The standard definition for the doctrine of Christian Liberty is something like this. Believers are free to do that which God has not commanded them not to do or to not do that which God has not commanded them to do in accordance with faith. That is, if God didn't say anything about the subject, your conscience (guided by the Holy Spirit, of course) should be your guide. The doctrine comes from a couple of biblical passages. One is Romans 14 and the other is 1 Corinthians 8. And most Christians who have heard of this principle are rather pleased with it.

Odd thing, however. If you actually read the texts involved, you would actually come away with something rather different. Romans 14, for instance, speaks about each of us being responsible to God. He offers examples -- eating meat or being a vegetarian, observing days or considering them all equal -- and suggests that we don't pass judgment on each other for either position. See? Christian liberty. Paul says, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." (Romans 14:14) Again, Christian liberty. He does warn that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23), but it's still about Christian liberty, right? Well, in truth, this is not the message Paul is trying to convey. He goes on to say, "If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." (Romans 14:15) And therein lies Paul's main thrust. "Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died."

He really drives this point home in the 1 Corinthians 8-10. Here he points out that food offered to idols means nothing since "an idol has no real existence" (1 Corinthians 8:14). So it doesn't matter, right? Paul says it doesn't. But, Paul argues for another consideration. "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do, but take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." (1 Corinthians 8:8-9) This is his key idea. He says, in fact, "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." (1 Corinthians 8:13)

Lots of Christians like this Christian Liberty principle. If God didn't say anything about it, we're free to live up to our consciences. Nice. And while this principle is valid, we need to be aware that it is not what Paul was trying to convey. The principle by which we ought to live is the principle of surrendered rights in favor of love for the brethren. The principle that Paul teaches is "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor." (1 Corinthians 10:24)

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)