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Handling Our Differences

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Coronavirus

Last week in our sermon we looked at Romans 15, God’s guidance for handling disagreements between Christians. Seems like a worthwhile topic to revisit here.

COVID-19 brings with it a lot of opportunity for disagreements:

  • Should the church follow the government’s orders or practice civil disobedience?
  • Should churches add protocols for COVID or keep things as normal?
  • Who are the medical and public health voices we should listen to?

COVID-19 intensifies all these questions because the pandemic has disrupted our lives and economy so much.

These questions might be new, but there’s nothing new about disagreements in a church:

  • In Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas divided over whether to bring John Mark on their church planting team;
  • Paul tells two women in Philippi “to agree in the Lord.” The Sunday when Paul’s letter got read in church had to be humbling for those two!

The church in Rome experienced its own disagreements. The issues were over what’s called “disputable matters.”

This doesn’t mean both sides are equally right. Throughout the passage he refers to one group as “the strong” and the other group as “the weak.” He identifies with the “strong”: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear the failings of the weak” (15:1).

The strong in this case don’t feel obligated to keep Jewish laws that are no longer binding—eat bacon! The weak can’t do this. They know they’re saved by faith in Christ, but they can’t eat the bacon.

The issue isn’t about salvation, so Paul is tolerant.

Paul’s counsel is profound. I’ll hit a few of his key ideas.

1. Don’t be a jerk (14:3)

That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but 14:3 points to two ways we can treat people very poorly based on our differences:

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. (Rom 14:3)

The strong feel like they know better than the weak so they’re tempted to look down on them. The weak feel like they’re more holy than the strong, so they’re tempted to judge them.

Paul basically says, “You’re both being jerks. Stop it.” And then he tells them why.

2. Don’t forget who the Real Judge is (14:4)

"Despising" or "passing judgment" on people puts us in the position of being their judge. But there's only one true Judge:

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. (Rom 14:4)

When we take on the role of judging others, we’re basically saying it’s our place to pass ultimate judgment on someone. We’re acting as if this person is accountable to us.

Sometimes that’s true. Your child might be accountable to you.

But most of the time it isn’t. Most of the time we’re dealing with people ultimately accountable to God but not to us. They’re the “servant of another.” And when it comes to judging people, God doesn’t need our help!

3. Remember the role of the conscience (14:5, 23)

This is a biggie. Our conscience is an important guide. It’s not infallible, but it’s really important. Listen to 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. (Rom 14:5)

Two people can come to two different conclusions about something. Paul says “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” And once you’re convinced, be careful to live accordingly. Then in 14:23 he says it even more strongly:

Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)

If you’re fully convinced in your own mind and act against that, you’re doing something that doesn’t “proceed from faith.” You’re not living out of your own convictions. And when you do that it’s “sin.”

Now we have to be careful here: We can’t label every personal preference a matter of conscience and then tell people we have to do it! But when something truly is a matter of conscience, we need to go that route.

4. Keep things in perspective (14:17)

If we get all wrapped up in eating and drinking or which days are or aren't special, we can lose sight of what's truly glorious in God's kingdom: 

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)

There’s going to be differences of opinion about eating and drinking. But don’t lose the bigger picture. The Kingdom of God isn’t about these things. It’s about “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

5. Don’t forget the gospel (15:7)

Paul's good news in these verses has to do with the way Christ has treated us in light of what we deserve:

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom 15:7)

The fact “Christ has welcomed you” puts our disagreements in perspective. No difference I have with another person begins to compare with how far I was from Christ. But…

  • The Perfect one welcomed me, the imperfect one.
  • The Righteous one welcomed me, the unrighteous one.
  • The Sinless one welcomed me, the sinner.

Any difference I have with another Christian is microscopic compared to the difference I had with Christ—and yet he welcomed me.

6. Lean into God’s power (15:5–6)

Sin in our hearts makes unity like this impossible without God’s power. But listen to his prayer:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:5–6)

What is impossible for our own fallen selves is possible with "the God of endurance" doing it. He'll highlight the same thing in verse 13 when he speaks of "the power of the Holy Spirit" causing hope to abound in us. What we can't do without God we can do with God.

The unity expressed in 15:6 is a unity that sings heartily to our God of all glory. We pray for this kind of unity in our church—a unity empowered by the Holy Spirit, a unity that sings!

Pray for God to do this!

Thanks for watching (and reading). We’ll see you next time.

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