Romans 14:1 – 15:13
Intro – Left Foot Baptist Church / East Side and West Side Churches
I am astounded when I think about what an enormous portion of the NT is devoted to teaching people how to get along with one another. Whether it is Paul telling the Roman church to “Accept one another” in spite of their differences of opinion, or telling the two sisters at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche to “agree with each other,” or when John wrote, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Or when Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
The Bible addresses every imaginable kind of relationship – husbands and wives, parents and children, elders and congregations, believer and non-believer – and in every situation it is with a view toward restoring relationships. Even when Paul tells the Corinthian church to hand the brother over to Satan who is guilty of sleeping with his father’s wife, it is with a view toward bringing him back to the Lord, not cutting him off.
Christ said that the world would know we are his disciples “if we love each other.” That is why disunity and broken fellowship are such a disgraceful testimony to unbelievers. That is why Paul was so embarrassed that members of the church in Corinth were splitting into warring factions and taking each other to court. It’s not just that it destroys relationships, but that resulting shock waves affect the church’s ability to speak for God and represent God to the world. Any time you see a church fighting within itself, doesn’t it destroy their credibility? Unity is the litmus test for everything else a church claims.
We seem to have an innate ability and insatiable appetite for picking each other apart and dividing over things insignificant.
• The church at Rome was polarized by two issues that we have a difficult time understanding: whether one could eat meat, and whether one could celebrate holy days. They don’t sound all that important to us, but back then they were real church splitters. They had to do with issues that divided Jews and Gentiles – the eating of meat had implications in the Jewish dietary laws and meat offered to idols (it was the same issue in Corinth). The Jews would not eat meat that was not kosher or was tainted by idolatry. The issue of holy days was about Jewish Sabbath and Feast days that the Jewish Christians insisted must be observed.
• They took sides – the strict Jewish Christians thought the Gentile Christians who ate non-kosher meat and didn’t observe the Sabbath were as bad as infidels. The Gentiles thought the Jewish Christians were legalists and backward.
• They called each other names (like liberal and conservative), and they were ready to split the church over them.
• Isn’t that ridiculous? If you’re going to have a church split, do it over something important like whether you can have a church kitchen, or whether women can wear pants, or whether you should use one big cup or many little cups for communion, or whether your Bible should use “thee and thou” or “you and your,” or the color of carpet in the Fellowship Room. Those are issues you can really take a stand on and are worth splitting a church over. (At least, those are the kinds of issues the church has split over the past 100 years - just to remind us that we haven’t gotten much beyond those kinds of issues that the Roman church dealt with in the 1st century.)
• Paul’s harshest criticism and condemnation are reserved for those who would split the church and divide the body of Christ.
The odd thing about this whole discussion is that Paul doesn’t address the issues and debate which side is right and which side is wrong – though it is obvious from what he writes that there is a right and a wrong (he refers to those who are weak and those who are strong. Could one eat meat? Yes. Could one not observe the Sabbath and be a good Christian? Yes.) But regardless of who is right and wrong on these issues, Paul says, “You are ALL wrong,” if you let these issues cause division among you.
Here is Paul’s antidote for division: “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters” (14:1). Eat meat if you want, be a vegetarian if you want. Observe Passover or don’t observe Passover. But don’t condemn the person who doesn’t follow your practice.
He puts a bookend on the far end of this discussion in 15:7 – “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Everything he says in between those verses is toward that goal – that they would accept one another, despite their differences.
So, does Paul abandon doctrinal purity for the sake of harmony? Doesn’t he think what you believe matters? Of course he does – even on these issues, he says in vs. 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” In fact in vs. 14, he says there is a correct answer – “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.” But just as the meat eating brethren are saying, “I told you so!” he adds, “But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.”
Being right may be important, but being united in Christ is more important. And if you have to pick one – always land on the side of unity.
Now, don’t think that everything is up for grabs and nothing we believe is important. There are some issues that are non-negotiable – that we should take an uncompromising stand against. The Bible names a few:
• Following a different gospel than the one preached in God’s Word – that gospel being the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15 and Gal. 1);
• Denying the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15);
• Saying that Jesus was not God become flesh – that is the teaching of Christ which, if you don’t continue in, you don’t have God, and if someone doesn’t bring it, don’t welcome him into your house (2 John 9);
• A church that tolerates false teachers (1 Tim 1,4; 2 Peter; Jude)
• Teaching a salvation by works of law instead of grace (Gal 1,3)
Some things are so fundamental that there can be no negotiation. To accept them or accommodate them would be to change the nature of the church and jeopardize our salvation.
But notice that the list of non-negotiables in the Bible is significantly shorter than our list.
There are myriads of other issues one can have an opinion on – issues that range in value and importance. The problem is that some people can’t distinguish the difference between the non-negotiables and the insignificant. For some people, every issue is a matter of salvation, and every departure from their opinion is a cause for division.
Where does that kind of thinking end? When you’re sitting by yourself in your living room passing a communion tray to yourself because no one else measures up to your standard of doctrinal purity. I hope the absurdity of that strikes you as being, not just dysfunctional, but ungodly.
Paul never downplayed doctrinal purity. But he also knew there was a higher priority involved than being right – unity in the church. He said, we don’t and won’t always agree on everything, but we must not despise our brother or destroy the unity of the church for the sake of our opinion.
When we look down on our brother, or consider him less spiritual because he doesn’t see things the way we do, Paul has some pretty strong things to say:
14:4 – “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (He’s saying, “Who made you the boss? God is the master.”)
14:10 – “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
14:13 – “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”
14:15 – “If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.”
14:20 – “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.”
It was a tough sell, telling the Jewish Christians that the Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews in order to be Christians. And just as tough telling the Gentile Christians that the Jewish Christians didn’t have to abandon their Jewish heritage in order to be followers of Christ.
Their problem really was selfishness. Each of them wanted things their way. They wanted to be right. And if they didn’t get things their way, they would leave – they would sacrifice unity at their own personal altar of pride.
And pride will destroy a church, it will destroy a family, it will destroy relationships. Selfishness is the root problem in every church fight, in every family conflict, in the breakup of every relationship.
Here is Paul’s antidote to our selfish thinking – vss. 7-8 “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Paul is telling us two, very important things
• First, we are in this together.
• Second, leave judgment up to the Lord.
If we follow those two principles, then we’re not going to do anything that is going to place a stumbling block in our brother’s path…
Time out – let me define this phrase “stumbling block” or “obstacle” and what Paul means when he says, “don’t offend” your brother.
I’ve seen spiritually immature Christians literally bully a congregation with spiritual blackmail by claiming that any practice they didn’t like “offended” them, or caused them to “stumble.”
• First of all, recognize that when somebody uses that language – by Paul’s definition – they are admitting they are the spiritually immature ones.
• Secondly, yielding to their scruples or refraining from a particular practice because it offends them is a temporary measure while teaching takes place to correct their immature belief.
• Third, “offending” in Paul’s language is not a matter of hurting feelings or causing discomfort, it is allowing something to take place that causes a person to sin and fall away from the Lord.
Having said that, Paul says to the stronger, more mature Christian – even if it means yielding your scriptural right to do something – and he is echoing Christ – you will do whatever is necessary to protect a weaker brother from sin.
When you start living by the right priorities you are going to realize that most of the things we argue about and get crosswise over with each other just aren’t very important. Look at vs. 17 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Our highest priority has to be the unity of the body. We need to be willing to sacrifice an awful lot before jeopardizing and destroying that just because we want to be right and get our way.
And the goal of unity – the purpose of unity? We see it in vss. 5-6 “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
• This isn’t about us. It isn’t so that we feel good about ourselves and have a nice peaceful church. Unity is a reflection on God himself.
• When we are criticizing and condemning, and fussing and feuding, a very strange sound comes out of our mouths. It is discordant and grating. It sounds like we’re trying to say “we love God.” But what the world hears is “don’t believe a word we say.”
• But when we have a spirit of unity, Paul says it is like a choir – and the conductor comes to the front – he raises his arms – and with one heart and mouth our voices join together in beautiful harmony to glorify God.
Posted on Sun, July 15, 2012
by John Roberts