A.M. was an elder in a Presbyterian church in NSW. But A. didn’t like the direction the younger generation was taking the church. Especially when it came to MODERN MUSIC.
And when lots of people at his church decided to modernize things – to update the music – A. spat the dummy. He resigned from the eldership, took the whole M. family with him as well, and left. Because they don’t like modern music. And they can’t fellowship with people who do.
But the funny part of this true story is that the year was 1881 and the modern instrument, the center of all the fuss, was a pedal driven pump organ. And A.M. wanted no part of it.
Similar thing happened to me a number of years ago in ANOTHER Presbyterian church. I’d been asked to play guitar in church by the minister. It was the first time that had happened. But when I started, one of the elders got up, together with his wife, and walked out.
I didn’t think my playing was THAT bad!
Another church I know of has had such huge, on-going fights about whether to have a cry-room put into the back of the church, that the minister has had to take stress leave.
Other churches have almost come to blows over stained glass windows. Or whether the choir should sing every week. Or whether you can have hot drinks in the church building, rather than the hall.
Incredible stories/ about how INSIGNIFICANT things can result in disagreements that almost destroy churches. Things so trivial the Bible doesn’t even bother MENTIONING them. And yet they can tear churches apart.
Here in v1 of ch14 of Romans they’re called DISPUTABLE MATTERS. And Paul goes on to give some instructions for how to DEAL with them. How to make sure these little differences of opinion don’t destroy the unity churches have.
Because disputable MATTERS don’t have to lead to DISPUTES.
Don’t misunderstand me. There’s stuff we can NEVER be flexible about. Absolutely foundational stuff /about how you’re saved. About the authority of the Bible, about who Jesus is, and about justification and forgiveness. That’s always INDISPUTABLE.
But there’s a whole lot of stuff AROUND THE FRINGES the Bible doesn’t really discuss. And that Christians have every sort of opinion about. And these issues can lead to disagreements and disunity.
Rather than a body that works together, and builds itself up. Different parts all working for the common good, each one different, but with a common goal. Rather than that, church becomes like a bunch of alley cats in a hessian sack. Fighting and scratching and kicking. Harming each other, and completely oblivious to anything going on outside the sack.
And that’s not God’s plan for his church. So here’s his advice for dealing with disagreements about disputable matters.
The big picture (15:7-13)
The BIG picture, as we’ve seen all the way through Romans, is about how, now that Jesus has come along, the NON-Jews can fit into God’s people, the JEWS. They’re BOTH God’s people because they trust Jesus. But they’re SO DIFFERENT. And it causes some friction. And THIS issue is just a small PART of that.
You can see God’s big picture at the END of this section. Over in Ch 15 v7. Here’s the big idea.
7 ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of THE JEWS on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs 9 so that THE GENTILES may glorify God for his mercy,
Two people joined into one NEW people. Accepting one another. Accepting differences in outlook and opinion. And working together in unity. That’s the BIG PICTURE.
The fine details (14:1-15:6)
And we see the FINE DETAILS of that/ when it comes to DISPUTABLE MATTERS back in Ch 14.
Accepting not condemning
First piece of advice, when it comes to disputable matters: It’s about ACCEPTING, not CONDEMNING. V1
14:1 ACCEPT him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on DISPUTABLE MATTERS.
And then we get an example of the sort of issue that’s disputable.
2 One man’s faith allows him to EAT EVERYTHING, but another man, whose faith is weak, EATS ONLY VEGETABLES.
Paul might be thinking about JEWISH food restrictions here. About how some foods were clean, and others UN-clean – like pigs or prawns or any meat with blood still in it. But he only mentions VEGETABLES. Which suggests the problem’s a bit BROADER.
Most of the meat for sale in cities like Rome or Corinth or Ephesus came from the pagan temples. People would bring their sacrifices to pagan gods, and then it would be taken and SOLD in the marketplace.
And so, for the Christian, when he went to the butcher, there was the problem of whether the meat had been offered to a pagan god. For SOME Christians it made no difference. “Meat’s meat. It’s not suddenly BAD for you, just because someone’s lifted it up before a statue. It won’t HARM your body or your spirit.” Paul says just that down in v14 “I’m fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.” Or in v20 – “All food is clean.”
But OTHER Christians saw it differently. For THEM, it was as if, by EATING, they were ENCOURAGING the sacrifices. Perhaps even PARTICIPATING in them. In worshipping other gods. Perhaps that’s what they USED to do. And it’s not helpful in moving on. And so, just to be safe, they only ate veges.
ANOTHER issue was sacred days, there in v5. It might be the Jewish SABBATH in view, or else the other Jewish festival days. And SOME people, probably the Jews, would still celebrate them as special. It’s what they’d always done. But OTHERS, who WEREN’T Jewish, treated them like any OTHER day.
And Paul wants to say, down in v5, each to his own. Whether it’s food or holy days. It doesn’t matter WHICH you do. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
But here’s what counts, v6. Make sure you do it for the right reason. Which is TO HONOUR GOD. V6.
6 He who regards one day as special, does so TO THE LORD. He who eats meat, eats TO THE LORD, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so TO THE LORD and gives thanks to God.
To do something TO THE LORD, I take it, means that you do it to honour him. Do it giving THANKS to him. You make a special deal about the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, because it helps you praise God for his faithfulness. And you praise him for his goodness.
Or you steer clear of the meat market because you want to be a good example to your non-Christian neighbour. Or because you want to separate yourself from the sinful stuff that goes on around the temple.
Or perhaps you EAT meat and give thanks to God for it. Or perhaps it’s wine, or coffee you enjoy. Or marriage, or bushwalking or astronomy or swimming for that matter. Do it all TO THE LORD. Giving him thanks for it. Because God’s given us EVERYTHING good. And we can ENJOY them even more, when we acknowledge God’s the One who’s provided them.
But whether you DO, or DON’T. What you’re NOT to do is use it as an opportunity to COMPARE yourself with your brother. To judge him. To measure yourself favourably against him. Think yourself more worthy of God’s favour than him. Look there in v3.
3 The man who eats EVERYTHING must NOT LOOK DOWN on him who does NOT, and the man who does NOT eat everything must not CONDEMN the man who DOES, for God has accepted him.
Don’t judge/ because GOD doesn’t. They’re important words at the end of the verse. God has accepted him. It doesn’t matter to GOD whether someone eats or doesn’t eat. Because he looks at THE HEART. He looks at who the person TRUSTS. If the person trusts Jesus’ work then God accepts him. And whatever work THEY do is neither here nor there.
So if GOD doesn’t mind, then neither should WE.
Again in v4.
4 Who are you to JUDGE someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.
Or down in v10
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.
And again in v13.
13 Therefore let us STOP PASSING JUDGMENT on one another.
Don’t think you’re more holy because you keep a certain rule, and someone else doesn’t. And don’t think you’re more mature in your freedom just because you AREN’T bound by certain behaviour.
Standing not stumbling
(First piece of advice about disputable matters – accept one another, don’t judge.) Second piece of advice is there from v13. The goal is STANDING NOT STUMBLING.
Not only are we not to pass judgment on one another, but there’s a practical, concrete aspect to that as well. It’s more than just ATTITUDES. It’s ACTIONS TOO. V13.
(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.
So what’s a STUMBLING BLOCK? How can you cause someone to stumble? Paul goes on to explain it. v14. “All foods are clean in themselves…
But if anyone REGARDS something as unclean, then for HIM it IS unclean. 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
Or down in v20.
20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 IT IS BETTER NOT TO EAT MEAT OR DRINK WINE OR TO DO ANYTHING ELSE THAT WILL CAUSE YOUR BROTHER TO FALL.
What he’s saying is that YOU might be able to eat meat or drink alcohol, and give thanks to God for it, but someone else might only be able to think about the false idols it was offered to. Or think about his father’s alcoholism. And that leads him AWAY from God, rather than TO him. Leads him to see it as BAD, rather than giving THANKS for it. And that makes it wrong for HIM to eat or drink, even if it’s not for YOU.
And Paul’s point is that if he sees YOU eating or drinking, he might be encouraged to do something he thinks is wrong. And when he eats, he STUMBLES. Because he’s not doing it to the Lord.
That’s putting a stumbling block in front of him. And Paul says, Don’t Do it.
What it might look like in practice is not eating or drinking when you’re with your brother. But then, at ANOTHER time, eating or drinking TO THE LORD.
It’s why we normally don’t serve alcohol at church functions. Even though a number of us do enjoy a drink. We don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of someone.
Is that being HYPOCRITICAL? No, it’s being CONSIDERATE. It’s not saying I NEVER drink, or NEVER eat meat.” And then DOING it when no one’s watching. That would be hypocritical.
It’s saying “I’m choosing NOT to in this situation. I’m forgoing my freedom for the sake of my brother.” Paul says down in v22
22 So whatever you believe about these things KEEP BETWEEN YOURSELF AND GOD.
Don’t make your opinion obvious. Then it becomes ALL ABOUT YOU, when our interactions with each other should always be about the OTHER PERSON. Focus on THEIR needs, not YOURS.
It’s not a question of MORALITY. He’s not doing the WRONG thing. So don’t make him DOUBT, or take his eyes of God. That’s STUMBLING.
That might happen if you make a big deal about how GOOD something is.
What else might this apply to? Other examples might be things like yoga, or acupuncture, or meditation, or Asian martial arts. All of those have SPIRITUAL dimensions to them. And SOME Christians might feel uncomfortable about being involved with them. But OTHERS are quite happy to SEPARATE the GOOD bits from the spiritual bits. And enjoy them TO THE LORD.
But the considerate thing is not to influence someone to be involved in those things if it causes them to STUMBLE.
The opposite of stumbling is to STAND. And that’s what God wants EVERY Christian to do. To stand before him blameless, and upright. And our job as fellow Christians is to help each of us to STAND before God like THAT.
You can see that language back in v4.
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.
That’s God’s goal for his people. That they REMAIN STANDING. That they make it to the finish line, without stumbling.
And our job is to LOOK OUT for each other. Like in v19.
19 Let us therefore MAKE EVERY EFFORT to do what leads to peace and to MUTUAL EDIFICATION.
Mutual edification is what the BODY, the church, is all about. Each part doing its bit to build up the whole body.
How GOOD are you at making an effort to look out for other people? Is it all about how OTHERS are feeling in a situation? Or is about you pleasing yourself?
It’s an attitude, an orientation, that’s reflected in your prayer life. What sort of things do you PRAY about? How often are your prayers for OTHERS, rather than filling them up with all of YOUR needs?
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Please others not yourself
Which leads us to Paul’s THIRD piece of advice. It’s about pleasing OTHERS, not YOURSELF. There into ch15.
15:1 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and NOT TO PLEASE OURSELVES. 2 Each of us should PLEASE HIS NEIGHBOR FOR HIS GOOD, TO BUILD HIM UP.
It’s nothing more than following Christ’s example.
3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”
If you’re following Christ, then you have to be looking out for the needs of OTHERS, rather than yourself. Look to the needs of your family instead of you. Of children instead of you. Of church visitors, instead of you. Of the different, or the smelly, or the old, or the difficult, or the draining, or the pains. Look to THEIR needs, instead of yours.
In some ways, the EXACT type of disputable matter isn’t really important. The crucial aspect is whether we’re looking out for the interests of others. We can really apply it in ALL sorts of ways.
Here’s a quote from a book called “Great Church Fights”. Which is really a contradiction. Because ANY church fight is NOT great. But here’s what Leslie Flynn said about Christianity in the 1970s:
Wide disagreements exist today in our churches over certain practices. A Christian from the American South may be repelled by a swimming party for both men and women, then offend his Northern brother by lighting up a cigarette. At an international convention for missionaries, a woman from the Orient could not wear sandals with a clear conscience. A Christian from western Canada thought it worldly for a Christian acquaintance to wear a wedding ring, and a woman from Europe thought it almost immoral for a wife not to wear a ring that signaled her status. A man from Denmark was pained to even watch British Bible school students play football, while the British students shrank from his pipe smoking.
For us the issues might be different.
What sort of clothes should you wear to church? It used to be your Sunday best. Do you go to the theatre or the movies? Is dancing ok for a Christian? Is it ok to drink alcohol? Or not? What sort of music should you have in church?
Or here’s a hot potato. How should you school your children? State schools? Christian schools? Home Schools?
And then there are those of us who are shaking our heads knowingly and saying, we know better than all that. And we smirk behind our hands at people who are so narrow.
But the point in it all/ is whether we’re BEARING with one another. Whether we’re ACCEPTING one another, or JUDGING them. And whether we working hard to please OTHERS, to build them up, for their good, rather than pleasing ourselves.
Church is a TEAM SPORT. It’s the good of the TEAM that matters, not the individual. Work to make the TEAM successful.
I never used to think of road cycling as a team sport. Until I watched the men’s road race at the Commonwealth Games. Cameron Meyer was part of the Australian team. He rode hard for the first half of the race, chasing down the breaks, leading the pack, dragging his team mates along with him. He rode SO hard, he had to pull out after 80 km.
But he left the rest of the team, relatively fresh, in a good position. Including Chris Sutton and Alan Davis, who both found themselves in the leading group of four with a few km’s to go. Chris Sutton was second, chasing the break away leader. Alan Davis was right behind him. Sutton gave it everything, but couldn’t quite catch the leader. But he’s put Davis into such a good position that he was able to swing past Sutton, past the leader, and cross the line in first place.
And as Davis crossed the line in FIRST place, you could see Sutton lift his arms in victory, as he crossed the line only a few seconds later. In FOURTH place. Not even receiving a medal, but putting himself LAST, so ANOTHER could be first.
And that’s what WE’RE called to do. Put aside recognition, or comfort, or interests, or preferences. Look to the interests of OTHERS. So they might not STUMBLE, but might be BUILT UP to maturity.
Let me finish with how PAUL finishes this section. By praying the prayer that’s there in ch 15 v5
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.