John Feinberg suggests eight tests for moral decision-making in matters that are not absolutes:
The first question is, am I fully persuaded that it is right? Paul says (Rom 14:5, 14, 23) that whatever we do in these areas, we must be persuaded it is acceptable before God. If we are not fully persuaded, we doubt rather than believe that we can do this and stand acceptably before God. If there is doubt, Paul says, there is sin (v. 23). So if there is any doubt, regardless of the reason for doubt, one should refrain. In the future, doubt might be removed, and then one could indulge; but while there is doubt, one must refrain.
Second, can I do it as unto the Lord? Whatever we do, Paul says, we must do as unto the Lord (Rom 14:6–8). To do something as unto the Lord is to do it as serving him. If one cannot serve the Lord (for whatever reason) in the doing of the activity, he should refrain.
Third, can I do it without being a stumbling block to my brother or sister in Christ? Much of Romans 14 (vv. 13, 15, 20–21) concerns watching out for the other brother’s or sister’s walk with the Lord. We may be able to indulge, but he or she may not have faith to see that the activity is morally indifferent. If he or she sees us participate, he or she may be offended. As much as possible, we must avoid giving offense in these areas. This, however, does not mean one must always refrain. Paul’s advice in 14:22 is helpful. For one who believes he can indulge, his faith is right, but let him have it before God. In other words, he need not flaunt his liberty before others. It is enough for him and the Lord to know he can partake of these practices. In sum, if one truly cares about his brother’s or sister’s walk, sometimes he will refrain, and at other times he will exercise his liberty privately.
Fourth, does it bring peace? In Rom 14:17–18 Paul says the kingdom of God is not about things such as the meat we eat or what we drink. Instead, it is about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Thus, believers should handle these matters so as to serve Christ. How would one do that? Paul instructs us (v. 19) to do what brings peace. Certain practices may be acceptable for one person, but if others saw him indulge, it might stir up strife between them. Hence, one must do what brings peace.
Fifth, does it edify my brother? The command to do what edifies is in the same verse as the charge to do what brings peace (14:19). By juxtaposing the two demands, Paul makes an important point. Some activities may not create strife with another Christian, but they may not edify him either. One must choose activities that both bring peace and edify.
Sixth, is it profitable? In 1 Cor 6:12 Paul addresses the issue of Christian liberty, and he reminds believers that morally indifferent practices are all lawful, but they may not all be profitable. They may be unprofitable for us or for our brother. For example, no law prohibits moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages or social dancing, but if my indulgence in either of these activities causes a brother to stumble, it is unprofitable for me to indulge. If the act is unprofitable, I must refuse to do it.
Seventh, does it enslave me? (1 Cor 6:12). Many activities, wholesome and valuable in themselves, become unprofitable if they master us more than Christ does. As John warns, Christians must not love the world, but are to love God instead (1 John 2:15ff.). It is not that everything in the world is evil and worthless. Rather, our devotion and affections must be focused first and foremost on God. If we are to be enslaved to anything or anyone, it must be Christ.
A final test is, does it bring glory to God? Paul discusses Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 10, and in verse 31 he sums up his discussion by saying that whatever we do in these areas should bring glory to God. How does one know if his actions bring God glory? We would say at the least that if one answers any of the other seven questions negatively in regard to a particular activity, he can be sure he will not bring God glory if he indulges. Conversely, if the activity is acceptable on those other grounds, it should be acceptable on this ground as well.
In sum, Scripture distinguishes between actions covered by moral absolutes and those that are not. Believers must make up their own minds (under the Holy Spirit’s leading) on what to do in matters of Christian liberty. Personal preferences must not be imposed on others. In deciding what to do, one should use these eight tests taught by Paul. Each one must answer those questions honestly before God. Whatever decision stems from that process of questioning, each must have the integrity to obey.
From the second edition of Ethics for a Brave New World, due out in November.
I think this quote from Doug Wilson gets the difficult balance of legalism and liberty largely right: “The way others are to view your liberty is not the same way that you should view your liberty. Other Christians should let you do what you want unless the Bible forbids it. That’s how we guard against legalism. But you should use your liberty differently—you should be asking what the reasons are for doing it, and not what the reasons are for prohibiting it.”