The ethical standards of God’s people are mostly universal—right is right, wrong is wrong. Situations cannot change these. So, if an action is declared to be sin in scripture, then it is sin regardless of situation. Of course, there are times when situation can impact the moral status of an action. For example, it might define or refine an otherwise acceptable action by showing it to be morally forbidden because it is inappropriate for a specific situation. Killing is one example. The same God who said “Thou shalt not kill,” gave orders for his people to wage war, and to execute capital punishment. This shows the commandment forbade unjust killing—murder. This is an example of how refining terms and defining conditions can make something, otherwise forbidden, permissible. This is because in the situation, the command doesn’t apply.
The same thing can happen when conditions forbid something otherwise permitted. One example in scripture is alcohol. Scripture not only permits wine but actually encourages drinking it. However, in the right situation (in the presence of a weak brother whom our freedom could harm) we are morally obligated to abstain. This is because we have a higher standard—care for brethren—than the freedom we otherwise would enjoy. We give up the freedom to favor our brothers.
I was reminded of this while meditating on my own duties as a pastor. One of my duties includes prayer for my church and people. My people take care of my financial needs to free me to care for their spiritual needs. There are two primary needs I am to meet: prayer and preaching the Word. It is important that I do these—spending the appropriate time doing each. This actually got me thinking about certain actions which make these hard.
Just like all people I have things I enjoy and things that I do not enjoy. I face temptations to refrain from good and to do evil. I must live my life as an example of proper Christian morals. If an action is morally forbidden, then I must teach it as such. If an action is morally obligatory then I must teach that as well. Since I must teach it, and must also avoid hypocrisy, I must live out those moral standards. This is actually easier than many might realize. I have always been a “rules” guy and have little problem following the plain teaching of scripture. The problem is those areas that are morally neutral. Following the plain demands of scripture requires simple obedience but these neutral areas require wisdom.
These morally neutral situations can include anything. They can be relationships, entertainments, or anything else that scripture does not specifically forbid or command. As you go through life you will also find these to be quite a large part of life—scripture can only lay out so many scenarios with direct commands on how to deal with them. These can then be expanded by applying underlying principles to other related situations. However, the average human life can never be fully directed from beginning to end with direct commands: “In this situation, you must do that; in that situation, you must do this.” Most of life will fall into the morally neutral—a decision that is neither commanded nor forbidden.
While each course of action has its own benefits and problems, its own pros and cons, there is one standard that I have found helps when dealing with the morally neutral—with those questions of action not spelled out with an obvious biblical command or principle.
Let me start by saying, if scripture says “Thou shalt not,” then THOU SHALT NOT! If scripture says, “Thou shalt,” then THOU SHALT! Pretty simple. Beyond this, if a principle can be reasonably deduced from these direct commands applying them appropriately in other ways, then follow where reasonable exegesis of scripture leads. If you discern a principle that applies to A, then apply it to A. If it reasonably applies to B, then feel free to apply it to B.
But handling those situations for which there is no direct command or reasonable principle to give guidance can be difficult. One standard that will help is the condition within you which such actions produce. One such example I use is in my own life as a pastor. If I find a course of action for which I do not have direct guidance or a rational principle to follow, I watch to see the effect it has on my spiritual life—especially my discipline in areas of my pastoral responsibility.
Even if the action is morally neutral, with nothing to tell me whether I should or should not do it, I will refrain if doing it makes me feel unworthy of praying or preaching. Does the course of action keep you off your knees and out of the Word? If so, then even if it is otherwise morally neutral, you morally should avoid it. Avoid it for your own sake. Avoid it to not only please the Lord, but to keep yourself ready to serve him effectively.
This means anything, even if it is otherwise permissible, which gets in the way of my prayer life or my study of scripture must be avoided, resisted and abstained from. While I have freedom to exercise them, the results are not beneficial, so they must be rejected. This is why Paul was able to say, “All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)