Romans 14: 13 – 5: 1
Christians love to fight over our deeply-held beliefs. Sometimes we fight for things that don’t matter very much. We Christians disagree a lot, sometimes about the craziest things. Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. When you read Romans and 1 Corinthians, you discover that Christians disagreed on things like eating meat offered to idols, whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, whether or not to drink wine. In the centuries since then Christians have disagreed on every possible point on which you can disagree and still be a Christian. No matter what issue comes to mind, if you look around the world, you'll find some Christians somewhere who disagree about it.
We Aren't Alike - That's Okay
We don't think alike, look alike, talk alike or dress alike, and we don't all share the same political opinions. The larger the church, the more likely there will be various factions and groups. Some will prefer a certain kind of music. Others want a pastor with certain beliefs. Some want small group ministry. Some think it's a sin to borrow money. Others borrow money for everything. Others think it's foolish to build buildings when you can meet in homes. After all, Jesus is coming soon. But how soon? Before the Tribulation? In the middle of the Tribulation? After the Tribulation? But that doesn't matter as long as we stop all that clapping in church, or make sure everyone goes through 40 Days of Purpose, or maybe not because some of us don't like Rick Warren. But he doesn't matter. We need a new constitution.
So it goes. Christians have always disagreed - a lot! It's not a bad thing. Church life would be dull if we all agreed on everything. But there is always a danger that our own personal preferences will grow so important that we no longer accept our brothers and sisters in the Lord who disagree with us. Something like that was happening in the church at Rome - why Paul devotes so much space to helping the Romans believers find a way to get along in the church in spite of their differences. Last week we looked at Romans 14: 1 - 12 - 3 basic principles.
1. Historical Background
A. Accept one another—God has accepted you! (v. 1 - 4)
B. Have your own convictions—Jesus is your Lord (v. 5 – 9)
C. Don’t judge others—We will each answer to God (v.10 - 12)
2. Five Important Observations
Very few Christians will disagree with those 3 principles, but we disagree on how to apply them. That's where the rub comes in.
A. Christians Often Disagree With Each Other
This comes as a surprise to new believers, but those of us who’ve been around for a while accept it as a given. Sometimes new Christians come into the church thinking that at last they’ve found paradise on earth, where everyone always agrees with everyone else and we’re all happy together all the time. It doesn’t take long for that balloon to burst. Every church, no matter how large or small, includes people with a wide range of opinions joined by our common allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Short list - some things - conservative evangelicals - argued about: Movies, Who to vote for, Smoking, Ecumenical Movement, Sport on Sunday, Divorce and Remarriage, Women Serving, Organs, Drinking Wine, Predestination, Women Wearing Jewellery or Makeup, Raising Children, Christian schools, Music, Christian Psychology, The Rapture, Public invitations, Age of the Earth, Birth Control, Bible translations, Credit cards, Women wearing pants to church, Long hair on men, Short hair on women, 40 Days of Purpose, Israel, Church size, Church names, Home schooling, Speaking in tongues, Christians in politics, Death penalty, Baptism, etc. 2 observations can be made: 1. Some things that appear “silly” to you seem very serious to other Christians. 2. If we asked 10 Christians to divide this list into “silly” and “serious” categories, we would get 10 different answers.
B. Disagreement is Not Always Wrong or Sinful
Many of us have a hard time with this especially when we feel passionately about some secondary issue. If you have strong feelings, you’ll have a hard time accepting those who either disagree with you or simply don’t care about “your” issue one way or the other. Disagreement often reflects cultural differences more than biblical principles. Your particular set of standards may tell more about your upbringing than about what God approves or disapproves. Sometimes we disagree simply because of our differing temperaments or because of the spiritual gifts God has given us. In any case, we ought not to automatically assume the worst about people who disagree with us.
C. Distinguish Between Primary and Secondary Issues
A primary issue is one that deals with a central doctrine of the Christian faith - includes the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, including the virgin birth, the miracles, his death and bodily resurrection, his ascension into heaven, the reality of the personal, visible, bodily return of Christ to the earth. Other primary issues involve salvation by grace through faith, the doctrine of the Trinity, the importance of the church as the body of Christ, the truth of eternal life with Christ, the resurrection from the dead and the reality of heaven and hell. There are other foundational doctrines dealing with basic sexual morality that must be upheld.Primary issues describe central, defining truths of the Christian faith. To deny these things is to put yourself outside the realm of true Christianity.
When we discuss these issues, there can be no compromise. You either believe in the virgin birth or you don’t. If you don’t, you have denied a clear teaching of the NT, which involves your whole view of the Bible as God’s Word and ultimately calls into question your belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Primary truths must be insisted upon, even if others find us ungracious or intolerant in doing so. While our manner must always be kind, our convictions must be rock-solid. There can be no Christian fellowship with those who deny these things. “It is better to divide over truth than to unite around error.”
Having said that, most of our disagreements have nothing to do with primary issues. Evangelical Christians already believe these things. Our debates generally centre on secondary issues. Secondary issues are those about which the Bible does not clearly speak. For instance, the Bible says nothing about playing (or watching) sport on Sunday. There is simply no verse that addresses that particular issue. Whatever you believe about this will have to be decided by a) inferences drawn from biblical principles or b) your personal preference or c) a combination of a and b. The same is true for home schooling. The Bible has much to say about education in general, and it clearly lays the burden of teaching children upon the parents. Is it wrong to send children to a Christian school? What about a public school? Since there were no 1st century equivalents of either public schools or Christian schools, we aren’t sure how to answer those questions.
Or take the hot issue of worship. The New Testament gives us a few general guidelines for worship, but they are quite sketchy and general. If Paul were alive today, would he prefer Fanny Crosby over Casting Crowns or would he embrace Chris Tomlin over Charles Wesley? I know of no sure way to answer that question.
The same could be said for most of the items on the list. Either the Bible says nothing at all or what it says is difficult to properly interpret. In such cases, we are free to have our own convictions, but we must hold them lightly lest we blur the line between primary and secondary issues and end up elevating sport on Sunday to a level equal with the resurrection of Jesus.
D. Accepting Others Requires Humility Above Other Virtues
Humility is understanding that God is God and you are not.Once you decide that you can let God be God, then you can also relax and let him deal with other Christians regarding these secondary issues. That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss these matters openly. Open discussion is a mark of a healthy relationship. Let the meat-eaters and vegetarians challenge each other’s position - but only if they can do it in love and with deep respect. Humility doesn’t mean no discussion; it does mean no animosity, no name-calling, no unfair accusations. I’ve learned - i. God blesses people I disagree with. ii. God sometimes blesses people I wouldn’t bless if I were God. Sometimes I’m frustrated when I see God blessing someone who seems to be wrong in some area. But humility forces me to admit that if God is God, he is free to bless anyone he chooses.
Some people seem to delight in offering negative comments on everything and everybody. How about this simple rule:If it doesn’t apply to you personally, feel free to have no opinion about it. This has helped me over the years. Sometimes we have too many opinions on too many topics. Help yourself by saying, “I feel free to have no opinion about that.” Then sleep well at night.
E. If We Truly Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, We Can Let Him Deal With Those Who Disagree With Us.
This is the logical conclusion - “Don’t judge another believer.” Why? Because God will judge him for you. If your friend who eats meat has made a bad choice, God can show him better than you can. If he smokes, God can convict him or his doctor can convince him. If he has some strange view of the rapture, God can deal with him if he needs to be dealt with. Don’t get in God’s way. Let him deal with people who disagree with you. But don’t forget to treat them as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
3. Practical Ways to Apply This Message
A. Make Up Your Own Mind
Only the confident can truly accept others. If your “issue” is Christian schools, then study that until you feel confident of your position. (Doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later, but you come to a place where you don’t agonise over it day and night.) Once you are confident about Christian schools, you won’t feel the need to attack people who believe in public schools nor will you feel a need to defend yourself when others attack you.
If you know what you believe, it’s easy to talk amiably with those who hold differing points of view.Anger is often a mark that a person has adopted a position without thinking it through carefully. If you constantly find yourself getting angry about a secondary matter, ask yourself if you really believe what you say you believe. You won’t easily lose your temper when you have truly made up your own mind.
B. Give Others the Right to do the Same
If you have the right to your opinion, your friend has the right to hers. She can also disagree with your reasons and even tell you so. Christian love requires that we give others the same right that we claim for ourselves. We don’t need any evangelical popes trying to micro-manage the affairs of other people.
C. Refuse to Criticise Those Who See Things Differently
What matters is our attitude. “Time out. We don’t talk that way around here. I refuse to listen to comments like that.” You can't expect everyone to like everything about every worship service, no matter what style you may follow. There’s no room for cheap-shot criticism in the church.
D. Enlarge Your Circle of Friends.
Have some friends who disagree with you about some things. If you are a vegetarian and all your friends are vegetarians, how stunted and small is your vision of the Christian life. It’s good to have friends who truly like you but don’t see eye-to-eye with you on every issue. After all, if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary. It won't hurt you to expand your circle of friends beyond people who think just like you do.
E. Focus on Things that Unite Us, Not Those that Divide Us.
There is something in human nature that likes to divide us. The great unifying factor for the people of God is the Lord Jesus Christ.He has broken down the wall that separated us from God and from one another. In him we are joined together in the body of Christ. Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me. Great list of the things that unite us: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4: 4 - 6). These are the “primary issues” of the Christian life. These are the things that have always been believed by all Christians everywhere. They unite the body of Christ across generations and across geographic, political, racial and national boundaries. Focus on these things! They matter far more than wine-drinking or wearing your hair a certain way. “In essentials unity; in non-essentials diversity; in all things charity.”
F. Live So That No One Can Criticize Your Decisions.
A truly Christian life is marked by gracious humility, kindness, compassion, love for others, honesty, integrity and hope amid life’s difficulties. If these things are present in your life, then it won’t matter whether or not you play or watch sport on Sunday. If those things aren’t present in your life, then playing or not playing won’t matter anyway. Live so that those who disagree with you look up to you as a model worth following.
G. Get Your Own House in Order So That You Have Nothing to Fear When You Stand Before God!
It is true that everyone will stand before God, it’s also true that you will stand before God. Live in such a way that you have nothing to fear in that awesome day. Pray before you say anything.If you pray first, you may end up saying nothing at all. “Miss no opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” If you do say something, it will likely be changed because you prayed first. If we prayed more, we would talk less, and our words would have greater impact.
Looking back over nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have come to value church unity much more than I once did.Unity is a precious gift from God. When a church is united, it can accomplish amazing things for God. When unity disappears, the church fractures, the body of Christ divides, personal opinions become more important than serving together, people become embroiled in an endless series of petty arguments and inevitably the church loses its outward focus. When that happens, the blessing of the Lord disappears. The Lord Jesus is so grieved over disunity that he removes his blessing from a church where personal opinion is more important than Christian love.
We aren't all alike, and we don't have to think alike. Disagreement can be healthy, but it can also run riot and destroy the work of God. May God deliver all of us from having to have our own way.