I've been giving this a lot of thought lately. When is an opinion just an opinion? And when is it not, because it is grounded in truth? Especially for those who follow Christ and are committed to the absolute truth of Scripture - are the societal wars being waged today ones that we have any right taking a stand in, or are we just forcing our personal opinions on others, as we are often accused of doing?
So I want to share where my thoughts are landing these days. In the realm of decisions about how to live today, I see three categories that influence me.
Commandments are things that God says to do, or not to do. God said it, period. When God says it, and we do the opposite, or even just veer off the path a little bit, that is sin. God's commandments are for our good, and they reveal both His holiness and our sin (and therefore our desperate need for Him and His forgiveness). Some commands (such as blood sacrifices) were for a time and were fulfilled in Christ. Some apply to certain people and not to others (Nazarenes and priests, for example, were given different commands than those were were not in those roles), so it is important to understand the context and intended audience of the commandments. But commands are never optional. When people have different opinions on commands in the Bible, it is usually because they have different understandings of the authority of the Bible or they have a different interpretation of a Scriptural passage.
These are strong personal opinions of how I should live (different from when the Holy Spirit "convicts" you of sin). Usually, they are rooted general principles of Scripture rather than specific commands. They are personal applications of timeless biblical principles, having to do with how you apply a command given thousands of years ago in our generation. Convictions are so strong that to go against them feels like a betrayal of our own beliefs even though we may not hold others to those same standards. We may agree on a principle and still have different convictions because we are applying those principles differently, often based on our personal background or our immediate culture.
Cup of Tea
A "cup of tea" is what you prefer, not necessarily for any particular biblical reason. I like vanilla ice cream and I don't like coffee or peanuts. They are not my cup of tea, as my mom sometimes says. I can't find a verse to back it up, but I don't need one either, as long as my preference is not in violation of God's Word. Everyone has different "cups of tea" because of our individual personalities and preferences.
How it works
SANTA CLAUS. Hey, it's Christmas so this is where my brain is right now. The Bible says not to lie (Leviticus 19:11). That is a command. There may be a few exceptions you could argue from Scripture, such as to save the life of another, but by and large most believers agree in being truthful. It is my conviction that in the matter of Santa Claus, I cannot keep this commandment and tell my kids that Santa is real, so we don't do Santa. I know there are other Christian parents who do not share this conviction because of their background or their perspective on encouraging chidhod fantasy, etc. My Christmas "cup of tea" is that we enjoy stories of Santa but spend more time on other activities that focus on Jesus.
HOMESCHOOLING. The Bible clearly commands parents to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) and to teach them His commandments when you rise and when you lie down and when you walk on the road (Deuteronomy 6:7). It is my conviction that in our society, the best way to do that and counter some of the negative cultural influences that are out there, and at the same time ensure a great education, is through homeschooling. We feel so strongly about this that we would need to hear very clearly from God to change our course. But we know some amazing Christian parents who do not share this conviction and yet raise godly children, and I would never be among those who say that homeschooling is a more "Christian" choice than other educational options. Our preference is to homeschool with the classical approach, and specifically Classical Conversations, but if we could not, we would adjust.
MODESTY. This is something I have written about quite a bit. The Bible clearly commands that we are to dress and behave modestly (1 Timothy 2:9-10). I have a personal conviction that I do not wear styles that I believe are too short, too skimpy, too tight, or too revealing, but I know other women whose specific standards differ from mine and yet we still agree that as representatives of Christ, we should be modest. My "cup of tea" or preference is to primarily wear skirts or dresses because I find it easier to be modest, feminine, and comfortable in skirts than in pants or shorts, but when I wear pants, I do not feel that I am falling short of what God has called me to - because it is a preference and not a conviction.
HEADCOVERING. I believe it is a Scriptural command found in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 that women cover their heads, and that men do not, during times of prayer and prophesying. My interpretation of that passage, and my conviction, is that it applies to corporate gatherings of believers for prayer, worship, and Bible teaching, and so I cover my head during those times. I know others whose conviction is to cover during personal prayer as well, and others who are convicted to cover all the time. My preference is to wear a cover that is attractive but does not attract too much attention. I know others who prefer a different style, but since the Bible does not say exactly what is to be worn, I believe this is an area in which we have freedom.
faith (Romans 13:23).
Going in the other direction, when we take something that is a preference, that the Bible does not speak about, and raise it to the level of conviction, we risk enslaving ourselves to a particular behavior in which God means for us to have freedom (Romans 13:14-16). And when we take a conviction and raise it to the level of a command (as I believe many churches do when they ban certain cultural practices completely based on their interpretation of Scripture), you risk growing a culture and community of legalism instead of grace and faith and love (Galatians 5:1).
How we talk about it
As I said above, when we disagree in the area of God's commands, it is often either because we hold a different view of the authority of Scripture (we agree on what it says but not that we need to follow it, either because we disagree about whether it really came from God or about whether it is meant for today), or it is because we disagree on the interpretation or translation, based on the original language or on the original cultural context. That is the case for many who would disagree with me on the issue of headcovering. We have different understandings of 1 Corinthians 11, and so a meaningful conversation about it will need to encompass how to interpret that passage in its original language and cultural context.
When we disagree on matters of conviction, it may go back to our interpretation of Scripture, but it may also be because we are applying it differently. It is so important to listen to one another and understand which issue it is, lest we try to convince one another of the wrong thing. We also must listen to one another's stories, as convictions are often born of personal experiences of fear and loss.
Finally, when we differ on matters of personal preference, it may be because one of us (rightly or wrongly) sees the matter as one of conviction or even a command rather than a preference, and so we each place a different amount of importance on the issue at hand. This does not mean we can't discuss it, but we need to understand where the other is coming from and start there.