April 22, 2019

Romans 14 and Doubtful Things

In Romans chapter 14, the Apostle Paul addresses a conflict between certain believers at the church in Rome. Two issues were brought up, actually. The first one was about food. Specifically, some people thought that it was wrong to eat meat, and that believers should only eat vegetables. The second issue was about which holy days should be observed.

And Paul gave them the same answer for both questions:

Let each be convinced in his own mind. In other words, that issue isn’t really worth the stress it would place on one's relationship with other believers, so Paul suggests that the best resolution in cases like this is to simply live and let live.

If you want to eat only veggies, fine, do that. But if you like a good steak, feel free to chow down! Observe whichever holy days you see fit to observe - or don’t. Just be sure of two things:

1) That you are honoring God in your heart as you are doing (or not doing) these things, and…

2) Don’t try to force your opinion about these things on other people.

Now there were serious reasons why people were asking these questions, and they had to do with the culture both inside and around the new, growing church in Rome. Some of these early Christians were Jews that had come to believe that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, and the Jews of course followed quite a few traditions prescribed by Old Testament Law. But other new members of the church were Gentiles - basically anyone who wasn’t a Jew - and they naturally had other ideas about certain things. And of course, the culture outside the church was, in a word, worldly.

But Paul’s answer here does more than just settle the questions about these two topics. What we’re actually seeing is the establishment of the Biblical principle of CONSCIENCE. This is the principle which is to be followed whenever we confront what Paul referred to as doubtful disputations or doubtful things: disagreements over topics which aren’t directly addressed in scripture.

Paul essentially says that if God has given you the liberty to do this or that, then by all means, go ahead and do it! (Or abstain from it, if you prefer!) 

DISCLAIMER: It’s very important to mention that this liberty only pertains to things which are not specifically mentioned in scripture (and yes, we’re talking about Old Testament Law here). So if scripture says that action X is a sin, then it IS a sin. The New Testament (or New Covenant), based on Christ’s atoning death, is a new solution to the problem of sin. It does not change the definition of sin. We don’t get to have opinions about it. Sin, as they say, is sin.

But the Bible doesn’t specifically mention every possible action that a person could take. That was true in the book of Genesis with Adam & Eve, it was true in the first century church, and it’s true today. Of course, we now have many, many more options available to us than in times past, which makes it that much more important for US to understand this Biblical principle of conscience.

Here’s how it works: Paul mentions that if a person believes that action X is a sin, then for that person, action X IS ACTUALLY a sin! For that person, action X leads to the same internal consequences as any other sin, because if they were to participate in it, they would feel guilt, remorse, and shame. It violates their conscience in exactly the same way that any of the explicitly named sins would do.

And because of this, you have to be careful not to try to force someone to agree with you on matters like this. That’s where this whole idea of the stumbling block comes in, and it also happens to be one of the areas in which the church has failed… miserably.

Do you know why there are so many different Christian denominations? It’s because we, the members of the Body of Christ, have let disagreements divide us into factions. Whether it’s the question of full-immersion, deep-water baptism vs “sprinkling,” eternal security of the believer vs possible loss of salvation, election/predestination vs free will, or any number of other doctrinal divisions, we the people of the church have allowed the placement of thousands of stumbling blocks which prevent us from worshiping God in complete unity.

Non-believers are seeing all of this, and they are often quick to point out that we can’t even agree amongst ourselves. It’s one of the leading reasons why they think we’re all a bunch of fruitcakes and hypocrites.

Paul tells us that if our actions grieve another believer, then we are no longer walking in love. He later goes on to say: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” That sounds a whole lot like something Jesus would say. You know, that whole, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” thing.

In MY mind, I am thoroughly convinced that most of the disagreements over church doctrine need to be tossed into a large bin labeled ROMANS 14. Paul makes a number of statements in his various epistles which pinpoint the one and only irrevocable, un-do-withoutable truth of Christianity, which is that Jesus, he who is the Christ or Messiah, is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he was resurrected from the dead. This is the central fact of faith that a Christian must accept. Without this lynchpin, nothing else matters.

Now please don’t think I’m discouraging discussion and debate about difficult topics. When you come to a disagreement about the Bible or how you should live out your faith, talking through the topic is certainly helpful and healthy, so long as the purpose of the discussion is to find some common ground or mutual understanding. After all, virtually every doctrinal dispute has some kind of plausible scriptural reasoning behind it, and we always need to keep in mind the possibility that the other view just might be the right one. In any event, such a debate should NEVER become a point of contention that puts stress on your relationship with another believer, no matter what denomination they come from.

Even (no, especially) if it's one of those "out there" denominations that believes some crazy ideas about the Bible, because none of us actually has a flawless understanding of scripture.

In the great passage about love from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully…” This echoes the Old Testament idea that God’s thoughts are high above our own, and I’m pretty convinced that what Paul is saying in Romans 14 about doubtful disputations goes hand-in-hand with these other passages of scripture.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are things in the Bible which you think you understand, that you don’t understand at all. And I am FULLY aware that the same goes for me. It’s a little bit terrifying to know that in spite of all my studying and research, there will inevitably be times when I say something that is incorrect - just plain wrong - even though I’m totally convinced that I’m right. And I know that the Bible says that those who teach will be judged more strictly.

None of us understands God completely. None of us interprets everything in the Bible correctly. And most certainly, none of us are perfect at putting what we DO know to use in our everyday lives.

So the one and only thing that you or I should ever doubt about God, the Bible, and everything, is our own understanding. In the end, we just have to take what we know, do the very best we can with it, and leave the rest to Him.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding."
~Proverbs 3:5

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