Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, during which Christians are encouraged to ponder their sin and their own mortality. Sin can be difficult to face. Quite apart from the fact that no one really wants to think of their own evil, it can be difficult to identify what sin is.
Despite the claims of an odd team of Christian legalists and enemies of Christianity, biblical Christianity has no list of rules or prohibitions.
“All things are lawful,” says I Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23. That’s not a blanket pass to do anything at all. Paul continues the former saying he will not be mastered by anything and the latter saying not all things are profitable.
So God has moral standards that apply universally. But Christians are under grace and not law. In many ways, it’s a stricter standard than law.
How faith defines sin for the believer
Romans 14:28 says, “everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
That verse comes at the end of a chapter that demonstrates that something can easily be sin for some people, but not sin for others. The chapter begins with the commandment that Christians with strong faith should accept those with weak faith.
Who is the person with weak faith? The one with scruples. The one who suspects that something might be wrong without any clear scriptural prohibition.
That may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. Let’s take the example of two of the notorious “biggies” that everyone thinks of regarding sin: whom you sleep with and what you drink.
The New Testament forbids sexual immorality in many ways and many passages. Moral sex takes place between two people of the opposite sex who are married to each other. Everything else is sinful.
But regarding drink, the Bible prohibits drunkenness, but never forbids any particular beverages. According to Paul’s definition of strong and weak faith, the person who can drink anything in due moderation without a qualm has strong faith. The person who honors some list of forbidden beverages has weak faith.
On further examination, however, the whole issues is more nuanced. It might help to look at Paul’s example in Romans 14 and a possible modern parallel.
Meat sacrificed to idols
Romans 14:2 says, “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” That’s not a slap at vegetarians (of which I’m sure there weren’t any in Paul’s society.) The verse points to a controversy modern Christians might relate to only with difficulty.
Just as the Jews offered animal sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem, so did every pagan shrine in towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire. Their priests sold whatever meat they didn’t use in their rituals. It was difficult, maybe even impossible, to know whether meat for sale had or had not been part of a pagan sacrifice.
Also, temples were sort of the restaurants of the day. Eating a social meal at a place where sacrifices were offered was a commonly accepted practice. The Christian who chose not to have anything to do with such gatherings essentially cut himself off socially from everyone but other Christians. And that makes it difficult to share faith with unbelievers.
So how careful about eating should a Christian be?
When Paul addressed the issue in 1 Corinthians 8, he commanded that love, not personal knowledge, should guide the decision. Then he laid out the following case:
- There is only one God, and idols amount to nothing. Their priests therefore sacrifice animals to nothing. Nothing of spiritual significance happens to the meat.
- But not all Christians know that. Some with weak faith think that food sacrificed to these inconsequential non-entities is defiled.
- Strong Christians have freedom to eat whatever they want. Eating or not doesn’t bring anyone closer to God.
- But if a weak Christian sees a strong Christian eating in an idol’s temple, he might be tempted to do the same, even though his faith isn’t strong enough for him to be sure it’s all right.
- For the strong Christian, there isn’t anything wrong with eating the meat, but there is something wrong (unloving) with putting any kind of stumbling block in front of his weaker brother.
- Therefore it is better to choose not to exercise freedom if it is likely to harm a fellow believer.
Pitfalls for both the strong and the weak
Paul could have just as easily pointed out that the weak Christian might also be tempted to become judgmental. We have to look to Romans 14 for his thoughts about that.
Not only is the weak Christian likely to judge anyone who doesn’t live up to his scruples, but the strong Christian is likely to judge the weak Christian for his weakness.
That having scruples means being spiritually weak is the clear and obvious meaning of the text But it’s amazing to me the number of Christians with a long list of legalistic prohibitions who argue with it. They think they’re the strong ones. Unfortunately, it’s easier to be unloving than loving in discussing the point.
I just finished reading a magazine article that warns Christians against practicing yoga. After all, yoga is an integral part of the Hindu religion.
The Hindus have a saying, “There is no yoga without Hinduism and no Hinduism without yoga.” Hindu yogis themselves flatly assert that there is no such thing as Christian yoga.
But just as in the case of the meat, the issue is not as simple beneath the surface. Now for full disclosure, I occasionally attend a Cyntergy™ class at my gym. It is a blend of yoga postures and Pilates. I have never been to a dedicated yoga class, but I would willingly attend one that isn’t overtly Hindu.
Among my small collection of exercise DVDs is one called Praise Moves: The Christian Alternative to Yoga by Laurette Willis. In her introductory comments she tells the story of her own involvement with yoga and her realization that its spiritual aspects were preventing her from getting much spiritual benefit from her church.
Willis began to experience the fullness of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ only after she gave up yoga. She didn’t want to lose the exercise benefits, so she invented an alternative.
At one point she stresses that none of the moves are yoga, but they might look like it. After all, there are only so many postures that the human body can beneficially take. But I recognize not only postures, but entire sequences of postures from my Cyntergy™ class. Willis just has different names for them and combines them with Scripture.
I wrote earlier about athests embracing a godless religion. They go through all the motions, but get no substantial spiritual benefit (or harm, depending on their viewpoint) from it.
Yoga vs the appearance of yoga
Willis and the man who wrote the article were both involved in yoga as a spiritual discipline, including the study of chakras and what all else. For them and anyone else who have experience Hindu spirituality through yoga, yoga is spiritually dangerous. It can easily suck them back in. They are weakened by their past, and returning to anything that goes by the name “yoga” would be sin for them.
But since there are only so many postures the human body can take, the postures themselves have no more spiritual significance for a strong Christian than eating in an idol’s temple had for Paul.
It might be very true that there is no Hinduism without yoga and no yoga without Hinduism. But it is certainly possible to exercise using yoga postures without Hinduism. Technically, it’s not doing yoga, but it’s easier to call it yoga than talk around it.
A strong Christian can take classes that use yoga postures, learn their standard yoga names like “down dog,” and experience no more spiritual consequences than an atheist’s “prayers.” Provided, of course, that the instructor isn’t teaching Hinduism along with the moves and poses.
The issues of meat sacrificed to idols and yoga are the same. The strong Christian has freedom to partake. For the weak Christian, partaking is sin. And the strong Christian must be mindful not to put any kind of stumbling block before weak Christians. Let all thoughts, words, and deeds about the matter be done in love.