Charles Swindoll in his book The Grace Awakening relates the story of a missionary family that was forced off the mission field and pushed away from the church over peanut butter. They were sent to a location where peanut butter was not available and they asked friends at home to send them peanut butter in their care packages. They believed peanut butter itself was neither good or bad. They enjoyed peanut butter, felt there was nothing wrong with eating it, so they looked forward to the care packages.
The established missionaries had a different viewpoint. They had decided that they would show their commitment to their calling by not having or eating peanut butter. These established missionaries pressured the new missionaries to agree with them. In fact, they pressed them so hard and so viciously that the family left the mission field and actually left the church for a time.
If you take out peanut butter from the story and insert: drinking wine with dinner, having a beer on a warm afternoon, playing cards, dancing, letting your kids go “Trick or Treating”, going to movies, your view of the timing of the return of Christ, the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, and a host of other items you will have a host of things over which Christians have fought. In some cases churches have split and people have been pushed away from the gospel because of these very things.
In Romans 14 Paul addresses the issue of Christian freedom in regard to non-essential issues. He argues that in issues the Bible does not speak to, the believer has an obligation to make up his own mind before the Lord. Jerry Bridges writes,
There is very little emphasis in Christian circles today on the importance of Christian freedom. Just the opposite seems to be true. Instead of promoting freedom, we stress our rules of conformity. Instead of preaching living by grace, we preach living by performance. Instead of encouraging new believers to be conformed to Christ, we subtly insist that they be conformed to our particular style of Christian culture. (p. 121 Transforming Grace]
Last week we looked at some of the principles Paul gives us for handling these kinds of disagreements.
1. The church should be an accepting place
2. There will be disagreements in the body
3. There are principles for handling these disagreements
a. We must not condemn others on secondary issues. We must always ask, “Where in the Bible does it say you can’t do that?” We need to ask “Am I bothered because this violates the Bible or because it doesn’t fit into my expectations and cultural norms?” Issues that are not condemned by God should not be condemned by us.
b. We must remember that people report to God and not to us. There was a wonderful cartoon that was a takeoff on the Four Spiritual Laws. A wife was speaking to her husband, a minister, and said, “God loves you, and people have a wonderful plan for your life!” It’s funny but it is true. We report to God, not to each other.
c. Each person has to do what they have come to believe is the right thing to do…regardless of what others might say.
This week we continue looking at this issue. We pick up our text at Romans 14:10.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. [14:9-12]
WE WILL ALL GIVE AN ACCOUNT OF OUR CHOICES TO GOD
Paul’s principle is pretty simple: We must all make our decisions about secondary issues in light of the reality of God’s Judgment. Our job is not to judge each other; it is to live in light of the reality of our own judgment by the Lord.
The Bible points to two different aspects of Judgment. These are best summarized in Revelation 11:17-18,
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. 18 The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great— and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
The first Judgment will be a Judgment that determines whether we spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell. At this Judgment those people who think they were good enough, or religious enough will discover they have not come close to meeting God’s standard. It will be like getting a failing grade in a class you thought was “no problem”.
God will show these people that He is perfectly just in sending them to Hell and eternal torment. There won’t be any debate on that day. They will see God’s greatness and I imagine God will play on the screen of our minds and hearts all the things we did, said, and thought that were in rebellion or indifference to Him. Immediately every one of these people will know that they deserve Hell. They will realize that they can blame no one but themselves. They will see that Hell is not the “party place” they playfully imagined it was. They will see that it is devoid of all the wonderful blessings and pleasures of God. There will be no more intimacy, love, fellowship, beauty, enjoyment, laughter, family, or sense of accomplishment.
The second dimension of this Judgment is for Christians. They have been spared the first Judgment because Christ has already paid for our sin and rebellion by His death and resurrection. The judgment of believers will be for the purpose of handing out rewards for faithfulness. We will all have to stand before the Judge and give an account of how we lived our lives as children of God. At this point God will reward the faithful.
Why does Paul bring this up now? It’s simple. He wants us to remember that we shouldn’t waste our time judging others. Instead, we should work to make sure we are living right before the Lord. Jesus said,
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. [Matthew 7:3-5]
We need to examine our actions on these questionable issues by asking a simple question, “Will I be able to stand before the Lord unashamed when he examines my choice in this issue?” It doesn’t matter what other people say. The question is: What will HE say?
WE MUST CONSIDER OUR WEAKER BROTHER
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. [Romans 14:13]
The principle here is pretty simple: we shouldn’t do anything that is going to hurt a fellow believer or cause him or her to sin. In other words, if you know someone has a problem with controlling their consumption of alcohol, you shouldn’t take a drink in their presence. If you know someone has a gambling problem, you shouldn’t invite him/her to play cards. If you know someone has come out of the background of the occult you should do nothing to encourage that person to participate in Halloween activities of any kind. If you know your actions might encourage someone to go against their conscience, you should refrain.
Do you know why many churches substitute grape juice for wine for communion (there is nothing wrong with using wine)? It is because of those who may be recovering alcoholics. For some of those people the mere taste of alcohol could cause them to fall back into the lifestyle of drunkenness. Choosing grape juice is a way of being considerate for those around us. We should be willing to limit our freedom out of love for the conscience of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, Paul is not saying we should always try to please everyone around us. That is an impossible task. Some people are afraid to do anything in the fear that they may offend. There is a second group of people who will always be offended by the exercise of our freedom. These are people who are “controllers”. These people insist that you live life according to their rules and their consciences. They have no intention of letting you live by your convictions . . . unless they agree with them! This person will define himself by what he doesn’t do.
We do not have to limit our freedom because of these people. They are not weak, just determined. Paul was considerate of new believers but he was fierce in opposing the Judaizers who insisted that new Gentile believers had to convert to Judaism before they could be “real” Christians. Jesus was tender with those who were new to His teaching but confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees (the rule makers and enforcers of the day). We should do likewise. We must be gentle with the weak but firm with those who simply wish us to conform to their viewpoint.
The people who want to control others actually hinder evangelistic efforts because they give the impression that Christianity is about keeping rules and regulations. They tell others that they cannot be “true believers” unless they conform to their opinions on secondary issues. This buries the true gospel of God’s grace and mercy. These people suck the freedom, life and vitality out of the church if we let them. We must NOT surrender our freedom to these people because it encourages them in their narrow-mindedness.
Think about it this way. When you have a little child you put covers on the outlets, latches on the doors, gates by the stairways. You scold your little ones if they get near the stove or fireplace Why do we do this? It’s because we need to protect our child. They are unable to understand the blessings and dangers of these things. We know that outlets, doors, stairs and ovens are not bad in themselves. Actually, they are quite good. However, until children understand the danger along with the benefit we must protect our children.
When your child is a teenager will you still be covering the outlets and telling him to stay away from the stove? At this stage of a child’s life you want them to tap into the freedoms these things have to offer. You want them to enjoy these things having learned to respect them. You start protecting the child but then you must move on to teaching and instructing the child. In the same way, the young brother in Christ must be protected. The brother who is simply a controlling person, must be instructed in the faith and taught about the freedom that is ours in Christ. This person must come to understand that each person is free to make up their own mind as to what is right in secondary issues.
In my opinion, the missionaries were right to continue to eat their peanut butter. The experienced missionaries needed to grow up in their understanding of the gospel and the freedom it extends.
DO NOT ALLOW MINOR THINGS TO OVERSHADOW MAIN THINGS (v. 17)
Do not allow what you consider good to 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, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
Paul wants us to stop fighting about non-essential things. If something is going to cause a problem and hamper the advancement of God’s Kingdom, we should refrain from doing these things. If the exercise of our freedom (which is lawful for us to do) detracts from God’s glory, then we should refrain. Paul wants us to remember that what is important, is not the exercise of our freedom but the glory of Christ.
We must keep the big picture in mind. The issue is not our reputation; but His. It is not whether we get to do what we want; the issue is whether we are free to do what we believe HE wants us to do. What He wants most of all is for us to show love and kindness to each other.
We haven’t finished Paul’s principles on this complex topic but we need to draw some additional conclusions. First, our goal is to show love and consideration to others and to honor the Lord with our lives rather than argue over who is strong and who is weak. To argue over these things is to miss the point.
Second, surrendering our freedom should be the response of love and concern for our fellow believer. We should surrender our freedoms joyfully in order to promote the gospel. Perhaps it is like our soldiers. Soldiers voluntarily agree to become a part of the service of the country. They agree to limit their freedom and submit to the direction of a commanding officer because the freedom of our country (or other countries) is greater than any one individual’s freedom. In the same way, sometimes we are called to surrender our freedom temporarily in order to advance the Kingdom and to protect the young believers.
Third, at the same time, there are times when we should not surrender our freedom. We should refuse to surrender our freedoms when we are being called to a new form of legalism. Legalism is when people make Christianity about rules rather than a relationship with Jesus. Legalism robs grace of its joy and often turns people from trusting God back to trusting their own ability. In these situations we must preserve the freedom of the child of God.
If someone came to you and said you should not speak out against abortion, same sex marriage, the victimization of the poor, judicial injustice, or corruption in government because it is dividing the country, would you be quiet? I hope not. In these cases we have no choice but to speak out because to not do so would be to perpetuate that which is evil. Christians must embrace their freedom and serve God out of a spirit of love and celebration rather than obligation and fear.
Finally, we must remember that our job is to serve the Lord rather than please men. We are accountable to Him. You and I are held responsible for whether or not we trust Christ for salvation and whether or not we trust Him in the decisions of our lives.
So let me conclude with some questions,
1. Are you still hoping you can earn Heaven by keeping a bunch of rules? Friend, you can keep every rule that someone gives you and you still won’t get into Heaven. The only way to be right with God is to put your trust in Jesus Christ. He is the one who has done the necessary work. He is the One who died in your place. You and I are so addicted to sin that we don’t even recognize it any more. So, have you “bet your life” on Him? Are you willing to put your eternal destiny in His capable hands? If you have never done so, I encourage you to do so today.
2. Are you so concerned about making everyone around you happy that you no longer enjoy the journey of grace and life? God has set you free in Christ to serve Him! Do so boldly. Serve Him joyfully. Stop drawing your clues from those around you and just follow Jesus. If you want to boldly express your worship to the Lord . . . do so. Stop letting others control your relationship with God.
3. Are you so intent on doing your “own thing” that you are hurting the people around you? Are you showing consideration for those who may have an opinion different than your own? We are a family. We need to protect the ones who are weak and instruct those who need instruction. We must joyfully serve God by loving the Ones He loves. Be willing to serve the Lord by serving each other.
May God so work in your life that you may serve Him according to His grace and consistent with your convictions . . . whether you choose to eat peanut butter or not.