Legalism vs. Freedom in Christ

Church folk probably hear this phrase bandied about quite a lot, but what does it really mean for a Christian to be “free in Christ?” Are we now free in Christ to do pretty much whatever we want? (Clearly not, according to Paul in Romans 6:1-14.) So how does this newfound freedom really impact our day-to-day lives? I’m asking the question because I honestly do not have a firm handle on the answer yet, so thoughtful reader feedback is both encouraged and appreciated.

The question of true Christian freedom resonates for me as I come from a background where I was taught that I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted to…and did. As long as I didn’t hurt anybody, managed to keep my grades up and evade the long arm of the law, anything and everything was fair game. Post-college, not much changed: As long as I showed up to work, did not allow my hangover to keep me from being productive and paid my bills each month, all was right with the world…or so I thought.

I was raised in the church, but actually became a Christian in July of 1997. At that time it became painfully obvious that my own walk with Christ would absolutely require me to separate from illegal drugs and alcohol immediately and forever. One clear implication of having gone through that process was learning that “freedom in Christ” most definitely does not include the freedom to continue abusing substances or being mastered by anything, whether it’s Wild Turkey or Diet Pepsi. So the only piece of wisdom I gained from that period of my life was to continually ask myself “What do I love more than Jesus?” Whatever it is, it at least needs to jump in the back seat or perhaps be eliminated altogether.

So I think the “vertical aspect” of freedom in Christ is pretty clear to me. If anything interferes with my love for Christ or my desire to pursue a personal relationship with Him, I am no longer free to enjoy that thing, as objectively “good” as that thing might be in and of itself. Things get decidedly trickier, though, when one starts to look at the “horizontal aspect” of freedom in Christ, simply because we are all wired so very, very differently. What causes me to stumble is no big deal to you; something that I find mildly amusing might set off all sorts of inner turmoil in someone else.

Being in relationship with others is commanded (Hebrews 10:24-25), and so is using love as the single-best yardstick for enjoying Christian freedom. As far as I can tell, the definitive passage on Christian freedom comes from the Apostle Paul.

Romans 14:13-23 (ESV, emphasis mine)
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.

I’m not a Bible scholar, so I won’t even pretend to understand everything that Paul is saying in this passage, but a few things seem pretty clear to me.

Let’s say that you, as a believer, are quite comfortable having a smoke after a good meal. You don’t abuse tobacco, neither do you “worship” having a smoke after a big meal; you simply enjoy it. Ultimately, though…you can take it or leave it. If, however, you are sharing a meal with a brother or sister in Christ who has a huge issue with smoking or is struggling to quit as a means of glorifying God, then the loving thing to do is to pass on having a post-dinner cigarette that day. Likewise in your dealings with a brother who is an alcoholic; it would not be loving at all for a Christian who does not personally struggle with alcoholism to invite a brother who is holding onto life-or-death sobriety by the skin of his teeth to meet up after the game at the local bar.

These guidelines seem pretty obvious, right? How about another, slightly-nuts example?

On the evening of Dec. 10, I took four of my daughters to see KISS perform their musical shtick at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Now there may well be more than one Christian reading this who might immediately be inclined to cluck their tongues and admonish me for doing so, and I am not entirely unsympathetic to that point of view…nor do I particularly relish the thought that in my own small way I helped bolster the bank accounts of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.

But here’s what I can tell you: All four of my girls had a blast. The five of us screamed our fool heads off, we paid way too much for concert T-shirts and the sheer spectacle of this event was unlike anything any of them had ever seen, hands down. Thankfully, the KISS band members largely confined themselves to “just” dressing like dopes, blowing things up, flying through the air on wires, smashing a guitar, and playing really, really loud. (And they had the good sense to encore with “Detroit Rock City.”)

So now the questions come: Was that a good way for a Christian father to spend an evening with four of his girls? Given that I grew up in Detroit in the 1970’s and that KISS was considered the band to see in concert, I know that the girls now have (for better or worse) a clearer sense of who their father was when he was their age…but we did blow a fair amount of time and money on this outing. So was that really a good idea?

Where I land (for now, anyway) looks something like this.

Was I free in Christ to take my daughters to a KISS concert? Yes, I think I was. Was I wise in Christ to take my daughters to a KISS concert? Many might say “probably not;” yet to do so without more information implies making a snap moral judgment based (perhaps) on little more than Christian legalism.

I strongly doubt that any of my girls “stumbled” as a result of this foolish adventure, nor do I think that any of them suspects that my taking them to see this circus of jaw-dropping stupidity is my way of secretly endorsing the view that it really is okay to “rock and roll all night…and party every day.” I consistently use my early life and background as the supreme example of “how not to live” when talking to my kids, and I suspect there are things out of this experience I can now point to the next time I talk to one of my daughters about living a life outside of Christ. And I got to spend an entire evening with my girls, watching them laugh at the onstage antics and scream at the fireworks, very clearly not taking any of it too seriously. I’m glad we went.

The Apostle Paul (i.e. not Paul Stanley) consistently makes love the supreme ethic for us as we make decisions about drinking, eating, KISS concerts, and anything else. I know it’s hard for some of us to accept that some Christians drink beer, dance, smoke Marlboros and/or attend R-rated movies. But I wonder if this reluctance to welcome other believers mirrors Peter’s mistaken preference to eat only with the Jewish converts when others were watching (Galatians 2:11-14)? Moreover, I wonder if we alienate others from the Christian faith by focusing way too much on secondary issues and thereby revealing our own lack of patience with an individual’s process of sanctification? “You’re a Christian now…cut it out!

Speaking personally, I have to remind myself over and over again how long it has taken for me to gradually lose my affinity for certain types of movies, diversions and leisure-time activities, many of which were not (strictly speaking) sinful in and of themselves…but neither were they “helpful” to my walk with Christ. I might well ask the Lord for the grace to be sanctified gradually, as a process, and yet somehow I might turn right around the next minute and expect my Christian brother or sister to immediately cast off everything that encumbers all at once. (How does that work, exactly?)

Jesus is exceedingly patient with all of us as we grow into our sanctification. He has for sure been unbelievably patient with me. I am grateful to worship a patient Christ Who knows where I struggle and yet loves me anyway. I wonder if that should cause us to think a little harder before we divide His congregation over issues that Paul assures us are not, finally, a big deal?

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