There are lots of people who start a physical fitness program who are successful in getting in shape because they have a training partner (I speak from observation, not experience). These people lift weights, do aerobics, and jog together while they also hold each other accountable in their dieting. The reason this works better than working alone is because when one person is feeling lazy the other person can spur him/her on. When one wants to quit, the other pushes them to keep going. Two is always better than one.
God designed the body of Christ to be this kind of environment. He created us in community so that we could spur each other on in growth. In Romans 14 the Apostle Paul has been walking the fine line between personal freedom in secondary issues and our responsibility to look out for each other. In Romans 14:19 Paul wrote,
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.
It is that phrase “mutual edification” that is important for us to grasp. The word edification here actually means to “build up”. In chapter 15:2 Paul says something similar, “2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
Our job is to help each other. To this end Paul is giving us some principles on how to grow together even though we disagree. His words apply to a number of “hot button” issues such as: is drinking alcohol a sin? Should Christians dance, play cards, and go to movies? Should we get rid of our television sets? Should Christians let their children go “Trick or Treating” at Halloween? Should we tell our kids about Santa Claus? Is there a correct style of music for worship? And hundreds of other issues. Before we get to some new principles, let’s review what Paul has already told us.
- The church should be an accepting place
- Like all families we will disagree on things
- We must not condemn over secondary issues. . .God has already accepted our brothers and sisters . . . so should we.
- We must remember that people report to God, not to us
- We must do what we have become convinced is right before God
- We must live in light of the Judgment of God
- We should always consider someone who may be led astray by our actions . . . we should not be terrorized by the obnoxious nitpicker but should be sensitive to the weak.
- We must never let secondary issues overshadow the main truths of the gospel.
This morning I want to give you four final principles that I see.
Err on the Side of Caution (14:21)
The first thing Paul says is, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” Paul is not denying our freedom . . . he celebrates it. He does however suggest that we should be willing to voluntarily limit that freedom for the sake of a young believer.
Notice, Paul is not saying it is better not to eat or drink . .. it is better not to do so if you know it is going to cause someone else to stumble! It is more important to protect and build up each other than it is to insist on our freedoms.
Over in the book of 1 Corinthians Paul gives some similar practical guidelines. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, he writes,
“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything.”
In 1 Cor. 10:23, 31, Paul continues his guidelines,
“23 “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. “
The principle is clear, even though we are free to enjoy what God has created, not everything is beneficial or constructive. Some things can enslave us. Let me try to give some examples,
There is nothing wrong with drinking coffee. However, if that coffee makes your blood pressure soar you should stay away from it.
There is nothing wrong with having a little wine, but if you come from an alcoholic family it is more beneficial for you that you stay away from anything with alcohol in it to make sure you don’t have problems.
There is nothing wrong with buying a nice car (if you can afford it) however, if you become obsessed by the car and it hinders your family life and suck up money you would spend on essentials such a purchase would be bad for you.
There is nothing wrong with have a beer on a warm afternoon but if you can’t stop with a beer or two you shouldn’t drink any.
There is nothing wrong with watching a movie unless doing so is going to warp your value system.
These principles can extend to many things. Let me give you an example of my own life. I found that I had to stop playing sports when I was younger because I became too aggressive and hostile. It took control of my life. Most of the time I like to sit down and watch a football or baseball game on television. However, I can get “too involved”. When I saw that watching these games were affecting my moods and making me irritable with others I realized that I needed to stop watching the games . . .they were beginning to gain too much control in my life.
We are free but we must always use freedom responsibly. So, you may have freedom to do something but be sinning if you exercise that freedom. If the exercise of your freedom tears down rather than builds up, we should refrain, turn away, and look for something better.
Personal Convictions Should Be Kept Private (14:22)
In verse 22 Paul writes,
22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.”
Isn’t this interesting? Paul gives us another principle: since these issues we have talked about often lead to disagreements, we should make the issue of whether or not we participate a matter that is between us and God. We shouldn’t make these things major issues. There is no reason to debate whether or not you should drink wine with your dinner. It is a personal decision that is between you and God.
When Paul says, “blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves” is not condemning himself because he is eating or drinking . . . he condemns himself if his position causes conflict in the church or causes a brother to stumble. The way to keep that from happening is to keep your personal opinions private.
Honest disagreement must not be a test of fellowship. We should not make these issues a test of true belief. If a person believes in the second coming of Christ, I don’t think it matters what view of the events of the second coming he holds. If a church is honoring Christ it doesn’t matter whether they prefer to do it with hymns or choruses or both. It doesn’t matter whether they put the music on paper or project it on a screen. It doesn’t matter whether or not you drink wine with dinner as long as you are seeking to honor God in your actions. These are matters of personal preference and should not be issues that cause conflict among the people of the church.
If in Doubt . . .Don’t (14:23)
Paul gives us a third principle in verse 23, “23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
The principle is this: “If you don’t think something is right to do . . . don’t do it!” Scripture is always the final Judge, but when Scripture is not clear we should be attentive to our conscience. Two people may view the same issue differently for a number of reasons,
Different physical and psychological make-ups. Some people are more likely to be addicted than others.
Different levels of growth and understanding and different purposes within the body of Christ. God uses different people in different ways. We grow in different areas and at different rates.
Different circumstances. Let me give you an example. As a Pastor, I am in a different circumstance than you are in. If I go out and have a glass of wine with my dinner it will be seen differently than if you do it.
Different Passions. Some people are passionate about taking care of their body; others are passionate about purifying the soul. Some are passionate about reaching the lost; others are passionate about ministering to the hurting. Different passions may lead us to different conclusions on these issues.
Paul’s rule is that when Scripture is silent we need to listen to our conscience. There are two reasons. First, the conscience is one of the ways the Holy Spirit guides and teaches us. Second, if we continually ignore the whispers of conscience our conscience can become calloused and we will drift. We must listen and respond.
Our Example is Christ (15:1-3)
Paul’s final principle is this: We should follow the example of Jesus.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”
Paul wants us to take our cues from Jesus and not the world. The world says “I’m going to do what I want and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Jesus, on the other hand, endured abuse that was physical and verbal. He didn’t have to. He could have stopped it with a word. The reason he didn’t stop it was because he wasn’t thinking of Himself, he was thinking of you and me. He knew that He we could only be set free from the consequence of our sin through His sacrifice.
Every parent understands a little about this kind of sacrifice. As a parent you make sacrifices for your children. If you have only so much money and you need something, and your child needs something, more often than not you will go without, so you can provide for your kids. If there was a problem and there is a choice between your life and your child’s you would likely choose to save your child. You would mortgage all you had if that’s what was necessary to save your child.
Jesus gave up His life for us. We should be willing to adjust our freedom in order to edify, build up, and cheer on the others in the body of Christ.
As we have worked through Romans 14 I hope you have a new perspective on some of the things that often divide Christians. Paul’s advice is clear: don’t sweat the small stuff! Where you come down on these issues is something you need to decide for yourself. You must determine what you believe is right before God, based on your own study of the Scriptures, and then act in accordance with your own conscience. We need to accept the fact that we won’t always see eye to eye on these matters.
Understand, Paul is not teaching a “Cafeteria Christianity” where you take what you want and leave the rest. There is only one way to Heaven. There is only one true gospel. We are made new only by surrendering our life and hope of salvation to Jesus. The gospel is clear as to what is right and wrong.
However, in the issues where we are applying our Christianity to life, there may be some disagreement. In times of disagreement we must refrain from concluding that others are “less spiritual” or even “a non-believer” because of the path they choose. I wonder how many Christians have been pushed away from the church simply because they smoked cigarettes. Sure, it is bad for you. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and we should care for our bodies. However, overeating, a lack of exercise, too much stress, too much sun, and working too many hours are all bad for you physically also. Why do we focus on Cigarettes? We should resist the urge to make other people’s vices a test of fellowship.
Issues like church music, form of worship, the frequency of communion, how you view the sequence of events in the last days, and I think even the amount of water used in baptism, are matters of secondary importance. We differ on these things not because we are people who have deserted the faith but because we are looking at things from different perspectives. The Scriptures must always be our guide –but when Scripture is silent we should be silent also.
Paul’s point is that we aren’t saved by what we don’t do . . . we are saved by what Christ has done. God’s Spirit will change each person in His timing and according to His priorities. We have been forgiven through Christ. We have been set free by the gospel! Our focus now is how to show God love and honor in all that we do.
Is there potential for people to abuse their freedom. Yes, there is. Every good thing has the potential for abuse. For most of us, this freedom in Christ will make us profoundly grateful. We will be people who realize that we have been set free from sin and from the performance mentality. Rather than abuse that freedom, we will cherish it and live gratefully before the Lord.
The person who understands the freedom that is ours in Christ will work to build up others. They will see that the Christian life is not a competition to see who is right and who is wrong. We are a family. We may disagree on the little things but we agree on what is important. And if we keep this straight, we will become partners in growth and discipleship. And when this happens, the church will stand as a powerful example of what Christ can do and the church will once again be the place that people are drawn to because it is a place where people really do love one another.