Can something be true for you and not for me? This is a popular idea today that when you confront some people with an idea or you make a statement that assumes morality is the same for everyone, they might say to you, “Well, that’s your morality, or that’s your religion. I’m glad you found something that works for you, but that’s true for you. That’s not true for me.”
Now, as Christians, we would say, “No. God had spoken. Things are true or they are false. They are right or they are wrong, but it doesn’t really depend on the person.” This does seem to make most sense of scripture when we read it, but there are some passages that, at least on a superficial reading, may lead one to ask, is that actually true? What they often mean is true for everyone, which is somewhat ironic in this context.
If we look at Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, it seems to present the idea that some things could be true for someone, right for someone and yet wrong for someone else. Let me just quickly get us in context here. I would encourage you to read those two chapters on your own, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, but here’s what’s going on. In the early church, there were many conversations and debates and discussions around what you ate, kind of seems like today, right? All the health food, and you can’t eat this, and that’ll kill you. There are a lot of disagreements today about what we eat.
Back then, there were definitely disagreements about what was considered clean and what a Christian or a Jew could eat and what they couldn’t. One of those things was meat that was sacrificed to idols. Some people thought this was sinful to eat, and others thought it was fine. Some people thought you should only eat vegetables, and others thought, nope, you can eat anything. Paul seems to say, when you read these two passages, that if you think it’s wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, then it would be wrong for you to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
On the other hand, he says, “If you don’t think it’s wrong, then it’s not wrong for you.” If you think it’s wrong to eat it, and you eat it, that’s a sin. If you don’t think it’s wrong to eat it, and you eat it, it’s not a sin. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the view of morality that might exist on a college campus today where if you think it’s right, then it’s right for you. If you think it’s wrong, then it’s wrong for you, so what’s going on here? How does this fit with what we would traditionally say to be a Christian view of morality where things are right or wrong, and it doesn’t depend on the person?
In other words, is truth and moral truth objective or subjective? Let’s define those terms. An objective truth is a truth about a thing. It’s true because of the way the world actually is, so if I say that this mic stand is black, it doesn’t matter how I feel about it, it doesn’t matter what I think about it. The mic stand is either black or not, whether I think it’s black or not. If I were to say this mic stand is blue, and you were to look at it and say, “No, that’s clearly black,” and we can actually measure the frequency of the light coming off of it and say, “You know what, that’s actually black. It’s not blue, so Brian, you may have thought it was blue, but it’s actually black.”
That’s if you have objective truth: where an objective truth claim is when we’re claiming something about the way the world really is, not how we think about it, not how we feel about it. It’s not something that can only be true for me in the same way that we could say Donald Trump is the President of the United States. That’s an objective truth claim. It’s a truth about who the president is, not a truth about who I think the president is or who I feel like the president is. In fact, that truth claim is right or wrong, and it has nothing to do with what I think.
A subjective truth claim is a truth about a person, so if I were to say something like Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food is the best flavor of ice cream, you might disagree and say that, “No. Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia is the best flavor of ice cream.” Well, who is right? Well, you know, there’s not actually a right or wrong answer to this question because while it sounds like we’re talking about the ice cream, after all, I did ask about the best flavor of ice cream, what we’re actually doing is talking about our preferences. When I say that I think Phish Food is the best flavor of ice cream, I’m talking about my preference. I’m not actually talking about the ice cream.
Now, if I were to say to you that Phish Food contains marshmallow, that would either be a claim that’s right or wrong. It has nothing to do with my preference. It’s a statement about reality. It’s the same kind of statement as the microphone stand is black. That’s different than saying what my preferences are and my thoughts and my desires are. That’s an objective truth claim versus a subjective truth claim. An objective moral claim that something is right or wrong would mean that it’s just a feature of reality of it to be right or wrong. In other words, rape is an objectively evil thing. It is always wrong. In every age, for every person, at every time, rape is wrong because even if someone doesn’t think it’s wrong, it is wrong because it’s an objective moral wrong.
How do we take what we’ve just established here and then read these two passages because even with those categories, it seems like Paul is saying moral truth, moral decisions are just based on what someone thinks or what they feel? It’s not the same way for everyone at all times and all places. Here’s what we have to realize. If we read these passages carefully, what we’ll actually see is that Paul says that it’s not wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. He also says it’s not wrong to eat meat in general. Now, it’s not wrong to only eat vegetables, and it’s not wrong to not eat meat sacrificed to idols. In fact, what he is saying here is he is talking about a certain type of moral decision. Objectively, it’s morally neutral.
There are different categories of actions, right? There’s a morally wrong action. It would be sinful to do that action. There’s a morally right action. It’s something you have to do. It’s good for you to do. Then, there’s a morally neutral action. We might also break that down a little more, I’m not spending a lot of time here today, and say that there are morally right things, morally wrong things and morally obligatory things, things that are right to do, and you have to do them. To not do them would be sinful.
Paul is talking about something here that’s neutral. Whether you eat meat or don’t eat the meat, in an objective sense, it’s a neutral decision, but, and here is the whole point I think that he’s making here: it is objectively wrong to violate your conscience on a matter that is morally neutral. In the same passage where Paul says it’s not actually wrong to eat meat sacrificed to an idol, an idol’s not a real thing, there are no such things as actual false gods. He goes on to say, “But if you think it’s wrong to do it, then you shouldn’t do it.”
What he’s getting at is it’s objectively wrong for every single person on the planet to violate their conscience on a matter that is morally neutral. In areas that are permissible according to scripture, if your conscience tells you you should or you shouldn’t do it, you should follow your conscience in that way. It’s not safe to go against your conscience on things that are morally neutral. That’s incredibly important here.
What we can’t say is there was something that you were required to do because of scripture, but your conscience said you shouldn’t do it, and you followed your conscience. In fact, that is sin. The flip side of that happens. Sometimes, people will say things like, “I know the Bible says that divorce is wrong in my circumstance, but I have a peace about it.” In fact, what they’re saying is there is an objective requirement here. In other words, don’t get divorced, but my conscience is telling me it’s okay to get divorced, so what did they do? They toss out the authority of scripture and they say, “I’m going to go with my conscience.”
That’s not acceptable either because there are objective guidelines in scripture for things like marriage and divorce. There are not those sorts of guidelines for eating meat or for drinking alcohol, and we’ll talk about that more in a minute, but this whole follow your conscience guidance only applies in morally neutral decisions. When you could do it or you couldn’t do it, it doesn’t matter. Both are permissible.
How do we handle things that we have convictions on that are neutral? We should follow those convictions. If you are someone who thinks it is wrong to drink alcohol, then you should not drink alcohol. If you think it’s morally wrong to do that, you shouldn’t do it. Now, you should be clear on the fact that scripture does not say that. Paul recommends Timothy drink alcohol. The Proverbs at different places speak positively of alcohol. Jewish festivals routinely included alcohol. Jesus’s first miracle besides the creation of the world was to turn water into alcohol, but the Bible does give us guidelines for the consumption of alcohol. It says don’t get drunk. That’s an objective statement that applies to everyone. Whether you think drinking is right or wrong or whether you feel comfortable doing it or not doing it, you still cannot get drunk, or that is sinful.
Now, some people today think that it’s not morally wrong to drink. They should generally, with some qualifications, feel free to drink responsibly and not get drunk. Those who think it is wrong to drink alcohol should not drink. They should not violate their conscience on this thing that is permissible. It’s morally neutral in that way.
Paul goes on to give us some more qualifiers here. It’s not just simply you do you, and you do you, and you don’t violate your conscience, and you don’t violate your conscience. He actually says we should not do things that cause our brother or sister to stumble. Now, this verse has often been used in the conversation around alcohol once again to say that, “Well, Sister Sally thinks it’s wrong to drink, so you shouldn’t drink because it’ll cause her to stumble.”
Well, on the face of it, that doesn’t actually make sense. Stumble doesn’t simply mean disagree with you. Stumble doesn’t mean be bothered by the fact that you drank. Stumble would mean cause to sin or led into sin because let’s put ourselves back in the circumstance here with the meat offered to idols thing. There were some Christians who Paul actually calls weaker brothers who thought that idols were real things and that it was morally wrong to eat the meat that was sacrificed to them. Paul was saying, by your behavior, Christian, the stronger brother who knows that it’s not wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, do not lead that person to something that, one, would violate their conscience but that, two, might lead them further into idolatry or even more sin.
That’s not what’s happening with the conversation around drinking. If someone is simply in disagreement with your choice, that doesn’t mean you should not make that choice. In fact, if it meant that, then that would actually be the weaker brother imposing on the stronger brother here. That’s not what Paul’s saying. He is saying that it is more important to lay down your liberty than to lead someone else into sin or to cause someone else to stumble into sin. That’s a very key point here.
Paul, on the one hand, is making the argument that we have liberty as Christians. We can eat. We can not eat. We can drink. We can not drink. But, if the exercise of our liberty leads someone to sin, then that is sin also, especially if we do so knowledgeably that this will lead someone else to sin. We can’t just say, “I’m free, and you’re weak, so I’m going to do this thing that’s going to lead you into sin.” No, that itself is sinful.
Just because someone disagrees, that doesn’t mean you’re being a stumbling block to them. Now, let’s give a more accurate example. What if there’s someone who is a recovering alcoholic, and you invite them over? Would it be correct, good and moral to drink in front of them? No. I don’t think it would be. If someone comes to you and says, “Hey, you know what, I’m struggling with lust in this area,” would it be proper to invite them over for a movie, which even though maybe it doesn’t have nudity in it, has a lot of sensuality? No, it wouldn’t. Just as an aside, I’m not sure that’s good really for anyone to watch, but that’s a separate topic and conversation.
We don’t want to put people in a situation knowing that they will struggle and likely sin because of the situation we put them in. That’s different than saying, “I’m going to have someone over for dinner who doesn’t drink, and I’m going to drink.” If they’re not predisposed to struggle with sin in that area, then it’s not morally wrong for me to indulge in my liberty that I have in Christ. That’s really important.
For the person who may say, “Well, I disagree with such and such action,” you need to realize that that person has freedom in that action if scripture has allowed them freedom, and we can’t apply our personal standards of holiness to other people or that’s legalism. That’s really important for us to understand. That is legalism. When we elevate kind of a personal standard of holiness to other people and say, “You must do this or it’s sin,” we are writing in the blanks that God has left blank for us, and we are conscripting other people’s consciences.
Now, there’s something else we should consider. The stronger brother who acknowledges that, “Hey, I can eat this meat, or I can have this drink,” you should not try to encourage someone else to violate their conscience, so don’t put them in a circumstance where they might stumble, but don’t try to override their conscience and reason them into agreeing with you. I don’t think that’s a healthy or safe thing to do, to try to get people to change their moral compass, and this is key, on things that are morally neutral.
We should do battle with people in a friendly and loving way all day who are Christians and have an incorrect moral compass on things that are not morally neutral, but on the areas that are left open to us as matters of Christian liberty and someone has a moral conviction about it, don’t try and change their mind. Don’t try and change their heart and their compass there. Now, this is a separate thing. I do want to make a distinction because once again, I think this is an area where we don’t make a distinction and we need to today. There’s a difference in being the weaker brother who actually thinks it’s sinful, let’s say, to drink and being the person who just thinks they should not drink because it would not be good for them. Those are two different things.
The person who just thinks it’s wrong for everyone to drink, they’re actually wrong on that because objectively, it is not wrong for everyone to drink. Scripture has left that as an open category. I do think it’s a matter of personal discipleship and Bible understanding to help them understand that this is not a universal prohibition against drinking. That doesn’t mean I’m encouraging that person to drink. For the person who understands what scripture has left open for liberty but still has a conviction about it, I’m not going to try and change their mind. I’m not going to try and reorient their heart or their conscience. They have a conviction about it. They should live according to that.
While, yes, the stronger brother understands that all things maybe are permissible in certain areas, it’s not that person’s job to try and change the other person’s conscience unless that person is teaching everyone that they are morally conscripted to not drink, and that’s some sort of universal prohibition. That’s when it becomes something we should talk about and teach about.
We’ve covered a lot today. Just quickly to recap, there are two ways of understanding truth and morality. It’s objective, in other words, true for all people at all times, or it’s a subjective where it just depends on the person. Christian truth, a Christian understanding of the moral will of God is actually one that means that it is objective. It doesn’t depend on the person, on things that are specified and declared in the law of God, in scripture, and on things that are left open. As members and parts of Christian liberty, we can decide for ourselves. If you have a conviction that something is wrong on a morally neutral item, don’t do it, and don’t try and tell other people they shouldn’t do it though. Don’t apply your personal standards to others there.
That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what’s wise. Christian, If on an area of Christian liberty, you think something is not wrong, don’t try and change the mind or conscience of someone else in that area if they think it is. The base line conclusion here is there are matters that are morally neutral. That doesn’t mean all moral truth is morally relative. That’s incredibly important to the Bible. It speaks very clearly that things are wrong because “thus saith the Lord”, not because a person feels like they’re wrong. Our consciences can be ill-informed, and we must always be conforming them to the revealed law of God in scripture.