Free Not to Exercise Freedom

By Gil Rugh

I am frequently approached with questions about Christian liberty, and two of the most common questions regard alcohol and smoking. Although I am rarely asked if I would like a cigar or cigarette (probably because smoking is no longer “in vogue” with the older generations), I am occasionally asked if I would like an alcoholic drink.

“No, thank you,” I respond.

“Come on,” they prod. “The Bible says you have the freedom to enjoy a glass of wine.”

“Sure,” I say, “and the Bible also says I have the freedom not to enjoy a glass of wine, so I choose to exercise my freedom not to.”

If I began to drink alcohol, I believe it would directly affect my ministry. I believe smoking would also affect my ministry. Many in this local church would have a hard time with me puffing on a cigar or downing a beer—and understandably so—even though the Bible does not address it as sin. So what is the purpose of Christian liberty?

The ultimate purpose and intention of Christian liberty, like everything in a Christian’s life, is to share and further the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I must ask myself, “Will this action promote the cause of Christ?” Believers must be extremely sensitive in the area of Christian liberty. We do not want to become knit-pickers on these issues. I simply used drinking and smoking as illustrations, because they are the questions that are probably raised most often. I do not believe that they are any worse or any better than other questionable areas.

It is amazing how often we, Christians, pride ourselves on our maturity but also vehemently fight for our rights. We feel we must prove that other Christians are legalistic. We argue that others do not understand Christian liberty. We insist that it does not matter if we participate in a particular activity or not. We want to make sure everyone knows that we have liberty as Christians to do it. But we must also understand that we have liberty not to do it—this is crucial. If participating in any activity raises questions about our motives in the ministry and our service for Jesus Christ, then we ought to exercise our liberty not to do it.

It is wrong to pressure Christians into exercising their liberties in areas where they don’t believe they should. The other extreme, however, is just as wrong. Legalism is setting rules in areas that Scripture does not address and then indicating that following these rules makes one more pleasing to God. It is obvious that we don’t understand Christian liberty if we believe that adhering to non-biblical rules or standards makes one more acceptable to God and if we are quick to judge those who are open to doing things that we are not.

We need to be careful that we demonstrate maturity and love in our relationships by sometimes not doing what we know we have the freedom to do and sometimes not being overly critical of those who do things we do not do. We must evaluate ourselves and our service to Jesus Christ and not others in their ministry for Him.

My desire is that we continually grow in biblical knowledge by learning the Word. But I also desire that we be increasing in love for one another. Then we can use our knowledge in a biblical way to honor and exalt Jesus Christ, to build up one another in love and to reach the lost with the message of His salvation.