him to become captive to mere things.
The guiding principle here is whether you as a Christian are using things or whether things are using you. Take food for an example. Nothing can be as obviously good for a person as food; it is necessary for bodily strength as well as mental health. But it is possible for a person to become so addicted to overeating that the good end is thwarted and the person's health is endangered. Hence, certain eating habits should be avoided (verse 13). The second of Paul's examples is sex (verses 13-20). This too is good. It is a gift of God. Within the bonds of marriage it is a force for strength in the home as well as an expression of close union. But it too can be destructive. It can control the person instead of the person controlling it. In this form sex can destroy the very values it was created to maintain. The Bible teaches that the Christian must never use things — food, sex, drugs, alcohol, cars, homes, stocks, or whatever it may be — in such a way that he actually falls under their power. In some of these cases, such as the case of habit-forming drugs, I would think that 1 Corinthians 6:12 is an unequivocal warning to avoid them.
Later on in 1 Corinthians Paul gives another reason why all things are not helpful: the freedom of one believer may hurt the spiritual growth of another. Here Paul says, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not" (1 Corinthians 10:23). The verses that follow show that he is thinking of the well-being and growth of fellow Christians.
I do not believe that this verse means that you are going to have to take your standards of conduct entirely from what other Christians say or think. If you do that, you are either going to become hypocritical, schizophrenic, or mad. Miss Ethel Barrett, who is well known for her Bible-story work among children, tells of her early experiences with matters of dress as she first began to travel about the country. Originally she came from California, and her standards of dress were formed by the climate and style of California. Hence her clothes were bright, and she wore a good bit of make-up and large hats. When she came east and began to work there she soon met some for whom her standards of dress were unspiritual. They said, "Why is she dressing like that? That is no way for a Christian to dress." Well, she was young herself in those days, and she took it to heart. She changed her clothes; she stopped wearing make-up. It was not long, however, before some new remarks got back to her: "Why does she have to look so drab and unpleasant? She would have a much more effective and spiritual ministry if she would brighten herself up a bit." Ethel Barrett learned through the experience that you cannot take all of your standards of conduct from other Christians, and she was right. The verse does not mean that you are to allow the prejudices and viewpoints of others to dictate your pattern of behavior.
Still the verse does mean something. For it says that there are situations in which we must avoid certain things, even if they are right in themselves, lest they be detrimental to others. Let me give you an example. Suppose you have been witnessing to a young man who has been having a hard time overcoming a disposition to sexual sins. He has become a Christian, but the lure of the flesh is still with him. Well, this verse means that you had better not take him to see X rated movies. What is more, you had best not go yourself, for he may be harmed by your freedom. In the same way, we are not to serve alcohol to a Christian for whom it is a serious problem; and for his sake, if necessary, we are to avoid it also.
Moreover, we are to be consistent in our abstinence, for we must not appear double-faced or hypocritical. And we must sometimes be consistent over a long period of time. Paul wrote, "Wherefore, if food make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend" (1 Corinthians 8:13). Just think: "While the world standeth!" This from the same apostle who defended the cause of Christian liberty successfully before the Jerusalem apostles! We must remember that it will be costly if we are to be careful of the effect of our conduct upon others.
The final principle of the three that I think best helps to direct our conduct in doubtful areas is Philippians 4:8 — "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." According to this verse the Christian is to decide between doubtful things by choosing the best. This does not exclude the best things in our society, whether explicitly Christian or not, for the meat of the verse lies in the fact (not always noticed by commentators and Bible teachers) that the virtues mentioned here are pagan virtues. These words do not occur in the great lists of Christian virtues, lists that include love, joy, peace, long-suffering, and so on. On the whole they are taken from Greek ethics and from the writings of the Greek philosophers. Hence, in using these words Paul is actually sanctifying, as it were, the generally accepted virtues of pagan morality. He is saying that although the pursuit of the best things by Christians will necessarily mean the pursuit of fellowship with God, pursuit of the will of God, pursuit of all means to advance the claims of the gospel, and other spiritual things also, it will not mean the exclusion of the best values that the world has to offer. The things that are acknowledged to be honorable by the best men everywhere are also worthy to be cultivated by Christians. Consequently a Christian can love all that is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, wherever he finds it. He can rejoice in the best of art and good literature. He can thrill to great music. He can thrive on beautiful architecture. He can thank God as a Christian for giving men the ability even in their fallen state to create such beauty.
Moreover, as you use this principle for determining God's will in doubtful things, you can also take confidence from the promise of God's presence that accompanies it. Paul often wrote parenthetically in his letters, and he does so here also. The result is that the first half of verse nine partially distorts the meaning of the sentence. The first half says, "Those things which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do" (Philippians 4:9). And as the verse stands you would tend to think that the promise of God's presence is attached to it. Actually, it is attached to verse eight, and the promise is: "Whatever things are honest, just, pure, and lovely, think on these things...and the God of peace shall be with you."
When you pursue the highest things in life, both spiritually and secularly, then the God of peace will be with you. And you shall have the confidence that He will bless and guide you as you seek to please Him.
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