If God has not specifically addressed a behavior, custom, or activity, it is an area of freedom for believers (also known as a disputable or debatable matter, see: Romans 14:3). In areas of freedom, believers are responsible to make wise decisions based on more general principles of Scripture. Yet, in seeking the wisest course of action, believers must not manipulate biblical data to suggest that God has explicitly spoken in a way that is binding on all Christians. Instead, each Christian is free and responsible to establish his or her own conviction in areas not specifically addressed by Scripture.
When a fellow-believer chooses to restrict himself in areas of freedom, others are not permitted to ridicule or look down on him. But, according to Romans 14:3, the believer who restricts himself is not permitted to condemn those who do not share his opinions on debatable matters.
Exceptions: House rules or Rules of order
An exception to this standard applies to those under authority (children under parents, citizens under governors, and members of organizations or institutions). I call these exceptions “house-rules” or “rules of order.” They cover behaviors belonging to the category of debatable matters. Unless being ordered to do things that disobey God, those under authority are responsible to submit to the rules established. 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. Societies and governments sometimes establish rules of order in areas not specifically addressed in Scripture. Since believers must submit to governing authorities (unless they are being asked to disobey to God), we must obey the laws— even on debatable matters. But it is wise to distinguish these standards from explicit commands of God.
Uncomfortable with debatable matters:
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 spoken, these people will sometimes use Scripture out of context or put an interpretive twist on a more general command to make a debatable matter appear to be a matter of right or wrong.
Debatable matters and unity in the Church
Often these same people mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain unity in the church is to offer detailed legislation on each debatable issue. But this is artificial unity. It is not unity from the Holy Spirit and it ultimately damages the influence of a local Church.
“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.” (Gary Friessen, Decision Making and the Will of God). (See: Ephesians 4:3) (see also: Resolving Conflicts).
Abusing and Rejecting Freedom:
“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.” (Gary Friessen, Decision Making and the Will of God).
A call to humility and unity:
For the sake of the gospel, we must humble ourselves and take the more challenging path of relating to one another harmoniously–with our differences. In areas of freedom, we need to respect each other and honor the efforts others make to establish their own convictions. We must not try to force believers to conform to our standards, but work together to do all things to the glory of God.
We must refuse to act as judges in those areas that have not been clearly defined by Scripture. Jesus taught his followers to be slow to take offense and always ready for reconciliation.
Protect the purity and Unity of the Church:
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, 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).