The Christian Middle Ground

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Scripture often warns us to adjust our behavior according to our interaction with others. We are told to be culturally relevant to those we are trying to reach—Paul adjusted his behavior, in relation to the law, based on his audience (1 Corinthians 9:20). We are also told that if exercise of our freedom would harm our brother we should lovingly restrain ourselves (Romans 14:20-22). These are commendable and good, but extremes of either were never intended.

Cultural relevance can easily degrade into a negative version of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This is often used as an excuse to pretend there is no higher good than that defined by a culture. Surrender in this area is often the easier way, allowing us to blend in and escape ridicule common among those who are different. Reaching the world for Christ always requires giving the message in a way that works within a cultural setting, but standing for Christ often involves direct confrontation with those cultural elements that violate Christ’s teachings and commands. A culture in which male infidelity is not expected does not excuse such practices among Christian males living within that culture. Relevance, if taken too far, leads to licentiousness.

Restraint for the good of a weaker brother or sister is another area where balance and care is needed. Paul, who gave us this command, also modeled standing up against legalistic tyranny in the church (Galatians 2:11-15). Refraining from eating meat or drinking wine because it will shipwreck the faith of another is commendable. Refraining from drinking wine in the presence of a brother with an alcohol problem is also commendable. However, this is too often used as a bludgeon by the legalists to bind those whom Christ has freed: “I disagree with what you are doing so you must stop doing it!” If your action is not actually going to hurt the other brother’s faith or inspire them to sin, there is no need to abstain. Simply not liking an action is not enough to bind all others from the action. Scripture plainly tells us, if you can eat this or drink that, while thanking God for it, do so. If you can’t, then don’t. But demanding a brother or sister submit to your preferences is not what Paul intended. In this case, abuse leads to legalism.

There is a wide plain between licentiousness and legalism. In that middle land is the Christian life based on love for God and respect for others. But go too far to either extreme and you fall off into disobedience and slavery. The licentious are disobedient in matters of morality and enslaved to their lusts. The legalists are disobedient in love of fellow believers while enslaved to earthly principles having nothing to do with true righteousness.

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