Why We Don’t Have to Win Every Argument
March 19, 2007
For the last few weeks in our studies of Romans 14-15, we have been looking at the call of God for believers in Christ to live together in peace despite our differences over secondary issues. Just as a reminder, here are some of things Paul has said:
Welcome weaker believers – 14:1
Don’t quarrel over secondary matters –14:1
Don’t despise someone you disagree with – 14:2
Don’t pass judgment on another believer – 14:3
Be convinced in your own mind – 14:5
Live for the glory of the Lord – 14:5-7
Remember that you will answer to God someday – 14:12
Don’t put a stumbling block in front of someone else – 14:13
Respect the conscience of others who see things differently – 14:14-15
Be careful about your actions – 14:16
Christ matters more than our opinions – 14:17-18
Your thoughtless words can destroy another person – 14:15
Your thoughtless words can destroy God’s work –14:20
Unity matters more than your personal freedom – 14:2-21
Keep your mouth shut about your personal opinions – 14:22
Enjoy your freedom but do not flaunt it – 14:22
Don’t violate your own conscience – 14:23
Carry those who are weak – 15:1
Don’t please yourself – 15:1
Focus on how to help others – 15:2
Remember the example of Christ – 15:3
As I look at what Paul has said, several thoughts come to mind:
1. This is a very daunting list.
2. If we actually lived like this, most church conflicts would disappear.
3. We will never live like this on our own. We need God’s help.
4. It must be a huge issue because Paul devotes so much space to it.
One point I have not commented on yet involves the precise identity of the “strong” and the “weak” in the church at Rome. I have intentionally ignored that question because the Paul himself doesn’t identify them precisely. The only thing we can say is that the difference between the “strong” and the “weak” involves issues of Christian liberty on secondary issues, such as eating meat or not eating meat, observing special days versus not observing those days, and drinking wine versus not drinking wine. In his commentary on Romans, John Stott discusses various views of the “strong” and the “weak” and concludes that the “weak” were probably Jewish converts to Christianity who continued to observe certain aspects of the Old Testament law. Having been raised with the kosher laws of Judaism, and having observed holy days followed certain traditions, when these Jews in Rome became Christ-followers and entered the predominantly-Gentile church, they brought their culture with them. Stott points out that while this Jewish-Gentile division probably lies at the root of the conflict in Rome, the battle lines were not neatly drawn because some Jewish believers in Christ were counted among the “strong,” a term Paul applies to himself in 15:1. We can say in the broader context that the church in Rome had a cosmopolitan flavor, with converts from many different backgrounds, thus creating the possibility for tension over a variety of secondary issues. The same thing will be true today for most churches, especially those in larger cities where there is a blending of cultures. And if you stretch things out even further, we can observe that even in monocultural churches where everyone comes from the same background, there will still be many different opinions.
What Paul Doesn’t Say
Several weeks ago, as I was coming back home from a bike ride, I started thinking about all of this because I knew I needed to sit down and prepare my sermon. It occurred that there is one thing that Paul doesn’t say.
He never says, “Prove the other person is wrong.”
Go back to Romans 14-15 and see for yourself. Nowhere are the “strong” told to convince the “weak” that their opinions are wrong. That’s a fascinating insight because by definition, it’s better to be “strong” than to be “weak.” We all understand in the physical realm that if you are strong, you will have more endurance and better health, and all things being equal, a stronger person lives longer than a weaker person. That’s why we diet, exercise, work out, lift weights, run, bike, walk, go to the gym, and try to stay in shape. When we are strong physically, we generally feel better in every area of life. Getting in shape and staying in shape is a good thing. If you have a choice about it, you’ll choose to be strong rather than weak.
But Paul doesn’t make that sort of argument in Romans 14-15. He nowhere tells the “strong” to attempt to convert the “weak.” He doesn’t even say, “Teach them patiently.” And to take matters further, he doesn’t tell the “weak” to “get with the program” and drop their silly secondary opinions. Instead he says something like this:
Let the strong be strong.
Let the weak be weak.
Let the strong and the weak live together in peace.
What are we to make of this? Why doesn’t Paul encourage them to do what we automatically try to do–convince others of the superiority of our own opinions? A number of answers come to mind.
1) It’s almost impossible to argue someone out of a deeply-held position. We’ve all tried to do it, haven’t we?And it almost never works. You talk and you discuss, you bring up logical reasons, you make your case, you demolish their case, you answer their objections, in short, you win the argument. But your victory is hollow because “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If down deep someone loves country music, you can argue for Bach all you want, and they will still prefer Waylon Jennings. Music isn’t a matter of argument; it’s a matter of taste, of culture and history and tradition. It’s a matter of the heart, not the head. That’s not say that musical preferences can’t change. They can and they do, but that can’t be forced by someone else.
2) Once you focus on secondary issues, you soon lose sight of the things that matter most. That’s a huge part of Paul’s argument in Romans 14-15. The kingdom of God matters more than personal opinion. God values righteousness, peace and joy among his people more than uniformity of personal opinion about secondary matters. In a sense, you might say that God is perfectly willing for the strong and the weak to live together in peace and harmony even though it’s better to be strong than to be weak. Or said another way, it’s okay to wrong about smaller issues as long as you are right about the larger issues of life.
3) We are all “strong” in some areas and “weak” in others. We all have some issues secondary issues that matter a great deal to us. And in some cases, we are ready to fight for those things because they mean so much to us. As I pointed out in my sermon When Christians Disagree, sometimes the only way to preserve peace is to go our separate ways. Sometimes the only way to love each other is from a distance. This is a regrettable truth about Christian living in a fallen world. We don’t always agree, and sometimes we can’t find a way to get along and work together in close quarters. And God (because he is sovereign and wise and full of mercy) is able to use those disagreements (as he did with Paul and Barnabas) to bring about the furtherance of the gospel. Out of pain and many tears and the heartbreak of broken relationships, God sows the seeds of a new advance for his kingdom. This does not justify harsh words and foolish actions nor does it absolve us of the need to work for peace and to ask for forgiveness when we have sinned, but it demonstrates that our divisions and disagreements can ultimately work out for good in ways that we could never have foreseen.
How should we feel about those with whom we strongly disagree? This is a difficult question that challenges us on many levels. It’s not hard to be kind to people who agree with us. It’s much harder to find the right balance when you are in the midst of a heated conflict. I recently ran across a letter that Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Arthur Moore in December 1940. In just three sentences he summarizes the way we ought to feel toward those with whom we have strong disagreements:
I see that we cannot agree as to facts and, where we agree, we view them from different angles of vision. Therefore we must for the time being agree to differ. ‘We shall know each other better when the mists have rolled away.’ I know that our friendship can easily bear the strain of our differences.
4) Ultimately we are forced to admit that the church is not ours, but God’s. Pastors come and go, people come and go, families come into the church and then leave the church, the community changes, and over time churches slowly change. Nothing in this world stays the same forever. I heard about a woman whose family helped found a particular church. Over the years her family has given an enormous amount of money to the church for various projects. As a result, she and her family occupy a place of considerable importance in congregational life. It happens that there are some people who are unhappy with the pastor for various reasons. In discussing the controversy with her children, the woman urged them not to worry about it. “We were here before the pastor got here, and we’ll be here long after he’s gone.” On a practical level, she’s probably right. Lots of longtime church members have lived through (and in some cases “survived”) quite a few pastors. But underlying that statement is the unspoken assumption that “we built this church and it belongs to us.”
No, it doesn’t.
The church doesn’t belong to the pastor.
The church doesn’t belong to the people.
The church belongs to the Lord.
He is the head of the church.
He purchased it with his own blood.
He gives it his life.
Christ is Made the Sure Foundation
Christ alone is the head of the church. No human being “owns” the church. Because it belongs to the Lord, he can take care of his own possession. Because he is building it day by day, he knows exactly where each piece fits. Because he is the foundation, the church ultimately can never be destroyed. An unknown 7th century author wrote a hymn that was translated from Latin into English by John M. Neale in 1851. The first verse speaks to this great truth.
Christ is made the sure Foundation,
Christ the Head and Cornerstone;
Chosen of the Lord, and precious,
Binding all the Church in one,
Holy Zion’s Help forever,
And her Confidence alone.
When I lived in Dallas in the 80s, I became friends with Oliver Price, director of the Bible Prayer Fellowship. He wrote a document called Forgotten Secrets to a Live Prayer Meeting. The subtitle tells you what you need to know: “Praying with Christ obviously present and actively in charge.” When I first heard that 20 years ago, I thought it remarkable. I still think so today. Embedded in that statement is a truth we seem to have forgotten. If Christ is the true head of the church, then we ought to expect him to be “obviously present and actively in charge” of everything the church says and does. If it is not that way, then something must be wrong inside the church. How can the head not be involved with the body? If my head goes to sleep, my whole body is going to lie down. It’s not as if my head can go to sleep while my body drives a car. Or if that does happen, disaster will be the likely result.
Do we expect Christ to be obviously present in our congregations?
Do we want him to be actively in charge when we meet?
When the body says to the head, “We don’t need you. We can handle this on our own,” a total breakdown is not far away.
Behind our divisions and our disagreements, behind our fussing and feuding, behind all our divisive squabbling over secondary matters, behind it all stands a stark truth. We have severed ourselves from Christ our head.
No wonder we have problems.
No wonder we can’t get along.
No wonder we spread rumors.
No wonder we pick at each other.
No wonder we hate going to church.
Good theology can save us, and bad theology will destroy us. As long as we think the church belongs to us, we have to fight for whatever we believe in, even at the expense of the gospel itself. But when secondary issues become more important than the gospel, the church ceases to care about reaching the lost and becomes inward focused. I am saying that it is possible for an evangelical church to become so consumed with inner controversy over secondary issues that it severs itself from Christ.
But if Christ is the head of the church . .
We can trust him to change opinions if they need to be changed.
We can wait for him to do his work.
We don’t have to always have our own way.
We can set aside lesser things for his sake.
We can seek the good of those with whom we disagree.
We can work together for the sake of the kingdom.
And if we must go our separate ways …
We can do it with faith that he has not left us.
We can trust that he will continue to lead us.
We can know that he will do what needs to be done.
We can give up seeking revenge because vengeance belongs to the Lord.
We can resolve to speak good and not evil about others.
We can let go of the past.
We can press forward into the future.
In short, we can let God be God.
And we can say, “Let the church roll on.”
Learn What God Is Like
A few weeks ago a young man said, “If you had one piece of advice to give to someone entering the ministry, what would it be?” Questions like that can be difficult because you don’t know what the person wants to hear. My policy is to say whatever pops into my head first. And so I did.
“Get to know the character of God.”
I mentioned an old hymn that I’ve never actually sung called Workman of God, Do Not Lose Heart. The opening line goes like this: “Workman of God! O lose not heart, but learn what God is like.” Nothing sustains the servants of the Lord in hard times like knowing God’s character. And as the hymn (and life itself) makes clear, you don’t “learn what God is like” by going to seminary and memorizing the attributes of God. You learn what God is like in the darkness of the night, when you feel overwhelmed and burdened and full of fear and uncertainty. Ironically you learn that when you feel most alone, God is nearest to you. So study the character of God.
Learn his holiness.
Exult in his mercy.
Ponder his patience.
Consider his ways.
Meditate on his goodness.
Remind yourself of his justice.
Rest on his faithfulness.
Linger at the foot of the cross.
Memorize his promises.
Pray the psalms back to him.
Testify to his kindness.
Declare his glory.
Defend his honor.
Be silent before his judgments.
Get to know the Lord. Nothing matters more than this. You might even say that the whole purpose of our earthly journey is for us to get to know what God is like.
I remarked at the beginning of this message that Romans 14-15 presents us with a daunting list of duties for living together in the local church and in the body of Christ in a larger context. As I go back and look at that list again, it strikes me that no one will live this by accident. It is not possible apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. That is why Romans 14:17 reminds us that the kingdom of God is not about secondary issues but it is all about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We need the Spirit’s help to maintain unity and to live together in peace. Left to ourselves, we will argue about everything. Left to ourselves, we will always want our own way. We will never yield our right to be right without the Holy Spirit’s help.
We need God’s help, and we need it more than we know.
If we believe in God’s sovereignty,
If we trust in his wisdom,
If we understand his power,
If we are filled with his love,
If we are guided by his Spirit,
If we walk in the steps of Jesus,
We won’t have to win every argument.
I close with a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Perhaps a useful first step would be to pray this prayer today. Don’t just read it. Pray it to the Lord. And if you can, pray it out loud so that the words can sink into your soul.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.