Romans 14: Disputable Matters
March 22, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
An important and much neglected category within the Christian community is that of “disputable matters.” Those who tend to be serious about the Bible and want to stand firmly on what it says can end up being serious about everything and inflexible about every matter. But Paul took a different approach: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” How and why should we do this?
First, we should start from a principle and posture of acceptance towards those who are Christians. We sometimes say that we should grant trust to those in the Christian community. But Paul goes a little further, and is a bit more precise. He wants us to accept each other; as Christ has accepted us, so we should accept each other.
But, second, why? Because each of us is a servant of the Lord. At the heart of many arguments about “disputable matters” is a desire to be the boss, to have authority, to dominate, to be the master. But we have only one Master, and we are all servants. And we are not therefore to judge someone else’s servant. Leave it up to God. He will judge. You should be concerned about how you are serving the Lord—not how someone else is serving the Lord.
For, third, each is to be fully convinced in their own mind. They have their own approaches to these disputable matters—what days of the week are special, what kinds of food to eat; we might add things like how baptism is practiced or in what way communion is served—and those approaches to these disputable matters are pursued out of faith and devotion. They do it for the Lord. So Paul is not saying that we should not come to our own mind about disputable matters. We should have our own opinion about such things and do them for the Lord; but we are not to judge other people who serve God in slightly different ways.
This means, fourth, that we should determine to do what we can to avoid putting stumbling blocks in the way of other Christians. If something you do is distressing another Christian, then it is probably time to stop doing that thing. We are trying to serve God in a way that does not damage someone else’s spiritual growth and development. We may well be right; but we are not to exercise our faith in such a way that it damages someone’s else’s faith. At the same time, says Paul, that does not mean that we allow someone to speak evil of what we hold to be true. There is a place to defend out conscience, but not in such a way as to damage other people. For all this, balance is needed and wisdom required.
All of this, fifth, brings in to focus a great principle: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The reason why we can avoid arguing about these disputable matters is because they are not really that important. They are not even what the kingdom of God is about at all. Let us then focus on what matters: righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Which, sixth, gives us a great rule of practice. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” Many times it is hard to know what is the right thing to do. The Bible does not obviously address it. And the options are not clear to sanctified logic either. But this in such circumstances can guide us: make every effort to do what leads to peace and to the mutual up-building spiritually of everyone involved. If that principle were followed, much sorrow and needless friction could be avoided!
Another, seventh, principle is mentioned towards the end: whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. There is room for defending your viewpoint if it is being falsely maligned, but at the same time we are not to go around advocating for what we think. This is not what the kingdom of God is about—these disputable matters. So don’t make that your ministry emphasis, or what you are campaigning for. Keep your opinion about those disputable matters just to yourself.
Finally, through it all, eighth: “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” We should do what we believe is right in these areas, conscience is important, for if we do not do what we believe is right, we are sinning. If we think that what we are doing is wrong, then (even if our view is inaccurate) when we do that thing, we are in our heart sinning against God—because we think that what we are doing is wrong. Therefore whatever does not come from faith is sin, so act according to your conscience about these disputable matters, even as you educate your conscience to come more into line with what is true.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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