I am convinced if we all followed the principles laid out by Paul in Romans 14 that divisions in the church would be held to a minimum. In Paul’s discussion of the weak and the strong in their faith he unpacks some information that get our heats in the right place when it comes to how we view others and their relationship with God. I think this is key to much of what is floating around the blog world as we speak and the conversation started up by Todd Deaver at his blog and the new venture Grace Conversation. The principles unlocked in this single chapter helps weak and strong alike. It helps conservative and progressive alike. It puts us all back on the same page and gets our focus where God desires it. Let’s have a look.
Importance of Overlooking our Differences:
In the previous 2 chapters Paul has mentioned the importance for Christians, no matter what their differences, to have love for each other. The Christians at Rome had even bigger differences than we have today in conservative and progressive churches and yet Paul called them to overcome those differences through love for each other (Rom 12 & 13) and in focusing on God rather than nit picking what everyone else is doing (Romans 14). They had some nit-pickers in the Roman church. Judaising Christians had a hard time accepting Gentile converts. Gentiles converts had a hard time understanding all the rules and regulations the Jews brought with them. Add to that cultural norms on both sides…Romans (Gentiles) thought the Jews were rebellious and anti-Rome in their refusal to worship their Gods. The Jews grew up thinking Gentiles were anathema and were not to be associated with, eaten with, or have in their home. They had a lot of differences to overlook. They had to look past things they had grown up hearing were unacceptable and would condemn someone to hell. Sound familiar? Yet Paul calls them into unity with each other! They had a lot to overcome but Paul believed they were able to find unity in spite of their differences (both cultural and doctrinal).
We Don’t Live in a Bubble:
Romans 14 teaches us that our actions and attitudes have a direct impact on those around us. That impact can be for the good and edify our fellow believer or it can be to their detriment and even threaten their soul (14:15 – “Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died”). We don’t live in a bubble. Over and over again Paul tells them that what they do impacts those around them. What they believe can impact their fellow Christians as well. It is important we go to GREAT lengths to build up rather than to tear down.
When it comes to division people always have their issues. There are those pet issues that are somehow more important than other commands (such as maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”). In Romans 14 Paul respectfully addresses several issues and he understands just how significant these issues are to his audience. However, he does not believe that these issues in particular are worth creating division over. In fact, he even says it is okay for believers to believe two different things on the same issue! This is even true of issues that they believe are of great importance especially to the Jews (holy days and dietary issues). This does not mean all issues are negotiable but some issues are. It takes a lot of care and concerned study to differentiate the two but it is important that we do.
Eating and holy days help us identify our own issues:
While the issues of Paul’s day are not our issues today it is important that we identify the things we disagree on and try to apply Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 today. The point is not the food and the point is not which days are or are not holy. Paul’s point is that we can disagree on some things as long as we aren’t looking down on those we disagree with (14:3). We have typically made a point of incorrect doctrine on matters being a sin and cause for disfellowship. Some have taken the stance that if you disagree with them on a single point of doctrine that there is cause for disfellowship. Paul clearly teaches against that point of view here. Paul says there are some issues where it is 100% okay to disagree on an issue and it not be sin for either person. However, if you look down on those you disagree with and start seeing them as less than yourself, even if you are correct in your doctrinal position, you just sinned.
The Slave analogy helps put things in perspective:
Paul uses the example of two slaves who are both working for the same master. Both are working but one likes to spend some of his time critiquing the work of his fellow slaves (14:4). Paul’s point is that the master judges the work of each slave. The slaves are on the same level with no authority to make those judgments. I wish those who spent their time nit-picking other churches, ministers, Christians, universities, etc could understand this verse and realize that though they believe themselves to be 100% correct in their doctrine, it is possible to be 100% correct in doctrine and still be in major sin! It is also possible to not have all your doctrine nailed down perfect and be fine in God’s eyes. How is that? Paul is saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about the food you eat or the days you treat as holy as long as you stick to what you believe and don’t look down on those who differ with you. Again, I am not saying that all matters are disputable but some are. Where is our example to divide over having a kitchen at the building? Sounds pretty disputable to me. Yet some have split God’s church over less and in the process looked down their noses, pointed fingers, and arrogantly accused fellow believers of disrespecting God and his church for things that were not to their liking, regardless for how clear or unclear scripture was on the issue.
“Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” – Romans 14:13 Oh, if only we would all put that verse into practice! Paul gives this command and then wraps up the chapter with what we are to do in place of judgment:
act in love – 14:15
have righteousness, peace and joy – 14:16
Practice what leads to peace and mutual edification – 14:19
In verse 17 he sums it up well in saying that the kingdom of God is not a matter of finely tuning our doctrine on disputable matters, instead it is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy. It amazes me that we have Christians who try to be 100% correct in things but has no joy or peace and possibly even believe their righteousness comes from their doctrinal positions rather than from God, in spite of their own error and sinfulness! Paul is saying that kind of attitude misses the whole point.
Does this mean everything is wishy washy?
This doesn’t mean we can all have different beliefs across the board. Paul would certainly argue with you if you disagreed with him on the issues he laid out in Romans 1-8 and even beyond. Paul would certainly believe you less than Christian if you disagreed with him on the Lordship/Messiahship of Christ. This does not mean all matters of doctrine are disputable. This does mean some things are up for debate and some things only come down to a matter of conscience. On those issues we have to leave each other alone and not personally fall into the sin of treating our fellow believers with pride and arrogance. Paul seems to imply that behavior is a worse sin than error.
For my class notes on Romans 14 click here.