One of the hardest parts of living an authentic and transparent life of following Christ is living within community. It sometimes seems like we are in a catch-22 when it comes to living with other Christians. We have liberty in Christ but can’t use that liberty for fear of offending someone or putting a foot wrong. Authentic Christian discipleship can very, very quickly devolve into Christian legalism and fear-mongering if we are not careful.
So how much responsibility do we bear for other people’s walk with God? And how do we live in a community of Christians where everyone has different comfort levels with particular practices that aren’t necessarily sin but could delve into sin? I think that this discussion, at least as much as any other if not more, is the most difficult part of having a truly biblical family of fellow believers in Christ around us.
To get the context for this discussion, you really need to read part 1 and part 2 of this series before reading this post. You must understand the brouhaha that sparked this discussion, and especially our individual responsibility for our own holiness before God, to understand how the last part of this puzzle fits together.
Probably the most significant biblical texts dealing with the issue of my responsibility toward others are found in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 and Romans 14:1-18. While other texts might speak to the issue obliquely, Paul gets right to the heart of the matter of matters of conscience in these texts. There is no better place to start a discussion of our responsibility for others in a biblical sense.
I think that this issue might have been such a big deal to Paul for a couple of reasons. First I think his background made this issue large. He started life as Saul the Pharisee, the king of legalism! (Acts 22:3; Galatians 1:14) He knew how to put a fence around the law, which was a very Jewish practice. (see this explanation from a Jewish source) Also, his congregations seem to be made up of diverse groups of Jews and Gentiles, young and old, slave and free. These differences would be magnified in the church and would cause division and dissension then just like they do now! So Paul addresses this issue in a very straightforward way.
23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.
24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.
25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake;
26 FOR THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S, AND ALL IT CONTAINS.
27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake.
28 But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake;
29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?
30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?
31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God;
33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.
Paul’s overriding ethic in 1 Cor 10 is concern for others. In verse 23 he is clear that in issues of conscience he is open to others’ needs, in that nothing by itself is unclean. The particular issue in Corinth was meat, particularly the truth that some meat sold in the meat market was from animals that were sacrificed in the pagan temples of Corinth. No doubt some of the believers there were bothered by that idolatry and therefore avoided that meat. In verse 28 Paul says that he abstains when he knows there is someone with him who it would bother. This isn’t for his own conscience (verse 30), but for the sake of others (verse 29).
The other side of the coin is also presented here. In verse 27 Paul does not cause offense with his conscience to others either! If an unbeliever offers him meat sacrificed to idols unknowingly, he realizes that it is not a spiritual issue (verses 25 and 26) and partakes with thankfulness. It would have been a grave insult to turn down a host’s offering, so Paul does not make a big deal of it. He makes the important issues important (like thankfulness to God and the ability of his friends to live holy lives according to their own consciences) rather than the unimportant issues (like meat). He restrains his own desires for their benefit!
Note the significant issue though: this sword cuts both ways. Even if it bothers him that he could have a leg of lamb because it is clean, still if it bothers his host he will abstain. Likewise he may be a little concerned about the source of the roast beast before him, but if his host offers it he will gratefully accept it. This is NOT a one-way deal! Instead, Paul thinks of others before himself. This is the same ethic that he prescribes for believers in Romans 14:1-23:
1 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.
2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.
3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.
4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself;
8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
11 For it is written,
“AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME,
AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.”
12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
15 For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.
16 Therefore ado not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil;
17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
19 So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.
20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.
21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.
22 The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.
23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
This is a long passage but the basic message is pretty clear. First we must be firmly convinced in our own mind as to what is acceptable to ourselves in matters of conscience and what is not. Whether we decide that a matter of conscience is acceptable or not for our own lives is an issue between us and God.
That said, we also have a responsibility for others in this arena. Verse 3 is the key! When our conscience is weaker than someone else’s, we must not judge them for participating. Likewise, if our conscience allows something that a friend’s conscience does not then we must not treat them with contempt for their more sensitive conscience. Rather, Paul explains in verses 15-21, it is better to love them and restrain ourselves in their presence so as not to tear them down.
It’s important to see these issues in real life, so let’s consider a couple of situations. I know some people who love the Harry Potter books, and others who believe that they are a gateway to ungodliness and witchcraft. First Paul says that each must be firmly convinced that what they are doing (or not doing) is right before God. Then he says that the one who is a fan mustn’t look down their nose at the one who is a muggle. The one who doesn’t like the books mustn’t pass judgment on the fan, either.
This same ethic applies to all types of matters of conscience. Just a few of the more common ones include:
- Alcohol consumption
- Entertainment choices (movies, TV, books, etc. that are not overtly sinful)
- Choice of occupation
- Clothing preferences
- Smoking (yes, smoking…it won’t send you to hell I promise, though it may make you smell like you’ve been there), though this one is more complicated by the nicotine addiction factor
So what’s the bottom line? My responsibility is to live a holy life before God first and foremost. In matters of conscience I first and foremost have to check my heart and make sure that whatever I do I feel good about before Christ. Then I must check my own liberty around others to make sure that I am taking every reasonable precaution to keep from putting stumbling blocks in their way. Some of the ways that I find myself on both sides of this issue:
- I have a very sensitive conscience when it comes to sexual purity. I get defiled easily! I can’t watch movies with ANY nudity in them, so I avoid them. I have friends with no such compunction, though, so we agree not to see those movies when we go together. And when they go without me I do not stand in judgment over them. They stand before Christ, and just because I couldn’t do it doesn’t mean they can’t!
- I have a very strong conscience when it comes to violence. I love martial arts and am quite a gun nut. I love firearms! However, this is a touchy subject so it is one I am usually quiet about around other Christians. I don’t want them to stumble, so I don’t share too much before I know that their conscience can handle it. And for those bothered by firearms I work very hard to allow them to live out their conscience.
- With alcohol I am middle of the road. I come from a family that struggles with alcohol so I have to watch my consumption, but I enjoy a glass of wine every so often. However, I know a lot of people struggle with this and have more than a few friends who have battled alcoholism. Needless to say I don’t drink around them! Likewise I don’t talk about alcohol with them either, because it might be too much for them to bear.
- In the fantasy book genre our home is divided. I am a huge fan of Robert Jordan, Tolkien, David Eddings, and other writers of fantasy. My kids love the books too! Laura, though, has a harder time with it. So in our home she gets to set the standard. If she is okay with a book then it can stay, and we all agree to respect one another’s consciences. (see this post on Halloween for another issue we have worked through)
I would encourage you to look through Paul’s lens on matters of conscience with respect to others. Realize that you have liberty if your conscience allows but a responsibility to respect the weaker consciences of those around you. Life is filled with give and take, so make sure that you’re willing to give for their sakes and be ready to make requests to take for yours. If we do that in love with one another, looking out for each other without judgment or condemnation, then we will have the Christian community that makes a HUGE impact on our world.
Ladies, allow me to boil this down a little farther for you. There are a few issues that are major, up-front issues in our society, including sex. You’re not as visual as men for the most part, so know that and know that they are. The way you dress is very hard for our weaker consciences to handle. So when in doubt, please do us a favor and be cautious. (this brings us full circle to the Facebook bra color thing…) Likewise, fellas, the ladies need us to choose not to ride roughshod over their consciences when they are offended.