How to Kill a New Christian – Part 1
February 8, 2007
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I would like to begin this message with “Brenda’s Story.” This is a work of fiction, but every part of it is true.
She always believed in God. Even during her worst days, she never lost her faith. Sometimes God felt far away, but she never doubted him, not even for a moment. Deep inside she always felt that someday she and God would get together.
Her life began to change when she met a new person who transferred into her department at work. That new friend was “different” somehow. She was unique, calm under pressure, gracious to those who too her for granted, strong in her convictions yet always with a smile on her face. Brenda had never met anyone quite like her. When she finally asked her what made her so different, her friend said, “I gave my heart to Jesus Christ and he changed my life.”
Brenda had never heard anything like that–ever. She knew about church and about religion. After all, she had attended parochial school as a child. She even went to church once or twice a year. But Jesus! He was just a name to her–a great religious leader–but nothing more. The thought intrigued her that Jesus could change her life.
Over a period of many weeks, Brenda brought the subject up whenever she felt it was safe. Her friend always answered her questions carefully and one day gave her a Bible to read. She told her to start in the gospel of John. Brenda did, and couldn’t believe how exciting it was. For the first time in her life, the Bible made sense to her. On and on she read, finishing John and Acts and most of the New Testament.
A Brand-New Brenda
Early one morning it hit her. It was true! Jesus was God’s Son. He really did die on the cross and rise from the dead. He’s alive today. Brenda bowed her head and prayed a very simple prayer: “Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. Thanks for dying on the cross for me. Come into my life and make me a new person.”
She didn’t hear any angels sing. Nothing happened outwardly, but Brenda knew she would never be the same again. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends at work. She was so eager, so excited, so glad to be a Christian.
Her friend shared her joy. Each day they spent their lunch hour reading the Bible and praying together. Not many weeks later her friend came in and said, “I’m being transferred to a another city.” Brenda couldn’t believe it. But her friend gave her the name of a church nearby and said, “Go there. It’s a good church. I’m sure they will welcome you.”
So she went, timidly, because she didn’t know anyone there. The first Sunday she sat in the back row, listening quietly, watching intently, trying to understand, trying to fit in. She enjoyed the sermon, what she understood of it. The music lifted her spirit and she loved the time of silent prayer.
A Square Peg In a Round Hole
Week after week she went to the new church. Slowly she met a few people who seemed to be glad to see her. But it wasn’t easy. Brenda was new to the church and wasn’t schooled in the ways of evangelical Christianity. She still had some of her old habits. Before she came to Christ, she had not lived a perfect life–far from it. Some things she used to do made her ashamed and embarrassed now. In the old days, she had lived a wild life. When she heard others tell of growing up in the church, she felt guilty about her many sins, her many boy friends, all those late nights that stayed in the memory and made her feel rotten.
And she dressed too boldly for some of the older women. When she met the pastor at the door, she mistakenly called him “Father”–just like she had been taught by the nuns. One Sunday she clapped after a particularly beautiful choir number–only to have four or five people turn and frown at her. Soon the whispers began, “Where did she come from?” “She’s not from around here.” and “Someone should take her aside and explain how to walk and talk like a Christian.”
Actually, that was an excellent suggestion, but no one did. They talked about her, but no one talked to her. When she asked if she could teach Sunday School, the response was so negative that she knew she must have done something wrong. When the leader of the Women’s Ministry asked for volunteers to help plan the Fall Retreat, she raised her hand, but no one called on her.
After several months, a kindly couple pulled her aside and suggested to Brenda that she might be happier in another church. She took the hint and left.
She hasn’t been back to church since.
Her story is fictional, yet every detail is true. Brenda’s story has been repeated many times in many churches. What happened to her happens to new Christians all the time as they try to find their way in our churches.
There are many ways to kill a new Christian, but the easiest way–and the quickest–is through criticism and a lack of acceptance. Treat her as if she doesn’t belong and pretty she’ll get the hint and go somewhere else. Let him know that you consider him a rotten sinner and soon enough he’ll begin to act like one.
This is a sermon about the dangers of a judgmental spirit. Even though this problem exists outside the church, my focus in this message is inside the church. I want us to think about the tendency we all have to criticize people who don’t do or say things the way we think they ought to be said or done. I want us to think about the terrible things that can happen when we are too quick to offer personal judgments on believers who don’t meet our personal standards. And before we finish, I would like to offer some concrete suggestions on how we can overcome the impulse to criticize our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we begin, let’s note that this problem is neither isolated nor new. Churches have struggled with this issue for 2,000 years. The New Testament makes it clear that the earliest Christians had difficulty accepting new or different people into their assemblies.
When Paul wrote to the church at Rome, he devoted almost two full chapters to this difficult issue. Romans 14 teaches us an important truth about accepting other believers. I believe this is an important word for us to hear. As you read the remainder of this message, please ponder the message God has for you personally from this text.
Let’s begin with a brief look at the historical background of these verses.
Trouble in the Church
Rome was the center of the world in Paul’s day. It was the capital of the empire and the seat of the Caesars. You’ve heard it said, “All roads lead to Rome.” In the first century that statement was certainly true. All roads did lead to Rome. That meant that the city had become a kind of melting pot where people from many different cultures mingled together. As ambassadors and envoys from the various provinces came to Rome, they settled in the city, creating a complex mix of races and ethnic groups. Add to that the foreign slaves and prisoners of war who lived in Rome. When the gospel came to Rome (not long after the Resurrection), it crossed many of those racial and ethnic lines. As a result, the church at Rome reflected the diverse makeup of the city itself.
That background helps us understand Paul’s words in Romans 14. He is writing to a growing church with a wide variety of people in the congregation. Human nature being what it is, it’s not surprising the various groups within the church had trouble getting along. As I read this chapter, it reveals conflict in the church in five different areas:
New Converts and Long-Time Believers,
Converted Jews and Converted Gentiles,
Vegetarians and Meat-Eaters,
Observers of Special Days and Those Who Observed No Special Days, and
Total Abstainers and Wine-Drinkers.
We should not assume from this list that there were only two groups in the church with these characteristics. It may well have been that individual believers had differing convictions, i.e. a new believer who was a converted Gentile, a vegetarian, a Sabbath-keeper, and a wine-drinker. I believe you could find church members in Rome who didn’t fit into just one or two neat categories. Evidently these believers had difficulty getting along. The meat-eaters didn’t trust the vegetarians and the vegetarians thought the meat-eaters were compromisers. The converted Jews kept kosher, but the converted Gentiles thought that was a waste of time. The wine-drinkers felt that drinking wine was permissible so long as you didn’t get drunk. The total abstainers thought that nothing more than a convenient excuse for drinking alcohol.
In short, the church at Rome was anything but one big happy family. It was big, it was a family, but it was far from happy. Paul understood the conflict. After all, he had been raised in the womb of Orthodox Judaism. He knew all about keeping kosher, following the strict dietary laws, and living under the law. No doubt he had struggled with many of these issues in the years following his conversion to Christ. Now he writes to help others who were wrestling with these same issues.
Romans 14:1-12 contains three basic exhortations:
A. Accept one another—God has accepted you! (vv. 1-4)
The first verse gives us the theme of the entire chapter: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” The word “welcome” means to open your heart and your home to other people. “Opinions” are personal preferences regarding things like eating meat, drinking wine, and keeping special days. These matters—while important—should not stand in the way of our relationship with other believers. To “pass judgment” means to come to a negative conclusion about other Christians on the basis of their outward behavior in disputable areas. We could paraphrase verse 1 this way: “Make friends with everyone in the church without stopping to worry about whether they agree with you on everything or not.”
Consider this situation. It’s time for a birthday party and you’re wondering what to serve. Maybe your idea is to cook some rib-eye steaks, lobster tail, prepare a nice casserole, and perhaps have some homemade rolls, baked potatoes and a nice dessert. That sounds good to me. Or maybe you prefer to buy some premium tofu, put it in a bowl, pour gravy on it (or whatever it is you do to tofu), and serve it with some bean sprouts and soy milk. For dessert you decide to take some bean curd and dip it into chocolate. That’s not exactly my preference, but it doesn’t matter at all. Here is Paul’s point: If you want to cook some steaks, cook some steaks. If you want to have tofu and chocolate-covered bean curd, have at it. It doesn’t matter to God! He’s not up in heaven checking your menu to see if it passes muster. Eat whatever you like. And don’t feel that you need to explain yourself to anyone else.
The danger is that the meat-eaters will look down on the vegetarians and the vegetarians will condemn the meat-eaters. But we must not fall into that trap. The last phrase of verse 3 explains why we are to accept those whose lifestyle may be quite different from ours: “For God has welcomed him.” God’s grace has nothing to do with eating meat, drinking wine, or keeping special days. But neither does it extend only to vegetarians, total abstainers or those who observe no days at all. Since God accepts people solely on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ, so should we. Or to put it another way, who are we to reject the person whom God has accepted? If God has accepted him, how can we reject him?
B. Have your own convictions—Jesus is your Lord (vv. 5-9).
Verse 5 says it plainly: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” To be fully convinced means that after looking at all the evidence and considering the various views on a given issue, you have come to a settled conclusion in your own mind. It assumes an honest investigation coupled with an open mind.
Notice how many times Paul mentioned the Lord Jesus Christ in these verses: “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats meat, eats in honor of the Lord … the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord … If we live , we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For this very reason, Christ died and lived again so that he might be the Lord both of the dead and the living.” Seven times in these verses Paul relates our lifestyle choices directly to our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we are fully surrendered to his lordship in our lives, then we are free to make up our own minds in these disputable areas.
Do you want to eat meat? Eat it for Jesus is your Lord. Do you prefer to be a vegetarian? Have your bean sprouts and give thanks to God. Are you a total abstainer? If so, rejoice that you know Jesus Christ. Do you drink wine with your dinner? Give thanks to God that Jesus is your Lord.
If Jesus is your Lord, you can make your own decisions, knowing that he alone will be your judge.
Note that in this section Paul mentions a particular area of contention. One group at Rome observed certain days as holy (perhaps the Sabbath or possibly the various Jewish feast days), while another group said that all days were alike because every day belongs to the Lord. That has many practical ramifications. If you want to go to church on Tuesday night, go ahead. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t judge those who prefer to go to church on Thursday morning. When I was growing up, there was no flexibility in this regard. We “knew” that all Christians went to church three times a week—Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. And Sunday morning was always the same—Sunday School at 9:45 a.m. and Morning Worship at 11:00 a.m. We never heard about having multiple worship services. Sunday evening was Training Union at 6:00 p.m. and Evening Worship at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night was a supper followed by Prayer Meeting at 7:00 p.m. None of this new-fangled having classes on Wednesday night. That was just the way we did it, year after year. But now things have changed greatly and churches have services and programs at every possible hour. And there is freedom to do this because the Bible doesn’t tell us what time of day or night we should meet or exactly how we should program our services during the week.
C. Don’t judge others—We will each answer to God (vv. 10-12).
Paul asks two pointed questions in verse 10: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” To pass judgment in this context means not simply to evaluate his lifestyle. The word implies that you come to a negative conclusion about the way he lives. “Judging” in this context soon leads to “looking down” on other believers—i.e. believing that you are better or superior to others because A) You do things they don’t do or B) You don’t do things they routinely do. Either way, you end up seeing yourself as just a little bit better than your brothers in Christ. Three different times Paul reminds the Romans that each of them will stand individually before God. No one will answer for anyone else. God will not judge you for how someone else lives. When you stand before the Lord, he won’t quiz you about what Mr. Jones did or how Susie Johnson lived. You’ll answer for yourself and for no one else.
If God will judge your friends, why should you get involved? He knows them better than you do, he loves them more than you do, and he reads the thoughts and intents of the heart, which you can’t read at all.
Furthermore, if we all spent more time worrying about ourselves, we’d have very little time left to worry about other people.
Living in a “Flat World”
I believe the message of Romans 14 is vitally important because we live in a “flat world” where technology and immigration patterns have caused the great cities of the world to become vast melting pots. If you live in Toronto or Detroit or Vancouver or Miami, your church will reflect the incredible cultural diversity of those great cities. Gone are the days (in the big cities, at least) where everyone in the church is PLU—People Like Us. The days of the all-white, middle-class church are quickly disappearing. Because people from around the world come to the big cities to work and to study, in those churches you will find people from Nigeria worshiping side by side with people from India, Korea, New Zealand, Brazil and the Ukraine. Frankly, I think this is a good thing, but it doesn’t come without a cost because people from Puerto Rico and people from Germany bring their own culture with them to church. Some expect quietness, others wants loud expressions of joy, some clap, some sit silently, some want hugs, others want handshakes. And none of this is right or wrong.
But there is even more that needs to be said. Because denominational loyalty is a thing of the past, there is much more “church hopping” and “church shopping” than in earlier generations. In those days if you were born a Catholic, you died a Catholic and you never entered a Protestant church. If you were raised Methodist, you sought out a Methodist church when you moved to a new town. Ditto for the Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and so on. That sort of “brand loyalty” has largely disappeared, for better or for worse. Most churches today have an increasingly diverse congregation. You may have a Baptist to your left, a Catholic to your right, an Episcopal one row in front of you and a Lutheran sitting behind you. Four rows up you may find a Charismatic lifting his hands in praise to the Lord. Sitting next to him may be someone from a Brethren assembly reading his Bible to make sure it’s okay. Across the sanctuary you may spot a Presbyterian bowed in prayer and a stray Unitarian wondering how he ended up in your church! You could have a Methodist husband, a Congregational wife, a Salvation Army sister and a Dutch Reformed uncle. It could happen!
We’re not all from the same background in any sense. Again, I am speaking of churches in larger cities—though these trends are taking hold elsewhere. People come to church from a broad ranger of denominations, ages, races and ethnic backgrounds. They come on Sunday morning joined by one united purpose—to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great unifying factor. Because our churches are becoming more diverse, we need to heed Paul’s words and put them into practice. Romans 14 speaks directly to the church in the 21st-century.
I began this message talking about “Brenda,” a fictional character whose story is all too real. She left the church because she felt “different” and “not accepted” by the people inside the church. Her faith was destroyed by unthinking church members who judged her when they should have accepted her. Probably most of us have known someone just like her. Or perhaps you no longer go to church because something like that happened to you. May the Lord speak to each one of us from his Word–and may we have the courage to hear what he is saying.
O Lord, shine the light of truth on each one of us. Show us our judgmental spirit and our critical attitudes. Forgive us, Lord Jesus. Give us hearts like yours—filled with love and compassion. Help us to love all those who truly love you. Amen.
This has been Part 1 of “How to Kill a New Christian.” In the follow-up message, we’ll talk about the practical ramifications of living together in God’s family when we don’t agree on everything.