How to Decide in the Gray Areas

We are living in a time characterized by difficult decision-making. Some of those decisions are in gray areas. Whether deciding about posting a particular comment on social media, choosing how to protest an action we count unjust, or even pondering whether to meet a friend for coffee at an indoor coffee bar, many of us are currently struggling with the frequency with which we have to make challenging decisions.

How do I go about making decisions about what to do in instances when the Bible does not explicitly instruct that I must act—or not act—in a certain way? (…this is the definition of a gray area.)[1]

I will let the Apostle Paul answer that question for you in a moment. But first, before you decide to start applying Paul’s 12 guidelines regarding gray areas, you must be certain that you are actually dealing with a gray area. How can you be sure that a proposed activity is, in fact, a gray area?

There are two things you need to do before categorizing a proposed activity as a gray area:

First, you must be certain that God has not already given a command in Scripture about what you should or should not do about the activity under consideration.

As a negative example, more than a decade ago, the student newspaper at the university where I teach polled the student body about whether it was wrong to download online music that an artist did not want to share for free. (This was before Spotify-like shared royalties were in place.) A worrisome percentage of the polled students counted such downloading of music to be a gray area. But taking something from someone who does not want to give it away is the very definition of stealing, which the Bible forbids (Exodus 20:15; Ephesians 4:28).

More unsettling yet, a student in one of my classes some time ago attempted to claim (during a class period!) that sleeping with his fiancée was a gray area. He would have benefitted from reading, among other passages, 1 Thessalonians 4 about sexual immorality. (Note that the Greek word porneia, translated as “sexual immorality,” is a catch-all term for various kinds of sexual activity outside of monogamous marriage).

So make sure that the Bible has not given explicit instructions before claiming that something is a gray area.

Second, before you start treating an activity as a gray area, you need to carefully sift through biblical themes that have the potential of guiding you through tough decision-making situations.

The Bible, after all, is full of such themes. Jesus mentions three of them in a single sentence while rebuking the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23. “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Identifying biblical themes can often help you identify what God probably wants you to do in a given situation.

One example of a biblical theme is that of promise keeping. God, we are often told in the Bible, is a promise-keeping God (Romans 11:29 is one verse among hundreds representing this theme). In fact, one way to organize a lot of material in the Bible is around the theme of covenants—which is a term that expresses the truth that God has made promises and keeps his promises. Thus, if any of my university students were to claim that it is okay to break a university community-standards contract (a contract that includes no drinking of alcohol during the semester for undergraduates) because they consider it to be a gray area, their biblical reasoning is, shall we say, less-than-stellar. (I have had students try to make this exact argument.) The reason I know such argumentation is misguided is not because drinking alcohol in-and-of-itself is wrong (drunkenness excluded), but because I know that my students made a promise, in the form of signing a contract, that they would not drink during the semester. The theme of promise keeping, rooted in the character of a covenant-keeping God, keeps us from making the error that some of my past students have been prone to make.

Review. Before you can invoke Paul’s guidelines about how to make decisions in biblically undefined areas—gray areas— first you have to be certain that God has not given commands that address your situation, and second, you must attend to all relevant biblical themes that might impact the decision you are contemplating.

If you still are unable to make a decision about the appropriateness of a given activity, then the Apostle Paul is there to help. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul lays out a valuable list of guidelines that a Christian can appeal to when trying to make decisions in truly gray areas. Even though Paul was writing into specific cultural concerns of his day,[2] these guidelines can be applied to various gray areas we might encounter in our generation.

  1. Accept those who are weak in conscience (Rom 14:1-4), and avoid judging Christians who hold to different convictions in those areas that are truly gray (Rom 14:3-4, 10, 12).
  2. Try to reach personal convictions based upon the other guidelines listed here (Rom 14:5). Once you have reached a conviction on the acceptability of an activity, don’t continue to self-condemn (Rom 14:22).
  3. Remember that your life belongs entirely to the Lord; you have relinquished your personal rights (Rom 14:7-8; 15:1).
  4. Keep in mind that all of us will have to give an account of our actions at the judgment seat of God (Rom 14:10-12).
  5. Pursue activities that promote peace (Rom 14:19), and don’t tear down the work of God with your actions (Rom 14:20).
  6. Seek always to build others up (Rom 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor 8:1; 10:23-24).
  7. Even if you are free in your conscience, don’t use your freedom to cause someone whose conscience is weak to fall into sin (Rom 14:21; 1 Cor 8:9).
  8. If your conscience is weak, don’t violate it, since “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).
  9. Remember that you are not better in the sight of God when you engage or do not engage in a truly gray activity (1 Cor 8:8).
  10. Be willing to limit your freedom for your weaker brother or sister (1 Cor 8:13).
  11. Be willing to limit your freedom to further the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-23; 10:32-33).
  12. Whatever you do, aim for the glory of God in everything (1 Cor 10:31; Rom 15:6).

This list of twelve will not bring full resolution every time you have to make a decision about something for which the Bible does not provide definitive guidance, but it will prove enormously helpful in many instances when you are struggling to make decisions about what to do—or not to do—in the gray areas.

———-

[1] The “gray areas” (adiaphora) under discussion in this post are not issues of biblical interpretation that Christians disagree about (like speaking in tongues or women in church-leadership roles); they are ethical issues that the Bible does not specifically address. Speaking in tongues and women in ministry, by way of contrast, are issues that the Bible does address in some manner; therefore they are not in view during a discussion of gray areas. Here are some examples of gray areas (biblically undefined areas): Whether you should get plastic surgery, whether you should attend a wedding that you think is not God-honoring, whether you should work on Sundays if you are involved in your church other days of the week, whether you should eat meat or limit yourself to vegetables, whether you should cremate or bury a dead relative. There are many, many others.

[2] Cultural background to 1 Corinthians 8 and 10: Much of the meat sold in the marketplaces of Corinth came from animals that had been sacrificed in pagan temple ceremonies. The issues included whether they could buy this meat (it may have been cheaper), whether they could eat it if it was served in another’s home, whether they could be involved in festivals in which such meat was present.

Cultural background to Romans 14: The situation in Romans 14 appears similar in one way and different in another. It was similar in that one of the issues had to do with what kinds of foods they could eat. Some Christians didn’t care what kind of food they ate; others only thought they could eat kosher food. In addition, there was the question of celebration of sacred days. Some did not distinguish at all between the so-called “sacred days” and other days, which were in some way less holy than the sacred days. Others thought all days were alike.

So the general principles Paul applies in Romans 14 are similar to the ones found in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10.

 

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