“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Are all things truly “lawful”? Of course not! There are some things that God has forbidden under any and all circumstances. In the Galatian letter, Paul wrote, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). Are the aforementioned attitudes and actions lawful? Obviously not! Therefore, the statement by Paul must be reexamined in the light of the context and the “all things” must be found to have some limitation.
In the context Paul also says, “but all things are not helpful” or “expedient” (KJV). This would also eliminate another category of things which are lawful, and that is those things which God has bound upon man. Again, Paul wrote in the Galatian letter, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). Is there ever a time or circumstance when the aforementioned characteristics are not “helpful” or “expedient”? Again, we must answer in the negative.
What then is Paul speaking of when he says, “All things are lawful”? We are forced to conclude that he is not talking about those things that God has through his will forbidden nor is Paul speaking of those things which God has bound upon man. Thus, we are left with only one category of things which Paul has under consideration - those things wherein God has not legislated and which are therefore matters of indifference to God, matters which God allows but does not obligate man to do. For example, marriage: God allows us to marry but he has not commanded us to do so. Therefore, it is something that is lawful, but may not prove to be “helpful” or expedient under a given circumstance. Or for example, playing baseball: God would allow us to play baseball but it may not be “helpful” or expedient under all circumstances, and he certainly has not commanded that we “must” play baseball to be acceptable to him. In 1 Corinthians Paul determined that the matter of eating meats was a matter of indifference to God (morally neutral or a liberty). Yet, he determined that if the eating of meat was not spiritually profitable but instead destructive, he would never eat meat again (see 1 Cor. 8). Therefore, God would have us to conclude even among those things that may be right and lawful within themselves as to whether or not they will (under a given circumstance) build up my faith, hinder my influence, draw me closer to God, distract from my heavenly goal, etc. We are called upon to ask, “Will it be advantageous under a given circumstance to exercise my liberty in this matter of moral neutrality?” And there should not be anything that we would not be willing to forego for the sake of spiritual interests. In addition, Paul adds a second principle to “expediency” or “helpfulness” for making such choices among “all things” of moral neutrality. Paul suggested, “I will not be brought under the power of any.” We all are perhaps “creatures of habit” but none of us can afford to allow a “habit” to become an “addiction.” “Gluttony” (the failure to be in control of one's appetites) is forbidden in any realm. Peter wrote, 'for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage” (2 Pet. 2:19b). And again Paul wrote, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16) We can never allow ourselves to become a “slave” to any habit or practice even of moral neutrality. When we do, we lose our ability to practice the first principle Paul suggested. We will no longer be able to determine when a matter of liberty is or is not expedient or helpful. Being enslaved, we will be powerless to say “no.” Later in 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul said, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” Paul is not here speaking of staying away from evil things or things forbidden by God, but instead he was talking about staying away from lawful things. He uses the illustration of an athlete (1 Cor. 9:24-26) to say that just as an athlete chooses to abstain from many good and right things to keep himself in training and strive for the prize, so too the Christian must exercise control over his desires. We must always be in a position to be able to say “no” concerning anything of moral neutrality or liberty. When a Christian clutches to his “liberty” too tightly it becomes his lord. And for a Christian to be overpowered by any custom or habit or practice, no matter what it is, is sin.
Is there anything in your life that is your habit or practice and it really is not helpful or expedient to serving the Lord and living for him under the present circumstances? Why then does it continue to be your habit or practice? Is not the kingdom of God, serving the Lord, encouraging your brethren, and leading others to Christ more important than any matter or liberty? Or do you continue in the practice because the “liberty” has become an “addiction” and is stronger than you are? Recognize that such enslavement is sin. Give the matter over to the Lord and let him and your brethren help you to become “disciplined” so as to “deny self” and have Christ enthroned. “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17,18).
~Phil T. Arnold