By David Crabb
Most Christians intuitively recognize that it is sinful to allow what God prohibits. God has said that we must not steal or commit adultery, and certainly it would be sinful for us to say otherwise. And yet, it is not so clear (especially amongst conservative Christians), that it is equally sinful to prohibit what God allows. Believing that it is better to be safe than sorry, we tend to be quite fine setting up prohibitions against things that God allows, and then holding others to those prohibitions. We apply principles regarding worship, modesty, or stewardship in specific ways, we codify them, and then we hold others to those applications. Eventually an entire culture can be created in a church or in a group of churches that measures holiness in terms of the specific applications.
The problem with either error is the same. When I allow what God prohibits, I am setting myself up as god–as the lawgiver. My rule is supreme. On the same token, when I prohibit what God allows, I am not “erring on the side of caution,” but am actually setting myself up as god–as the lawgiver. My rule is supreme. If I cannot prove that God prohibits something, then I should simply acknowledge it. I might have an entire list of reasons I believe a certain course of action to be best, but far better to use words like “wisdom” and “prudence,” rather than absolute moral terms (e.g. “sinful”).
In advising others we must have the humility and maturity to counsel within the authority we’ve been given (i.e. Scripture). We need to be able to understand the difference between moral imperatives to be declared and obeyed by all, and matters of personal judgment in areas where Scripture speaks in principle or even not at all. We do people a disservice if we cloak our applications in terms of God’s revealed will.
Why is this important? Well, apart from all the obvious theological, pastoral, and spiritual reasons; it matters because this kind of error affects people’s lives. I’ve certainly seen situations where church leadership has consistently taught applicational issues as if they were moral absolutes and the result has been division, strife, and disunity in both families and churches. Sadly, this sort of example is not uncommon in Christian churches. Teaching as doctrine the commandments of men (Matt. 15:9) affects people in the here and now.
So brothers and sisters, let us by all means make application of Scriptural principles. We must faithfully apply God’s Word in our contemporary context. But let us have the integrity and humility to make clear when we are speaking God’s truth and when we are giving our best judgment.