Renting secular movies on DVD
Owning and watching a television
Listening to secular music
Listening to contemporary Christian music
Using CCM in worship services
Working on Sundays
Long hair on men, short hair on women
Women wearing pants
Drinking (in moderation of course)
Models for courtship or dating
Whether to home school or send children to public or private school
What ever the conviction, some folks are down right adamant about the ones they hold near and dear to their hearts, and those convictions can become problematic when they disrupt the unity of the local church. Tensions can arise when one group of Christians may not agree to and accept the convictions of another group.
How exactly do we address disagreements? How exactly should we respond to those fellow Christians who may have liberty in a particular area, where as others are bound by conscience in the same exact area?
This division among Christians over personal convictions, liberty and legalism, was in the early church just like it is today, even though the early Christians were divided over different issues. Paul recognized this problem in the churches at Roman and he addressed their interaction with each other over these matters beginning in Chapter 14 and extending down to 15:13.
Paul addresses two categories of individual members: the weak and the strong.
The weak are called “weak in faith” (14:1). The idea of faith is not so much belief unto salvation as some suppose, but it is more along the lines of being persuaded of the truth; what their faith in Christ allows or prohibits. Whereas the strong had liberty in the areas of disagreement, the weak did not.
Paul mentions three areas that divided the two groups:
1) The strong eats all foods; the weak only vegetables (2).
2) The strong make no values as to specific “days;” the weak do (5,6).
3) The strong eat certain foods and drink wine; the weak abstain (6, 20, 21).
More than likely, the two groups may had been Jewish Christians (the weak) and gentile Christians (the strong).
Jewish believers would still maintain sensibilities with regards to food and recognizing certain holy days. Gentile Christians, coming from a pagan background particularly, would not share those sensibilities and would be in danger of offending Jewish Christians with their liberty. Though there is no clear word from Paul in his epistle to the Romans, it may had been that the two groups polarized themselves into separate congregations meeting at different times. Its similar, at least in my mind, to how churches in our modern world set up separate traditional and contemporary worship services.
In this passage (14:1-15:13), Paul confronts the disunity between the strong and the weak by laying out principles these two groups should honor so as to maintain unity.
One thing we do need to keep in mind:
It is important to note that their disagreements did not center around any doctrinal points.
In other words, there wasn’t any doctrinal purity at stake here. I mention that because some Christians who wish to practice separation will elevate non-doctrinal convictions to a place of orthodoxy and make them a standard for fellowship. But what Paul is confronting is personal opinions and convictions, not doctrinal purity.
With this introduction in mind, I believe Paul lays out four principles to maintain unity.
1) Refrain from judging other’s convictions.
Paul opening comments addressing these two groups are clear,
Let not him who eats (the strong) despise him who does not eat (the weak), and let not him who does not eat (the weak) judge him who eats (the strong); for God has received him. (14:3)
Both groups were guilty of judging each other’s motives for their convictions. Usually in my encounters with individuals from these two groups, it is the weaker in faith who are the most vocal with their judgments against the strong. The strong are considered “too worldly.” I reckon it is easier to prepare a sermon attacking some perceived “vice” like drinking wine or listening to rock and roll, and those attack sermons play well to the masses.
Yet Paul opens his words of reproof to the strong who despises the weak. The word despise has in mind an attitude of contempt. Basically one person looking down upon the other as being worthless. The strong are to repent of such attitudes of disdain. Additionally, the weak are not to judge the strong. To judge means the weak were condemning the strong probably with a mind-set of self-righteousness and being “holier-than-thou.” The weak equally needed to repent of this attitude.
Two reasons for repenting of these attitudes:
– Both groups are saved. God has received both groups of individuals. Both are part of God’s Kingdom
– God is the one who evaluates his servants. Each individual servant of God stands or falls before Christ the Lord. Again, these are not issues of revealed, doctrinal truth at stake, but matters of opinions when it comes to personal living. We as Christian have no place to scrutinize a person’s convictions unless those convictions cross the boundaries into sinfulness.
2) Christ is the Lord over both groups
Paul draws our attention to the divisive issues in the congregations at Rome: food ordinances and the observance of specific holy days. Though the two groups had firm convictions concerning those areas, they both are to be submitted to Christ as their Lord. If a person has liberty to eat, he must do so with thanksgiving unto his Lord. So to with the person who does not have liberty to eat, don’t eat with thanksgiving.
No person lives unto himself or dies unto himself, but is submitted to the Lord as His servant. That is the over-arching principle. (14:7-9)
3) Receive those who differ as brothers and sisters
The opening verse in this chapter states, Receive one who is weak in faith. The idea goes beyond just tolerating the person when you see him or her at church. To receive means you bring them into your fellowship, just like God has brought us all into His fellowship by the death of His Son. We are not to separate fellowship from a fellow believer because you may have liberty to smoke cigars and he does not. Nor are we to separate fellowship if you think drinking alcohol is a sin, and other believers do not and drink it on occasion. Separation from “brothers” should be the last resort and not something done easy.
4) Remember God in all we do
Ultimately, how we react to one another reflects upon our relationship with God. The outside world looking in upon us should not see God’s people as bickering and separating over food (14:20) or anything else as trivial. Pursuing peace with each other in these matters not only honors God, but strengthens the work of God in our world.
More importantly, and this is something I will expand upon in my next post on this subject, never are we to cause to stumble a fellow believer in these matters or make one offended by our behavior. This is a danger for the strong. We are never, as Paul writes, to destroy with your food (or beer drinking, cigar smoking, movie watching) the one for whom Christ died (vs 15).