Thursday, September 29, 2005


The tyranny of the stronger

Since coming to the Reformed faith, I've become a staunch defender of Christian liberty. In a nutshell, this crucial Biblical doctrine teaches us that (1) only the Law of God--the Scriptures--is to be binding on man's conscience and (2) all things which are not prohibited in God's Law, either explicitly or by good and necessary inference, and which do not lead you to commit deeds that are sin, are lawful. A right understanding of Christian liberty is essential in order to safeguard the sufficiency and completeness of God's Law, lest we either add to or take away from God's perfect moral Law.

The principle of Christian liberty has been especially important during my lifetime. Within evangelicalism, there has been a strong tendency towards adding laws to the Law of God. Who among us hasn't been warned against drinking this beverage or listening to that music by someone who warns us that by indulging we risk falling into sin? Now, Scripture does teach that the Christian ought never sin against his conscience, so certainly I ought to abstain from a thing if my conscience reproaches me for partaking of it, but not all Christians have a conscience that's as sensitive as mine: some have weaker consciences, whereas others have stronger. In his great exposition on Christian liberty (Romans 14), Paul warns believers against imposing their scruples on each other. The weak are not to cajole the strong to give up their liberty, but the strong are not to parade their liberty before the weak, lest they cause the weaker brother to stumble.

In my experience, the most common error regarding Christian liberty has been that of allowing the weaker brother to dictate the behavior of the stronger. Let's call this error the tyranny of the weaker. Let's say I enjoy a particular kind of music, a pleasure that isn't explicitly or implicitly forbidden in Scripture. Although I can enjoy it with a clear conscience before God, you feel that that type of music isn't proper for any Christian to listen to, and you tell me so. What should I do? Must I stop listening to this music? Yes and no. If my weaker brother is fellowshipping with me, I ought to respect his conscience and refrain from playing the music in question whenever he's present. It may also be wise for me to avoid discussing that music with him. Thus, I am free to enjoy my liberty but I avoid causing my brother offense. But what if he drops into my house suddenly and hears me playing the offensive music? Have I sinned? No, because I did not deliberately do so to offend him. Had I known that he was going to visit, I would have made certain to not play that music during his visit. Although some teach that the stronger brother, although he's technically free, ought to abstain at all times in order to avoid all possible offense of this type, I would argue that this is a foolish teaching because it turns Christian liberty into something that can be enjoyed only in theory but never in practice.

Although the tyranny of the weaker has long been the most common error regarding Christian liberty, I have lately been seeing rumblings of a new, perhaps even greater, danger: the tyranny of the stronger. In this error, the liberty of the believer of stronger conscience is of such great importance that it is to be defended even at the imminent risk of causing offense to those of weaker conscience. Although I have just argued that accidental offense is always possible and often unavoidable, the error I see lately seems to feature a tendency for the strong believer to parade his liberty in front of the weaker brother, in effect saying, "What I'm doing isn't prohibited by God, so I'm going to enjoy it whether you like it or not. What's more, I'm going to make sure that you know exactly what I'm doing." This hypothetical sentence is, I fear, all too suggestive of the cocky and self-centered attitude I'm seeing in some believers of stronger conscience.

When I first found my way to Reformed circles, I was rather surprised to learn of an interesting phenomenon that's sometimes called the "Spurgeon societies." In these little clubs, Reformed Christians--usually only men--get together and talk theology while they drink wine or other alcoholic beverages and smoke cigars. I believe that Spurgeon's name got tacked on to these groups on account of his well-known love of fine cigars. As a newly Reformed believer who'd come out of the tyranny of the weaker brother, this came as a small shock to me, but as I became better acquainted with the Bible's teaching on Christian liberty and observed the lifestyles of the men who participated in these groups, I came to accept this practice. I think the conduct of the participants in these groups played a large role in reconciling myself to it. Without exception, I noticed that these men took pains to enjoy their liberty quietly without the slightest hint of parading it in front of those who might stumble over it. Moreover, their way of life betrayed no sign of addiction to any of their pleasures, and they generally lived healthy lifestyles: proper diet and exercise, etc.. Their pleasure did not rule them, and they practiced it in such a way so as to not cause others offense. Now, I personally can't stand cigar smoke and I don't particularly enjoy most alcoholic beverages so I cannot imagine ever joining a "Spurgeon society", but I do enjoy other pleasures that might cause others to feel pangs of guilt. Although I doubt I'll ever join the Spurgeon guys, I must say that I respect what they do and that I've learned much from their example of how to go about enjoying Christian liberty in a proper, God-honoring manner.

In the recent movement towards the tyranny of the stronger, I've not seen such a pretty picture. Whereas my Spurgeon friends enjoy their liberty in a peaceful, quiet, and responsible manner, I'm learning of some Christians who will tell you all about the things that they feel free to swallow, inhale, wear, and pierce, and they will defend their right to do so with much vehemence. In some cases, especially regarding body piercing, tattooing, and clothing, they'll display their liberties for all the world to see: both stronger and weaker. Whereas I've never had occasion to watch my cigar-smoking friends enjoy their indulgence, the uber-liberated are happy to show me just how strong their consciences are, with little or no regard paid to how strong my conscience may be.

My friend, Christian liberty is a precious gift, one that ought to be preciously guarded against those who would seek to bind our consciences to any law save God's Law, but it ought not be exercised in a way that causes unnecessary or purposeful offense to those who possess weaker consciences. I am sincerely grieved to see the rising tyranny of the strong, and pray that God will grant His church a balanced Biblical understanding of how Christian liberty is to be enjoyed.

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