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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Longing For a Christian Government?

Do you ever wish our nation could be best described as a Christian nation? A nation with Christian laws and leaders reflecting Christian values? A nation made up of people that reflect Christian character? Perhaps this is something worth aiming for? Perhaps it is worth fighting for?

Leave Canada for a moment and let us travel to Rome in the year 57AD. Societal values are a lot further from Christian values than those of our own time and place as is reflected both in the laws and the customs of the people. You head to the gathering of the church, held at this point in someone’s home, and you listen to the elder read a letter from the apostle Paul. “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) sticks in your mind. You begin to wonder, if we are not to be conformed to this world, then why conform to the demands of an ungodly government? In fact, since God’s values are better than Rome’s, why don’t we make it our aim to install a Christian government? Why don’t we aim at replacing the Roman Empire with what we think God’s Kingdom should look like?

Rebellion is already in the air. Bible scholars give three reasons for this. First, the Roman emperor Claudius kicked the Jews out of Rome in 49 AD, which included Jewish-Christians. That left a bad taste in your mouth. Second, the Romans were not happy with extra taxes in the 50’s. That was as frustrating to Romans then as it is to Canadians today. Third, there was a growing sense of rebellion among the Jews in Judea which eventually resulted in outright war between Jerusalem and Rome beginning in 66AD. Perhaps as a Christian not conforming to this world you should join in the rebellious spirit of a people who are seeking a theocracy? Paul anticipates your thoughts in his letter:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Romans 13:1-7 (NRSV)

Still feel like joining in a rebellion against Rome and taking the government for the Lord? That door has been shut: “Be subject to the governing authorities”. There is no need to set up a theocracy, for in fact, God is already sovereign over all: “for there is no authority except from God”. He does not need help in coming to power. Jesus reminds Pilate of this very thing:

Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above. . . John 19:10-11 (NRSV)

All governments are therefore accountable to God, even the ones that won’t recognize His existence!

The focus for the Christian is the renewal of our minds, not the replacement of our governments. Using power to overthrow the government and enforce some form of Christian agenda is actually to be thinking with the old mind. The Romans pointed to the cross as the means of keeping control. For them it is a symbol of brute force. Christians point to the cross as the means of salvation through Christ and the new way to live in the Spirit. It is a symbol of grace, mercy, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, and the like. The focus in the New Testament for Christians is always on being disciples of Jesus and making disciples through the sharing of the Good News. That is how the Kingdom grows. It is through invitation, not compulsion. Jesus confirms that His Kingdom is not a matter of brute force to Pilate:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. John 18:36 (NRSV)

So let us leave Rome and come back to Canada today. What are the main lessons for us?

First, understand our priorities as Christians. The priority is not to seek the enforcement of Christian values on all Canadians by replacing secular laws with specifically Christian ones. The priority is summarized in the Great Commission:

Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV) “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Notice that a) Jesus already has all authority, there is no need for us to try and create a theocracy, b) that we are to make disciples, not laws, and c) we are to teach disciples to obey, not make everyone obey.

Second, understand what the separation of Church and State does and does not mean.

It does mean we do not impose our values on everyone else, which as we have seen is not to be our priority anyway. According to Romans 13 the Christian is to be subject to the governing authorities and not the other way around.

It does not mean that we cannot share our opinions on what values are good for society. So, to give an example, suppose our government decided that there should be no such thing as marriage anymore. We would be well within our rights to point out the positive impact marriage has for society. Since God’s values are demonstrably good values, we can to point to the evidence. Many a Christian value can be promoted through philosophy and science.

The Christian voice has been an important voice in the formation of our nation. We currently enjoy the best of both worlds; a secular nation with a Christian foundation. Many a secular state has been repulsive for the lack of a good foundation. Many a religious state has been repulsive for a lack of freedom. As the values of our society change it is important that we point out the blessings of values aligned with Christianity. However, we are to do so as disciple-making disciples motivated by love, rather than religious zealots seeking power through force. If the Roman Christians were to be subject to pagan Rome, then how much more should we be known for respect within secular Canada.

Life as a Living Sacrifice. Sounds Like Fun?

Romans 12:1 (NRSV) 1 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.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” You may have three reactions to this verse.

First off, it does not sound much like fun. A sacrifice, not just of money, or of some time, but your very self. And just any old self, but a self which is “holy and acceptable to God.” However, to have this kind of negative reaction is to miss what is really being said here. To react negatively to the idea of giving yourself to God would be like a groom, who on seeing his bride walking down the aisle says “well this sucks.” Or a bride walking down the aisle to meet her groom saying “I’d far rather be somewhere else, with someone else.” I suppose such sentiments can happen in arranged marriages and the like, but in the twenty years I have been officiating weddings, the excitement of the bride and groom over the moment and over each other has always been palpable. The wedding, that moment you give yourself to another person, is not seen as a misfortune, but as a very positive opportunity! Likewise with God, giving ourselves to God is a glorious opportunity! We should not think of it as something we have to do, so much as something we get to do. I did not have to get married, changing my life and focus to “us” rather than “me.” But I got to!

Additionally, “holy and acceptable to God” may seem like a downer. However, holiness is also something we get to do, something we will want to do ! I have never officiated a wedding where upon getting to the marriage vows the bride or groom has said “do I have to do this part?” To be a good man or woman for our bride or groom is something we aspire to on our wedding day. Sometimes the bride or groom will forget such things once they are wife and husband, but God is aways faithful.

Being “holy and acceptable to God” may also feel like a predicament. How are we going to pull that off? But this is something we are enabled to do. It is “by the mercies of God” or “through the mercies of God” that we are enabled to become holy and acceptable to God. It is through the work of Jesus for us and the Holy Spirit within us. Again, it is part of a wonderful privilege and opportunity.

Secondly, you may think: “I guess I can commit to this if it is going to make God love me.” This is to to turn this verse into a “so that” verse. There is no “so that” here in Romans 12:1. There are “so that” verses in the Bible. For example you might want to consider John 3:16, which says “For God so loved the world, so that he gave His only begotten Son, in order that, whoever believes in Him, shall not perish” (a conglomeration of translations, quite literal where italicized). The “so that” points to how God loved us first. In Romans 12:1 we have a “therefore” verse. Paul is pointing back to all he has reviewed in Romans chapters 1 through 11, namely, the human predicament and the glory of God’s love. Now, therefore, on the basis of His love, let us commit ourselves to God. We do not do so to make Him love us more. We can not make Him love us more than He already does. We give ourselves to Him as our expression of love for Him.

Consider the vows and promises that an in-love couple make to each other on their wedding day. They should never think “I commit to these vows so that you will love me”, but rather “I commit to these vows already knowing you love me”. Living out the the vows of marriage is a reflection of the reality of love, not a prerequisite to eventually attain it. It is much the same with our relationship with God who has already demonstrated His love for us in the gift of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Further, when you have a good love relationship with your fiancé, committing to these vows, committing to having your life changed by marriage, is a very reasonable and rational thing to do. It is a sensible next step in your relationship. This too is reflected in our relationship with God as Romans 12:1 points out:

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. Romans 12:1 (NRSV emphasis mine)

The word translated as “spiritual” here in the NRSV is a word from which we get the English word “logical.” Knowing God’s love and commitment to you, committing your life to God is a logical next step. It is a reasonable and rational thing to do in the same way that marrying my wife was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made!

Third, you may hear these verses and think “Okay, I’m in. I’m ready to present myself to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, now give me the rule book so I can memorize all the rules.” We want to be careful here, not to think of Paul, or any other New Testament writer, as the second coming of Moses. It had already been established that Gentiles coming to faith in Christ did not need to become Jewish with the observance of all the rules of Judaism. But they could not simply live like Romans either. So what we have in the New Testament is not a new rule book, but the implications of giving one’s life to God. The Christian life is not about following a rule book, but about relationship. Relationships require, not rules, but discernment. God is not asking us to fill our minds with rules, but the renewing of our minds with His presence:

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 12:2 (NRSV)

Looking to the marriage analogy again, I have never known a bride and groom exchange rule books at the wedding ceremony. They are entering into a relationship, not with a list of rules, but with each other. There is a learning and discerning which is part and parcel of the wonderful institution of marriage.

In conclusion, people may have negative responses to the idea of giving themselves to God as living sacrifices. But when we begin to grasp just Who God is, and what His love is like, we recognize that doing so is a most wonderful opportunity. May the opportunity that lay before you fill and thrill your soul.