Now the second principle for determining God’s will in doubtful matters is that, although all things are permissible for the Christian because he is not under the law but under grace, still all things are not helpful, and some things should therefore be avoided. This is true for two reasons: first, because the thing itself may gain a harmful control over him and, second, because through him it may hurt other Christians.
The first reason is given in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any of them.” Paul was writing this and he knew that God had not set him free from sin and the law in order for him to become captive to mere things. The guiding principle here, if I could put it in other words, is whether you as a Christian are using things or things are using you. Take food for example. Nothing can be as obviously good for a person as good food. It is necessary for bodily strength as well as mental health. But at the same time it’s possible for a person to become so addicted to overeating that the good end is thwarted, and the person’s health endangered. So certain eating habits should be avoided.
Paul gives another example, and the second example is sex. This, too, is good. It is a gift of God. Within the bonds of marriage it is a force for strength in the home, as well as being an expression of close union and love. But it, too, can be destructive. It can control the person instead of the person controlling it. And in this form, sex can destroy the very values it was created to maintain. The Bible teaches that the Christian must never use things—food, sex, drugs, alcohol, cars, homes, stocks, whatever it may be—in such a way that he actually falls under their power. In some of these cases, such as the case of habit-forming drugs, I would think that 1 Corinthians 6:12 is an unequivocal warning to avoid them.
But now, later on in 1 Corinthians, Paul gives another reason why all things are not helpful. And here he says that the freedom of one believer may hurt the spiritual growth of another. Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful, but all things edify not” (10:23). That is, they don’t build up, and the verses that follow show that he is thinking of fellow Christians.
Now, I don’t believe this verse means you have to take your standard of conduct entirely from what other Christians say or think. If you do that, you will either become hypocritical (that is, being one thing with one person and another thing with another) or go mad. Ethel Barrett, who is well known for her Bible story work among children, has told of her early experiences with matters of dress when she first began to travel about the country. Originally she came from California, and her standards of dress were formed by the climate and style of California. Hence, her clothes were bright and she wore a good deal of makeup and large hats. When she went to the East in some areas and began to work there, she soon met some to whom her standards of dress seemed unspiritual. They said, “Why is she dressing like that? That is no way for a Christian to dress.” Well, she was young in those days, and she took it to heart. She changed her clothes, she stopped wearing makeup. It was not long however, before some remarks got back to her; “Why does she have to look so drab and unpleasant?” They said she would have a much more effective and spiritual ministry if she would brighten herself up a bit.
Well, Ethel Barrett learned through the experience that you can’t take all your standards of conduct from other Christians, and she was right. The verse does not mean that you’re to allow the prejudices and viewpoints of others to dictate your pattern of behavior. You stand and fall before the Lord. He’s your master. Still, you know the verse does mean something, because it says that there are situations in which we must avoid certain things, even if they are right in themselves, lest they be detrimental to others.
The matter of alcohol is one example. You are not to serve alcohol to a Christian for whom it is a serious problem; and for his sake, if necessary, you are to avoid it also. Moreover, you are to be consistent in your abstinence, for you mustn’t appear double-faced or hypocritical. And you must sometimes be consistent over a long, long period of time. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:13, “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” Just think: “While the world standeth”! And this from the same apostle who defended the cause of Christian liberty successfully before the Jerusalem apostles. Remember that it will be costly if you are to be careful of the effect of your conduct upon others.
Now our third principle is one that best helps direct our conduct in doubtful areas, and it comes from Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
According to this verse, you see, the Christian is to decide between doubtful things by choosing the best.
This does not exclude the best things in our society, whether explicitly Christian or not, for the meat of the verse lies in the fact (which commentators have not always noted) that the virtues mentioned here are, for the most part, pagan virtues. These words do not occur in the great lists of Christian virtues, lists that include love, joy, peace, longsuffering, and so forth, as in Galatians. On the whole they’re taken from Greek ethics and from the writings of Greek philosophers. Therefore, in using these words, Paul was actually sanctifying as it were the generally accepted virtues of pagan morality. And he’s saying that although the pursuit of the best things by Christians will necessarily mean the pursuit of fellowship with God, pursuit of the will of God, pursuit of all means to advance the cause of the Gospel, and many other spiritual things also, it will not mean the exclusion of the best values that the world has to offer. The best things that are acknowledged to be honorable by the best men everywhere are also worthy to be cultivated by Christians. Consequently, as a Christian you can love all that is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report wherever you find it. You can rejoice in the best of art and literature. You can thrill to great music. You can thrive on beautiful architecture. And of course you can also thank God for giving men the ability, even in their fallen state, to create such beauty.
Moreover, as you use this principle for determining God’s will in doubtful things, you can also take confidence from the promise of God’s presence that accompanies it. Paul often wrote parenthetically in his letters, and he did so here also. The result is that the first half of verse 9 partially distorts the meaning of the sentence if we do not pick up on Paul’s parenthesis. Verse 9 reads, “Those things which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do. And the God of peace shall be with you.” You would tend to think that the promise of God’s presence is attached to the first half of the verse. Actually, it’s attached to verse 8, and the promise is: Whatever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, think on these things…and the God of peace shall be with you.
In other words, when you pursue the highest things in life, both spiritually and secularly, then the God of peace will be with you. And you will have the confidence that He will bless and guide you as you seek to please Him.