One of the most basic principles of the Christian faith is that there is freedom in Christ. It has been said that there is freedom from sin, freedom from the law and even freedom from any imposition from outside sources. The facts are that there is freedom in Christ, that believers are free from sin and the law and, yes, even from outside impositions. That is not to say that there are no binding principles that Christians are to live by. It is to that effect that passages such as
1 Corinthians 8-10, and Romans 14-15 were written. These passages are there to teach us to govern ourselves in love, kindness and the pursuit of righteous living, without posing a problem to those around us.
The focus of this treatise will be on the freedom that is given to all believers and how to live in that freedom without infringing on the freedom of other believers. The goal of this author is not to widen or narrow the scope of Christian liberty, but rather to instill in believers an understanding of the responsibility which is a part of liberty. Many take Christian liberty to mean that they can do as they please in any area of life without responsibility. This is not consistent with the whole of Scripture which does indeed command us very specifically not to take part in certain actions and behaviors. The binding principle in Christian liberty has always been love. As believers we are commanded to live under the example of Christ, who gave himself for us. Scripture tells us that no man hath greater love than that he “lay down his life for
his friends.”1 If we are to lay down our lives for our friends, how much more are we to live in a way that is edifying to them.
In Romans fourteen and fifteen Paul addresses what appears to be a known issue between two groups in the church. These groups are often called the weak and the strong. We will look at the problem from both sides of the issue and then look at the participants and their role in the situation Paul was addressing. The Apostle finishes chapter thirteen of Romans with a list of sins to avoid and an admonition love one another and, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.”2
Paul then begins chapter fourteen with instructions to the believers in Rome regarding their conduct toward one another. This was necessary due to a difference between the two groups regarding the consumption of meat and the observance of days. The one group abstained from all meat, while the other had no problem eating meat. Similarly the weak observed certain days and the strong did not. Wine may also be one of the issues that these two groups disagreed on. No one is quite sure who the two groups were exactly but some argue that the weak group was made up of Jewish believers and the strong group was made up of the Gentile believers.3 Moo gives six possibilities as to the probable composition of the two groups.4 Morris would say that no clear evidence exists to determine who composed the makeup of the two groups.5 Regardless of the composition of the two groups, the heart of the issue was the same:
Christian liberty. The strong judged the weak, and the weak criticized the strong. Paul’s answer gives us a great insight into the way to deal with such issues. He admonishes the strong not to judge but to love and accept the weak into the fellowship.6 Likewise, he admonishes the weak not to judge the strong. The problem lay not in the position of either party but in the failure of both parties to understand the principles of Christian liberty. The weak did not know enough to understand that they no longer needed to adhere to dietary restrictions and special days. The strong, on the other hand, could not comprehend the self restriction, in their minds an archaic legalism abolished by Christ’s death, of the weak. Neither was in the wrong in their position, but both were apparently wrong in their treatment of each other.
The first participant mentioned is he whom Paul calls the “weak.” Some have called the weak, “weak in the faith.”7 These known as the weak are those who, by lack of understanding, are not able to do or partake of certain things. Mounce calls these people over scrupulous.8 Bartlett attributes their problem to their nature to, “pick flaws in those who have gone beyond us.”9 A common flaw with the weak is a propensity to judge those who live with greater freedom.10
The weak are those who have not the ability within their experience of faith to participate in certain actions. They can be characterized by their lack of maturity or inability to overcome their past. In Romans 14 they are those who cannot in good conscience eat meat. They are not criticized by Paul, but neither are they lauded for their weakness. Paul makes it clear that they are indeed believers and that they deserve respect and courteous treatment for their edification. Paul says to receive them into fellowship, “but not to doubtful disputations.”11 In other words, receive them, and don’t judge their faith or let them question your faith.
The second group of participants mentioned is the “strong.” The name is given to this group as that which would be directly opposed to the term weak. I believe that Paul did not view them as weak and strong but as the weak and the wise. Nowhere in the passages dealing with Christian liberty is the term strong found; the term wise, however, is used by Paul.12 Paul also states that those who could participate with a clear conscience were acting in liberty.13 The implication in 1 Corinthians and Romans is that the “strong” were more mature than the weak. This in no way means that they are better, just more mature. The life of a believer who is mature is characterized by the ability to live by faith. The mature believer has come to understand that there is freedom in Christ.
Mounce says that, “It is tempting to hold up for ridicule those whose lifestyle is more restricted than ones own.”14 The one thing that ties the mature to the weak is that they both tend to denigrate each other. The difference is that Paul gives the greater responsibility to the more mature. Paul instructs them to defer in love to the weak so as not to be a stumbling block.
The third group mentioned is the strongest.15 These are the believers who have no problems with participation and at the same time have no problem refraining themselves from participation for another believer’s sake. The goal for all believers is that we arrive at a place in our walk by faith where we are able to give up those things which we feel we have the freedom to do in order to prevent an offense to a weaker brother. This group would not judge those who are weak or strong but would in all things seek the glory of God. It is this group that exemplifies the true principles of Christian liberty.
The Principle of Edification
In Romans 14:19 Paul introduces the first of five principles of Christian liberty starting with the principle of edification.16 The responsibility of every believer is to behave in a manner that is beneficial to other believers. This principle is one that many times we find difficult to practice because, by nature, it includes self denial. It is not about building myself up, but rather to help another to stand. This means that I must consider my brethren before I do what I have the freedom in my conscience to do. If what I am about to do will not serve to the edification of those around me it may not be best for me to do it. This is of course relevant only in how it affects others, or my own walk with God. I restrict my freedom so as not to cause another to stumble but also to help them to grow in their faith. This is not to say that what I would do if the weaker brother were not there is wrong. Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.” In Romans 14:15 Paul again states it this way, “But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.”
The principle of edification can be defined this way: before I do anything I must consider whether it will edify or weaken my brother. I have a responsibility before God according to Scripture to do only that which will be beneficial, not simply to do what I please because it does not do me any harm.
The Principle of Promotion
The principle of promotion is the second principle Paul sets forth regarding Christian liberty. The basic premise of this principle is a simple question; “Will it help or hinder the gospel?” Paul’s concern was always that the gospel go forth unhindered. Not only are we to look to our brother’s best interest but also to the testimony our actions create. The idea is not that which helps to preach the gospel but rather being willing to give up what freedoms we have for the good of the gospel. Paul says, “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”17 Paul’s basic thrust is that the freedom we have is not a right but a privilege. If Christ Himself did not hold His heavenly glory as something to hold on to, what do we have that is so important that we cannot give it up for the gospel which Christ’s death provided?18 Paul’s answer to that question is simple: nothing. Paul’s heartbeat was such that he would rather give up his freedom in Christ than see men lost. “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.”19 Indeed Paul says in Romans 9:3 that he would rather give up his own salvation than see his brethren lost.
The Principle of Protection
In this third principle we see that we must watch the choices we make within the realm of Christian liberty. Paul says, “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”20 In verse twelve of the same chapter he says, “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” What Paul is trying to say is that it is not enough to edify others and promote the gospel at any cost if at the end we are cast away.21 We are to live in such a way that we can stand before God and truly not be ashamed. The idea is to live in the freedom we have within, and not harming those that are without. Paul’s desire was that those who represented the gospel acquit themselves in such a way that there be not only no reproach on the gospel but also no reproach on the believers themselves. In short, “Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.”22
The Principle of Glorification
The principle of glorification is much simpler to state than to carry out. Simply put, it means to “do all to the glory of God.”23 The ramifications however go much deeper. It is not just about what we do and say but the whole of our being. The idea is that how we treat each other is to honor and glorify God. Paul says, “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.”24 A few verses earlier Paul says, “Let not then your good be evil spoken of.”25 Paul knew that what Christ said in John 13:35 was true, that men do know and notice how we treat each other. It is only when our lives glorify God that we are truly practicing Christian liberty as we should, not for our benefit but for the glory of God.
The Principle of Association
Many of us are familiar with the principle of association but not always is it used in the context of Christian liberty. This principle deals more with the perception from the outside than with tolerance from within. While we are to edify one another and promote the gospel, protect ourselves from using our liberty in a way that would not be appropriate, and seek to do it all to the glory of God, we are also not to associate with that which can tarnish our testimony. Paul explains it this way, “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.”26 Paul makes it clear that there is nothing unclean.27 He also declares that when we take part in things which we question within our own minds that we are sinning.28 It is not enough to know that we can do something without any misgivings; we also have to know that the things associated with it are clean too. I know that this could be taken to the extreme in that if you go far enough nothing that comes from anywhere is good. The response again is that there is nothing unclean. Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.”29 It is not just what we do or do not do that affects our walk with God. The things we allow to creep in under the guise of Christian liberty must not be questionable. To live with a conscience that is clear is much more important than to do all we have the freedom in Christ to do.
Christian liberty is a very difficult issue to apply consistently in our lives. The difficulty is not in the understanding of the principles, but in the application. We know that we are to edify, promote the gospel, protect ourselves from sin, glorify God, and watch what we associate with; our problem is that we lack in maturity. We choose to live in a manner that is convenient to us, and if Christian liberty is anything it is not convenient. What I believe Paul was trying to teach us is that when we restrain our freedom willfully and do so out of love and respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ, we take one more step toward spiritual maturity. I believe Paul saw Christ as his example. Christ did not hold anything back, He gave it all for us. Christ had the right to do anything He chose, but instead gave it all up for us. The real key to Christian liberty is love. If we are not motivated by love we will never seek the best interests of others. To sum it all up, only in exercising love as a restraint on our Christian liberty will we ever be in one accord and in one mind. Only if we are all seeking the good of our brother will we all be in one mind, the mind of Christ, Who always sought our good.
Barnes, Albert. Romans. In Notes on the New Testament Explanatory and Practical. Enlarged
type ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965.
Barnhouse, Donald G. Romans. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.
Barrett, C. K. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Harper’s New Testament
Commentaries. Reprint ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987.
Bartlett, C. N. Right in Romans. Chicago: Moody Press, 1953.
Black, Matthew. Romans. New Century Bible Commentary. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids:
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans an Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New
Testament Commentaries. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.
Dunkin, J. E. Commentary on Romans for the Student and Teacher. Joplin, MO: College Press
Publishing Co., 1986.
Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the
New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Finney, Charles G. Principles of Victory. Compiled and edited by Louis Gifford Parkhouse, Jr.
Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1981.
Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand
Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Godet, Frederic L. Commentary on Romans. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977.
Gore, Charles. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans A Practical Exposition. 2 vols. London: John
Harrison, Everett F. “Romans.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by
Frank E. Gæbelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
Horn, Samuel and Brent Belford. “Corinthian Epistles.” Class Notes, Northland Baptist Bible
College, Graduate Studies, Spring 2004.
Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. Dictionary of Paul and His
Letters. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Johnson, Alan F. Romans the Freedom Letter. 2 vols. Everyman’s Bible Commentary. Chicago:
Moody Press, 1976.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. New International Commentary on the New
Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Mounce, Robert H. Romans. The New American Commentary. US: Broadman and Holman,
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Spence, H. D. M and Joseph S. Exell. Acts and Romans. Vol. 18. In The Pulpit Commentary.
Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950.
John 15:13. From Christ himself we see the preeminence of love in our dealings with one another.
3 Robert H. Mounce, Romans, New American Commentary (US: Broadman and Holman, 1995), p. 251.
4 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 828-829.
5 Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 475.
Mounce, Romans, p. 251.
Mounce, Romans, p. 251.
9 C. N. Bartlett, Right in Romans, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1953), p. 120.
10 Mounce, Romans, p. 252.
11 Romans 14:1
1 Corinthians 10:15. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-5 Paul makes it clear that the believers in Corinth were not acting in accordance with their wisdom in Christ, a principle he brings up again in chapter 10.
13 1Corinthians 8:9
14 Mounce, Romans, p. 252.
15 1Corinthians 8:13
Samuel Horn and Brent Belford, “Corinthian Epistles” (Class Notes, Northland Baptist Bible College, Graduate Studies, Spring 2004). The principles of Christian liberty were taken from class notes that I took on
1 Corinthians under Brent Belford.
1 Corinthians 9:22-23
Philippians 2:6 TCNT
1 Corinthians 9:19
1 Corinthians 9:27
1 Corinthians 10:31
24 Romans 14:21
25 Romans 14:16
1 Corinthians 10:20-21
27 Romans 14:14
28 Romans 14:23
29 1 Corinthians 10:23