Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable

Romans 14:1-8

September 19, 2010 | Brian Bill

I thought you might want to know why I didn’t preach the last two weeks.  I’ve been busy putting hot-air hand dryers in the rest rooms.  After installing them I decided to remove them because when I went into the men’s room this week I found a scribbled sign that read, “For a sample of Pastor Brian’s sermons, push the button.”  I think I’ll take another week off…

I wonder if the Apostle Paul ever felt like people thought he was just a bunch a hot air, especially when he had to correct a church on their beliefs and behavior.  If you have your Bibles with you, please turn to Romans 14.

One of the ancient images of the Church is that of a ship travelling on the stormy seas of life and time.  Listen to how Max Lucado describes Christians in his book, “In the Grip of Grace.” 

Though different, we are the same.  Each can tell of a personal encounter with the captain, for each has received a personal call.  We each followed him across the gangplank of His grace onto the same boat.  There is one captain and one destination.  And we will make it, for the ship is safe under the navigating care of the captain, our Lord.  For that there is no concern. 

But there IS concern about the disharmony of the crew.  As we wander the decks we find others wearing uniforms we’ve never seen.  The variety of dress is not nearly so disturbing as the plethora of opinions.  There is a group, for example, who clusters every morning for serious study.  They promote rigid discipline and somber expressions.  It’s no coincidence that they tend to congregate around the stern.  There is another group deeply devoted to prayer.  Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in prayer by kneeling.  For that reason you can find them at…you guessed it…the bow.  And then there are a few who staunchly argue that only real wine can be used at communion.  They’re on the port side.  How we cluster. 

Still another group is in the engine room.  They spend hours examining the nuts and bolts of the ship.  They’ve been known to go below deck and not come up for days.  They are criticized by those who linger on the top deck, feeling the wind in their hair and the sun on their face. “It’s not what you learn,” those on the topside argue. “It’s what you feel that matters.”  Oh, how we cluster. 

All agree on the importance of the weekly meeting where the captain is thanked and his words are read.  But some want it loud, others quiet.  Some want ritual, others spontaneity.  Some want a meeting for those who are overboard.  Others want to reach those who are overboard, but without going overboard and neglecting those on board.  The result is a rocky ship.  Even fighting.  Sailors refusing to speak to each other; not even acknowledging that others are on the ship.   And, most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board the boat because of the quarreling of the sailors.

That reminds me of an issue of National Geographic that included a photograph of the fossil remains of two saber-tooth tigers locked in combat with this caption: “One had bitten deep into the leg bone of the other, a thrust that trapped both in a common fate.”  The cause of the death of the two cats is as clear as the reason for their extinction.  They could not survive because they were too busy fighting each other.  I wonder if that picture fits PBC today.  As the Apostle Paul said in Galatians 5:15: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” 

We hear Psalm 133:1 quoted: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” and we wonder why we so seldom experience this kind of good and pleasant unity.  Could the problem be me?  Could it be you?  Could it be us?  The answer is yes, it’s me.  Yes, it’s you.  And yes, it’s us.  As we go through this passage, please ponder what it is that the Lord has for you personally.  That’s what I’ll be doing.

We’re continuing in our in-depth study of the Book of Romans.  We’ve finished the doctrinal chapters and beginning in chapter 12, we’ve picked up those passages that deal with our duty as believers.  Over the past several years we’ve moved from justification to sanctification to glorification to application. 

As Paul often did when he wrote letters to churches, he addressed issues that were threatening to fracture the flock.  These particular believers were divided over special diets and special days.  The big problem back then was whether it was OK for a Christian to eat meat that might have been offered to an idol before it was sent to Bob the Butcher.   This is addressed in great detail in 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10.  I encourage you to read these chapters on your own.  Paul basically is saying that food is neutral and that it’s ok to eat meat that has been on an altar to an idol.  We see this in 1 Corinthians 8:8: “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” 

But then he is quick to say that we must never go against our conscience or use our freedom to cause another person to fall in verse 13: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”  The whole message is summed up in 1 Corinthians 10:24: “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”

We all need some help in knowing what to believe and how to behave when God’s Word seems to allow for some differences in application.  How do we handle people who follow the same principles but have different practices?  Even though Paul was clear that it was not a big deal to have a meat meal, for some people this was way too much because it reminded them of their past.  

Paul is introducing us to two distinct groups of people in the church at Rome: the weak and the strong, or as one pastor refers to them, the “weak” and the “weaker.”  One faction followed a strict diet and felt that some days were more spiritual than others.  The other group had just one big hang up: the first group.  They felt they could wolf down rib eyes and worship on any day they wanted.  

A “weak” believer is one who hasn’t fully grasped the extent of his or her freedom in Christ and whose conscience is therefore bothered by lifestyle choices or preferences that don’t really matter in the long run.  In this group were Jewish Christians who refrained from certain foods and observed certain days in their attempt to remain loyal to the Mosaic Law.  A “strong” brother or sister is the one who can exercise his freedom in Christ with a clear conscience.

  1. Kent Hughes had this to say about the situation: “The ‘easy’ solution to this problem would have been to form two churches: ‘The Church of the Carnivores’ (perhaps not a bad name for some churches I have heard of!) and ‘The First Church of the Vegetarians.’  Paul, fortunately, was committed to the nobler, though far more difficult, solution.”

Actually, when studying what Paul had to say to the churches in Colossae, Corinth and Rome, one could make the point that there are actually three groups of people.  See if you fit into any of them.

  • Sensitive and insecure
  • Strong and insensitive
  • Stubborn and immovable

Most of us struggle with two tendencies: we love to compare and we like to control others.  We can easily fall into thinking that the way we do things, or our interpretation is correct, and those who differ from us must be wrong.  Some of us go out of our way to try to control how other believers think and behave, secretly judging them according to our spiritual standards.  Let me use this tape measure to demonstrate how some of us size people up.  If they fall short, we either reject them or act like they no longer exist.

We’re a mess, aren’t we?  I don’t know who first came up with this saying but it’s so true: “To dwell above with saints we love, oh that will be such glory.  To dwell below with those we know…well, that’s a different story.”  Church, is that our story?

Many years ago Beth and I received some marriage advice that we still use today.  It goes like this.  When your spouse is doing something that bugs you, say this phrase out loud: “Not wrong, just different.” This is the title I gave to our sermon series because if we can remember this in the church as well, we’ll be doing well.  Let’s say it together: Not wrong, just different.

Differences Don’t Have to Divide

If we want to truly be a community of unity, and keep our boat afloat, then a couple things are going to have to change…

1. Lose the arrogant attitude (1-4). 

The weak Christians (those who clung to the Law) were condemning the stronger believers (those who enjoyed their liberty), and the strong Christians were despising the weaker ones.  Paul tells both groups to stop carping at each other and to chill out: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” The word, “accept” means, “To take to oneself, to receive kindly, to open your heart and your home to other people; to bring in to your circle of acquaintances.” We’re not to just put up with each other; we’re to extend warm fellowship by not turning a cold shoulder.  This is a present imperative, meaning it’s a command to make this a continual characteristic of our lives.

We’re to allow others the freedom to hold convictions that are unlike ours and to welcome them in spite of that difference

To “pass judgment” means to come to a negative conclusion about other Christians on the basis of their outward behavior in disputable matters.  Here Paul is addressing the “strong” as he tells them to avoid judging those who are not as mature in their understanding.  We’re to allow others the freedom to hold convictions that are unlike ours and to welcome them in spite of that difference.

The key here is the phrase, “disputable matters.”  This word refers to that which is debatable or doubtful.  It’s those “gray” areas of the Christian life.  There are really three categories specified in Scripture: things that are right, things that are wrong, and issues of freedom and preference.  A disputable matter is an honest difference of opinion between Bible believing Christians on how best to apply a biblical principle.

Let’s illustrate this by putting a black dot on the white board.  As you look at this, what do you see?  Do you focus on the black dot of differences or the white space of similarity?  Why is it that if two Christians agree on 99 out of 100 points, they will usually focus on the one area in which they disagree?  Are you in the “black and white” camp, where everything is either right or wrong?  Or, maybe better said, where you’re right and everyone else is wrong?

Look at verse 2: “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”   This could be referring to the Gentile who got saved and feels like he can eat whatever he wants, while the Jewish convert, who has been raised on the Old Testament dietary laws, wants to avoid any possibility of dishonoring God by eating something that is not kosher.  

Verse 3 helps us see that the real problem had nothing to do with meat; it was an acceptance issue: “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”  Those who adored Angus burgers looked down on the vegetarians and the Boca Burger lovers condemned the carnivores.  The phrase, “look down” is really strong.  It literally means, “To utterly despise and regard as nothing; to throw out like trash.” The tense indicates that they were to stop doing something that was their practice and custom.  And the word “condemn” refers to the punishment reserved for those who have broken God’s laws.  When we condemn we often make assumptions that are exaggerated, erroneous and even damaging to one’s character.  Both groups had become polarized because they had taken a “disputable matter” and turned it into a moral issue.

The strong are not to despise the sensitive and the sensitive are not to judge the strong.  We’re told why at the end of verse 3: “God has accepted him.”  Friends, we have grace in the gray areas!  Here’s the deal.  Since God accepts people solely on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ, so should we.  Are we really going to ostracize the one whom God has accepted?  What’s up with that?  Let me say it this way.  Instead of always trying to show that you’re “right,” make sure your relationships are “right” with your brothers and sisters in Christ.  You may need to agree to disagree for the sake of harmony in the house of God.

Verse 4 makes it clear that we must not take the place of God in someone’s life: “Who are we to judge someone else’s servant?  To his own master he stands or falls.  And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”  Each believer will give an account for his life before his own Master, and guess what, it isn’t you!  I love the assurance in this verse.  Born again believers will stand strong and be accepted because of what Christ has accomplished for us.  The word “able” is a form of “dunamis,” from which we get the word dynamite.   The word “stand” literally means “to be held up, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” 

No Christian will collapse before Christ because all condemnation has been taken away (Romans 8:1).  According to John Piper, “The weakest believer you know will stand glorious and vindicated and loved and forgiven and righteous and accepted on the last day.”  Friends, God is God and we are not and He’s perfectly capable of directing the lives of those who follow Him…and He doesn’t need our help.  Let’s avoid passing judgment.  More about this next week.

Now, let me say that this is fairly easy for us to do when it comes to eating meat or abstaining from it because it’s far removed from our culture and situation.  But let me bring it closer to home.  We need to avoid passing judgment in some of the “disputable matters,” or taboo topics today.  This is an obvious point but let’s just state it: Christians often disagree with each other.  Here’s a limited list of 18 issues that believers disagree on today.  Some of these topics are non-starters for you; while others probably light you up quite a bit.  The principle still stands – we’re called to accept one another even when we disagree about debatable topics.  Let’s put them up on the white board.

  • Music styles
  • Media choices
  • Sports on Sunday
  • Mode of baptism – We’re getting ready for another service this fall.  Call the office.
  • Dress
  • Bible versions
  • Support for Israel
  • Clapping in church
  • War
  • Divorce – By the way, Divorce Care begins a week from Wednesday
  • Timing of the rapture
  • Calvinism or Arminianism
  • Drinking of alcohol
  • Parenting preferences
  • Schooling of children – Home schooling, Public, Parochial, or Christian
  • Politics 
  • Halloween
  • Green Bay Packers – Actually, this is a moral issue that I’m stubborn about!

Let me make two quick observations.  First, some things that are “silly” to you are very serious to others.  Secondly, if I asked ten of you to divide this list into silly and serious categories, we would have ten different answers.  Remember this: You don’t have to like it, look like it, or listen to it.  But don’t look down on those whom God has accepted.  You are not better than others, nor are they better than you.  It was Augustine who said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  One pastor points out that more than 95% of church tensions, struggles and splits have been over matters of culture and practice.

2. Live for the Lord alone (5-8).  

We need to lose our arrogant attitudes and accept those whom God has accepted.   The best way to do this is to live for the Lord alone and to recognize that we’re all at different points in our spiritual journey.  To do that takes humility.  I’m reminded of the relationship between two of England’s greatest preachers, Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker.  They were good friends until they had a disagreement.  Spurgeon accused his buddy of being unspiritual because he went to the theater.  Parker pointed out that Spurgeon was suspect because he loved to smoke cigars.  Unfortunately, all of this hit the newspapers and discredited the cause of Christ.

Verse 5 tells us that each believer must be “fully convinced in his mind.”  We’re not to automatically adopt the convictions of others but instead are to give careful thought and prayerful consideration to all the principles taught in the Word of God.  As we commit to live for the Lord alone, we should strive to see our fellow saints as members of the same team, growing in grace just like we are.  Sometimes we launch assaults on people by putting a spiritual label on them like, “I don’t think he’s really a Christian.”  Or, “If she was really growing in her faith, she would do this or that.”  Saying something like, “I don’t think so-and-so is very spiritual” may be code for, “Since he doesn’t see things the way I do, there must be sin in his life.”

Many of us are way too quick to offer personal judgments on believers who don’t meet our personal standards.  Ray Stedman says that the favorite indoor sport of Christians is trying to change each other.  That reminds me of a “Cathy” cartoon strip.  She’s walking with a girlfriend and talking about her boyfriend: “I know Irving and I are totally different people, Andrea.  But we keep coming back to each other.”  With a look of love on her face she continues: “Deep down, I think we both want exactly the same thing.”  Then her face contorts a bit and she remarks, “We both want the other person to change.”

Someone has written this satirical poem which sadly is not too far from the truth in many churches:

Believe as I believe,
No more, no less;
That I am right,
And no one else, confess;

Feel as I feel,

Think only as I think;
Eat what I eat,
And drink but what I drink;

Look as I look,
Do always as I do;
Then, and only then,
Will I fellowship with you.

I’ve said this before but this is a good time to bring it up again because I need the reminder.  We need to stop looking down our noses on those who sin differently than we do.  You are not perfect so stop demanding perfection from those around you.   And let’s stop standing over others in spiritual judgment.  Let’s throw away the tape measure [throw].

Verse 6 serves as a great reminder that none of us has a corner on commitment and therefore we should not question another believer’s motives: “He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.  He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”  The one who basks in barbecued ribs and the lover of legumes eats to the Lord, and give thanks to the Lord.  Both thank God for the food they receive, and both live out their convictions as an expression of their devotion to Jesus.  Here’s a practical application.  If we truly believe in God’s right to rule, then let Him deal with those who disagree with us.  We don’t have to “straighten” them out.

Principles to Guide Us

Sam once went up to his friend Nate and said, “You get along so well with just everybody – how do you do it?”  Nate answered, “It’s easy: I never disagree with anyone, no matter what.”

Sam didn’t really believe him and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s impossible!”  To which Nate replied, “You’re absolutely right.”

Is that what Paul is talking about here?  Do we just agree with everyone?  No, that’s not it.  How is it that we should relate to others on the boat?  Note: These principles come from a sermon by Ray Pritchard called, “Overcoming a Judgmental Spirit.”

1. Make up your own mind. 

If you know what you believe after studying and praying about an issue, it will be easier to talk kindly with those who hold differing points of view.  Anger is often a mark that a person has adopted a position without thinking it through carefully.

2. Give others the right to do the same. 

A friend sent me a link to a blog this week where this question was asked, “When you disagree strongly, and it matters to you deeply – how do you discuss the subject in such a manner that it doesn’t escalate into verbal fisticuffs?” I appreciated the title of his post because it says it all – “A Matter of Tone and Approach.”  Here are some questions to ponder.  What’s your tone towards someone who has a different opinion than you?  How do you approach a brother or sister with a contrary view?  Don’t forget that opposite beliefs and behaviors can both show the worth of Christ.

3. Refuse to criticize those who see things differently. 

Would you notice in 14:1 that we’re called to “accept him” and again in 15:7 Paul bookends the section with a similar phrase: “accept one another?”  We’d all benefit from taking a “chill pill” and not make such a big deal over differences.

4. Enlarge your circle of friends. 

It’s important to hang out with people who see things differently than you do.

5. Focus on things that unite us, not on things that divide us. 

If a discussion of an issue does not bring one closer to Christ and build unity, then maybe the conversation needs to conclude.  This passage fits in the larger context where the theme is to love one another.  Do you love those that are difficult for you to like?

6. Live so that no one can criticize your decisions. 

Live with gracious humility, kindness, compassion, love for others, integrity and trust in the midst of life’s trials.  Then when someone disagrees with something you believe about a secondary issue, they will at least know that you love Jesus.

7. Get your own house in order. 

Some day we’re all going to stand before God.  Someone has said that if we spend our time doing the “dos” of the Bible we won’t have the time or the desire to do the “don’ts.”  And we won’t worry so much about what others are doing or not doing either.

Putting In To Practice

It’s good to have principles but we also need some practical application if anything’s going to change because my guess is that you’re going to have an opportunity to apply this message very soon…maybe even before you leave today.  

1. Figure out why you’ve become so sour and crabby. 

People might be moving away from you because of your attitude.  Do you need to confess some pride?  Someone has said that the pride of knowledge is prone to hold the ignorant in contempt.  When discussing the whole topic of food sacrificed to idols, Paul makes this perceptive statement in 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Are you puffed up or are you building up?  More than anything else, accepting others requires tremendous humility.

2. Move toward someone this week.

When you accept someone you are saying, “You are important to me.  Your life matters.  I will make room for you.”  Non-acceptance says, “You are expendable.  I can do without you.” Can I just make an observation about living in a small community?  Even after being here for eleven years, we still get asked this question, “You’re not from around here, are you?”  That can be code for, “We don’t really want to get to know you.”  How do you treat those you don’t know?  How about those who dress differently?  Those who listen to different music?  Who gets passed by on Sundays?  Is there anyone sitting by themselves?  Who’s left out for parties and get-togethers?  It’s easier to stick with those who are similar to us but it’s not Scriptural.

3. Deal with family friction.

Some of you parents are grieving because of how your child is living and you’ve broken off all relationship.  Maybe you’ve shut down.  It’s time to reengage. Teens, what do you need to do to make things right with your parents?  Spouses, just admit you’re different and deal with it.  Parents, teach your kids about conflict resolution and continue to fight for the heart of your children.  In order to give some practical help to parents, we’re going to do a church-wide focus on how to bless our children in four weeks.  

4. Expand your view of God and His world.

When we become nitpicky and argumentative over issues that don’t really matter, it’s likely that we’re not seeing God as great and global.  When we were missionaries in Mexico doing some church planting for three years, we partnered with a denomination that though evangelical, had some differing views on some secondary issues.  Why did we do that?  Because this group was committed to reach lost people and we wanted to join them.

5. Stop and pray before you say anything.

The next time you’re tempted to criticize another Christian, before you figure out what to say, make sure you stop and pray.  Pray and then say.  Or, maybe you’ll pray and then not say what you were going to say.  And that would be better for all of us.  As someone has said, “Miss no opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”  Here’s a little equation: “Don’t say more; pray before.”  It’s true that silence is often misinterpreted but never misquoted.  Here’s a simple rule: If it doesn’t apply to you personally, feel free to have no opinion about it.

When the British and French were fighting in Canada in the 1750s, Admiral Phipps, commander of the British fleet, was told to anchor outside Quebec and to wait for the land forces to arrive so he could support them when they attacked the city.  As the admiral waited, he got bored and became annoyed by the statues of some saints on the towers of a nearby cathedral, and so he commanded his men to shoot at them with the ships’ cannons. When the signal was finally given to attack and support the land troops, the ship was of no help because they had used up all their ammunition shooting at the “saints.” (Daily Bread) 

Unfortunately, the same could be said about some of us today.  When God calls on us to do something great for Him we have nothing left to give because we’ve used up our ammo killing other Christians with our words and actions.

And so, fellow shipmates welcome one another with open arms.  Receive and accept one another, even when you disagree or when you don’t care for someone else’s opinions or preferences or background or personality.  Let’s lose our arrogant attitudes and live for the Lord alone…and that’s not a lot of hot air.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?