Freedom, not License

The following was printed in our church’s monthly newsletter. I republish it here for the purposes of discussion.

God’s Word speaks clearly on many doctrinal and practical issues. For example, we are not left to wonder who God is or what He has done to save us from our sins. According to Scripture, God is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19-20). He created all things by means of His Word (Gen. 1-2) and has redeemed mankind from sin and everlasting death by His Son’s sacrifice on Calvary (Matthew 20:28).

Scripture is abundantly clear that Baptism saves sinners (Titus 3:5; Mark 16:16) and that the Lord’s Supper is truly the body and blood of Christ given to Christians for the forgiveness of their sins (Matt. 26:28). We also know from God’s Word that the Lord’s Supper is not to be given to just anyone (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Our practice of confessing sin to a pastor and receiving forgiveness from the pastor “as from God Himself” (Small Catechism, Fifth Chief Part) is also clearly taught in the Scriptures (John 20:22-23).

There are clear, unambiguous words of Scripture that address such things as women’s ordination (1 Tim. 2:11-12), the sins of homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27), abortion (Exodus 20:13), and pre-marital cohabitation (Hebrews 13:4). We can and must speak clearly on these issues because God’s Word is unambiguous concerning them. Moreover, failure to teach and proclaim such things from God’s Word is sinful.

But there are a number of things that the Bible does not address, at least not directly. There are a number of church traditions and customs, for example, that are neither expressly commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. The use of acolytes in the church, the ordering of our Church Year, the use of candles, colors used in the Church, and chanting all fall into this category of “things neither commanded nor forbidden” in Scripture (otherwise known as adiaphora).

In such cases, the church is free. In other words, the church does not need to worry if it is sinning if it uses candles or does not use candles, or if its pastors chant or do not chant. Does this mean, therefore, that one practice is as good as another? Too often the term adiaphora is taken to mean that since Scripture is silent, or does not directly address a particular practice, then we are free to do whatever we want.

Here, we need to be careful that we do not confuse freedom with license. We are free, to be sure, but freedom requires that one act responsibly, using our God-given reason and wisdom to make the best choice or decision about something.

Scripture, for example, does not dictate what kind of clothes I wear to conduct the Service. Does that mean that I should conduct worship wearing a Megadeath t-shirt and ripped jeans? What kind of message would that send? What would that communicate to those present about my attitude towards God? Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.

Was it not the apostle Paul who wrote, “All things are lawful for me, not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23)? While it may be lawful for me to walk around during my sermon and give high-fives to the people in the pews when I tell them about the wonderful work God has done for us, is that necessarily something I should do? Is that beneficial to the worship of the Church? Is it helpful? Or could it serve to draw more attention to me than to Christ? Freedom is not license. Our freedom in matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture is still an informed freedom.

The Bible informs our practice in a number of ways, without necessarily dictating to us a “right” or a “wrong” way to do things. For example, the Bible never tells us that pastors must wear vestments. But all throughout Scripture, those who served God in a liturgical context did in fact wear some special clothing, thus providing historic and biblical precedent.

Even the prophets are said to have worn “sheep skins” (Hebrews 11:37; confer also Jesus’ words, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”). Vestments serve a purpose: they hide the man, and draw attention to the office of Christ. They also contribute to the beauty and dignity of the Service.

God’s Word does not command or forbid the use of candles in the church, but the Bible tells us that Christ is the “light of the world,” and we know for certain that candles and lampstands were used in Jewish worship and early Christian worship. Candles are also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Thus, there is biblical precedent for their use. Would the Divine Service still be the Divine Service without candles? Of course! But using candles is a good tradition that teaches something about Christ.

The Bible informs other liturgical practices, without dictating exactly how our worship is to look. Nowhere does Christ give a complete order of worship to the disciples, though a good argument could be made (and has been made) that the structure of our worship follows the pattern laid down by the Lord in the Gospels. Jesus first instructs His disciples in His divine Word (Luke 24:27) and this instruction is followed by Table Fellowship (Luke 24:30-31). Hence, Word and Sacrament.

Besides the general structure and pattern of liturgical worship, the Bible informs our practice by teaching us that worship should be reverent (Hebrews 12:28). St. Paul teaches us that God is a God of order, not a God of chaos and disorder, and so worship ought to reflect that divine character by being conducted in an orderly fashion (1 Cor. 14:40). Because God is holy, and is present among us “wherever two or three are gathered in His Name,” we are also humble in the way that we approach the Lord in song, in prayer, and in praise.

Many of our traditional ceremonies reflect these biblical principles, though they are not commanded in Scripture. For instance, the tradition of having an ordered set of readings throughout the Church Year flows from this principle. It also serves to present to the Church throughout the course of a year the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

It is for the sake of reverence and humility toward God that we sometimes kneel or bow our heads. For the sake of reverence we act differently in the Divine Service than we do at other times. We are quiet, we don’t run around, shout, or clap. Some see such traditions and practices as being unnecessarily legalistic, that is, “of the law.” We see them as practical applications and amplifications of the biblical principles of order, reverence, and courtesy (which is love).

This, I believe, is a more helpful way of understanding the concept of adiaphora, or, “things not commanded nor forbidden in Holy Scripture.” We should always ask ourselves, with regard to any practice in the church: What does God’s Word say? Is this required? Is it forbidden? If neither, is it helpful? Is it beneficial? What does it teach? What message will it send to those gathered? Does it reflect my tastes and my feelings, or does it reflect God’s character?

Some of the decisions that have been made at Immanuel over the past three years have dealt with things that are “neither commanded nor forbidden” in Scripture. Perhaps this has caused some confusion among the members since they are not always matters of doctrine. When we decided to make the Lord’s Supper available every week, we did so not because we felt we were sinning by not doing so, since God’s Word does not prescribe for us a specific practice.

Yet, our motivation was still grounded in God’s Word. We were compelled by the biblical teaching concerning the nature and benefits of the Lord’s Supper, as well as the example of the apostles and early Christians to make it available weekly. Our motivation was also practical, as we realized that there are some Sundays that certain people cannot be at church.

The same is true for other practices that have been introduced here at Immanuel. Chanting the Psalms and other parts of the liturgy is a very Scriptural practice. St. Paul speaks of chanting “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Again, our practice, though not specifically commanded in Scripture, is nevertheless informed by the Bible, as well as Church history and tradition.

Hopefully, this letter has helped you to see that God has left many things to Christian freedom, but that this freedom is informed by Scripture, and does not mean that one practice is necessarily as good as another. Though Scripture does not speak directly to all matters of church tradition and custom, hopefully you can see that there may be compelling reasons to do or not to do something.

God grant us the wisdom to make responsible decisions in matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden in His Word.

Your servant in Christ Jesus,

Pastor Beisel


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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2 Responses to Freedom, not License

  1. Chris Jones says:

    But there are a number of things that the Bible does not address, at least not directly. … In such cases, the church is free.

    I respectfully disagree. The Church is not free; the Scriptures teach us that we are bound not only by that which the Apostles handed down in writing, but also by that which they handed down orally:

    Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (2 Th 2.15)

    How this was understood in the Church is clear not only from her practice through the centuries, but also from the writings of the great Fathers. For example:

    Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the Tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in a mystery. With respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters of the Church. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals. (St Basil the Great On The Holy Spirit 27.66)

    St Basil is right. And notice that when he says that oral and written transmission of the faith are “of the same force,” he says that this is so “with respect to piety” — that is, concerning the liturgical and devotional life of the Church and of the Christian. To concede, as you do, that with respect to liturgical matters and other matters of piety “the Church is free” is to say (contra St Basil) that not only are oral and written transmission of the Gospel are not “of the same force” but that oral transmission is of no force whatsoever. That, I think, is very far from St Paul’s thought in 2d Thessalonians.

    It seems to me that we cannot say that “the Church is free” with respect to her liturgical and sacramental life. For it is in that liturgical life — in the Church’s public ministry of Word and Sacrament — that the Gospel is, in fact, transmitted (AC V). If we are determined to pass on the Gospel in its fullness, we must do that which the Church has always done in our public worship, not “do our own thing” and hope that it conveys the same message and the same life in Christ that the genuine liturgy does. The genuine liturgy is handed down to us from the Apostles by tradition; the roll-your-own liturgy conceived out of a mistaken understanding of Sola Scriptura comes to us out of “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

  2. Chris, did you notice how I explained “free”? I said that this means that the Church is not sinning if she omits or uses certain ceremonies and traditions. Do you believe the church is sinning if she doesn’t use candles?

    My point was that in things that are considered “non-essentials,” the church has freedom. (You know, that whole “For freedom Christ has set us free” and “You are children of the free woman not of the slave.” I was making the distinction between freedom and license.

    And, did you miss one of the last statements, where I say, “Our freedom is still informed by the Bible, and the history and tradition of the Church.” I don’t think I’m offering an unbalanced approach to Christian freedom. You obviously do think that.

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