I’m going to assume, for the purposes of this article, that there are moral issues or questions that fall into what some would call “the gray area.” That is, they are neither “black” (explicitly sinful) or “white” (explicitly righteous). Drinking alcohol, short of drunkenness is a common example. Smoking, watching certain movies or reading certain novels that may contain questionable themes or language, dancing and gambling (for fun) are other examples of so-called “gray area” issues.
For the record, I am not conceding that these are, in fact, “gray area” issues. There are biblical principles that, arguably, would justify regarding these issues as unrighteous, in themselves. However, for purposes of this article, let’s suppose that these activities are not addressed specifically and acknowledge that some Christians believe they are at liberty to engage in them.
My purpose is to look at these issues from a different perspective. But before I get to that, think about this: the Bible never uses the term “gray area” and never suggests that there is some mystical middle road that we can walk down, between good and evil. In fact, when it comes to moral decisions, the Bible is remarkably black and white.
For example, Jesus tells us that if our right eye offends us (makes us stumble), “tear it out and throw it away” (Mt. 5:29). His hyperbolic command leaves the distinct impression that Jesus doesn’t fiddle around with the middle ground and doesn’t expect his followers to. Instead, if we even find ourselves close to something that can lead to sin, we should take extreme action to avoid it, so we don’t end up in hell. His warning mirrors the thought in Pr. 6:27, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?”
The apostles echo Christ. Paul tells us that we present our members to one thing or another, with no middle thing. Listen,
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. Romans 6:12-13
I don’t see a middle place where we can “present our members,” do you? He seems to say that if something even smells like sin, hold your nose and run.
The apostle John joins the chorus. In I John, he speaks of light and darkness (no “lightish” or “darkish”) and talks about practicing sin or practicing righteousness. There is no suggestion that there is a happy place in the middle (see I John 3:4-10).
So even if we concede that some moral issues are on the margins, not obviously sinful in themselves, serious disciples make a habit of asking themselves a question. The question is not whether it is sinful, but whether it is righteous.
That’s a different perspective. It assumes that we practice sin or we practice righteousness, but not both at the same time. I may conclude that something is not technically sinful, but the more important question is this: can I, with a straight face, call this action righteous? For instance, is smoking cigarettes “righteous”? You be the judge.
How do we determine whether something is righteous or sinful — even if we believe that the action itself is morally neutral? Here are some things to consider:
1. Does this activity have dominion over me?
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. I Corinthians 6:12
We’ve got to be honest with ourselves; nearly everything, even things that are morally neutral, have the potential to dominate our thoughts and hold us captive. Is it possible for a love for food to cause one to practice sin? Absolutely, if it dominates one’s thoughts. How about smoking cigarettes? A whole cottage industry has been created for the purpose of helping people break the dominion of nicotine.
2. Can I do this with a clear conscience?
…some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. I Corinthians 8:7
A conscience can be defiled if we practice something while entertaining doubt about whether it is right or not. Paul speaks to this in Romans 14:23,
But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
It is incumbent upon us to be completely sure of what we choose to do. If we decide to take a drink of alcohol, watch a movie with bad language or sexual scenes, or go to a dance, we’d better be able to do it with a perfectly clear conscience. We put our souls at risk when we dabble in things that are questionable in our own conscience.
3. What does engaging in this activity say about my level of maturity?
I’ve met Christians that can quote I Timothy 5:23 (“drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake”) but could not define justification, or explain faith or grace without relying on pat answers. Many of these brethren think they have reached a higher level of spirituality, because they have grown beyond “silly rules.” Yet, if you define maturity as the Bible defines it, these are the most immature Christians you’ll ever meet. They are more concerned about being different — not from the world but from other Christians — than being righteous!
Yet, how is it “mature” to dabble in things that are, at best, dubious? The writer of Hebrews said,
…for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:13-14
Would you consider someone a mature driver who always drives as close to the edge of a cliff as possible, just to prove he can? Likewise, do mature Christians make a career of finding that moral rim of the world drive, and get as close as they can to it? Wouldn’t you expect a mature Christians to ask, “is this righteous?” instead of “is this sin”?
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. I Corinthians 14:20
4. What is the impact of my action on others?
Some, who call themselves Christians, claim to love others, but do they? John says,
Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. I John 2:10
John is saying that if I love my brothers and sisters in Christ, I will do nothing, knowingly, that might cause them to “stumble” (sin). If I practice some “gray area” activity without regard to how it affects my brother, that may be proof of hatred for that brother. And that is tantamount to murder!
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
I John 3:11-15
Think about it. Paul told Titus that the older women should train the younger women (Titus 2:4). If an older woman dresses immodestly, she may be training younger women, by example and influence, to dress immodestly (see I Timothy 2:9-10). But isn’t the real question not whether it passes the “modesty” test (as culturally defined) but whether that attire is “righteous”?
There is another possible consequence. Dressing immodestly may tempt a man to look at the woman with less than righteous intent, and commit sin (Mt. 5:28). The man has no excuse, but is it loving to knowingly put a stumbling block in the path of that brother? Why risk it?
How about those who think they have liberty to drink alcohol as long as they don’t get intoxicated? Forget, for a moment, that the standard for who is intoxicated (e.g., when one’s physical and mental faculties are impaired) is becoming lower in many states (in California, it is .08% — .04% for commercial drivers). What if a new Christian sees you take a drink and is emboldened by that to drink, but he has a genetic proclivity to alcoholism? Are you totally innocent if that happens? Is it worth the risk? Since we don’t know who does and who doesn’t have that tendency, what is the right thing to do?
And that’s the real test for all of us. If we are sincere in our commitment to God and to righteousness, we will ask the right question whenever there is doubt about any moral decision. We will ask not “is this sinful?” but “is this righteous?” And, if there is any doubt, we will not engage in that activity because,
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning I John 3:7, 9