Things weren’t going great for the congregation of Christian believers in Rome. They were a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds across the spectrum of Roman society, from the very rich and influential to poor slaves. They all came with different points of view and different ways of understanding the world around them. By the power of his Holy Spirit, God had brought these vastly different people into the diverse, complicated, messy and beautiful thing that is Christian community through faith in Jesus.
In chapter 14, the Apostle Paul writes about two issues the early Roman church was facing. One was whether Christians could eat meat or whether they should be vegetarian. The second was whether certain days should be observed as holy days or not. Biblical scholars don’t know the exact circumstances of the disputes. They might have been between some people who wanted to keep Old Testament Jewish rules, or others who were living in the freedom the gospel brings, or others still who were either observing local customs or reacting against a self-indulgent Roman lifestyle.
The result of these disputes, however, was that some members of the Christian congregation thought they were better that others and looked down on them. Others were judging people in the congregation who were not doing what they thought was right. There was conflict and division in the community of believers because of these ‘disputable matters.’
One good thing about not knowing the exact circumstances of the disputes in Rome is that we can apply Paul’s words to our time and place. Two thousand years down the track and things in the Christian church don’t seem to have changed very much. We might not get too upset about dietary rules or holy days, but we still have our disputes. Some of the ‘disputable matters’ being discussed in our church at the present time include styles of worship, the ordination of women, the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, or the upcoming postal vote on same sex marriage, for example. People on both sides of each issue might not like referring to these as ‘disputable matters’ because our minds might already be made up about what is right or wrong in each case. But just the fact that we have different ways of thinking about what is right and wrong in each matter and we are grappling with them as a church means that these are matters under dispute. So even what can be thought of as a ‘disputable matter’ can itself be a ‘disputable matter.’
Paul’s point in Romans 14, however, is that following in the way of Jesus means accepting others who see things differently. This is a radically different position from what our culture teaches us, and even from what comes to us naturally, where we stand our ground, argue our point, and try to prove that we are right and others are wrong. Instead, Paul teaches us that living as Jesus’ disciples means not trying to get our own way or making others agree with our point of view. Instead, following Jesus means accepting each other along with the different opinions we might have. This acceptance means much more than just tolerating, or putting up with others. To accept others as Paul uses the word means receiving others with open arms, welcoming and embracing others, no matter how differently we might see things.
Paul explains further what this acceptance looks like when he writes that we are to ‘aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up’ (v19 NLT). Imagine what this could look like: people of diverse backgrounds with a wide range of opinions on different matters living together in perfect harmony with each other for the benefit of the other. The love we show each other composes a beautiful melody of praise to God as we dedicate ourselves to helping each other grow up together into maturity of faith and love. This becomes part of the picture of Christian community into which God wants to be transforming us by the power of his Spirit through the gospel, as we heard a few weeks ago from Romans 12.
All of this is on the basis of the way God accepts each of us for Jesus’ sake. Paul writes in verse 3 that we can’t look down on others or condemn them because God has already accepted them. Again in Romans 15:7, Paul explicitly states, ‘accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given the glory’ (NLT). God has welcomed the people around us with open arms and embraced all of us as members of his family, not because we keep all the right rules or even hold the right theological opinions, but because Jesus has given his life for each of us on the cross and has made us right with the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. This has been Paul’s argument all the way through the letter to the Romans and really is the main message of the Bible. A clear example is chapter 3 verse 22 where Paul writes:
We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. (NLT)
Because we are made right with God through faith in Jesus, a key part of living this faith out in our relationships and in community with each other is accepting, welcoming and embracing each other, no matter what our different points of view might be in matters that are in dispute. When we extend this grace to each other and show this love for each other, then Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). It is easy to love the people we like, who think the same way we do and who agree with our points of view. That’s why, for hundreds of years, and especially in our church culture today, it is too easy for individuals or groups to disconnect from church community to do their own thing. This is not the love that Jesus taught. The love of Christ, the love that Paul talks about in Romans 14 and throughout his letters, is a love that accepts people who have different points of view to us, a love that gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other no matter what our differences might be, and a love that works to build each other up in trusting God’s grace and in loving each other.
So how will we treat people who have different opinions to us? Will we look down on them because they don’t do things the way we do, or the way we think they should be done? Will we judge and condemn them because we think that what they are doing is wrong? Or will we accept each other, in the same way that God has accepted us for Jesus’ sake? In the Holy Spirit’s dynamic power, will we welcome and embrace each other in Christ-like love, living in harmony with each other, building each other up in trusting God and in serving each other?
How will we treat the people who think differently to us in the ‘disputable matters’ we face?
More to think about:
- What do you usually do when you meet someone who has different opinions to yourself – do you try to persuade them to see things your way or do you accept their point of view? Can you give an example of when you did that?
- What are some of the ‘disputable matters’ you have come across or are encountering in the church?
- In your experience, have people been accepting of others with different opinions? Or do they argue the point to try to get people to agree with them? Why do you think that has happened?
- If you are facing disagreements in the church, what might happen if you aimed for harmony in the church and tried to build others up (Romans 14:19)? What are some practical steps you could take towards that goal?
- How important is it for you to feel accepted in your church community? How might you be able to give someone else that same sense of being accepted?