You may have been surprised to find out last week that I, a Baptist Pastor, do not have a guilty conscience if I mow the lawn on a Sunday. “But it is the Sabbath, the day of rest” you might say. However, a) the Sabbath is a Saturday, and b) the Sabbath is part of the ceremonial law given to the Jews, and I’m not Jewish. Being a pastor, I already work most Sundays. Being a Personal Support Worker, my wife is required to work every other Sunday. Sunday being the Lord’s Day, we do make every effort to gather with other believers for worship, however Sunday is hardly ever a day of rest. I do keep the spirit of the law by taking a day completely off for rest every week, but Sunday isn’t it.
Now suppose you are not convinced and still feel quite strongly that Sunday is to be for every Christian, including me, a Sabbath Day, a day of rest. And suppose, for argument’s sake, that even worse than mowing the lawn on Sunday, I have now invited you to join me for a Toronto Maple Leafs game on a Sunday evening. Driving into Toronto on the 401 is anything but restful, so you think and feel that it would be wrong for either of us to go. I can see no sin in going, it will be a wonderful time especially if the Leafs win. So I insist. A disagreement has arisen. What are we to do?
Romans 14:13-23 will be of great help to us. It begins with a summary of what we learned from verses 1-12 last week: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another . . .” (v.13). That statement is for both of us. What follows, however, is for me. From it, there are three questions I should ask myself.
First, am I putting a stumbling block in front of a brother or sister in Christ?
. . . but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. Romans 14:13
Could it be, that in trying to entice you to attend the game with me, I might be a cause of your falling? The word behind “hindrance” originally has the idea of a trap. By my invitation, you may feel trapped, not wanting to go against your conscience, but not wanting to offend me either.
The Jewish Christians in Rome were feeling pressured. Bible scholars point out that with the Jews only recently being allowed to return to Rome, having been expelled a few years prior, the Jewish Christians would have felt like a minority in a predominantly Gentile-Christian church. Where in some towns the Gentile Christians felt pressure from the Jewish Christians to keep the law, here in Rome the Jewish Christians felt pressure to give up their Jewish identity. After all, “nothing is unclean” and so there is no need to worry about food being kosher or other similar matters pertaining to the Old Covenant between God and the Jews. You can imagine the pressure at Christian gatherings for the Jewish Christians to cave and eat anything and everything.
Paul shows his agreement with the “nothing is unclean” statement in verse 14, but there is a ‘but’:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. Romans 14:14 (emphasis mine)
This verse may sound confusing, even contradictory, but it is actually common sense. Consider again my insistence that you join me for a game on Sunday. If you are convinced that my viewpoint is correct, that is fine and off we go. However, suppose you do not find my argument convincing. To you Sunday is the Sabbath and after all, Sabbath keeping is one of the ten commandments. So you are not convinced. If, however, you still end up going to the game, then what you end up in effect saying is: “it would be better for me to keep Clarke happy than God. I would rather sin against the Lord than offend Clarke.” So even if attending a hockey game on a Sunday is not a sin in itself, if you think it is, and yet you do it, you are demonstrating that you really don’t care if you do sin against God.
The emphasis here is on my actions. I ought not put you into that sticky situation in the first place! Instead I should show some understanding and be respectful of your disagreement with me. Are there situations where you may need to show some understanding?
Second, is love showing up, or am I showing off?
If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. Romans 14:15 (emphasis mine)
Walking in love is to be the priority of the Christian. However, sometimes our priority may actually be the winning of an argument. If I am walking in love, I will be sensitive to what is best for you. Having a conversation about viewpoints is always a good thing, but leading you to go against your conscience is not what is best for you! Remembering the extent of God’s love for you, that Christ in fact died for you, I should at least be willing to let an argument go and leave off my insistence. I wonder how many conflicts within churches have smouldered on, if not escalated, not because there has been a disagreement, but because someone just had to be proven right. Are you walking in love, or are you determined to be proven right?
Third, is this a Kingdom Priority?
So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Romans 14:16-19 (emphases mine)
Will God’s Kingdom purposes be advanced in any way if you go to the game? Or if you don’t? When all is said and done, it really won’t have mattered. However, Kingdom principles are not held up if I carry on about your not going. Even if I am correct, the onus is on me to pursue peace and seek to build you up. Peace is a kingdom priority, winning an argument isn’t.
Disagreements between Christians about the Sabbath are nothing new. They mirror similar perspectives from New Testament times.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Romans 14:5 (NRSV)
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Colossians 2:16-17
Let us remember that we are not thinking here of disagreement over fundamental doctrines or blatant immorality. The way forward on lesser matters of disagreement is the same now as it was when Romans was written; leave off judging one another, and remember that love has a no tripping policy.
(All Scripture passages are taken from the NRSV)