The Two Closets, Or Practicing Christian Liberty
In the very first month of this blog’s existence, I posted some detailed sermon notes from a particularly helpful message (and that’s saying something) that my beloved pastor, Mark Minnick, had preached to his congregation. With his permission, I turned those notes into a full-scale lesson in the 12th grade BJU Press Bible Truths textbook I was then working on. One of our top artists at BJU Press, Del Thompson, worked with me to create a unique illustration to help with the critical thinking questions at the end of the lesson. Over the years I have found myself going back to this lesson, and that’s a great reason for me to stick it up on the blog. I hope you’ll agree.
Practicing Christian Liberty
And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. (Phi 1:9-11)
Is it OK to watch an R-rated movie? Is drinking beer wrong? What counts as a modest neckline? Is it all right to wear a swimsuit in public? What kind of music is acceptable for the Christian? How late can I stay out? Is it proper to kiss before marriage? Flip over to the last page of this lesson for answers to these and all the other questions Christian teens have ever asked about things in the so-called “gray areas.” The answers are clear and will satisfy everyone on both sides of every issue and . . . All right, never mind.
No textbook lesson could give you all the answers. But sound biblical guidelines do exist. Lesson 21 about scriptural standards encouraged you to keep in mind that every ethical question involves a person applying a norm to a situation.
Paul offers some very important counsel for making right decisions in Philippians 1:9–11, and that counsel includes those same three elements.
- As for your person, your love must grow in knowledge and discernment (1:9); you should aim to be pure and blameless when Jesus comes (1:10); and your life should be filled by Christ-produced righteous fruit (1:11).
- As for God’s norm, He expects you to “approve things that are excellent” (1:10).
- As for the situation you must aim at, it’s “the glory and praise of God” (1:11).
It’s a mark of Christ-like maturity to be constantly examining yourself and your choices to see if they really are the fruit of discerning love, if they match God’s norm, and if they point toward God’s glory.
Approving Things That Are Excellent
Let’s focus on the norm—Paul’s admonition to us to “approve things that are excellent.” Just because something isn’t forbidden in Scripture doesn’t mean it’s an excellent choice. Not all lawful choices are neutral or fair game. Little kids prefer candy to fruit, and they’re as likely to try to pet a skunk as to pet a cat. These obviously aren’t excellent choices even though the Bible never forbids candy-eating or skunk-petting.
Think of all choices in your life as stuff stacked on shelves in two closets. Over one closet hangs a sign that reads, “Unlawful.” Over the other the sign says, “Liberty.” Part of increasing your love in knowledge and discernment is learning to recognize which closet various choices belong in. But it’s not a simple either-or matter because inside each closet are several different shelves.
The Unlawful Closet
Inside the Unlawful Closet is a shelf of things that are specifically prohibited in the Bible. On it we find choices as diverse as participating in extramarital sex (1 Cor. 6:18), deserting your spouse (1 Cor. 7:10–11), women teaching men in the church (1 Tim. 2:12), or murdering someone (Exod. 20:13).
In this same closet there’s another shelf, things prohibited by an individual or institution that has authority over you. God has said that we must obey our authorities, whether family, church, school, or government (Eph. 6:1; Rom. 13:1; Heb. 13:17). For example, if your father forbids you to listen to a certain music group, that choice sits in your Unlawful Closet and on this particular shelf—even though it may belong in someone else’s Liberty Closet because his authorities have no problem with it.
Also in the Unlawful Closet are the choices prohibited by your conscience. Scripture says that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom.14:23). So if your conscience doesn’t allow you to play sports on Sunday, to hold hands with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or to read a certain book, then that activity is unlawful for you. As Martin Luther famously said, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Of course, your conscience is not infallible. It’s important that your conscience be informed by Scripture; that’s why consistent daily Bible study should be a priority for you.
The last shelf in this closet is for applications of general scriptural prohibitions. The Bible sometimes gives non-specific commands such as “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11), “be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), or “make not provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14). These prohibitions don’t name particular activities, so you have to apply them to your own situation. Once you do, those choices are unlawful for you. For example, if you discern that by going to the beach you’re making provision for your flesh to fulfill its lusts, then that choice must be put on this shelf in the Unlawful Closet even though going to the beach is nowhere specifically prohibited by Scripture.
You’re probably beginning to realize by now that approving things that are excellent can be complex because a single choice can be placed on several different shelves at the same time. Your conscience might not let you play a pick-up game of basketball on Sunday afternoon because you see that as a case of “finding thine own pleasure” on the Lord’s day (Isa. 58:13). That activity might also be against your parents’ rules. Playing sports on Sunday then sits on the lower three shelves in your Unlawful Closet.
The Liberty Closet
But God isn’t primarily concerned about telling you what not to do. He wants you to aim high, i.e., to do everything for His praise and glory. He wants you to approve things that are excellent, not merely good. In order to do that, you’ll have to make some distinctions in the Liberty Closet, which is full of options that you’re free to choose because they’re not prohibited by the Bible, family, school, government, or conscience.
One shelf in that closet could be called the profitability shelf. To determine if a choice stacks up on this particular shelf, ask yourself questions such as these: Will this choice bring glory to God the way Paul speaks of in his prayer (Phil. 1:11)? Will it lay up treasures in heaven for me (Matt. 6:19)? For example, Legos building blocks are a good thing, and they may be a very profitable way for young children to spend time exercising their creativity and learning spatial reasoning. But how profitable is it for an eighteen-year-old to spend his Saturdays building Lego towns? How profitable are video games? Internet surfing? Texting? None of these things is wrong, but how much glory do they bring to God? How much heavenly treasure do they lay up for you?
This shelf has two divisions—the very profitable side and the not very profitable side. Maturity means opting for choices from the correct closet, from the proper shelf, and from the right place on the shelf!
Another shelf in the Liberty Closet could be labeled the power shelf: How much power would I be allowing this activity to have in my life? Paul held to the principle that among all the things that were permissible for him, he would “not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). The Bible never forbids watching funny videos on the Internet, and if your parents are fine with it, it belongs in your Liberty Closet. But how much power do viral video clips have over you? Once you start watching them, how many hours pass before you’re done? If you know that videos grab too much attention or time, what should you do?
A third shelf in your Liberty Closet would hold two kinds of choices—things that build people up and things that cause people to stumble. Some of the things you’re free to do might cause others to stumble. You, for example, may be able to watch a challenging intellectual film that contains a very anti-Christian philosophy. It may even help you gain discernment and learn where unbelievers are coming from. But your younger sister would be confused by it. Even though there’s no sex or violence in the movie, the way it justifies wrong thinking might be a stumblingblock to her. It might cause her to sin.
What should you do? It’s within your liberty to watch that movie just like Paul was free to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but he adamantly refused to lead someone else into sin: “If meat make my brother to offend,” he said, “I will eat no flesh while the world standeth” (1 Cor. 8:13).
Finally, the Liberty Closet also contains a shelf for inconsequential things (e.g., Am I going to wear glasses or contacts, eat carrots or broccoli for lunch, play softball tonight or ride my bike?) Our simplistic and immature tendency is to think that everything in this closet sits on the inconsequential shelf. But don’t make the mistake of taking choices that belong elsewhere and moving them to this shelf just so you don’t have to wrestle with the implications.
Battles over Christian Liberty
Now let’s pick up one of the controversial issues mentioned at the beginning of this lesson: should Christians watch R-rated movies? In which closet and on what shelves does that choice reside? For most readers of this book, it would probably sit on the following shelves:
- Unlawful shelf 1: Obviously, the Bible never mentions movies of any sort, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple matter of passing by this shelf. It depends on the content of the movie. We’ll put a question mark on this.
- Unlawful shelf 2: Christian parents and schools typically restrict teenagers from watching R-rated movies, but not always. If you’re under 17, you can’t see one in a theater without an “accompanying parent or adult guardian.”
- Unlawful shelf 3: Whether your conscience is against it or not is an individual matter, but you should educate your conscience with Scripture.
- Unlawful shelf 4: Doesn’t Paul’s warning to “make not provision for the flesh” apply to watching the sexual situations that show up in most R-rated movies? How about other general scriptural prohibitions? The Bible says that there shouldn’t be even a hint of sexual immorality among Christians (Eph. 5:3), for example.
- Liberty shelf 1: How profitable is watching a given rated-R movie for you? Can you sincerely thank God for this movie, and how much glory does it bring to Him (Col. 3:17)? Even if you’re free to watch it, does it approve of or promote things that are contrary to Scripture and offensive to God?
- Liberty shelf 2: How much might it affect you to watch sexual situations? Many people get addicted to pornography; that’s why it brings in more revenues in United States than all professional sports combined. That’s power.
- Liberty shelf 3: Even if you can watch a certain R-rated movie to the glory of God and avoid being brought under its power (some big ifs!), would watching it cause someone else to stumble? Could it lead immature Christians you know to think it’s OK for them?
Clearly the choice to watch a movie with this rating is not inconsequential, and if it sits on any shelf in your Unlawful Closet, it’s wrong for you.
Because your personal and cultural situation changes, you may make different choices at different points in your life. Beards on young men in 1965 America, for example, sent a negative cultural message that they simply don’t communicate today. Women never wore pants in public at a certain time in American history, but our cultural situation has obviously changed. Where does a fashion choice like that fit in the two closets now as opposed to 1905—or 1975? You’re responsible to think through and pray about these matters rather than oversimplifying life into two closets with no shelves in them.
Love and Choices
Love is what governs all the prayer requests in Philippians 1:10–11. Love, of course, must have an object. And we know that God should be our highest love. If our love for God is deficient, we’d better be suspicious of our decisions in matters of Christian liberty. How can I insure that my choices are really excellent? I must love God. And I must love others. Paul let that love for God and others govern his every choice, all the way down to what he ate! Paul even loved the believers at Philippi enough to pray that they would make excellent choices [Phil. 1:9–11]. Their decisions weren’t a completely private matter but were a concern to him.
Thinking it Through
Answer each of the following questions by drawing something in the appropriate closet [and on the appropriate shelf or shelves] in the diagram. In each case, be prepared to explain why you chose a particular shelf or shelves. [Some objects will fit on more than one shelf.]
- What shelves in your closets does listening to pop music belong on? Draw a CD in the diagram to indicate your answer.
- What’s your favorite sport (as either a participant or a spectator)? Which closet does it belong in? Draw a volleyball or basketball to represent it.
- Suppose you watch three and a half hours of television and Internet video per day, which is the average for U.S. teenagers. Where does this fit in? Draw a TV on the appropriate shelf.
- What about majoring in history in college? Draw a history book to show where that choice belongs.
- Which closet would drinking beer fit into (draw a can or bottle)? Or choose one moral or ethical issue of your own and draw something to show where it goes.