If you’re born in the United States, you have a lot of freedoms. Freedom of speech, religion, to bear arms, and a whole Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion gives people almost limitless freedom regarding worship and even starting churches (check out this guy who had a ton of fun starting his own church while learning about the corrupt system). I’ve been in countries where it’s illegal to teach the Bible or even own one. Not only can we have a Bible here in the States and take it anywhere we’d like to, but we even have the freedom to start a church in our living room. Christians have incredible freedoms here in our country and unfortunately, not all Christians around the world have those same freedoms.
The Bible talks a lot about freedoms and what we should do with it. One of the places the Bible talks very clearly about freedom is in 1 Corinthians, a book written by a guy named Paul. Paul was a guy whose life was radically changed when he met Jesus on the side of the road, and he ended up becoming a leader of the Christian movement. He wrote many letters encouraging other Christians that are recorded in the Bible. One of the letters, 1 Corinthians, (which is the second letter he wrote to the church there, ironically) was written to deal with conflict within the church in Corinth. It was also written to answer a letter he received from Corinth asking for help on what to do and believe about various issues (see 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). He used more than seventy-five idioms from first-century slavery to teach Christians about obedience being a key ingredient within a relationship with God. But Paul also talks about the freedom and “knowledge” we have within that submission.
Paul begins 1 Corinthians 8 by talking to Christians who are already inside the church. He’s not preaching on the corner or trying to convert new believers, but he’s speaking with those who already believe in Jesus and are trying to determine some practical steps in their faith. People want to know, can we eat the meat that has been offered to a false idol?
Delicious meat was being served and sold that could have been used in a ritual to a false god. Sometimes, it was difficult for people to even know if the meat they were eating had been used in a ritual or not. So they have a tough question: do we have the freedom to do this? I think many modern-day Christians have similar questions about different liberties that could fill in the blank, can I do ______?
After Paul explains and reiterates that idols aren’t real and that there is only one true God, he lays out the simple answer in verse 8 that people were looking for: you don’t lose anything if you eat it, and you don’t gain anything if you do. Paul teaches us that we have the freedom to eat it if our consciousness allows us. As The Message version says, “God doesn’t grade us on our diet.”
But that’s not the profound truth in this chapter that stands out to me. It comes in the next verse, verse 9, which says, “But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble.” Wow. Boom. Yeah… that freedom that you have? Paul reminds us that it comes with a lot of responsibility. A lot of responsibility. Verse 12 says, “And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ.”
I have to be honest, this is a lot of sin for a stupid steak. Probably not even that good considering most of these meats were not cooked by chefs with white hats and red aprons. Mmm. In-N-Out.
So if others were offended by the meat being eaten in their presence, the Christians weren’t to eat it because it could confuse the crowd and possibly lead others astray from their walk with Christ. Let me put it this way: Even if it wasn’t a sin by true Biblical standard, if others thought it was, you couldn’t do it.
I once read a Stan Lee comic that had the line, "With great freedom comes great responsibility" or something like that.
What Paul was basically saying is just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s right to do it.
Many parents are ok with their 15-year olds watching a PG-13 movie. Many homes will be filled with teenagers on Friday nights watching scary movies this October. However, many parents would not allow for their 5 year old to join in on their older brother’s Halloween movie night. It just wouldn’t be beneficial for a five-year old to watch an insanely scary clown lure children into the sewer. Is it ok to watch a scary movie? Well, yeah. But is it always ok? You get the point.
Good big brothers know they have to put the relationship ahead of being right. Do they have the right to watch the flick? Yes, but their little brother doesn’t and that means that the older brother’s rights should be infringed. Is it fair? No. But we can’t let our freedom chain up others.
If we want to grow in spiritual maturity in this area, I believe we have to understand and agree to a difficult truth: your freedom isn’t unlimited. Unlimited freedom in any area can be an incredibly scary thing. If everyone had the freedom to do exactly whatever they wanted, our world would be chaos.
Unlimited freedom brings unending problems.
Just as it is true financially, predetermining our guardrails help us tremendously to stay on track in our spiritual faith. But what do we do when we’re not sure where those guardrails should be?
It has been an interesting two weeks. NFL players kneeling or joining arms in protest of the National Anthem has the Facebook comment button worn out. The largest mass-shooting in the modern United States history ignites arguments on gun control and regulations. I’ve watched grown men scream into Go Pro’s mounted in their trucks about respecting the flag and late night hosts give calls to action to end gun violence. Our nation is divided by these issues and there seems to be no clear solution for both parties to agree on. Ignorance and fear bring judgement and division.
Along with freedom, Paul also taught on division. One of the causes of disunity he teaches on in Philippians 2:3-4 is selfish ambition. People tend to make things about themselves instead of about other others. Christians are included in that; we just word it differently. We want to know, “how much can I get away with? What is the limit I can push this to without getting into trouble?” Can I do _____?
We might have grown up our whole life thinking a sip of alcohol will send us to hell, and then our parents send us to some private Christian liberal arts college and our world flips upside down. And boy, do we love to talk about that new-found freedom. We dive into every scriptural verse about homosexuality and then read a Christian book on it and then blast our social feeds with misrepresented texts. Or maybe we read another great Christian book about pleasure and find out that smoking a pipe or cigar might not be so bad, but we mishandle our own criteria of what’s ok for us to do on behalf of God for others in our circle. Understandably, not all Christians agree on how to handle these kinds of issues. And these disagreements (and others) have led to disunity within the church.
Take a moment to think about how many Christian denominations there are within your city. Now think about all of Christianity. The World Christian Database represents over 9,000 Christian denominations, but it doesn’t say who is represented and who isn’t. Think that number is high? This Christianity Statistics article, updated March 2017, states that there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations. Another guy used statistics to create this graph to project the number of denominations there will be in the year 2025: 55,000 different denominations. Not total churches, but 55,000 different types of churches each with unique sets of beliefs.
In the last prayer that Jesus prayed before He was betrayed, Jesus prays for the future church. Want to know what He prayed for? “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” Jesus prayed that the church would be unified as one.
I’m not sure what the solution is to fix today’s current problems. But I do know this: the Church has to get better at coming together. There is almost no bigger need than for the Church to become one. It is in our disunity that we are the most helpless and useless during these horrific events. I'm embarrassed by how I see individuals respond on social outlets. By continually multiplying our divisions, Satan has deterred many people from coming to know Jesus. This same Jesus gave up His freedom so that we could have a chance at it in eternity. Did you catch that? Christ gave up everything so that we might have something. If we want to be like Jesus, we cannot respond to selflessness by fighting for every “right” that we can get. In Luke 9:23, Jesus says that if we want to follow Him, it starts by denying ourselves. That just might mean denying our rights, too.
Whether we believe that right includes standing or kneeling for a national anthem, maybe it is more important to treat our neighbors with love and kindness than it is to enjoy the freedom to respond however we feel like. That might mean that even we know we can be a conscious owner of an assault rifle, our figurative younger 5-year old brother down the street may not be able to handle that. If we want to halt unending problems, maybe we’ll need to be ok with limited freedom.
Take the seatbelt law for example. Automobile deaths have dramatically decreased since its creation. Seat belts have saved an estimated 255,000 lives since 1975. Nobody 'likes' to wear a seatbelt. I mean c'mon, this is America and I should be able to sit in the car I purchased however I want to. And yet, this simple policy, this limited freedom, has saved thousands of lives. Now that we've seen how beneficial it has been, no one in their right mind would argue against it.
I wonder how many more could be saved with a few small policy changes that might 'limit' freedom. But maybe that won't happen, and we'll continue to swirl in this endless cycle. And maybe we’ll need to endure it together, responding better as one.
The next time we're in a situation regarding a freedom of behavior or speech, instead of assuming our privileges, we need to think about if that act or right will be beneficial to others. Jesus didn't just call us to stand up for what's right, He also said to do it in a way that treated others around us with love and respect.
I think the most difficult aspect of all of this is choosing how we will defend or stand up for our beliefs on our social networks. For if we express something in the wrong way, it doesn't matter if what we say is wrong or right.
Maybe instead of asking ourselves, "Can I do that?" we need to start asking ourselves, "Should I do that?"