Friday, August 28, 2009

Setting Christian standards

"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

(1 Cor. 10:23, 24)

I have to limit time spent on Christian forums, because I find it easy to become upset and act self-righteous. I have been surprised in the past that even among members of the same congregation, opinions may vary greatly as to proper conduct in certain situations.

It has been a dilemma for me to face questions that I was sure I had figured out, only to realize that not all Christians share the same view. It is hard for me to accept that God convicts different people in different ways. But I believe He does, because He's an attentive God who knows our individual experiences and what we need personally. +/-

It is great when we are in tune enough to the Holy Spirit to receive His instructions for us specifically. But what about when you get four-five Christians together who all believe they have heard from God about something? Maybe they have, but God also has a message about how to respond to brothers and sisters, and those instructions are no less important. For example, Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

The question of alcohol is an obvious application. You know what I drink, or not to drink? And if so, in what situations? And if you decide to think about others around you, what if there are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics present? Or someone whose relative or friend was killed by a drunk driver? Or if you never drink, how should you respond to the older and wiser person next to you who happens to be having a glass of wine? Or someone from another culture who has never thought twice about it because it has never been a problem?

Our pastor made a point recently that a brother who seems adamant about enforcing restrictions might be struggling with a weakness or sensitivity. "How can you watch that?" this person asks, as though you are doing something wrong. But you feel no guilt about the movie you are watching. In fact, it is he who is struggling with something in his heart, and the movie brings up those issues for him.

Romans 14 has a good discussion of this. 1Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.

If someone you know seems to be too uptight about something, maybe he knows something you don't, and you should consider what he is saying. Or maybe it's an area of weakness, and you should protect him, as his brother.

It goes the other way, too. If it seems like everyone around you is living too loosely and you really think they should be throwing out their television sets or unholy literature or whatever, you could be right. Maybe the others just haven't gotten the message yet. Or maybe God has just made you sensitive to this one thing for some reason, because He wants to use this weakness in your life. And by "weakness" I don't necessarily mean temptation to sin, but a certain conflict where others feel at peace. You will have to decide how to protect your convictions in a way that is non-judgmental towards your brothers and sisters.

To get back to the Corinthians excerpt from the beginning, I think there has to be a distinction between legalism and caution.

I see legalism as the misconception that salvation can be earned by following a set of rules. Well, that's the way it used to be. Not anymore.

However, setting guidelines to protect ourselves from sin is not a bad idea, as long as we realize that we are never really free from the temptation of sin, no matter how many rules we make.

When I see a group of people who all follow a particular rule (like women wearing dresses/skirts all the time), I don't automatically assume it's legalism. Of course, it could be that. But it's also likely that a few people felt that it would be more edifying this way, and the others decided to submit to that conviction.

Our circle of submission with regard to personal convictions might not extend to our entire congregation. Maybe it's within our family or group of families. Maybe it's a missions team we are serving on. It could be for a season; it could be for life.


  1. Yeah, when I was a younger Christian, things were more black and white. I remember talking to the campus director for IV once when he was describing his own transition to more maturity. He said that one of the things he really struggled with the longer he was a believer was that there were more shades of gray than he was comfortable with. It was learning to be okay with ambiguity when you really couldn't be certain of the rightness of something.

    But there's a kind of peace in it too: know what is truly at the core of Christian faith, and learn to err on the side of grace on everything else. There's an enormous amount of cultural baggage that we all carry, which we think is core to Christianity, but actually isn't. Sometimes I find myself repeating the mantra that I was taught on one of my first short-term mission trips: it's not wrong, it's just different.

  2. What a great essay! We are in the midst of merging two very different parishes. One is being reverted to its original chief mission - a university student center. It had become the "liberal" parish whereas our parish had become the "conservative" parish. I see a lot of unhappiness and uneasiness...and I feel it myself. But one thing I also see is that people have a hard time clarifying what is doctrine, what is a moral issue, what is tradition (with a small "t") and what is merely a different custom.

    For example, where do you put changing the words of the Creed? Or kneeling during certain parts of the Mass? Or accepting homosexuality as a "lifestyle"? Or wearing shorts to church? Or understanding that abortion is sometimes "necessary"? Or not worrying about coming in late to Mass? Or singing "pop" music during worship? All of these things are a jumble to people. I notice that sometimes it is the things I would consider just custom that get people most riled up. For example, we have a few women in our "conservative" end of the city who wear chapel veils. Now this is nothing I'd ever do; I just think that as you say - they are convicted differently. But, you hear some of the people from the "liberal" end talking about this as though it were blatantly sinful and a true scandal. It will take a while for it all to even out.

  3. <preachy>
    If you go back and read 2 chapters earlier you would find Paul talking about eating food sacrificed to Idols. And how for one person eating it would be fine in the eyes of God and in them self, but for another it would be down right sin.
    This passage has always clung to me, because of my post modern upbringing. I will say it, sin is relative. (in my humble opinion)
    So that opens up a huge amount of argument about what sins are. I as you may know am a brewer. For some that would be sinful, for me to push it on those it people it would be sinful.
    So how do we define 'sins' in this relativity of life. Well As far asaI can see we have 2 base lines for it.
    Love God with all your heart and mind. And love your neighbor as your self.
    On top of that we have the example of X. Who clearly did not fit in the pharisees views of "SIN"
    So what I see it coming down to is this.
    Are my actions/thoughts motivated in Love (worshiping/honoring/fearing) of God. Are they done for my fellow man. Or are they done purely for me and my situation.

  4. Reveilles/Rachel, I think you are right that accepting gray areas is a part of maturity, as well as realizing that biblical standards and cultural norms are not one and the same...without letting go of the "core" of Christian faith, of course.

    Annie, where do YOU draw the line between doctrine and the lesser "lifestyle" decisions? I would honestly put clothing and music choices in a different category than abortion and homosexuality. Even as I write that, I realize that someone might disagree with me. But there are definitely issues that would make me leave a church, as opposed to the ones I was referring to in my original post, which are more related to personal revelation and not church-wide doctrine.

    Josh, I understand what you're saying about the greatest commandments, but I would disagree that sin is "relative." While love should be the baseline, I think there are more specific examples in Scripture about proper behavior. There is not a LOT of room for interpretation, but there is some. The world would be a different place if Christians actually kept those two "love" commandments. People often do things that they think are spiritual, while neglecting their neighbor. Or they seek to help people, while neglecting their relationship with God. Okay, I'm getting off topic, but you got me thinking.


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