Learning how to disagree graciously
This is one of those passages which, when we first read it, we think ‘what on earth is going on’, but then discover that there is so much for us.
The issue that was tearing the church in Rome apart at the time was the question of special days and food.
There were some Christians, probably from a Jewish background, who were vegetarian. This was probably not a health decision, or a decision made because of the inhumane treatment of animals. It was a decision that was made because most meat sold in the market had been slaughtered in pagan temples and dedicated to pagan Gods, and so many people felt they could not eat it.
And these Jewish-Christians also wanted to keep special Jewish days. They said Jesus is the Messiah who came to fulfil the law, so all those special days that we had as Jews – the fast days and the feast days, and the Sabbath – are still special, and we want to observe them.
And then there were other Christians, probably from a Gentile background. They argued that Jesus had declared all food clean, and that everything that exists can be enjoyed as a gift from God, provided it is used according to the word of God, and it is used with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4). And they would argue that Christ has power over all demons, and you have nothing to fear if meat has been offered to demons. So they ate meat.
And they argued that now that Jesus had risen from the dead, all days are sacred to God. All days are Christmas, when we are to celebrate his coming to earth as a baby; all days are Good Friday, when we celebrate his dying on the cross, and all days are Easter and Sunday - when we celebrate his rising from the dead. Why make one day more special than any other?
It might seem nothing to us, but for the people involved it was hot stuff!
On the one side you had the people who were saying, ‘How could someone who eats meat that has been dedicated to a demon possibly be a Christian? How can someone who so clearly disrespects the Sabbath be a true follower of Jesus the Messiah? How can I have fellowship with them?’
On the other side you had the people who were saying, ‘How can someone who is so bound up by the law be a real spirit-filled Christian? They need all that stuff to help them in their faith. They are so ‘weak in faith’. We will form the ‘strong in faith’ freedom in Christ church.
Those may not be our specific issues: but there are so many others. How should one behave on Sunday, style of worship, choice of music, use of liturgy, ways of understanding the bible? I haven't even touched on the big ones: women bishops or gay marriage.
These verses don’t answer the issues, but they do help us think through how we disagree.
So how does Paul help these believers, help us to disagree?
1. Paul challenges us to accept each other.
Paul has been speaking about love. In 13:8 he has written, ‘owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’. Love, he says, ‘does no wrong to a neighbour’.
Now he is applying it to the church.
His argument is this: since God has accepted you, and since God has accepted them - you need to accept each other.
'Accept those whose faith is weak', he says to those who are 'strong in faith'. (14.1) Accept them because 'God has accepted them' (v3).
We need to hear this.
There are often times when we can be less welcoming and more judgmental and condemning of fellow Christians of a different shade, than we are of people who are of no faith. And yet we have so much more in common with them.
And when he says ‘accept’, he is not just saying 'grudgingly acknowledge them'. He is not just saying, ‘don’t judge or criticise them’. He is not just saying, ‘let them get on with what they are doing and you do your own thing’.
It is better translated as ‘welcome’: welcome them. Delight in them. Be pleased to associate with them. Invite them into your homes and families and lives.
Recognise them as your brothers and sisters in Christ. Realise that when Jesus died and rose again, he died and rose again for you and for them (v9). Recognise that you are part of one body with them, that you need them and that they need you. Your destiny and your glory is tied up with their destiny and glory.
That has practical implications. It means that ‘the strong in faith’ need to make compromises for the weak in faith. If eating meat hurts them, then even though you are free to eat meat, don’t eat meat.
And for us: I find it very hard to think of specific illustrations without making people think that I am having a go at them! So I won’t. But what I am saying is that because we are called to accept each other, we have to be willing to compromise some of our most cherished convictions for the sake of love.
And when we do compromise, we do it with a willing heart. We still won't like what we are doing, and we may even feel that it is wrong. But what we are saying is that 'You matter more to me than my opinion on this particular subject'.
2. Paul reminds us that we are servants of God.
He writes, ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master they stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand’ (v4)
And he goes on to say that because Jesus died and rose again for us, ‘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' (v8)
That is the challenge to us.
Yes, we are called beloved children of God; yes, we are called friends of God, but we do also need to remind ourselves that we are called to be servants of God.
In one pretty stark story Jesus talks of the servant who has been working in the field all day. When he comes in, Jesus says, he still has work to do. He needs to get himself ready and serve dinner to his master. And can he expect to receive any thanks for what he has done? No, says Jesus, all he can say is that he is an unworthy servant who is doing his duty.
So when we come to argue about issues with others who profess that Jesus is Lord - to do with church practice, or church building, or style of worship, or sexuality, or politics, or the shape of ministry - we need to remind ourselves that we are first servants of God - and that we are called to treat the other, if they profess to follow Jesus as Lord, as fellow servants of God.
And we need to remind ourselves that because we are servants of God, it is not about me: about my autonomy, my rights, my aesthetic preferences, my status, my interests. So often our arguments are not about what the bible teaches or about what is best for mission or what is most pleasing to God. We claim that they are. But what they are really about is me: what I prefer, or what I want, or what is in my interests or the interests of my group.
The people who I most respect, and who carry the most authority, are those who find themselves arguing for things that are not in their natural self-interest. It might be the person arguing for the rights of a group that stands in direct opposition to them: the Christian who advocates the rights of Muslims in this country. The person who has a homosexual tendency who argues for a celibate lifestyle; the person who loves the BCP who argues for contemporary worship - or vice versa; the person with wealth arguing for higher taxes, or the person on benefits who argues for benefit cuts. The person who has a dreadful and painful terminal illness arguing against euthanasia.
I'm not saying that that makes them right - but I am saying that they have begun to realise that it is not about them. And as Christians they have begun to realise that they are first and foremost servants of God.
3. Paul reminds us that it is God who will judge
It is so easy to pass judgement on another.
“They are not Spirit-filled", "they don't have the full gospel", "they are not Word-centered", "they are liturgical", "they are catholic". Within the Anglican communion there are slurs like: "they are high church", "they are low church", "they are happy clappy”.
There is the story of the minister who said, ‘There are only two proper Christians in my church, and I’m not convinced about my wife’.
But Paul challenges us: 'Who are you to judge someone else's servant?'(v4) .. 'You then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all stand before God's judgement seat .. we will all give an account of ourselves to the Lord' (v10,12)
Of course you will have your own convictions of what is right and wrong in the Christian life, but please my dear friends be very very cautious before passing judgement on another Christian - on their standing before God, on their work for the Lord, on their obedience or disobedience. You are standing on very shaky ground. At least begin by taking your shoes off. There is, as CS Lewis said, a spiritual responsibility at times to mind your own business.
Please don't get me wrong in all of this.
I am not saying that there should not be difference of opinion or practice. Of course there will be and at times those differences will be quite significant. The differences in Rome were pretty significant. We may hold passionately to some views. I note that Paul here speaks of people being 'fully convinced' in their own mind that what they are doing they do 'for the Lord' (v5).
And of course there will be times when we need to exercise discipline within the Church. There were times when Paul seriously challenged the more legalistic Christians, especially when they began to say that a person had to be circumcised and had to keep the Sabbath and had to eat certain food. They were, he said, preaching another gospel, a gospel that was 'no gospel'.
What I am saying is that - when it comes to issues that are not directly related to who Jesus is, and to how we can be saved - we need to exercise caution, certainly when passing judgement on other believers.
As someone said, "It is tough to praise God if you are busy passing judgment on other people.”
And we need to allow welcoming love to trump some of our other convictions.
I have to say that that is one of the reasons why I am a convinced Anglican Christian. I wish to be part of a Church which takes its stand on the bible, and on the historic creeds of the church, which tries to maintain a link with the practices and worship of the church of the past, without slavishly following that past, but which also seeks to embrace and to include as many people of as many shades of Christianity within the arms of its fellowship as it can. Of course that means there are many in the communion with whom I profoundly disagree - and there will be one or two out there who may disagree with me!
But while we profess the historic creeds, and while we call Jesus 'Lord' and seek to live as servants of God - we try to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ, to worship God and build the kingdom of God.
But irrespective of what Church we are part of, if we are to take Paul's instruction to the Roman Christians seriously, then we need to think carefully about those whom we disagree with.
Of course we will disagree – and we will disagree on things that we think are pretty fundamental. But in our disagreement,
1. We need to allow welcoming love to trump our differences on what Paul describes as 'disputable matters': and for me the things that really matter is who Jesus is, and the fact that we are saved by faith in Him alone. You may disagree with that!
2. We need to remind ourselves that we are servants of God: we do what we do 'for the Lord', and we give thanks for his mercy.
3. We need to remind ourselves that it is not our duty to judge our Christian brother and sister – that is God’s business. And we remind ourselves that one day each of us will stand before God.