Somewhere in life some words have been said about you that you later said about someone else. Those words are: “S/he will just have to learn for herself/himself.”
The statement could have been made for a variety of reasons. Usually, the words are spoken when someone is doing something wrong and is too stubborn to receive any assistance from someone else. Many times, a third person is watching, perhaps from a bit of a distance, and after the one who is trying to help gives up, the statement is made while walking back to the person watching the ordeal.
Something similar happens within the church, but rather than the issue being a task that needs to be done, or a lesson that needs to be learned, the issue involved may be a matter of sin. Thus, we might see someone who intends to help someone else come alongside to offer guidance, but the ideas are refused. Again, sometimes people just need to learn for themselves.
But sometimes the issue is not something that needs to be done; rather is about a thought process. And, of course, our thoughts can certainly lead to sin (James 1.14-15). But, as I mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago related to the first half of Romans 14, sometimes what one group believes to be sin is really a matter of preference, and people are entitled to their preference as long as it does not lead to sin.
Paul tries to make this point very clear in Romans 14 providing a few examples and being a little repetitious on the matter. But one important principle of biblical interpretation is when the Bible repeats itself, we need to pay particularly close attention.
Before I continue with this week’s verses, let me review the first part of Romans 14. Paul was writing to two groups of people in the church at Rome. It is important to realize that both groups are followers of Christ. Paul has referenced those in the church as saints (Romans 1.7) which means “holy ones” and we can only be holy if we have received the gift of salvation through Christ.
So, both groups consisted of believers, but Paul referenced one group as being strong in faith and the other as being weak. Those who were strong were not concerned with what they ate or when they worshipped. Those who were weak would not eat meat and reserved worship for one day of the week. And what we must understand is that even though this second group had biblical evidence to support their position, Paul referred to both positions as opinions (Romans 14.1). This statement is remarkable because of Paul’s background as a Pharisee. If anyone knew the Mosaic Law it was Paul and you would think he would side with the group who was more stringent, but in Romans 15.1, he undeniably puts himself in the other group.
That is a brief recap of the message from July 18th. If you want the full details, you can watch the video on YouTube or check the church blog, both of which can be found on the Connect page of our church’s website.
So, what is the issue? People are entitled to their opinions, and even though opinions may lead to conflict at times, as Paul has already stated in Romans 14, sometimes both opinions can be tolerable, and even acceptable. So, again, what is the issue?
The issue is when our opinion causes harm to someone else. Consider my vague example at the beginning of this message. If you were watching someone perform some task knowing it wasn’t going to work, would you hurt that person to force them to do it? Sometimes that does happen (perhaps an abusive parent with a child or even a supervisor with someone on their staff). But typically, you might just let the person try with the expectation that experience will be their teacher. (Please note, I am not talking about letting someone do something to hurt themselves – at least not badly. I am talking about hurting someone else by forcing them to do something they do not wish to do.)
Now, the truth is that hurting someone can be physical. Or we could hurt someone emotionally. But Paul’s focus is on the spiritual. Paul’s argument here is that we can be right about something, but depending on what we do with our rightness and how we do it, we can end up being wrong. We see this clearly in a few key sentences, but perhaps that point is best made in Romans 14.16 which says, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”
Paul is not saying that other people may call our beliefs evil. Of course, we see this frequently. For instance, regarding the matter of abortion, someone who is pro-choice may think that the pro-life belief is evil. But that is not what Paul is saying. Paul is saying not to let them think of the idea as evil because they find you – or at least your approach – evil. And remember, Paul’s audience is the church – so the people calling you, and/or your approach, evil are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ!
So, let me briefly break this down with three imperatives spoken from the negative perspective.
Don’t Make Faith Harder Than It Is
In Romans 14.13, Paul says not to put a stumbling block or hindrance in front of others. Actually, he doesn’t say that. He says not to put a hindrance in front of a brother (or sister). In Romans 9.33, Paul quoted Isaiah 28 about a stone of stumbling. That stone is Jesus. That hindrance is about faith…it is about the acceptance of Jesus as Savior. As I stated at the time, we all have a choice to walk one of two paths. A stone stands at the gateway to one of those paths. We cannot take that path of righteousness unless, and until, that stone has been overcome, and the only way to overcome is through Jesus.
But in Romans 14, the audience is people who have overcome that stone. The issue now is living out the faith that one already has. And forcing people to restrict their diets or to only worship on a certain day of the week was one issue. But the other side was trying to force people to betray their conscience by challenging a belief to not eat meat.
Again, it is important to remember that Paul is not talking about matters of sin. Of course, we, as Christian brothers and sisters, are to help one another avoid sinful behavior. But preventing sin is not putting a hindrance in front of someone – it is removing an obstacle that is keeping them from following Jesus. So, Paul’s point here is that if someone believes something is harmful, even if it may not be, then to that person it is harmful (v. 14). And if that person believes that to be true, then what is our response to be?
Don’t Destroy Others, Build Them Up
When it comes to matters of faith, what do you pursue? Do you pursue an intimate relationship with God? Do you pursue more knowledge, understanding, and/or wisdom related to biblical matters? Do you pursue a deeper prayer life? Do you pursue a deeper relationship with others? Do you pursue being right? Be careful on that last one; it could be fine, but it could be a trap.
Romans 14.19-20 stand in contrast to one another, and both tie back to verses 17 and 18. Paul wrote that we should build up our fellow believers. But let’s face it, many times we find ourselves tearing someone else down. Perhaps it is not in person – but that may even be worse. And, to consider Paul’s focus in Romans 14, sometimes the tearing down of others relates to matters that really don’t matter.
In verse 17, Paul says that the focus should be on the kingdom of God, not on what people eat or drink, and might I add on what they wear or how they sing, or other such trivial matters. Then, in verse 18, Paul mentions serving Christ. So, here’s the question.
- If we are tearing down other people, are we serving Christ?
- What if the people we are tearing down are brothers and sisters in Christ? If we are tearing them down, does that mean we are tearing down Christ, who is head of the Body?
- So how wrong are we to tear down brothers and sisters, and in essence tearing down Christ, over things that Christ Himself does not care?
In verse 20, Paul wrote that tearing others down over such trivial matters (even if we are right), is destroying the work of God. Do we want to be a people who are destroying God’s work or expanding what God is doing? Although I have to admit that I have been guilty of the former by Paul’s explanation here, I know how I want to be known and remembered.
So, rather than putting an obstacle in the path of others, what can we do to build them up? We can exercise true liberty. Of course, as Americans, we think of liberty as freedom from coercion, oppression, or interference. And liberty certainly includes independence. All of that is true, but liberty also means choice. It is a freedom to NOT do something – particularly something that would cause harm to others.
In the context of Romans 14, Paul makes this clear when comparing verses 15 and 21. Again, certain people were eating meat and others were avoiding it. We don’t know the explicit details, but I did give a few possibilities in the video on July 19th. But what Paul makes clear here is that if people are being grieved by what you are eating, then don’t eat it. And the word “grieved” here is a much stronger word than we typically think of grief (which is strong enough as is). Being grieved in this instance means being destroyed, and some commentators show good evidence that Paul means that the person’s faith is destroyed and they will walk away from Jesus.
Think about that. Would you eat meat if you knew that someone would deny Jesus because of it? I hope not. And that was Paul’s point as it related to liberty. He wrote that it is good not to eat meat if it is hurtful to someone else. That is, to truly exercise your liberty, you can choose not to do a lot of things that might otherwise be fine, if it is for the good of a brother or sister in Christ.
Don’t Do Anything You Think is Wrong
Paul then makes a couple of statements that have caused many questions. First, he says to keep your faith between yourself and God. This idea has been wrongly interpreted a couple of ways. First, some say that our faith should not dictate our actions. We see certain government officials suggesting this. Second, some take it to mean, or even use it as an excuse, to not share our belief in Jesus. But that would contradict Jesus’ command to make disciples, so that cannot be it. I will go into a little more detail on Paul’s meaning here in Tuesday’s video this week.
The second statement deserves more consideration now. Paul says that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. This statement has been a matter of debate since at least the 4th Century. Some have taken this to mean that anything that anyone does that is not done by faith for the glory of God is a sinful act. An argument can be made for that case, but I do not believe that is Paul’s point.
I believe Paul is talking about the conscience. In Romans 2.15, Paul wrote that the conscience accuses and convicts people – even those who do not believe. But for a follower of Christ, Paul is saying to be true to our convictions. That idea fits the context here very well. If we believe we should not eat meat, then don’t. If we believe it is ok to eat meat, then fine. If we think that worship on Thursday is fine, or if we want to limit gathering for worship until Sunday, then so be it. As Paul wrote in Romans 14.6, either choice can be done in honor of the Lord.
And that is the point here, we are to honor the Lord. When we choose to act in ways that honor the Lord, then we do not sin. When we choose to act against God, we sin. And if our conscience is convicting us to eat or not eat certain things and we go against our conscience, then, as Paul wrote, we sin. In other words, on matters that are not sinful, if we violate our conscience, then, in effect, we are sinning. And thus, if we cause someone else to violate their conscience, then by causing them to sin, we are sinning ourselves.
As I prepare to close, let me first say that we certainly have opinions in the church today that cause people to criticize others and tear them down. But most of those ideas are truly just opinions. For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us how to worship specifically (although it does provide a few characteristics), so any difference people or churches have is based upon preference, or opinion. But the issue for the Romans was different. It was, at least, partially based upon the Law. God specifically said one day was to be set apart and God specifically forbade certain types of meat from being eaten. We still have those references in our Bible today. Now, I believe Jesus fulfilled the Law (He said He did), but those people were appealing directly to Scripture, and that makes their viewpoint different than ours, in many cases, and yet Paul still called it a matter of opinion.
Let me bring this to the present day. I can say one word and evoke a response from most people – masks. What is interesting is that if I said that same word two years ago, few, if any, would have cared. Thus, any thoughts we have are certainly opinion. But I have heard people say, “The Bible doesn’t say anything about masks so I am not going to wear one.” OK. But the Bible doesn’t say anything about electricity or automobiles, and yet those same people use those.
But I have read in the Bible that we are to love our neighbor. And even though the situation is different, I think we can apply the idea of whether (or not) to wear masks to Paul’s idea of whether or not to eat meat.
A few months ago, we may have thought the issue of masks was dead. Even a few weeks ago, it seemed to be. But KC and St Louis have ordinances in effect as of tomorrow, and that will likely mean that other places in Missouri will follow. But more importantly, a conversation this week revealed someone who won’t go to church because people are not wearing masks.
That hit home. And I think it is at the heart of what Paul wrote about some 2000 years ago to the church at Rome. Is it worth my convenience to keep someone from church? Or shall I practice liberty, in the full meaning of the word, to wear a mask, even though I do not need one, and would rather not wear one, so that someone else is comfortable enough to come, to worship, to learn, and to be in fellowship with others?
See, I feel that I am right, and that I have every right not to wear a mask. But being right is not the end rule for what should guide our thoughts and actions. Love is. Read that again. That principle could never be modeled better than what Jesus did for us. Jesus was perfectly right, and still laid down His rights, and gave up His life for sinful people like you and me.
It isn’t that being right is wrong so much as how we go about letting others know we are right. But just because you or I may be right, when we force compliance on someone else on matters that are not truly important, we cause them to sin, and, as Paul has written, that can destroy them.
So, What’s Next?:
Focus on the Prayer provided below.
On this matter, I cannot speak for anyone else, but when it comes to a mask, you will see me wearing one at church on Sunday mornings, at least for a while. As I have processed this passage for me this week, that is what I feel I am to do. But as I, as we, are warned in verses 1 and 4, we are not to judge, so I am not going judge others whether they do or do not. So, this week’s What’s Next for me may be very different for you.
So, what is your next step? Let me encourage you to pray about that. Of course, that is always a good step, but for this week, consider what opinion you might have about something churches, or church members, or even Christians in general are to do, and then consider if your thoughts are really just an opinion – a preference, or if it is truly a matter of sin. If the matter is truly a matter of sin, then we are to do our part to help stop it. But if it is only opinion, then ask God to help you know what to do to take the step not to be judgmental, but to allow others to express their faith as their conscience demands it to be expressed.
Prayer: “Lord, help me to know what truly matters to You. Help me to confront sin in my life and in the lives of others while allowing people to express their faith freely where the issues are only matters of opinion.”