Monday, July 14, 2008

Showing Love in Matters of Conscience and Contention

Over the weekend, I finished reading through Romans in my personal devotions. Easily my favorite book in the New Testament, each time I return to it, I am impressed again by the grace of God in spite of my sinful rebellion, and grow a little more grateful for his love for one such as I who did not love him. Knowing that your salvation rests wholly outside of yourself, and that even the very breath with which you call upon the Lord for deliverance is only by his grace does more to quash pride and self-righteousness. In light of laying out man's total inability to be righteous, and God's amazing grace, the Apostle Paul sets for instruction in the last four chapters on how Christians out to live and relate to one another. I have been meditating on what he wrote in chapters fourteen and fifteen regarding matters of conscience and bearing with weaker brothers. Our liberties in Christ needs to be understood in the context of brotherly love.

In Chapter 13, Paul instructs the Romans to "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." This is after he exhorted them in Chapter 12 to "Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor," and later, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." All of these verses, and others, set the context for what comes in Chapter 14:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. one person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me."
There are many matters of conscience that have become matters of contention among the people of God. Among the things mentioned by Paul here and elsewhere is the question of food. Some of the Jewish Christians still clung to the Mosaic dietary laws, and some Christians (Jews and Gentiles alike) refused to eat any meat that had been dedicated or sacrificed to idols. Peter's vision in Acts 10 and Paul's statement in Romans 14:14 make it clear that in Christ, we are free to eat anything. Paul adds that he should only eat if he has a clear conscience and goes on to say that he who eats without a clear conscience has sinned. Today, matters of contention center around issues such as alcohol and media consumption. Many Christians regard the consumption of any alcohol to be sinful, and some see no justification for seeing a movie that has any questionable content. Other Christians strongly disagree with these positions, and the result has been contention among them, often resulting in a lack of charity.

In these passages, Paul instructs us to bear with the weaker brothers, and to not exasperate him. The brother who eats unclean meats with a clean conscience in the presence of a brother who does not have the same strength of conscience only stirs up contention among the Body. Today, the brother who is able to drink alcohol with a clear conscience exasperates his brother with a weaker conscience when he flaunts his freedom. Such actions demonstrate selfishness and not love toward the weaker brother. Hence, the need for Paul's command the stronger to bear with the weaker.

Though I am convinced that I have the freedom in Christ to drink alcohol (in moderation), I never have the freedom to cause my brother to sin. When I am quick to assert my freedom in Christ to enjoy the (fermented) fruits of the field in the face of a weaker brother, I am not showing him love. If we go out for lunch and I, fully knowing his conscience is not as free as mine, order a beer with my meal, I am only stirring up offense. When I seek to assert my rights at the expense of my brother, I fail in my obligation to love him.

Of Romans 14, Calvin wrote, "For God, by making us stronger than others, does not bestow strength that we may oppress the weak; nor is it part of Christian wisdom to be above measure insolent, and to despise others. The import then of what he addresses to the more intelligent and the already confirmed, is this, --that the ampler the grace which they had received from the Lord, the more bound they were to help their neighbours." The stronger the Christian, the greater the grace he is to show to the weaker. The verse, "to whom much is given, much is required" comes to mind.

My concern is that, whatever the issue may be, we overlook the fact that our love and service to our brothers is more important that our liberties. That we have them is to the glory of God, and when we enjoy them it should be to the glory of God. However, you cannot cause your brother to sin or exasperate him to the glory of God. We have not been set free from sin and death to live for ourselves, but to life for Christ as we serve one another in love, building each other up in what is right, good, and true.

This understanding requires a change in attitude in how some of us regard our liberties. Rather than flaunting them or wearing them like a t-shirt, we should not seek to draw attention to them. Perhaps for the sake of your weaker brother, you order a coke when you go to lunch with him. Our liberties and freedoms, rightly exercised, should not interfere with our mission of mutual edification. As it is written,
"All things are lawful," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed that! Gave me something to think about thats for sure! Very encouraging :) I liked the reminder that the "reproaches of those who repoached you fell on me"