Sunday, November 06, 2016

Seminary PL26: Navigating Disputable Issues

This is the twelfth post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the twenty-fifth post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

The previous post in this series looked at certain conflicts in the New Testament church as an example of conflict resolution and management. This week continues with Paul's approach to debated issues in his churches.
1. The earliest church had the Old Testament, but the Old Testament did not directly address all the issues of the day. It is the same today, where new issues arise and Christians have to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) to discern what would most glorify God in our living. What kinds of things should Christians look at on the internet? How should Christians vote in relation to national debt? The Bible has no direct verses on such matters. We have to figure out God's will together.

In the New Testament church, there was also the matter of new revelation--or might we say final revelation. Jesus was the "last Word" from God in a way. God used the apostles and prophets of the early church to unfold the significance of Christ for the "last days" (cf. Eph. 2:20). It even took a few centuries more for the church to clarify issues like the nature of Christ and the Trinity, as well as which books actually belonged in the New Testament (e.g., Nicaea. Chalcedon).

2. Last week we saw some of the main fault lines of conflict in the early church. Most of them had to do with the inclusion of non-Jews, Gentiles, within the people of God. Ephesians 3:3-6 indicates that this inclusion came as a complete surprise to the Jews. No one saw this coming, that God would tear down the wall of the Jewish Law that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14-16).

As we saw in the previous post, one of the most controversial issues had to do with table fellowship--Jew and Gentile believer eating with each other. Acts 15:28-29 sets out purity rules that made it possible for them to eat together. One of these stipulations had to do with meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. There were many, many sacrifices in the ancient world. The meat was not totally consumed in the vast majority of cases. The god got some. The priests got some. The person bringing the sacrifice got some of the meat.

But there were so many sacrifices that a great deal of meat ended up left over, and much of this meat made its way to the marketplace. This created a crisis of conscience for Jews and then for some Gentile Christians in turn. Do you buy meat from the marketplace or not? Is it important to find out where the meat you are being offered in a meal somewhere came from? Maybe we should all just become vegetarians (Rom. 14:2)?

3. In Romans 14 (as well as in 1 Cor. 8-10), Paul develops some fundamental principles for dealing with issues of debate in his churches. He did not treat all issues as "disputable" as "adiaphora" that was mostly a matter of individual conscience. One of the problems in applying his principles is that those who take the restrictive side of an argument often see their position as part of the essentials rather than the disputables.

And they may be right! When he gets to the end of Romans 14, he seems to recognize that a person can condemn him or herself by approving something they really shouldn't approve. So those who say a particular issue is essential rather than disputable can be right that an issue isn't truly a matter of individual conscience.

Such individuals can also be wrong. In Romans 14:5, Paul seems to consider Sabbath observance a disputable matter for Gentiles (cf. Col. 2:16). Think about it. He treats one of the Ten Commandments as a matter of personal conscience! [1]

4. What should we do in practice then? Probably we should treat issues as disputable where large numbers of believers consider an issue a matter of debate. That is not to say that we as an individuals should not be fully convinced that it is essential. It does not even mean that we cannot insist that members of our denomination treat an issue as essential. What it means is that we behave with love toward other individuals and groups who have a different understanding of that issue but who seem otherwise to be walking in love, faith, and hope. We agree to disagree.

5. So if there is serious disagreement among Christians on an issue of conscience, we should put that issue into the category of disputable matters in the vast scheme of things. Again, individual denominations can have their "convictions" about the right answer, even believing it essential.

But how are we to behave toward one another in such cases? Paul lays down three principles:
  • Be fully convinced in your own mind. Faith is the ultimate justification.
  • Do not let your freedom hurt the faith of others. Love is the ultimate ethic.
  • Remember that a person can be wrong. Our understanding is fallen.
So, first, be fully convinced in your own mind (Rom. 14:5). On many issues, Paul says, the action itself is neither clean or unclean. "nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean" (14:14). And so Paul concludes this chapter with a basic understanding of what sin is: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (14:23).

Sin is not primarily "missing the mark" of perfection. Where is that idea found in the New Testament? Sin is anything we do that is out of sync with our faith in God. Whenever we act in some way that does not glorify God in our intent, we have sinned.

So the first order of business in any conflict is for us to make sure that our own heart is right with God. Am I pursuing a stubborn course for selfish reasons? Am I really convinced I am acting from faith or am I only saying that so I can do what I want to do in my flesh?

6. In other words, we can be wrong. Before we pursue a course of conflict as a matter of principle, we should make sure our own heart is right. Similarly, before we pursue a course of freedom, we should make sure we are not deceiving ourselves. "Those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith" (14:23). Paul does not mean merely passing thoughts here--that's doubting in our hyper-introspective world.

Doubts here and in James 1:6 are not passing thoughts but divided loyalties. If you claim to have freedom of conscience to pursue a certain course of action but really are acting from a divided loyalty--half serving God and half serving your flesh--then you will condemn yourself with a freedom that is not real.

God of course is the judge. We cannot read other people's intentions, which is why we are not to judge others (Matt. 7:1). In conflict leaders must keep this fact in mind. We are sometimes required to be the gatekeepers of the identity of our church. But we can so so in love.

Is a person fully convinced? If there are agreed boundaries for my church, it may not matter. There are plenty of churches. Someone who disagrees with the covenant of my group can find another that has freedom on that issue. We do not have to unchristianize a person who chooses not to submit to our community convictions.

7. So let's say that an issue is disputed but our conscience is clear. We are acting from faith and in freedom of conscience. Should we proceed to do what we are free in conscience to do?

It depends. Love is the fundamental criterion of Christian ethic and action. So we must ask the question of how acting upon our freedom will impact others. Will my freedom negatively impact the faith of others?

Paul puts it like this: "It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother [or sister] stumble" (14:21). So it is not just about my freedom or rights. I can be free in my individual conscience to do something and yet it be wrong for me to do it because of the negative effect in would have on someone else.

Paul does not mean, of course, ticking people off. We will no doubt anger some people when we act freely yet not hurt their faith. It is possible that my wedding ring would have offended some people at a particular point in time. Certainly I should not wear it in the desire to "get their goat."

But there is a big difference between people getting angry because they have a problem and causing someone to stumble. If I anger someone because I wear jewelry, but I'm not trying to anger them, then they are the one with the issue. But if I convince someone to drink because my conscience is clear and then they come to have a problem as a result, then my freedom has hurt a brother or sister.

So the question is one of hurting the faith of someone else, not offending someone in the angering kind of way. You can hurt someone because you are asking questions you can handle but they cannot. You can hurt someone by getting them to do something you are free to do but they are not.

8. So as leaders, we keep these principles in mind as we face conflicts. The faith of our congregations is the most important thing. I don't want my freedom or the freedom of certain people in my congregation to harm the faith of others. Paul sounds somewhat condescending, but he speaks of the strong as those whose consciences are clear and the weak as those who worry about certain issues.

As leaders, we need to work to keep the freedoms of the "strong" from hurting the faith of the "weak." This affects the way we speak about certain issues. Like God, we try to meet our people where they are. If they cannot eat meat, then we go vegetarian, so to speak.

When we believe some are wrongly convinced, we might carefully, lovingly, and tactfully try to prompt their conscience toward the Spirit. But the Spirit must do the work in the end. We cannot force a person toward conviction, and we ourselves may turn out to be wrong.

Everything must be done in love. Our corrective must be done in love. The freedoms of the congregation must be done in love. Those who think certain matters are essential often should restrain themselves in love.

Next Week: Pastor as Leader 27: Athanasius against the World

[1] The Jewish Sabbath was from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

Leadership in General
Strategic Planning
Church Management
Conflict Management

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