Are Things In This World Inherently Sinful?

by William J. Stewart

It is important for us to walk in God’s way, to be in the world and not of the world. We do not want to practice or accept what is contrary to God’s will. Some, in their zeal for such, have subscribed to asceticism, defined by as “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline.” The extreme forms of asceticism often involve flagellation and other forms of harm to the body. Less severe, but still strict, are those who refuse the use of modern technology (cars, electricity, telephones, etc.). Still on the asceticism spectrum, some oppose reading, watching or listening to any entertainment of this world and consider it a sin for a Christian to do so.

If someone doesn’t want anything to do with the music, movies or literature of this world, they’re free to abstain from such. I have no interest in convincing anyone to do any secular activity they do not want to do. What I am concerned about is people blanketly opposing things which are not sinful, and then condemning those who participate in such things.

Let me also state, it’s erroneous to object to just music, movies, and literature. On what basis, aside from personal bias, should we condemn these and not other things of this world? So, this list should include (but certainly not be limited to): board games, card games, computer games, sporting activities, playgrounds, parks, theme parks, theatrical productions, going to the gym, riding a bike, and other forms of exercise, public or private schools, government run welfare, unemployment or disability programs, etc, etc, etc.. Did I step on anyone’s toes? If so, know that it was intentional. I believe we need to be consistent—so if we are going to indiscriminately condemn participation in things of this world (regardless whether it really is sinful or not), then we need to condemn the whole kit and caboodle.

If the criteria for objecting to something is determined by whether it is of this world VS being of God, or whether it is secular in nature VS spiritual in nature, then the list would be virtually endless. But it is absolutely erroneous to infer that everything we do must be spiritual in nature, and that if it is not, then we are displeasing God. There are many things we do that are neither pleasing nor displeasing to Him. Should I eat a turkey sandwich or a poutine? God doesn’t care. Neither is pleasing to Him; neither is displeasing to Him. In fact, 1 Corinthians 8:8 reads, “…food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” Should I have a job as a grocery store clerk or a chimney sweep? Again, it makes no difference to the Lord. Neither are sinful.

Let’s consider literature for a moment. In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes an Athenian poet, who had written, “For we are also His offspring.” We don’t have access to the entire poem quoted by Paul, but we do know it was not Scripture. It was the work of a pagan poet, which would obviously make it a work of this world, not a work of God. And yet Paul read (and quoted) what this pagan Athenian poet wrote! Why?

Paul states in both 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” He is not speaking of things that are sinful (ie. idolatry, lust, theft, etc.). Such things would not be lawful. He is speaking about spiritually neutral things,  that is, things which are a matter of choice, of preference, of interest; things which are part of life, but not part of our service to God. Again, do I eat the turkey sandwich or the poutine? They are both lawful. One is more helpful than the other, but neither one is wrong in and of itself. Paul wrote, “…food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (1 Corinthians 8:8).

1 Corinthians 6:12 continues, “all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Some things, even lawful things, can be addictive. Again, they’re not inherently wrong, but if we come under their power (ie. we absolutely need it), then there is a problem. Lawful things (spiritually neutral, not inherently right or wrong) can become sinful if we are obsessed with them.

1 Corinthians 10:23 ends, “all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” Though a thing may be lawful for us, it may discourage others. In the context, Paul uses the eating of meats as an illustration. “Eat whatever is set before you, asking no questions for conscience’ sake” (v 27). All meat is OK to eat, it is lawful. The only caveat Paul gives is this; if you are told, “This was offered to idols,” don’t eat. Why? Not because the idol is anything (1 Corinthians 8:4), but so as to not violate the conscience of the one who noted it had been offered to idols. The meat is still “lawful,” but because one was present whose conscience is weak, who may be offended by the consumption of the meat, Paul says don’t eat out of concern for the one who is weak in faith (Romans 14:1-2). At the same time, the weak brother’s faith does not then become the standard for others, for Paul says, “let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him” (Romans 14:3). The brother who sees no problem with the meat offered to an idol is free to eat, except when the weak brother is present, lest he violate his conscience.

Now, how does this apply to listening to music, watching movies, reading books,  playing board games, etc.? First off, all these things are “lawful,” they are spiritually neutral; things that are a matter of choice, of preference, of interest; unless there is something inherently sinful in them (ie. lyrics, scenes or activities). As with the meat scenario presented by Paul, if brother A believes it is OK to listen to rock music (again, that which does not have sinful lyrics), and brother B’s conscience is violated by such, brother A should not listen to rock music in the presence of brother B, lest he violate his brother’s conscience. However, as noted from Romans 14:3, brother B has no right to judge brother A and impose his conscience as a standard upon him.

The same is true for whatever secular thing we might discuss. Unless there is something inherently wrong with it; something in it that violates God’s law; then it is lawful, and a matter of personal faith and conscience. God’s word does not outlaw things simply because they are unrelated to spiritual activity. Hear Paul’s message to the Colossians:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ’Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)— in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23, NASB)

Creating rules and making restrictions that God has not, does not make us more holy. Outlawing things that are “lawful” (again, things that are spiritually neutral) is a self-imposed religion bolstered by false humility. Each one is free to have their own personal faith on what secular activities they will or will not participate in, but if it be things that are “lawful,” no one has the right to enforce their opinion upon another.

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