All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any . . . all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. (1 Corinthians 6.12; 10.23)
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4.8)
These great verses have traditionally been taken as God’s guidance on matters which are our responsibility to determine. They show which activities, interests, and possessions are right and fitting for believers, and which therefore identify the will of God in these matters. These are principles which should always be honoured in the allocation of our time, energy and money, and here a caution is necessary. The believer who is not conscientious over these matters is not usually any good at seeking guidance over major things either, because the words of Christ are true – ‘He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much.’
Paul’s words in the quotation above – ‘all things are lawful unto me’ – obviously do not mean we can do as we like, because immorality, theft, or any other breach of the Ten Commandments is sinful. Paul means that in the Christian era, by contrast with the Jewish dispensation, nothing is prohibited for ceremonial reasons. If something is moral and legal, technically speaking it is lawful for the believer, but this may not be the end of the story. Other factors may rule a thing out, and Paul proceeds to say what these factors are. In this article we shall first identify the apostle’s rules or tests for choosing interests, activities and possessions, and then focus more closely on the subject of leisure pursuits.
The apostle’s rules or tests
As we read 1 Corinthians 6.12 and 10.23, we note that Paul did not draw up a long list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s for activities and possessions, but explained the principles which must guide believers in their choices. This is just as well for us, as there are so many pastimes, pursuits and desirable things around today which had never been thought of in Bible times. How, then, do we determine whether an activity or possession is right for us? The apostle states that certain factors may make something wrong or inappropriate for a Christian even though it may be inherently wholesome. The test questions given to us by Paul are like a golden key with which we unlock a door of understanding and discernment for countless decisions. Here are the deciding factors as Paul presented them:
Question 1: Is the activity or possession expedient? The Greek word translated expedient (in the KJV) means advantageous or profitable. Will the activity or possession contribute to, or assist or strengthen us in our Christian walk? In both the texts where these rules are stated (1 Corinthians 6.12 and 10.23), the general context is our need to remain separate from sin, worldliness and spiritual falsehood, so that we live wholly for the Lord. In the light of this, Paul’s question may be expanded for clarity: Is the activity or possession advantageous to me in my personal crusade to keep away from sin and to serve the Lord? Is it conducive to holy living and to witness? Or will it weaken me, place me under temptation, and compromise or spoil my testimony for Christ? Also, will this thing help or detract from my stewardship? This is the full sense of the question – Is it expedient, advantageous, profitable?
Question 2: Can this activity or possession bring me under its power? Is it something which could eventually control me, such as a drug, or even a possession which is likely to become an idol? Could it devour my attention and desire to such an extent that I shall be less zealous for Christ? Will it consume too much of my money, energy and time? Might it involve me in compromise and sin?
Question 3: Does the thing edify? Literally the question means, Does it build up? This term edify is usually used in Paul’s epistles in connection with the understanding, and, through this, the character. Does the desired activity or possession have the capacity to increase my knowledge of God or of life in a way that will build up my character? (This may be the case if a relaxational activity leads to edifying conversation.)
If we apply the apostle’s three questions to cigarette smoking, for example, we get the following guidance.
Question 1 – Is smoking expedient? Does it help, or is it advantageous for holiness, separation and witness? The rather obvious answer is that it does nothing for holy living, rather (for many smokers) it undermines self-control and patience.
Then we ask Question 2 – Does smoking bring us under its power, and dominate us? No one will deny that smoking is addictive and enslaving. And now medical science has also established its risk to health in terms of cancer and other heart and lung conditions. It certainly wields detrimental power. It also costs the smoker dearly, taking money which should be better spent, and damaging stewardship to the spreading of the Gospel. There is also the great danger that the person who has yielded to one artificial stimulant or ‘crutch’, will find it hard not to yield to other forms of self-pampering.
Finally we ask Question 3 – Does this activity edify? Is there value and profit for our spiritual understanding? The answer, once again, is obvious, because smoking weakens people in times of pressure, bringing them to depend upon its effect on their mood. These questions from 1 Corinthians enable us to test the value of things which we are considering doing or having, and are truly guidance from the Lord. A degree of latitude is sometimes to be used to arrive at a good answer. If, for example, we ask whether a game of tennis edifies, the answer will be affirmative if it serves to refresh a person in health, improving and maintaining mental and physical vigour. Excessive physical activity may have the reverse effect.
The old ‘catalogue’ approach
Years ago, a kind of unwritten ‘catalogue’ was in use among Bible believers, to show whether different activities, recreational pursuits and potential possessions were acceptable or not. There were two lists, one list headed ‘worldly’, and the other, ‘spiritual’. Into the ‘worldly’ list went activities such as dancing, cinema-going and drinking, together with ostentatious, highly fashionable clothing, and (at one stage) televisions. This ‘catalogue’ was very widely accepted because believers knew just where they stood, and could immediately decide whether anything was good or bad.
However, there were serious drawbacks to the ‘catalogue’, one being that it incorporated an over-simplified outlook to leisure and possessions, branding activities and objects as either worldly or spiritual without any allowance for how these things might be used. For instance, ‘wholesome’ activities as diverse as athletics or serious reading could well become worse than ballroom dancing if indulged out of sheer pride, or to considerable excess, so that no meaningful commitment to the Lord’s work was possible.
Also, the ‘catalogue’ system tended to outlaw things totally, in order to make matters as clear as possible, whether it was fair to do so or not. Television, for example, in its early days was entirely blacklisted, people being given no scope to discern which programmes were good or bad, profitable or time-wasting.
Another serious deficiency in the ‘catalogue’ was that it was usually applied without any explanation as to why condemned items were wrong, so people did its bidding without knowing the principles behind their behaviour. Up until the beginning of the 1960s the ‘catalogue’ ruled throughout evangelicalism. Dancing was out, so was film-going, and pop music, all being assessed as worldly and sinful. But as far as the under forties (of that time) were concerned, few people had ever heard solid and biblical reasons why things were permitted or banned. The result was that when worldly-minded Christians began to challenge the ‘catalogue’, it collapsed within a single decade, many believers coming to regard it as unreasonable and unintelligent. Slowly at first, and then more vigorously as the 1960s proceeded, traditional standards were swept away with little resistance and ‘Christian worldliness’ took over.
The genius of the inspired teaching given to Paul is that it is strong where the ‘catalogue’ approach was weak. The apostle’s test questions enable us to examine each proposed activity or possession closely, each person being required to determine what is right in the light of his own circumstances, motives and particular weaknesses.
Applying the tests
Let us assume that we have to decide whether we should watch something on television, visit somewhere, participate in some activity, or buy some new possession. The matter before us is not morally defective or debased, but we still need to know if it is right and appropriate for a Christian. Is it expedient for us to follow a proposed activity when it consumes more time than we ought to give, and will greatly reduce our spiritual service? We must be stewards of time just as we are stewards of resources, avoiding the snares of time-wasting, unprofitable activity. If we need an energetic outlet, we should not choose the most time-demanding one when there may be an equally satisfying alternative taking half the time.
The acquisition of electronic equipment needs close scrutiny, given the cost and the temptations involved. Surely it would be wrong to spend large sums to obtain a quality and performance far above that which is needed, or even of practical use. Gigantic TV screens dominate most worldly homes and also some Christian homes, virtually constituting a flag of allegiance to the entertainment industry. Certainly these are a snare, alluring adults and children into the world of soaps, sex and materialism. A smaller screen effectively says we will not come under the power of this.
Paul’s tests ask:– Is a proposed possession or activity edifying and constructive enough to warrant the cost in time or money? Is it advantageous or beneficial in promoting godliness, setting an example to younger believers, or bearing a testimony to colleagues, family and friends? Are we being drawn into something which will overpower us? Will we be found coveting the trappings and gadgets connected with it? Will it consume our imagination and day-dreams? Will it erode our love and zeal for the Lord and his work?
We may feel that leisure reading may extend beyond the theological sphere, on the principle that we are to extend our horizons and our understanding of many fields, but where do we draw the line? Paul’s test questions will help us to frame the right questions.
We have noted that we should weigh these matters for ourselves because what is right may differ among individuals. To extend our previous example, one person may find a particular sporting activity becomes an idol, whereas another may have no difficulty keeping a sense of proportion over the same activity. One may find relaxation and satisfaction in playing the piano, while another may find it involves too many hours of practice to maintain their desired standard. Garden activities provide ideal recreation for some, and a snare for others. Each person must take care. Whether pursuits are right for any individual depends on several circumstances, including the available time, and an individual’s susceptibility to becoming infatuated and diverted from Christian priorities.
Seven further tests
A further set of standards is given by the apostle in the well-known words of Philippians 4.8, beginning with the words, ‘finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true…’ These are frequently presented as rules for the thought-life, but they actually apply more broadly to all the activities in which we engage, and the possessions we buy. Can we fearlessly apply them to our favourite pastimes and desired possessions?
‘Whatsoever things are true’ calls us to align all our pursuits and possessions to the Truth of God, and not to involve ourselves with anything that is actively opposed to God and his standards, such as the culture of the pop music world.
This does not mean that we have nothing to do with all works of fiction, because some may be true to life, containing profound insights, or wholesomely recreational, and even contenders for noble principles. But the apostle’s rule calls us to shun works which are designed to glorify and promote a godless style of life or morality, and draw people away from the Lord. We must consider the moral basis of all things, asking if they are part of Satan’s deception of the human race, an agency of darkness, and a promotional tool in the hands of the enemy of God and of human souls. Is the thing injurious to Truth?
The next phrase of Philippians 4.8, ‘whatsoever things are honest’, could better be rendered, ‘whatever things are honourable, worthy or noble’. We ask, is the proposed activity or acquisition honest and open, or is it something needing to be concealed? Does it force us to be underhanded, due to embarrassment should people know that we did this, or owned this? Also we must ask if the activity or possession is honourable and dignified, worthy of our standing as Christians. We are children of the King of kings and Lord of lords, a royal priesthood, ambassadors of God, and we must always ask if our entertainments and pastimes and possessions are in keeping with our high and holy position, or if they are banal, trivial, shallow and tainted.
The phrase, ‘whatsoever things are just’, requires us to be fair-minded in all our actions and judgements, because God is perfectly just, and loves to see the pursuit of this quality by his people. The test question is whether our proposed activity or purchase is right and fair, bringing into focus how our conduct affects others. Are we fair to our families? Do we choose very personal leisure pursuits, disregarding other family members? The pursuit we follow may be morally faultless, but it may be unjust to take it up to the exclusion of spouse and children. Some Christian people have been known to buy things they could not really afford, with the result that their children were deprived in some way. They did not consider the injustice when they indulged their whims.
The command, ‘whatsoever things are pure’, requires that everything is tested by whether it is clean, chaste, and sexually modest. What clothes should believers wear? Certainly not styles designed to be tantalising or arousing to the sexual sensibilities of others. Most screen entertainment scorns purity and vaunts sensuality and lust, and is therefore unacceptable to the believer.
Another qualifying standard is expressed in the phrase, ‘whatsoever things are lovely’, the Greek not referring to how lovely something is to look at, but to how love-communicating it is. All our leisure activities should conform to the unselfish, regard-for-others standard of the Christian life. Does the proposed activity provide any opportunity to do good? Can I, by it, express friendship and encouragement to another person? Will it provide scope for the blessing of someone, perhaps by providing scope for witness? Even a purely recreational leisure activity, if well selected, will yield such possibilities. We love our wives, husbands and children, but this standard adds to this, asking – Do we express this love not only in word but in action? Or do we become immersed in activities to the neglect of those who should be precious to us?
Are there ‘love-communicating’ possessions, apart from gifts to those close to us? Certainly, because Christians ideally own nothing that will bring pain or temptation to others. The wealthy believer who is sensitive to this holds back on unnecessary and excessive luxuries, not only so that the money may be better spent, but also to avoid creating a temptation and snare to others, or to provoke envy. A self-pampering and extravagant purchase is unloving and unkind particularly to young believers. Older believers, by covetous ways, have sometimes infected an entire congregation with materialism, crippling stewardship and inflating self-seeking. We need to ask, ‘Are my purchases kind, or purely self-serving and damaging to the spiritual priorities and service of others?’ This standard is the voice of God, and a binding word of guidance from him.
When the apostle says, ‘whatsoever things are of good report’, he surely has in mind activities and possessions which by their very nature create a healthy and good impression on all, including the unsaved. We ask – ‘Is the proposed activity or desired possession well spoken of?’ Believers are not to be characterised only for negative views, right as these may be, on the world’s fallen culture, but they are to be respected for their own wholesome handling of pursuits and acquisitions. Here, then, is a test for anything we want to do or possess – is it beyond reproach, or will it cause shock, disappointment and surprise? Will it set a good example of Christian taste, humility, contentment and reasonableness? Or does it have a dark side?
‘If there be any virtue,’ says Paul, ‘and if there be any praise, think on these things.’ Virtue refers to positive quality, intrinsic strength and special merit of a moral, spiritual or health-giving kind. Can we point to something of positive value and merit in the pursuit or possession? Is character building or helpfulness to others included? This standard steers us away from time-wasting, empty, frivolous recreations that really do little or nothing for us, and gives us a positive aim in the assessment of all choices and decisions.
Throughout this article reference has been made to leisure activities, but what place should leisure have in the lives of committed Christians, and is there a distinctively Christian approach to the subject? Some believers reject all recreational culture, frowning on music, art, literature, and even sporting activity, and this is certainly a more commendable attitude than the discarding of standards so often seen in the modern evangelical world. But we are not disembodied spirits, and neither shall we be after the resurrection. We are created by God to relate to our surroundings and to glorify him in them. For physical vigour, nervous preservation, and personal completeness, mental and physical recreational activities are of value, and can have a sanctifying influence. While Paul says bodily exercise ‘profiteth little’ by comparison with spiritual exercise, it is noteworthy that the apostle frequently employs sporting activities to illustrate aspects of the Christian life, and the building of character. The discipline of the sportsman is commended, especially his determined, tenacious spirit in training. In these illustrations, physical activity receives the indirect commendation of Scripture as being useful in strengthening these qualities, and is of particular value to the young.
The greatest danger, however, is not the lack of leisure, but the tendency to want too much of it. Two scriptures urge restraint and caution, one speaking of the stewardship of time, and the other warning against selfish indulgence. ‘See then that ye walk circumspectly . . . redeeming the time, because the days are evil’ (Ephesians 5.15-16). ‘For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’ (Philippians 2.21). When leisure activities of any kind take believers away from spiritual service for the Lord (their ‘reasonable service’), they become idolatrous activities. Christians are not called as God’s people to pamper themselves, or to be good at play, but to be open to leisure if it serves the objectives we have mentioned, taking nothing from spiritual priorities.
The Lord’s specific guidance is required for decisions which govern the major routes and turning points of life, whereas recreational pursuits and most possessions are a matter of personal choice, but the latter should be chosen by sincere application of the apostle’s rules. This is authentic Christian obedience, and the necessary foundation for seeking God’s definitive will in major matters.
[Further treatment of the Christian approach to leisure appears Tests for Amusements and Recreations, by the outstanding Puritan Richard Baxter.]
Steps for Guidance in the Journey of Life
by Peter Masters.
Available for purchase via the Tabernacle Bookshop
1. Does the Lord Really Guide?
2. Six Biblical Steps for Guidance
3. Guidance in Courtship and Marriage
4. Guidance for Activities, Possessions and Leisure
5. Guidance on Wealth and Ambition
6. Imagining the Lord’s Interventions
7. Guidance and Loyalty to the Local Church
8. Guidance in Church Decisions