One of the common questions arising in the church today is what to do about grey areas in matters of faith. A grey area is basically something that Scripture does not give us direct instructions to follow or what the Bible does say appears to be vague and open to interpretation. These are often areas then that people take different sides according to their own convictions. An example of something Scripture does not address is how long someone should be on artificial life support before the decision is made to turn off the machines. Another example where the text seems to be open to interpretation is Paul’s teaching that men should not have long hair, because he says that even nature itself teaches us that long hair is right for women, but wrong for men (1 Cor 11:14-15). This last example sounds very clear until the question is raised. “What does Paul mean by long?” Is hair long when it touches the ear, when it covers the ear, or when it touches or goes past one’s shoulders? And then why does every single picture of Jesus have his hair at least shoulder length? (We will skip cultural influence for the sake of time in this article!)
Paul’s position against “long” hair is a little confusing. In the Old Testament a Nazarite was forbidden to cut his hair (i.e. Sampson in the book of Judges, and Samuel the prophet). Paul himself came from a Jewish background and in Acts 18:18 we see him cutting his hair to fulfill the vow he made. This was a Jewish custom after which one would then take the hair and burn it on the altar at the temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God. We would assume he grew it out at least a little during the process of making the vow. If there is such spiritual significance to long hair, why is Paul so convinced that it is wrong for men to grow it out? It appears that the context of Paul’s teaching had to do with the situation in Corinth at the time, where gay men may have been wearing long hair and female prostitutes had their hair shaved off. Paul’s point is that there should be no confusion about the church in Corinth based on how they wore their hair. Paul has already cited creation as the reasoning behind the husband being the authority over the wife, but he does not return to a theological argument with hair length. He appeals to what is proper, what is the normal practice and what is the contemporary custom (vv13-16). All of these things change with the culture as it changes around us, while a biblical principle remains unchanging.
One of best discussions in the New Testament about differing convictions is in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14. In both of these passages Paul addresses the issue of eating meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol symbolically before appearing in the market to be sold. The reason these passages stand out is that Paul acknowledges that convictions differ, and then he draws out principles we can follow today (even though we rarely encounter anything that may have been symbolically offered to an idol).
He introduces the issue and then states plainly: there is no such thing as an idol (1 Cor 8:4). Now he could have stopped there and simply encouraged them to eat whatever they wanted. But people held deep convictions on both sides of this controversy. Even though he acknowledged that people who felt guilty in eating meat sacrificed to idols had weak faith, he could not encourage them to do anything which might cause them to stumble (1 Cor 8:13). He goes on to say that just because we have the right to do certain things and still be faithful to God in the process does not make such actions profitable for the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 10:23). In his letter to the Romans, Paul continues these ideas by saying that the person who eats is not any more spiritual than the person who does not eat, and vice versa (Rom 14:2-3). He concludes by noting that people need to keep their convictions between themselves and God when it comes to a grey area (Rom 14:22).
From this discussion we can see the following principles: 1) We need to be careful about causing other believers to stumble by choices or convictions we have in regards to certain “hot button” issues 2) We may have the clear right to practice something but it doesn’t help advance the God’s Kingdom. In these cases, it may be best not to exercise our rights. 3) Our convictions in these grey areas don’t make us any more or less spiritual in God’s eyes. 4) In a grey area it is usually best to keep our conviction between God and ourselves rather than try to get other believers to conform to what we believe. 5) Our conscience can make us feel guilty about things God doesn’t actually condemn. If you look back at Baptist history, you could add dancing, playing cards and taking a sip of wine to Paul’s discussion on idol meat.
What should someone do if they have not yet formed a position on something that is not defined in Scripture or is left open to interpretation? How do we work our way through an issue that falls into one of these categories? Let me begin by making some observations. First, just because something falls into a grey area does not mean that the decision has no meaning or consequences for ourselves or those around us. Choices almost always have consequences at some level. Second, what seems to be a grey area for one person can be black and white to someone else. All of us bring a framework to interpret Scripture with us as we read the Bible and this affects how we see things. Third, in many cases you will be able to find Christians on both sides of the equation. We need to be careful not to just look for someone who agrees with what we want to be the answer. Last, our conscience or our conviction is not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Paul is very clear when he discusses the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols that the Holy Spirit was not leading individuals to abstain from eating meat, it was their conviction (1 Cor 8).
I think a good place to begin is by asking ourselves some questions. Does my potential decision give me an uneasy feeling? This may simply be a sign of our previously held conviction (similar to those who refused to eat idol meat), or it may be the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us. While this may be hard to sort out, it is absolutely necessary to discern whether or not God is prompting me in an area.
What are the consequences of my decision on other believers around me? Does my choice in this area potentially hinder God working in someone’s life? Am I willing to make concessions in what I do for the sake of someone else’s convictions? In other words, is this a hill that I am willing to die on (or potentially cause someone else to die on!)?
What biblical principles can I apply to this area before I make a decision? Have I prayerfully worked through the passages in question whether they seem vague or clear to me? It is important to do the hard work and invest time reading Scripture for yourself…after all, it is your conscience and convictions which are at stake.
As we progress in technology and other areas, we will continue to be faced with issues that are not directly addressed by the Bible. We can label these areas “grey” and ignore them, or we can prayerfully think through them. It becomes more important every year to not only read the Bible, but to study in a way that reveals the principles we need to live a life that faithfully represents God’s character. This is why coming together for Bible study is so important, and one of the reasons why we call it: “Experiencing God Together.”