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A year ago or so, I was approached after church by a young woman who had recently become convinced of Reformed theology. Coming from a fairly legalistic background, her spiritual life had been energized by the biblical message of God’s grace. “But,” she asked, “if I’m going to be Reformed, do I have to drink alcohol?” This question, I think, speaks volumes about the current state of Reformed Christianity (especially in its “young, restless, and Reformed” variety). It seemed, in her circles at least, that in order to be Reformed one was practically required to drink and smoke, evidencing a new fundamentalism of “Christian liberty.” To the contrary, I answered, not only is a Reformed Christian not required to drink, but the matter of Christian liberty and the glory of God is one that deserves serious reflection among Christians today.
When we start investigating the matter of adiaphora and Christian liberty in the Bible, we realize that it is no surprise that this is a matter of keen interest to Christians today. Quite a few chapters in Paul’s letters, after all, are devoted to working through this very issue. It was evidently a matter the apostle considered important. Moreover, while we acknowledge the existence of adiaphora — things indifferent — Paul stresses that nothing that we do really is indifferent. Paul provides us the rubric, stating, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Or, as he put this principle in response to the question of eating foods offered to idols: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Taking this principle as our overarching guide to matters of adiaphora and Christian liberty, what are some of the biblical principles that can guide our approach as individuals and churches? There are at least five principles, taken from Paul’s letters, that enable Christians properly to respect our liberty toward things indifferent while placing a priority on God’s glory in all that we do.
Whenever we discuss Christian liberty, the first priority must be to guard against any form of works righteousness. Simply put, Christians and churches must never bind the conscience on matters about which the Bible is indifferent. Paul battled this problem throughout his ministry but expressed his answer most succinctly in Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In that context, the matter was circumcision. Paul himself treated circumcision as a matter of indifference, in one case having Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) and in another refusing to allow Titus to be circumcised (Gal. 2:3). To the Galatians — where circumcision was treated as a necessity for Christian salvation — Paul wrote: “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Gal. 5:2). Today, these words might be applied to churches that require pledges of alcohol abstention as a condition of church membership, along with other restrictions on movie attendance or hair length. Paul assigns such requirements to the category of works righteousness and insists that one who accepts such a condition “is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). Instead, justification comes through faith alone in Christ alone. Today, this means that a person who sincerely trusts the blood of Christ for salvation, yet dresses immodestly, watches inappropriate movies, and smokes cigarettes — however much sanctification is called for by these behaviors — is a Christian. Salvation does not come through faith in Christ plus modest dress and alcohol abstention, but through faith in Christ plus nothing.
Second, when it comes to matters of biblical indifference, Paul emphasizes that they are to be used with thanks to God and in keeping with God’s intention. In 1 Timothy 4:2, Paul scathingly describes those who wrongly restrict Christian freedom as “liars whose consciences are seared.” Why? Because they “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3). Paul’s rule here is that “everything created by God is good,” and therefore should be “received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). Everything — whether wine, tobacco, human creativity in the arts, or sexuality — was made by God and therefore is intrinsically good. Christians should never disdain, therefore, anything that God has made, but should celebrate every gift from above. There is a catch, of course, namely, that good things can be put to evil uses. Therefore, Christians are acting with thanks to God when using things as God intended them to be used. For this reason, Paul adds that “it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:5). This provides us a good rule for our use of things otherwise indifferent: Is it consistent with biblical principles, and can I pray with integrity, thanking God for the way I am using or doing this? God made wine, for instance, but condemns drunkenness (1 Cor. 15:34; Gal. 5:21). God made the human body, but tells us to present our bodies with chastity and purity (Eph. 5:4–5). God made the human imagination, but the arts are to convey things of truth, beauty, and nobility (Phil. 4:8–9).
Third, Christian liberty must be exercised in a way that is beneficial and edifying. Paul writes: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12). The apostle indicates that “all things are lawful” had become a justification for any manner of behavior. He counters by saying that Christian behavior is to promote godliness and blessing. Paul expresses this in a number of ways. For one thing, we are to remember what we are in Christ. For Christians, “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:13). Our bodies have been joined to Christ: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Cor. 6:15). Admittedly, the apostle’s example involves a matter of blatant sin, not adiaphora, but the principle remains the same. Moreover, we are to remember our destiny and calling, and ask whether our use of freedom promotes God’s purpose in our lives. Should we, then, cultivate a video game habit that lays to waste large tracts of our time (and which may easily become an addiction) on the excuse that it is indifferent?
Fourth, Christians must approach matters of indifference with an eye to the effect of our behavior on others. Paul emphasized this principle with reference to meat sacrificed to idols. There were some fellow Christians who formerly sacrificed to idols, and by another Christian’s freedom, “their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7). In this situation, which today may extend to matters such as the drinking of alcohol and other social behavior of Christians, the Bible rings loudly in saying that individual Christians ought to be willing to sacrifice their freedom out of love for a fellow believer. “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Rom. 14:15). Similarly, an important reason for Christian women to dress modestly is love for their male neighbors, realizing the visual temptation offered by female contours. Likewise, Christians should avoid promoting social behaviors that might offend other believers or cause them to stumble.
Fifth, any discussion of Christian freedom must ultimately note that our greatest and highest freedom is to draw near to God in holiness and love. Or, in terms of adiaphora, we must realize that we must never be indifferent to the glory of God in all things and our love for others. The freedom for which Christ purchased us was not freedom to drink beer, watch movies, or play video games — though I would vigorously defend a Christian’s freedom for these very things — but freedom from the guilt and curse of our sins that we might draw near to God as beloved children. My actual answer to the young woman who asked me about the Reformed faith and Christian liberty was this: Paul writes that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). What is this freedom that Christ has won for us? That “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
I praise God for Reformed theology’s faithfulness to the Bible’s teaching on Christian liberty in matters of indifference. But I do not glory in that freedom. How can we, when Christ has freed us from our sins by His blood, and by sending the Spirit is even now granting us freedom, by grace alone and through faith alone, to be received into the splendor of God’s presence, and to see and reflect the beauty of the Lord in unending glory?