America is a diverse nation. We are made up of various ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. This diversity is certainly more prominent in some of the older cities back east. When we lived in Milwaukee there was a distinct Germantown, an Italian district, as well as Polish and an African-American section of town. We tend to feel more comfortable with people who are like us. Yet when the USA was attacked on September 11, 2001, we set aside our differences and became unified as one nation. For a time, there was an outpouring of national pride and unity.
The Church of Jesus Christ is also diverse. We see diversity in the universal church throughout the world, but it is even observable in our own congregation. We have many ages, incomes, nationalities and education levels. But in the midst of this diversity, our Lord desires unity. Jesus prayed for unity (John 17:20 -23), the Spirit works to produce unity (I Corinthians 12:4-14) and ultimately, unity will be achieved (Revelation). So, the church is to be a place where there is unity in spite of diversity.
In Scripture, we find moral differences (I Corinthians 5), gospel differences (Galatians 1) and doctrinal differences (Acts 15)– all essential issues. But in non-essential issues, good, Bible-believing, Christian people will have different opinions, views, and convictions. Paul was concerned that differences in non-essentials could lead to divisions so he addressed this in Romans 14-15. Here is the outline that we will be studying over the next few weeks.
- Receive One Another without Judging (14:1-12)
- Love One Another without Offending (14:13-23)
- Serve One Another without Fainting (15:1-6)
- Accept One Another without Discriminating (15:7-13)
The city of Rome was a melting pot of people from the Roman empire. The church in Rome reflected that too. There were Jews who came from the strict disciplines of Judaistic legalism, and there were Gentiles, saved from pagan backgrounds with no religious moral scruples or expectations on their lifestyle. The easiest thing to do would be to start two separate congregations, catering to the preferences of a particular group. But God wanted them to get along, to worship together to display the unity of His Body. This is His desire for the church today.
There are two matters that can destroy the unity of the church, failure to deal with sin and refusal to give others liberty in doubtful things. Sin corrupts, destroys and divides. Refusal to give liberty causes division and disunity. So, there are two important questions we must answer. First, what are doubtful things (14:1)? They are areas and issues where the scriptures do not make a statement of right or wrong. These areas in the Christian life are often debated because we have no direct revelation. We know some areas are wrong because the Bible condemns them; we know some are right because the Bible commands them. But many things fall into the gray area of opinion or wisdom. We must keep our thinking clear and scriptural even if this passage cuts against our preferences or we will end up off course down the road. Flying a plane 1 degree off course isn’t a big problem at 25 miles but it is at 2500 miles!
Secondly, we must answer who are the “weak” and “strong” (14:2: 15:1)? They may not be who you think. The weak are those who are sensitive and struggle over doubtful issues. Because of their upbringing or background, they cannot partake in certain liberties that other Christians can. Pagans celebrated a number of feasts at which the finest animals were offered to the pagan deities. Animals would be killed and offered as a sacrifice, and some would be eaten at the feast by the devotees. What was leftover would be sold the next morning in the marketplace. Jewish Christians knew there was only one God and that idols were nothing more than wood or stone, so they would buy and enjoy meat. The formerly pagan believers had participated in those feasts where drunkenness and immorality were so rampant, and they no longer wanted anything to do with them and would take offense if they knew the meat came from the pagan rituals.
If we needed a command for every issue we faced, we would have thousands of commands! The Bible grants liberty to individuals and churches in different cultures and generations to make decisions on non-doctrinal matters. Christianity can operate in any culture without making all cultures the same. Traveling to the mission field has helped clarify some things for me. The most effective missionaries adopt and adapt as much as they can to the culture in which they are seeking to minister. Take a piano to the Philippines and it will soon be out of tune because of the humidity; they use a guitar. Forbid drums or rhythmic clapping from the African church and they wouldn’t have a way to keep time. Take some of our church dress to India and they may not let you in the building!
In conclusion, remember these things. First, recognize that there are doubtful matters, opinions and preferences, and don’t elevate them to the level of doctrinal matters – they are not! Secondly, differences of opinion on “doubtful things” are related to the application of one’s faith, not the existence of it. When people don’t agree with our opinion on a non-doctrinal matter, we don’t say they are unbelievers. Third, recognize that on the Christian spectrum there will be those who go to extremes represented by license or legalism: those are not the same as Christian liberty. Next, don’t dispute or argue because of your opinions on doubtful things (14:1). Weak people (in the faith) argue over doubtful things. Some things are worth a fight, and even death, but only the fundamental doctrines. Receive the weak into the church, but don’t let them argue, dispute or cause disunity in the body. Finally, strive for unity in the body by growth in doctrine, not by disputing opinions. Melanchthon said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”