Regulating Christian Liberty

Guinness BeerJust a few days ago, I had a good discussion with a friend of mine about drinking, smoking, dancing and other “worldliness.” I thought that any discussion among Christians regarding this should begin with a discussion of what we call “Christian liberty.” What follows here is my reflection on a series of posts written by Rev. Mike Brown of Christ United Reformed Church (Santee, California), “The Dangers and Delights of Christian Liberty.” As for an example of how Christian liberty is to be properly applied, I will use drinking wine.

We do not find every little thing about life in the Bible. Some things are forbidden, and some are commanded. If some things, called adiaphora (Greek for “things indifferent”) are not expressly forbidden or commanded, or unclear in Scripture, there is no basis for binding the Christian conscience to them. These are matters that have caused divisions in the church. Examples of things which we can bind the Christian conscience are the great doctrines of Scripture, such as the Trinity, creation, the moral law, original sin, substitutionary atonement by Christ, justification by faith alone, his return, and heaven and hell. No flexibility is allowed here.

What about the name of the church, who to endorse in a presidential election, what movies to watch and music to listen to, and what career to pursue? Can we or the church impose our own preferences on our brethren? In these matters, Scripture is silent, so we have flexibility. This is one of the principles Pastor Mike gathered concerning adiaphora:

The boundaries of our Christian liberty are really quite clear and easily distinguished. As Christians, we are bound to submit to Scripture, but where Scripture does not speak, we have liberty of conscience to exercise God-given wisdom and discernment. That is the principle that regulates our freedom.

Scripture regulates Christian doctrine, worship and practice.

Legalism and License
This is also the principle that guards the church against two extremes in matters concerning Christian liberty. One is called legalism, the foremost examples of which were the Pharisees, where believers add all kinds of prohibitions which are not found explicitly in Scripture. For example, to avoid drunkenness, which is prohibited, the legalist completely abstains from wine and all other alcoholic drinks. In addition, he also maintains this mindset in matters regarding movies, music, books, TV, etc. To be sure, there are things that we should avoid—movies that overindulge in sex, violence and foul language—but the legalist will often be inconsistent in his legalism, not letting his teen watch Wizards of Waverly Place because of magic, but reading the wicked fairy’s curse against Sleeping Beauty to his toddler.

The libertine, on the other hand, interprets adiaphora as a license to do as he pleases, as the Jews probably thought Paul was teaching (Rom 6:1, 15), and evangelicals today think we still teach. Christians are tempted to think that since God forgives, why not continue sinning? Some even think that a person can be a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17) without showing the fruits of regeneration, calling him an oxymoronic “carnal” Christian.

To be sure, Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). A Christian’s freedom is only in Christ and his word of truth. A libertine’s freedom in behavior must be tested with God’s word. In fact, Paul says that a Christian is not free. How? Because all people are slaves: those who sin are slaves of sin, and those who obey God are slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:16-18). Thus, Christian liberty is grounded only in being free to obey Christ.

Warnings against the Strong and the Weak
In discussing these matters in Chapters 14 and 15 of his epistle to the Romans, Paul opens his discussion in 14:1 by making clear that he is about to discuss how the strong and the weak in faith are to handle opinions, not doctrines, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” In these two chapters, Paul divides people in the church into two. The “strong” are those who in their conscience are not bound by Jewish food and ceremonial laws. But the “weak” are those who in their conscience cannot bear abrogating these laws.

From this strong-weak brethren relationship comes Paul’s first admonition regarding Christian liberty (Rom 14:1-12): the stronger brother must not despise or look down on the weaker, while the weaker brother must not pass judgment on the stronger. If a weaker brother does not enjoy—or deem permissible—drinking red wine, smoking cigars, or watching Lord of the Rings, the stronger brother must not despise him. On the other hand, the weaker brother must not judge the stronger as a sinner or a “liberal.”

In verses 13-23, Paul has a second admonition to the stronger brother: do not use your liberty to offend the weaker brother, to eat meat, drink wine, or “do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom 14:21). Knowing that nothing is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14), he exercises his liberty to eat or drink anything.

But Paul cautions him, “It is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats” (Rom 14:20; cf 1 Cor 8:13). So instead of scandalizing the weaker brother by openly indulging in what the latter considers as unclean or unbiblical, he must “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:19).

What then, should the stronger brethren always give in to the weaker brethren in these things? Surely, their patience towards the weaker brethren is required. Those who are stronger in the faith are duty-bound to keep the peace and build up the church by patiently teaching the weaker ones about our freedom in Christ, just as Paul rebuked Peter because Peter succumbed to the legalism of the Judaizers (Gal 2:11). And what was the result of this brotherly confrontation? Towards the end of his life, Peter called Paul “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet 3:15).

In the Philippines, drunkenness among men is a national problem. Walk around any neighborhood on any given night, especially in the Metro Manila area, and it will be easy to find groups of men around a table in front of sari-sari stores, drinking and eating (most likely dog meat) until the wee hours of the morning. It does not matter if they do not have money to spend on these things, or if they do not spend time with their families, but these men do this very regularly.

This is the main reason why in the Philippines, evangelicals loathe drinking (and smoking too). When they see anyone drinking, whether in private or public, they liken drinking with public drunkenness. So most evangelicals are offended when they see a brother drinking, or when they are offered a drink. Many are offended even by the use of wine in the Holy Communion.

Using Paul’s admonitions in Romans 14, what is a stronger brother to do? He knows that the Bible does not completely prohibit drinking wine. In fact, Psalm 104:15 (also Eccl 10:19) says wine “gladdens the heart of man,” and in 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul says that “a little wine” has some healthy benefits. Jesus himself made wine out of water during a wedding celebration (John 2:1-11). Proverbs 3:9-10 says that if we honor God for our material wealth, “then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” One of the blessings God bestows on a righteous man is plenty of wine.

Conversely, drunkenness because of drinking too much wine is forbidden. Proverbs 23:29-35 lists all the evils resulting from addiction to wine (see also Prov 20:1). Paul warns Christians, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (Eph 5:18). 1 Peter 4:3-4 has a very descriptive definition of what debauchery is: reckless, excessively indulgent, out-of-control living, “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” What pagans did 2,000 years ago, pagans still do today. Paul warns believers not even to associate themselves with those in the church who are drunkards (1 Cor 5:11), and that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9, 10).

Among most liberal and even Reformed churches, Martin Luther, John Calvin and other 16th century Reformers have become a role model of drunkenness. This is light-years from the truth. In his Table Talk, Luther wrote a condemnation of drunkenness:

It has been asked: Is an offence, committed in a moment of intoxication, therefore excusable? Most assuredly not; on the contrary, drunkenness aggravates the fault. Hidden sins unveil themselves when a man’s self-possession goes from him; that which the sober man keeps in his breast, the drunken man lets out at the lips. Astute people, when they want to ascertain a man’s true character, make him drunk. This same drunkenness is a grievous vice among us Germans, and should be heavily chastised by the temporal magistrate, since the fear of God will not suffice to keep the brawling guzzlers in check.

In a sermon on Titus 2:3-5, Calvin denounced drunkenness as “beastliness”:

True it is, that if men be stained with any such vice, they deserve well to be abhorred: for what else is drunkenness, but even a very beastliness, that defaces all reason and understanding in them that are created after the image of God? For we know there is no more honesty nor wit in a drunken man, than in an ass, or in a horse: no, truly he is much worse. For the beasts keep still their kind, but a man is utterly disfigured, and becomes a very monster. And therefore drunkenness is a shameful and detestable thing, as well in men as in women.

Paul specially mentions drunkards or those “addicted to much wine” as disqualified from the offices of elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:3, 8; Tit 1:7). What qualifies as being a drunkard? Is it only by getting drunk in regular drinking parties? Or is one a drunkard if he gets drunk occasionally at parties? Have you ever encountered a drunken man acknowledge that he is drunk?

All 50 states of the United States deem that a person has lost his faculties to drive safely when his blood alcohol content is 0.08 percent. Estimates vary regarding how much alcohol would have to be consumed to attain this level, but generally, a 120-pound person with an empty stomach, if he consumed three servings of alcohol in an hour (one serving can be a 12-ounce beer, a 4-0unce glass of wine, or a shot of hard liquor), would exceed this legal limit. According to Philippine statistics, the average Filipino male weighs only 128 pounds. For a 180-pound guy, four of the above servings in an hour would get him a DUI.

“To be addicted to” is a translation of a Greek verb which means “to occupy oneself with” or “to devote oneself to,” which means that Paul is saying that a drunkard is one who occupies or devotes himself to much wine. In Proverbs 23:29, a drunkard is one who “tarry long over wine,” which should then include those who join drinking parties into the wee hours of the morning, whether occasionally or regularly because of addiction. When this happens, wine takes precedence over everything else in his life, whether it is God, family, job or friends.

How then would church members react when they see that their ministers, elders or deacons are given to much wine, whether in public or private, in their homes or in night clubs? In the Philippines, they would be likened to noisy, uncontrollable, boisterous drunkards on nightly drinking orgies on street corners, carousing and carrying on into the wee hours of night.

This would lead to disunity in and disaffection with the church, eventually resulting in its destruction.

Christian liberty must be exercised according to principles from Scriptures:

Concerning things that are explicitly commanded or forbidden, there is no flexibility. Where Scripture is silent or is not clear, there is flexibility.

The stronger brother must not despise the weaker, while the weaker brother must not judge the stronger.

The stronger brother has a right to exercise his liberty, only taking care that the weaker will not stumble.

These principles will go a long way in promoting harmony and unity in the church.


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8 thoughts on “Regulating Christian Liberty”

  1. Hi Joel . . .Regarding your comments, I would say we need to make a few clarifications.  You stated that, “My problem with your statements is that, to me, they’re not balanced.”  The reason you give is that, “There is no acknowledgement of the abuse of the opposite extreme wherein folks become afraid to express their opinion for fear of being accused of ‘binding the conscience.'”  Were you under the impression that I was attempting to address every conceivable scenario?  My purpose in commenting on the above article has not been to provide an exhaustive treatment of this subject.  Rather, it has been to contribute what I believe are a few helpful reminders.  If you want a more comprehensive treatment of the subject, I recommend the programs pertaining to the Law available at  In your statement, “If an adult member of the church were to state that we cannot talk to him about Trinity or the Moral Law without every time having to go to the Scriptures and pointing out to him that these things are true then I believe that that person should be required to take the new members class again.”  If you had really attempted to read what I said reasonably carefully, I’m at a loss as to how you would have construed that I was suggesting that we need to cite chapter and verse every time we are certain that a given behavior or doctrine is sinful, and when we have a good way of bringing this to the attention of the person concerned.  It may or may not be necessary, depending on the situation.  We should, however, be prepared to show people that our view is unequivocally grounded in apostolic teaching, especially if they do not subscribe to the same confessions (or any at all).  Like you, I also have some anecdotal reasons for my comments.  In one unnamed Reformed church, one member basically told me that it was sinful to use anything other than wine for the Lord’s Supper, and I’m quite certain at least one other person who also attended basically told me the opposite–that it was sinful to use wine for the Lord’s Supper.  Now suppose a visitor who was new to Reformed theology heard comments like this.  I think you get my point.  Additionally, I know of several situations in which people who had gone through long, difficult struggles before they finally embraced Reformed theology, then began attending Reformed churches.  It wasn’t long, however, before an office-bearer of the church chastised them for their position regarding an extra-confessional issue.  Consequently, at least some of these people discontinued attending Reformed churches, and I find such accounts to be shameful to say the least.  And this kind of situation is not just limited to extra-confessional issues.  It could also apply to certain statements of confessions about which a church allows its members to have scruples, which incidentally many churches that use the Westminster Standards do.  As for widespread antinomianism in many evangelical churches, I certainly have not denied that, but that wasn’t my point to begin with.  Furthermore, please explain your statement, “the act of expressing an opinion strongly shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as ‘binding the conscience.'”  Are you suggesting I somehow implied that people who express strong opinions are necessarily equating their views with explicit apostolic teaching?  Finally, in a previous comment you stated that, “it is not the role of laymen to be ‘binding the conscience’ . . . this is the task of the officers in the church . . .”  Are you suggesting that those who are not office-bearers should never attempt to show another how that person may be in violation of apostolic teachings, which are of course binding?  Even though I am not an office-bearer, for example, if I can say with certainty, based on an explicit apostolic teaching, that my brother is sinning, is it not my duty–out of concern for him–to attempt to show him the error of his way?  And now, Joel, I ask that you provide me with direct answers to the questions I have posed to you, otherwise I’m afraid we’re going to have to end this discussion.

  2. Hi Joel…I suspect that you had not read my comment carefully, for if you had, you would have been able to discern that I have no disagreement with what Pastor Nollie said.  My purpose was to add that, as a reminder, we need to be very precise in describing who gets to define what is binding, whatever the issue.  This applies even in Reformed churches with highly knowledgable members, as I have sometimes seen people in such a context attempt to bind the consciences of others when they have no basis for doing so.  Do you think anyone is so knowledgable and sanctified in their Christian walk that they never need to be reminded of this danger?  I know I need to be reminded every now and then.  If you think this isn’t a problem in Reformed churches, just look at how even whole denominations, not just churches, are divided over even extra-confessional issues, such as whether we should use musical instruments or not, what Bible translation we should use, whether women should be allowed to vote in congregational meetings, etc.  Do these divisions not illustrate the blurring of the distinction between what is binding, and what is opinion?  BTW, exactly what do you mean when you say I “make it sound like we’re to treat every Christian as if they’re babes in the faith”?  By no means was I suggesting that biblical Christians are not familiar with terms such as “Trinity,” “Creation” or “Moral Law.”  The point is, if we’re honest, we will admit that we all, as individuals as well as congregations, have our traditions, and we always need to be willing to test our traditions in light of apostolic teaching, regardless of the issue.  I think its healthy to be reminded of this, don’t you?

    1. Dave,
      I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you are disagreeing with Pastor Nollie.
      WCF 20.2 states that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.”
      This is an essential aspect of Christian Liberty but liberty these days is very much often abused. I have never met anyone in our church (not just local but denomination wise) who, on an extra-confessional matter, said to me that I need to believe so and so or do such and such or else I’ll be sinning against God. I’ve met several people in our church who express their opinion to others such that what they’ve said really leaves an impression on your mind.
      However, the act of expressing an opinion strongly shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as “binding the conscience.” I have seen cases where this liberty has been abused. There was one case at our church wherein an elder, me and another brother was accused of binding a brother’s conscience during a bible study because he felt that we were forcing him to deal with the issue of Federal Vision when in fact that was our topic for that day. He later repented.
      My problem with your statements is that, to me, they’re not balanced. There is no acknowledgement of the abuse of the opposite extreme wherein folks become afraid to express their opinion for fear of being accused of “binding the conscience.”

  3. @Dave:
    It’s ironic that you feel that you have to point that out when it’s already pretty obvious since Pastor Nollie’s article is studded with biblical quotations and references. Furthermore, this ought to be understood in the context of the church. I don’t know what state your church is in but at the church where I’m a member of, most of the members are quite knowledgeable in terms of basic doctrines and the biblical basis for those doctrines. You make it sound like we’re to treat every Christian as if they’re babes in the faith. Let’s not underestimate our brethren. I’m pretty sure the most biblical Christians (I’m not referring to modern evangelical types that know nothing about basic Christian doctrines) would know what you’re talking about if you mention the terms “Trinity,” “Creation” or “Moral Law.”

  4. Although I heartily concur that the above article is very well said, I do have one caveat.  How do we define “the Trinity, creation, the moral law, original sin, substitutionary atonement by Christ, justification by faith alone, his return, and heaven and hell”, and why are they binding on the conscience of Christians?  To be more precise, I would say that New Covenant believers are bound specifically by what the apostles instructed the church regarding these and all other matters.  If we cannot demonstrate that the apostles taught a given doctrine or practice, we need to really think twice about using the phrase “binding on the conscience of Christians.”  In other words, we are certainly entitled to our opinion, but we must guard against giving the impression that our opinion, no matter how strong it may be on a particular issue, is to be considered “binding” if we are not prepared to prove it was taught by the apostles.

    1. Yes, I agree that the only criteria we have to bind the Christian conscience is the Scriptures, particularly the teachings of the apostles. The specific doctrines I cited were only meant as examples of some of the basic Christian doctrines, not meant to be inclusive.

    2. I just wish to add the following to my reply below (which I realized might not be very clear):
      First, it is not an individual’s opinion that binds the conscience and I believe you know that. What binds the conscience is the Word and, in confessionally Reformed churches, the Confessional Standards (especially if one subscribes to the confessions,) which is only because these secondary standards are biblical (quia).
      Second, it seems to me that, based on what you are saying, the act of “binding” should only be done by someone who can properly exegete passages that are relevant to what one is “binding” the other person to. I don’t think this should be the case. We do not operate from a state of vacuum that requires us to start at square one. There is a presuppositional consensus or a platform that all biblical Christians share which is built on the foundation of the Word and promulgated by the church. If an adult member of the church were to state that we cannot talk to him about Trinity or the Moral Law without every time having to go to the Scriptures and pointing out to him that these things are true then I believe that that person should be required to take the new members class again. And, it is not the role of laymen to be “binding the conscience” of babes in these matters; this is the task of the officers in the church, particularly the minister of the Word. That’s why Reformed churches have catechism. It’s a different matter outside the church. Outside the church, when we’re dealing with unbelievers and nominal Christians that have little knowledge of basic Christian doctrines, then that is the time that what you’re saying applies.
      Also, within the context of the church, I do not think of it as “binding the conscience” but rather, I think of it as ‘reminding my brother of what binds his conscience.’ And, we have to be careful not to impute motives to someone when they’re simply stating their opinion. I have never heard a brother say for example, “I am binding your conscience to this.” When people feel strongly about their opinion(s) and express it in a way such that it is clear to us that there is no doubt in their minds that their conviction is right, I don’t think it’s fair to jump to the conclusion that they’re already trying to bind our conscience to their opinion. What is a conviction? Isn’t it something that one believes to be right? I’d like to think of “binding someone’s conscience” in terms of statements like, “If you do not do this, then you’re sinning.” or “If you do not believe this is true, then you’re in error.” but not in terms of simply expressing a conviction.

  5. Very well said. It’s true that we have freedom in Christ but we need to be careful that we are not just feeding our fleshly appetite by doing what we want and not what is glorifying the Lord.

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