05 May 2012

Restrictive vs. Judgmental

In a previous post we saw that while Paul opposes legalism, he knows the consciences of some believers lead them to observe a more restricted lifestyle than others. It is the duty of other believers to not only respect them but also support them in their decisions.

However, though Paul encourages support for these "weaker brothers," the weaker brothers must be careful not to judge other believers who freely participate in the activities they avoid. So even when the weaker brother considers his own participation to be sinful, he is not to regard the participation of others in the same way.

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Rom. 14:3-4

This can be an incredibly difficult road to navigate. On the one hand, Paul tells us not to pass judgment on others; we should leave them alone and trust that God will judge them appropriately. On the other hand, Paul's letters are filled with instructions to avoid sin - sometimes rather strong instructions - and to correct, rebuke, and restore those who have fallen into sin.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you...But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 1 Cor. 6:1-2, 11-12

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Gal. 6:1

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 1 Tim. 5:20

Paul makes it clear we are to judge other believers in some circumstances though not in others. So when do we consider an action universally sinful and when is sin just an individual matter? Unfortunately, Scripture doesn't provide a set of explicit rules. Rather, application of Paul's teaching in Romans 14 requires wisdom and a desire to live in harmony with other believers.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer (1665)

We see in Scripture that some behaviors are universally forbidden: idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14; Gal. 5:20), sexual immorality (Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 6:18), adultery (Rom. 2:22; 13:9), homosexuality (1 Tim. 1:10), stealing (Eph. 4:28), gossip (2 Cor. 12:20), etc. These activities are addressed directly in Scripture and have been condemned by the church throughout her history. We should never suppose it's okay to participate in such behaviors in the name of Christian freedom (1 Pet. 2:16).

However, there are other issues which are not directly addressed by Scripture: church music, media consumption, prohibitions concerning alcohol and tobacco, homeschooling and public education, what constitutes modest dress, how much one should spend on a car, dating, yoga, mixed martial arts, etc. Believers hold varying opinions on these matters and we lack explicit direction from Scripture. However, we are given some guiding principles that assist us in thinking through such issues.

"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything. 1 Cor. 6:12

In context, Paul is quoting a common refrain that was being misused by the Corinthians: "All things are lawful for me." In retort, Paul is challenging their "freedom" by introducing the principles of helpfulness and freedom from domination. We should always be considering how helpful our actions are to ourselves and others, especially believers. Selfish indulgence becomes a red flag that should curb our "freedoms." Likewise, addictive behaviors that control us should be avoided. Does tobacco use control me? Can I miss an episode of a television show or football game without it controlling my thoughts?

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up...So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. 1 Cor. 10:23, 31-33

Again, Paul considers how our "freedoms" are helpful to others. Will they encourage and support other believers around us? If my actions give offense to those around me, it's better to forsake those freedoms for the benefit of others and the gospel. When faced with the choice of holding onto our freedoms or maintaining open fellowship with another believer, we should always prefer open fellowship which glorifies God and confirms that we are his disciples (Jn. 13:35).

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Phil. 4:8

We can also consider how participation in certain activities impacts our thinking. Do some movies or video games tend to make me more aggressive in my interactions with others? Is my faith strong enough to avoid being led astray by false worldviews found in a popular book? Does my thinking become less consistent with Scripture by taking in certain forms of entertainment?

We might find other passages in Scripture that channel our freedoms appropriately, but Paul is always explicit in maintaining freedom. He never imposes mandatory restrictions as he does with the first category of behaviors discussed above, but offers his own example as encouragement for more thoughtful response among believers. None of these guidelines give the weaker brother the right to condemn the actions of someone else. He cannot say, "Your actions are offending me; you must stop!" Instead Paul says, "let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats."

This can be difficult because in the mind of the weaker brother, he often has biblical justification for his position. You can't smoke cigarettes because "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you." (1 Cor. 6:19) You can't send your children to public schools because you must "bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." (Eph. 6:4) You can't watch certain movies because "I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless." (Ps. 101:3) It is often difficult for the weaker brother to view these things as disputable matters since they are "clearly taught in the Scriptures." However, these are actually personal applications of biblical principles upon which everyone may not agree.

When Paul expected some differences among the Philippians because of varying degrees of maturity, he offered this "concession":

Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Phil. 3:15

Paul did not find it necessary to bring everyone to complete agreement on every issue at the same time. He remembered that God continues to transform us all into Christ's likeness (Phil. 1:6). So while the mature should not become impatient with the weak, neither should the weak judge the mature. In charity, the extent to which we pass judgment should always be in keeping with the degree of clarity we all share from Scripture.

Related posts:
Restrictive vs. Legalistic