I began with the last post on this subject considering Christian unity. Specifically, addressing how we get along with each other when our personal convictions may disagree. The convictions people hold are often the source for disunity between believers. In order to help shape our thinking about our unity as God’s people, in spite of the personal convictions we may hold dear to our hearts, I have turned to Paul’s words in Romans 14:1-15:13.
In that passage, Paul identifies two groups within the membership of the Body of Christ: The strong in faith and the weak in faith.
It’s important to remember that the idea of faith here is not salvation. Rather, it is whether a person is persuaded as to the truth regarding a conviction. Additionally, doctrinal purity is not at stake. They are convictions developed from personal opinion, not biblical orthodoxy. We are not talking about disagreements over how to understand the divinity of Christ or the nature of God’s attributes, for instance.
The disagreement between the weak and the strong are divided along the lines of eating specific foods and the observance of particular days deemed holy. Paul, more than likely, has gentile and Jewish believers in mind when he writes his corrective. The gentiles are the strong in faith. They have liberty to eat non-kosher foods, like BBQ pork ribs. They also believe it is unnecessary to observe the many holy days associated with Judaism. The Jews, however, still have personal hang-ups about eating any food that isn’t kosher and they believe it is important to observe those holy days.
Their disagreement resulted in profound disunity between the two groups. The weaker in faith insist the strong are “just too worldly,” and the stronger hold the weaker in contempt as being legalistic. The principles Paul outlines in Romans 14 and 15 are meant to unify. They are equally compelling for us today who disagree, yet along differing convictions.
On the one hand, they are correct in understanding that the food regulations have been abolished (Acts 10:9-16, 11:4-17). They also know that abstaining from eating foods really has no value in helping a Christian’s spiritual heart (Col. 2:20-23). Furthermore, they understand that the holy days are mere shadows that have been fulfilled in Christ (Col 2:17). On the other hand, in spite of that knowledge, they are at greater risk with abusing their liberty.
Liberty produces greater responsibility. Just like that teenager who earns his driver’s license and is now free to drive his parents’ SUV, he is now even more responsible for that ability. Any misuse of that freedom can endanger many lives. So it is with spiritual liberty. The strong have great freedom in Christ, but greater responsibility in utilizing that freedom for Christ’s sake.
I believe Paul outlines six principles the strong can use to serve the weaker brother.
1) Maintain a clear path (vs 13)
The liberty of the strong in faith should not be a stumbling block for the weak in faith. A stumbling block would be any obstacle that would cause a person to trip. Metaphorically, tripping into a spiritual downfall. Paul explains that the strong may considered eating certain foods, is clean. However, those same foods may still thought of as “unclean” in the mind of the weaker brother. The stronger may consider such a conviction as “silly” and “ridiculous,” but Paul is clear that by the strong partaking in their liberty, they potentially risk causing the spiritual ruin of the weaker.
2) Walk in love (vs 15, 21)
The stronger walking in love before the weaker is simple: if your liberty grieves the weaker, then deprive yourself of your liberty for the sake of the weaker.
I saw this principle illustrated once with my children at play. We lived at that time in a little condo community, and I used to sit in our garage while my two oldest boys rode their bikes around in the driveway between our buildings. I would let them follow the sidewalks that led around to the front doors so they could have a longer path to follow. They were out of my sight for maybe 40 seconds; and if they were late, I hollered their names and they came.
Our neighbors across the way also had a boy around the age of my two oldest. He also enjoyed riding his bike with my sons. His father, however, didn’t want him following the sidewalk out of his sight, even if it is just 40 seconds. As would happen, my two boys started riding on the sidewalk, and without thinking, their friend followed. The father was upset that his son disobeyed by riding out of his sight, and thus made his son come inside. He went into his home crying and my boys were bugged their friend had to leave.
Thinking swiftly, I asked them both, “What would have been the kind thing to do?” “I don’t know,” was the reply. I said, “Well, your friend’s daddy didn’t want him riding around the building on the side walk, right? So don’t you think it would have served your friend by staying over here and not riding on the sidewalks?” “Yeah, I guess, can we have soda for dinner?”
Anyways, in many situations, the strong will serve their weaker brothers by limiting their freedom. Even if he can partake in eating pork ribs freely, don’t do it for the sake of the weaker one who thinks pork is unclean.
3) Use your strength to serve Christ (vs. 16-18)
Liberty is a riotous good thing. Yet, we must not allow our good thing to turn into a blasphemous or evil thing. What is good will be perceived as evil if not exercised with caution. An abuse of liberty can give the appearance that all that matters in the Kingdom of God is the liberty to eat and drink, rather than what is truly good, a right relationship with God and with our fellow men. Liberty is not about physical blessing, but spiritual blessing.
4) Pursue unity (vs 19, 20)
Rather than pursuing our liberty to please our self interests, we need to pursue the common good of the Body of Christ. Our liberty must build up our fellow believers and their best interests. Their best interests, on the other hand, may not have anything to do with the freedom of eating food. What serves them better is to perhaps shepherd them through their “weakness.”
Is your liberty to eat pork ribs, or in our modern world, drink beer, worth destroying the work of God in the life of a person just so you can enjoy your liberty?
5) Please others (vs. 22-15:3)
Pleasing others involves two actions we have already considered: Deny your liberty for the sake of the weak and do that which edifies others. It may be you have faith to eat, but enjoy the use of your faith before God. Don’t flaunt it before others to show off what you have in Christ.
By conducting yourself in a manner aimed to serve, it will seek to build up others. Christ is our prime example. He could have pleased himself by destroying His enemies. He certainly had the ability as God in the flesh. Instead, He took the reproach owed to us so, we could be lifted up. Our mindset toward the weak in faith should be the same.
6) Receive one another
In other words, don’t let petty bickering over personal convictions destroy the unity of the church. How absurd it is to think Christians will divide over mundane issues like a woman wearing pants, or if a pastor attends a Billy Graham crusade, or if a Christian couple uses birth control or not. Those are not the matters which should divide believers.
A Word to the Reformed Folks
The trendy, Reformy thing to do nowadays is to drink alcohol and smoke cigars. Though it may be the trendy thing to do, I don’t believe it is necessarily the wisest.
Listen, I get it that a lot of you Reformed folks more than likely came from an independent, fundamentalist background. It didn’t take long to see how your new found Reformed beliefs clashed with the traditional American Bible-belt style Christianity. Eventually, you reacted against your early spiritual upbringing by attending your first movie, or smoking a pipe, or drinking your first glass of wine without feeling the cringe of guilt that you are turning apostate.
What originally was your joy of liberty, quickly turned into a gloating opportunity against those weaker brothers and sisters. This may be hard to take, but your flamboyant display of spiritual liberty is perceived as obnoxious. That abuse of liberty does violence to the biblical teaching you came to love. Rather than seeing a passionate lover of God’s sovereignty, those who oppose you see a jerky, worldly person. Though you may be correct with your liberty, the weak in faith don’t see the situation in the same manner. They have a lot of militant fundamentalism hung up in their souls that will take patience, shepherding, and the sanctification of the Spirit to free them. Don’t hinder that work by a flagrant misuse of your liberty.