How to Kill a New Christian – Part 2
February 9, 2007
Christians love to fight over our deeply-held beliefs. Unfortunately, sometimes we fight for things that don’t matter very much.
Once upon a time a man took a walk and came to a bridge. When he got to the middle of the bridge, he saw a man standing on the rail, obviously about to jump. The man was distraught so he said, “Don’t jump. I can help you.” “How can you help me?” asked the man on the rail. The first man replied with a question of his own: “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, I am.” “That’s wonderful. So am I. Are you Catholic or Protestant?” “I’m Protestant.” “That’s great. So am I. What sort of Protestant are you? Are you Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or something else?” “I’m a lifetime Baptist,” said the man on the rail.
“Praise the Lord,” came the reply. “So am I. Let me ask you this. Are you Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” “I’m Northern Baptist.” “Are you Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” “I’m Northern Conservative Baptist.” “Well, call Ripley’s. This is amazing. So am I. Are you Northern Conservative Baptist Fundamental or Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed?”
The man on the rail thought for a moment and then declared, “My father raised me as a Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed.” “It’s a miracle,” said the first man. “Put ‘er there, pal. So am I.” Then he asked, “Are you Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed Great Plains Region?” The man on the rail said, “That’s easy. My family has always been Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed Great Lakes Region.” “This is a miracle of miracles. I don’t often meet a brother who shares my own heritage.
One final question: Are you Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed Great Lakes Region Council of 1855 or Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed Great Lakes Region Council of 1872?” The man on the rail replied instantly, “Since the days of my great-grandfather, we have always been Northern Conservative Baptist Reformed Great Lakes Region Council of 1872.” This statement was followed by an awkward pause. Looking up, the first man cried out, “Die, heretic!” And he pushed him off the bridge.
We laugh at that story because it is so close to the truth. If two Christians agree on 79 out of 80 points, they will usually focus on the area where they disagree. And often, the smaller that final point, the more likely they are to argue about it. I don’t know why, but we seem to focus on the small things that don’t matter while ignoring the large areas where we agree 100%.
We Aren’t Alike–And That’s Okay
We Christians disagree a lot, sometimes about the craziest things. I don’t know if you know it or not, but Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. It goes all the way back to the days of the New Testament. When you read Romans and I Corinthians, you discover that Christians disagreed on things like eating meat offered to idols, on whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, on whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, on whether or not to drink wine. In the centuries since then Christians have disagreed on every possible point on which you can disagree and still be a Christian. No matter what issue comes to mind, if you look around the world, you’ll find some Christians somewhere who disagree about it.
We aren’t all alike–and that’s okay. We don’t think alike, look alike, talk alike or dress alike, and we don’t all share the same political opinions. The larger the church, the more likely there will be various factions and groups. Some will prefer a certain kind of music. Others want a pastor who graduated from a particular seminary. Some want Sunday School; others prefer small group ministry. Some think it’s a sin to borrow money to build buildings. Others borrow money for everything. And still others think it’s foolish to build buildings when you can meet in homes. After all, Jesus is coming soon. But how soon? Before the Tribulation? In the middle of the Tribulation? After the Tribulation? But that doesn’t matter so long as we bring back the hymnbooks, or get rid of the hymnbooks, or make sure we have a choir, or recite the Apostles’ Creed, or stop all that clapping in church, or make sure everyone goes through 40 Days of Purpose, or maybe not because we don’t like Rick Warren. But he doesn’t matter. We need a new constitution. That’s the ticket. Or maybe we should start a Saturday night service.
And so it goes. Christians have always disagreed–a lot! And it’s not a bad thing. Church life would be dull if we all agreed on everything. But there is always a danger that our own personal preferences will grow so important that we no longer accept our brothers and sisters in the Lord who disagree with us. And evidently something like that was happening in the church at Rome, which is why he devotes so much space to helping the Romans believers find a way to get along in the church in spite of their differences. Romans 14:1-12 lays down three basic principles.
(I explained these principles in How to Kill a New Christian—Part 1. I hope you will take time to read that sermon before going any further.)
Principle # 1: Accept one another—God has accepted you! (vv. 1-4)
Principle # 2: Have your own convictions—Jesus is your Lord (vv. 5-9).
Principle # 3: Don’t judge others—We will each answer to God (vv. 10-12).
I. Five Important Observations
Probably very few Christians will disagree with those three principles, but we disagree on how to apply them. That’s where the rub comes in. Here are five observations that will help us.
A. Christians Often Disagree With Each Other.
This statement always comes as a surprise to new believers, but those of us who’ve been around for a while accept it as a given. Sometimes new Christians come into the church thinking that at last they’ve found paradise on earth, where everyone always agrees with everyone else and we’re all happy together all the time. It doesn’t take long for that balloon to burst. Every church, no matter how large or small, includes people with a wide range of opinions joined by our common allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Here’s a short (and very incomplete) list of some things that conservative evangelicals have sometimes argued about:
Eating out on Sunday
Who to vote for
Fishing on Sunday
Divorce & Remarriage
Men Wearing Beards
Women Wearing Jewelry
Best Christian colleges
Signing pledge cards
Timing of the Rapture
Age of the Earth
Women wearing head coverings in church
Picketing abortion clinics
Using credit cards
Divorced men serving as ushers
Women wearing pants to church
Christian rock music
Long hair on men
Short hair on women
40 Days of Purpose
Women working outside the home
Guitars in a church service
Support for Israel
Working in a restaurant where liquor is served
Christian schools versus public schools
Speaking in tongues
Playing the saxophone in church
Christians in politics
Sunday night services
True Christians in liberal churches
Standards for church leaders
The Lord’s Supper
Mode of baptism
Women wearing makeup
Clapping in church
Traditional versus contemporary worship
About this list, two observations can be made: 1) Some things that appear “silly” to you seem very serious to other Christians, and 2) If we asked ten Christians to divide this list into “silly” and “serious” categories, we would get ten different answers.
B. Disagreement is Not Always Wrong or Sinful.
Many of us have a hard time with this point especially when we feel passionately about some secondary issue. If you have strong feelings about men wearing beards or about Rush Limbaugh, you’ll have a hard time accepting those who either disagree with you or simply don’t care about “your” issue one way or the other.
Disagreement often reflects cultural differences more than biblical principles. Your particular set of standards may tell more about your upbringing than about what God approves or disapproves. Sometimes we disagree simply because of our differing temperaments or because of the spiritual gifts God has given us. In any case, we ought not to automatically assume the worst about people who disagree with us.
C. We Must Distinguish Between Primary & Secondary Issues.
I would define a primary issue as one that deals with a central doctrine of the Christian faith. This category includes the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, including the virgin birth, the miracles, his death and bodily resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and the reality of the personal, visible, bodily return of Christ to the earth. Other primary issues involve salvation by grace through faith, the doctrine of the Trinity, the importance of the church as the body of Christ, the truth of eternal life with Christ, the resurrection from the dead, and the reality of heaven and hell. And there are other foundational doctrines dealing with basic sexual morality that must be upheld. These things are primary because they describe central, defining truths of the Christian faith. To deny these things is to put yourself outside the realm of true Christianity.
When we discuss these issues, there can be no compromise. Ultimately, you either believe in the virgin birth or you don’t. If you don’t, you have denied a clear teaching of the New Testament, which involves your whole view of the Bible as God’s Word and ultimately calls into question your belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Primary truths must be insisted upon, even if others find us ungracious or intolerant in doing so. While our manner must always be kind, our convictions must be rock-solid. In the end, there can be no Christian fellowship with those who deny these things. In the famous words of Edward John Carnell, “It is better to divide over truth than to unite around error.”
To Fish or Not to Fish
Having said that, it must be admitted that most of our debates have nothing to do with primary issues. By definition, evangelical Christians already believe these things. Our debates generally center on secondary issues, which I would define as issues about which the Bible does not clearly speak. For instance, the Bible says nothing about fishing on Sunday. There is simply no verse that addresses that particular issue. Whatever you believe about that will have to be decided by A) inferences drawn from biblical principles or B) your personal preference or C) a combination of A) and B). The same is true for home schooling. While the Bible has much to say about education in general, and while it clearly lays the burden of teaching children upon the parents, it doesn’t tell us precisely how that responsibility must be discharged. Is it wrong to send children to a Christian school? What about a public school? Since there were no first-century equivalents of either public schools or Christian schools, we aren’t sure how to answer those questions.
Or take the hot issue of contemporary versus traditional worship. The New Testament gives us a few general guidelines for worship, but they are quite sketchy and general. If Paul were alive today, would he prefer Fanny Crosby over Casting Crowns or would he embrace Chris Tomlin over P. P. Bliss? I know of no sure way to answer that question. Since nearly the entire corpus of Christian hymnody had yet to be written in A.D. 50, we may assume that even if they could understand the words, the Jerusalem Christians would be mystified by most forms of Christian worship today.
The same analysis may be made for most of the items on the list. Either the Bible says nothing at all or what it says is difficult to properly interpret. In such cases, we are free to have our own convictions, but we must hold them lightly lest we blur the line between primary and secondary issues and end up elevating fishing on Sunday to a level equal with the resurrection of Jesus.
D. Accepting Others Requires Humility Above All Other Virtues.
I define humility as understanding that God is God and you are not. Truly humble people are free from the burden of having to play God for other people. Once you decide that you can let God be God, then you can also relax and let him deal with other Christians regarding these secondary issues. That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss these matters openly. Open discussion is a mark of a healthy relationship. Let the meat-eaters and vegetarians challenge each other’s position–but only if they can do it in love and with deep respect. Humility doesn’t mean no discussion; it does mean no animosity, no name-calling, no unfair accusations.
Over the years I’ve learned two things from careful observation:
1. God blesses people I disagree with.
2. God sometimes blesses people I wouldn’t bless if I were God.
Sometimes I’m frustrated by those facts, especially when I see God blessing someone who seems to be profoundly wrong in some area. But humility forces me to admit that if God is God, he is free to bless anyone he chooses, and he doesn’t have to ask my permission before doing it.
A friend who led a Christian ministry told me that he was having trouble with people who seemed to delight in offering negative comments on everything and everybody. He solved it by instituting this simple rule: If it doesn’t apply to you personally, feel free to have no opinion about it. I have found this to be a liberating principle that has helped me a number of times over the years. Sometimes we simply have too many opinions on too many topics. Many times I have helped myself by saying, “I feel free to have no opinion about that.” And I sleep well at night when I follow that rule.
E. If We Truly Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, We Can Let Him Deal With Those Who Disagree With Us.
This is the logical conclusion of everything I have said thus far. Paul says, “Don’t judge another believer.” Why?Because God will judge him for you. If your friend who eats meat has made a bad choice, God can show him better than you can. If he smokes, God can convict him or his doctor can convince him. If he has some strange view of the rapture, God can deal with him if he needs to be dealt with. Don’t get in God’s way. Let him deal with people who disagree with you. And in the meantime, don’t forget to treat them as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
II. Practical Ways to Apply This Message
Let’s wrap up this message with seven brief steps of application. I want to make this very practical so you can use it this week when you are dealing with someone who sees life differently than you do.
A. Make Up Your Own Mind.
Why is this so important? Because only the confident can truly accept others. If your “issue” is Christian schools, then study that issue until you feel very confident of your position. (That doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later, but it does mean that you come to a place where you don’t agonize over it day and night.) Once you are confident about Christian schools, you won’t feel the need to attack people who believe in public schools nor will you feel an inordinate need to defend yourself when others attack you.
If you know what you believe, it’s easy to talk amiably 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. If you constantly find yourself getting angry about a secondary matter, ask yourself if you really believe what you say you believe. You won’t easily lose your temper when you have truly made up your own mind.
B. Give Others the Right to do the Same.
If you have the right to your opinion, your friend has the right to hers. If you can decide to listen to Rush Limbaugh, she can choose not to. She can also disagree with your reasons and even tell you so, if she cares to. Christian charity requires that we give others the same right of self-determination that we claim for ourselves. As someone has said, we already have one pope in Rome. We don’t need any evangelical popes trying to micro-manage the affairs of other people.
C. Refuse to Criticize Those Who See Things Differently.
During most of my years in Oak Park, we had services featuring two different worship styles on Sunday morning. I remember one day when a man came up to me in the lobby after one of services. I won’t mention you which one because it doesn’t matter. The man proceeded to talk about the other worship service–the one he doesn’t attend. For some reason, he had attended the “other” service one Sunday and had not liked what he had seen. The music was too_____________. (You fill in the blank.) He didn’t care for the _______________. The words seemed to be ___________ and _______________. He felt it wasn’t true worship at all. Now, it doesn’t matter whether his comments apply to the contemporary or the traditional service. What mattered was his attitude. I finally interrupted him, held up my hands in a “T” and said, “Time out. We don’t talk that way around here. And I refuse to listen to comments like that.” You can’t expect everyone to like everything about every worship service, no matter what style you may follow. But it is important to insist that people who attend one service not criticize the service they don’t attend. If it’s not “your” service, let it go. Don’t worry about it. There’s no room for cheap-shot criticism in the church. None whatsoever.
D. Enlarge Your Circle of Friends.
By that I mean, make sure that you have some friends who disagree with you about some things. If you are a vegetarian and all your friends are vegetarians, how stunted and small is your vision of the Christian life. The same is true for faith-promise giving or seeker services. It’s good to have a few friends who truly like you but don’t see eye-to-eye with you on every issue. After all, if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.
If you go to a contemporary service, good! But make sure you have some traditional worship friends. And if you come to a traditional worship service, try hanging out with the folks who love to clap and raise their hands when they worship. It won’t hurt you to expand your circle of friends beyond people who think just like you do.
E. Focus on Things that Unite Us, Not on Things that Divide Us.
This ought to go without saying, but I need to emphasize it because there is something in human nature that seems to divide us into little groups. The great unifying factor for the people of God is the Lord Jesus Christ. He has broken down the wall that separated us from God and from one another. In him we are joined together in the body of Christ. We might state the principle this way: Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me. Read the great list in Ephesians 4 of the things that unite us: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6). These are the “primary issues” of the Christian life. These are the things that have always been believed by all Christians everywhere. They unite the body of Christ across the generations and across geographic, political, racial and national boundaries.
Focus on these things! They matter far more than wine-drinking or wearing your hair a certain way. When Christian schooling is weighed against the standard of “one Lord,” it comes in a distant second. Remember the words of St. Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.”
F. Live So That No One Can Criticize Your Decisions.
That means living a truly Christian life, one marked by gracious humility, kindness, compassion, love for others, honesty, integrity, and hope amid life’s difficulties. If these things are present in your life, then it won’t matter whether or not you go fishing on Sunday. And if those things aren’t present in your life, then fishing or not fishing won’t matter anyway.
Live so that those who disagree with you look up to you as a model worth following.
G. Get Your Own House in Order So That You Have Nothing to Fear When You Stand Before God!
Our text closes with a heavy stress on this principle. While it is true that everyone else will stand before God, it’s also true that you will stand before God. Live in such a way that you have nothing to fear in that awesome day.
As I come to the end of this message, I’d like to leave you with one very practical word of application. The next time you are you tempted to criticize someone else, especially someone close to you–a friend, a family member, a co-worker, a colleague, a church member–before you utter a word, stop and say a prayer for that person. Before you criticize, pray for them. Pray first. Ask God to bless that person. Pray that God will guide them. Yield your own heart to the Lord.
Pray before you say anything. If you pray first, you may end up saying nothing at all. As someone has said, “Miss no opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” Or if you do say something, what you say will likely be changed because you prayed first. If we prayed more, we would talk less, and our words would have greater impact.
Looking back over nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have come to value church unity much more than I did in my early years. Unity is a precious gift from God. When a church is united, it can accomplish amazing things for God. When unity disappears, the church fractures, the body of Christ divides, personal opinions become more important than serving together, people become embroiled in an endless series of petty arguments, and inevitably the church loses its outward focus. When that happens, the blessing of the Lord disappears. The Lord Jesus is so grieved over disunity that he removes his blessing from a church where personal opinion trumps Christian love.
We aren’t all alike, and we don’t have to think alike. Disagreement can be healthy, but it can also run amuck and destroy the work of God. May God deliver all of us from having to have our own way.
O Lord, help us to see that you didn’t die for pipe organs or praise bands. Forgive us for demanding our own way and for judging others unfairly. Grant a rebirth of true Christian love in our churches. In Jesus’ name, Amen.