Hypocrites Concerning Matters of Liberty

Matthew 15:1-9

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Hypocrites. Everyone’s a hypocrite. To some degree, also, all Christians are hypocrites. In fact, sometimes, especially Christians are hypocrites. Sometimes this hypocrisy is due to ignorance of what the Scriptures teach. Sometimes it’s due to secret sinful indulgences in which people want to continue, unfettered. Then, at other times, it’s simply due to an extra-Biblical “piety” that has caused even the most well-meaning of people to make commandments out of the traditions of men.

Jesus asked a scathing rhetorical question to the Pharisees: Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? He was pointing out their blatant hypocrisy of claiming to be the spiritual authorities of their day, but antithetically nullifyng (in their minds, anyway) the commandments of God by their spiritual “insights”. Now, as noted earlier, some do this out of spiritual ignorance. There are instances in which both ignorance and an extra-Biblical “piety” play a part. Consider, for example, the subject of Christians drinking alcoholic beverages.

Most professing Christians in America, because of the prohibition and temporance movements of times past, ignorantly and automatically assume that the mere intake of alcohol for the Christian is sinful. They think this not for Biblical reasons, but for pragmatic reasons. They also believe this to be an honorable and noble cause because of the past abuse which has been rendered due to sinful men’s over-indulgence of alcohol.

To the serious-minded Christian, no doubt, it can be very tempting to jump on this throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater bandwagon, believing it will somehow accomplish a declension in the abuse of alcohol. In fact, though, the opposite is true and can be attested to by the fact that since the time of prohibition, many have seen alcohol as inherently evil. Thus, it’s considered rebellious to partake. Thus, those wanting to rebel will usually abuse this gift of God, in order to show their rebellion, get back at, or irritate those whom they will.

The drinking of alcohol is just one example and is not intended to be the focus of this entry. what I am trying to expose here is the sin and hypocrisy of professing Christians who seek to bind the conscience of other believers concerning things considered as indifferent by Scripture. Sadly, their attempt to legitimate such an idea cannot be adequately substantiated by Scripture, and most appeals then are pragmatic, not according to the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Scripture speaks clearly concerning the Christian’s treatment of things indifferent. Involved herein is the principle of Christian Liberty. Two instances which immediately come to mind are Romans 14, and a portion of 1 Corinthians 10. You see, Christian Liberty of things indifferent works, at least it should work, both ways. The 14th chapter of Romans can almost be divided perfectly in half. The first section discusses the subject of passing judgment on other Christians for their personal convicions on things which are scripturally indifferent. The second portion examines the ultimate crux of the matter: Not being a stumbling block to the “weaker” Christian.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. – Romans 14:1-4

Here, Paul makes clear that the stronger Christian ought to welcome the “weaker” Christian, but never for the purpose of arguing over opinions (of things indifferent). By “weak” Paul means immature. Now, this doesn’t mean anything negative, necessarily. It simply means, more than likely, a new convert who is not yet mature or educated enough to understand that, for example, meat which has been previously sacrificed to idols insn’t unclean, in and of itself. Therefore, a Christian may freely eat such meat since, to him, it is just meat and is something that can be enjoyed to the glory of God. Paul issues a two-fold admonition here. He says to these two “types” of Christians, “Do not think less or sinful of the other for either his indulgence or his abstinence of the food, because such a matter is indifferent.” Basically, Paul thinks a man should go with his own conscience, but not try to bind the conscience of another, since it cannot be proven Biblically that one must or must not partake. Each one should be convinced in his own mind.

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. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. – Romans 14:13-23

Next, Paul speaks to the matter of not causing a weaker brother to stumble. Now, when it comes to the subject of alcohol, I believe this is a much misused passage by those who proclaim it sinful to partake thereof. Their thoughts would affirm this kind of statement:

Look, drinking alcohol, in and of itself, is not sinful. But, I believe, because of the abuse that alcohol indulgence has caused over the years, that we ought not partake, because it will cause people to stumble.

These mostly sincere, but nonetheless wrong people will appeal to Romans 14:21, but apparently have overlooked, discarded, or altogether ignored verse 16. There is a balance when it comes to Christian Liberty:

Firstly, we’re not to use our Christian Liberty as license to sin.

Secondly, we should not indulge in Christian Liberty by rubbing it in the face of the weaker brother who may be caused to stumble.

However, this does not mean that a Christian can cry out, “You’re making me stumble!” every time they see a brother engaging in something that is scripturally indifferent. This is precisely Paul’s point in verse 16. The stronger brother needs to patiently, lovingly, but firmly educate the weaker, so as to show him how things scripturally indifferent are not, in and of themselves, sinful to every individual in all circumstances or situations. This education, mind you, ought not be done for the purpose of merely justifying the stronger Christians partaking, but should be done with the intent of edifying and maturing the weaker brother, in Christian love and charity.

The goal for Paul’s admonition here is not simply so the stronger brother can glory in being “smarter” or further along than the weaker. Nor does he have in mind the stronger being justified in all he does. Rather, the goal is the unity of the brethren and the avoidance of one passing judgment on the other for either their parktaking of, or abstaining from, things which are not really addressed by Scripture, and this is the building up of Christian love.

Now we consider 1 Corinthians 10:23-33

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Here, the context is not merely believers, but also unbelievers. Look, we, being Reformed, need to be honest. We’ve all, I’m sure, been guilty of doing something that we shouldn’t have done in a certain situation, and then attempted to justify it under the guise of Christian Liberty. If you haven’t, that’s great! However, I know that I’m certainly guilty of having done so. This being said, we would do well to remember this statement.

“All things are lawful”, but not all things are helpful

That is, all things which are not contrary to God’s Law, nor unlawful by demand of the State are OK. But just because such is the case, doesn’t mean they’re helpful or, for that matter, necessary. What we must guard against, as Christians, is the over-indulgence of things indifferent and the flaunting thereof. This is the thrust of Paul’s words in the first portion of the passage at hand.

Paul then says that sometimes we abstain from things scripturally indifferent for the sake of not our own conscience, but the conscience of the unbeliever. This is where the indulgence of Christian Liberty can prove detrimental. For example, it is not wise, in the presence of unbelievers, to talk about, say, alcoholic beverages in the same manner they do. Why? Because typically, in the life of the unbeliever, drunkenness is heavily associated with such discussion and is usually the aim of his drinking in the first place (I’m not saying this is always the case, just typically). Now, engaging in such discussion, unless one is showing the utter foolishness of the said behavior, might give the unbeliever the impression that such practice is somehow acceptable. In turn, this could mislead them. Instead, just as it may be with the weaker brother, with time and opportunity, you could make your case Biblically with much patience, so there’s no excuse for anyone’s misunderstanding.

The fact is, brothers and sisters, there is no rigid instruction in this matter, because each situation for each Christian is unique and distinct from another’s. However, there are Biblical principles to guide us in the way we should go, as can be shown by the aforementioned passages. What we must avoid is trying to make commandments out of our personal convictions of things which are scripturally indifferent, lest we be hypocrites like the Pharisees.

Now, may we be faithful to Scripture, sensitive to our consciences as guided by the Holy Spirit, and seek not our own good, but the good of our neighbors. Grace and Peace.

Josh Hicks

3 thoughts on “Hypocrites Concerning Matters of Liberty

  1. This is a good balanced study. You are right, of course, about alcohol . . . in the abstract. I happen to be one of the weaker brothers who is offended by alcohol; not because I drink or have a history of alcohol abuse but because I’ve seen so much damage caused by it.

    Scripture does teach cultural sensitivity. I live in the land of Carey Nation, the epicenter of the original prohibition movement. Prohibition was a women’s movement 100 years ago because women saw how women and children suffered from neglect and abuse from their alcoholic husbands. The days of prohibition are past, but the sentiment that alcohol is inherently evil is pretty strong where I live. Christians and non-Christians both expect Christians not to drink. I wouldn’t say we are compelled to force to submit to their opinion but we do have to be aware of it.

    Beyond that, in the US alcohol is sold, promoted, and used more as a drug (frequently as a date-rape drug) than as a beverage. This is especially true in college towns.

    Maybe Christians could set a positive example by having (for example) one beer with a meal and no more–i.e., by practicing moderation rather than total abstinence; I don’t know. I do think most Christians would be aware of being sensitive to the local culture if they went overseas. I’m afraid sometimes we are not aware of the culture of our own back yard.

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  2. What we must avoid is trying to make commandments out of our personal convictions of things which are scripturally indifferent, lest we be hypocrites like the Pharisees.

    Wow… this statement ought to be plastered across every inch of Christendom. Nicely said.

    In all honesty, I’ve never encountered an interpretation of Paul’s words that haven’t completely brought me to utter revulsion. Thank you. Thank you very much. I genuinely praise the spirit with which you wrote this piece. Indeed, the idea of “All things are lawful”, but not all things are helpful” has a powerful universal truth to it. Moderation in all things is generally good advice in any situation. Those who maintain a passion for moderation number among the strongest, most self-disciplined, and responsible individuals I’ve ever known. The fruits of their labors often serving as a beacon of reason to those struggling with abuse. For my part, I interpret Paul’s words here as a call to radical self-responsibility – a challenge to throw off the chains of temporal slavery.

    It is all well and good to espouse piety within the confines of a pious environment. To my way of thinking, the stronger man is the one who has no fear of vice because he has allowed himself to encounter vice without choosing it. Better still is the man who has lost his willpower and gained it back by his own, conscious choice. I have great respect for anyone who has wrestled with addictions and emerged whole on the other side without being threatened by that which enslaved him in the first place. It stands to reason that any material thing held aloft as something to be feared and avoided exists dangerously close to being a idol in the mind of the fearful.

    Indeed, alcohol (among other things) only has as much power or influence as we choose to invest in it. Many people have constructed their lives around the fearful avoidance of various vices. This has always seemed to be an unconscious form of idol worship to me. Fear has a way of making dutiful slaves out of people and can easily drive them to abdicate their own free will as a means by which they can avoid temptation. Ultimately, this causes an erosion of confidence in their own ability to make good choices. Here, the fearful and unsure tend to make choices out of desperation… even to the point where they willingly abdicate their freedom to choose in exchange for their own dignity.

    Thanks again for this post.

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