Thou Shalt Not Always Keep Saying “Thou Shalt Not” (When Disagreements Arise)

The recently retired pastor was on his way to see me, the new pastor. Getting closer and hearing a lawn mower he began to wonder what the new pastor thought of the neighbour mowing the lawn on a Sunday. He came around the back of the house, and there I was, mowing the lawn. In my defence, if Sunday is to be set apart for rest, well then as a father of a 4 year-old, a 3 year-old, and a 1-year old, there was nothing more relaxing than mowing the lawn! But did I need to make a defence? Should what the Christian does on a Sunday following church be the subject of a church tribunal on Monday? As we continue our study of Romans we will gain some perspective on this on other potential disagreements:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 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 14:1-5 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Even back in New Testament times Christians were squabbling over what was appropriate on the Sabbath. Except, of course, Sundays are not the Sabbath. As a commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday, the early Christians chose to worship on Sundays instead of on the Sabbath, which falls on a Saturday. As I am fond of saying, every Sunday is Easter Sunday. Sunday has never actually been the Sabbath, but has become known as “the Lord’s Day” which many of us set apart as a holy day. However, even then, as I have heard author Frank Turek say during a recent podcast, “Every day is the Lord’s day”.

Back to Rome; Paul is responding in verse 5 to the fact that some Christians in Rome were thinking all Christians should observe the Sabbath, just like the Jews did, and that others thought that all Christians should exercise their freedom from the Jewish law instead. It was already well established that Jewish law was not binding on Gentile Christians, a fact we can read about in Acts 15.

There were other matters being squabbled over, such as whether one should eat meat. It was far easier for an observant Jew to keep the kosher food laws by keeping away from meat altogether, as Daniel did in Babylon. Some thought the observant Christian should do likewise. Others figured that that the kosher laws did not apply to the Christian anyway, so enjoy your protein! Paul picks up on these squabbles in verses one and two where he gives the solution: make space for each other even where there are disagreements. Rather than condemn each other, welcome each other.

We must be clear here what Paul is not saying. He is not saying that there is room for disagreement on fundamental truths. Since we are in the book of Romans, we should notice that Paul has spent the first eleven chapters contending for the truth. Truth matters! But not everything matters. Paul is not saying “welcome the heretic”. But not every disagreement is evidence of heresy. So welcome those you have disagreements with over those lesser matters.

Paul is also not saying there is room for blatant immorality. Elsewhere he condemns a church for not taking a matter of morality seriously:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 (NRSV)

Paul does not say “welcome the unrepentant person practicing gross immorality”. Though it was clear that Gentiles did not need to start behaving like Jews to be Christians, it was also clear that they could not keep behaving like typical Romans either. Morality matters. But not everything is a matter of immorality. So welcome those who disagree with you on matters such as meat-eating and Sabbath keeping.

What is being said between the lines is, to quote an old but oft forgotten cliché, that unity is more important than uniformity. Departing from fundamental truths destroys the unity of the Church. Indulging in immorality destroys unity between people. Differences in the lesser matters of religious expression destroys only uniformity.

As we think about Paul’s solution for disagreements, let us not too quickly pass over the instruction to be “fully convinced in your own minds” (verse 5). To become fully convinced about something, we must be seekers of truth. We must be open to changing our minds if the truth turns out to be something other than what we expected. The more we do this, the more we will find ourselves in agreement with each other anyway. Some may think I am Canadian based on my accent. Others may think I am from Northern Ireland based on certain expressions and the incomprehensibility of my Mum’s. All seekers of truth will end up agreeing that I am British-Canadian based on the evidence of my birth certificate and citizenship card. (Or am I Irish-Canadian?!) An honest seeking of truth and having a teachable spirit leads to disagreements being minimized, even disappearing.

Finally, where disagreements continue to exist, don’t try to get the last word, because God always has the last word. I encourage you to open a Bible to Romans 14:1-12 to see for yourself the following: If you have a disagreement with a brother or sister in Christ over a non-essential matter, please note that

  • God has welcomed them (v.3), therefore so should you.
  • God is their master (v4), and not you.
  • God will make them stand (v.4), so why try to knock them down?
  • They are actually making their best attempt at honouring God (v.6), and not just trying to pick a fight wth you.
  • We are all in God’s hands (vv.7-9),
  • God is the judge (v.10), and
  • “each of us will be accountable to God” (v.12).

We will today, as in Paul’s day, come across Christians we disagree with. When those disagreements are not over fundamental truths, or matters of gross immorality, we can make room for them. Disagreement with other believers is not a big deal. Being ridiculous about it is.

As for mowing the lawn on Sunday, you may be relieved to know that I no longer do that. Now I send my boys out to mow the lawn instead.

 

 

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Was Anyone Grateful for The Christian Church This Thanksgiving?

As people gathered around the Thanksgiving turkey with thanksgiving reflections, how many said something like “thank you Lord, for Christians”? It feels like in Canada right now, many would echo the thoughts of Ghandi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” Do we, who call ourselves Christian, inspire gratitude? Are people grateful for the Christian Church? If you are a Christian reading this, are people grateful for you? You may wonder why I am sticking to the series from Romans for Thanksgiving Sunday. Read on, there is a connection!

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:8-10 (NRSV)

As far as I know, people upon discovering their spouse is in an adulterous affair don’t say “thank you, Lord!”. Nor if they discover their family member is a murderer do they say “thank God for that.” And so on. People, whether religious or not, have gratitude when their loved ones  are righteous. Paul fleshes out for us in Romans 13 the kind of life that inspires gratitude.

A life full of love inspires gratitude: “love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Love naturally inclines us toward the righteousness that people are thankful for when they experience it from their loved ones. When we learn to love, we do not even need the law. One who holds to a high standard of love does not need rules saying “do not commit adultery”, “do not steal”, and so on. He or she would not want to. When I am driving my wife’s van on the highway, I need the occasional sign to remind me of the rule “thou shalt not drive faster than 100 km/h”. It is easy to speed when you have a smooth ride and a 3.6 litre V6 engine. When I ride my motorcycle, I need neither the signs, nor the rule. Having an engine smaller than your average lawn mower, it is “out-of-character” for my Honda 125 to go any faster. When we are so filled with the love and presence of God that His love is overflowing from us, we don’t need the rules to keep us from hurting people. Hurting others is out of character for a loving person. Doing anything but being helpful to others is out of character for the loving person. Keep in mind we are not talking about the “I love what you do for me” kind of love, but the Jesus-going-to-the-cross-for-people-who-do-not-deserve-it kind of love. It is a decisive, sacrificial, other benefitting kind of love.

Are we learning that kind of love that inspires gratitude? If Canadians are not generally thankful for Christians, perhaps we Christians are not loving like we can and should?

Paul continues:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Romans 13:11-14 (NRSV)

A life full of light inspires gratitude. To give a loose paraphrase of verse 11, “do this love thing we just spoke of, knowing the age we are in, the age of light breaking in on the darkness”. There is a progression in the Bible from God saying “let there be light” through spiritual darkness beginning with Adam and Eve, through Israel called to be a light to the nations but often having trouble finding the switch, to Jesus being the true light in ways Israel never could. John calls Jesus, the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9 NRSV). With Christ a new day has dawned and the darkness is receding. We are called to wake up and live in that new day. We are called to live as those belonging to the Kingdom of light, and not those who live according to the old empire of darkness.

The metaphor of waking up continues with the command to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” when we get dressed. In other words, when people see us, when they see what we put on in the morning, they will see Jesus. Here is also a reminder that it is not about our efforts. It is about God’s continual presence with us.

Let us be reminded of Paul’s original appeal:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

People don’t like it when we are not conformed to this world. But when we are full of love, when we are full of light, the people close to us are grateful. If Canadians are not particularly grateful for the Christian Church, then perhaps it is time for us to wake up and put on Christ. Are you up and dressed yet?

When Your Greatness Messes Others Up

The person next to me had figured out very quickly that I was not a good volleyball player. So whenever the ball came my way he would yell, “I’ve got it” and then he would get it. Everyone else on the team was playing volleyball. I, however, was playing dodgeball. My role was to get out of the way and let the better player save the day. I do not know who won the game. But I do know that I did not grow as a volleyball player that day. I did not develop any volleyball skills that day. I didn’t even like playing volleyball that day. If I had any potential as a volleyball player, it was missed that day. This kind of thing happens in all areas of life. This kind of thing would not happen if people followed the Biblical principles laid down in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12:3 (NRSV)

When we think we are the best person to hit the ball back, we may think we should be the only person to hit the ball back. Our high opinions of ourselves easily translates into low opinions of others. We can do it, they probably can’t. We are capable, they probably are not. We are the solution, they are probably the problem. So we should do it, they shouldn’t. When we think of ourselves more highly that we ought, we can end up stifling others without even realizing it.

Paul goes on to speak about knowing our calling, finding our role and place, and so not squash out others as they are finding theirs:

4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:4-8 (NRSV)

These verses are as much “back off, and let others shine in their calling” as they are “discover your own”. They are an encouragement to shine, but they are also and encouragement to give space for others to shine also.

Messing others up by our own perceived greatness can happen in any relationship. Let us consider marriage, about which there is an interesting, and often misunderstood passage in the Bible. On first reading, Proverbs 31:10-31 seems to be quite sexist with the man doing nothing while the woman does everything. But keeping in mind the patriarchal society into which this Scripture is given, look at how much the wife accomplishes. While the titles given to this passage by translators are usually things like “Ode to a Capable Wife” (NRSV), or “The Wife of Noble Character” (NIV), another title might be “The Good Husband”. The good husband does not think he is better at everything and so does it all. The good husband does not think he is a better decision-maker and micro-manage his wife . The good husband gives space for his wife to shine. The final verse of Proverbs captures it well: “let her works praise her in the city gates.” Proverbs 31:31 (NRSV emphasis mine).

Not thinking of yourself too highly is part of “thinking towards yourself with smart thinking” to translate Romans 12:3 very literally. We are to have a good, reasonable self-understanding. Although Paul does not say it, included in this would be not thinking of ourselves too lowly either. At the very least, each person can say they are created in the image of God and so are therefore deserving of being treated with dignity. We have important functions within our families, networks of friends, and in God’s Kingdom. Romans 12:4-8, quoted above, is an encouragement to stand up and grow up into what God calls us to do, even if others seem to be better than us at the time of our standing. While we ought not think of ourselves too highly, recognizing that we are not indispensable in everything, neither are we to think of ourselves as disposable either.

Everyone around us benefits when we have a good self-understanding and a proper self assessment of ourselves. But no one benefits more than we, ourselves. When we have too high an opinion of ourselves we don’t see our need of anyone, even God. And when we have too low an opinion of ourselves we cannot imagine allowing ourselves to be loved by anyone, especially God. Having a proper assessment of ourselves is not just a matter of thinking clearly, it is a matter of loving dearly.