Just 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.