1 Corinthians 10:23-24
23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
There are several teachings in the Bible that are clearly articulated with little or no dispute, such as the condemnation of fornication, lying, and stealing. We do not have to extensively investigate the Bible in order to figure out its position on such matters. These issues could be called black and white areas. However, there are many issues that the Bible does not take an absolute stand on. We call these gray areas.
What is a Gray Area?
Gray areas are issues that Scripture does not take a dogmatic stance on, or at the very least, issues that Scripture does not discuss in depth. Instead, the Bible gives Christians the liberty to make God-glorifying decisions based on their convictions.
What Are Some Examples of Gray Areas?
Drinking, dating, kissing, gambling, smoking, clothing, music, movies, television, birth control, dancing, spending your money, home schooling, working moms, etc.
Every one of the topics mentioned above are either never discussed in Scripture or are discussed only in brief. Scripture does not teach that any of these things are categorically sinful.
Spiritual Preference (Gray Areas) v. Spiritual Principle (Black and White Areas)
Debates regarding gray area issues have caused major rifts between individuals, communities and churches. This is because we have blurred the understanding of spiritual preference v. spiritual principle.
A spiritual principle is teaching specifically found in Scripture. For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 says, “It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God…” After reading this, we see that sexual immorality is not a gray area. There is no ambiguity and therefore no room for freedom. It is clearly wrong to view pornography, fornicate, etc. With spiritual principles, we are called to speak truth, bear humility, and love as we appropriately correct a brother or sister who is acting against a principle clearly taught in Scripture.1
A spiritual preference is a believer’s decision to do or not do something that is based on personal Biblical convictions in tandem with their freedom found in Christ and the fact that Scripture has left them with the responsibility to decipher what is most God-glorifying.
For example, if one believer decides to refrain from kissing until marriage, while another decides to kiss on the second date, is one believer more right than the other? No. The Bible says nothing on this topic. Therefore, there is freedom for the individual to choose what is best.
Dissension often occurs when we begin making our own spiritual preferences spiritual principles in others’ lives. Continuing the above example, it is fine for a Christian to choose not to kiss until marriage. However, when that same person begins to tell others that kissing before marriage is sin or somehow less spiritual, they are making their preference a principle, therefore putting others in unbiblical shackles.
Why Is It Wrong To Make Our Spiritual Preferences Spiritual Principles?
- It is Sin. To judge any person apart from their sin is indeed sinful. All other matters are to be judged by the only Judge and Lawgiver, our Heavenly Father.
- It Disregards the Intentional Unity and Diversity That God Has Created. The Lord has created everyone with distinctions that bring together a holistic community. To not celebrate differences in others (that do not bring harm to the body or denounce the glory of God) belittles one of the reasons God created us - namely that He would be glorified through our diversity while at the same time being glorified through our unity.
- It Does Not Display Grace to Others. God has modeled the need for giving grace to others by giving grace to us through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ. Christians need, desire, and willingly accept God’s grace and often expect grace from others without judgment. Still, one of the most difficult things for Christians to do is to actually give grace. The main reason many present their preferences as principles is due to a lack of love shown practically through giving grace.
How Do I Know When To Do Something Or Not?
There are five main questions that Scripture teaches that we should ask ourselves in order to answer this question (of course, all these questions are under the umbrella of “does this honor God?”):
- Is it Sin? If the Bible teaches that something is sin, then it is sin. Do not do it.
- Does it Negatively Affect a Fellow Believer? Paul’s answer to this question embodies the tension between freedom and love. We have this tension presenting itself in the church in Corinth. There is a group of believers who see certain food as unclean and others who do not. Paul forbids active participation in feasts in the temple.5 However, he clearly sides with those who feel that such foods are not unclean. Christians are free in Christ to partake of any foods; nothing is unclean in itself.6 Paul clearly advises Christians to eat whatever they buy in the market without raising questions of conscience.7 Those who have scruples against such food are to exercise love by not condemning those who have no such scruples.8 On the other hand, those who feel free to eat are to show love by not despising those with strong scruples. Love requires that when those with a free conscience find themselves in a situation where the exercise of their freedom would offend and lead other Christians to sin, they are to abstain.
It is obvious that such abstinence is recommended only in cases where the weaker Christian would be actually caused to sin. Otherwise, the whole standard of conduct in such matters would be decreed by the rigidity of the weakest members. If the weaker brother’s conscience is to govern the behavior of Christians generally, then Christian morality is inevitably bound in the fetters of a weak Christian’s strict procedures. Paul’s clear point is that personal freedom must be tempered by love for other Christians and even love should not be abused.
- Does It Affect Your Testimony To Unbelievers?
Each Scripture reference below is a clear demonstration of how Christian witness can either positively or negatively affect unbelievers.
- 1 Corinthians 6:5-6
- 1 Corinthians 14:22-23
- 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
- 1 Timothy 3:6-7
- Does It Go Against Your Conscience?
The Bible teaches that the conscience is a very important guide. In fact, to do something against your conscience is acting in sin. We see this clearly in Romans 14:22-23 in which Paul explains that those whose conscience offends them must not eat while those whose conscience is clear are free to eat. At the same time, the conscience is not the court of last appeal. It is not an autonomous self-sufficient guide. The implication is that the conscience at best is a guide of relative value. One can have a clear conscience, and yet be guilty of wrong in the sight of God. In 1 Timothy 1:5 and 19, Paul links a good conscience with sincere faith. When people depart from the faith, their conscience can become seared or hardened so that it is not a safe guide. All this suggests that the conscience of the Christian must always be exercised in the light of the divine revelation in Jesus Christ.
- Is It Unwise?
Biblical wisdom is both religious and practical. Stemming from the fear of the Lord,11 it branches out to touch all of life. Wisdom gleans from the knowledge of God’s ways and applies it in the daily walk. Worldly wisdom, though it may be religious, has no anchor in God and therefore is doomed to fail.12 Therefore, to make unwise choices does not necessarily indicate one has sinned. Although it is not sin initially, the Bible teaches that a lack of wisdom usually leads to sin.13
It is important for believers to understand the difference between spiritual preference and spiritual principle in order to not only live lives that are grounded theologically, but also live in the freedom that Christ offers us through His death and resurrection. Also, remember not to make your spiritual preferences another person’s spiritual principles. Finally, when evaluating spiritual preferences and spiritual principles, remember to ask yourself if it is sin, if it negatively affects fellow believers, if it affects your testimony to unbelievers, if it goes against your conscience, and if it is unwise.
- Do you give people grace in gray areas?
- Do you remember a time where you were not given grace in a gray area? How did it feel?
- What are some gray areas in which you tend to judge that you can begin to be gracious in?
- What are practical ways you can begin to believe the best in others?
- Are your decisions answering the five questions in ways that are pleasing to God?
How does this study reinforce your belief in the gospel?
- James 5:19-20; Matthew 7:5-6
- 1 Corinthians 4-5
- John 17; Romans 12
- Ephesians 2:5
- 1 Corinthians 8:10
- Romans 14:14
- 1 Corinthians 10:25
- Romans 14:3
- 1 Corinthians 4:4
- 1 Timothy 4:2
- Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10
- Isaiah 19:11; Ezekiel 28:2; Obadiah 1:8
- Ephesians 5:15; Proverbs 12:23