In today’s Bible reading, Paul addresses an issue that is commonly misunderstood in Christian circles. He discusses this issue elsewhere, but I’m limiting my discussion to the words he uses here.
One of the issues we must deal with as believers is the tension between liberty and love, or freedom and maturity. Believers are not under the Law, but under Grace. But this doesn’t mean that we can do anything we want to whenever we want to. The tension comes when we consider the fact that other believers are not at the same level of maturity as us. Therefore, we need to extend grace to them, and they need to extend grace to us.
In Paul’s day, the hot-button issue was eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. After being slaughtered, the sacrificed animal could be brought home and cooked up for dinner. For some, eating a sacrificed animal was tantamount to sacrificing it yourself! For others, it’s just another meal to be enjoyed. Paul says that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Romans 14:17 (CSB)
For Paul and his context, it was eating sacrificed meat. For our context, it may be going to a party where people may be drinking and dancing. Paul is not saying that believers can’t drink or dance. Rather he says that if drinking or dancing causes another believer to drink to excess or otherwise stumble into some other sin, it’s better to not exercise our freedom at that time in the presence of that other believer.
Does this mean that we’re hypocrites practicing “situational ethics”? No, it means that we recognize that we’re not at the same point in our walk with Christ. Some of us aren’t (yet?) capable of doing some things that others are free to do.
Let me throw this out…. the party I mentioned above where people are drinking and dancing … what if the party is a wedding reception at a local country club? Does that change the situation? Does that change whether a believer should attend? What if the believer has been sharing her faith with the mother of the groom? This could open doors to share her faith with other family members. But should the faith-sharing believer not go to the wedding reception simply because a church member (who has no connection with the wedding party and thus, isn’t invited to the wedding) might be “offended”?
Paul’s use of two words may help us to understand how to handle the situation. He says believers should not put a stumbling block or a pitfall before another believer. (Romans 14:13) Both words can be translated as “stumbling block”. But the use of both words seems to indicate there’s a difference between the two. The second word can mean, not only something that someone trips over, but also a snare or a pit.
What Paul is trying to say is that believers should watch how they live so that other believers won’t stumble into, be ensnared by, or otherwise fall into sin. In other words, don’t set up someone to sin.
Scripture consistently condemns drunkenness, however, it never condemns consuming alcohol. Actually, Paul encourages Timothy to drink wine for “medicinal purposes”. (1 Timothy 5:23) Drinking alcohol with a meal was commonplace until about one hundred years ago, even in the homes of the church leaders in current “teetotaling” denominations. The “Prince of Preachers”, Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon enjoyed his beer and cigars back in the 1800s. And I remember the painting of Southwestern Baptist Seminary’s first President that hangs in the Rotunda on campus. If you look at his left hand, it’s oddly placed in his pocket. Actually, the pocket was painted over Dr. Carroll’s cigar.
If you knew that a new believer had been delivered from years of alcoholism, you wouldn’t serve wine to him at dinner at your house. In fact, if you’re living according to the Law of Love that Paul has been discussing, you yourself wouldn’t drink wine at that time either. Even in your own home. Is it ok to drink in your own home? Sure, so long as you don’t drink to drunkenness and you don’t cause another believer to stumble into sin. In other words, you’re free. But don’t set a trap for someone else. Elsewhere, Paul says, you’re free, but don’t use your freedom as a license to sin. (Galatians 5:13)
I have already provided several examples of how to apply living with the Laws of Liberty and Love. The bottom line is that you don’t need to look over your shoulder, afraid your pastor or deacon might see you take a sip of beer. Your pastor and deacon should be more mature than that.
Instead, you should live with a mind to avoid setting up someone to fail when tempted. Build them up. Set them up to succeed. (Romans 14:19 CSB)
This devotional was originally published on June 1, 2019.