If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I do not need to inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has specifically said this is a no-no. He has already told me that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess, and as a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for the sin it is and encourage you to go and sin no more. But when it comes to what you eat or abstain from, which holidays you celebrate, and so on, I may not tell you what to do (Romans 14:4-10), and you are not allowed to permit me (or anyone else) to pass judgment on you about that, or enforce regulations over you (Colossians 2:16-23).
These latter areas are what we call “areas of liberty.” Christian liberty does not mean that there are no wrong choices to make. It means that the nature of the issue is such that God does not allow us to pontificate on someone else’s correctness. Let’s illustrate with, say, hair color.
Now, whether we’re talking about a lady of a certain age unnaturally prolonging her days as a brunette, or the same lady going electric blue, hair dye has been a hot topic in certain times and places. Accusations of ‘worldliness’ abound (and are particularly funny when leveled by an unnatural brunette against someone else’s unnaturally electric blue hair, but never mind.)
When it comes to hair, Scripture says some things about ostentatious displays of wealth and leisure, but dye is so cheap anymore that’s not really a problem. Taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and other believers do not have the right to tell you whether you may use it, or what colors you may or may not use. This is a matter that is within your liberty, and that means that you are to be permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.
This wrongness can happen in two ways, and it’s important to grasp both.
In his discussion of ‘doubtful things’ in Romans 14, Paul takes sides on the issue of eating meat. Here we have one brother chowing down on a steak, and a vegetarian who thinks his carnivorous brother is flirting with deadly compromise. Paul does not say they’re both equally valid dietary choices; he pointedly describes the carnivore as the stronger Christian. The vegetarian, he says, has a weak conscience–and he is allowed to be wrong about this. The vegetarian may not pass judgment on the carnivore, nor the carnivore hold the vegetarian in contempt. So if you feel that pink hair is an abomination, you are allowed to avoid it. On these sorts of matters, you have the freedom to be wrong; let each one be fully convinced in his own mind, as Paul says.
There is also another way in which you can be wrong. The motives of your heart may, in fact, be drenched in worldliness. Your boyfriend’s ex dyed her hair pink last week, and he’s been looking longingly at her ever since, and there’s no way you’re going to let that skank show you up — who does she think she is, anyway? — and so you’re gonna get a dye job that can be seen from low earth orbit. Now as your pastoral counselor, or just your friend, I see a whole stack of issues worth addressing here, but the point for our conversation today is that I’m not allowed to tell you the dye job is sin. This is the kind of circumstance where God might call you to forget the pink hair, but that’s not because pink hair is sin, it’s because it would be a hindrance for you.
God may ultimately call you to forsake Crossfit, or rolex watches, or Starbucks coffee, or snazzy ties. God might call you to let your grey hair grow in, to mortify your vanity. He might call you to polish your shoes every Saturday night and wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. Liberty does not mean that God can’t or won’t call you in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can demand it. It’s between you and God.
So listen well.