First Reading: Romans 14:1-6
If you were to visit any church in your area, or in the surrounding towns you would discover some amazing similarities. Regardless of the brand name, most every one of them will have a building that’s similar to yours in seating arrangement and structure. Oh, some will be larger or smaller, some will have a center aisle or two or three aisles off centered, or maybe theatre seating or portable seats rather than pews, but you’d recognize the general structure as “church building.” Most would have similar structure to their worship assemblies depending on whether they were of a liturgical tradition or more of an informal tradition. Some would observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, others quarterly or monthly. Regardless they would still observe it in a fashion very similar to the way you do it. I'm willing to bet in most all of the assemblies the main event is the preaching (not all, but most all). If you listened to the things they fussed about, you might be surprised to hear some of the same issues you fuss about with just a little different face put on them.
So, if a non-Christian were to walk into your assembly, would they notice any difference? Probably not. Even though I belong to an a cappella church—I’ve had many people visit who, afterwards, didn’t even realize there were no instruments. They’d give me a blank look and then say, “You know, I wondered what was different! I just couldn’t put my finger on it!”
And I wonder—what is the difference? In fact, what is the difference between your church and any group: social or religious? What should mark us out to those who know nothing of Christianity?
Jesus said there is one thing that would make his followers stand out from any one else. In John 13:34, 35 he said, Love one another, as I have loved you so you should love one another. By this all men will know you are my followers if you have love for one another. This is the distinctive mark that sets apart all followers of Jesus from everyone else—the love by which we treat each other. (If you wish to argue, please take it up with Jesus--he said it, I didn't). Paul said it this way in Romans chapters 14 and 15: Accept one another. In Romans 14:1, he says Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters.
We’ve been going through the book of Romans where we’ve noticed allusions to problems between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians and now we’ve come to perhaps one of the main problems. The Jewish Christians are vegetarians. Why is that? Because in Rome there was no sure way to ascertain the meat bought in the market was 1) not offered to idols and/or 2) slaughtered according to kosher law. So the Jewish Christians, to avoid accidentally breaking the law of Moses, chose not to eat meat. Those Christians of a more mature faith understood all creation to be blessed by God and all foods were clean. And so we have a real problem—I would imagine especially during the first century version of the pot-luck meal! So what to do?
Paul says: Accept each other without passing judgment. But there are real differences. Jewish Christians believe it is a sin! They are wrong—but they think it is a sin and they condemn the Gentile Christians. Paul says, “Stop it. Accept one another.” But why? Why should we Jewish Christians accept what we believe is sinful behavior? Why should we Gentile Christians accept these silly people who want to suppress our freedom in Christ? In verses 1-6 Paul tells us first, because each group is doing their best to honor God through these matters of conscience.
This is important because sometimes I think people don’t believe this. We try to assign ulterior and sinful motives to people. We refuse to give each other the benefit of the doubt. “You just want to water down God’s requirements so you don’t have to do thus-and-so!” Or, “You’re just a legalist trying to get your ticket punched and earn your way to heaven!” Is it possible all of us are trying to honor God sincerely? Paul says, not only is that possible, but that’s exactly what is going on! Gentile Christians, are not to judge Jewish Christians because they still follow kosher dietary rules or observe the Sabbath and Passover. They are honoring God. Jewish Christians, are not to condemn the Gentile Christians because they don’t agree with them!
Secondly, Paul says we accept one another because God accepts us. That’s what he says in verse three. God accepted the Jewish Christians even though they didn’t realize the freedom they had—and he accepted the Gentile Christians who celebrated the freedom they had in Christ.
But Paul continues with more reasons in Romans 14:7-12.
Second Reading: Romans 14:7-12
In the text above, Paul gives us another basic reason why we are to accept each other: Jesus died and was resurrected to be Lord, Master of us all. Jesus didn’t die and raise to make us petty tyrants over each other. We are not each other’s master, Jesus is.
It is not our place to look down on each other and to judge each other’s motives or condemn each other when we are trying to live according to our consciences. In the first century it would have been considered bad manners to correct someone else’s slave. It was even bad manners to go to someone and tattle on his slave or servant. That would be perceived as meddling in affairs that were not yours. Paul makes the same argument. We are accountable to God. We do not pass judgments on disputable matters because God is the judge and Jesus is Lord. I am not.
Third Reading: Romans 14:13-23
Paul has been setting the Roman Christians up for this section in chapters 12 and 13. In Romans 12:9-11 and 13:8 Paul tells the Roman Christians they are to love each other, sincerely from the heart. They—and by extension, we—are indebted to God and to each other. We owe it to each other to love one another. We are to accept one another because we owe the debt of love.
In verses 13-23 Paul warns his readers about not acting with love. He comes back to the two actions which do not demonstrate love: verse 13 - Passing judgment on each other or condemning each other and in verses 15 and 16 – distressing your brother by leading him to blaspheme God because of your freedom.
Notice Paul does not speak hesitantly or vaguely about what he believes in the matter. He is quite blunt in pointing out who believes the wrong thing. Some suggest people shouldn’t talk about scriptural issues which make people uncomfortable—but Paul doesn’t shy away from this: he wants people to know truth and to grow. He doesn’t avoid controversial issues. It isn't ethical for a Doctor to withhold vital information from a patient--even difficult information. I don’t think we can in good conscience skip over truth because someone may not appreciate it or like it.
But, Paul says, all the same we must love each other and treat each other with deference, even if we perceive them to be wrong. So, Paul, how do we act out of love? Quit condemning and judging. If a person will end up blaspheming God because of your freedom, thereby losing their soul—then give up your freedom. The NIV says in verse 16: “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” But that doesn’t really make much sense contextually. The word is not evil but literally, it is the word blaspheme. The Message translation captures the idea more accurately: “Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!”
These Jewish Christians were in danger of chucking the whole Christianity thing. If this Christianity is about throwing our God-given heritage in the trash then I'm out of here! Forget it! I’ll go back to Judaism! If your freedom leads to someone else denouncing their faith in Christ, give up your freedom. Finally, Paul tells them to bend over backwards and defer to each other in order to create peace and to build each other up. That is the least we can do for people we really love.
Fourth Reading: Romans 15:1-7
Why should we bend over backwards for each other? Paul gives us two more reasons.
First, we bend over backwards, defer to each other, and accept one another because Jesus himself did the same thing. By coming to our world, living among us and dying he gave up his rights to make us family. How can we insult our Savior’s memory by refusing to love each other? How can we look Jesus in the face on judgment day and say: “I wasn’t willing to accept my brother with his differences even though you died to make him my brother?” or “I didn’t want to accept her even though you died to make her acceptable. She may be acceptable to you, but not to me?” Am I more holy or am I a better judge than Jesus, himself? Jesus died to make us family. Would we destroy his work?
Secondly, we accept one another because our unity brings glory to God. This is what Paul says in verses six and seven: his goal is that we with one mind and one voice glorify the Father and the Lord Jesus. He says in verse seven: Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. If there were no other reason, this would be enough, wouldn’t it? It makes God happy when we accept each other.
So where do we go from here? How do we go about this business of accepting one another as Paul urges the Romans and us to do?
I am not wise and I'm not the sharpest tool in the box. Maybe you can help me, maybe you have better ideas. But maybe we might get some ideas by looking at three scenarios that could conceivably happen in a church. I submit them to you to think about and contemplate.
Scenario one: Among Churches of Christ there are some groups who believe using more than one cup to serve the Lord’s Supper is evil and unbiblical (I know this sounds strange to some). They believe to use trays and multiple cups are against God’s will. If you pass a tray with multiple cups you have actually prevented them from exercising their conscience. If they take that little cup—then they will feel they have sinned against God personally. Let me ask you, are you willing to give up your freedom if such a family placed membership in your congregation? Durnig the winter there are a lot of people out with the flu—and to some of you, the flu could be lethal. Would you be willing to risk the flu to keep unity: to keep them from sinning against their conscience? If I am not willing to give up my freedom in this instance, how can I be justified in asking someone else to give up his or her freedom over something I don’t like?
Scenario two: Again, among Churches of Christ there are those who believe attending separate Bible classes before or after the Sunday assembly as sinful. They think it is not authorized in the scripture and therefore it is prohibited. They believe it is sinful. What if several of these Christians placed membership in your congregation? How would you attempt to be reconciled with them so as not to make them sin against their conscience? Would you suggest that if they feel attending such a class is sinful, then they should not feel obligated to attend such a class? Is it possible that is something that reflects the spirit of Romans 14?
Scenario three: A different situation and perhaps more difficult. You’ve really gone out and tried to bring people to Christ. In so doing, perhaps you converted a devout Muslim family, or Jewish family, or Hindu family. Each of those groups has strict dietary laws. They want to fellowship with your church and become integrated as family members. But what about pot luck meals? Their consciences cannot accept the eating of meat or of pork or catfish! What do you do? How do you deal with the situation? What creative ways can you find to defer to each other: to love each other?
I am not giving you solutions. I am only asking you to consider and to think through them very seriously. I am asking us to be honest with ourselves as we consider these scenarios, too.
What is the difference between your church and other groups? If a non-Christian were to come to your assembly what is the one thing that should stand out above anything else? I won’t argue with Jesus: he says the mark of distinction is the love we have for one another. Paul seems to concur when he says we do everything we can to accept one another—to give in, to defer, and to bend over backwards in order to build each other up.
I think the best way to end this is with the blessing Paul himself gives in Romans 15:7:
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.