If God has not specifically addressed a behavior, custom, or activity, it is an area of freedom for believers. In such areas, we must not manipulate biblical data to suggest that God has explicitly spoken if he has not. Instead, each Christian is free and responsible to establish his own conviction in areas of freedom. When a fellow-believer chooses to restrict himself in areas of freedom, others are not permitted to ridicule or look down on him. According to Romans 14:3, believers must not condemn those who do not share their opinions on debatable matters. (Note: For those under authority, sometimes “house-rules” cover behaviors belonging to the category of debatable matters. Children, for example, must obey their parents rules even on debatable matters. College students must abide by the rules of their institution even if such rules are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Yet such standards should be distinguished from explicit commands of God).
Some Christians feel uncomfortable with the fact that certain behaviors and activities are “permitted or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.” Desiring simplicity and security, they want everything to be understood as clearly commanded or clearly forbidden. They want everything to be labeled as right or wrong. If God has not specifically defined matters, these people will sometimes put an interpretive twist on a more general command to turn the debatable matter into a matter of right or wrong.
Some Christians mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain unity in the church is to offer detailed legislation on each debatable issues. This is artificial unity which ultimately ends up destroying the influence of a church.
Dr. Gary Friessen offers helpful insight on this subject. “Part of God’s design for the Church is that it should successfully manifest unity in diversity. It was His intent that people with divergent personalities, nationalities, gifts, abilities, tastes, and backgrounds should become unified in Christ without sacrificing personal distinctiveness (I Corinthians 12:12-27; Colossians 3:11).”
“Accordingly, God does not view differences of opinion in the area of freedom as a bad thing. The inevitability of such variance of thought is not seen as a flaw in an otherwise beautiful plan. It rather represents one more situation in which the supernatural character of the Church, and its observable distinctiveness as a living organism, may be manifested before the world (John 13:35; 17:20-21).”
“What God desires, then, is not uniformity of opinion but unity of relationship (Romans 15:5-7). And so, instead of trying to eliminate divergence of opinion, the Holy Spirit has given specific instructions to guide our response to it.” (See: Ephesians 4:3 and https://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/03/06/resolving-conflicts-two-principles/ ).
Avoiding Extreme Responses:
“On the one hand, there is the Christian who relishes his freedom and appreciates his direct accountability to God. He basically ignores the opinions of others, and lets the chips fall where they may. If others get offended by his enjoyment of Christian liberty, that’s their problem.”
“The other extreme is represented by the sensitive saint who values his position in the Body of Christ. Recognizing his accountability to the other members of the Body, he bends over backwards to keep from violating anyone’s convictions. If he bends over far enough for long enough, he eventually discovers that he cannot move at all. Most Christians recognize instinctively that neither of these two extremes is appropriate. We cannot ignore our differences; neither can we be immobilized by them.” (Dr. Friessen)
For the sake of the gospel, we must take the more challenging path and relate to one another harmoniously-with our differences. We must refuse to act as judges in less defined areas. Jesus also taught his followers to be slow to take offense and always ready for reconciliation. I
n areas of freedom, we need to respect each other and honor the efforts others make to establish their own godliness. We must not try to force believers to conform to our standards, but work together to do all things to the glory of God.
It should also be acknowledged that many churches are not doing too well abiding by the list of clear matters in Scripture. Here are the two extremes: When we treat our personal convictions as absolutes from God, we threaten the unity of the Church. When we reduce God’s clearly stated absolutes to matters of personal preference, we threaten the purity of the Church.
Using Romans 14 & 15 as a guide, Dr. Friessen suggests five points for:
Decision Making When Christians Differ
- Learn to distinguish between matters of command and matters of freedom (14:14,20).
- On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions (14:5).
- Allow your brother the freedom to determine his own convictions – even when they differ from yours (14:1-12).
- Let your liberty be limited, when necessary, by love (14:13-15:2).
- Follow Christ as the model and motivation of servanthood (15:3-13).