In Romans 14:13 Paul writes, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”
You’d think that deliberately or unknowingly tripping up a fellow Christian would be the last thing we’d want to do. But sensitivity to fellow Christians is not exactly a strong point when one has strong beliefs on touchy subjects.
Paul cites three examples in Romans 14: Some Christians were dyed in the wool vegans, who ate nothing but veggies; others believed in observing sacred days, while others thought it was wrong to drink wine.
Other Christians, however, thought all three of these things were daft, and they had no qualms about saying so. It’s like some Christians today who believe Halloween is nothing but satanism in disguise, being snorted at derisively by their fellow Christians who think Halloween is just a bit of harmless fun for the kids and a great way of getting to know the neighbours.
But many times in church history Christians have frothed and fumed at each other over things like the date of Easter, the validity of the sacraments, the veneration of saints, and whether war is justified, or not. Today Christians snarl at each other over how young or old the earth is, should women and practicing homosexuals be ordained to the ministry, is same sex marriage really marriage, can we vote, dance, march in protest, and join the armed forces? And should we observe the sabbath on Saturday or Sunday, resist euthanasia, and continue to threaten people with burning in hell forever?
And it’s tragic that we Christians have split our churches and even killed each other over our differences – totally going against the grain of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:3-6 – but it shows how hard it is to be sensitive and respectful to people who think differently, even as Christians.
Fortunately, Paul offered a solution to the problem: “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “and don’t think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” And he wrote that in Romans 13:14, in the verse just before he launches into Romans 14.
In Paul’s mind the only solution was a supernatural one, a transformation from our typical thinking patterns (Romans 12:2) to those of Jesus (Philippians 2:5-8).
So this is something else we can experience supernaturally, that we really can get along together as Christians even with strong and differing beliefs on touchy subjects. Which is good to know, because what Paul talks about in Romans 14 is tough for us to do naturally.
Like, for instance, not looking down on, judging or condemning each other in those touchy “grey areas” where there is no direct command in the Bible for or against (verses 3-4, 13). And can we respectfully accept another person’s conscience and “not eat meat or drink wine or do anything else that will cause our brother to stumble” (verse 21)?
These are tough to do, but God accepts people’s conscience (verse 3), and he’s well pleased when we do as well (verse 18). Why? Because we’re “acting in love” (verse 15), and living the “peace and joy” of the kingdom of God (verse 17).
It doesn’t mean we have to give up what we believe to be right or wrong. Paul, for instance, believed there was no such thing as a “wrong food” (verse 14), but he kept that to himself when he sensed it might distress a person if he made an issue out of it (verses 15 and 22).
And it’s that kind of sensitivity and respect for a person’s conscience that’s on offer for us to experience supernaturally. And thankfully so, because a church with unresolved conflict, from defending one’s own beliefs as the only right way to go, creates a strained and unhappy atmosphere when we’re together.
I’m glad there is a solution, then, that through the “Holy Spirit” (verse 17) we can do as Jesus did, which “is please our neighbour for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself,” Romans 15:2-3.