- Mandla Mkhwanazi
Disagreeing Well: Towards a Charitable Application of Romans 14:1–13
This post is a follow-up to the one I previously wrote on “a charitable understanding of the nature of what is biblical or unbiblical.” In that post, I attempted to persuade you to be charitable towards people you differ with or disagree with on certain doctrinal points and practices. By “differ” and “disagree,” I refer to the existence of legitimate differences of opinion among Christians. I am not advocating for tolerating a deeply concerning doctrine or practice. I am advocating for applying Romans 14:1–13 to cultivate healthy relationships among Christians of different persuasions, even those we should win over when they need correcting.
To attempt to urge and spur you towards cultivating healthy relationships based on the principle of charity, I will briefly explain how to apply Romans 14:1–13 to this principle and in our relationships. In another instalment of this miniseries on charity, I want to share with you from my life’s experience how my former associate pastor, Richard Raven, nurtured me as a young pastor towards cultivating charity concerning legitimate differences among Christians. But first, we will look at what Romans 14 requires of us when we differ, and how to charitably apply what God expects in a more Christlike manner, who left us with an example of how to “do everything for the glory of God, giving no offence to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, pleasing everyone in everything, not seeking his own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:31–33).
Grounds to Consider Charity in all Things
You are aware, I trust, that while we all share many areas of our faith with other Christians and churches, there are also areas of doctrine and practice on which we differ. We must remember that, when other Christians and churches think and act differently than we do, they do so, not for our churches, but for their worship in the churches where God has planted them. Similarly, what we do at our church is not for other churches. Even though our service to one another at our churches may serve the members of Christ’s churches elsewhere, our worship and practice does not necessarily represent those churches. This remains so despite the fact that applications of the truths of the gospel transcend our churches.
Your church is fully autonomous and remains so notwithstanding responsibilities it may accept by voluntary association. This means that no church, and certainly no individual, should be coerced either by the state or by any secular, ecclesiastical, or religious group in matters pertaining to life and godliness. The right of private conscience is to be respected. For each believer, this means the right to interpret the Scriptures responsibly and to act in the light of her or his conscience. This is how we afford one another charity in all things.
In a nutshell, we must be able to love those we disagree with, without affirming their positions we disagree with. Because people are made in the image and likeness of God and born with inherent dignity, we have a responsibility to respect them, even when we do not share their convictions. Sadly, we have too often allowed our differences to result in the lack of cultivating healthy dialogue around issues of differences. We are sharply often divided as believers and there exists great discontentment among us. We should prayerfully wrestle against this, so that it will not cost us the greatest way of all: the way of love for our neighbour, regardless of where they stand on any matter.
As fellow believers in Christ, we are called to love one another as the Lord loved us. We are called to prefer one another. We are called to please all men in all things, not seeking our own profit, but the profit of the many. We are called to do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). God is not calling us to do something no one has done before. He calls us to do what his Son did when he lived on the earth. He calls us to have this “attitude which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–9).
This alludes to how Christ exercised charity in all things and how we are urged to have the same way of thinking. It not easy to be like Christ, especially when we have to build healthy relationships with those with whom we differ on certain matters. There are many texts of Scripture that help us to be like Christ in all situations. Romans 14 is one of the most helpful because the believers in the church in Rome were diverse and sharply divided on sensitive matters. For Romans 14 to help, and for it to make us please one another, especially when we differ or disagree, it must be approached carefully.
Approach to Romans 14:1–13
It is helpful to ask whether Paul decisively settled the debates that existed in the Roman church. My understanding of Romans 14 is that, rather than settling debates, he established principles on how to handle differences and how to achieve unity in diversity, especially on preferential issues. Essentially, he taught us how to agree to disagree well, not to argue well.
He recognised that differences will exist in the churches of Christ, so our responsibility towards one another should never be to seek to convince others to see our point of view(s), and we should never hold them or their views in contempt. We should never hold others to or judge others according to our standards. The only standard we should hold one another to is the word of God, not our personal, private standards and convictions. These are the principles that Paul persuades the Romans and us to adopt.
To persuade the Romans, and us today, on how to handle differences of opinion and preference over disputable matters, and how to maintain peace in the midst of differences, Paul outlines three ways to maintain peace over disputable, preference issues, so that we may not judge one another on matters reserved only for God’s judgement when we stand before his Judgement Seat (v. 10).
First, we must accept one another (vv. 1–3). Paul assumes that there will be differences, which will force us to learn to accept one another. “One person judges one day above another, another regards every day alike.” Who is right and who is wrong? This is not even a wise question to ask because the text will not aid you. Paul states it as an existing reality. So, what should we do when these two coexist? “Each person must be fully convinced in his or her own mind.” When you are convinced and the other Christian is convinced, accept one another rather than labouring to convince the other believer to see your point of view.
Second, do not despise one another (vv. 3–4, 10, 13). We must not hold one another in contempt, and we must not judge one another1 on existing, legitimate differences of views, namely the grey areas. To despise means to look down on someone. It is to be condescending. If this attitude is not curbed, it may lead to making an issue a gospel issue that is not a gospel issue, to a point where you disagree with someone on a minor issue and end up not trusting them on a genuine gospel issue.
Furthermore, Paul says others should not judge. The example he uses is of condemning someone who partakes in something you don’t partake in. Remember, they partake because they are fully convinced in their mind that God allows them to partake. If it is not absolutely clear now whether God approves or not, leave it as a grey area, which is up to them and God. If you judge them, you are acting on your own authority and want to pass judgement for something that carries no punishment on the earth if done. To reiterate, “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (v. 10), when all will become clear and God will deal with how we served him while on the earth on these grey areas. (I will return to this point in the conclusion.)
Third, and probably most neglected, focus on yourself to maintain peace with others (vv. 5–9). Even though you are focusing on yourself, you are doing it for others. It is akin to Paul saying the “competent ones” should seek “to bear the weaknesses of the incapable ones, and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his or her neighbour for their good, for their building up. For even Christ did not please himself” (Romans 15:1–3).
Are you the kind of person who is always noticing and watching how everyone else is doing on preferential matters? Or are you the kind of person who is always focusing on themselves to look for ways and to be more competent to please others for their building up? When you think of yourself compared to how Christ pleased his neighbour, how are you doing? When it comes to disputable matters, focus on how you are doing and how you are serving the Lord, and not on how someone else is doing. You should be concerned with their building up, not weaknesses and failures or your differences in those grey areas.
This passage gives us some of the best tools on how to focus on ourselves to equip ourselves to be more charitable. One of the tools is to be convinced that whatever we do is from faith, meaning we are convinced it is pleasing to the Lord (v. 23). I say “to the Lord” because I wish to emphasise that, even though there may be grey areas between us, there are no grey areas when it comes to the Lord. So we may find on Judgement Day that we were wrong about something we were convinced about.
This is Paul’s theology on the judgement of Christians. Christians are going to be judged, but our judgement will not be to determine where we are going to spend eternity. Our eternal life is secured in the salvation brought through Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. Believers are going to receive rewards for how we served the Lord using our gifts, talents, and means of grace while on the earth. If we did good things or served the Lord, but with wrong motives, we will suffer loss; equally so, if we insist on our own way on preferential issues, and if we despise or judge others and fail to build others up, we are going to have to give an account before God. So, focus on yourself more than others.
Here is a simple principle: If you are in doubt about a behaviour, don’t do it. But whatever you do, as v. 6 exhorts, do it in honour of the Lord. Focus on your relationship with Christ. This will help you to “pursue things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake food” (vv. 19–20).
Application and Conclusion
The way you serve Christ is observed by God and he will judge whether your way is pleasing to him or not. This is why it is pointed out earlier that you have to ensure that you are convinced what you do is approved by God. To be convinced requires some effort, transformation, and renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2).
In fact, to be convinced means to be completely certain in your own mind. Louw and Wolvaardt define the verb “convinced” in v. 5 as absolute, complete certainty. It is an imperative verb, which means you can’t passively say you grew up eating certain foods (as it was probably the case with some members of the Roman church), so you will continue doing it. It also does not imply that, if you do not yet drink wine, you should start drinking. A reasonable explanation of Paul’s point is that, since you already eat certain foods or observe certain days as more important than other days, have you taken time, now that you are a Christian with a renewed mind, to ascertain completely, using the truths of Scripture, empowered by the Spirit, to arrive at the conclusion that God is surely pleased with what you do? Equally, given the community that God has placed you in—namely, your church—are your motives clear for all to see that you are no doubt doing what you do for the Lord (v. 18)?
If you are completely certain, you have the freedom to go ahead, but you will still stand before the Lord to account. Even though I am not dogmatic on this, I genuinely believe that Paul says this because he is convinced he cannot fully judge the motives of things that people do. The Lord alone can perfectly judge motives, and he will indeed do so when we stand before his Judgement Seat. Louw and Wolvaardt again explain that, in v. 11, when Paul says each person “shall confess,” he means that, if the Lord disapproves of your behaviour, you will have to admit, like confessing your sins to him, that you were wrong on a grey matter you were convinced about. Verse 12 further elaborates that you will have to reason with God. This, however, does not mean we should use this passage to misuse our freedoms or to be restricted, but to accept one another and not “argue about disputable matters,” as v. 1 says.
Author: Tsholofelo Kukuni