Monday, November 25, 2019

Anonymous Asks (68)

“Can Christians use essential oils and aromatherapy?”

Today’s question is about a couple of modern trends, but could well be about almost anything that is not intrinsically evil. “Can Christians dance?” “Can Christians listen to popular music?” “Can Christian girls wear Lululemons?” “Can Christians eat pork?”

The same biblical principles will help us with answering just about any “Can Christians [fill in the blank]?” question.

Conscience and Circumstances

Few actions are intrinsically evil, but there are some. Idolatry comes to mind. Murder. Disobeying God. The list is relatively short.

Where other actions are concerned, their morality depends on conscience and circumstances. Conscience, because whatever does not proceed from faith is sin, and circumstances, because a thing that is wrong in one situation may be perfectly acceptable, even desirable, in another. For example, it is wrong to jealously hoard possessions when good might be done with them, but quite appropriate to jealously guard the integrity of one’s relationship with a spouse. Again, anger that comes from having had too much to drink or lacking self-control is different from anger that arises in response to a deliberate insult against the living God. Public nudity was perfectly appropriate in Eden, but not so much on the subway.

In this case, the concern about essential oils and aromatherapy for Christians is probably more related to their origins in ancient pagan practices and associations with New Age ideas than the ways they are currently used in Western society.

I Will Never Eat Meat

The apostle Paul taught that there are times when origins and associations ought to matter to the Christian, and times when they can be ignored. He sets out a lengthy argument on the subject in 1 Corinthians 8-10 that should be mandatory reading for young Christians. The TL;DR version: it’s a matter of balancing Christian liberty with conscience, testimony and love for our fellow believers. Paul used the example of something we would probably consider a whole lot more “tainted” than essential oils: meat offered to idols.

This was a real concern for Christians enjoying first century hospitality who did not want to associate themselves publicly with paganism. So then, in a situation in which a weaker Christian might be stumbled in his faith — like when he knew for a fact that the meat he was about to eat had been offered to idols because his host was bragging about it — Paul says, “I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

Eat ... Whatever

In another situation, where the meat had been bought in the market and nobody was particularly conscious about where it came from, Paul says, “Eat whatever is set before you.” As King David put it in the Psalms, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

There is nothing intrinsically evil about meat itself, even meat offered to idols. After all, the “gods” to whom the meat may have been offered are not real beings (“an idol has no real existence”), just as any “gods” associated with ancient pagan oils are also not real beings.

For a Christian who understands this principle down to his core, the only moral danger involved in such things is that you may inadvertently introduce a fellow believer to a practice his or her conscience cannot handle. That is always worth being careful about.

Weaker Brothers and Legalists

Now of course it is useful to distinguish between the genuinely “weaker brother” and the legalist who should know better. A “weaker brother” is a Christian with a tender conscience who may be personally stumbled by engaging in something he thinks is wrong. A legalist simply wants to make rules and control you because it makes him feel better to throw his weight around, or because it simplifies the world for him. A Christian of fifty years who tells you that you should not listen to popular music because the term “rock ‘n’ roll” used to be a black euphemism for sex is probably in the latter category. Virtually nobody knows this today firsthand. Anyone stumbled by “rock ‘n’ roll” today is not tripping over terminology: they are probably listening to music that has other, very specific negative moral qualities that ought to be carefully considered.

In any case, legalists can usually be safely ignored, provided you have done your research to ensure that they do not have a valid argument. But the potential difficulties our Christian freedoms might cause for the “weaker brother” or “weaker sister” are too rarely considered these days, when they should really be one of the first things we think about when we decide what we ought to do or not do in public. Helping the weak is a critical component of Christian faith and practice. A “Christianity” that does not give a moment’s thought to the impact of our personal choices on our fellow believers is unworthy of the name.

The Passage of Time

Origins and associations eventually become mostly irrelevant with the passage of time and the fleeting nature of cultural memory. For this reason, you may feel that some activity is perfectly fine because you are completely unaware of any negative associations it may have. It is worth asking around to find out what the general Christian consensus is in your area, so that you don’t step on any toes. If there were times the apostle would “never eat meat” for someone else’s sake, we can be pretty sure that it is not Christian ‘best practice’ to be flippant about other people’s consciences.

After all, Christ died for them too.

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