Ever meet someone who used to smoke but now talks all the time about the evils of smoking? Sometimes Christians, especially new believers, can get the same bug. People who get that bug seem to point out sins everywhere they go, and frankly, they can be annoying. I know, because 32 years ago, I was one of those people. It took an older, wiser Christian to help me understand that God’s grace and forgiveness abound to all, and a person isn’t going to hell just because he or she utters a cuss word. We are human beings, not human doings, and we are saved by grace, not works.
Obviously, I don’t advocate that people keep on sinning, but it’s not my job to call out every little thing that doesn’t honor God.
Eventually I learned a three-category framework that helped me understand how to better live out my Christian walk. It also helps me make decisions as I exercise my freedom in Christ. The framework consists of three categories: Preferences, Principles, and Precepts.
Preferences are defined as liking one alternative over another. Do you prefer a specific version of the Bible? Do you prefer a specific style of worship? As Christians, the preferences category is for things that are cultural or a matter of taste. It’s here where the phrase, “You can’t please everyone,” comes into play. We don’t have to like others’ choices, but people are free to choose their preferences.
Principles are defined as rules or beliefs that govern our personal behavior. Things in this category won’t affect our salvation, but ignoring or violating them can inhibit the effectiveness of our walk and our witness. A good example of a principle is attending some form of fellowship. After all, attending church is not necessary for salvation, but our Christian walk is much easier when other believers can surround us with support.
The same is true about regular prayer. Our salvation doesn’t depend on doing devotionals, but if we read the Word and pray regularly, we will be closer to God and have a deeper, richer relationship with Him.
Precepts are authoritative rules for us to follow, and are sometimes identified as commandments. The premier precept for born-again believers is that if you want eternal life with God, it comes through faith in God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and nothing else (Acts 16:31). That is the ultimate precept.
Another precept is abstaining from things offered to idols, as found in Acts 15:29. This aligns with the commandment to have no other gods before the one true God. For example, if I have a Buddhist friend who invites me to sit in a lotus position with him while facing a statue of Buddha and do some chants, I’m going to decline.
The thing to remember in using this three-part framework is that the lines separating preferences, principles, and precepts can vary person to person. Put another way, that which is a preference for you can be a principle to your neighbor, and perhaps even a precept for someone else.
With that understanding, it’s fair to say that if we try to impose our lines on other people, we will probably come across as legalistic. Additionally, through experience, I’ve learned that with my freedom in Christ, I also have the freedom to not exercise my freedom.
Let me explain. A number of years ago I invited a singer to meet me at an evening church service so we could talk face-to-face about a concert she would be doing for us. I told her I’d be waiting for her in the foyer wearing blue jeans and a sport coat. After I finished my sentence, there was silence on the line. Then she said, “You’re going to wear blue jeans to church? Don’t you think that when we go to worship the King of the Universe we should dress a little more appropriately?”
Obviously, clothing choices were a preference for me, but more of a principle for her. To this day, clothing choices for church attendance remain a preference for me. However, because of my freedom in Christ, and the fact that all things are permissible but not all things are beneficial, I also had the freedom to choose to give up my freedoms. Even though I believed I had the right to wear jeans to church without insulting God, I chose not to exercise that right so as not to create a stumbling block for her.
Sadly, the more I study the Word of God, the more I realize that many Christians believe things to be principles, when, in fact, if you look closely at the Word of God, they’re just preferences. Alternatively, there are some teachings in letters from the Apostle Paul to specific churches to address specific situations, but today these things are either taken out of context or preached as if they apply to the entire Body of Christ.
My wife and I have counseled more than a few people who were carrying burdens of guilt unnecessarily. Some had been taught that their preferences were wrong, and that God would withhold blessings because of their choices. Others were held back from doing what God called them to do.
Sometimes problems like this stem from people in authority thinking that their own preferences should be everyone else’s precepts. In other cases, the problem is just bad exegesis (interpretation of Scripture).
Make no mistake, God is righteous. But he’s also a relational ruler who wants us to experience joy. Therefore, let me urge you to not let anyone place burdens on you unnecessarily. In fact, I encourage you to study Acts chapter 15 and Colossians chapter 2.
By understanding the concepts of preferences, principles, and precepts, plus the freedom we have in Christ, we are better equipped to offer God’s grace to others. It’s my personal belief that people will appreciate the grace. What are your thoughts?
Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. teaches teams and individuals how to use Emotional Intelligence (more info at MyWorkplaceExcellence.com). He’s also a home fellowship leader, a homeschooling dad, a best-selling author, and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 375-7606.