Respecting our differences

Following up on the last blog about the Holy Spirit being our guide as Christians, Romans 14:23 seems to be saying we should be following our conscience too, because “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Or, as the New Living Translation phrases it, “If you do anything you (personally) believe is not right, you are sinning.” 

Are we only good Christians, then, if we do what we, personally, believe in? But if what we believe in is (or has been) heavily influenced by what our conscience for years in the past has interpreted as right or wrong, what then?   

What if, for example, it’s stuck in our heads as Christians because of our background or upbringing that we should “only eat vegetables” and never eat meat (Romans 14:2 and 6), or that we feel some days are more “special” or “sacred than others” (verses 5 and 6), or that we shouldn’t “drink wine” (verse 21)? Are these conscience issues that we had better follow, and we’re sinning if we don’t?

Or what if we were brought up in a Muslim or Jewish household that thinks of pigs as “unclean” or filthy animals that God never meant us to eat? Or that eating “food offered to idols” (1 Corinthians 8:4) – or eating processed junk food in our terms today – is totally wrong, or that Saturday or Sunday should be observed as “holy Sabbath” days? Should we persist in these habits as Christians because we feel they might “weaken” and “defile” our conscience if we don’t (1 Corinthians 8:7)? 

On the other hand, does sticking to these habits show “our faith is weak,” compared to the faith of those who can kick these habits and be free of them, Romans 14:2

But if a person can’t kick these habits because he’s “fully convinced in his own mind” they’re the right thing to do in God’s sight, verse 5, and he’s doing them “to the Lord, giving thanks to him,” verse 6, and therefore, as Paul says, “God has accepted him” in verse 3, it means we’re now stuck with fellow Christians who may have vastly different or even totally opposite views, so how on earth can we keep the peace between us, or even relate to each other at all?  

And what a question that is, and especially in a pandemic too, when some Christians strongly believe in God’s sight that they should be vaccinated, but others just as strongly believe in God’s sight that they shouldn’t be.   

Paul’s answer is simple: respect our differences. And he says it in several ways too, like not “passing judgment on each other” (verses 1 and 13), not “looking down” on each other (verses 3 and 10), not “putting any stumbling block or obstacle in our brother’s way” (verse 13), and not “distressing” a fellow Christian by pushing what we believe as “good” and what he believes as “evil” (verse 16), because if that’s what we’re doing we’re “no longer acting in love” (verse 15), and we could even be “destroying the work of God” in a fellow Christian’s life too (verse 20). 

And Paul offers some pretty compelling reasons for stepping carefully too, like “Who are we to judge” a fellow Christian as being out to lunch in what he believes or burdening himself with unnecessary and silly obligations, when “the Lord is (fully) able to make him stand” (verse 4)? And even if he dies because of his beliefs, “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (verse 8), which is why “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (verse 9). Jesus can sort anyone’s life out, so that we can “ all stand before God’s judgment seat” to “give an account of ourselves to him” without worry (verse 12).

On the other hand, Paul did express his own belief when he said “I’m fully convinced no food is unclean of itself” (verse 14) and “all food is clean” (verse 20), making room for discussion and reasoning together. But if there’s any hint of sensitivity on a subject that might unsettle someone it’s better to “keep what you believe between yourself and God” (verse 22). 

Because the kingdom of God we’re all part of is about “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (verse 17),” and “anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men (creating good relationships).”   

Hopefully, then, these tricky differences between us can actually build our love for each other, making us a wonderful example in a world where differences can be so destructive. 

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