Sunday, 11 January 2015

When it's neither black nor white

... everything that does not come from faith is sin.  Romans 14:23

When I was a young Christian I was taught that it was wrong to go into a shop on a Sunday, the Lord's day. It was wrong to drink alcohol. It was wrong to gamble. Some of the Christians I knew thought it was wrong to go to the cinema. Such things were "sinful" or “worldly”.

As I matured I gave things like this a lot of thought: what really constitutes "sin"? How can you tell if something is “sinful” or not? 

Well, some things are pretty clear-cut - you only have to read the Ten Commandments to know that stealing, murder, adultery, lying, coveting are wrong. Christians just don't do them - or they shouldn't, anyway.

But other things are not quite so clear. Certainly it's wrong to get drunk - but nowhere does the Bible state that it's necessarily wrong to drink alcohol. And what about various forms of entertainment? Is it sinful to go to a football match, where people all around you are cursing and swearing? What about a film or play, perhaps one that raises important questions but which includes language and humour that is crude or blasphemous, or both? Should you walk out? Is it "sinful" to be there? Are you "guilty by association"?

I soon learned that on things like this different Christians take different views - what is acceptable to one will not be acceptable to another. We sometimes call them "grey areas". And the Christian principle that matters is that we are not to judge those who see such things differently from us. Let God do the judging!

This is the topic Paul is covering in Romans 14. One issue at stake is vegetarianism - some Christians in Rome clearly felt it was wrong to eat meat, others were quite happy to do so. So... who is in the right? "Neither of you!" says Paul. "Stop getting uptight about this - just be true to what your conscience tells you."

And that's what leads to the rather startling statement we started with: "... everything that does not come from faith is sin." Pardon, Paul? Did I hear you right? Are you really serious?  What on earth do you mean!

Paul is talking about "faith" in the sense of "conviction". He is saying that if we do something that our consciences aren't easy about, that is sin. For example, if you really aren't happy in your mind about drinking alcohol then it's better to abstain than to bruise your conscience. Still more, it’s better to abstain than to cause pain and confusion to a perhaps weaker Christian who sees it differently.

There's a great story about CH Spurgeon, the famous nineteenth-century preacher (from a time, I should point out, when the connection between tobacco and various diseases was not known). Spurgeon got on a bus one day, and found a group of young men from his church happily smoking their pipes. He fixed them with a stern eye and said "Young men, aren't you ashamed to be sitting here smoking your pipes?" Shame-faced, they all put out their pipes and tucked them guiltily into their pockets. Whereupon Mr Spurgeon took his pipe from his pocket and calmly lit up. "I am not ashamed," he said. You get the point?

I've talked about the traditional "worldly" things that Christians have differed over. But there are lots of others the modern world has thrown up. Try these for size...

Is it sinful not to recycle your papers and cans and plastic? To buy coffee that isn't free trade? To eat meat or eggs that aren't free range? To foul the atmosphere by flying unnecessarily? To go out for an expensive meal when millions of people are starving? To buy clothes that are really cheap because they are produced by children in horrible far-away sweat-shops? 

We are not responsible Christians if we haven't at least given prayerful thought to such questions.

The key thing is to have a conscience which is fed by prayer and scripture (our consciences alone can mislead us, remember), and then to obey it. Don't compromise. Don't go with the crowd. If you honestly, prayerfully feel that you can look God fairly and squarely in the face over a particular thing, well, you go right ahead.

But... you'd better be sure first! If not... it is sin.

Lord, help me never to hurt another Christian by using my freedom of conscience in such a way as to trip them up. Help me never to violate my own conscience, but always to live and to make my decisions in order to please you. Help me never to pass judgment on others, but to remember that I must one day stand before your judgement throne. Amen.

Is there any area of your life where you are stifling the voice of conscience and acting without real conviction?

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