God forbids activities. When someone does one of them, he's sinning. Whatever activity God doesn't forbid in His Word, someone has the liberty to do that without it being sin. That isn't quite Christian liberty though, because someone still doesn't have liberty if he's in bondage. Only Christians have liberty. Liberty is not just about not sinning, but it's also about pleasing God. It's impossible for a non-Christian, an unbeliever to stop sinning, and he can't please God. In Romans 8:8, the Apostle Paul writes, "So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."
A Christian, a true believer in Jesus Christ, pleases God because he can through the indwelling Holy Spirit. He is now led by the Spirit of God, the same Spirit of God that led Jesus, the Son of God, while He lived on this earth. He now has the ability not to sin. He can do good, not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. A Christian pleases God as a son, like Jesus pleased God the Father, doing everything the Father wanted Him to do, because he has received the Spirit of adoption. This is the liberty in which he stands.
Christian liberty is freedom to please God as a son. The Christian wants to please God and can. However, that liberty is not an occasion to or a base of operations for the flesh of the Christian, that he still has. He doesn't use liberty as a cover to do evil. Liberty is to please God, which is the Apostle Paul's point to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 6 through 10, where he limits the liberty of a Christian.
The first limitation on liberty, however, Paul makes in Romans 6:1-2, which is that a Christian doesn't have the liberty to sin. He is truly dead to sin. He is free from sin, not free to sin. Sin is breaking God's law. All unrighteousness is sin (1 John 5:17). Whatsoever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
Someone does not have liberty to violate scripture. That is sin. He has liberty in non-scriptural issues. That doesn't mean that he has liberty in every non-scriptural issue, but his liberty is at least limited to non-scriptural activity.
Much of what scripture teaches requires application. The Bible forbids corrupt communication, but it doesn't tell us what corrupt communication is. We are assumed by God in scripture to know that. Just because God doesn't say what corrupt communication is doesn't mean a Christian has liberty to use corrupt communication.
"Be not conformed to this world" requires application. "Abstain from fleshly lusts" requires application. "Make no provision for the flesh" requires application. "Mortify therefore your members upon the earth" requires application. "That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter" requires application. "Keepers at home" requires application. Not being "effeminate" requires application. "Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father" requires application. There are dozens and dozens of these. Christians don't have liberty to disobey them, just because they require application.
In the context of a church, a Christian doesn't have liberty to disobey his pastor (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Corinthians 11:1), as long as it is a non-scrriptural issue. Of course, he obeys God rather than men (Acts 5:29), but he doesn't have liberty to be factious (Titus 3:10-11) or cause disunity in the church (Ephesians 4:3, 1 Corinthians 1:10). A Christian is required to fit into the body of Christ, the church (Romans 12:3; Ephesians 4:18).
There is no verse that says a Christian must go to the movie theater. He can obey God and not go. If a church says its members can't attend the theater and gives good, godly reasons not to do so, a member shouldn't go. That shouldn't be a problem for a Christian. Whatever argument someone might give for attending a theater, not going to one isn't going to stop him from living his Christian life. This requirement is not a violation of Christian liberty. Principles of Christian liberty can be applied.
Someone might say, scripture says nothing about going to a theater. It's true. However, scripture, as I wrote above, requires application, and there are many principles that do apply. So, a church says its members can't go, rather than leaving it up to each family or individual member to judge. A prospective member says, "I've got to have a church that allows this, because it is restricting a liberty I have," so that he doesn't join that church. He looks for a church based upon its allowing its members to go to the movies. The Apostle Paul commanded on matters of Christian liberty, be ye followers of me, imitators of me (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul wasn't harming their Christian liberty by ordering them to follow the way that he handled liberties.
If the pastor says all the ushers will wear ties, that doesn't violate scripture. He's not saying that you are a better person for doing it. He's not saying that you've got to wear a tie in order to get to heaven. He's in charge, what scripture says is "ruling," so ushers should wear ties. This requirement is not a violation of Christian liberty.
There are several other limitations on Christian liberty that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 6 through 10. Something might be good other than God, but a Christian doesn't have liberty to be addicted to it (6:12). In 1 Corinthians 10, it's not just doing evil, but associating with it that a Christian doesn't have the liberty to do. By mere association and proximity, he could easily fall. In 1 Corinthians 8, he doesn't have liberty to cause a weaker brother to stumble or to violate his or someone else's conscience. These don't even have to be a sin. He doesn't have the liberty to be a bad testimony to an unbeliever, even in something that might be permissible (10:30; Romans 14:16).
A Christian doesn't have liberty in whatever he does except to bring glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31). It goes back to living like a son, that Paul emphasizes in Romans 8 and Galatians 3-5, and children are not only to obey their parents, but honor their parents. We can know what honor is or God wouldn't have told us to do that. If we can judge honor, we can also judge dishonor.
Christian liberty isn't about doing what you want to do. It's about doing what God wants you to do. It's about pleasing God out of love as a child of His. To practice Christian liberty will require applying principles in scripture to honor and glorify Him.
What I'm writing about Christian liberty isn't new. The abuse of Christian liberty also isn't new. Paul talks about it in Galatians 5, Peter in 2 Peter 2, and Jude in his one chapter. The grace of God can be turned into lasciviousness and that's rampant in evangelicalism and fundamentalism today.
Many times today professing Christians will choose their church by how much liberty the church allows. Alcohol, check. Rock music, check. Immodest clothing, check. Movies, check. Hit and miss church attendance, check. Little to no evangelism, check. Churches cater to this, and they call it Christian liberty. It's not.
*************I'm adding to this post, at least two more points that are important, first some might say is positive and the other negative. I reread the above and like it, believe it, but other thoughts came to mind. A whole book could be written on this. Whole books have been written.
A positive is what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7, where a woman, whose husband has died, has the liberty to marry whoever she wants in the Lord. The liberty is restricted by "in the Lord," but the liberty is highlighted by 'whoever she wants.' I'm not quoting here except where I put quotations, and I'm taking liberty to do that. Biblical authors did the same. This is a woman previously married, not a daughter still under the authority of her father, that Paul explains in the same context.
Christian liberty is a subject that relates to a biblical view, a right perspective, on the will of God. God allows for you to do what you want to do. You are free to eat meat, but you are also free not to eat meat. If you want to be a vegan or a vegetarian, you are free to do that. You can use paper or plastic. God allows for these choices. Principles apply -- "in the Lord" -- but that still allows for Christian liberty.
I talked above about attending the movie theater. I've said that someone has the liberty to do that. However, if the church says, "no," a principle applies. The church shouldn't be judged for doing that either, because principles do apply. The church has liberty to limit based on principles. This is the historic teaching of the church.
When considering what I wrote above, I was thinking about the list of activities Paul commanded a Christian to mortify in Colossians 3:5. God doesn't allow uncleanness and evil concupiscience, but those have to be applied. A church can say, no dancing. That's an application. There are other principles they could use, but that's a direct application of those. When Paul commanded, "flee fornication," he wasn't saying that it's permissible to do everything short of fornication. This is where evangelical and fundamentalist churches fall short today on Christian liberty.
I understand that someone might think that limiting Christian liberty means not having liberty. Liberty isn't being able to drive as close to the side of the cliff that you want. It isn't being able to play in the road since there is no law against it. Liberty has a purpose. When that purpose is not fulfilled, then it isn't liberty, but bondage. I understand there is a paradox here and scripture is full of them. This is something that evangelicals and many fundamentalists, it seems, are playing dumb.
The second point to which I gave thought later is the often used verse for evangelicals by Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:6, especially parking on the particular phrase, "above that which is written" (I've written on topics related to this many times -- here, here, here, here, here, here, here). Using selective relativism, evangelicals will say, "the Bible doesn't say anything about that, so you're adding to scripture -- you're above that which is written." The Bible doesn't say you can't drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, doesn't say you can't hip thrust, doesn't say that you can't wear bermuda shorts to church, but it also doesn't say you can't smoke crack pipes.
You are not going or moving "above that which is written" when you apply scripture in the right way. Scripture writes that. Nowhere does scripture prohibit abortion. You've got to piece together "that which is written" to make that application. Scripture prohibited, but not in so many words. Evangelicals today, even by quoting 1 Corinthians 4:6 as a means of not applying scripture, show their fundamental perversion of sola scriptura, what they very often trumpet or hang on a banner in their auditoriums. They should go back to the Westminster Confession of Faith, where it says (1:6),
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.The Bible is to be used to interpret the world around us, that is, everything is to be seen within the framework that the Bible establishes. You are wrong when you are not doing that.