Throughout my life as a Christian and as a pastor, I have experienced many different traditions and brands of Christianity. Although I have found that there are core beliefs and practices that distinguish Christians as Christians, I have also found that there are many differences of opinion regarding certain practices and behaviours. Now, there are certain things about the Christian faith that are simply non-negotiable. There are things about our behaviour that all Christians also need to agree upon. We need to agree that stealing is wrong. We need to agree that sexual intercourse is to be between only one man and one woman who are married and that any other kinds of sexual behaviour have God’s disapproval. We need to agree that murder is not an effective way of resolving disputes. These are the non-negotiable. These are the things that are clearly taught in Scripture from the beginning to the end of the Bible.
However, I have learned that there are times when the Bible leaves room for disagreement. There are times when the Bible is not very clear on what behaviours are acceptable and which are not. A cartoon I saw showed a church with a sign that said, “Westport Community church – a little fuzzy where the Bible is a little fuzzy.” I kind of like that thinking. There are certain “fuzzy” areas that we can try to nail down Biblically but probably never will. If they really needed to be I believe God would have been clearer in the Bible about them. Nevertheless, these are issues that can be very divisive in the church. And there is an amazing array of such issues. They include dancing, alcohol use and card playing. What about Contemporary Christian music? Churches of the Plymouth Brethren tradition, as ours is, have their own unique areas of disagreement related to the Lord’s Supper, paid pastors and the role of women in worship.
My purpose this morning is not to convince you one way or the other about these matters. All I wanted to do by mentioning them is to show that there are areas of disagreement in our churches where the Bible provides no specific guidance or can be interpreted one way or the other but which have moral implications.
What do we do? How do we prevent conflict in the church over issues that the Bible seems to leave up to individual conscience? This is important because some churches have split over them.
It is good that this particular problem isn’t new to our times. Paul dealt with it almost 2000 years ago. Back then dancing, drinking wine, playing cards and Contemporary Christian Music weren’t the problems. However, there were other problems. Paul begins to talk about them in chapter 14 of Romans.
1 ¶ Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.
One problem concerned the eating of meat. Now, this has nothing to do with what concerns most contemporary vegetarians or People who Eat Tasty Animals. The people Paul was probably talking about were people in the Corinthian church who were Jewish Christians who avoided eating any meat if it wasn’t slaughtered in a kosher manner. Many Jewish believers grew up obeying the Law of Moses and they did not feel free to eat just any meat. They certainly would have had trouble with eating pork. In Corinth, it may have been difficult to find a butcher who would cater to Jewish people and so many simply didn’t eat meat but stuck to vegetables out of concern for personal holiness. Gentile Christians who didn’t have that background would have problems understanding that.
Another problem concerned attaching importance to special holy days. As we read in verse 5:
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
Again, it was quite likely that people who were Jewish and became believers in Christ still felt like they should keep the Sabbath and celebrate all the Jewish holidays like the Passover as they did before. They may have intellectually known that those Jewish celebrations looked forward to the coming of Jesus but they still felt empty or guilty if they didn’t observe them. The Gentiles in the church would not share their point of view because to them, those special days didn’t carry the same importance. Perhaps the Gentiles reasoned that since the Holy days and celebrations pointed to the coming of Christ and since Jesus already came, what was the point of observing them? They were mere shadows of the reality that was found in Christ. So when Yom Kipper came along the Jewish Christians fasted and the Gentiles didn’t. We can easily see how the observation of Holy Days would become a divisive issue.
I think that we are always going to have some kinds of divisive issues in the church that are not so much Biblical as they are questions of conscience. So the question is, “what do we do with it? From Romans 14, we can get some great guidance.
I. First of all, we must realize that there is a difference between something that is non-negotiably Biblical and something that is a question of conscience.
One of the first things Paul does in addressing these divisive issues is to point out to the Romans that these issues are ones where the believer has freedom to decide for him or herself according to the strength of both conscience and faith.
One of the mistakes we can make is to assume that the Bible leaves no room for differing opinions on matters of conscience. We want everything black and white. Do this and don’t do that. The Bible does have much that is cut and dried – much more than many people like. Many things are wrong. Period. However, it is possible for some things to be wrong for some people while for others it isn’t. Before you reject what I say, please hear me out.
a. Sometimes a person’s BACKGROUND has a great effect on what they believe is right or wrong to do. The examples Paul gives – eating meat and celebrating holy days – fall under this category.
Years ago I met a lady whose family disagreed with playing any kind of sports on Sunday. I am not talking about organized sports. I am talking about a game of pick-up baseball on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon. When this lady grew up, she married a man who absolutely loves baseball. In fact, one day I needed to know who won the World Series in 1971. I called him up and he told me right away. He didn’t even need to look it up. The first time this couple attended a Sunday School picnic where they played baseball, she felt terribly guilty about it. Her conscience was weak regarding this issue. This was her background talking and because of that, playing baseball on Sunday became an issue of conscience with her. Even after she convinced herself that the Bible isn’t clear on this issue, she still felt guilty but she was willing to admit that this was an issue of conscience.
You see, it is possible for someone to feel that something is wrong for them, even if other believers feel liberty in these areas. There are things that are MATTERS OF CONSCIENCE where believers have to decide what is RIGHT FOR THEM.
II. We need to realize in dealing with matters of conscience that we are not the judge.
1 ¶ Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
In areas where the Bible is unclear or where the Bible gives freedom of conscience, we must not impose our own opinion on everyone else. We accept those whose conscience is weaker. We don’t condemn those whose conscience is stronger.
Paul tells the vegetarians not to condemn those who eat meat because God has accepted them. There are times when, despite our personal feelings, we have to let God be God. If God hasn’t condemned something that we feel is wrong for us, who are WE to condemn someone who does it? That is God’s business. God is the judge.
9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 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.
b. In regards to judgement, Paul makes the very important point that we, as human beings, are not qualified to judge our fellow believers on disputable matters.
It was Christ who died and returned to life, not us. Therefore he, not us, is the Lord of both the dead and the living.
Secondly, we are not qualified to judge because we are all subject to God’s judgement. We all stand before the bench, not behind it. When we pass judgement on disputable matters we are actually playing God.
God is the judge. Let’s let him be the judge. We may have our personal opinions, but ultimately it is God who decides what is right or wrong, not us. In areas where God has not given clear instructions, we need to cut each other some slack.
III. We must remember that our ultimate purpose is to honour God.
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Paul makes an interesting statement here. He says that both sides of an issue of conscience can please God. How? The MOTIVE Paul says, is IMPORTANT to God. If you regard one day a special and you dedicate it to the Lord, he accepts that. Don’t we dedicate days to the Lord that the Bible doesn’t command us to? We aren’t commanded in Scripture to celebrate Christmas, Good Friday and Easter but I don’t think God is displeased if we do. If we dedicate these days to honour Him, that is fine with him.
If you give thanks to God for your meat, you glorify God by eating. If you give thanks for your vegetables, then you glorify God too. If you wish to honour God by abstaining from alcoholic beverages, God accepts that. If you drink your glass of Merlot with thanksgiving, he accepts that. And so Paul is saying that in matters of Conscience, it is possible to glorify God no matter which side you take as long as you honour God with what you are doing.
IV. In matters of conscience, we are to let love rule our actions.
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. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. 15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16 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. 19 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. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 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. 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.
This is a very long section but in it Paul basically says that we must remember that the exercise of love is more important than the exercise of our freedom.
I would like to focus on one of Paul’s comments:
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.
It is possible that when a believer with a stronger conscience exercises his freedom, he or she may be putting a stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a person with a weaker conscience. A stumbling block, in this case, is whatever impedes a person’s spiritual progress.
I have to do a little explaining here. The Bible teaches that it is a dangerous thing to act against your conscience EVEN IF WHAT YOU ARE TEMPTED TO DO IS NOT AN ACTUAL SIN. Why is going against conscience a bad idea even when what you are tempted to do is not an actual sin? If we ignore our conscience, we are lessening its influence on our lives. We are hardening ourselves to its voice. That is a dangerous thing to do because there are times when we REALLY need to listen to our conscience. If we act against our conscience, we are nurturing a hardness of heart and faithlessness that can, if it is not checked with repentance, lead to ruin and destruction. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:19 that Timothy should “19 (hold) on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.” In other words, by rejecting a good conscience and acting against what you know to be right, which is to act in unbelief, you can get yourself into serious trouble.
Bill Gotherd was very much against Contemporary Christian Music. In the literature he produced against it, he featured testimonies of young people who listened to it and fell into grievous sin. His premise was that the music led them into sin. However, I noticed two consistent themes in those testimonies. The first is that in some of the cases, the young people involved went against their parents’ wishes regarding the music. The second is that the young people in question sometimes said, “I knew that listening to the music was wrong, but I did it anyway.” You see, the problem was not the music. In the first case, the real sin was not honouring their father and mother. In the second case, the sin was going against their conscience. This led them to a hardness of heart so that when they were presented with opportunities to do things that REALLY WERE SIN they found it easier to ignore what their conscience said.
That is why it is important that those of us who feel the freedom to do certain things that go against other people’s consciences be very careful that we do not encourage people to act against their conscience. If we play fast and loose with another person’s conscience (or our own), and encourage someone to act against their conscience then we can have a detrimental effect on that person’s spiritual growth.
You may feel complete freedom to have a glass of wine now and again. However, if there is someone in your life who doesn’t feel that same freedom for whatever reason and believes that it is wrong to have a glass of wine, the loving response is not to look down on them and encourage them to go against their conscience. The loving response is to respect their decision and encourage them to continue following God.
So Paul is saying don’t judge and despise, and don’t put a stumbling block in anyone’s way on their journey to heaven. Instead, as Hebrews 3:13 says, 13 ... encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
We are to love each other like that. We are to help each other get to heaven. We are to help each other act from faith, not against faith. That may mean, according to Paul, that we curb our freedom so that a person with a weaker conscience isn’t impeded in their spiritual progress.
As I close, I feel the need to make it clear that this message is not about what is clearly spelled out as right or wrong in the Bible. This message has been about those things for which Godly people disagree. When it comes to disputable matters, Christians must learn to accept one another for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ. You may see fellow believers in Jesus Christ doing things you don’t agree with but the Bible gives no clear guidance about. You may be against drinking alcohol and see someone from the church enjoying a beer on a hot day and be tempted to criticize and condemn. On the other hand, you may know someone who doesn’t feel the freedom of conscience to do something you have no problem with and you may be tempted to look down on that person. If you are in that position, you must remember that, in the words of Martin Luther, to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. If someone does something against his or her conscience the act does not come from faith and is therefore sin.
And so folks, let’s cut each other some slack. Let us remember that we are in the business of building the Kingdom of God and that the Kingdom of God is a heart issue. It is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let us therefore take the focus off of ourselves and our preferences and desires and make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification in the church. Let us resolve neither to condemn those whose conscience allows them to have freedom to enjoy some things that we might believe are wrong for us nor look down upon those whose consciences make them have more scruples. Rather, let us resolve to accept one another and encourage one another toward greater godliness.
C. 2011 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.