How do followers of Jesus Christ determine whether it is right or wrong to do a specific thing? For example, is it OK for Christians to go to the movies? Play poker? Smoke tobacco? Drink alcohol, even moderately? Engage in civil disobedience? How do we answer such questions? May I suggest a checklist of principles—not a list of rules—to help us decide on such matters? If all we had was a list of rules, unless the issue at hand was mentioned in the rules, then we would still be without help. The Scriptures were written thousands of years ago, and many of the specific issues we face today were not faced by people in those days, so no specific Scripture may address the issue. Nonetheless, people then did face similar issues, and if we can find the applicable, scriptural principles involved, we can apply them to the many issues that challenge our decision-making today. This decision-making rubric consists of five guidelines.
- Specific Scripture: When we are trying to determine the rightness or wrongness of an action, our first step must be to turn to the Bible to see is there is a specific Scripture dealing with the issue. If there is, and the Scripture says it is right, then it is right. If the Bible says it is wrong, then it is wrong. We look first to the Scriptures to see if there are any absolute prohibitions or commands. If so, then that issue has been settled once for all by the authoritative Scriptures and is not up for debate for those who accept the Bible as the final rule for their faith and practice. For example, both the Old and the New Testament say that stealing, adultery, blaspheming God, coveting, etc. are wrong, and so we do not do those things. Positively, it is right to love one another, to preach the Gospel to the whole world, etc., so we do those things. These issues are specifically covered in Scripture, and that settles the matter. In instances like these, if we decide to go ahead and act contrary to what the Word of God says, then we directly disobey God and need to confess that sin and be restored to fellowship with Him. It is not necessary to proceed through the rest of this checklist if Scripture specifically addresses our issue, and we must abide by it. However, if a matter is not covered by a particular Scripture, then we need to look for other principles. Assuming that is the case, we turn then to the next guideline.
- The Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19; 3:16; Rom 8:9): When a person receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and is justified by faith in Him, the Holy Spirit of God comes to indwell that Christian. The Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit of Jesus lives in believers, our living should honor Him. We should do nothing that would harm our physical bodies: e.g., tobacco use, drunkenness, obesity from overeating, lack of sleep or exercise, etc. Neither should we desecrate the temple of the Holy Spirit by mental aberrations: e.g., viewing pornography, reading inappropriate material, watching unsuitable television programs, etc. We avoid anything that tears down or desecrates the human body or mind because our entire being is the Holy Spirit’s dwelling place (though obvious exceptions are acts of heroism and unselfishness that may cause us to risk our lives to save others or to advance their well-being). Suppose, however, that the particular issue does not harm the body physically or mentally, and still no specific Scripture addresses it. We need, therefore, to proceed to the next principle.
- Spiritual Headship: God is a God of order; He is not the author of confusion (cf. 1 Cor 14:33). In carrying out this order, he has established certain categories in which someone is in charge and others are to follow that one who is in charge. God has set forth in Scripture five principle areas in which this kind of relationship exists: (1) wives submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22–33; Col 3:18–19; 1 Pet 3:1–7); (2) children obey their parents (Eph 6:1–3; Col 3:20–21); (3) congregations follow their pastors/elders (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 5:1, 19; Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Pet 5:2–5); (4) citizens obey the government (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Tim 2:1–4; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13–17); and (5) slaves obey their masters; today we might say employees submit to their employers (Eph 6:5–9; Col 3:22–4:1; 1 Tim 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10; 1 Pet 2:18). If your spiritual head in any of these areas thinks that a certain thing is right or wrong for you, then it becomes right or wrong for you just as much as if it were specifically written down in the Word of God. Now, obviously there’s a limit here. No spiritual head has the right to command you to do anything that is illegal, immoral or un-Christian. At that point, we draw the line and obey the Word of God rather than our spiritual head. Short of that extreme, however, as Christians, we are to submit to the spiritual heads whom God has appointed over us in these particular areas. But suppose that the certain issue passes the test of spiritual headship, does not harm the body physically or mentally, and no specific Scripture addresses it. We need then to proceed to the next principle.
- Weaker Brother (Rom 14:1–15:13; 1 Cor 8–10): In 1 Corinthians 8–10, an issue arose in the church at Corinth concerning eating meat that was offered to idols. Priests in pagan temples would sacrifice meat to idols. What leftover meat the priest and his family could not eat was placed in the marketplace to be sold at a discount price. There, it would be available to anyone who wanted to buy it for food, including Christians. Some Christians in Corinth thought nothing was wrong with eating the meat. However, the practice offended other believers because of its connection to idolatry. This issue became problematic in the church, so they called upon Paul to settle the matter. Paul taught that nothing was wrong with eating the meat because there is no such thing as idols (1 Cor 8:4). However, he said not everybody knows this (1 Cor 8:7), and thus believers should refrain from eating the meat rather than cause a fellow believer to sin against his or her conscience. On matters such as these, Paul later said that, though all things are lawful to do, not all things are profitable, nor do they edify one’s neighbor (cf. 1 Cor 10:22). Paul’s modus operandi in ministry was that he would do nothing to hinder the Gospel of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 9:12), so this principle says that if a particular action offends or causes a brother or sister in Christ to stumble or falter in the faith, then we should not do it (1 Cor 8:13). However, if the issue does not offend our brother in Christ, is acceptable to our spiritual heads, does not harm our body or mind, and no Scripture specifically addresses it, then we should continue to the next principle.
- The Glory of God (1 Cor 10:31): This principle simply asks, “Does the action being considered genuinely honor, please and glorify God?” Does it make much of the Lord, magnify His reputation, and recognize His greatness? If so, and the issue has already passed with flying colors the thorough scrutiny of each of the first four principles, then we stand on good ground and have considerable assurance that we may do it.
I am indebted to my friend and mentor, William E. Bell, Jr., professor emeritus of religion at Dallas Baptist University, who first shared this rubric with me in his classes several years ago. It is presented here in a considerably modified form.
For Baptists, though congregations govern local churches by making decisions under Christ’s Lordship, biblically-qualified pastors lead congregations through their godly example and the faithful preaching of God’s Word, and congregants should follow them.