As those who have experienced salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, we should live our lives differently than the world. Starting back in chapter 12 Paul began listing some practical ways in which we should live out our salvation. We should strive to serve others. We should put on or display several different godly characteristics. We should submit to legitimate authority, realizing that God alone is sovereign. Furthermore, we should love one another and live as children of the light. In this week's message we will add yet another item to this growing list of behaviors.
The opening verse of chapter 14 sets forth two related concepts - acceptance and judgment. Throughout the remainder of the passage, Paul seamlessly weaves these two issues together. For the sake of our discussion, we will seek to isolate them from one another. In so doing, we will study the verses in a different order than they are actually written. Hopefully this will allow us to focus on each topic individually, while not ignoring the critical relationship between them. Though we will rearrange the verses, we will be careful not to change the overall meaning of this passage. In this week's sermon we will focus upon the first of these issues - accepting the one who is weak in the faith, and next week we will consider judging the opinions of others.
I. ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER'S DIFFERENCES - Romans 14:1-3, 5a, 6
The church is admonished to "accept the one who is weak in the faith". Notice that while the person being referred to here may have a weak faith, they still are a person of some faith. Thus this passage does not apply to the faithful accepting or consenting to the ungodliness of the unfaithful. Furthermore, the "weakness" of the faith cited here does not necessarily refer to that of a newer or more immature Christian. While that may be the true in some instances, the thrust of the verse is that we as believers we should accept one another's differences so long as they do not violate or contradict the clearly revealed commandments of God. The key is acceptance of one another's differences.
Paul cites a few examples that were prominent in the days of the Roman church. As you might recall from earlier in this series, the make-up of this congregation was split between Jewish and Gentile believers who had received salvation in Jesus Christ. Because of their heritage, many of the Jewish converts still sought to uphold the dietary restrictions in the Law which specified what was clean to eat and what wasn't. Some chose to eat vegetables only, in accordance with their desire to be obedient. On the contrary, the Gentile Christians had no such background and felt it permissible to eat whatever they wanted. Providing a second example, Paul explains that some held certain days or times in particular esteem while others did not. The customary Holy Days of the Jews did not carry the same significance among the Gentiles.
The disparity on issues could have been a source of friction between the members of the Roman church. Yet the Scripture teaches that God has accepted those who were adherents of both viewpoints. It further states that those who "observe the day", "those who eat", and even "those who do not eat" all do so for the Lord. In other words, their heart was intent on worshiping God through their actions. In the realm of these lesser religious issues, we should accept one another as brethren even when our practices differ. Again, this acceptance is limited to the less weighty issues that should not preclude Christian fellowship.
II. HOLD ON TO YOUR CONVICTIONS - Romans 14:5b, 14, 22-23
Having shared a few examples highlighting differences between the various groups that made up the Roman church, Paul takes a moment to share his own personal convictions regarding the Jewish dietary restrictions. He writes that he is fully convinced that nothing is unclean in itself. Despite his Jewish background and training, he takes the position that all foods are acceptable for eating and that the distinction between that which is clean and unclean under the Law is no longer valid. His stance is based upon the teaching of Jesus who said, "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man." (Mark 7:14)
Paul is arguing that each person should have and hold onto their own personal convictions about these less pertinent issues. Sometimes these develop and may possibly even change over time. The fact is that everyone has an opinion - and that's okay so long as that opinion is intended to glorify the Lord. Those who are convinced that certain foods remain unclean should follow their convictions and not eat them. The person who stands firm and remains faithful to his beliefs will be happy because he has followed his heart. The one who wavers and doubts if what he is doing is really right commits sin, because he acts apart from faith. Let me clarify this point with an example. If a person eats of that which he still regards as possibly unclean he commits sin - not because the food is unclean (which it isn't), but rather because he eats it with lingering doubt. He is unsure of himself, and therefore is unstable in his ways.
III. RESPECT THE PRACTICES OF OTHER BELIEVERS - Romans 14:20-21, 15
The simple truth is that some things should take precedent over others. The greatest commandments are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Demonstrating this type of selfless love is the supreme work of God, and it should not be undermined by lesser issues such as what we eat. There is way too much work to be done for us to spend all of our time fussing over petty and inconsequential differences.
While we are encouraged to have our own personal convictions, these do not give us license to offend one another. If we are in the company of someone who believes that eating certain foods is sinful, then we should respect that position and not eat of them in their presence. Nor should we seek to compel them to eat (or to do anything that violates their conscience). When we insist on our convictions over or in contrast to those of our brethren we can and often do cause hardship and hurt. In such cases, we are no longer walking according to love. It is almost always better to walk in love than to demand that things be done exclusively our way.
Biblically speaking, just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should. In like manner, just because we don't have to do something doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't. Sometimes it is not our specific behavior that is sinful, but rather the effects of that behavior. Regardless of what the particular action or inaction in question is, we should never intentionally do anything that would cause our brother to stumble. Instead, we should respect the practices of other Christians. Paul not only taught this principle, but also practiced it - as we see in the circumcision of Timothy (Acts 16:3) and in his vow of purity (Acts 21:23-26). He didn't believe that either of these was necessary, but did both for the sake of his fellow believers.
IV. PURSUE HIGHER THINGS - Romans 14:16-19
Our personal convictions are a good thing. They provide a moral compass that helps direct us and keep us grounded. However, if we seek to impose them on others they can become a source of contention that will be spoken of as evil. Remember, we are not talking about compromising on issues of right and wrong. We are not dealing with Christians versus non-Christians. The scope of this passage is limited to differences among fellow believers regarding non-foundational concepts or doctrines. We must move beyond these insignificant arguments and press on to higher ground.
The kingdom of God is not simply "eating and drinking", but is "righteousness, peace, and joy". Our service to God should emphasize these more lofty pursuits, and should not become entangled by lesser things. Such service is both acceptable to God and approved by men. We are charged to pursue peace and the edification of one another. This is done, in part, through mutual acceptance and respect. There is far too much infighting within the modern church over the non-essentials. We are called to pursue higher things.
Let me close by emphasizing that I am not advocating an "anything is okay as long as you follow your heart" type philosophy. Some things are clearly sinful, and no amount of human reasoning will make them otherwise. What I am saying is that we as Christians should accept one another's spiritual differences and respect one another's heartfelt convictions. Together these will contribute to an atmosphere of unity within the church. It is perfectly acceptable to have distinct views on certain topics (so long as they are based upon a sincere understanding of God's word). But when we begin using our opinions as weapons against each other, to tear one another down or to destroy the work of God, we have gone too far... we must learn to agree to disagree on the lesser things.
So what are these lesser things? Perhaps the better question is... what are the higher things? Doctrinally speaking, I would state that salvation is exclusively accomplished by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no other way to be saved, and there is absolutely no room for a variation of opinion on this issue. It is a foundational truth. There are several other such truths that are essential to Christianity which I will not list here. These are the higher things. Still there remain many questions with unclear answers and many doctrinal positions that allow some latitude to move one way or the other.
Certainly love is the highest virtue and must always take precedent. Love is shown as we seek to live in peace with each other, as we display and spread His joy, as we practice justice and righteousness, as we show mercy to those around us, and as we remain ever faithful to God and His will for our lives. These are among the weightier issues that our LORD desires. Lesser things, while still important, should never trump these greater virtues. If we allow them to, acceptance and respect among believers will crumble.
As your pastor, I have specific and clearly defined convictions (based on the Bible) regarding a host of what I would categorize as lesser issues. These include topics such as social drinking, smoking, dancing, tattoos, magic, playing cards, and church raffles among countless others. Though they may be "lesser" in doctrinal weight, these issues still retain importance. While my personal views and practices in some of these areas may differ from those of my brethren, they are not sufficient grounds to forsake the higher things. We shouldn't allow the little things to prevent us from achieving the big ones.