Two extremes must be avoided as we decide what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

Legalism says we make a list of rules and conform to the rules. Then, we attempt to impose our personal convictions as normative for others.

Libertinism says, "Since I'm free in Christ and the Bible forbids none of these things specifically, then I'll feel free to do any and/or all of them!"

One of my close friends, Gary Shrader, synthesized Paul’s teaching regarding disputable issues of conscience into what he identified as four boxes. We need to know what box we are in and what box our friends are in as we sort out our relationships in the gray areas of the Christian life.

BOX 1: I can't; and I struggle if you do.
BOX 2: I can't; but you can.
BOX 3: I can; but it's a struggle for me.
BOX 4: I can; and you can.

Gary's boxes are an indicator of personal spiritual growth, but only somewhat. Some very young Christians may be able to enter many areas of freedom while those much farther along in the journey may still struggle in some areas.

In Romans 14:13-23 Romans 15:5 Paul added three more boxes. The overarching principle of handling issues of conscience is found in Romans 15:1: "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves." Who are the strong? What are the failings of the weak? Strong Christians eat the meat without any pangs of conscience. Weak Christians can’t eat without feeling that they are violating their consciences.

BOX 5: I can; but I won't, because others might stumble.

Paul wrote in Romans 14:13: "Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way." What is a stumbling block? If you pick any disputable matter and do it in front of weaker brothers offending their consciences, you have become a stumbling block to their faith. Don't flaunt your freedom before others (Romans 14:22). Keep your freedom in this area between you and God.

BOX 6: I can’t; so I won’t until I can.

Paul carefully addressed those gray areas where our engagement in certain activities might violate our consciences. He writes in Romans 14:23 "But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin."

Contrary to popular belief, our consciences don’t necessarily tell us what is right and wrong. They give us behavioral instructions along the lines of what we have been trained to believe is right or wrong. If a certain activity violates our consciences we are not to engage. To do so is to sin. A violated conscience impairs our ability to hear God speak deep in our inner spirit. Paul is clear: we are never to act contrary to the leadings of our consciences. Instead, we strengthen them by retraining them along the lines of biblical truth so that we can experience the freedom of the Spirit-filled life. By the way, how we behave in these disputable gray areas means that what is sin for some is not sin for others. Think about that!

Box 7: I can; and I'll help others find freedom.

Paul wrote in Romans 14:19: "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." "Mutual edification" has to do with retraining our consciences along the lines of biblical freedom. We help "weaker" brothers or sisters whose consciences are more attuned in some areas to personal convictions than to biblical truth by restricting our liberty—and then coming alongside them and helping them understand why we restricted our liberty. Then, we encourage them to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, search the Scriptures and enjoy freedom in those particular areas.