Have you ever known a church not to have problems? There is no such thing as a perfect church; where people gather together in community there is going to be friction, disagreement and hurt feelings. Maybe just as important as the question “What should we all believe and do?” is the inevitable next question, “How do we best handle those times when we do not all believe and do the same thing?”
Review: The church in Rome (or, more likely, the collection of small house churches that fellowshipped with each other) was a divided community. Much of the issue was ethnicity. The Jewish Christians in Rome thought the culture and leadership of the church should be more Jewish. The Gentile Christians had drifted away from Jewish religious customs and had assumed the leadership of the church. From chapter 2, we know they were arguing over circumcision. Now in this chapter we see they are arguing over diet and holy days. The main issues were whether to eat meat (14:2, 21), drink wine (14:21), and whether to view certain days like the Sabbath as holier than other days (14:5-6). The issue with meat might have been about whether to eat non-kosher food, in which case the Jewish Christians would have been the “weaker brother,” or it might have concerned whether is was appropriate for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and in this case the Gentile Christian more likely would have had the greater scruples. Regardless, the disagreement in this church had reached the degree of judgment, condemnation, and exclusion (14:3).
What does Paul teach us (and the Romans) about how best to handle disagreements between Christians?
- Make people who are not like you feel comfortable by choosing to avoid arguments (14:1)
- Know that we don’t all have to agree on some matters and we shouldn’t make others feel unacceptable to God (14:3)
- Don’t make barriers where God has not (14:3)
- Hold on to the belief that God is capable of strengthening the faith of people who do not believe and act like you (14:4)
- Know that the genuine desire to honor God, not the action itself, makes what a person restricts himself from or participates in noble and worshipful (14:6)
- Remember that we are not living for ourselves and our own desires (14:7-8)
- Abstain from passing eternal judgments on others because that is God’s job, not ours (14:10-13)
- Be willing to sacrifice personal freedom in consideration of other’s conscience (14:14-15)
- Remember that the Kingdom of God is more so focused on internal virtues than external behaviors so abstinence or participation in the latter is less important than how we treat others (14:16-17)
- Strive to build each other up, not hurt the other (14:19-20)
- Know it is more loving to give up freedom out of deference for the other than to express your own religious freedom (14:21)
- Listen carefully to your conscience for guidance on how to act personally (14:22-23)
I have given a bit of thought to this topic ever since college and I always come back to the same conclusion. It seems that the scruples of the “weaker brother” usually needs to be decisive in a disagreement. The stronger sister can abstain or forego an action; the weaker brother cannot do something in good conscience he deems to be wrong.