For the most part, Christians have a broad agreement about what constitutes as “sin.” For example, violence, rage, greed, lust, lying, and theft are all things that Christians almost universally agree are unequivocally wrong. Nevertheless, there are a number of other practices where less agreement exists.
Christians are called to fight sin. Sin is what Jesus died to save us from. Sin separates us from a relationship with God, as well as each other. The power of Jesus’ resurrection is that sin no longer enslaves us. God has empowered us by his Spirit to fight back against it.
For the most part, Christians have a broad agreement about what constitutes as “sin.” For example, violence, rage, greed, lust, lying, and theft are all things that Christians almost universally agree are unequivocally wrong.
Nevertheless, there are a number of other practices where less agreement exists. In some instances, scriptural support for a given action being a “sin” may be scant, but it appears to be related to or approaching other sins where we do have clear scriptural instruction.
In these instances, Christians are called to exercise wisdom — to remain above reproach and not unnecessarily put ourselves in a position to be tempted.
However, when that prudence is systematized in our communities of faith, denominational affiliations, or educational institutions, sometimes what was an invitation to wisdom turns into an edict to “follow the rules,” even if those rules don’t have a biblical warrant.
This is what is often referred to as “binding” someone else’s conscience, which is language borrowed from Paul’s discourse about eating meats previously offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 10 and refers to the idea that you would limit the range of what is conscionable for someone else based on what works best for you, rather than a universal Christian command or principle.
Though not an exhaustive list, here are five areas in which Christians tend to bind the consciences of others by labeling certain things as “sin” when they really aren’t sinful.
1. Drinking in Moderation
The New Testament is clear that for Christians, both leaders and those they lead, temperance is an important moral value. For example, “drunkenness” is listed as a disqualifier for church leadership in 1 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7, and Paul warns the church in Ephesus to not “get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
However, being a drunkard is not the same thing as enjoying alcohol in moderation. In fact, the Bible seems to view wine, the most common alcoholic beverage of the time of its writing, as morally neutral, if not an outright blessing.
For example, one psalmist wrote in praise of God, “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:14-15).
Similarly, Jesus’ first miracle, as recorded in John 2, was to turn water into wine at a wedding celebration — and after the party was long underway and partygoers had already been drinking for some time.
Jesus also used wine as an illustration in a parable (Luke 5:36-39) and was even wrongly accused of being a drunkard himself for not maintaining a strict lifestyle of asceticism and teetotalism (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:33-34).
And let us not forget that the sign of communion involves wine (Matthew 26:27-29).
Noteworthy of John the Baptist’s calling to never drink wine or other fermented drinks, as given in Luke 1:15, was that it was outside the norm for God’s people — even for Jesus himself.
On the other hand, both the Old and New Testaments warn clearly and repeatedly that heavy drinking often leads to violence, laziness, and sexual impropriety. In fact, it can ruin a person’s life. For many, these dangers of alcohol are such that the wisest course of action is for them to avoid it entirely.
But teetotalism isn’t a universal command that God has ever given for the Church at large. A Christian is no less faithful to Jesus by virtue of enjoying a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine with dinner or at a gathering with friends.
2. Strong Emotions
To be sure, a Christian’s thoughts and emotions often war against their better impulses. This is why Paul urges Christians to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Our thoughts and emotions, left unchecked and unregulated, can lead us to some very dark and sinful places.
However, the emotions and thoughts we experience are not themselves inherently weak or sinful.
In fact, in the gospel accounts, we see Jesus speak about and even act upon strong negative emotions, such as anger or sadness. On the night he was to be betrayed, he even told his closest friends that his soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).
We know that none of this was sinful because Jesus was sinless. Yet, we often don’t give ourselves the same latitude to be as fully human as Jesus was.
Anger can be dangerous, which is why we are warned to not let the “sun go down on” it (Ephesians 4:26). But anger at something like injustice is actually a sign that our hearts are breaking for the things that break God’s own heart.
It is not a sin to be tempted by our anger because our anger often tells us something important.
Similarly, while we are often told in the scriptures not to be afraid and to place our trust in God, the reason why we are given such reminders is because fear, doubt, pain, and sadness are so common to the human experience.
We are called not to deny the existence of these experiences or even to repent of them but to look toward God as we walk through them and seek to find health on the other side.
When it comes to mental health, we need to be incredibly careful never to characterize it as a “sin” issue. Too often, that is exactly what we have done.
In fact, some theologians and pastors characterize anxiety itself as a sin, or at least as a very serious lapse in faith, instead of as a clinical diagnosis resulting from a complex network of contributing factors, including family history, life circumstances, neurology, and even nutrition.
We must take care not to heap shame on top of hardship, especially where no sin is actually present. After all, it’s not a sin to be human.
Unlike drinking or expressing strong emotions, the Bible has little to say by way of warning about dancing. In fact, it often speaks positively about it.
For example, Solomon encourages us that, in life, “there is a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Likewise, the psalmists encouraged dancing when offering praise to God (for example, in Psalm 149:3 and Psalm 150:4).
The impulse to avoid dancing is probably owing to the belief that wherever dancing is present, heavy drinking and promiscuity are not far away. And to be sure this is certainly true in the nightclub scene.
However, it’s difficult to say that it is also true for every local Zumba class, competitive dancing competition, wedding, school prom, or backyard party. In fact, for many cultures, dancing is an important part of celebrating life together and has no association with anything remotely salacious or inappropriate.
Nevertheless, fear of possible impropriety has led to prohibitions on dancing from certain churches and Christian institutions. In fact, many Christian schools and universities have strict “no dancing” policies to this day.
Now, some Christians may have previous associations with dancing that trigger memories and temptations that they wish to leave in the past, and I would never want to shame anyone for doing what is most prudent for their own spiritual health.
But if that isn’t you, let me encourage you with the words of Canadian pop band Men Without Hats: You can dance if you want to.
4. Violating the ‘Billy Graham Rule’
I have argued this at length elsewhere, to the tune of some vociferous criticism, I might add, but failing to strictly adhere to the “Billy Graham Rule” does not itself constitute a moral failure.
To provide some history, as the famous evangelist Billy Graham sought to bring the message of Jesus to as broad an audience as possible, he wanted to ensure that his traveling preaching ministry was not derailed by sexual scandal — especially at a time when traveling preachers were somewhat notorious for just that.
As such, Graham instituted a personal rule whereby he would never be alone in a room with a woman who was not his wife, whether for a personal interaction or a business meeting. His entire team adopted the rule, and eventually it became the gold standard not only among Christian leaders but evangelicals as a whole.
In the 21st century, the rule, as a general principle, still offers great wisdom. However, as women have increasingly become more prominent in positions of leadership in the workforce, some Christians have felt their consciences bound when needing to have a one-on-one meeting with a coworker, employee, or supervisor of the opposite gender.
This has often resulted in organizational hiccups, women being shut out of conversations that would have pertained to their job role, or women even being viewed with a general sense of suspicion or anxiety in Christian workplaces, which has hampered their career advancement.
While we must recognize that being “above reproach” is a sacred and solemn calling for all Christians and particularly Christian leaders, the Billy Graham Rule is not actually a biblical mandate.
5. Holding to Different Convictions on Non-Essentials
This one isn’t something that most Christians would say is a “sin” per se, but some do feel that holding to convictions on non-essential aspects of the faith that differ from their own theological tradition makes someone somewhat “less” Christian than they are.
One example where such an attitude can be present is the debate between a Calvinistic understanding of salvation, wherein it is believed that God unconditionally elects certain people to come to repentance and saving faith irrespective of their own volition, and Arminianism (or Wesleyanism), which argues that humanity has free will and can choose to accept the universally offered gift of grace in Jesus.
Both views of Salvation fall within orthodox Christian teaching.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this disagreement, some Calvinists characterize Arminians as being “semi-Pelagian.” Pelagius was a fifth-century theologian who wrongly denied that humans are inherently sinful and whose ideas were eventually determined to be heretical.
So, by calling Arminians “semi-Pelagian,” some Calvinists are saying that Arminians are “sort of” heretics — in other words, certainly not as godly as they themselves are.
In response, some Arminians argue that the Calvinistic view of Salvation necessarily makes a Christian overly mean, lacking in grace, and fatalistic. In other words, they’re bad Christians.
Similar character assaults are volleyed back and forth among Christians who disagree on any number of theologically important issues, such as worship style, mode of baptism, End times theology, how to understand or interact with politics, and others.
What we miss in all this is that faithful Christians throughout history have landed on different conclusions in these various theological debates but are no less faithful to Jesus for disagreeing, even strongly disagreeing, with other people who are equally faithful to Jesus.
In each of these instances, exercising wisdom and holding to our firmly-held convictions is important. But we must always guard ourselves against holding someone else to a standard that God has not required of them.
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Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.
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