I can split nearly any church in less than two minutes. How can I do that? By asking which of the following items are sinful (or at best unspiritual):
o Drinking alcohol Working on Sunday
o Smoking cigarettes or cigars Gambling
o Dancing Watching R-rated movies
o Listening to secular music Watching MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)
o Using birth control Sporting tattoos or piercings
o Sending your kids to public school Observing Halloween
o Owning a luxury car or other extravagant possessions
The above practices are not explicitly discussed in Scripture. Yet, many Christians have practically come to blows over these issues! This should not be! The church must stop fixating on non-essential issues. We cannot continue to major on the minors and minor on the majors. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the slogan, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This is fantastic advice. But I would also add this, “The second thing is to keep second things second.” Indeed, it isn’t possible to keep the main thing main if we aren’t careful to keep second things second.” When Christians trivialize significant issues and hyper-focus on insignificant issues we must own the label “judgmental.”
In his book UnChristian, David Kinnaman highlights a number of troubling statistics of those born between 1965-2002. from an extensive study by the Barna Research Group Included are two statistics that show how those outside the church view those within: Nearly nine out of ten young outsiders—eighty-seven percent—said that the term “judgmental” accurately describes present-day Christianity. Of those non-Christians surveyed, eighty-four percent said they personally know at least one committed Christian. Yet just fifteen percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ-followers were significantly different from the norm. It would seem that you and I have some business to attend to.
Of course, we should have convictions on non-essential practices. Our convictions draw the line between what we will do and what we will not do as an exercise of Christian liberty. Personal convictions are important to the apostle Paul. In the vitally important application chapters of Romans 12-15, no subject is dealt with in greater detail than our convictions concerning Christian liberties. Paul devotes nearly two chapters to this subject (14:1-15:13). In his discussion, he addresses various controversies between “weak” and “strong” Christians in the church at Rome. Most likely the “weak” were primarily Jewish Christians and the “strong” Gentile Christians.
Both groups were dividing over inconsequential issues: avoiding meat (14:2), observing sacred days (14:5), and abstaining from wine (14:21). The weak believed that if the Bible hadn’t specifically approved something, then it was probably wrong. Those that were strong, on the other hand, believed if the Bible hadn’t specifically forbidden something, then it was probably within the realm of freedom. In 14:1-12 Paul argues that both groups need to exercise humility and grace with one another. His bottom line is: Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself. He lays out three keys to experiencing harmony with God and others.
1. Stop Judging Other Believers (14:1-3)
Paul argues that God’s family is big enough to encompass believers who have different perspectives on non-essential issues. In 14:1 Paul writes, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” The word “Now” (de) marks a new section in Paul’s argument as he moves into a discussion regarding neutral practices of faith between believers (14:1-15:13). He insists that we are to “accept the one who is weak in faith.” The word “accept” (proslambano) may not be the best translation. Modern Americans often equate “accept” with the term “tolerate” or “put up with.” The conclusion is that to accept one who is weak in faith is to agree to disagree. The Greek term, though, means “to extend a welcome, receive into one’s home or circle of acquaintances.” Hence, various English versions opt for the translation “receive” (NET, NKJV) or “welcome” (ESV, NRSV).
The strong believer is to welcome the weak believer even when a particular issue of Christian freedom is off limits to him or her. If you are a strong brother or sister, you need to receive with warmth your weak brother or sister. Don’t reject your brother. Don’t call your sister a compromiser. Simply show them the love of Christ.
Now bear in mind Paul is discussing “opinions” (dialogismos) or “disputable matters” (NIV). He is not talking about tolerating blatant sin. On some matters Scripture is rather pointed: Christians are forbidden from getting divorced on unbiblical grounds. Sexual immorality will be judged by God. Gossip, slander, lying, and envy are on par with the most heinous sins. Believers who choose not to attend church, serve, or give are disobedient. There are also some doctrinal issues that are not optional. The authority and inspiration of the Bible are non-negotiable. Jesus Christ (fully God and fully man) as the only way to God is non-negotiable. Salvation by faith alone in Christ alone is non-negotiable. A literal return of Christ is non-negotiable. These are all fundamental, foundational truths. They are clear essentials upon which we all ought to agree. But apart from these (and possibly a few more), there are many other things that are not as clear, not as apparent, and not as easily understood in Scripture. In these matters, we must allow for differing opinions (e.g., the gifts of the Spirit, the age of the universe, the timing of Christ’s return, predestination/free will, etc.).
The first non-essential issue of debate between the Roman Christians comes up in 14:2: the issue of diet. Paul writes, “One person has faith [lit. “believes”] that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.” The strong were convinced that as New Covenant Christians they were not obligated to the Old Testament laws and were free to eat anything. In this case, I’m definitely a stronger brother. My favorite verse is found in 14:2b “he who is weak eats vegetables.” I’ve chosen to forgo my veggies, not because I don’t like the taste of them, but because I’m concerned about being weak. I’m kidding! Children must continue to eat vegetables. This is an essential.
Seriously, this description of a vegetarian is not one on account of principle or health reasons, but because their conscience is bothered in some way by eating meat. This could be on account of kosher laws, or more likely, is looking toward meat sacrificed to idols in pagan temples. Either way this person avoids all meat in the fear that some of the meat may be tainted in one way or another.
Paul continues in 14:3 and states, “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.” In the case of food, God has not forbidden Christians to eat any food (1 Tim 4:3-4). Eating food is an amoral matter. It is neither morally good nor morally bad. The person who eats should not view himself as superior or look down on his extremely sensitive brother with a condescending attitude. The weaker brother should not judge the more liberal Christian as unacceptable to God either, because God has accepted him (cf. Romans 14:1). All people have a right to their own convictions. The key is that God can accept both the weak and the strong. Therefore, if God can receive people who have different opinions on non-essential issues, how much more so should you and I? May we be slow to judge others; be quick to judge ourselves.
There are several principles that may prove helpful in the issue of judging fellow believers:
Recognize that believers agree on far more than we disagree on. We see eye-to-eye on those doctrines, philosophies, and practices that are most essential to Christendom. Thus, we must focus on those things that unite us, not on things that divide us. Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.
Acknowledge that disagreement over non-essentials can be healthy. If the body of Christ never disagreed, we could never express true agape love. In any relationship (e.g., marriage, family, friendship), you can only enjoy true unconditional love when conflict has occurred. At that point forgiveness and grace can be extended. Furthermore, cookie-cutter Christians would be terribly boring. Variety is the spice of the church.
Distinguish between primary and secondary issues. There is no point in warring over secondary issues. Remember: “The second thing is to keep second things second.” We must not spend precious time constantly debating non-essential issues. If Christ could return today, let’s make sure we’re not spinning our spiritual wheels fighting over things that really don’t matter.
Exercise humility on non-essentials. No one knows everything there is to know about non-essential issues. That’s why they are non-essential issues! You must always be willing to change your mind or modify your perspective. Over the years, I have changed my mind on issues such as the charismatic gifts, the age of the universe, and women in ministry. It is wise to remain humble.
Refuse to criticize those who see things differently. When I am working through a study on non-essential issues, I love to read those who hold different opinions. Often I learn the most from those who see things differently. Such men and women poke holes in my arguments and beliefs and help me to be a clearer thinker. These individuals are a service to the body of Christ and to my ministry and learning.
Allow people to come to their own conclusions. Someone once defined a legalist as: “A Christian who lives in mortal fear that someone, someplace, is enjoying himself.” In the same vein, the “weak” (i.e., abstainers) had concluded that what was wrong for them was wrong for everyone! Our culture and our background influence us more than we think. Christians have differing levels of spiritual maturity. We must realize what is best for us may not be best for everyone. We need to warmly and respectfully give one another freedom in non-essential areas. Doing so would revolutionize our life within the church as well as our testimony outside. For the sake of Christian love and community, we must leave room for people to grow and be different. Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.
[The first key to a harmonious life is to stop judging other believers. Paul second key is to . . .]
2. Submit Your Convictions To The Lord (14:4-9)
The decisions that you make regarding non-essentials should be made with the Lord in mind. In 14:4 Paul writes: “Who are you[weak believer] to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able [or “is powerful”] to make him stand.” Imagine that I am visiting the president of a major corporation and during our conversation I began to criticize his executive secretary. He might listen for a few minutes, but eventually he would probably say something like, “Who do you think you are?!”
Paul is saying: “Back off. Cut others some slack. They are serving Christ; and He can take care of them.” We must always recognize that the Lord can take care of changing others where they need changing. He cares about the maturity of His kids more than we do. Moreover, God is able to keep the strong believer from falling into sin while participating in an amoral activity. God’s grace provides both the possibility and the power for standing favorably at the judgment seat of Christ.
In 14:5-6 Paul brings up another illustration: days. He writes: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” The Christians in Rome disagreed on the significance of days (e.g., Sabbath, holy days). Today Christians disagree on whether or not churches have the freedom to add Saturday night services (or for that matter, Friday night or Monday night services).
There is also disagreement as to whether or not it is permissible to celebrate Halloween and Easter because of their pagan backgrounds. There is also a question as to whether or not a believer can work on Sundays. In these issues pertaining to worship, we are to develop personal convictions before the Lord. God no longer regulates the issue of what day we worship. Regular worship is an issue (Hebrews 10:25), but the day of worship is not.
The principle that is found in 14:5 is critical: We must determine what we believe to be appropriate even with the non-essentials. However, we must recognize that our responsibility is to do this for ourselves not our brother. “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” This means that every believer has the freedom in areas of non-essentials to make up his or her own mind. Of course, this should not be done haphazardly, but with great care. The word that is translated “fully convinced” (plerophoreo) means “to accomplish, carry out fully.” This requires careful personal study and corporate discussion. But in the end, know for sure that at the judgment seat of Christ, there’s one thing our Lord will never ask you: “What did your pastor or teacher believe?” We must all come to our own convictions and opinions of what Scripture is teaching from our own study of the text.
The beautiful thing about 14:6 is: “Two believers can disagree and both be right (that is accepted by God). Given that we disagree, it is not necessary that you be wrong in order that I should be right.” The key is giving thanks to God, which is repeated twice. Whether your conscience allows you great freedom or no freedom, God’s goal is for you to be able to give thanks to Him. If you can’t give God thanks, you need to reexamine whether or not you are “fully convinced” in your own mind. If there is any doubt ask the Lord to reveal this to you. But please remember: Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.
Now having said all this, the fact of the matter is that very few of us fit neatly into the category of a strong brother or a weak brother. All of us like to think of ourselves as strong and we like to think that we have no legalism in us. I know I like to think that of myself. But the fact of the matter is that if we’re really honest with ourselves we will admit that we’re generally quite inconsistent in this area.
The one who has a conscience against going to the movies will often watch them at home. The one who has freedom to enjoy an occasional glass of wine with supper wouldn’t be caught dead with a can of beer in his hand. The one who believes that chewing tobacco is the devil’s bubble gum doesn’t hesitate filling himself with coffee, refined sugar, sodium, and all sorts of other alleged poisons. The one who wouldn’t think of sitting at a blackjack table in Las Vegas will, nevertheless, gamble on a football pool at the office, or go to a bingo parlor, or even gamble on speculative stocks. If we will recognize and admit these inconsistencies it will probably be a lot easier for us to accept our brothers and sisters in Christ when their lifestyles don’t happen to coincide with ours.
When I am thinking through various issues and trying to determine if a doctrine, philosophy, or practice is an essential or non-essential matter I like to ask myself these three questions:
(1) Would I be willing to lose lunch over this issue?
(2) Would I be willing to lose my house over this issue?
(3) Would I be willing to lose my life over this issue?
With regards to the latter, I would only lose my life for an essential doctrine (e.g., the Bible is the God’s Word, Christ is the Son of God, salvation is by faith alone). Surprisingly, there are very few things I would lose my house or even a lunch over. Hence, I need to major on the major, not the minors. I need to be slow to judge others; be quick to judge myself.
In 14:7-9 Paul provides the theological rationale for why we should submit our convictions to the Lord. In doing so Paul pens one of the strongest passages on the lordship of Christ. He writes: “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Please note that the word “Lord” (kurios) occurs seven times in 14:6-9. All that we do, we are to do “for the Lord.” No Christian, however, is an island. Our actions affect others. Therefore, we must limit our personal freedom in love (cf. 14:13-23). But why is there such an emphasis on life and death, living and dying? Because this makes Paul’s teaching all-encompassing. Life and death circumscribe the whole of life—nothing lies outside these boundaries.
Paul meant that we should not live to please ourselves alone but we should live to please the Lord. This desire to please the Lord will continue beyond the grave, so Paul could also say that we do not die for ourselves. Our whole existence this side of the grave and the other, in life and in death, should express our commitment to please the Lord.
[Paul now issues a third and final key to Christian harmony . . .]
3. Remember That Judgment Belongs To God (14:10-12)
Instead of being concerned with the neutral decisions of other Christians, you need to prepare for how God will judge you. As you read 14:10-12, pay careful attention to Paul’s use of pronouns, particularly “you” (four times). Paul writes, “But you [weaker brother], why do you judge your brother? Or you [stronger brother] again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written [Isaiah 45:23], ‘AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.’ So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” In 14:10 both the weaker brother and the stronger brother are guilty of the same offense, namely, judging prematurely and unwarrantedly.
This leads Paul to explain that every believer will stand before “the judgment seat of God.” The Greek word for “judgment seat” is bema, meaning the place where the judges stood at the athletic games. If during the games they saw an athlete break the rules, they immediately disqualified him. At the end of the contests the judges gave out the rewards. Here, Paul suggests that criticizing other believers will be called into account at the bema. So don’t judge your brother or sister because God is going to do it. Be careful how you think about your brother because God is going to judge you too. When you stand before the Lord, He won’t quiz you about what Mr. Jones did or how Mrs. Smith lived. You’ll answer for yourself and for no one else. I don’t know about you, but I have more than enough to answer for myself! I should be more concerned about me than anyone else.
God will judge your friends, why should you get involved? He knows them better than you do, He loves them more than you do, and He reads the thoughts and intents of the heart, which you can’t read at all. Furthermore, if we all spent more time worrying about ourselves, we’d have very little time left to worry about other people. Be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.
If you have multiple children you know that kids don’t always get along. In our home we have two “big brothers” and one “mother hen.” My three children are all guilty of telling me when one of their siblings sins or commits an inadvertent transgression. Of course, they want their brother or sister to be judged. I inevitably ask the question: “Do you know who I am? My title is ‘Dad.’ I am the one who judges and brings discipline, not you. Your brother or sister does not answer to you; they answer to me. You are the house servant (cf. 14:4)—the child. Let me do my job.” Likewise, God says: “I am God; you’re not. Let Me judge My children. They answer to Me, not you. Give Me my job back!” Make a commitment today to be slow to judge others; be quick to judge yourself.