I believe that a huge number of disagreements between Christians come from a fundamental difference in the way we do Hermeneutics (the discipline of how we study, understand and interpret Scripture within its various literary genres and historical contexts).
Reformed theologians have created a couple of concepts to help them discuss worship within the church: The Regulative Principle and The Normative Principle. Typically they ONLY apply these principles to the discipline of Ecclesiology (how we do worship in the church), but I believe that the concepts behind them are useful for Christians as handles to help us get ahold of why we disagree on so many issues.
This principle teaches, in essence, that we may only do that which God has actually prescribed in the Scripture. So in worship, we should not, for example, engage in skits for church, or “special music,” because these things are not prescribed by God as the function of believers as they meet in an formal setting for worship. (I’m not arguing for or against those things, just giving an example of a Regulative-type argument.)
This principle says that we may do anything that God does not strictly prohibit. If God doesn’t say NOT to sing from a hymn book, or use PowerPoint, or show a Batman movie, or have a weight-lifting team break bricks with their heads, etc., then it should be allowed in corporate worship.
As I said, I believe these distinctions reflect fundamental, epistemological differences regarding the way we read and apply God’s word to matters of life and practice as believers. Paul dealt with this tension in Romans 14 when he discussed Christian liberty. Some Christians feel they have liberty to do anything that God doesn’t outright forbid, and other feel they need to stay close to what is encouraged and directed in Scripture.
“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’–but not everything is good for you. You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’–but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NLT) When Paul says here that “everything is permissible,” he CLEARLY DOES NOT mean EVERYTHING, for in 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 he gives a list of behaviors which, if practiced as a lifestyle, with no turning and repentance, will keep you from eternal life. But within the spectrum of what God does not forbid (The Normative Principle) Paul is clear that you MAY do it.
It’s a Matter of Wisdom
Many professing Christians seem to enjoy walking on the edge of the cliff of The Normative Principle. They want to be as much like the world as they possibly can, and so they justify watching R-rated movies, playing M-rated video games, dressing seductively, going to parties, bars and rock concerts just like their non-Christian friends, etc. If someone ever tries to speak to them about the wisdom of their choices, or question the condition of their heart, they will instantly throw out terms like, “Don’t judge me!” or “That’s just your interpretation of Scripture!” or “You are being legalistic!”
We must remember, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2:15, NIV)
On the other hand, there are Christians who are legalistic and make lots of rules where God has not made them. They act as the lifestyle police for others, and try to hold others to their own personal standards. They believe that if God has not told us to watch TV, or go to movies, or listen to the radio, or whatever, that we shouldn’t be doing it. These people are the Pharisees of our day.
Rule of Thumb
One of the major rules of Hermeneutics is that we understand the more vague passages by viewing them through the lens of the very clear ones. So, while God does not say, “Do not smoke cigarettes.” He DOES say don’t be drunk with wine. His Word also says, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say–but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’–but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, NIV) Addiction is immoral. ANYTHING that has mastered us is an idol that we worship and we are a slave to it. It stands between us and our relationship with God.
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14, NIV)
So as Christians, we begin with the Regulative Principle. We seek to align our lives as closely to the revealed will of God as we possibly can. However, we also need to give grace to those who want to dance on the edge of the Normative cliff. THEY ARE NOT SINNING. Perhaps they are being very unwise, but NOT SINNING.
The next area of discernment is in discerning what God has forbidden and what he has not. I’ve had people tell me that looking at pornography isn’t a sin, because God doesn’t specifically forbid it. This just shows an ignorance, or a rejection, of the Scriptures on their part. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:22, ESV) These folks are engaging in a liberal form of “legalism”; trying to live by the letter of the law but ignoring the spirit. These people should be reproved. “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11, NIV)
I hope these categories will be useful for you as you discuss differences of lifestyle with other Christians. The goal is to discover what the Bible actually teaches on these matters, and conform ourselves to God’s standards. If it is God’s command, we must all conform to it. If it is merely man’s interpretation, then we must show grace to others who are accepted by God.