How to deal with human traditions and matters of opinion, and keep them in proper perspective when it comes to matters of the Christian faith, has always been a challenge for the children of God. In writing to the “ekklesia” in Corinth, the Apostle Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (I Corinthians 6:12, NASB). Again he told them, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (I Corinthians 10:23, NASB).
In stating that “all things are lawful,” Paul is not endorsing or permitting those things that are specifically and explicitly condemned in scripture – such as: “…immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Ephesians 5:19-21, NASB)
Nor is the Apostle Paul giving people license to set aside and not practice those things specifically and explicitly taught in scripture – such as: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12, NASB), or “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38, NASB), or be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, NASB).
Far from permitting what is explicitly condemned, or setting aside what has been specifically commanded, when the Apostle Paul says, “All things are lawful,” he is referring to that vast area of human endeavor that falls within the scope of human judgment and opinion. He is speaking with regard to the “ekklesia” determining what is relevant and expedient as we seek to live our lives to God’s glory day-by-day and carry out the work, the mission, and the ministry to which Christ has called us.
Because we do not want to become a catalyst for further division [denominationalism] within the body of Christ, and because we do not want to “bind” where God has not “bound” by pushing our personal opinions on others and holding them accountable to our own expectations as though they were the will of God, we need to give serious consideration to some concepts presented in scripture concerning the area of human opinion, cultural relevancy, and our use of Christian liberty. The Apostle Paul said:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. 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. 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. (Romans 14:1-4, NASB)
The Apostle Paul also shared this concept with the “ekklesia” living in Corinth as he described for them how he conducted his own daily life and ministry in various cultural settings, saying:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. (I Corinthians 9:19-22, NASB)
Paul did not sit up on his “high horse” judging and condemning people because they did not look, act, or think like him. He did not insist that everybody come around to his personal way of thinking before he could have fellowship with them. Instead, because he knew that “all things are lawful,” Paul exercised his freedom in Christ to get out of himself and his own world and into the hearts and lives of others. To the greatest extent possible, without violating his allegiance to Christ, he became like those people he sought to reach and teach. He utilized “all means” available to him in his effort to “save some.”
These Biblical concepts encompass the very epitome of the freedom of the New Covenant. While some people take the position that “whatever is not specifically commanded in the New Testament is strictly forbidden”—often erring in the area of “binding” where God, through His inspired word, has not bound—others take the position that “whatever is not specifically forbidden in the New Testament is permitted”—often erring in the area of “loosing” where God, through His inspired word, has not loosed. Both of these positions originate in the mind of man, are fraught with inconsistency, and fall short of what the scriptures actually teach.
The main reason these types of philosophies fail us is because both positions are entirely legalistic—they move the discussion out of the realm of faith and into the arena of law. In other words, both positions stem from the mindset of looking at the New Testament as though it were a book of law—much the way the Old Testament children of Israel might look at the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Many people don’t seem to comprehend the fact that, unlike the Ten Commandments—which were engraved on tablets of stone—and all the rest of the Law of Moses—contained in the written scrolls of antiquity—the terms of the New Covenant are written on our hearts and in our minds. Remember, God said, concerning the New Covenant in Christ, “I will put My laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them” (Hebrews 10:16, NASB).
God’s holy and inspired written word—the Bible and in particular, the New Testament—is certainly essential to that process. In fact, we are told, “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (I Peter 2:2, NASB). However, the gospels, the histories, the letters, and the prophecies that comprise our New Testament in no way read like a book of law; and to treat them that way leads only to what Jesus warned His disciples about when He said, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6, NASB). Like the people of Jesus’ day who were spiritually enslaved to the Pharisees, treating the New Testament as though it were a book of law places us in the precarious position of being controlled by the would be “scholars” and alleged “theologians” of our day; many of whom far too gleefully and voraciously adhere to that role.
Taking a rather “legalistic” view of God’s written word and Christianity in general, the modern-day Pharisees—religious leaders—of our day love to argue and debate over what they believe is “authorized” in scripture. This kind of legalism reduces the teachings of the New Testament to “the letter of the law,” rather than elevating them to “matters of the heart.” It takes love for God and for others completely out of the picture when it comes to making decisions about how we will chose to live our lives.
Does the new covenant child of God really need a “thus sayeth the Lord”—with book, chapter, and verse—to “authorize” absolutely everything we say and do; and, if there is no specific command or example, are we, then, prohibited from doing it? If so, then a lot of “churches” are in trouble because they have incorporated themselves, established business accounts, purchased property, built buildings, incorporated mechanical instruments of music in worship, appointed worship directors, song leaders, church secretaries, and a host of other “ministerial staff,” and have established orphanages, hospitals, and schools, all while engaging in a plethora of “ministry” activities that were unheard of in Bible days.
By the same token, does the new covenant child of God really need a specific prohibition spelled out in the “letter of the law” to know that something is not pleasing to God and that they shouldn’t engage in some possibly destructive activity? Because there is no specific command prohibiting some activity, does that mean one should feel free to participate in it even if, by doing so, we take advantage of others or hurt them in some way? We can all probably think of many examples wherein these kinds of legalistic “rules” appear absurd.
Is not my heart, when surrendered to the will of God, sufficient to convict me with regard to these and all other spiritual matters? God thinks that it is, for the Bible says:
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16, NASB)
We must be very careful with this concept, however, because it is, after all, our hearts that God is after. The scripture makes it clear that, even if something does, indeed, fall under the category of “all things are lawful”—belonging to the realm of human opinion—if I believe in my heart that it is sinful then, for me, it is sinful. The Apostle Paul says:
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 … It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14 & 21-23, NASB)
The concept that “whatever is not from faith is sin” is an incredible truth. On the one hand, if I consider something to be a sin, or even if I simply “doubt” that it has God’s approval, and yet I choose to engage in the activity anyway, what does that say about the condition of my heart; am I not, internally if not outwardly, walking in rebellion against God? On the other hand, James says, “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17, NASB). So again, if I refuse to do what I believe the Lord wants me to do, am I not, internally, walking in rebellion? It matters not whether the issue is specifically addressed in the written word of God because it is my heart that convicts me; and it is my heart with which my Lord is most concerned.
From my heart to yours,
~ Philip ~