I’ve always thought of myself as non-judgmental. I’m good at letting people believe what they believe. I have no problems with tattoos or piercings or crazy hair colors. I honestly do not care if you root for Auburn or Alabama. That’s just how I roll.
So imagine my shock when on the ride home from church last Sunday Z (my 9 year old daughter) asks, in all seriousness “Momma, what’s wrong with Baptists?” My first response was nothing honey, where did you get an idea like that? But before those words could get out of my mouth I heard my internal monologue start listing all of the things that I disagree with the Baptist church on and all those little snide comments I’ve made in jest or in pain came flooding back to me. And I realized then and there that I needed to hear from the 14th chapter of Romans this week, so I guess the rest of you are going to be dragged along with me!
Paul was not one to shy away from an argument, any argument. In fact the scripture is replete with the words of Paul laying out quite plainly where he stood on various thoughts, theologies and practices of the day. He makes no bones about seeing himself as the “first of the Apostles” even though he did not know the flesh and blood Jesus. His knowledge came from the resurrected Christ and therefore, in his mind, was more pure. So it’s really interesting here to see his words calling for believers to coexist, even with those who may not follow their exact practices of faith.
Paul begins with a discussion of the strong in faith and the weak in faith. The strong in faith eating meat and the weak being vegetarians. Really Paul? Being vegetarian means your faith is weak? Honestly most people I know who are strict vegetarians do so with an amazing amount of strength of character and faith. So why would Paul, in a discussion about not judging use the words weak and strong?
The easy answer is that he was suffering from the plank syndrome himself. You know “Before you point out the splinter in your neighbor’s eye you need to get the 2 by 4 out of yours!” He obviously believed himself to be among the strong. He has written time and time again that all foods are clean, that even eating meat sacrificed to other Gods is not entirely evil in and of itself.
But in truth I think Paul just knew his audience. He was speaking to a group of Christians in Rome who were significantly gentile not Jewish. He’s speaking to a people who had not grown up in the kosher lifestyle, who had always been able to enjoy any food they wished and who apparently did not understand that someone would want to abstain from anything, let alone a good steak!
He also calls them strong to point out that in this situation they are the ones in power, the ones who can and apparently are using their influence to exclude rather than include others. Paul tells them that these issues of diet are not big enough to cause real dissention or separation. Let them go, don’t worry about them, they are not essential.
Then in verse 5 he speaks about people who keep one day more sacred than another and others who treat each day alike. Is he talking about special feast days or celebrations? Possibly. Is he speaking about keeping the Sabbath day? More likely. But either one steps way too much on my toes. Paul has gone from good advice to plain ol meddling. Because now he hits me, and most of us, where our heart is. Now he’s talking about worship.
Don’t let the different ways you worship divide you. What? There are so many different churches precisely because we don’t all worship the same way! Those who like quiet and prayerful meetings go to church a, those who want loud music and flashing lights attend church b, those who like things decently and in order attend a Presbyterian church. That’s just the way it is Paul. And while we on the surface say “That’s okay for them, I just prefer things another way.” Our actions and words often point out the real judgment that lies on our hearts, on my heart, that leads children to ask “just what’s wrong with those other Christians anyway Momma?” We cover it with language like "they are not Spirit-filled", "they don't have the full gospel", "they are not Word-centered", "they are liturgical", "they are catholic", "they are high church", "they are low church", "dear me, they use candles there!" We so easily judge the spiritual qualifications of others simply because they are different to us. Their style of worship, churchmanship..... is used to condemn them. Paul clearly denounces such behavior and reminds each one of us that we should be concerned for our own standing before God, for each of us will have to answer for ourselves.
There is a story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor's wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor's wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn't understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor's wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.
Verses 6-10 say:
6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 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.
If what they do, and what we do, come out of a desire to live to the Lord, then that’s what matters!
We need not spend time on the things that can serve to separate us. We need not waste our time effort to try to make everyone believe and behave exactly like us. No, we need to look at the commonality, the love and faith in Jesus and trust that God can work it out from there.
Paul continues in this chapter saying don’t put up stumbling blocks before one another, artificial road bumps that distract and detract from the message of Christ. These don’t serve God’s purpose at all; they only serve to lift ourselves up. Verse 17-18 say “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 receives human approval.”
We are all called to live out our faith, both privately and publicly. But how do we do that when our private convictions don’t match up? How do we do that when one feels that a Christian would never drink alcohol and anther lives by the adage, have a little wine for your stomach? How do we do that when one quotes Paul saying “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And another quotes Paul saying “I permit no woman to preach or have authority over a man?”
As the saying goes “Don’t major in the minors,” We waste valuable time and resources on things that don’t do anything to build up the body of Christ. Be aware of one another, so as not to cause distraction from Christ by your actions, but try also to not be offended by the actions of others who are serving God with their hearts as well. Judge not, lest you too be judged. Hard words, but true words nonetheless.
Perhaps the best instructions on this can be found in another of Paul’s letters, this one to the Colossians, ch 3 v 12-17
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[f] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ[g] dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.[h] 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.