Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Block Stumbling Against Tyrannical Weakness

We evangelicals are still stumbling about.

Stumbling not so much in an alcoholic stupor, but in our efforts to defend drinking alcohol in the first place.

This past summer, the renowned Moody Bible Institute decided to drop its liquor ban that prevented staff members from drinking.  The same ban applied to smoking and gambling, too, and now, those two activities are permissible for staff members as well.  Reaction within the evangelical community has been mostly positive, probably because most evangelicals already drink, and many smoke, and some gamble.

Yet Moody's is not a move evangelicals make without some angst.

Indeed, the question of "gray area" pastimes can still arouse consternation.  A century ago, drinking, smoking, dancing, and gambling were considered cardinal sins.  In time, going to the movies and listening to rock-and-roll were added to the list of vices good Christians couldn't do if they wanted to go to Heaven.  But these days, with a strong aversion to such legalistic rules having taken hold across North American Christianity, institutions like Moody seemed anachronistic for holding onto the old regulations for proper, pious behavior.

Even if that piety was based more on one's actions - or lack of them - than one's love for Christ and His church.

For Moody's administrators, push came to shove after too many of their staff members complained that they felt out-of-place at professional gatherings off-campus when their peers would drink, but they couldn't.  The school also says that it couldn't compete in the recruitment of prized professors because its bans against traditional vices struck prospective employees as too parochial.

Vices had become stumbling blocks of a different sort.

Then last week, the dialog continued.  A young pastor from Pennsylvania, Stephen Altrogge, wrote an article about Christians concerned about being stumbling blocks when they desire to participate in an activity other Christians might consider sinful.  His article, "What Does It Mean to Cause Somebody to Stumble?" has received widespread attention on several evangelical websites, apparently because the question he asks is one many Christians don't like to ask.

For their part, Moody's administrators aren't exactly sanctioning what evangelicals have traditionally considered vices.  They've simply decided to not force their staff members to adhere to man-made rules.  They're going to trust their employees to know how to answer the question Algrogge posits in his article.  Because, although the ban has been lifted for Moody's workers, it's still in effect for its students.

And for his part, Altrogge does a fine job of answering his own question.  Succinctly put, he writes, "when our 'rights' lead others to act against their consciences we have become stumbling blocks."

That's not a hard concept to grasp.

But isn't there a bigger issue here?  It's not so much about what we eat or drink, or when, or who we do it in front of.  In order to do anything to the glory of God, don't we need to remember that God constantly looks at our heart?  He always knows the real reasons for why we do something.  So, for example, even if we don't verbalize it, God sees us mentally bemoan our check of activities that could be a stumbling block to others.

Some have pejoratively dubbed this practice of principled abstention the "tyranny of the weaker brother" to describe its negative connotation.  They see it as an encroachment on their liberty in Christ.

"Yeah, OK, I won't have this drink, because the Apostle Paul is going to put a guilt trip on me for possibly, potentially, leading some weaker fundamentalist to think they're sinning."

And there's some sort of virtue in begrudging the Apostle Paul his teaching straight from the Holy Spirit?  In fact, might you be committing a sin by resenting the fact that you think your freedoms are being compromised?

Think about it:  Who gave you those freedoms?  Did you earn them?  Or are they a gift?  And if they're a gift, were there any stipulations that came along with them?  How much of our freedoms don't come with any level of responsibility and accountability?  And how dreadfully do you suffer if you have to abstain from exercising a particular freedom for a dinner party or sporting event?

Don't we also need to consider the Fruit of the Spirit?  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Right?  Where does stubbornly taking a drink come into play?  Where does even "needing" to take a drink come into play?  Alternatively, where does patience for that tyrannical weaker brother come into play?  In fact, might it be almost as likely that the reason some Christians get so hot and bothered over this stumbling block issue involves some sort of dependency on the addictive liquid, or the gambling, or the smoking...?

Hey - nobody likes having other people tell us what to do.  We certainly don't like having to accommodate things we perceive to be weaknesses or frailties in other people.   Yet, if we're not gracious in relinquishing things we believe are not sinful, how does that honor God?  How is that displaying love for a brother or sister in Christ who may have legitimate struggles with a particular vice?

"That weaker brother should love me and let me have my drink," you might want to retort.  "He should read his Bible more, and learn about the real sins God explicitly lays out in His Word."

Okay, so now who's being tyrannical?  Who's making this all about rules?  Yes, God has made rules that we should follow, but shouldn't we follow them out of love for Him and His people?  How would not demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit ourselves effectively model Christ's Gospel?  Might we even find an opportunity to demonstrate to our "weaker brother" that what he thinks may be a sin really isn't that big of a deal?  If you can take it or leave it in love, how much less rules-oriented might you both become?

Now, of course, some of these vices are not like the others.  Drinking wine in moderation, for instance, can be good for you.  Using tobacco products, on the other hand, is unhealthy to varying degrees in all of its forms, and while previous generations of sincere Christ-followers enjoyed tobacco, we know enough about it today to know better.  It also seems like a trivial way to burn through a couple of bucks, particularly considering the price of cigars.

And speaking of money, let's consider Whose money all of the dollars, pounds, guilders, krona, and assorted other currencies are to begin with.  And His ordinary means of providing them to His people.  If you want to assume that winning the lottery is a good expression of God's provision, even though you did very little to earn it, how willing would you be to give it all away?  And how would you feel if you gave somebody some money to provide for their needs, only to have them squander it on a game of chance?  Might your answers to these questions reveal a heart condition involving little more than a love of money?

In a very real sense, everything about the "tyranny of the weaker brother" and being a stumbling block has to do with self-centeredness, doesn't it?  Worrying about what I have to give up.  Being indignant that I should have to give up anything.  Wanting my pleasures.  Wanting more, period.

The only thing God ever instructs us to want more of is Him.  Now, perhaps, one could argue that since goodness is part of God's character, the good things that He has provided for us here on Earth are for us to want, too.  But where in Scripture are we allowed to want them, pursue them, and enjoy them at the expense of the love we're to show to our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Indeed, freedom isn't free, especially for those of us who've been bought with a price.

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