A Pilgrim's Guide to Christian Liberty
When a Calvinistic church in Arizona chose to raise funds through booze and tattoos and then chose to post about it in a video online while talking about its “coolness,” news sites covered the story as sensationally as the videographer meant it to be. Many Christians expressed disgust at the church’s flaunting of what some call “Christian Liberty.” The cool kids in Arizona seemed truly taken aback that any, let alone so many, would have a problem with the stunt. Then, social media was chosen as their respective battlefields on which both sides could climb to opposing rooftops and shout at each other. Although, to be fair, it was mostly the cool kids doing the shouting.
Then the cool kids put out a bat signal for their – albeit non-caped, but bow tied – defender to swoop in and dispel the dirty scoundrels who chose to judge them from afar. Packs of roving cage-stagers with verses in tattoo-green on their knuckles roamed the cyber streets screaming at Bitter Blue Betty for her ignorant judgmentalism, and finding those who don’t meet the shawled stereotype and accusing them of being Bitter Blue Betty anyway. Soccer moms and middle-aged guys with dad bods, Macarthurite pastors and teenage kids with a decent sense of decency, basically anybody who knows better than to put on a public display like what was displayed by the cool kids had metaphoric bags of lit dog poop left on their porch, with a Romans 9 verse scribbled on the side. I feel for the poor, innocent folks who had the audacity to share a critical news story only to be accosted by some angry adolescent who’s been a Calvinist for 4.2 weeks who went on to shoot at them with their Liberty-brand pea-shooter.
Of course, that’s how I characterize it. The other side is probably writing their own intentional hyperbole about the men who came out in three piece suits and monocles who started stealing candy from babies and spraying anybody who was having a good time with their garden hose, mumbling “Be careful little eyes what you…” with lips that look like Oswald Cobblepot’s (which makes them a Calvinist version of Batman I’m thinking) and screaming at passerbys about getting off their lawn.
Well, instead of doing what was unfortunately done in social media this week (and I, for once was above that fray – picture me saying that with a monocle and top hat), how about we do what was suggested in my podcast, He Who Doesn’t Judge Impartially, and actually converse on the merits of Christian Liberty and how it is to be rightfully discerned and Biblically understood? By the way, I’ll be doing that on the Bible Thumping Wingnut Program on June 15. Likewise, I’m supposed to have a “dialogue” with a guy who publicly claimed I’ve been “evading” dialogue (read that: I don’t respond on Facebook), and somehow that dialogue has turned into a whole public Google Hangout thing at some point, and I’m not totally sure of the details because meh. Well, as we engage on this issue (if we could get folks to stop imitating the monkeys throwing their own σκύβαλον at the zoo) it might be helpful to have some contentions or assertions made by somebody off which we could springboard into a relatively adult conversation.
So, as we progress from our best rythmic, finger-snapping Calvi-version of the Jets versus the Sharks battle sequence, I suggest you read the following contentions regarding Christian Liberty and eviscerate them with your cutting wit or agree with them (for full disclosure, I wish there was a smarter, wiser apologist who could do this instead of me, because it’s hard for me to do, as I’m confined to my mother’s basement and covered in cheese puff dust and everything).
What is Christian Liberty? Christian Liberty is the notion that some things are neither explicitly right or wrong. It is the notion that the Sacred Writ does not mention every activity known to man and that the Scripture is indifferent to certain things. In fact, that’s what the word ἀδιάφορα (adiaphora) means…indifferent. In other words, God’s not for it and God’s not against it and so whether or not you do it/practice it/drink it/smoke it/watch it is not a matter of sin. To be clear, Christian Liberty or ἀδιάφορα is a thing. It exists. It’s real. You shouldn’t deny that some things truly are a matter of Christian Liberty.
What is a Christian Liberty is debatable. In fact, that’s the first line from CARM on the subject of adiaphora – it is debatable. You shouldn’t just scream “Christian Liberty!” like a chihuahua barks at a mail man every time somebody asks you to explain why what you practice/drink/smoke/watch is a matter of sin or not. It is the debate – which is downright obligatory sometimes – that fleshes out whether the matter truly is a Christian Liberty or if it’s sin that’s disguised as Christian Liberty. To obstinately reject or resist any and all efforts for somebody to throw a red flag on your fun or ask for an instant replay to judge the matter as winning the “wet-blanket party pooper and Pharisaical legalist award” demonstrates that maybe you don’t get what a Christian Liberty is. Essential doctrines are not debatable (well, not if you want to keep your orthodoxy card, anyway). If somebody wants to question essential Christian doctrines, we “Farewell, Rob Bell” them. However, if something is a Christian Liberty it is debatable, by definition. So debate it already. Stop having a hissy. Questioning whether it’s okay to have a Breaking Bad trivia is fair game without having to hear shrill yells of accusation. If someone questions a non-liberty issue however, like an essential Christian doctrine, feel free to tar and feather them. Sadly, what the YRR gang is saying comes across like, “I don’t have to debate this! This is a matter of Christian Liberty!!!” Yeah, so maybe you don’t get it.
Something is not Christian Liberty simply on the grounds the Scripture does not explicitly forbid it. This might be the greatest misunderstanding among those sitting over there at the cool table. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why those who are Confessional, Covenantal and get the concept of “general equity” think something has to be explicitly condemned for it to be sinful. It works like this; Hipster McBeardface says to himself, “The Bible doesn’t forbid smoking the happy grass, and so it’s a matter of liberty.” In fact, he might even apply Genesis 1:29 and say that forbidding the wacky tobacky is a Gospel issue (it’s happened). No, I shall say in my best Pharisaical accent, “Poppycock.” But why not give a rubber stamp of “Christian Liberty” to those things not expressly forbidden?
It’s simple. The Ten Commandments are a deep and wide Christian ethic given us to reveal the righteousness of God and, as the catechism says, “to teach us our duty, make clear our condemnation and show us our need of a Savior.” [Trigger Warning] Dispensationalists can just phase out for a second here before you blow a gasket, but we Reformed folks believe that the Ten Commandments forbid a lot of things that aren’t explicit within the Decalogue as presented in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6. Yet, when we understand them in the way that Jesus explained them in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that they are categories of sin (for example, the Seventh Commandment that forbids adultery, also forbids all sexual sin, and so on). So, we should be used to looking at God’s standards of righteousness collectively and systematically throughout Scripture, and not demanding a single verse that says, “Thou shalt not smoke the Purple Urkle.”
The Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not wear the Daisy Dukes.” The Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not do the sexting.” The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not download the pirated music.” The Bible does not say, “Skinny jeans? Seriously?” And yet, some of these things can be deduced from a broader Biblical systematic theology. The Bible does say things about modesty. The Bible does say things about chastity. The Bible does say things about theft, and so on.
Because the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not gamble,” does it mean that gambling is necessarily a matter of Christian Liberty? Could someone rationally argue that a theology of stewardship might speak to the matter? Because the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not draw on yourself” that it is necessarily a matter of Christian Liberty? Could someone rationally argue that a theology of the body might speak to the matter? I said might. Do you think those asking these questions should be talked to or treated like a bunch of ignorant dunces who think we’re still under Levitical law and my gosh, they’re so stupid I’m surprised they can breathe? Maybe their theology is just deeper than yours. Or maybe they’re legalists (it can happen). Either way, the Scripture not explicitly forbidding something does not instantly mean that it is, by default, a matter of Christian Liberty.
Christian Liberty is a negotiable that should be given up in deference to fellow Christians who are gravely offended or possibly tempted. I recognize this is controversial because it involves letting go of idols. It’s difficult. I get it. But you can’t argue that a Christian Liberty is something that is “take it or leave it” ethically and so then you fight for it like it’s a Christian essential. If it’s a “take it or leave it” thing, then you should be willing to leave it.
Now, let me be abundantly clear; you can’t please all the brothers all the time. There’s always one who’s just a fuddy-duddy. Someone told me my Mountain Dew consumption was sinful (caffein, you know) and I suddenly felt like Gollum defending my Precious. I don’t like that guy now (what a jerk), so I get it. In all seriousness, there is always the guy who will tell you all secular music is sinful, Leave it to Beaver glorified Otis’ drunkenness and so the show is carnal, and that your wife shows a little bit too much ear lobe for his liking. That guy throws off the curve, so let’s take him out of the scenario for a minute.
The fact is, the Bible tells us to give up certain liberties in certain situations because we have brothers who are grieved by it or tempted by it.
 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.  I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13-15 ESV)
As Ellicott’s commentary points out, this “stumbling block” means, “an occasion to fall into sin.” This is the reason why alcohol consumption in particular is controversial, as when two men drink together, one may be in perfect control of his consumption and the other fall into intemperance. Remember when I read the letter from the incarcerated felon who was in prison because of an alcohol-related crime and he had been first introduced to alcohol through a Reformed Bible and Beer study? One would be hard pressed to claim that man wasn’t given “an occasion to fall into sin” through the Reformed Bible Study. Advertise your cigar-smoking a lot? Is there a chance someone may use you as an excuse to smoke three packs a day and leave their wife a widow? Spurgeon, often touted as the preeminent stogie-smoker, gave it up (or at least the public use) precisely because his temperate use was being used by others for not-so-wholesome (and commercial) purposes. Spurgeon simply didn’t want what was for him a Christian Liberty to be abused by others, and so it changed his behavior and public consumption. Libertines quoting Spurgeon on “smoking to the glory of God” seem to forget the end of that story.
Likewise, verse 15 indicates that the reason for self-denial isn’t just for the one of weaker will-power who may be led to temptation, but the one who is sincerely grieved by your behavior. As Barnes Notes’ points out in commentary, that in this Biblical scenario, “the ‘pain’ would be real, though the ‘opinion’ from which it arose might not be well founded.” Are you grasping this? If someone is grieved in their heart at your exercise of liberty, the Scripture says to surrender it so that he is not grieved. Why would you do that, if it’s not a sin!?! Simple: It’s to demonstrate that you love people more than you love your liberty.
Could you imagine someone in the Roman church, after hearing Paul tell Christians to adjust their diet rather than offend or grieve fellow Christians, posting pics of the sacrificed meat on instagram and hashtagging on Twitter, #LuvMyLiberty? That would be considered not only rebellious toward the Apostle’s instructions, but downright mean and spiteful toward the offended or grieved. And let’s be honest, here; the cool kids seem to enjoy rubbing it in the collective face of social media, and enjoy freaking out their parents. That’s not as “cool” as they think.
So friends, let’s start there. Fight in the parking lot after school, okay? 3pm. But if we brawl over these matters, let it at least be over these matters. Enough invective has been directed toward the journalists who reported this story to last a life time. There’s no shortage of ad hominem attacks on the dirty scoundrels who dare ask us to debate our cherished liberties. I get it. But please, let’s discuss some actual substance here. Start with this. Dismantle at your will. At least discuss the subject matter.