Absolute and Relative Morality
NCW 69: August 2000 - January 2001
Q. The Bible says that we should not cause a weaker brother to stumble by making sacrifices when necessary. Paul gives the example of not eating meat offered to idols. This would seem to me to create all sorts of complications since one thing may cause one man to sin and another not. For instance, two Christians visiting an art gallery that includes nude art - one Christian might just admire the human form and Yahweh's creative genius, and the other might have sexual impulses aroused and fall into the temptation to lust in his heart. Or looking at beautiful architecture - one Christian might just admire the architecture and think no more of it, and the other covet the luxurious house for himself. Just where do you draw the boundaries?
A. You pose the classical dilemma of absolute and relative Christian morality and highlight the fact that believers are in different stages of sanctification. For it is a fact that many lawful things (such as owning a nice car) can lead a person into sin, as with the sin of covetousness which you mentioned. We have dealt with a similar question about nudity in A Question of Nudity which, though out of print at the moment, is to be found on our web site under the Apostolic Interviews section.
I suppose, as in all things, we must both take a balanced view as well as make intelligent and sensitive judgements based on circumstances. That means that you need to be aware of the disposition and level of spiritual maturity of those whom you are with. It is by no means easy and it is inevitable that we are going to trip up from time to time. If in doubt, tend towards conservatism rather than liberalism.
For example, I had am American friend who loved Alma-Tadema art which has a lot of nude content. He took me to his favourite gallery in London and it was plain to see that his sole absorption was with beauty. At the time I had another friend who, had he been taken around such a place, would have had aroused in him the most unholy passions, and such a visit would have been positively harmful to him.
Similarly I know of a couple of ladies who, like most of their gender, are interested in clothes. One of them can look at beautiful dresses and just admire them but the other, whenever she sees such things, simply has to have them for her own possession. Clearly, the latter has a problem with covetousness, like the example you cite of the luxurious homes. I personally like to see ladies in beautiful, elegant clothes, but I also know that this can cause envy in others. Thus Paul was right to say that women should adorn themselves simply so as not to distract the lustful eye from spiritual things (1 Tim.2:9). One can go too far in the opposite direction too, and I know of some women who dress themselves up as shabbily as possible believing that this is the best way to be "spiritual" (though often I think this is just an excuse for carelessness and laziness). They are not different in their perverse thinking to those who like to overdress and make a show of themselves (see Olive Branch, NC&C 5:1-5; 253:18-23; 264; fn 523 [p.587]).
My only advice is that you must be sensitive and sensible. This means caring enough about the people you associate with so as to wish to bless them rather than to set stumbling blocks before their feet. At the same time you must not feel yourself so bottled in that you cannot be a little more "liberal" with others of your acquaintance who are unlikely to stumble at the same things. But watch it. The devil is always seeking to trip you up and you may well go too far in the opposite direction and be led into sin yourself. Use your freedom wisely.
This page was created on 22 January 2001
Last updated on 22 January 2001
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