14 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”[b]
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Christians often find themselves disagreeing over things that some believe to be acceptable to God and others do not. Unfortunately, despite the example of Jesus and the clear instructions of Romans chapter 14, these disagreements often become very heated.
There have been times when Christians have gone to war and committed atrocities with other Christians over points of doctrine – especially when these have been associated with power structures and who gets to tell everyone else what they must or must not believe.
Fortunately, It’s been a long time since this happened in our society – although sectarianism was rife even up to a generation ago. But there are still some who believe that their understanding of the will of God ought to be enforced by law on all people –a bit like Sharia Law.
In the 60 or so years that I have been a practising Christian conflicts amongst Christians have tended mostly to be related to what we usually refer to as moral issues, especially about sex and marriage.
I still remember the widespread disapproval of inter-racial and inter-faith marriages back in the 1960s. I have strong memories of the condemnation of divorcees and how victims of domestic violence were told that God required them to live with it rather than divorce.
Prior to 1975 and the Family Law Act, few active church members were divorcees and they were often barred from positions of leadership. But ten years later all that had changed and today, it’s hard to find a church that ever asks anyone about people’s marital status.
Except, that is, for same-sex relationships. We all remember the heated debate between those who believe such relationships are an abomination to God, and those who believe that faithful, loving relationships between people who are unable to relate to the opposite sex are in accordance with the principles of God-given human love.
But it’s not just questions of sex and marriage that cause conflict between Christians. I remember the strident opposition there used to be to things like dancing, wearing make-up, playing sport on Sunday, going to movies and especially drinking alcohol.
Whatever the issue may be, it seems we’ll always have Christians disagreeing over things that some believe to be acceptable to God and others do not. The question is how to do it without destroying the one thing Jesus said is the essential characteristic of his church – our love for each other.
The Letter to the Romans is generally thought of as the Apostle Paul’s great doctrinal treatise. It is a distilling of the very essence of all he believed. Like all of his letters, it starts with theological truth, then ends with practical advice on how to live it out in the real world.
And so, following several chapters of profound theological teaching – subjects that Christians have argued about and divided over - he finishes by saying: ‘Now welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do.’ A statement we often overlook.
It seems that in the Church at Rome there was a conflict between some who believed that the Old Testament laws about what you could and could not eat, and what you could or could not do on the Sabbath, were sacrosanct; and others who believed those old taboos were gone.
Things like this have always been a source of controversy and still are. Some believers are Biblical literalists and believe that every verse and statement in the Bible – Old Testament or New Testament – must be taken literally and followed to the letter.
Others describe themselves as contextualists and believe the Bible – particularly the Old Testament - has to be interpreted in its literary and historical context – which is why we no longer believe people should be stoned to death for collecting firewood on the Sabbath.
William Barclay points out that this problem is not confined to the days of Paul. In every generation of the Church there are two points of view. There is the more liberal view which sees no harm in certain things, and the stricter view that is offended by them.
However, on the matters that were dividing people in the Church at Rome, Paul makes it clear that he actually agreed with the more liberal members; Christ has set us free from the sort of over-scrupulousness that turns faith into a burden rather than a blessing.
But he also states that no-one has the right to belittle those whose consciences cause them to see things in black and white terms, and treat them with contempt – even when they express shock and horror at what they see as a disregard for the commands of God.
Many a congregation has been torn in two because, on the one hand, the more liberally minded are contemptuous of those with a more conservative mindset; and, on the other, because those who are stricter in their views are condemning of those who are not.
Oliver Cromwell, once got so exasperated with the very rigid Scottish Presbyterians of his day that he said: ‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken.’ In that he was echoing Paul who said: ‘Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do.’
‘Now welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do.’ That’s how the Apostle Paul begins his final summing up of his great doctrinal treatise which we call the Book of Romans. It is probably the most overlooked statement in the book.
It is, above all else, a call to preserve the loving unity of the church. And he follows it up by giving three pieces of very practical advice which enable us to do it.
The first is this: In relation to the dispute about whether a Christian should or should not observe the strict dietary laws of the Old Testament – which was a big issue there – he says: ‘Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.’
In other words, he was saying to those of a more liberal mindset that there are things which, though they are of little account to them, are taken very seriously by fellow believers, and no amount of debate will change that. So just accept it and keep your opinions to yourself.
The second is: ‘Blessed are those who do not condemn themselves by what they approve.’ In other words, if, having carefully and prayerfully considered a matter in the light of Jesus’ teaching and example, you are at peace within yourself, then stop worrying.
But if you are not at peace about it – and I think Paul was here speaking primarily to those believers with over-sensitive consciences – then to do something that you think is wrong is to condemn yourself – even if others see no problem in it.
That’s the third thing. Because sin, essentially, is an attitude of the heart and mind. If we think something is wrong and consciously do it, then even if it is quite innocent, the sin is that we’ve gone against our conscience – our life is inconsistent with our belief.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that at some stage we may change our mind. I remember a very godly woman – a former missionary and pillar of the church where I served as student pastor - who had very strict ideas about the way Christians should observe the Lord’s Day.
She told me how she’d been compelled to re-think her strict ideas while on their regular camping holiday on the Central Coast. Her daughter found a new friend who loved to come to their tent and listen to Dorothy read them Bible stories.
And so the two girls became inseparable, playing together and enjoying those long, glorious sunny days on the beach – except for Sundays when, as Dorothy believed, Christians ought not to be involved in such things.
She told me how one Sunday morning, that little friend arrived to invite her daughter down to the beach. She saw how dejected her daughter looked as she quietly explained to the child that going to the beach on the Lord’s Day was something that Christians did not do.
The child’s reaction was one of puzzled disbelief. ‘Well I’m glad I’m not a Christian,’ she said. ‘What’s wrong with going to the beach.’ And she trotted off leaving Dorothy’s daughter to spend the day sitting in the tent reading a book of Bible stories.
It caused Dorothy to examine her attitudes to a whole number of things in addition to what God does or does not require of us on Sundays. She came to the conclusion that many of her scruples were actually more akin to those of the Pharisees than they were to Jesus.
And that’s why the most doctrinally significant book in the whole New Testament ends by reminding us that no one gets it all right all the time, which is why we should welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way we do.’