Christian liberty and the exercise of the Christian conscience is a much-neglected teaching in the Church today; but it need not be. The Bible has much to say about the exercise of the Christian’s liberty and the Christian conscience.
In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council sought to answer theological and practical questions faced by the early Christians. There they wrestled with how Christians are to enjoy freedom from the Mosaic law without being stumbling blocks to the Jewish people. These were questions that Paul not only gave a great deal of thought about, but dealt with directly in his ministry. He was one of those appointed by the Jerusalem Council to circulate and explain the letter that summarized the Apostles’ and elders’ teaching (Acts 15:22; 16:4). With similar issues in the church of Rome at the time, Paul instructed them with principles that apply today also (Romans 14:1-15:13) on Christian liberty.
The first thing Paul taught them was that Christian liberty must never be flaunted (Romans 14:22). We are free in Christ from the Mosaic dietary laws because Christ has pronounced all food clean (Mark 7:18-19).
Christians do not need to exercise their liberty to enjoy it. Paul asks in Romans 14:19 and 1st Corinthians 6:12 some very penetrating questions about our exercising of Christian liberty. He asks, “Does this build up others? Is this really liberating you, or has it begun to enslave you?”
Second, Christian liberty does not mean that you welcome fellow Christians only when they have sorted out all their views (according to you). The Lord has welcomed them all in Christ, and so should every Christian (Romans 14:1, 3). The Lord will not leave any Christian where they are, but neither will He not make their pattern of conducting the basis of the welcome, so neither should any Christian.
Every Christian has responsibilities towards one another, but the one that isn’t in any of our job descriptions is judging one another. Christ alone is the judge (Romans 14:4, 10-13). Often, you might hear another Christian mentioned in a conversation, but their mention is in criticism. Such statements mark not discernment nor concern about them, but a judgmental spirit. To put a fine point on this, consider this question, “What is the measure we used to judge others that will becomes the measure used to judge us?” (Matthew 7:2; Romans 14:10-12).
The third point to consider is Christian liberty is never to be used in any way to be a stumbling block to a fellow Christian (Romans 14:13). Paul does not state this off the cuff. He states it as a settled principle which he practiced (1st Corinthians 8:13). Such teaching should guide our thinking and behavior as Christians. We are given liberty in Christ to be the servant of others, not to insist on our rights or preferences.
The fourth principle Paul lays out regarding Christian liberty requires grasping that we are to aim towards biblical balance (Romans 15:1-3). Such an understanding focuses on our love for the Lord and our desire to imitate Him, since the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian to conform them into the image of Jesus.
Christian liberty is not concerned with our rights, whether those rights are national, or legal, or any other right. The Christian recognizes, before the Lord, that they possess no rights by nature because we have forfeited all of our rights in our sinfulness. What this understanding helps us to do is to correctly view our rights and our privileges. Sensitivity to others, including spiritually weaker Christians, depends on our own unworthiness. If we think we can exercise our rights or privileges no matter the situation, we become lethal weapons in the fellowship of the local church; more interested in lobbing grenades than speaking the truth in love (Romans 14:15, 20).
This understanding Paul is outlining, however, does not mean we must become the slave of someone else’s conscience. John Calvin explains that we restrain the exercising of our freedom for the sake of weaker Christians, not when we are faced with “Pharisees”, who demand we conform to their likes and wishes. Instead, Calvin emphasizes where the gospel is at stake, Christian liberty needs to be exercised, and where the stability of the weak Christian is at stake, we need to restraint it.
All of this is why we are living between the times. In Christ, we are free, but we do not live in a world that can cope with our freedom. One day, Paul says in Romans 8:21, we will enjoy “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” That day is not yet here. As Martin Luther says, “A Christian man is most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” As it was with the Master, so it is with the servant. We are mere instruments and vessels to spread the honor of our Lord among the nations for His glory. Wherever you are at in your Christian life and ministry, I hope you will find help and hope as you read the pages of this issue of our magazine.
In Christ Alone,
Executive Editor, Theology for Life Magazine