We Just Can't Agree
“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” (Romans 14:13 NLT)
How do we love people when we strongly disagree with them? The early Christians had to face this question when it came to cultural and ethnic differences between new believers. The book of Romans leads to this eventual question as well: if people from different cultural backgrounds, Jewish people who believe in one all powerful God, and Gentile pagans who believe in multiple smaller gods, are all going to joint together in one religious community, how will they get along? What principles will guide their daily living?
Obviously, the early Christians had some core beliefs and values that their shared in common: they believed that the God of Israel had come to earth in human form in the person of Jesus, that Jesus had died to forgive all people's sins, and that through Jesus and the Holy Spirit all people could have a direct relationship to God the Father. All believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, stepped into a new understanding of God when they joined this movement.
This meant that some people who followed Jesus had left behind other religions and other gods. In the ancient Roman Empire, many pagan cultures offered food sacrifices to the gods in their temples, which also served as market places. Certain foods would be offered to idols in their temples as sacrifices, and some of this food would then be available for sale. For people who were former pagans, this kind of food - and perhaps religious festival days associated with these sacrifices - were reminders of their old religion. To eat this food was to remain connected to those old gods which they meant to leave behind to follow Jesus. These kinds of people would choose to abstain from certain foods to demonstrate their loyalty to Jesus, their new God (1 Corinthians 8, Romans 14:1-2) .
But the Christian community was not only made of newly converted ex-pagans. It was also made up of Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians who were more familiar with the Hebrew Bible and the worldview of Israel and Jesus. These people accepted the truth that there was only one true God, and that any other beings called "gods" were either not real or were lesser, weaker beings who could never rival the power of the One True God. To such people, meat that had been sacrificed in an idol temple was not such a big deal. You could buy it, give thanks to the real God for the food, and then eat it without worrying about the power of lesser gods contaminating it (see parallel concept in (1 Corinthians 10:25-30).
These two groups of people were both Christians, but had totally different perspectives on this issue. One side wanted to avoid idolatry and thought it was important to avoid cultural artifacts and practices that they associated with idol worship. The other side believed that they could show their loyalty to God by not being afraid of the power of lesser gods, and that the temple sacrifices of other religions were ultimately powerless.
But while both these sides believed that they were serving God the best way they could, their views were quite different from each other, and some began to pass judgment on the others.
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4 NLT)
There were also people who felt it was very important to observe Jewish feast days and festivals, considering these an equally important part of following Jesus as any other commandments or teachings. (Romans 14:5-6). This became a problem when these people tried to force these holidays that were special for Israel onto people who did not share Israel’s history.
In Romans 14 & 15, Paul affirms the value of all these perspectives. The Bible teaches that such thing as objective truth exists, and that we should seek to know this truth. But some of these truths do leave some room for interpretation. There are areas where God has objectively left room for people to be different. Paul distinguishes between clear, core Biblical values, and subjective cultural concerns. He says that Christians should accept people who struggle with this faith, and avoid “[...] quarreling over disputable matters.” (Romans 14:1)
“The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22-23 NLT)
The Church must be led by the scriptures and by the Holy Spirit. Our consciences are also important, because the moral conscience is the part of our mind that helps us make wise decisions. It is a part of ourselves that the Holy Spirit wants to renew and restore. Therefore, doing something that goes against your own conscience, or influencing someone to violate their conscience, is a very dangerous thing to do. It would be wrong to force someone against their conscience, even if they were being overly sensitive about something they were actually allowed to do. Sometimes, it takes time for someone to be ready to do something, even if there is no rule against them doing it. What we need to do is learn how to respect the beliefs of others.
“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval." (Romans 14:15-18 NIV)
God’s inclusive Kingdom demands that we bear with each others’ differences. Tolerate each other’s differences, carry each other’s weaknesses, and don’t do things that bother others consciences. This is is how we live when it seems like we just can’t agree. This is how live the gospel.
“Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them.” (Romans 15:7-9a NLT)
Read through Romans 14. What point of view does Paul describe as "weak" and which one does he describe as "strong"? What group did Paul consider himself to be in?
What responsibilities does Paul say that the "strong" group has? Read Romans 15:1-6 for the answer.
Does Romans 14 seem to have anything to do with kosher food laws (about clean and unclean animals) or the Sabbath? What conclusions can you draw? For more perspectives on this, read this article from the Biblical Research Institute for some hints.
Read Romans 14:16-18. Can you think of a time when someone said that something was evil, even though you knew it was a good thing? How did that make you feel? How did you handle it?
How do we love people we don’t agree with? How can we consider people who are different “family”? Is that even possible? Think about some times in your life when you've had to "agree to disagree" with someone.
Have you ever met someone whose beliefs in one area were way too strict? What did they think was not allowed? What made their views so extreme? How did you relate to this person and their point of view?
Have you ever met someone whose beliefs in one area were way too permissive or relaxed? What did they think was OK that you found unacceptable? How did you relate to this person and their point of view?
How might this chapter apply to other issues in the modern day? What about current holidays like Halloween, Christmas, or Easter? What about movies, books, tv shows, and music styles? What about different definitions of modesty and appropriate clothing in various cultures? How would you apply the principles of Romans 14-15 to these issues, if at all?
Is it possible for the "weaker brother" described in this chapter to go too far? Is it possible to be overly sensitive? How about the "strong" side? Is it possible for them to go too far or be overly confident? How does Romans 14:7-12 help us stay grounded in this area?
Read Romans 15:14-33. Can you see any reasons here why Paul would want to help the church in Rome to stop fighting amongst themselves? Note especially verses 23 and 24.