People with Different Needs
Concluding the series “Grace is for Everyone”
In his book The Grace Awakening, preacher and author Chuck Swindoll tells the true story of a missionary family who were forced out of missionary work because of peanut butter. This young family was assigned to serve a part of the world where peanut butter is difficult to get, so they arranged to have friends back in the U.S. occasionally send them some so they could enjoy it with their meals. What they didn’t realize was that other missionaries working with them considered it a mark of Christian maturity that you not have peanut butter with meals – they had “given up peanut butter for the cause of Christ, since they couldn’t get it there.” So they thought that everyone else serving with them should give it up as well.
The young family had never considered the matter of different opinions, and so they kept receiving peanut butter shipments, which they chose to eat privately away from the other missionaries. Soon, however, the peer pressure to conform and give up peanut butter mounted. The disagreements and the pressure got so bad that the young missionaries finally gave up, packed their things, and left the mission field, disillusioned and cynical. [The Grace Awakening: Believing in Grace is One Thing. Living It is Another, 1990, pp. 85-87. Accessed on Google Books, 09/07/2017]
What a sad story! Yet if we take peanut butter out of the story and substitute playing cards, dancing, types of musical instruments allowed in worship, traditional or contemporary music, the “right” version of the Bible, liturgical or relaxed order of worship, consuming alcohol, the “right” way to do baptism, the color of carpet in the sanctuary, or any number of other items, we will have a catalog of things over which Christians have differed. In some cases the differences have caused people to leave a congregation or for churches to split.
In chapters 14 and 15 of Romans, the Apostle Paul continues his practical teaching on the Christian life and extends the lesson he has been focusing on, which is living the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul is very aware that there will be differences of opinion among believers; he has had to handle this in some of his writings to other churches.
The situation in the Roman church seems to be that some Jewish Christians insist on keeping Jewish dietary laws, and because they do not have access to meat that has been prepared according to religious standards, they are choosing to abstain from eating meat and are eating vegetables. They do this because their conscience won’t allow them to eat meat. But other Christians in the Roman church have no concern about observing Jewish dietary laws and so they choose to eat whatever food they want.
Another dispute raging in the Roman church involves observing certain days. Paul doesn’t get specific about the days, but most scholars think he is referring to observing either Jewish religious feasts or the Sabbath. One group thinks that Christians should observe these special days, but the other group doesn’t think it is required to celebrate them.
In Romans 14:21, Paul hints that the consumption of wine is a third dispute brewing in the Roman church.
It is key to understand the importance of following dietary restrictions, keeping the Sabbath and observing holy days and the avoidance of wine would have been to Jewish Christians in Rome. These observances were part of their identity, something they had grown up with and practiced throughout their lives; even more, these were understood to be things that faithful followers of God do. To discontinue these practices would have been difficult and seemed unfaithful. Even if someone told them that Jesus Christ has freed them from these practices, they would be inclined to say, “Why not continue? What harm can it do?”
But the other side would reply, “Keeping the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws and avoiding wine overlooks the simple fact that faith in Christ brings salvation. Those unnecessary practices take the focus off of Christ and his work for us.”
For Paul, the concern is not that there are differences of opinion about Christian practice. The problem is that the people on the two sides have become prideful, arrogant and judgmental toward each other. Each side insists they are right and the other side is wrong. Each side sees that they are better Christians and can’t understand or accept that the other side would see things differently. They insist on judging the others.
Let’s be clear on what it means to judge someone, because it is often misunderstood. Judging refers to condemning someone over an issue, of passing judgment, of determining someone’s worth. This is not the same as discerning between important or unimportant matters, right or wrong issues, and true or false teaching. The key difference is judging is directed toward the person, while discernment is about an issue or behavior.
Judging is something that many people are concerned about, both inside and outside the church. In fact, in their 2007 book entitled UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons share their research about the perception of Christians and the Church among young people ages 16-29. One of the six major themes they uncovered was that young people think Christians are judgmental. Among those ages 16-29 inside the church, 52% think Christians are judgmental, and among those outside the church, the figure jumps to 87%. These young people perceive that Christians are prideful and quick to find fault with others. Said one 25 year-old, “Christians talk about hating sin and loving sinners, but the way they go about things, they might as well call it what it is. They hate the sin and the sinner.”
So there is a public perception problem with judging. However, Paul is more concerned with the spiritual problem with judging which is, as he points out in Romans 14:4, 10, that when we judge, we are putting ourselves in the place of God. The authority to judge rests with God and God alone, and Paul reminds us that each of us will stand before God’s judgment one day. So we are not to condemn someone because it is not our place to pass judgment over someone.
So how can we deal with differences of opinion in the Church? We begin by remembering that Paul’s discussion here is under the heading of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Romans 12:16, we previously read Paul’s counsel, which is: “Live with one another in harmony.”
Rev. Steven Dow offers this way to remember Paul’s advice on harmony.
Hold back judgment on disputable matters (Romans 14:1). Disputable matters are not essential to Christianity; though some matters are essential to Christian faith and call for discernment. Remember that people are more important than issues, so welcome them, or as other translations say, accept them.
Avoid looking down on those you disagree with (Romans 14:2-4). God has welcomed and accepted them, even if you don’t. So repent of your rejection, let go of your bitterness and animosity, and join God in welcoming them.
Realize that we live for the Lord alone (Romans 14:4-10). Those we disagree with may have a positive spirit and good reasons for what they believe and do that are not contrary to scripture. Ultimately, they will answer to God for their actions, and so will we. If we have judged them, we will answer for that.
Make sure you don’t trip others up (Romans 14:13). They are allowed to live by their convictions, and you are allowed yours. Don’t let your convictions cause someone else to stumble and lose faith.
Only do what leads to peace and building each other up (Romans 14:19). If your words or actions don’t, then refrain from them. Remember to love others as Jesus has loved you and to do what you can to keep the peace.
Never put your preferences over people (Romans 14:20-21). Paul tells us not to let our viewpoint on nonessential matters destroy what God is doing in someone else’s life.
Yield to your neighbor for their good (Romans 15:1-2). This may be the most countercultural advice. We live in a society that encourages us to exercise our freedom, but Paul says that if my freedom does not build up the other, then I should restrain myself for their sake. He reminds us that Christ did not please himself but submitted, and so we are not to please ourselves but to do what is beneficial for others.
All Christians together make up the one Body of Christ in the world today, even though we practice our faith differently and worship in different ways. We should not let our differences divide us and resist defining our personal preferences as essentials to faith; being right is not as important as giving one another the grace God has given us and offered to everyone. Even with our differences, we are one Body, united by one Spirit, serving one Lord and God.
As I close with some words of Paul from the 15th chapter of Romans, I invite you to reflect on these aspects of harmony. Which one or two is most challenging for you? Ask God to help you grow in grace and faith to live in harmony.
Hear this blessing from Paul (Romans 15:5-6):
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”