As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. (Romans 14:1 ESV)
Inspired by the Spirit, and with several years of experience with churches and individuals in the Mediterranean world, the apostle Paul gave a practical and blessed teaching on the subject of getting along with other Christians. He did not resolve or even mention every issue that could arise in the Christian family — it would be quite impossible to do so — but he laid down fundamental principles for guiding our thoughts and our conduct with one another.
Before going too far in this study, let me point out what those guiding principles are that the Spirt inspired Paul to give us: (1) Accept one another in Christ for God has accepted us in Christ; (2) It is morally reprehensible to judge another person’s servant, and this is especially true with those who serve the Lord; (3) We will each need to stand before God and give account of our life, so that reality should fill our thoughts, and not the weaknesses of our brother in Christ; (4) we should seek to build up our brother and not tear him down; and (5) we should pursue what leads to peace and mutual edification, not needless division.
Clearly there are somethings we cannot accept, issues that cross the line — the denial of the resurrection for example — and those are decided by the teachings of scripture. But there are other issues where Christians have learned to agree to disagree.
The Possible List Is Endless
When we consider all of the issues that have disturbed Christian fellowship over the centuries — some very serious, some less serious, some regional issues, some more world-wide issues, some doctrinal, some about the practice of faith, some about matters such as the wearing of a colored clothing to church (which seems ridiculous to us today), some about dress lengths, women wearing pants to church, the length of men’s hair, the use of make-up, drinking alcohol, being over weight, etc. — we realize that we can never resolve each and everyone of these matters.
The Bible teaches morality on the basis of principles and not always on precise concrete practices. For example, it says, “Honor your father and mother,” but does not tell us exactly how we are to do that in every circumstance. The Bible commands us to honor, but does not give us titles we must call our parents by, nor certain acts we must perform, etc. Rather it entrusts us to the Holy Spirit to guide each generation of believers in each nation and culture, to be able to work out for themselves what shape honoring parents will take.
The Old Testament goes into more specific detail about the use and abuse of property than it does about the rules of romantic conduct between two young people who might be in love. It forbids adultery, and commands those courting one another to act responsibly and respectfully toward each other, but does not give specific commands about premarital touching or carressing. Like honoring parents, we have to work out these matters on our own as the Spirit guide us.
And therein is the rub, that it is simply not always easy to find agreement on many things. The issues of eating certain foods and observing certain religious days were the “hot potatoes” Paul addressed in Romans 14, but each generation deals with something.
What about Church Practices?
Here is where much of the Christian world is today, what are the proper practices of New Testament church? What are the issues where Christians must all stand together, and what are the issues where an individual church must stand united in, and what are the issues where individual church members must accept differences between one another? Good questions but difficult questions to answer.
First, it should be acknowledged that every church needs peace. Every church needs to be united not only along theological lines but also along the lines of church practice, and the basic issues of the Christian moral life. There is room for some differences but not for every difference.
Second, these issues must be understood by most of the people. They must be explained and understood in ways that make sense to the average lay people of the church — and that might be the most difficult part of this entire process. To simply say, “Well, the pastor said…” and for the average lay person not to understand what the issue was all about will not go well in a church, at least not on the weightier issues.
I remember an interview several years ago with a certain man was being interviewed to serve as a deacon of the church I then pastored. The interview went well, but then near the end he said that he thought he should let us know that from time to time he smoked a cigarette or two and drank a beer. After he left the interview a long discussion ensued. Finally one present said that if it was just an occasional cigarette, or an occasional beer, that would not be a problem, but he thought that no deacon should have a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. That it was both was the problem.
And whether you or I agree with that perspective, it represents how lay people think. Their thinking is more practical and contemporary. They are less likely to appeal to some theological principle or to refer some church practice of 300 years ago, like us pastors are known to do. Church policies need to make sense to the church people.
Third, we should expect that these things will change from time to time. A trend that is happening across the world today is an anti-denominational mindset. Probably the internet and the capacity for Christian churches to share teaching materials is a large reason for this. There is more cross-polinization between Christian denominations today than ever before. The local and specific issues that contributed to the forming of denominations are slowing disappearing as the world becomes more global.
Fourth, there is a general lack of interest in theology and doctrine. Christianity has become more experiential based and worship more vertical than horizontal. People are more personally empowered than ever before and some of this is good and some of this is not good. It is good that people want a vibrant relationship with God, and that they respect themselves and stand up for themselves. However, there are concerns that people are neglecting doctrinal teaching and moving more toward a strictly personalized religious experience. This creates a “Who cares?” attitude about many important church issues.
We Need Wisdom
The great need in today’s church, and especially in today’s international or multicultural church, is for the leaders to have wisdom in how to proceed in these areas, to bring unity and concensus about in the church body. Of course, none of this is possible without the leadership of the Spirit. I will end this here today, because now the discussion must be specific and local.
But let me encourage us all that the Lord has been building His church for 2,000 years and He knows what He is doing. We may not always be able to sort out what is an unimportant issue, but He can.