Go read Romans 14:1-23.
Let’s be honest. It’s right there, ironically, in black-and-white: there are such things as “grey areas” in the faith.
There are areas in Christian life where opposite viewpoints and opposing courses of action are perfectly acceptable for the true and sincere follower of Christ. Issues in which believers may have differing opinions and, indeed, exercise their faith differently, without failing some sort of litmus test of true faith in Christ.
Paul calls them “disputable matters” (v.1). This suggests that the church in Rome was probably having some internal distress over some differing points of view on matters of the faith.
The idea that they were in “dispute” means that these issues were causing tension and bringing disharmony to the believers in Rome. I know, it is a difficult situation for us to relate to…how could believers disagree over something to the point of causing tension?
Especially when we learn what it was that was causing the tension.
Was it the nature of what Jesus accomplished in His life and death? Perhaps it was the identity of God and the relation of Jesus to the Father. Maybe it was something about the role of the Holy Spirit.
These believers, admittedly perhaps theological infants, were not fighting over anything core or central to the Gospel. They were fighting over which day to worship on. Whether it was okay to eat meat. And whether a Jesus-follower could drink wine.
Even simple reflection should make us a little uneasy at the close similarity to our own disputes in our churches.
So what does Paul say? Something I think we all desperately need to hear, what I read as a bit of a rebuke from an annoyed babysitter:
“Knock it off! None of this really matters.”
Paul initially acknowledges that the variety of opinions on these issues is okay. We probably need to sit with that for a moment. What are the issues over which we have disputes today? How often do we fight and argue? Decide that we cannot be part of the same Body if someone thinks differently than us about something like that?
It wasn’t that these issues weren’t important. They were. They were just clearly flexible. There was no “right” or “wrong” position on them.
To throw them, and us, a bone, Paul doesn’t suggest that each person shouldn’t have an opinion, even a strong one. But he does tell them that their opinion on these matters was just that: very distinctly theirs, and not to be forced on someone else (see Romans 14:5).
Paul has two guidelines that he gives to those who are embroiled in these less-than-life-or-death debates:
1. Don’t put a stumbling block in front of a brother or sister. Feel free to worship whenever you feel it is important. Eat what you want. Drink what you want. But, if it legitimately impacts someone else’s faith negatively, be concerned about that first. Give in to their (weaker) conscience.
This is an important qualification. There are many issues where we may wonder how a Christian could hold that position. Whether it is firearms or social issues, we tend to think that our own position is the (obvious) Christian one. We think the other person’s faith is weak or wrong for thinking the way they do.
But do we ask if our position, or more properly, our need to convince someone of our position, really impacts another’s faith? And if it does, what are we prepared to do about it? Paul says that if we are in that position, we should give in for the sake of the other’s faith (see Romans 14:21).
2. We’ve already mentioned this—keep it to yourself (Romans 14:22). It’s hard to accept that our opinion, even our convictions, may not matter. They do to us, and Paul encourages us not to be double-minded about it, but they are not to be forced on other people.
I often wonder whether or not I should speak up about things. I probably get it wrong sometimes, maybe even most of the time. Paul’s advice hits hard. I need to evaluate what I have an opinion on and then ask whether or not it is a crucial matter of the faith and how my opinion may affect someone else’s relationship with God.
May we all strive to live up to Paul’s admonition: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).