My way or the high way

The history of the church is littered with disputes. Some of the disputes down through the ages have been of great benefit as they focus on contending for the truth and thus have a purifying effect on the church, but other disputes are about much less important matters. I heard of churches that divide on which version of the English bible they use or the style of service or even the colour of the walls! How do we deal with such matters? Romans 14 has the answers.

1. For the Lord

This chapter is about ‘disputable’ matters (as the NIV has it) or ‘doubtful disputations’ (as the KJV has it). We studied this very theme in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which we developed the idea that the bible offers some very distinct and clear instructions on how we ought to live; don’t get drunk, don’t get involved in immoral practices, don’t gossip and slander etc. but if the bible was to give advice on how to deal with every possible situation the book would be impractically enormous. It seems that there are very many situations in which we just have to work it out for ourselves. The specific advice is rather like a lighthouse warning us off the rocks, but as we sail the sea of life we have to navigate much of the territory beyond the clarity of the lighthouse – these are the areas of dispute where we may well and quite legitimately develop different perspectives. Paul is keen that we approach these areas with the right spirit and when we find that we have drawn different conclusions he is keen that we find the right way to work together.

Paul’s first comment is that that some people have weaker faith than others and that this is the root cause of such disputes. The issues in Paul’s day seemed to relate to what people ate and which days were treated as special. As far as food was concerned one person was quite happy to eat anything at all, but another sincere believer (with weaker faith) could only bring himself to eat vegetables. Paul doesn’t mention the source of the differences, but I suspect at least part of this was related to the ‘Jewish problem’ which we have studied at some length in chapters 9-11 and will study again in the next chapter. One could certainly imagine that the Jewish group would be finding the setting aside of their way of doing things very hard to cope with, but doubtless there would be others in the church in Rome from different pagan backgrounds who would have certain difficulties too. So how to handle this? Both sides of the ‘dispute’ have a responsibility, those who feel free to eat anything must not treat with contempt the one who does not (eat anything) and the one who adheres to a restricted diet must not pass judgement on the one who feels at liberty to eat anything. Why? Because God has accepted both! So we must do too.

I hope I can give a personal example of this from our church. We have been greatly blessed to welcome two fine Christians from Nepal to our church. Their pastor kindly visited England en route from Nepal to the USA and we hosted the pastor and Nepalese couple after the Sunday morning service. My wife had prepared a really excellent piece of roast beef, the Yorkshire puddings were rising nicely in the oven and the dinner was about 10 minutes away from being served. Somewhat jokingly my wife said to the Nepalese lady, you do eat beef don’t you? Now the lady in question has quite a well developed sense of humour and relied with a smile ‘no, no we never eat beef!’ The problem was that she wasn’t at all joking! Panic in the kitchen! My son in law dived up to our local Waitrose and came home with a hot cooked chicken from their rotisserie and the meal went ahead without a hitch, chicken for the Nepalese and beef for the British! – and we all gave thanks to God for it before we ate. What was really rather wonderful was that we ate the beef without any sense of judgement on the part of our Nepalese friends and they ate the chicken without any contempt on our part (although I have to confess a feeling of embarrassment that we could have been so unthinking in the first place) – and we all ate the Yorkshire pudding without restriction! This is how it should be: respectful attitudes on both sides for a ‘disputable’ matter.’ What was interesting is that the church in Nepal have their main service of the week on a, shock horror, Saturday! Sunday in Nepal is just like any weekday here. You see they recognise this as a disputable matter and adjust accordingly. We both have approached ‘disputable matters’ in different ways and the important thing is for no contempt or judgement to enter into the situation.

Likewise for the marking out of days, Paul says ‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.’ One writer said that ‘opinions are things that we hold, but convictions are things that hold us.’ I think that the invitation of Paul is to think these things through and be fully convinced and act accordingly. The motivation behind all of this ought to be about our attitude to God, Paul says ‘If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die we die for the Lord.’ You may be involved in some practices that may not quite be right, are you doing what you do as ‘unto the Lord.’ This is a good test for things that may be under the ‘disputable’ category. If what you do fails this test, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.

2. No judging please

As human beings we seem to have brains wired to making judgements. The London Evening Standard is picked up by millions of people everyday as they catch the train home and it’s full of judgements, from the opinion page, the editorial articles to the review of films, books, plays and musical performances. We love to judge – and often that judgement turns to contempt for the person under scrutiny. The bible is not a stick to beat up other people with, but rather it’s a mirror with which we examine ourselves. Don’t you know says Paul that we must all stand before God’s judgement seat? Paul says ‘each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.’

This is quite a thought! I think Paul is encouraging us to make judgements of the things we do ourselves but not to become judges of what other people do (and lest anyone should think this is to encourage a free for all, remember that this discussion is within the bounds of ‘disputable matters.’) So if we are to be judged by God how should we respond? Simply by not doing God’s job for him and thus by ceasing to pass judgement on one another.

I suspect that some churches find this harder to do than others. There is in some ways a sense of security if the  preacher is ‘laying down the law’ about what we ought to be doing. I hear in some churches the leader not only lays down the law but can be quite happy to tell people to whom they should marry and how the members ought to spend their money! Some people quite like the certainty of this sort of thing, but it’s not the way we should do things and I think such an approach can quickly get out of hand and lead to cult-like situations. Let’s give this a wide berth. But we ought not to forget that there are indisputable ‘light house’ truths from which we must adhere or else we will be shipwrecked (take a look at Galatians 5 19-21 as a helpful but not exhaustive list).   

3. Obstacle courses

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are perfectly happy about doing something that another fellow Christian has problems with. When I grew up in Scotland the idea of some Christians doing shopping on a Sunday or buying a Sunday paper was somewhat frowned upon: it was all about keeping the ‘Sabbath.’ But you have thought this through and don’t really have any issues with buying the Sunday paper, but a Christian friend has some real problems with this. You don’t get his line of thinking and start to look down on the other Christian as it’s clear to you that they have no real grounds for their Sunday-paper-problem. So what do you do? There is a temptation to gently ridicule the other person for their apparently ridiculous issue with Sunday papers and maybe even to go out of your way to show that they’re being silly and unreasonable – and in any case the paper is written and printed on a Saturday, so why the problem? But this is exactly what Paul warns against and the reason is that it can damage the other person’s weaker faith. He says: ‘I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’ That’s pretty clear. Some people have a problem with this and they argue that this is a bit like saying that we are just all to love one another and have no standards. But that’s to miss the point. Remember this is about ‘disputable matters’ where there is no clarity on right/wrong in these situations we area we are to apply copious does of love. And great damage can be done by failing to respect the scruples of a fellow Christian: ‘Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.

There is another side to this though. Some people with views on disputable matters can become militant in their opinions and try to force everyone into their way of thinking – Paul says ‘do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil.’ So both sides need to love, the one without the issues is to respect the one with issues and ensure that he doesn’t cause the fellow Christian to stumble and the one with the issues is to hold such views with respect and love for others of a different persuasion.

I need not remind you, (but I will), that this is about disputable matters, there are many bible truths that that are outside the scope of this and that are not up for debate.

All of this is to be seen in the context that eating and drinking (and presumably other disputable matters) are not in the final analysis of eternal importance. Paul says ‘for the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ Paul is simply saying that this is not of final importance so don’t let it dominate and define your faith. Incidentally this verse has been much misused to ‘prove’ that God’s kingdom is restricted to the spiritual realm to the exclusion of the physical realm – this is as fine an example as any of the misuse of God’s word to ‘prove’ a preconceived notion – Paul’s whole point here is about the expression of Christian principles in the physical world!

So what’s the guiding principle in all of this? ‘Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.’ I think I hear a lot of Christians champion the idea that ‘such-and-such should not be tolerated’ or ‘there needs to be more formal church discipline’ etc. They may have a point but however we run our churches, when there are disputable matters in view we must have the aim to establish peace and mutual edification: we must build through these sorts of issues and not allow these matters to destroy. This is not to say that we believe anything for the sake of keeping the peace, remember this is about disputable matters.

One final idea from Paul is that we ought to keep our views on such matters private: ‘between yourself and God.’ There is no room for militantly forcing our opinions on others, but be careful, if you have some areas in which you have ‘doubts’ (as Paul puts it) don’t ignore this as this could hurt you. Paul says that to ignore such doubts is not an act of faith but an act of sin. Food for thought.