Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Response to Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church - February 13, 2011 - On "Liberty Issues"

This post is part of an ongoing set of responses to Tobe Witmer's (Lighthouse Baptist Church, Newark, DE) series on the book of Romans, which he preached on through the entire 2010 calendar year.

This post responds to the February 13, 2011 sermon on Romans 14, which concerned itself with the idea of "liberty issues," areas in which "good and Godly Christians" are free to disagree.  Because there are only a few points I'd like to make, I'll stick to quoting from Witmer's sermon notes, which can be downloaded here.  Links to the sermon video can be found by visiting LBC's site.

I'll put my quotes from Witmer's notes in blue.

Witmer begins by defining "liberty areas:"

“Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (v. 5) - that is a Passive
command to come to conclusions (fully persuaded) in Liberty areas based on the Word of God
for yourself, for your family. The command also means that you don’t come to conclusions in
Liberty areas for other families and people around you -- and so is the heart of this entire
argument that lasts to the end of the chapter.

According to Witmer, liberty areas are to be decided on by the individual for the individual, and one should not draw conclusions for other Christians.  Of course, the Bible does give advice about how to handle liberty areas so as not to give scandal to other Christians who are sensitive or who think differently about a certain "liberty."  Witmer comments on this instruction later, and he has good things to say.  I really appreciate the sensitivity he demonstrates toward other Christians in these areas.  However, I'd like to go through the sermon as it unfolds in the notes.  

Also, the focus of my comments will be on a different issue altogether:  who has the authority to define what areas are to be considered "liberty areas"?  After all, what good is a "liberty area" if there is not an authority to define what these areas are?  Indeed, without such an authority, the idea is actually a dangerous one, since it could allow a Christian who is living in sin to simply decide for himself that his sin is actually just a liberty area.

So, the (potentially life- and soul-jeopardizing) questions for Pastor Witmer will be:
1.  What are liberty areas?
2.  Who decides what those areas are?
3.  Is the decision of what constitutes a liberty area itself a liberty area?
4.  Where does the Bible establish principles for how to deal with modern moral "gray areas" (such as abortion and the question of when life begins, divorce and remarriage, artificial contraception, artificial insemination, tube babies, human torture, etc.)

If liberty areas are few and unimportant, then why spend two sermons talking about them?  However, I think, and I hope the reader will agree, that "liberty areas" is actually an area where wars are fought--wars about ideas--but wars that have life or death consequences all the same.

Witmer goes on:

By liberty issues - I don’t mean Fundamental doctrine of Scripture - I mean applications
or interpretations of different issues that good and Godly men see differently

This statement doesn't clarify much.  First, "doctrines" are interpretations of Scripture.  It is as if Witmer is saying: "I don't mean interpretations of Scripture.  I mean interpretations of Scripture."

You see, once one invokes "liberty issues," the conversation can not go much farther until one defines what those issues are.

The Church at Rome were a Motley Crew - a mixture of Jews and Gentiles (by the way, this
isn’t the Roman Catholic Heresy that emerged from the church - this is the real, true church) ---
this mixture of Jews and Gentiles produced some challenges of O.T. and N.T. practices - among
these were kinds of meat a Christian could eat (dietary laws), Sabbaths and special days - do
we still practice them? and Circumcision

So, we here get our first list of "issues."  Before that, though, Pastor Witmer reveals a bit of his lack of understanding of Church history.  Namely, he seems to think that the Church in Rome was different in its beliefs than the Roman Catholic Church today.  While those beliefs have certainly developed over time, none of them have changed.  For instance, the first-century Church in Rome when Paul was writing accepted the papacy, venerated the saints, and celebrated the Mass.  None of these "Catholic heresies" emerged centuries later when Constantine made the Catholic faith the official religion of the  Roman Empire.  The problem for Witmer is that any date he chooses to say that the "Roman Catholic Heresy" emerged, I can show him documentary evidence that the people in the early church before that date believed Catholic doctrine.

Getting back to the list of "challenges," we have the dietary laws, Sabbaths and special days, and circumcision.
As Witmer rightly goes on to say, even though we are not bound by the Jewish dietary laws, the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday worship), and circumcision, each of these areas made for a somewhat rough transition for Jewish Christians who were leaving their ingrained customs behind for their new faith.

Precisely because it was such a hard transition, we see the need for someone to define "liberty areas" with authority.  We see this happen in regard to circumcision at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.  The early church was being split by the question of whether gentile converts first needed to be circumcised before they could enter the faith.  

At a deeper level, the question was: is circumcision a "liberty issue."  One side said "No! It is not a liberty issue! Gentiles MUST be circumcised."  The other side said "Yes! It is a liberty issue.  We can choose for ourselves whether or not we want to be circumcised."

Once again, can you see how liberty issues involve not just the issue itself, but who gets to decide?  That is why, without an outside authority, liberty issues divide churches.  Just think: if the apostles hadn't held a council at Jerusalem to make an authoritative decision, the early church could have divided into schism over (what one side would call) a liberty area.
However, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" that Gentiles did NOT need to be circumcised (Acts 15).  With this ruling, both sides were convinced that the area was a liberty issue.

In contrast, within Protestantism, "liberty issues" remain bones of contention that serve to divide Christians into more and more denominations.
There are many such “liberty” issues that good and godly believers differ on that are not
clearly spelled out Doctrine. Unfortunately, some Fundamental Christians have gotten very
ugly and militant on these “rabbit trail issues” and have judged other Christians and elevated
these issues to the level of Doctrine. Are liberty issues are no longer so much Sabbaths,
circumcision, and dietary laws --- but are things like women wearing pants, attending the
Theater, the Version debate, certain Music, etc.) - We need to apply the truths here to our own
“doubtful disputations” in Fundamentalism that are not clear Doctrine and good and Godly
men see differently than we may see it.

Here, Pastor moves away from the examples of circumcision, etc. to the modern "liberty areas:" women wearing pants, attending the theatre, the Version debate, certain Music, etc.

He also invokes "clear doctrine," though that is really the heart of the debate, no?  After all, something being "clear" is a bit subjective, since doctrines (and liberty areas) that are clear to one Christian are not clear to another.
Who has the authority to decide?

And what about areas like (non-excessive) drinking of alcohol?  Many good and Godly Christians see no problem with drinking a glass of wine.  Is this a liberty area, or would Witmer say these Christians are sinning?  I personally know many Baptists who enjoy a single glass of wine and feel the need to make a joke about "not telling my pastor."  Is drinking in moderation a sin?  
And if so (or not so), where does the Bible clearly say one way or another?  If a "liberty area" is an area involving an "application" like Witmer said earlier, then surely the subject of having a beer would be a liberty issue, since one must apply Biblical ideas to making a ruling.

As you read Witmer's sermon, you see how easy it is to get caught up in the problem of "liberty issues" without: (1) actually defining clearly what those areas are and (2) showing that you have the authority to define the area as being a "liberty area."
So, when Pastor Witmer goes on to harp on the "don't despise, don't judge" verses, it is fundamentally unclear in what areas we are to apply this advice.  Again, the danger is that end up not judging enough!  The danger is that we allow a brother in the Lord who is falling into sin to continue in that sin because we say to ourselves that it must, for that person, be a liberty area.  "Don't judge," right?

I'm going to skip a bit, but you should be getting the drift.  Please be sure to read all the sermon notes, linked to above. 

Now remember, this isn’t a man living in sin, it is a man that sees and practices a minor issue
of the Christian life differently than you do. - He hasn’t ignored Scripture or twisted Scripture,
he understands it and applies it differently than you.

This is good Christian teaching, but useless unless we know how to judge whether an issue is a liberty area or not.  After all, Pastor Witmer refuses, for instance, to admit that my interpretations of Scripture are valid just because they are different from his in certain areas.  How do we know those areas are NOT liberty areas, but other areas are, if Witmer doesn't define them?  And, who made Pastor Witmer the authority for defining the areas of Scripture that I'm not allowed to interpret for myself?

My Brother and I both love the Lord - however, He takes his family to see clean Movies and I do
not because I feel like that is a bad testimony, association, support of Hollywood, etc. - He says I do
the same thing when I rent from a Redbox. We disagree and the Lord receives us both.

First, it must be said that both Pastor Witmer and his brother are being model Christians in their concerns.   More Catholics (including myself at times) need to follow Pastor Witmer's advice here.  Admittedly, making wise decisions about how to interact (or not interact) with the secular world is difficult.  On the one hand, we all have to do it to some degree, and so Pastor Witmer and his brother are so much arguing about a difference but a degree of interaction.  I applaud and am inspired by both of their faithfulness to the Lord in attempting to make Godly decisions in this area!

Remember the fundamental point: without a list of "liberty areas," it is very difficult to apply the points above, and even possible to apply them wrongly to areas that are not "liberty areas" out of fear of being judgmental.

All the above anecdote adds to our list is one more area: whether or not go to the movies, and in what venue is it appropriate to see a clean movie.

Most Christians probably already know that they at least should attempt to make wise decisions on fronts like this.

The problem is that Christians deeply disagree over other liberty issues (artificial contraception, in-vitro fertilization, etc.) that have pretty significant consequences.  The issue of "liberty area" has consequences that extend much farther than a movie venue.  Further, the issues that Paul was facing in Romans were much larger in scope and significance than the movie/women's pants/version issues that Witmer is talking about.

Notice that so far, the most critical questions haven't really been addressed:

1.  What are liberty areas?
2.  Who decides what those areas are?
3.  Is the decision of what constitutes a liberty area itself a liberty area?
4.  Where does the Bible establish principles for how to deal with modern moral "gray areas" (such as abortion and the question of when life begins, divorce and remarriage, artificial contraception, artificial insemination, tube babies, human torture, etc.)

This is Huge for Christian practice in the Church -- it is the liberty that we all have as priests
to our God to interpret and apply Scripture for ourselves. Not to discount Pastors, not to
discount clear Doctrine -- but everyman is a priest to study and apply the Scripture. It is
commanded for every believer to determine by seriously considering Scripture to determine
how he will practice these liberty issues.

And here, we finally get to the issue of authority.  But notice that Witmer's "answer" really doesn't answer anything!  He cites the principle of the "priesthood of all believers" to back up the right that every Christian has to decide for him or herself how to "practice these liberty areas."  In other words, Pastor Witmer's answer addresses question No. 2 above.  But the problem is, he hasn't addressed question no. 1, which comes first!

Do we, given our status as priests, also have the right to determine and interpret the Bible for ourselves when it comes to what these liberty issues are, and what fundamental Bible doctrines are?

Furthermore, it gets even more complicated, since the Bible clearly speaks of church authorities of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon.  The Greek word for the second term is actually presbyteros, which Catholics contract into the anglicized word "priest."  But this office of priest is distinct from the role of the layman in the Bible, even though lay Christians also have a priestly role in the NT church.  Still, this role is different from the authority structure found in the Holy Orders of the ministerial priesthood layed out by the NT as bishop, presbyteros, and deacon.

We see in the NT that it was primarily the bishops (the apostles were the first bishops, and when they died, someone else filled their "bishopric"; see Acts 1) who authoritatively interpreted God's Word which they had received in the fullness and person of Christ.  We see this play out in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem, discussed earlier.

Unfortunately, because Witmer rejects the existence of such an authoritative body today to define what are and are not liberty areas, he struggles to give a satisfying explanation of how we answer question no. 1: how we determine authoritatively what these areas are.


There are many of these within Christianity -- You are not to ignore these disputed issues,
but rather search Scriptural verses, N.T. doctrine, and principle and make the call for yourself
asking the guidance of God to lead you --- You cannot rest on what my family does in these
issues -- When good and Godly men see an issue differently -- you must consider it and be fully
persuaded in your own mind!  (Witmer's highlighting)

So here we come to the nub of it: you should ask God to guide you.
Well, yes.  That is generally true for everything we do in life, especially in liberty issues where either decision is morally acceptable.

But the real problem is: what are those liberty issues.

After all, abortion is not a liberty issue.  But what if someone in Witmer's congregation thought that it was a liberty issue???  That person might interpret the words above to mean: "don't listen to your family (who is telling her not to get an abortion).  Rather, pray to God, and be fully persuaded in your own mind that getting the abortion is what God wants you to do."

Do you see how "liberty areas" are really a matter of life and death if question no. 1 has not been addressed?

Things remain a bit fuzzy in that Witmer continues talking about early church quandries without addressing modern day problems:

God further explains how He accepts believers who differ in these issues -- He says in v. 6
(read) -- God says -- The believer who sets the Sabbath or special Jewish holy day aside does it
or “regards it” - practices the honoring of that day “unto the Lord”, and the Believer who does
not regard it -- He also honors the Lord by choosing not to honor that day.

Well, once again, things are a bit more complicated.  After all, the Jewish Sabbath has actually been fulfilled in the "Lord's Day," Sunday, the first day of the week and the new day of Creation in Christ.  It is this day that the early church faithfully met, and Christians are commanded to keep the Sabbath, an eternal law written in the Ten Commandments.  The only change is from Saturday to Sunday.  We now rest at the beginning of our labors, not at the end!  A Christian actually does NOT have the liberty of choosing not to honor God on this day!  Yet, Witmer's text above makes it seem like because Saturday worship is no longer required, that Sabbath worship has also been entirely discarded.
Notice how Witmer wraps things up:
Pastor Kosher was the young Youth Pastor at the High School I attended. He came to
me and another friend one day and asked us if we thought the Holy Spirit would tell two
people conflicting things. ----- He was struggling with the Bible truth here that two Christians
could practice different things in their Christian lives and both of them be honoring the Lord.
Again, without knowing whether the issue was a liberty issue or not, it is impossible for this story to be meaningful.  If the issue was about eating meat or being a vegetarian, then it is perfectly acceptable for the Holy Spirit to move people in one direction or the other, since both options are fine.  However, what if the issue was on abortion?  Would the Holy Spirit move someone to save their baby and move someone else to kill it?
Witmer summarizes (with my comments in brackets):
1. Clear Doctrine in Scripture is not a matter of liberty [But who defines clear doctrine authoritatively, and to whom is it "clear"?].
2. There are issues/applications of our Christian life similar to these that we will see differently [Christains are so divided that everything is an issue that is seen differently.  Who decides which differences are permissible and which are heresy?]
3. Each believer must look at Scripture seeking God’s discernment to make decisions for
himself in these areas of liberty. He must be fully persuaded of what He should do and do it [But where can I find a full list of these liberty areas?  Is the list forever complete, or do new options in life automatically get added to the libery (or non-liberty) list?]
4. We must not judge another believer who comes do a different conclusion. He is God’s
servant who God receives and is supporting.  [Is this only true for liberty areas?  If it is generally true, then why does Witmer contstantly judge Catholics to be heretics?  Why can't he at least take the loving approach and say that we simply interpret the Bible differently than he does?]
5. - back where we started [Yes, indeed.] - We are to fellowship willingly with each other even if we disagree,
but we are not to doubtfully and hurtfully quarrel about these things - they are Minor issues
compared to Clear Doctrine, preaching the gospel, and edifying believers. 
While I appreciate Witmer's attempt to address this critical issue for believers, it become clear rather quickly that "liberty areas" is a concept that highlights the need for an authority to define what those issues in fact are.
At the same time, it is critical that Pastor Witmer be able to explain by what authority he decides what areas are liberty areas and which are not, lest his listeners fall into the trap of thinking that anything they may decide to do or believe could be justified by falling under the umbrella of "liberty."

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