Romans 14: Handling Disagreements between Christians

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?

  1. Make people who are not like you feel comfortable by choosing to avoid arguments (14:1)
  2. Know that we don’t all have to agree on some matters and we shouldn’t make others feel unacceptable to God (14:3)
  3. Don’t make barriers where God has not (14:3)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)
  6. Remember that we are not living for ourselves and our own desires (14:7-8)
  7. Abstain from passing eternal judgments on others because that is God’s job, not ours (14:10-13)
  8. Be willing to sacrifice personal freedom in consideration of other’s conscience (14:14-15)
  9. 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)
  10. Strive to build each other up, not hurt the other (14:19-20)
  11. Know it is more loving to give up freedom out of deference for the other than to express your own religious freedom (14:21)
  12. 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.

What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “Romans 14: Handling Disagreements between Christians

  1. Pat

    “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. ”
    I have seen this happen way too often as I have attended many different churches in my tradition around the mid-west over the past 60 some years.

    Sadly, I have to say it has caused churches to remain weak and ineffectual in their communities. I have seen this be at least part of the reason for the exodus of young people from churches. I have seen it cause splits in churches. I have seen it cause many sincere believers to leave a church to find another tradition that meets their needs, and I have seen believing women who were excellent teachers leave for other places where they could be effective.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if the elders had made every effort to teach the weaker brother. If it succeeded, then great. If it didn’t, then perhaps that weaker person needed to move on.

    Just wondering.

    But still, I don’t want to destroy anyone’s faith. It is not an easy issue to resolve.

    • There is certainly more to say on this one. You bring up excellent points.

      What are “disputable matters?” Well, that is a matter of opinion. Women’s roles, as you mention? Kinds of music in church? Baptism? We could find people who would say “yes” and “no” for each of those.

      I do believe you are right about teaching the weaker brother. In fact, that is exactly what Paul was doing in many of his letters. I don’t think we just need to sit by complacent settling for the status quo. At the same time I have seen a lot of division come precisely for the reason you mention: to meet my own needs (or desires). I am not so sure this is the most loving, sacrificial rationale for pushing a point of contention either.

      I would also like to entertain whether it is possible to fellowship/welcome/spend time with Christians who express themselves differently in worship when they are by themselves. Surely we can find common ground for those social times outside of diverse worship.

    • Do you think it is the responsibility of the “stronger brother” to move on rather than change the practices of a church that will cause “weaker brothers” to move on? Let me give you an example: if a person attends a non-instrumental church and wants to start worshiping with instruments should he assert that agenda in the non-instrumental church, alienating and driving away the weaker brother who cannot worship with an instrument in good conscience? Or should he just leave himself and join any of the hundreds of churches down the street that are already using instruments?

  2. Pat

    From your first reply:
    Yes, stronger believers can and do (and, sadly, must) find common ground with Christians who worship differently. It is very strengthening to do that, not just to socialize, but also to discuss matters of faith.

    From your second:
    My experiences have been in very small towns where there are not “hundreds of churches down the street” to leave and go to. If one wanted to stay in his tradition, it was a matter of many miles of driving, with the definite possibility that this other church would be just as restrictive.

    Some of the problems we’ve encountered:
    –cannot have a kitchen in the church building–it’s not scriptural. So, we also cannot serve coffee or tea or water before services and we cannot have fellowship dinners in a space that is adequate.
    –children cannot perform a drama or readers’ theater during worship (or in one case, even in the church building.)
    –A woman cannot teach children on Wednesday night because her nursing job prevents her from attending on Sunday. She is sole breadwinner for family.
    –Is it okay to use a translation other than KJV? Some parents won’t let kids go to the one kids’ Bible class if anything else is used.
    –Of course, use of the instrument is “unscriptural.” So, kids with musical talent cannot sing or play worship songs.

    Yes, often it is necessary for the stronger believers to move on. When one’s understanding of grace, baptism, music, women’s positions, etc., grows more in line with the teachings of Jesus, it becomes necessary to find other mature Christians with which to worship. But, like Paul, there is the longing for one’s childhood tradition to grow as well.

    It all makes me very sad. Yes, I left my tradition to find stronger believers with which to worship.

    • I really like that reminder that at the end that Paul was in this exact same spot. You are absolutely right, and I have never realized it like that. More later . . .

  3. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 8: We’ll Do It Your Way « A Kingdom Year

  4. We had good discussions about this chapter there years ago. This is a hard chapter to apply. I gravitate to verses like these: “So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.” and “Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others.” Of course, what issues are topics of conscience is disputable. That is why they are “disputable matters.” Maybe we are in the best place when we keep forefront in our mind that those we disagree with are as precious to God as we are.

  5. Eddy

    Yes. That entire last section is compelling. It’s true that sometimes we try to impose our opinions on people one day and try to please them the next.

    Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you’re out of line. If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong. (‭Romans‬ ‭14‬:‭22-23‬ MSG)

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