Freedom and Responsibility: Not a Duplicitous Relationship

One of the statements I hear believers make is this one: If the Bible doesn’t strictly condemn something, then I am free to partake in it.  While those words sound good, they often lead to trouble and even disaster.  Let me elaborate.

First, there are any number of things that the Bible doesn’t condemn that we understand should be avoided by Christians, and other issues not mentioned verbatim in the Text that we vehemently believe.  We come to those conclusions by using good interpretive models that apply other passages of Scripture to particular ethical or moral issues not directly addressed in the Bible.  For example, the Bible does not condemn slavery.  In fact, one of the great attacks on Scripture by skeptics or critics is this one particular issue.  If one wanted to, a pretty good case could be developed biblically to condone slavery, but none of us would agree to that conclusion. There are other Scriptures that clarify our understanding of slavery.

The Bible doesn’t condemn abortion directly.  There’s no verse that says “Thou shalt not commit abortion.”  It says not to kill, but we have to go through interpretive measures to understand that abortion is murder.  Someone might quote Jeremiah 1:5, but the skeptic could respond that God was only speaking about Jeremiah metaphorically, not to the whole human race.  And, hermeneutically, we’d have to agree to some point.  Scholars admonish people not to take Jeremiah 29:11 and use it for personal edification without first understanding and applying its context.  We must follow that same principle with 1:5, yet we understand biblically that life begins at conception.  And we defend that interpretation.

The Bible never uses the word Trinity but entire creeds and confessions are built upon a belief in the concept of God in Three Persons.  The Trinity is a primary source of contention that Christians have with pseudo-Christian groups and non-Christian religions.  The Trinity is what defines and distinguishes Christianity from other monotheistic faiths, but it is not mentioned specifically by name in the Bible.  We still, though, believe and defend it without question. 

Thus, we have to be careful in developing the straw man argument of biblical condemnation and freedom.  It would be duplicitous to utilize a hermeneutical model to teach against racism and not use that same model in other areas.  It becomes a slippery slope when we use biblical interpretation for our passions and ignore it when it comes to things we like or want to do. 

Second, the Bible is quite clear that we are not to use freedom for personal use.  Paul said in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not be encumbered once more by a yoke of slavery.”  He also says, and we must note this fact, in the same chapter, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13). The argument for Christian freedom is often used because there is a particular behavior or lifestyle choice that I want.  Therefore, I am free to seek after that pleasure because I am free.  If the reason that I say that I am free in Christ to do something because it is not strictly condemned in Scripture is so that I can satisfy my own desires, then I have violated Scripture itself.  My freedom is to be used to serve others, not myself. 

Third, if a behavior or lifestyle could lead to an addiction, then I have the responsibility not to indulge in it. I might not ever be addicted but what of those around me?  I grew up in an alcoholic family on both sides.  My mother was an alcoholic, as are my 2 sisters.  I am assuming that I am probably an alcoholic also because addictive behavior runs in my family.  The sad thing about being an alcoholic is that a person does not know that he/she is an alcoholic until one starts drinking – and then it is too late.  I do not keep alcohol in my home or have a glass of wine at dinner because I do not want to give credence to something that is destroying lives, and I want to influence my children and grandchildren toward biblical righteousness.  My sister came and lived with me on several occasions as she struggled through her alcoholism.  She is doing great now, but there were times of question in the past.  One of her greatest struggles in trying to get back on her own was finding a church that did not promote alcohol consumption.  It’s not just that she can’t drink; she can’t be around it.  When she lived at my house, we had to agree that she couldn’t work where alcohol was sold.  The addiction was too strong.  As a Christian I have learned that my freedom cannot supersede the needs of others.

Fourth, my goal as a Christian is to be like Christ.  One of the struggles I have with this whole argument is that I do not hear anyone talking about holiness and righteousness.  It’s all about personal freedom, but what we forget are the words of Paul in Romans 6:18, “. . . having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness,” and the words of Simon Peter in 1 Peter 1:16, “. . . since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” I wrestle with those words, because the word “holy” is used to describe Who God is.  To be holy is to be distinctive.  God is not what other gods are because He is distinctive from them.  As believers, we are called to be holy and righteous, in other words, to be distinctive.  In fact, Paul declared that Christ died for us “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Our goal as Christians is not to be cool; it is to be Christ-like.

Recent developments within the larger Christian community has shown us the dangers of Christian liberty.  The dismissal of Perry Noble is probably the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  I want to be careful at this point.  I was not in the meetings with Noble and do not know all the details of the discussion and charges. Additionally, to condemn Noble for his moral/ethical slip demands caution. I am concerned about his church leadership dismissing him for alcohol abuse when, perhaps, they themselves partake in alcohol consumption.  To me, and this opinion is mine alone, it is duplicitous and even hypocritical to have done so.  That situation, however, is why Christian liberty is a spiritual conundrum.  His dismissal reminds me of what I see in the corporate world.  In many circles, a person is expected to drink socially in order to be successful, but when that person falls into alcoholism, he/she is dismissed.  It is a duplicitous situation indeed.  Noble’s dependence upon alcohol certainly affected his ability to lead, and it damaged his marriage.  He didn’t fall, though, because he was overly driven by numbers or even because he socially drank.  He fell because he suffered from the consequences of Genesis 3.  To me, it cautions all of us and reminds us of the words attributed to the 16th Century Reformer John Bradford, “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

Freedom and responsibility are not mutually exclusive ideas; nor are they duplicitous ideas.  They are two concepts that must walk together.  We are certainly free, but we are set free so that we would become slaves to Christ (1 Cor 7:22).  Let’s stop talking about what we are free to do so that we might pursue the pleasures of life.  Let’s talk about what the grace of God compels us to do biblically – and then do it.