Using Liberty As A Cloak For Vice

By Steven Harper

The apostle Peter wrote to the Christians of the first century, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men — as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” (1 Pet. 2:13-16) But, lest we forget the context of what Peter is saying, let us go back to the passage preceding this — the part that led him to write, “Therefore…,” tying the former words to these.  Just before this, Peter said, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (vv. 11, 12) The verses following these (vv. 18-25) continue the thought, addressing the need for servants to be submissive to their masters — even to the harsh (v. 18) — so that they might have a good conscience before God.

The admonition is clear: Live godly lives and deny selfish desires because we are God’s people. Living godly lives meant a denial of the fleshly desires, obedience to the laws of the land, and submission to one’s own master, if a slave. For what reason(s)? That God’s name might be glorified (v. 12), for the Lord’s sake (v. 13), and because this is the will of God (v. 15). Peter went on to point to Jesus as an example of one who suffered wrongfully as our example to follow (v. 21) — a clear statement that teaches us that we must sometimes suffer wrong simply because we are following what is right. Serving God means we set aside our own desires and “think so’s,” submitting to governments that may not always be the most wonderful rulers, and submitting to men who may not always treat us as we should be treated. When we do this, any accusation that we might be “no better than the rest of the world” [regarding the fulfillment of fleshly desires] or a threat to the rulers [regarding obedience to their laws] or insubordinate [regarding masters and slaves] will be silenced.

But some brethren are not satisfied with this admonition, for they are promoting rights and liberties nowhere found within the word of God, and some are even teaching that no man may deny a Christian of these “God-given” liberties. Some are actually encouraging the pursuit of fleshly desires and the complete disregard of the ordinances of man. I have yet to hear anything about rebelling against masters, but that is likely due to the fact we no longer have slaves in this country.

Some brethren are telling individuals who are in adulterous marriages before they are converted that the laws of God do not apply to them, so when they are baptized, they may continue to seek — not abstain from — fleshly desires. I have heard from the mouths of those in such situations, and even from those who are supposed to be preachers of God’s word, “Don’t you think God wants me to be happy?” as if happiness is determined by the fulfillment of the sexual desire one has for another. If that does not tug strongly enough at the old heartstrings, some will add, “I just can’t believe God would doom a man to celibacy for the rest of his life!” as if it is God’s fault.

These brethren are teaching, in effect, that God has granted them forgiveness of sin at conversion [true, if it is a true conversion], and that they now have the "liberty" to continue in what, minutes before, was called adultery [not true]. Friends and brethren, this is teaching a liberty where God has not granted one and, the truth is, some are only continuing in the bonds of iniquity while deceiving themselves [and others] into thinking they are really free. They are using a false liberty as a cloak for vice!

And some brethren are also now promoting the exact thing Peter forbids in the text of 1 Peter 2:13-18, preaching that Christians have certain “God-given liberties” that can in no way be denied by man’s laws. First, I believe these brethren are confusing a real “liberty” with the situation they seem to be describing — something more along the lines of an exclusive and omnipotent right. Some brethren are now preaching that the right of an innocent spouse to put away a fornicating spouse cannot be nullified by the guilty one — even if the guilty one puts them away first. They are, in effect and in actuality, advocating what might be called [though they vehemently deny it] a “second putting away,” “the waiting game,” or “mental divorce.”

But is this argument valid — that the actions of the guilty one cannot nullify the rights of the innocent? Is it true that the laws of men have no place whatsoever in the determination of actual divorce? Can we honestly say that we may wholly ignore actions taken by another through the legal system [government] of this land [or any other, for that matter] as legitimate? Can we say, with Scripture to back it up, that one who is divorced by the laws of our government is “not really divorced” because God did not give them that right to do so? [Remember: Divorce does not mean the bond is severed by God; cf. Matt. 19:9.]

Friends and brethren, this sounds perilously close to “using liberty as a cloak for vice”! This sounds like some are saying, “As a Christian, I am not bound by the laws of this land, so I may do as I choose.” This sounds like some are saying the exact opposite of what Peter wrote to the first century Christians.

Think about it for a moment: Peter wrote to the brethren who lived under a tyrannical government that was seldom friendly to those of the Christian faith. At one time, a decree was issued to expel all Jews from Rome, based on the false assumption that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians were one and the same. [See Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament; Acts 18:2.]  Many of the Roman rulers persecuted Christians and did their best to eliminate them. In spite of this, Peter says, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man”? How so?

We must admit that we are limited in even this command by other Scripture, for we are not to obey men over God when the wills conflict (cf. Acts 5:29); man's laws never supersede God’s. But, when these two laws “collide,” what do we do?

Let us consider an example our Lord Himself offered in which this did take place — Matthew 19:9. In this verse, Jesus talks of a man who puts away his wife for a cause other than sexual immorality. Jesus said when he married another, he “commits adultery.” He did not have a God-given right to divorce, but he did it anyway, and Jesus said he did. But what about the innocent one? Does she “retain her God-given right” to put him away, even though she has already been put away? If she does, you'll not find it anywhere in this context [or any other Bible passage], for Jesus went on to say, “and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery.” [Logic demands she is also guilty, for one cannot commit adultery alone.] Jesus said that this innocent one — when she marries another — is guilty of adultery. He did not say she may now put him away. When we teach otherwise, we are “using liberty as a cloak for vice”! God forbid!

The answer to such situations is what Peter wrote to those of the first century: “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully…But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.”

From: The Burns Park BEACON, a bulletin of the Burns Park church of Christ, North Little Rock, AR.
Editor: Steven Harper
May 4, 2003

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