I am a 25 year-old Calvinist. Which means, most people in Christian circles would categorize “young, restless, and reformed.” Unfortunately, outwardly speaking, I confirm all of the stereotypes one might have about a 25 year-old Calvinist: I do wear cuffed skinny-ish jeans most of the time, I do have tattoos, I do have 50s-style thick-rimmed glasses. Although, I don’t have a massive, neatly groomed beard, so at least I can dodge that assumption (however, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit to you that my absence of a face mane is not owing to any intentional nonconformity to stereotypes; in God’s providence, he has chosen to allow nature to kiss my face with… shall we say… low maintenance). In light of all of this, you could safely assume that I’ve had my fair share of conversations on the topic of Christian liberty.
In my estimation, most of the time, conversations surrounding Christian liberty totally have the wrong tone. They are often marked by a cavalier attitude in which Christians who engage in “racy” activity pride themselves in being “the stronger brother.” To be fair, such individuals are often on to some seriously profound stuff when it comes to the conceptual foundation of their arguments. It is true that all art is irreducibly a reflection of God’s art, and therefore all legitimate art is—in principle, albeit not always in practice—“redeemable” (and by “legitimate” art, I mean art that is not intrinsically sinful like pornography). It is true that God’s earth is good, and we should be able to enjoy the things of earth without blushing about it: tattoos aren’t intrinsically wicked, tobacco isn’t intrinsically wicked, entertainment and food and leisure and music are not intrinsically wicked. And strictly speaking, there is something truly beautiful about Christians refusing to allow the world to have all the fun with God’s creation—non-Christians aren’t even doing it right for goodness’ sake!
So yes, as a whole, Christians should reclaim everything they can for God’s glory; they should not be content, for example, with letting the world continue to set the tone for what constitutes as “good sex”—the world’s version is a perverted and mangled version, and rather than “giving up ground” to the enemy, Christian husbands and wives should reclaim sex as theirs, since they know how to enjoy it properly (i.e., to God’s glory).
But if we’re being really frank here, this is not what many young, restless, reformed cats are after when they argue about “Christian liberty.” Many don’t binge-watch TV-MA Netflix series out of an effort to “find the redemptive arch,” they watch them because they are truly entertained by the wickedness therein. That’s not “Christian liberty.” Christian liberty is not the ability to be worldly without technically sinning. Christian liberty is the freedom to be selfless for the sake of the Church’s edification. Let me explain.
The two places in the New Testament that are most often referred to in discussions of Christian liberty are Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. For the sake of brevity, here is a selection of verses from Romans 14 that I think summarizes Paul’s main argument:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him (Rom. 14:1-3)… One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (v. 5-6)… Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother (v. 13)… For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died (v. 15)… So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble (v. 19-21).
We see a couple of things from this passage. First of all, Paul does seem to think that one perspective of food and drink is a mark of “strength” and the other perspective is a mark of “weakness.” He seems to imply that one Christian is right for thinking that this food or that drink isn’t intrinsically wicked. He also does give instructions to the “weak” brother about how he is to handle the “stronger” brother: he is told not to judge the Christian who can in good conscience enjoy the “morally neutral” things that he cannot enjoy in good conscience. This means that “weaker” brothers, who are perpetually hung up on secondary matters of Christian freedom, stand to be corrected at some point in their spiritual lives. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that Paul intends for “weaker” brothers to eventually become “stronger” (Col. 1:28-29). That much is true, and we have to reckon with it.
But all of these things are peripheral implications from this text. The majority of Paul’s instructions are given to the “stronger” brothers, who bear the greater burden of laying aside preferences for the sake of the Church’s edification. Paul is not concerned primarily with who is right and who is wrong in the “meat debate” (and we might well replace “meat” with “beer” or “tobacco” or “entertainment” or anything else), he is primarily concerned with the health of the Church! We see the exact same thing in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Paul’s “Christian freedom” wasn’t located in his ability to eat and drink whatever he wanted, regardless of what his brothers and sisters thought. Paul’s “Christian freedom” was in his ability to give up meat at the drop of a hat for the sake of his brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 8:13). Paul is saying that if insisting on practicing what you perceive to be a “Christian liberty” is causing a brother to stumble, you have the obligation to lay it aside, because refusing to do so is “destroying the work of God [i.e., a unified Church], for the sake of [enter “Christian liberty” here].”
Imagine this scenario: at a church picnic, one member brings a cigar and begins to smoke. Another member, who used to be a thoroughgoing chain-smoker, approaches the cigar-smoking member and rebukes him for turning the temple of the Lord into a chimney. Working with the rubric of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, we will probably characterize the cigar-smoking member as the “stronger” and the ex-chain-smoking member as the “weaker.” And we would be right to assume that, in the course of his discipleship, the ex-chain-smoker will eventually need to learn patience for those who don’t feel the same way towards tobacco as he does. However, if in this moment, the cigar-smoker responds with, “This is my Christian liberty, deal with it.” he has just proven that he is not in fact the “stronger” brother, but rather, he shows himself to be “using his freedom for an opportunity for the flesh.” (Gal. 5:13) If, as a Christian, he is truly free, he should have the liberty to say, “I’m not in bondage to this cigar. If it will serve your edification, brother, I’ll give them up for good.” And he should have the freedom to mean it!
It’s really as simple as that. Paul doesn’t split hairs over which “grey” areas should be avoided and which ones shouldn’t, because he’s really much more concerned about the principle of edification: he had a laser-like focus on building up the church, and he viewed everything through that grid. “Will this build up the Church, or tear her down? Will this benefit my brothers and sisters, or will it be an obstacle for them?” This is all over the New Testament. For example, we often fret over which words count as “corrupt speech” in light of Ephesians 4:29, but Paul tells us plainly by contrasting “corrupt speech” with “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Whatever does the opposite of “building up” is “corrupt speech.” The standard of what is right or wrong behavior when it comes to areas of “Christian liberty” is simple: that which builds up the body is right, and that which does not is wrong.
(As an aside, I would insist that we should probably employ a kind of “moral proximity” to this principle. In other words, your first responsibility is to the members of your church, and the responsibility diminishes to the degree that you extend out from there. If a cigar stumbles a member of my church, I should be willing to put away cigars forever. But if a cigar would stumble the member of some church halfway across the country, with whom I have little to no interaction, my day-to-day practices need not be affected too drastically.)
I think we could really stand to reorient our thinking when it comes to this whole question of Christian liberty. It is appropriate to ask, “Is this sin for me? Does this afflict my own conscience? Does this activity increase or decrease my affections for Jesus?” These are good and biblical questions to work through. But once they are answered, we should immediately ask, “Is this helpful for the Church? Are my own members edified by this, or does it afflict their conscience?” We’re not truly practicing Christian liberty if we don’t concern ourselves with the rest of the Body.