Free To Disagree
The following is the sermon manuscript from last week’s message on Romans 14. And just so you know, I preached Romans 14 because it follows Romans 13! :-) No one made me mad just before the service. I preached this message because we are in a series from Romans 12-15. This sermon could be preached in any church in the world and members will feel like you are reading their mail! We all need to hear this message.
Transformed In Your Acceptance of Others (Free To Disagree)
Romans 14 (NKJV)
In his commentary on Romans, R. Kent Hughes recounts the story of two famous friends who had a falling out. Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker were both mighty preachers in London in the 1800’s. They were close friends and even exchanged pulpits on occasion. They had a disagreement that made the papers. Spurgeon accused Parker of compromising with the world because he attended the theater. Spurgeon had a habit of smoking cigars, a practice many believers would frown upon. When Spurgeon was confronted about his habit he claimed that he did not smoke to excess. When asked what that meant, he replied that he did not smoke more than two at a time! Hughes asked, “Who was right? Perhaps neither, perhaps both! Better yet would be to realize that the two could disagree and both be in the will of God” (Romans, Righteousness From Heaven, p. 263).
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Free to disagree”? The phrase is usually heard when two or more people believe that their respective position or practice or opinion or belief is correct and the other side is wrong. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the other side to adopt their position they will say, “Well, you are free to disagree.” Is it possible for Christians to be free to disagree on certain matters? Absolutely it is. Even though we are the body of Christ there is often a range of issues on which good Christians can and do disagree. Now I am not talking about doctrines the Bible clearly defines as essential to our salvation. Nor am I talking about practices the Bible clearly labels sin. Christians have no authority to condone sin or to compromise on essential doctrines of the faith. But there is a wide range of issues and practices that the Bible does not clearly label as biblical or unbiblical. Sadly, many churches have split and have lost their evangelistic focus because they fought over these non-essential issues. No church is immune from this danger, not even Fort Caroline. I could get a heated argument going this morning if I opened the floor to a discussion about
•the church budget,
•or the style of music suitable for worship,
•or whether our small group ministry should be called LifeGroups or Sunday School like Jesus said,
•or whether the term “Baptist” has to be in the church name,
•or whether the pastor should preach from behind a pulpit of wood or not,
•or whether men should wear suits and ties to worship on Sunday morning,
•or whether it is a sin for Christians to dance or smoke or go to movies or have tattoos,
•or whether it is a sin to work on Sunday,
•or whether drums ought to be used in the church,
•or whether Christians ought to observe Easter or Halloween or Christmas.
The list could go on and on. One of the reasons we divide over such issues is because we come from such different backgrounds. Look around this church and you will discover that we have a wide range of ages and generations represented here. We have people from different cultural and national backgrounds; Anglo, Hispanic, Korean, Ukrainian, Ugandan, Cuban, Columbian, Black, white, etc. We also have different philosophies of ministry, different personal preferences, and different traditions. Put all of us together and you are bound to have disagreements. Add to the list that we are all flawed, sinful, and at times difficult to live with and you see the recipe for disunity.
Another reason we disagree is because the Bible does not always clearly speak to our specific issue or concern. We have a desire to honor God in the matter and we often disagree on how best to do that. Many specific behaviors, methods, ideas, church traditions, and practices are not clearly spelled out in Scripture. Problems arise when well-meaning Christians, out of a desire to be holy, allow their attitude to turn sour when other people hold different views. This is especially dangerous and devastating when believers elevate their personal preferences over the clear precepts of God’s Word. It is destructive when believers lift their traditions above God’s commands. For example, some Christians believe that it dishonors God when men come to church without a suit and tie or women come in pants and make-up. Some church-goers believe that to change the traditional order of worship borders on sin. I have received scathing letters accusing me of borderline blasphemy because I used candles in a Communion Service once. Some of the people who get so angry and resort to gossip and sowing seeds of discord among the church over peripheral non-essential matters need to remember Jesus’ words in Mark 7:9, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
The 21st Century Church is not the first to deal with these types of issues. The 1st Century Church faced the same dilemma. Let me turn your attention first to Romans 14:19. “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” Romans 14:19 (NKJV)
This is a great verse for our church. We must always pursue things which make for peace in our fellowship. And we must look for ways to build each other up, not tear each other down. As we will see this is a great chapter to help us be transformed in our acceptance of others. We will discover how we are to relate to one another when we disagree. We have more in common with the church at Rome in the 1st Century than we might first believe. The church at Rome was a very diverse congregation. Culturally they were made up of people who were from a Jewish culture and a Greek, Gentile culture. Talk about diversity. Now they were all members of the same church. They brought with them very distinct beliefs about how Christians should and should not live. They brought their own customs and idiosyncrasies. They were beginning to judge, criticize, and condemn each other over their differences. Paul knew that it was vital for them to learn to live together in unity as a mark of the Gospel. If the lost community of Rome saw the church fussing and fighting, disagreeing and dividing, it would ruin their testimony of the Gospel’s power to transform lives and to bring reconciliation with God. The same is true in our community. Why should unbelievers in our community believe our message that Christ can reconcile them to God if we cannot be reconciled to one another? The world will not believe the authenticity of our Gospel message until they see the reality of our love for one another.
So let’s read from Romans 14 to learn how we can be free to disagree. We will start with Romans 14:1. 1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. Romans 14:1
What is the first lesson we learn when we disagree over disputable matters?
1. ACCEPT others without judging their convictions (14:1-8).
1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. The issue Paul is addressing is about “doubtful things.” He is not saying we should check our brains at the door and refuse to discuss doctrinal matters. This letter itself is evidence Paul is not downplaying doctrine. He has spent the bulk of his letter defining and defending the doctrine of justification by faith. He wrote eleven of the most detailed, and beautiful chapters on the doctrines of salvation and sanctification. He is not telling us to now forget all that and to accept one another uncritically. Some in the church want us to do that. They say that doctrine does not matter; that doctrine divides. If you preach that Jesus is the only way to salvation you will be ridiculed by those people. If you preach the moral truths of God’s Word they will tell you to stop judging them. Paul is not saying let go of all doctrinal and moral differences. He is saying do not divide over disputable issues where good Christians can disagree. He is talking about doubtful things that are not essential to salvation, those things that are not a moral issue that are not as clearly spelled out in Scripture.
Paul calls us to accept those who are weak in the faith. Who are these weak and strong Christians? They are not weak people morally. They could be very strong in discipline or opinion. Simply put, the weak are those who are weak in faith that they can participate in a certain activity. They are weak in both belief and conscience because their conscience will not allow them to participate or not participate without feeling like they are sinning against God. The strong in faith has confidence that his actions are not sin. 2 For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Don’t divide he says over a Christian who becomes a vegetarian or over how a person occupies their Sunday.
The Church members in Rome were arguing over whether or not to eat meat and whether or not to observe certain holy days. A church member from a Jewish background might have insisted on observing the Sabbath (Saturday) as the day of worship and might insist on abstaining from non-kosher food and wine, particularly meat that might have been offered to an idol. The Gentile church members, on the other hand, would not think twice about eating a ham sandwich and working on Saturday. The problem arose when the members sat down for table fellowship. In this case, the weak brother is the one whose conscience will not allow him to eat meat. He becomes a vegetarian in order to avoid non-kosher meat. He is appalled when he sees his brother eating that ham sandwich. The strong is the one who sees all food as clean since Jesus Christ fulfilled the Old Testament Law and since all food is now declared clean. He looks down on his weaker brother with disdain for having such a sensitive conscience and resents him for trying to impose his views on everyone else. The weak brother is the one who views a particular day as more holy than others. The strong believer sees every day as belonging to the Lord and as holy.
Notice Paul calls for acceptance of other people. 1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. He does not tell them to divide over doubtful or disputable matters. The believers in Rome could not move their church letter when they disagreed. There was no other church. They were joined together in one fellowship, one body. They had to learn to get along. Perhaps one of the downsides to living in a city with so many great churches like ours is that it is too easy to split or pull out when we disagree. Rather than accepting each other in spite of our differences on nonessential matters, we divide and conquer. And if that does not work we break fellowship. “If that is the way they are going to act,” we say to ourselves, “then I will find a new class or a new church. Or I will stop going to the worship service. I will do my thing and then go home.” Broken relationships do not get better when we continue to judge and criticize each other. That is not the attitude the Bible calls for.
Notice Paul does not take sides in the problems at Rome. He clearly identifies himself with the strong in chapter 15, but he calls on each side, the weak and the strong, to accept one another; to do that they would have to stop judging one another. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.
You may ask, “How can I accept that person when I truly believe they are wrong?” Paul answers that if God accepts them then so should you! If you think there is nothing wrong with eating a big ‘ole pork chop then do not “despise” your brother who does not feel the freedom to eat it. To despise means to count as nothing. It is to write them off and to say, “What is that person’s problem? Can’t they see the truth that all things are clean for Christians to eat? What a loser. I don’t want anything to do with him.” Nor should the weaker brother judge the stronger. “…and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.” Add your list of doubtful things to the Roman church’s list. Maybe it includes
•shopping on Sunday
•or drinking alcohol
•or insisting that the church has a prayer service each Wednesday night
•the style of worship music
•the way people dress for church
•or borrowing money personally or congregationally.
Come up with your own list of any practice which God has not clearly labeled “sin” that some Christians feel is alright, and others feel is wrong. You may still feel that you are correct and they are incorrect. But unless God has clearly revealed in His Word that a practice is sin we have no right to despise or judge the other person. These issues must not divide us. Our Christian fellowship is based on God’s acceptance of us all in Christ Jesus. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Whose church is it anyway? It is not my church. It is not your church. It is not Craig’s church or John’s church. It is Christ’s church and we have been accepted in Him and by Him. We have no right to impose our will on other believers over these debatable matters. Since God has received your brother (verse 3) you should receive him (verse 1). Besides, you are not the real judge of another believe. Look at verse four. 4 Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. We will not stand before one another to be judged. We will stand before the Lord. Jesus is the one who died for us and He alone has the authority to judge righteously. Search the Scriptures, pray and seek God’s wisdom, and then being fully convinced in your mind do what you believe is right before the Lord. And do it without fear of what others think about you, and do it without judging those who disagree. Don’t look down on people who differ from you in these secondary issues. Do what you do unto the Lord. Ultimately it is an issue between the individual and the Lord. Note how many times Paul uses the phrase, “to the Lord” in the next four verses in the NKJV.
5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.
Do what you do for the Lord, to the Lord. And do not knock people who differ from you. They too are doing what they believe is for the Lord. Accept others without judging their convictions. The second lesson is to…
2. AFFIRM Christ's lordship in each life (14:9-12).
9 For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11 For it is written: "As I live, says the Lord, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God." 12 So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Romans 14:9-12
Has someone ever rebelled against your intrusion into their life with the words, “Who died and made you God?” Paul says we cannot play God or play judge in other people’s lives over matters like these. When you accept others who differ from you on debatable matters you are affirming the Lordship of Christ in each life. You are allowing the Lord to have his way in your life and theirs. We will be judged by Him one day. You must follow Jesus as your Lord and I must follow Him as mine.
That means first that you must do what you believe the Lord would have you to do. You must be convinced in your own mind that what you are doing is in His will. You cannot use the excuse at the judgment, “Well, that is what Ricky did so I did it.” Here are some questions to help you determine God’s will for your life. These questions will help you distinguish the essential from the no-essential.
A.Is it a direct, scriptural statement of command, prohibition, or exhortation?
B.Is it a biblically consistent truth derived from the compilation of scriptural evidence and interpreted by sound principles of a normal, literary interpretation?
C.Is it a normative, scriptural standard to accept or pattern to follow?
D.Is it a teaching that has generally been accepted by the church across cultural and denominational lines throughout history?
E.Is it a belief or conviction that you would die for rather than renounce as untrue for the universal body of Christ? (from Free to Disagree, John Wecks, p. 21)
Second, affirming the Lordship of Christ means that our Christian brothers and sisters are not responsible to us. If Jesus is the Lord and judge then what right do I have to push him off the bench and take his place? I am free from the burden of playing the Holy Spirit in people’s lives and free from determining what is right and wrong for them on these types of issues. Do not misunderstand me. Issues of sin and morality need to be addressed biblically. If the person has clearly broken God’s Word and sinned then according to Matthew 18 and Galatians 6:1 I am to confront and restore them. But I have no right to play God in another person’s life in these debatable issues. In fact, often when people approach me about something they disagree with I will ask them if they are talking about a precept of God’s Word that has been violated or it is a personal preference? Most of the time it is a personal preference that is the issue. God’s Word, for example, says nothing about the style of music in a worship service. It is wrong for someone to despise a fellow believer who likes a different style of music or to judge a person’s motives or sincerity or devotion to the Lord based on a personal preference. It is wrong. My attention and your attention should be on serving Him so one day we can hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I agree with John Weeks when he writes in his book, Free to Disagree, “We are free to disagree agreeably, discuss the issues, determine the principles, and decide on the wisdom of an action or practice—but we must not condemn the other person. We are to stop judging each other in disputable issues. Why? Jesus Christ, who accepts both positions, is alone our Lord and Judge” (Free To Disagree, John Wecks, p. 41).
The two lessons learned so far are that you must accept each other without judging the other person’s convictions. You must affirm Christ’s lordship over each life. The third lesson is you must…
3. AVOID causing your brother to stumble (14:13-21).
13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. Romans 14:13 (New King James Version)
I remember bullies in elementary school who were always playing cruel jokes on other kids. One bully loved sticking his foot out in front of unsuspecting students as they carried their lunch tray to their table. The poor kid would trip and fall in front of the entire lunchroom crowd. Then the bully would deny he did it. In case you are wondering, I was never the victim of this particular bully. But I hated it then and I hate it now. It is so humiliating to the other person. It is childish, inconsiderate, and dangerous to make someone trip. Paul is warning strong believers to not flaunt their freedom in such a way as to cause a fellow believer to stumble. Don’t intentionally exercise your liberty in Christ to shock or offend other believers with whom you disagree; to do so is as inconsiderate, childish, and dangerous as a bully in the school cafeteria. It would have been wrong for a strong believer in Rome to willfully eat pickled pig’s feet at the church-wide fellowship to just prove his point to the Jewish believers that all meat is clean in God’s sight. That could cause your weaker brother to stumble. You are correct as a stronger believer that all food is kosher in Christ. 14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; Romans 14:14 And you have the liberty to eat whatever you like. But it is unloving to use your liberty in a way which may cause your weaker brother to fall. To you the food is allowable, “…but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” How might the weaker brother be caused to stumble by your actions? If he sees you flaunting your freedom it might cause him to stumble into the sin of judging you. It might also cause a weaker believer go against his conscience and act like you act and do what you do. Through peer pressure you have caused him to stumble because he went against what he felt was right. He is not doing this thing as unto the Lord. He is simply doing it because he saw you do it and did not want to be seen as different. Our former Pastor grew up with an abusive alcoholic father who ultimately lost his life in a barroom brawl. Life was not always this tragic for the family. You see, his father did not start drinking alcohol until a Baptist deacon in their church invited him to drink with him. The deacon was not an alcoholic, but the man’s father quickly became one, all because a Baptist deacon flaunted his freedom before a weaker brother. How much better would it have been for the deacon to limit his liberty for the good of this man and his family? Liberty must be balanced by love. That is why the staff and deacons of this church abstain from alcohol. We are motivated out of love for the people who may be offended or who may be harmed if they were to drink.
Paul wrote in verse fifteen: 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. 21 It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Romans 14:14-21
Did you notice verse 17? When secondary issues are elevated over people then we have forgotten what the Kingdom of God is all about. It is about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Many of the things that we take a stand on are not worth the cost of harming the fellowship. How can we major on the minors when we ought to major on the majors; righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit? Let’s guard against being RIGHT in the WRONG WAY.
Does this mean that the church is to be held hostage by the preferences or weaknesses of immature believers? No. Listen to what Lawrence Richards wrote: “Sometimes this principle is misapplied, and we let those with the least maturity in disputable matters get to impose their views on the whole church. That’s not what Paul asked. Paul was talking about relationships, not church rules. He was telling you and me that when we suspect something we are free to do might harm a less mature brother or sister, then for Jesus’ sake we should freely choose not to do it!” (The 365 Day Devotional Commentary, Lawrence O. Richards, p. 902).
As your pastor I cannot please every member in all things. My job is to lead this congregation as I am led by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the Word of God. That means there will be times that I lead our church in decisions that are not pleasing to everyone’s preferences. But as long as the decisions are biblical and ethical then God calls for unity. Hebrews 13: 17 states, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” If I try to cater to every person’s particular preferences we will have chaos. But if we act in love towards one another and exercise loving submission to godly leadership of our pastor then we will be blessed by God. And I do ask for your support, your prayers, your accountability, and your partnership. I need your support as I try to help people love God, love others, and serve the world. I need your help as we try to reach the lost in this community. Our methods may change (1Corinthians 9:19-23), but the message of the Bible will never change!
4. ACT in faith in all you do (14:22-23).
22 Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. 23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. Romans 14:22-23 (NKJV)
One of the best strategies for handling disputable matters is to not talk about them. Hold your faith between you and God. Incessant debates and arguments over these types of issues do not promote health in the body of Christ. Taking time in your LifeGroup to criticize the church leadership and to complain about the way things are done does nothing to promote harmony in the church. To launch a crusade to get everyone in line with your way of thinking does nothing to build up the body of Christ. Blogging or posting on facebook all your gripes with the church does nothing to demonstrate the power of the Gospel to a watching world. To try to use power and manipulation to get your way is not honoring to Christ who shed His blood and who prayed that we might be one. To leave the church or to stay home from worship is not the way to handle the differences between godly people. All that our disputing is likely to do is create further division and distract us from the things that truly matter; namely our common Master (the Lord Jesus Christ), our common message (the Gospel), and our common mission (to take the Gospel to the lost here and around the world).
But what Paul is primarily saying to the strong in verse 22 is that you are not to try to force your views on the weak. And do not condemn yourself by exercising your liberty in an unloving way.
In verse 23 he turn his attention to the weak. If you cannot do something in confidence that it pleases God then don’t do it! We are called to live by faith. If you cannot have faith in doing something, if you have prayed, searched the Scriptures, listened to godly counsel, and still cannot find peace about it then don’t do it.
So be convinced in your own mind about these issues. Do what you feel is pleasing to the Lord. Use your liberty balanced with love and discernment. Value people over your preferences. Value your responsibility to your brother more important than your rights. Do not judge or despise each other. Paul put it this way in verse 19: “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” Romans 14:19 (New King James Version)
Martin Luther, the great reformer said, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in everything, charity.”