You cannot be a Christian for very long before you notice that it is a fact of life that Christians can, and do, disagree on a whole variety of issues. It has always been like that - that is one reason that are so many different Christian denominations today - different understanding of church structures, different understandings of ministry and sacraments, different approaches to mission and in local churches different approaches to worship and the use of the church building. It has always been like this and in our series in Romans we come to a part of the letter where Paul raises some issues that Christians in Rome were falling out over.
Please turn to page 1140. We find in these opening verses of Romans 14 three particular issues - in v.2 the issue is about what to eat (again mentioned in v.6) . in vv.5,6 it is about the keeping of Jewish religious festivals. These were issues that the early Church was wrestling with as it sought to work out how the teaching of the Old Testament should be viewed in the light of the coming of Jesus. The reason that these are no longer issues for us is that the church was able to reflect and discuss until a point of consensus was reached. However in Paul’s time strong feelings could be aroused and both sides could be condemning and disparaging of the other. This is not how it should be says Paul and he gives us several principles that should guide both how we behave and how we handle such disagreements.
1 ‘equally saved’ - in verse 3 Paul says we don’t look down on others because God has accepted them. Paul is pointing to what we have in common - acceptance by God. The early part of this letter was all about what is called ‘justification by faith’ - how we are put in a right relationship with God - and Paul showed that that happens when we put our faith in Christ and in his death on the cross for us. This is (or should be) our fundamental experience as Christians. We are all saved by grace through faith - and if God has put someone in a right relationship with himself we should seek to live in a right relationship with them.
This is wonderfully portrayed at the communion rail - whatever may divide us we all alike kneel side by side to receive in the signs of bread and wine what Christ has done for us. We are fundamentally equal before God - and so we should never look down on another Christian no matter how much we disagree with them.
2 - ‘fully convinced’ in v. 5 Paul says that each of us should be ‘fully convinced in our own mind’ about how we live as Christians. The process of living a life that pleases God takes a lot of thinking about, and I think part of the problem in Paul’s day was that some people just operating with a rules based approach ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’ rather than thinking through how their faith should influence their actions. Notice later on in v. 14 Paul says ‘As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself’. Some issues take more thinking through than others, but we should not be afraid to think as Christians - what do we think about evolution, the ministry of women, the practice of homosexuality. We need to wrestle with Scripture, pray, discuss and seek to do what we believe to be right. As Paul puts it several times in verses 6-8 we are to do things ‘to the Lord’ - all we are and all we have are his and pleasing him must be our aim in everything.
3 - ‘God will judge’ The next thing Paul reminds his readers of is that there will be a final judgement. It is not for us to judge one another on such things. God will judge each of us at the last judgement - and that is what we each need to soberly remember. Today we rarely think about ‘judgement day’ or ‘meeting our maker’ but it is an important truth that we ignore at our peril. Our faith and life must be consistent - as Paul puts it at the end of v.23 ‘everything that does not come from faith is sin’. We cannot compartmentalise our lives and say of one part of it, that’s up to me, not God. God is interested in every area of our lives.
Does all this mean that there are no limits to diversity? I don’t think that is the case. There are boundaries to Christian belief and behaviour and Paul certainly made that clear. He opposed Peter at Antioch because Peter was wrong to stop eating with gentiles.
He said to the Church in Corinth that someone who had committed incest was to be put out of fellowship. In his letter to the Galatians he says that if people preach a different gospel to ‘being saved by grace through faith’ they are to be accursed. And there are other examples as well.
How then do we know when a difference between Christians is legitimate or not? This is a very difficult question. Part of the answer is to do with the clarity of Scripture itself. Certain things in the Bible are absolute clear cut. I once heard someone who was married say ‘I think God wants me to have an affair with x’. Well I have no hesitation in saying she is wrong. Scripture is absolutely clear that adultery is always wrong. Many things Scripture is silent on - including much of the ordering of services and church life and we should certainly respect difference of opinion on hymns, style of worship, etc.
On some issues Christians equally committed to Scripture come to different conclusions - do we baptize infants or not? what role in church leadership should women play? On such issues we need to keep talking and praying in a respectful way. It is encouraging that the issues that were so debated in Paul’s time were resolved into a consensus. We certainly should respect the different positions held and not ‘look down’ on those who we disagree with. What about the issue of ‘homosexual practice’ which is certainly very ‘live’? It has to be said that the vast majority of Biblical scholars and the Christian Church world-wide believe that such practice is rejected by Scripture. But a minority disagree and read Scripture differently. There should still be respect for those we disagree with a willingness to listen to each other and study scripture together, but the majority witness needs to be clearly acknowledged.
What would I do if a gay Christian couple started to come to worship with us here in Barrow? I would welcome them into the congregation and would be happy to meet with them, listen to them and pray with them.
It would be my prayer that they would come to see that they would please God best by refraining from the sexual expression of their relationship whilst they would probably pray that I would change my mind. I genuinely believe that if we are all genuinely seeking to live lives faithful to God that he may bring us to consensus.
Christian disagreement is a fact of life but we should always remember that what unites us is more important than what divides us. Our common experience of God’s salvation, our commitment to live holy lives before God, our desire to follow the teaching of Scripture.