Freedom can be scary. Freedom is not safe.
But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?
With many Christians, there is a concern that liberty is simply a slippery slope to license and that someone will get hurt. And I can't say I've never had the same thought.
This fear is not without foundation; our messy sinful nature will tarnish even the best 'good' and try to twist it into something less than itself. But the funny thing is, this sinful activity is most common with the subject of Christian freedom itself.
The minute you mention the fact that everything regarding your eternal state is covered by the righteousness of Christ credited to your account, His death as a perfect payment for your sin and His resurrection as your victory over death, the first words you hear are:
And whatever follows is going to be something restrictive, something to limit and box that freedom. Oftentimes, this fear masquerades as concern for the weak brother.
- You can talk about the joys of eating and drinking with friends, and someone will bring up the possibility that someone might drink or eat too much.
- You can talk about dancing at a party and someone will bring up the idea that certain dance is not becoming for Christians and someone might go too far because of it.
And to that I say, ‘No Duh!'
And you are not even talking about that! You are talking about the good things that the Father gives for enjoyment. You are like a kid at Christmas and someone takes your present from you on the pretext that you are going to ‘shoot your eye out’ or hurt someone else with it.
Christian Freedom: Let’s get brave!
So, in the interest of encouraging bravery and defending against this sort of misdirection, let me tell you a little about my background.
I grew up in a home where there was a lot of alcohol abuse. I've been involved with interventions. I’ve had immediate family members in care centers and ninety-day programs more than once. Our family had accidents and broken bones, physical abuse and neglect, lingering medical problems, legal and financial trouble and a whole lot of sadness related to the use and abuse of alcohol and I spent a lot of money on counseling and a lot of time in support groups to boot.
Fortunately for me, that was not my only experience with alcohol and its use.
Starting in my twenties, I was privileged to hang out at the Rosenbladt home. There were festivities almost every weekend and the best was very rarely left for last (John 2). Because of the Christian freedom demonstrated in that house, at least initially, I wondered if I would run off the rails with the alcohol thing. I constantly questioned whether I was becoming like the rest of my family.
Initially, I was afraid.
I was never able to go in the direction of ‘drinking is bad’ however. Rod and the reality of the joy we all had in that house mitigated against that.
At some point, I realized whatever I did, there was a chance I would run off the rails anyway or make some other big mistake.
And the weird part was, gradually, I stopped worrying about it.
And my joy increased.
I’ll take a stab at why: I think it had to do with how gracious everyone was with one another and how gracious and hospitable Rod was with all of us, baggage, warts and all.
I didn't actually do anything to overcome my fear of Christian freedom... it was overcome for me.
I knew that if I did lose it in some way, I had all those people there that I could trust, who had my back as I had theirs, and who would help guide me through the darkness of addiction if it came to that.
And this is a proper analogy for faith: Rod being gracious with us gave us the sense, me at least, that I was deeply, deeply o.k. with my Father in Heaven for Christ’s sake; that even if things went south, God had my back.
St. Paul talks about faith that is weak and by his description of what it looks like, I lived there; I've been the weak brother. It appears that a firm faith is that faith that trusts in the goodness of God for you based on something outside of you – not on some special, superior knowledge, but having your name known and loved by God (I Cor. 8). That God made all good things for enjoyment and that you are free to enjoy them without fear. Faith makes every meal an act of worship, every friendship a friendship with Christ himself, and every party a foretaste of the wedding feast to come.
The last thing I want, the last thing anyone wants is for someone to think of any freedom we have in Christ as wrong or tainted and start judging people and deciding that doing wrong is o.k. This is someone who doesn’t get the party and doesn’t understand who the Founder of the Feast is.
You don’t want to exercise your freedom in front of these people, because they think you still need to pay some sort of entrance fee. What you don’t want to do in this instance is set up a situation where you wreck your mistaken brother for whom Christ died. St. Paul instructs us not to allow that kind of ignorance to go on, if we have any way to stop it (Rom. 14).
But St. Paul says not to leave it there.
You might abstain for the moment, but the idea is to hold back a bit and lead your weaker brother into the same freedom, not forcing him to indulge, but letting him know that what you do, you do because you are free in Christ and not in spite of that freedom, "Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil." (Romans 14:16)
It is against the nature of freedom to force anyone to do anything. Some drink alcohol and enjoy all kinds of foods… some eat only vegetables and can’t drink because of health reasons, addiction or otherwise. Neither is to judge the other, for God is the One Who judges.
So, there are two ways you can destroy your weak brother: You can wreck his conscience with your careless action, not informing him of the freedom he also enjoys to indulge or abstain and, simultaneously, cause him to sinfully judge you for your freedom.
According to St. Paul, Christian freedom is also the freedom not to judge your brother. That is the gift we need to impart to the weak brother who thinks he is strong and looks down on others for enjoying the gifts of God.
Brief note on addiction: Although not the norm, addiction to anything can be terribly destructive and can't be controlled by an outsider's actions anyway. The person suffering has to want sobriety more than life, almost always needs specialized, outside help and will be exposed to every temptation regardless of anyone's actions and restrictions because, when the addiction is active, everything is a reminder of the insatiable hunger. This is not what St. Paul is talking about when he talks about weaker brothers (in my experience, those Christians suffering under the thrall of addiction are sometimes the stronger, understanding the dynamic of Romans 7 in a profound way ), but I think all charity, care and self-protection should be exercised. By all means, pray for the one afflicted, but when facing this problem, take it from a reluctant pro and seek professional help.