Saturday, June 09, 2007

Of Pharisees and Freedom

I am constantly blessed by the quality of the articles on the Christian Worldview Network. Many of them are edifying and challenging. One that I found particularly so this week is "Are the Pharisees Still Among Us?" by Steve Cornell. In it he examines who the Pharisees were and what they believed, and relates it to us today: are you a Pharisee?

He points out that the Pharisees started out with the commendable goal of returning to faithful obedience to the Mosaic Law after Israel was punished for her continual disobedience by being exiled to Babylon. Yet over the years they placed their applications of the law on equal footing as the law itself, and became very condemning and judgemental on anyone who violated their sometimes ridiculous rules and regulations.

Steve then points out the same attitude in many Christians today. We make specific applications from Biblical principles, and rightly so. But then we go on to judge others' spirituality by our application, when there is room for legitimate differences of interpretation or application. In that way, we elevate our own convictions in areas that are not specifically addressed by scripture to the level of scripture itself, just as the Pharisees did. When we judge others based on those convictions rather than based on scripture itself, we do the very thing Jesus condemned the Pharisees for and commanded us not to do in Matthew 7.

There is room for differences of application of general principles in scripture, and we should be careful to allow our brothers and sisters that liberty. There is, of course, the opposite extreme of "anything goes," but that is not what Steve is advocating here. He encourages us to be firm in our convictions in these areas, but to at the same time grant the same privelege to Christians who disagree (again, speaking about areas the Bible does not specifically address).

He includes a list toward the end of areas in which sincere Christians disagree on the application of biblical principles in areas not specifically outlined in scripture, and challenges us about our attitude towards those who disagree with us on those issues. This list was quite challenging to me in different ways, since I come from a tradition that would not practice most of the things on the list. I can immediately find principles in scripture that I would contend are violated by those practices. But I need to remember that for most of those items, that is one possible application of those principles, but that does not mean it is the only one, nor that the application is as authoritative as scripture itself. I am not to condemn Christians who do those things as doing something categorically wrong.

At the end he shares several points, based on Romans 14 and 15, on dealing with our differences in what he calls "areas of freedom." I agree completely with those points, and with the general thrust of the article as a whole. At the same time, there is a very important principle that he does not take into account.

For instance, he speaks of Christians considering the things on the list as being either right or wrong, obviously permitted or obviously forbidden. But the Bible speaks of another set of categories that Christians are to live by, namely good or best. In other words, we are not only to avoid things that are wrong, we are also to choose the right things that are best over the right things that are merely good, or "permissible". As the apostle Pauls says, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not." (1 Corinthians 10:23) In discussing principles of Christian liberty, Paul says that even though some things are not wrong, they are not for the best either. Even though some things are not forbidden, they do not help us in our walk with God either.

Later on in the same passage, Paul states the goal we should have in such "areas of freedom": "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31) Our primary focus should be to please God in everything we do, to ask about every action or practice, "Is this the best?" rather than merely "Is this okay?" or "Is there anything wrong with this?".

So going back to that list, we need to look at it in a different perspective. If asked, "are these wrong", I would say that most of them are not wrong, since they are not specifically condemned by scripture. But if you were to ask, "are these the best", I would say that most of them are not. Yes, they are "permissible", but do we really want to partake of what is merely "permissible" before God, or do we want to do the things that are best?

Going back to the issue of judging others, I confess that I do often have a problem with that, and I do need to be more careful to allow other Christians the same liberty that God allows them. But at the same time, that does not mean that I have to believe that what they are doing is the best choice, even though it might not be wrong. So I challenge you, along with myself, is what you are doing best, or "only" right?

No comments: