I read Romans recently. I really enjoyed it – found it less of a plod-through-theology than I remember from previous readings. One thing that I associate with the book of Romans is the theme of not judging others. In my late teens I wrote the beginning of chapter 2 on post it notes and stuck them to my bedroom mirror. I wanted to see it every day and remember that I was just as bad as all the people around me. It’s always so easy to judge others for not being just like me – assuming that the way I’m doing things is “best”. Or at least better than the way they’re doing it.
Chapter 14 is a great section dealing with another aspect of judging others, in the context of church unity. The specific issue Paul is using is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols – some believers were against the practice and other believers thought it was fine. The issue of eating this meat is itself not the point; rather, Paul is using this one issue to paint a much larger picture.
“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Romans 14:1)
Paul says that every person has to evaluate his decisions in grey areas (where God’s will is not explicit) and act according to his own conscience. Paul’s bottom line is this: if I am not sure whether something is okay, I shouldn’t do it.
“…Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5)
Paul is perfectly okay with different people having different convictions on the same issue. He accepts as normal that some people are fine eating the idol-meat and others believe it to be sin. He shares his own conviction (he thinks it’s fine) and the basis for his conviction but there is no sense that he is arguing with believers who don’t agree with him, trying to persuade them. He merely states his thoughts and moves on.
Imagine this in practice in a mainstream conservative Christian church. Since meat sacrificed to idols and whether or not to eat is isn’t a hot topic in most places, let’s take drinking alcohol as an example. There are a wide range of opinions within modern Christendom regarding the consumption of alcohol. Some are utterly convinced that drinking alcohol is a sin. Others are utterly convinced that there is no problem whatsoever with consuming alcohol. Add the difference between drinking and getting drunk and opinions diverge even more.
According to Paul, if I am not sure whether drinking alcohol could be sinful, I shouldn’t drink. I shouldn’t drink unless I am convinced, with a clean conscience before God, that I’m not doing anything wrong. That might not fit in some of our church cultures, but that’s just the launching point. Now things get really interesting.
“If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love…” (Romans 14:15)
Paul is more concerned with how their choices affect each other than what those choices are. Let me repeat that in case you missed it. His concern is NOT what stance the believers take on the issue. His concern is what happens AFTER each individual reaches his own personal conviction on what they should do.
Back to our modern context, and what I hear in my head is a pastor on the platform saying “I know some of you think drinking alcohol is wrong, and some of you have no problem with drinking. Whatever your conviction is, that’s fine. You all need to work that out with God as individuals. When you are together, however, don’t let this issue be something that divides you. Instead, whatever you do, do it out of love for each other. If you are with people you know believe drinking alcohol is sinful, don’t drink in front of them. You might offend them. Worse, you might cause them to choose to drink when they are still doubtful about whether or not it is okay. You don’t want to tempt them into sin! Do whatever it takes to stay united as a church. Our unity and mutual love is far more important than a glass of wine.”
Paul is more concerned that their choices do not disturb church unity. Paul does NOT list reasons why one side is right and the other wrong. Instead he calls the Romans to love. He calls them to love each other in their weaknesses. He says that although he thinks it’s fine to eat the idol-meat, it’s better to NOT eat it (even though it’s fine to do so) if eating it will upset another believer. If they are at a place in their own faith at which eating idol-meat is dubious, then eating it around them will not build them up. Paul says that in such a case he just won’t eat the meat. He doesn’t say he’ll lecture the person, argue about it, try to strengthen their faith through quoting Scripture as to why he’s right. No. He says just don’t eat it. Much simpler, really.
“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)
I definitely think there is a place for healthy discussion about our personal convictions. The measuring stick needs to be love, however. If your words and actions don’t come from a place of love for your brother/sister, then even if you’re “right” you’re still doing the wrong thing. Being right isn’t what is important. Building up the body in love is much more important than winning an argument.
“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God…” (Romans 14:22)
I feel like Paul is saying “Seriously guys, this stuff doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.” He calls them to work out their own choices through prayer and then act with a clean conscience, making sure that whatever their conviction is, their actions don’t disturb others – that they act out of love toward others. Arguing about who’s right doesn’t build church unity – it destroys it. These divisions also destroy the witness of the church; we who are supposed to be known by outsiders because of our love for each other are instead known for controversies.
I find I am asking myself some sticky questions…
“What am I willing to forego in order to make a fellow believer more comfortable?”
“I don’t have a problem with this, but would it upset someone I spend time with?”
“Would I give that up in order to preserve/promote peace?”
I find the theory fascinating – and the application troubling! Which is probably a good sign :)
That’s my thoughts on Romans 14. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself and see what you find in Paul’s message to the Romans…