Options for church unity are wider than we admit. After all, unity does not require uniformity. But if it’s true that unity does not require uniformity, what do we do when we find we are not uniform in belief and practice? And if the areas of difference are important rather than superficial, how do we keep that lack of uniformity from threatening or resulting in disunity?
It seems to me these are the questions the church now faces and has been facing for a while. In congregations across the United States, leaders and members have been trying to figure this out. Some have confused uniformity for unity and made requirements of members that cannot be substantiated by Scripture (i.e., the sometimes subtle and sometimes explicit notion that one must vote Republican or not vote in order to “be a sound Christian”). Others have opted to not address or address only sparingly those matters where members are not uniform, hoping the matters will die down or thinking that to address them at all would be to create or further disunity (i.e., the strategy of not praying for, lamenting, or saying anything about instances of racial injustice). These options do not work. Tensions involving conscience and freedom, diversity and difference continue to rise.
What should Christian leaders and members do when they are not uniform in some matters, particularly important matters involving things like “race” and racial injustice or politics and voting? For those interested to maintain unity where there may be significant disagreement on important ethical matters, here are 12 things to apply from Romans 14:1–15:7. (I apologize in advance for the length. But, hey, I’m only blogging here once per week!)
1. Know Whether You Are Weak or Strong in the Faith (Rom. 14:1)
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:1–2).
“Weak” and “strong” have nothing to do with how long someone has been a Christian or their theological system itself. It has to do with their conscience and whether their conscience allows them freedom where Christ’s word actually grants freedom or whether their conscience creates rules and restrictions in place of the freedom Christ’s word allows. The person “weak in faith” develops rules and considers breaking those rules a sin, even though it’s not. The person “strong” in faith enjoys the freedom Christ gives with a sense of Christ’s approval. The difference between the two groups show up in their practices—not in their formal theology. One makes rules to restrict legitimate freedom, while the other enjoys the freedom Christ gives.
If we would have unity where we lack uniformity, then the weak and strong in faith must not quarrel with each other. Rather, they must understand each other and themselves. We must stop to ask: “According to the Scripture, am I weak or strong in faith? Am I enjoying the liberty of Christ, or am I making rules and restrictions where there are none biblically?”
Knowing we are “weak in faith” provides opportunity for us to be free in Christ. But the difficulty is that the weak in faith often believe themselves to be strong precisely because they have rules that appear correct to them. The failure of others to obey the rules of the weak only reinforces the sense of rightness in the weak. Until we examine whether we’re weak or strong, and until teachers in the church teach members these categories, we will “quarrel over opinions” and miss opportunities for unity amid difference. Moreover, we’ll miss important opportunities to bear unified witness against the evils of our age. Determining whether we are weak or strong is the first discussion to have on the way to unity. Everything that follows depends on this first issue.
2. Recognize the Difference Between Disputable Opinions and Moral Commands (Rom. 14:1)
Romans 14–15 does not address cardinal issues of Christian theology (i.e., the Trinity, the crucifixion, the deity of Christ, and so on). Nor does it address clear moral teaching of sin and righteousness (i.e., Rom. 1:18–32). In cardinal doctrine and moral imperative there can be no difference of opinion without distorting Christianity itself.
Romans 14–15 addresses “opinions” (Rom. 14:1), or as the NIV renders it “disputable matters.” The particular opinions in Rome involved dietary preferences and observance of special religious days. Church members in Rome were judging and condemning one another over these opinions. But the gospel and Christian morality did not ride on such things, which is what made their judgments so egregious. These were areas of Christian liberty wherein Christians of like precious faith could and did disagree. These areas of disagreement necessarily involved the individual conscience, and no two consciences are exactly alike in these “disputable matters.”
So if the church wants unity where it does not have uniformity, it must distinguish between the indisputable and the disputable. A significant amount of consternation in the church today is a failure at precisely this point. What really is a non-negotiable of the Christian faith—either in terms of doctrinal teaching or moral imperative—and what is a “disputable matter” or “opinion” (which is not to say such matters are unimportant, just that they are matters that admit difference and sometimes ambiguity)? Once we figure out whether we are strong or weak on any given topic, then distinguishing clear biblical command from personal opinion is the second discussion to have on the way to unity.
3. Refuse to Despise Those Who Differ from You (Rom. 14:3)
“Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” Those who enjoy their liberty to eat are the ones strong in faith. Their conscience allows them more freedom in eating without feeling like they’re sinning. Those who abstain are the “weak in faith.” Their conscience will not allow them to eat meat without feeling guilty of sin.
The Bible does not say, “Let the strong convince the weak to change their mind.” It does not say, “Let the weak convince the strong to give up meat.” I think this text implicitly disallows resolution by an act of power.
Instead, the Bible says, “Stop judging each other critically.” The Bible says, “Do not despise a person whose conscience is different from your own.” But how often do we hear Christians call into question the salvation of other Christians over differences of opinion about topics involving liberty? The Bible confronts our tendency to usurp God’s role in judgment in these matters. The Bible says, “Stop despising each other.”
The reason we should stop judging people over opinions and disputable matters is because God has already welcomed them. How can we condemn those God has already accepted in the gospel of Jesus Christ? If we need a rule in these matters, let it be the rule to never despise those who differ from us on opinions. Let us know whether we are weak or strong, discern the difference between clear biblical command and personal opinion, and then refuse to despise those who differ.
4. Leave Judgment to God (Rom. 14:4–5)
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Our disputes over opinions do not stop with the topics of dispute themselves (i.e., eating or celebration days). Another opinion often follows closely—opinions about whether those we disagree with are truly Christians. It’s a common temptation. We soon hear ourselves wonder or see others say or write, “I’m not sure they’re really Christians.”
But our fellow Christians are not our servants to judge. They do not belong to us. We did not save them. They belong to Another, to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our brothers and sisters will each appear to their true Master who alone will decide whether they stand or fall.
Notice the assurance. Our brothers and sisters will be upheld because it is the Lord who makes them stand! We should stop being so quick to wonder whether somebody is saved simply because they differ from us on a disputable matter. We should be far quicker to look at one another as people saved by the blood of Christ who belong to their One Master—Jesus the Lord.
If we are tempted to make a judgment of others in opinions, let it be the judgment that God is able to save them on that great and terrible Day. Let the certainty of God’s salvation be the emphasis, rather than a passing and tepid admission inserted while argument and innuendo suggest the opposite.
5. Be Fully Convinced in Your Own Mind (Rom. 14:5)
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
Again, the Bible does not require one side to change their opinion and join the other side in “disputable matters.” What the Bible requires is that we know what we’re talking about. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” If we’re going to have an opinion, make sure it’s an informed and sound opinion. Opinions can be and often are wrong; so we need to get things right and settled through sound reason as best we can.
Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind, but that doesn’t make every opinion equal in validity, accuracy, or helpfulness. In a lot of conversations between Christians about race and racism, the conversations are set up so that there are winners and losers and so that every opinion is seen as equally valid. But, friend, that’s a trap. There are a lot of ignorant opinions out there about race and racism. Some of the loudest people have never read a book on the disputed subject. They haven’t listened to others. The debated topic is not an area of study or expertise for them. They’re simply repeating what they heard their favorite pundit say or, worse, making up a perspective in the midst of a Twitter rant.
There’s a better way, a way that leads to acceptance and welcoming. That’s when we: (a) allow others to have their views, (b) learn from the views of others, (c) do our homework by reading multiple sources from different angles on the issue, (d) test every view by the word of God, and (e) then arrive at fully formed opinions that convince us.
People who are fully convinced in their own minds find they have even more freedom, because they’ve informed their conscience. They don’t feel a need to force uniformity, because they know what they know. And because they’ve done the work to become “strong in faith,” they can usually recognize and help other people on the path to fuller freedom by extending them grace to keep making their way.
Worry about your own thinking. Do the homework and be fully convinced for yourself.
6. Honor the Lord in Your Practice (Rom. 14:6–9)
“The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God. For no one lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end, Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
Another temptation we face on the way to unity when there is not uniformity is the temptation to judge the motives of others. Their difference in opinion can arouse our flesh. We not only judge whether they are Christians, we add to that an assumption about what motivates them. At least, we can be tempted to tell ourselves “the other side” does not want Christ’s glory. “If they did, they would not hold that opinion, right?” the flesh asks.
As verse 7 says, “None of us live to ourselves.” We all live and die to God and for God. All of life should be lived in respect and reverence for Jesus. So whichever path you take, according to your conscience, do it giving thanks to God, knowing your life and your death belong to him.
Every Christian fully convinced in his or her conscience will do or not do a thing for the same motive—to honor the Lord. We should charitably assume that of our brothers and sisters who differ with us in gray areas. We should be convinced that we ourselves are trying to honor the Lord. And we should be convinced that in these disputable matters our brothers and sisters are trying to honor the Lord.
When we look at our brother or sister who has a different view than our own on racial issues or politics or homeschooling or the country’s history, do you remind yourself that they are taking their view to honor the Lord because they live and die for him?
7. Think of Your Own Judgment (Rom. 14:10–12)
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
“So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” In context, that means we will have to answer to God for the opinions we hold and the actions we take based on them. Sometimes people act as if there’s no accountability for opinions. They act as if they can think anything they wish without consequence. But the God who knows our every thought will lay those thoughts bare before the universe. We will give an account for every idle word (Matt. 12:36–37). There is no free speech before the Lord.
If we really took our own judgment seriously, we wouldn’t be worried about judging others. We would be too concerned about our own appearance before God to get too worked up about disputable matters other people believe. The question becomes: What account will I give for the thoughts and actions I hold?
8. Resolve Not to Be a Stumbling Block (vv. 13–16 and 20–21)
Romans 14:13–16 and 20–21 hold two ideas in tension. On the one hand, they teach that “nothing is unclean in itself.” In other words, all these things that are not sin are permissible to participate in. We have freedom to eat or not eat and to celebrate or not celebrate certain days.
On the other hand, we must recognize that we should use our freedom to express love to others. Or to use the language of verses 15 and 20, we should not use our freedom in a way that “destroys the one for whom Christ died” or “destroys the work of God.” It’s that serious. The unloving use of freedom by the one with a strong conscience actually grieves (v. 15), destroys (vv. 15, 20), and trips up (v. 21) the weaker brother or sister who does not yet understand freedom in Christ. The rules of the “weak in faith” keep them safe from freedoms they’re not strong enough to enjoy. The strong should not harm them by flaunting freedom.
There are times when the loving thing to do is to limit our freedoms so we do not undo the work of Christ in others. Is that an active principle in our conversations with church members with whom we disagree? Are we each resolved not to be a stumbling block?
But we need a qualification here: If you’re the person who would try to use this “weaker brother principle” to control others, a bigger need for you is to go back to strategies 1–7 recognizing yourself as both the weaker in faith and perhaps sinfully manipulative. Why would you want to bind your brother or sister’s conscience to the rules you have made for yourself when they are not your servants but God’s? (See 1 Cor. 10:29b–30.)
9. Embrace the True Nature of the Kingdom (Rom. 14:17–19)
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
The kingdom of God is about God the Holy Spirit working genuine righteousness, peace, and joy in a person. This is the secret to peace and edification in the church. Peace doesn’t come by legalistic rules (Col. 2:20ff). Edification doesn’t come by binding other people to our restrictions of conscience. Peace and edification come by living in the freedom-giving Spirit of God and receiving those who do. We will find peace with each other, and we will build each other up when each of us resolves to seek the filling of the Holy Spirit and live lives that bear the fruit of the Spirit. God accepts that kind of life and so do men and women (v. 18).
So when you think of your political and racial positions that lie in gray areas, and when you think of your conversations with others: Are you calling them to obey manmade rules, or are you calling them deeper into life with the Holy Spirit? A life of righteousness, peace, and joy.
10. Keep a Quiet and Clean Conscience (Rom. 14:22–23)
“The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Some things should be kept between the individual Christian and God. One of those things is “faith.” Paul does not mean saving faith. Here “faith” refers to matters of personal conscience—what we believe to be right or wrong where the Bible does not give us clear command or teaching. The Bible teaches we should keep those things between us and God.
When we obey the faith we have, we have no reason to blame or judge ourselves for wrongdoing. By contrast, if we do things against our conscience, against our personal “faith,” then we sin. So, if your conscience won’t allow you to vote a certain way in a disputable matter, don’t vote that way. If your conscience won’t allow you to take a particular policy position in a disputable matter, then don’t take that position.
Obey your conscience until your conscience is shaped more by the Word of God and the freedom Christ gives. This is important, because no person’s conscience perfectly overlays God’s Word. We always have need of informing and reforming our conscience according to God’s Word. So we must be committed to keeping a clean conscience, and that is work that only the individual Christian can do for him or herself.
11. Build Up Your Neighbor (Rom. 15:1–3)
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”
Paul comes back to the “strong” in faith, those who don’t have a lot of rules but enjoy their freedom in matters of opinion. The strong have a unique obligation. They must be patient and accepting of the “failings of the weak.” It would be easy to say, “I’m the one that’s free; you need to get free too!” But freedom is not to be used for selfishness. Freedom is to be used to please or bless our neighbor for their good. We want to build up our neighbor in the faith—that means bearing with the weak who often don’t even know they’re weak.
Our pattern for that is Jesus. On the cross, they insulted Jesus, spat on him and mocked him—not because of his own sin but because of ours. What was Jesus doing as they reviled him? He took our reproach and judgment so we could be free through his sacrifice. That same pattern should be at work when it comes to the “strong” accepting the “weak” in the body of Christ. If we judge ourselves to be “strong,” then we should lovingly and sacrificially—like Jesus—endure and bear with the weak.
What would it look like for you to do this with someone you understand to have a weaker conscience than you do?
12. Make the Church’s Harmony and God’s Glory Your Explicit Goals (Rom. 15:4–6)
Unity does not last by chance. Harmonious relationships do not come with a snap of the finger. Unity and harmony require that we actively and prayerfully work for them.
In my opinion, there’s only one reason worthy enough of all the hard work it takes for weak and strong to live in unity where there is not uniformity: When we work together for unity and harmony it results in our glorifying God the Father. The greatness of God is seen, in part, through the harmony of the church. God’s glory is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. God has attached his glory to weak and strong welcoming or accepting one another despite their differences in matters of opinion.
If Honor Is My Motive
In my flesh, I care too much about my opinions and too often believe them to be correct to sacrifice them for the “lesser” views of others. And there are times when the disagreements are so sharp and the issues too important to keep me unified with those who differ.
Only when my view is dominated by the praise of the One who saved me at great cost to himself am I willing to enter into his suffering for the sake of accepting or welcoming “the other.” I need Jesus before me if I’m going to live this way. If his honor is my motive, and he is honored in the church’s harmony, then I need to apply these 12 things (and more!) to my part in maintaining unity when there is not uniformity.
How about you?