Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Moving Past the Elephant in the Room

In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
—(credited to) St. Augustine

After reading the Facebook responses to my post about how I am trying (and occasionally failing) to adjust my work schedule to fit my personal needs as well as my family’s, I want to write an encouraging post for moms (like me!) who sometimes struggle with worry and guilt. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, a working mom, a work-from-home or working stay-at-home hybrid, chances are that you, too, have felt the pangs of “if only.” (“If only I could stay at home…” “If only I could earn some extra money for my family…” “If only I didn’t have to put my kids in childcare…” “If only I could afford to put my kids in preschool so they could socialize with other kids…” and on and on and on.)

But before I can have an honest, biblical conversation with you about that, I first have to address the elephant in the room. Because if I don’t, I will undoubtedly get a flurry of e-mails and comments from all the elephant handlers out there. (Though I’m sure this doesn’t apply to any of you, dear readers!)

Ready? Here’s the elephant:

All Christian women should stay at home with their kids.

Ah, you’ve been pummeled by that elephant before? Thought so. Well, then. Let’s describe this elephant a bit more, shall we?

 All Christian women should be married, should not use birth control so that they are able to have lots of children, should stay at home with said children, and should homeschool them.

I could go on, but you get the point.

This elephant has a name. His name is “You Should.” He stampedes all over churches and Christian organizations, trouncing the freedom (and sometimes the faith) of countless Christians. Although this elephant is obviously gray from trunk to tail, his handlers see him as either black or white. And because they think he is black or white, they insist that You Should see him that way too.

Let me be clear: there are essential tenets of the Christian faith. These issues truly are black or white. Pastor Brett calls them “close-handed” issues, things we cling to tightly and about which we do not compromise. Beth Moore calls them “spine” issues, the things that connect and comprise the true body of Christ.

These essentials include such things as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, salvation by grace and not by works, the resurrection, and so on. These are things about which the Bible is clear, things that one must embrace in order to be among the body of Christ. (To hear what the Bible says about these essentials, you can listen to Pastor Brett’s message series “We Hold These Truths.”)

However, there are other issues that are not of the essential core of Christian beliefs. Throughout the history of the church, these have been called “nonessentials.” My pastor calls them “open-handed” issues, things we hold with an open hand and have room for differences of opinion. Beth Moore calls them “rib issues,” things that branch off from the spine and, as she writes in Stepping Up, “are not matters of life and death.”

In other words, these are gray areas. Like it or not, there ARE gray areas in the Christian life. (If there weren’t, we wouldn’t have so many denominations!)

Examples of nonessentials in the Christian faith include:
*views on the end times (premillennial, postmillennial, amillennial?)

* spiritual gifts (do the gifts of healing and tongues still exist?)

 * worship styles (hymns, choruses, modern worship, pop music, or no music at all?)

 * Bible versions (King James only, or modern translations?)

And the list goes on. In addition to these nonessentials in theology, there are nonessentials in Christian lifestyle. These are things that are a matter of conscience between one and God, things that (while some elephant handlers rush to proof-text) are neither clearly permitted nor forbidden in Scripture.

For example:
* Can a Christian have wine with dinner? Drink coffee? Smoke?
* Can a Christian watch TV? Go to the movies? Play video games?

* Can a Christian dance? Play cards? Read books other than the Bible?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Just to show you how large this elephant is, let me throw out a few more:

 * Birth control (never permitted, only when family planning, always okay?)
* Education (public school, private school, homeschool?)

 *  Politics (should Christians belong to a certain political party, run for office, abstain from all politics?)

And, of course, the matter at hand:

 * Can Christian women work outside the home?
Now again, let me be very clear. There are essentials in Christian lifestyle. The Bible specifically forbids drunkenness, sex outside of marriage, sorcery, and idolatry, to name a few. It also forbids lying, greed, coveting, lust, and gossip. (Wow, aren’t you grateful for the grace of God?)

The Bible calls us to strive to live a life worthy of our calling (2 Thessalonians 1:11), to become conformed to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29), to be pure and blameless (Ephesians 1:4; 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 4:7; Hebrews 12:14), and to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15–16).

The fact that there are nonessentials does not give Christians a “get-out-of-obedience-free” card to live however they want. (See Paul’s argument to the contrary in Romans 6.) And the fact that there are nonessentials does not negate the reliability or perspicuity of Scripture. However, we must acknowledge that God has not chosen to treat every issue in the Bible with equal clarity. He has left some things ambiguous in His Word, while other things He keeps secret (Deuteronomy 29:29). As the Westminster Confession says, "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all."

In other words, while the Bible clearly presents essential doctrines and issues (issues to which we cling tightly and would die for), it does allow for genuine Christians to have differences of opinion on nonessentials.

Hang on… just in case any elephant handlers accidentally wandered by and are mentally preparing a response to this post, claiming “there are no gray areas in Scripture,” check out Romans 14. Because if you assert that there are no gray areas in Scripture, you’re going to have to take that up with the apostle Paul.

You see, in the book of Romans, Paul is in the process of teaching about unity in the church (chapter 12) and Christian love (chapter 13), when he has to pause to address a nonessential--what he calls a “disputable matter”--that was stirring up dissention and disunity among the Christians in Rome. At the time, the nonessential being hotly debated was this:

* Can Christians eat meat that has been offered to a pagan idol?

 The elephant handlers in the Romans church had come out swinging. The meat eaters said, You Should eat that meat, because Christians know there are no such things as idols. So come on, dig in! But the non-meat-eaters said, You Should abstain from anything that gives the appearance of evil. So get your hands off that pagan meat!

So which is it: to eat, or not to eat? The elephant handlers saw this issue as clearly black or white, and they wanted Paul to join them and say You Should do exactly what they did. Boy, were they surprised at his response!

Go ahead, grab your Bible and turn to Romans 14. Wait, better yet, I’ll paste it below. Go on, read the whole chapter. I’ll wait…

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written:

“'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,
every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.'"

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Romans 14; emphasis added)
Did you see it? Paul says that even though he has an opinion on the subject (v. 14), it is exactly that—an opinion. In other words, “Sorry, guys. This elephant is gray.” So if your conscience allows you to eat that meat, then grab some A1 Steak Sauce and chow down to the glory of God. But if you think it’s dishonoring to God to eat meat sacrificed to idols, then by all means, order a salad.

And here’s the key: no matter what your personal conviction before God—to eat or not to eat—don’t start wagging your finger and telling your Christian brothers and sisters that You Should do exactly the same.

Meat eaters, when a vegetarian Christian invites you over for dinner, don’t bring a rib-eye and gobble it up in front of them—or worse, berate them about being less “spiritual” than you are because they’re salad-only.

And you vegetarians, don’t go crusading against the meat eaters. Don’t hold seminars or post blogs saying that meat eaters aren’t real Christians.

Instead, the apostle Paul says, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (v. 20). Or for the sake of education, or birth control, or television, or any of the other nonessentials, for that matter.

And do not destroy the work of God for the sake of whether moms "should" stay at home, earn an income, or something in between. Because that elephant, my friends, is very gray.

So, as Paul says in Romans 14:22, "whatever you believe about these things"--in this case, your personal conviction regarding the unique role God has designed for you in your own family--"keep between yourself and God." In other words, when it comes to nonessentials like this, don't let your "I believe this" turn into "...and You Should too."

And if this particular "disputable matter" comes up among your friends or in your church, especially if the You Should elephant rears its head, do your best to "let your conversation be always full of grace" (Colossians 4:6) and respond with gentleness and love, bearing in mind that Scripture urges us to "be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Whew! It feels good to get that elephant out of the room, doesn’t it? It feels much more… well, free in here.

By the way, Paul has to deal with this exact same "disputable matter" again in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. I wonder if Paul felt like a parent who has to tell his kids the same thing over and over and over again? Sigh. I can soo relate...


  1. I won't argue on your main point. Clearly, the Proverbs 31 wife is not only a homemaker, but is making money for her family -- a working mother, if you will. But on birth control, isn't the Bible clear that children are a blessing from God and that those who have "a quiverfull" are particularly blessed? I simply do not see how (absent exigent circumstances, such as the life or health of the wife), why the use of birth control is not a denial of God's clear word that children, especially several, are a blessing from Him and a sign of His favor and, as such, demonstrates a profound distrust of God and His Word. Birth control, then, if not condemned explicitly as an end in Scripture, but it is a means to an end which is called a curse, barrenness, and a rejection of what God calls a blessing, many children. That is why John Chrysostom called the use of birth control "contemning the blessings of God" and treating what Scripture calls a blessing as if it is a curse. I've yet to see an argument that successfully rebut this.

    The issue really is whether one trusts our Lord as "our Lord". Yes, we are free in Christ, but why would we use that freedom to reject blessings which He wills to send our way? I simply don't understand it.

    May God bless you.

  2. GL, thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. I appreciate you taking the time to share your honest opinion and questions about a topic that is so tender for many of us.

    I agree that God’s Word is clear that “children are a gift from the LORD” (Psalm 127:3-5). However, what is not as clear from Scripture (hence rendering this issue a "nonessential") is the converse premise inherent in your logic: that barrenness is, ipso facto, a curse.

    This, if I may gently point out, is the slippery slope of taking an “all-or-nothing” view on any particular nonessential. If we rely solely on Scripture, we see that while in some cases barrenness can be interpreted as a curse from God due to a woman’s disobedience (e.g., Michal, in 2 Samuel 6:23 [though her barrenness might also be due to her estrangement from David]), we also see a God-honoring woman—one who served God in the temple “night and day with fastings and prayers”—who happens to be childless (e.g., the prophetess Anna, in Luke 2:36, who was married for seven years without children). So we cannot draw a clear teaching from Scripture that in all cases, barrenness is always a curse from the Lord.

    Bringing this issue closer to home, I know (and you probably also know) godly, faithful women who desperately want to have children and are unable to conceive. In some cases, this barrenness was caused by medical problems; in other cases, the reason is known only to God. Are these women under God’s curse? Do they need to repent of disobedience so that God will bless them with children? And for that matter, is there a direct correlation between God’s blessing and the number of children He gives you, such that a woman with four children is more blessed than a woman who, despite wanting many children, is only able to bear one or two? (I'm honestly not trying to be argumentative here; just attempting to show the difficulty of making such generalizations without clear scriptural support.)

    Going back to your comment above, if barrenness is not always God’s curse, then the end to which birth control leads--whether childlessness or only a small quiver of children--is not always disobedience. (The key word here being "always.") It is, therefore, possible to be a godly, faithful woman who does not use birth control, as well as a godly, faithful woman who does. This is a matter of personal conviction, not a specific directive of Scripture.

    I understand and respect your well-expressed view on this issue. My intent here isn't to agree or disagree with you; it's to point out that the issue of birth control—while being a topic worth examining in light of Scripture and praying about God’s direction in one’s own marriage—is not among those beliefs considered to be “essentials” of the Christian faith. It is not an issue over which Christians should divide over or be willing to die for.

    It is, instead, a "nonessential" issue that is covered in grace.

    Thanks so much, GL, for your insights. May God bless you, too!

  3. Why does God rebuke the church in Pergamum (Rev. 2) for eating food sacrificed to idols if it's OK?

  4. Your response to my post is very well reasoned. Yet, the barrenness of birth control is not the barrenness of nature nor, necessarily, of God, but of humans choosing to do what is within their power to do to reject a potential blessing from God. I don't believe you have adequately addressed that point in my post. God's Word clearly and unequivocally declares children to be a blessing from God and clearly declares that those who have many children are especially blessed by Him. (See Psalm 127.) Birth control is an deliberate action that declares that the user does not believe having a child, or having a child now, or having more children would in fact be a blessing. How does this not deny God's clear Word on the subject? Put simply: God, through His Word, declares children, including many, are blessings from Him; birth control denies His Word and says, in effect, "No Thanks."

    I would note that in years of researching this issue, I have been unable to find a single orthodox Christian (Protestant -- which I am, Catholic, or Orthodox) who condoned the use of contraception prior to the last quarter of the 19th century. Conversely, I have found many Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox, both before and after that date, who condemned it, including both Luther and Calvin, almost all of whom cited Scripture. Such was clearly the teaching of the ancient Church, with many pastors leaving records of their view on the matter. I know of no denomination prior to 1930 which condoned its use, when the Anglican Communion reversed its earlier positions in 1908 and 1920 condemning it and then doing so only when there was a strong justification not to rely of periodic abstinence. See David Kennedy, "Birth Control in America" and Kathleen A. Tobin, "The American Religious Debate over Birth Control, 1907-1937", both available through Amazon.

    With all due respect, the argument you make, while well reasoned, is a deviation from the teaching of all of orthodox Christianity prior to the last century or so. C.S. Lewis called it a nearly unbroken teaching (it having been only recently broken by his own communion when he wrote those words). If you are a reader of Lewis, may I suggest that you read the following of his works, contemplating what he thought on the subject and what bothered him about the use of contraceptives: "The Abolition of Man", "That Hideous Strength", and "The Pilgrim's Regress".

    In "The Abolition of Man", for example, Lewis wrote: "[A]s regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument."

    In "That Hideous Strength", Lewis created the following dialog, in an extensive dialog, the character Merlin refers to the lead female character, Jane as the “falsest lady of any” because of her use of contraception.

    May God bless you.

  5. Great question, Richard. Just to be clear: I didn't say that eating food sacrificed to idols is okay. Nor did I say that it's NOT okay. I simply presented Paul's teaching on the subject, in which he stated his opinion on this "disputable matter" and then told the Christians at Rome to hold this issue with an open hand.

    If you take Revelation 2 as an "all-or-nothing" (e.g., eating meat sacrificed to idols is always wrong) then you have to say that the apostle Paul (in whose opinion eating such meat was permitted; Romans 14:14, 1 Cor. 10:30) was a grevious sinner. But if you hold this issue with an open hand, you might consider that perhaps the circumstances in Pergamum were different than those of Rome.

    In this in this case--as with all nonessentials--we should heed Paul's instructions: "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

    Thanks for the great insight, Richard! You've made this point beautifully.

  6. GL, I love how impassioned and well reasoned you are on your opinions on this subject. I appreciate your historical and literary insights. You clearly have a personal conviction before God about the use of contraception. By all means, I respect your freedom to abstain from the use of birth control as a matter of conscience.

    Whether I use birth control or not, or whether I support the use of birth control or not, is NOT the issue here. (Notice that I have neither agreed nor disagreed with your viewpoint.)

    My point here is that contraception is not an essential tenet of the Christian faith. In other words, though it's an important issue, clearly an impassioned one, and one worth searching out one's own conviction before God, it's not a core belief of Christianity (like the deity of Christ and the resurrection).

    Thus. in this matter (as with the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols), there is room for healthy disagreement in the body of Christ.

    Thanks for joining the conversation, GL! I really enjoy reading your thoughts. Do you have a blog?

  7. I do not have a blog, though I have from time-to-time had posting privileges on the blogs of others.

    I want to be careful how I respond to your assertion that the issue of contraception is not an essential issue. Clearly it is not an essential issue in the sense that the doctrines of the trinity, the nature of Christ's divine and human nature and will, and justification, for example, are essential issues. Yet, as Christians, we are to seek and obey the will of our Lord. Indeed, if He is in fact, and not merely in name, our Lord, we have a deep desire to seek and do His will. In fact, our Lord tells us that if we love Him, we will obey Him. Therefore, we have a duty to inform and form our conscience and, when properly formed, to follow it. The question, then, of whether and under what circumstances, if not all, contraception may be used without sin is one which cannot be ignored. Were it some new issue that had only been introduced by some modern teacher, it might be more easily dismissed. But it is not a new issue. Explicit prohibitions on its use can be found in the writings of orthodox Christian pastors as early as the second century and even earlier writings can be understood to be addressing it. And, again, while the condemnation continues throughout the first 19 centuries of our faith and among Protestants as well as Catholics and Orthodox, I have yet to find even a single orthodox Christian pastor or theologian who condoned it prior to the last quarter of the 19th century (and I cannot verify that the earliest writers who condoned it were, in fact, orthodox). That history demands of those who consider using contraceptives a careful study of the matter, with a heart and a head that both seek to understand and to submit to God's will on the subject.

    This will be my last post. I have given you several citations to sources where you can learn more if you are interested in doing so and you can post again here (I've subscribed to this thread) if you desire other citations.

    I will add, that my wife and I only came to this understanding after having used contraceptive for many years. We now have four children and likely will have no more given our ages. Both of us now regret deeply our earlier decision. Perhaps, had we not used contraceptives, we would have had even more children to love and to be loved by, and, in time, more grandchildren. As it is, we unwittingly said, "No thank you" to God and, in the words of John Chrysostom, "contemned the gifts of God". I post on this subject in the hopes of persuading others to learn from our mistake. We have confessed and repented of our sins in this area, but the natural consequences remain.

  8. GL, I truly appreciate your insights and honesty. I can see how tender and personal this issue is to you. Thank you for sharing your own experience.

    Though contraception is not an essential tenet of Christianity, that doesn't mean it's not important. And I wholeheartedly agree with your assertions that "we have a duty to inform and form our conscience and, when properly formed, to follow it" and that Christians should do "a careful study of the matter, with a heart and a head that both seek to understand and to submit to God's will on the subject." Amen!

    I simply submit that as we do a careful biblical study of this matter (along with other nonessentials) and then follow our consciences as the Lord leads, we treat those whom God leads to a different conviction with grace and love. Much the same way we would treat Christians of other denominations with grace and love, even though we don't necessarily agree with their (nonessential) beliefs and practices. As Augustine said, "in all things, charity."

    Thanks again, GL. May your thoughtful insights encourage readers to do a biblical study of this issue and to follow their conviction with a clear conscience. I look forward to hearing more from you in future posts!