The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:3-6 NIV)
Having spent most of my adult life overseas, I am often just a bit taken aback by the casualness which American Christians “celebrate” religious holidays. One worship leader I am familiar with took his family to a fun park yesterday and said that this was the way their family “celebrates Good Friday.” Go almost any place else in the world and you will find that that type of action seems like irreverence, even disrespect to the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. In Asia, especially the Philippines, South America, Africa, and Europe, Good Friday is a day for Christians to be somber, remembering the sacrifice of Christ.
What are we to think of Christians who worship differently from us?
It’s between them and God
“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” Good point! The passage above teaches us that we should leave such matters in the hands of the individual Christians and their relationship with God. We can trust God to bring them around to what is right and proper in His eyes, in His timing and in His ways. We will, in our families and in our individual lives, have enough problems to work on ourselves. We need not worry about them in this regard.
Rome in the first century was, like many capital cities, infused with people from different languages, ethnicities, and cultures. They came with different values, heritages, and ways of thinking. Among the Christians there were also many different customs, many of them religious. Some where from Jewish heritages, and some, no doubt, were from what some church somewhere had decided was the proper way to do things. So a thousand and one issues came up in the church in Rome as to what was the right way to live.
Two issues came to the forefront, however: Can a Christian eat food that was sacrificed to idols? and How should a Christian observe special religious days? The principle that Paul laid down had two sides: what we do and how we react to what others do.
In terms of what we think of others, we should not pass judgment on one another. In terms of what we do, we should not put a stumbling block before our brother.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13-15)
Don’t put stumbling blocks before others
The instruction is simple enough to grasp, but sometimes hard to live out in our lives. But only by balancing these two – don’t judge and don’t cause others to stumble – can Christians live and worship in unity and peace. What you do in terms of celebration and styles of worship is between you and God – as a Christian you have the freedom and the responsibility before Him to handle such matters under His Lordship. But our freedom has limitations. Your right to swing your fist in the air ends where my nose begins.
Does my casualness toward Christian holidays (which were supposed to be “holy days”) seem like disrespect? Does my seriousness toward Christian holidays seem like legalism, or worse, like paganism? Those are the issues, and it all depends on who is watching us. And even among non-believers there can be misunderstanding. One non-Christian might think we’re fanatics if we observe holidays seriously, and the next might think we are hypocrites for not taking our faith more seriously if we do not.
Not everyone is going to read Romans 14 or even remember what was said, and our freedom can be misunderstood by others as irreverence or disbelief. So we should have an element in our thinking that asks, “What will others think if I do this?” If that is too strong an element we become psychotic, but if it is not there at all then we are sociopaths – focused only on ourselves, unable to sympathize with others or to take responsibility for our own failures.
The sin of taking ourselves too seriously
But this brings up another dangerous tendency among Christians – that we lose the habit of taking a step back and, in good humor and in good faith in God, have a good laugh at ourselves. We can all, myself especially, “think logically to the wrong conclusion.”
We are quite capable of developing our ideas, and even our deepest devotional thoughts, in a closed system, where no new ideas enter in, and we can create a too narrow view of things. I am not recommending that we infuse Christianity with pagan ideas, or that we pollute the purity of God’s truth with godless ideologies. But I am saying that before we conclude such things as “a man ought to pray for an hour each day” or “a woman’s dress should always be below the knee” or “Good Friday should be a day of fasting and prayer” that we step back and do a broader biblical study about such things.
This was, after all, the error of the Pharisees with regard to healing on the Sabbath, that they had, in their own closed system, reasoned that it was wrong. To which Christ called them hypocrites, because they would certainly feed and water their donkeys on the Sabbath, so why would they not heal their fellow Israelite? (Luke 13:15)
I’m a child of the 1950’s, and grew up in the 60’s and became an adult in the 70’s. Out of those decades came an America that doubted itself, questioned its authorities and its traditions. These ideas came into the church as well, and this laid the ground work for a Christianity that tossed out formalities as irrelevant and legalistic. Suits and ties were replaced with jeans and casual shirts, liturgy was replaced with freedom in worship, hymns with new songs, and solemnity with joyful expressions. The pendulum swung to the other extreme, and we have not fully recovered yet.
Frankly, our lives are too short to figure all of these things out for all generations to live by. We should let the Spirit lead us and always evaluate our conclusions with the Word and the body of Christ. Intensity, even spiritual intensity, tends to make us judgmental and to form legalistic frameworks of devotion. The teaching of Jesus on this matter is still the clearest word:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-5 ESV)