For many dilemmas there are no straight forward answers - so what principles can Christians adopt when deciding how to respond? By Colin Sedgwick
I have a friend, a rock-solid Christian, who works in the world of finance. He comes from a predominantly Hindu part of the world and just recently was approached by a Hindu group which wanted to take over a redundant church building. They asked him if he would act on their behalf in organising the necessary finance.
What was my advice - should he or should he not accept this work?
The more I thought about it the more I felt you could see it in two distinct ways.
On the one hand... how could it possibly be right for a Christian to engage in any activity which in effect promoted the cause of a “rival” faith, and one which, from a Christian point of view, was false?
On the other hand... my friend is a businessman, the request was made from a purely business perspective, the work would be completely legal and above board - so why not? (Added to which, if he didn’t do it, it would only get done by somebody else - so wasn’t it in fact an opportunity to witness for Christ by the honesty and reliability he brought to the task?)
What do you think? Should he? Or shouldn’t he?
There is, of course, no place in the Bible which gives a straight answer to that precise question. But Paul does give a clear statement of principle regarding what he calls “disputable matters” - “grey areas”, as we sometimes call them: “Each person should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5). Or as it could be put: keep your conscience clear.
Paul is discussing various issues where the early Christians were tempted to fall out with one another - sabbath-keeping; meat-eating; drinking alcohol; accepting hospitality from a non-Christian friend who might have bought the lamb steaks from a shop which got them from the local pagan temple.
Not all of those are relevant to us today. But plenty of others are...
I have another friend who likes an occasional gamble - yes, really! He is very disciplined about it - he sets aside a certain amount of money, and when he has used it up, that’s it.
I questioned him about it once, and he responded quite warmly. His background is very much working-class (he cheerfully refers to himself as “an old scumbag”) and he wanted to know if I would question the better off people who speculate on the stock market. And if not, why not? “They’re gambling too, aren’t they?” He then - a bit of clincher, this - told me that he always tithes his winnings for God’s work.
I seriously dislike tattoos. Well, a girl in the church came to me once: “Hey, Colin, want to see my new tattoo?” “All right, show me,” I said, smiling sweetly and groaning inwardly. Whereupon she pulled up her sleeve to reveal... a cross and the words “Matthew 5:14-16” (look it up), these being the verses she was given when she was baptised. I had to ask myself, Is my dislike of tattoos a “spiritual” thing at all? - or just the result of my upbringing? Again, mmm.
On a personal note, for some eleven years in my first pastorate I did something I really detested - indeed, one that I thought, if I may risk sounding a bit pompous, was theologically wrong. Once a week I used to wear a clerical collar. Me in a dog collar! - You cannot be serious, as John McEnroe used to say.
So, why? Well, I worked as a part-time hospital chaplain. Now, a hospital is, of course, a place of uniforms, and having my own “uniform” made things a whole lot easier as I made my way round the wards. As far as I was concerned, this was a real compromise, but I had no doubt it was a right one to make.
There’s a great story about Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He got on a bus one day and found some young men from his church contentedly smoking their pipes.
“Young men!” he said frowningly, “aren’t you ashamed to be seen smoking in this way?” Sheepishly, they put their pipes away. Whereupon Spurgeon took his pipe out of his pocket, lit up, and said, “I am not ashamed.” I think we get the point...
At least two things emerge from all this: an observation to keep in mind, and a command to impose on ourselves.
First, the observation: not all the things we puzzle over have clear-cut, black-white, right-wrong answers. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is!
I am sometimes approached by people who seem to think that because I am a minister I will be able to tell them the rights and wrongs in every situation. In effect, they want me to do their thinking for them. But no: God has left various things for us to think through for ourselves. These people need to go back to Romans 14:5 and really digest it.
Second, the command: don’t criticise, condemn or look down on someone else because they see things differently from you! Provided they have reached their opinion thoughtfully and prayerfully, it is, if I may put it bluntly, none of your business.
So... back to my businessman friend. What did he do? I’m afraid I’m not telling you! It’s between him and the Lord, after all, and therefore, again, none of your business.
And, of course, none of mine either.