Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Strong and Weak (5.2)

Be glad for any feedback on today's snippet from the second Paul book:
The important thing, as we see so clearly in Romans 14-15, is that you are thinking of the other person and that you are not putting a reason to stumble in front of someone else (Rom. 14:13). It is so easy for the person whose conscience does not bother them on some issue to think of themselves as superior to those who are troubled by the same things. So on the Sabbath, Paul says, some Gentiles are not worried about whether or not they set one day apart (14:5). They consider every day alike. They must not look down at their conservative Jewish or Gentile brothers and sisters who are concerned to observe sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday as a Sabbath on which they do no work.

Paul’s principles here are so clear, so immediately applicable to our day, and yet so pervasively ignored by Christians today. Admittedly, it is not always easy for us to see what the disputable matters truly are and what are non-negotiable. The “conservatives” of Paul’s day might easily have said, “Look, the Sabbath goes back to creation in Genesis. Look, it is one of the Ten Commandments.” And amazingly, Paul does not seem to give it a second thought. In fact, Colossians almost denigrates those who worried about “a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). So also today, there are no doubt issues where Christians come down hard on other Christians because of the letter of Scripture without realizing they have not caught its Spirit. The issue of women in ministry comes to mind.

But Paul’s admonition in Romans 14 is far more directed at the “liberal” than the conservative, even though Paul places himself among the liberal in his argument. The person of strong conscience must not despise the person of weak conscience, even though he or she may be in the right. It is far more important for the church to be unified and edified than for it to be “right” on these sorts of matters. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” Paul says (Rom. 14:4). We stand or fall before our own master.

Finding the balance between things on which we should or should not “judge” our brothers and sisters is a matter of great care. The current spirit of the age is not to judge at all. But Paul does not model this extreme either, nor does Jesus. Jesus clearly had an indictment to bring to the leaders of Israel, and Paul does not shrink from pronouncing judgment on the man sleeping with his step-mother (1 Cor. 5:3). The Bible has no criticism for someone who would make a serial killer aware that they were displeasing God!

What Paul indicts in Romans 2:1 is the person who passes judgment on another when he or she is guilty of the same or similar sins. And what Paul indicts in Romans 14:3-4 is the person who condemns another believer on a matter of conviction, when that other Christian’s conscience is clear. The problem, as we have said, is that Christians regularly disagree on what is or is not a matter of personal conviction. For example, we find individuals who believe in Christ, consider themselves Christians, yet who would say their conscience is clear with regard to homosexual practice. Is this a disputable matter or a matter where Paul would expel a person from Christian fellowship?

It seems fairly clear that Paul would have expelled such an individual from the church, given what he says in 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 6:9. But lest we think the clarity of Scripture makes such decisions obvious, we should remember that the Old Testament speaks much more emphatically and frequently about the importance of Sabbath observance than it does against homosexual sex (e.g., Num. 15:32-36; Ezek. 20). We believe Paul was inspired to be able to distinguish between which issue was “disputable” and which was not. But we can rest assured that in Paul’s day the difference would not at all have been clear to a devout Jew!

Christians disagree on many things, especially in a world where Protestantism has fragmented the church into tens of thousands of small groups. I grew up around Christians who would have said that wearing jewelry or a woman wearing slacks was not a disputable issue but practices every believer must follow. I imagine we are always free to share our concerns with others if, as Paul says, our love is sincere (Rom. 12:9). However, one suspects that a lot of “concern sharing” over the years has been little but a gossiping and critical spirit. With such a history, it is understandable that the current generation would almost refrain from any comment at all.

Perhaps we should consider as a disputable matter anything that does not clearly harm another person and over which people clearly devoted to Christ disagree. On these issues we should agree to disagree and be charitable in spirit. “We will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (14:10). “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (14:12). We can be wrongly convinced. “Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve” (14:22, NRSV). On these sorts of matters, even beyond matters we feel comfortable with, Paul bids us leave it up to God.

“Let all be fully convinced in their own minds” (14:5, NRSV). This is the key, that we are truly acting from faith. “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (14:23). We can deceive ourselves. We can convince ourselves that we can do things that we in reality doubt we are right about. This is the kind of doubter Paul has in mind in 14:23, the person who is not really convinced they can do what they say they can. I do not believe Paul has in mind the person with a hyperactive conscience, who would feel guilty about anything. He means the person who really knows inside that what they propose to do is wrong but are pretending to be clear of conscience so they can get away with something. Be sure, while we should probably let them get away with it, God knows what is in their hearts.

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