Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter. All
Consider for a moment the image of a church that is fully engaged in true, uncompromised, spirit-led worship. This is a worship where each individual has shut out the interference from sin's mindset and is focused fully on their love for God. Theirs is a united family of God who's love for Him is demonstrated in their unconditional and boundless love for one another. This scene may sound like an impossibility, but such an event will come to pass one day. There will come a time when all people will stand before the throne of God when we, together, see Him face to face for the first time. Imagine that you are standing in front of the throne of God, immersed in the sights, the sounds, the odors, and the full range of sensations of the presence of God's glory. Though there will be an untold billions of people in the congregation, who or what will your attention be drawn to? You may see what the Holy Scripture describes as the Cherubim and Seraphim, and all of the wonder of the spectacle. You will hear the voice of Jehovah pronouncing love and judgment. If you are a child of God, you will be filled with awe and wonder, if not, you will be filled with unbearable and unspeakable dread. Are you going to be concerned as to whether the person next to you:
is dressed, (or was dressed) like you are?
speaks with a different language or accent?
is a member of a different race or culture?
lifts his hands when he/she worships?
When we are truly worshipping God, differences among believers is of no importance or significance. When our love for one another is pure and without hypocrisy the petty differences we have among one another are also of no importance. Ideally, each individual in the body of Christ maintains their focus on God by yielding totally to the Holy Spirit. In the ideal worship experience we would see a congregation of very unique people with each individual looking to God in wonder, praise, and worship, each doing so on a personal level. In reality, what we see is, unfortunately, often quite different.
What do you see when you observe worship in your own church fellowship? Instead of looking to God, we often tend to look at each other. One person is concerned that the pastor's wife wore the wrong color dress to church, or for heaven's sake, she might have worn slacks! She might be sitting in the wrong pew. Another is concerned that a child is crying. Yet another is focused on that new person in the third pew who looks a little different. Another turns around in astonishment to see someone of another race, and in a rage can no longer "worship." Maybe someone selected the wrong song in the order of worship. The thoughts in our heads go something like this:
They better not dare to make any changes in the order of worship this week. If they do, I just might go somewhere else. What? The pastor did not wear a necktie last Sunday night? By the way, they better not go past noon again today. Don't they know we have other things to do? I can't believe that they called HIM to be a deacon: he drives a motorcycle! (So does this author, by the way.) They really need to tune that piano, or maybe we just need another piano player. I heard they are bringing in a set of drums: there goes the neighborhood. Does that person over there have her hands raised? Look at that white girl over there with that black baby: we donít need her kind around here.
All of these comments are ones that I have personally overheard stated from church members in a variety of church settings over the past years.
What is wrong with this picture? Instead of worshipping God, we often focusing on, and judge, one another. Our Holy-Spirit-led unconditional love for others is overwhelmed by our own self-centeredness and arrogance. Instead of lifting up Christ, we are expressing the sin of pride as we lift up ourselves in our own eyes by putting others down; by setting ourselves apart as a special group or special class. Often we will invite people to take part in our fellowship who are a little different, but even then, those people are tolerated rather than being embraced with honestly loving and open arms. This is one of the problems that Paul addressed in this letter to the Roman church. The church was multicultural, consisting of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and clearly, cliques had formed. People who believed one disputable doctrine shunned or persecuted those who believed in another. The conflict was causing division in the body of believers. Those in the body did not practice love without hypocrisy that Paul defines in Romans 12:9.
Romans 14:1. Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
Paul gives an imperative in Romans 14:1 that addresses the issue directly. Every human being is a unique creation of God. The body of Christ consists of people who are at different points along their spiritual journey from being a babe in Christ, to the point where their Christian walk has taken them over the years. We should be careful about how we interpret this word, "weak." Our culture tends to equate weakness with low value. However, there is no such meaning in the use of the word in this application. The value of the individual is not compromised by their more fragile condition. This word can also be accurately translated "fragile." Some have a more fragile faith than others. How does Paul tell us to relate to the person whose faith is not as developed? They are to be received, or accepted. A verb that really catches the idea is "embrace." More mature Christians are to lovingly embrace those who are less experienced in spiritual matters. What are some things we see in people who's faith is fragile and less developed? Such people tend to stumble more easily. What do we usually do when a Christian stumbles? ... criticize, chastise, and shun? Our usual response is one that is worldly, because we want to accept people as the world does: based on their worldly value, rather than as God does: completely and unconditionally embracing every believer through the loving application of grace.
We are not to pass judgment on one another. If we are truly focused on God and recognize our own unrighteousness before Him, recognizing that we all share this sin problem, the differences between us fade away. We also find that we are not worthy to usurp God's authority to serve as the Judge. Paul will develop this thought further.
ďDisputable matters, or doubtful disputationsĒ is mentioned. There are some doctrines and beliefs that define the very basis of the Christian faith, and all faithful Christians hold to these without compromise.
God has revealed himself in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Christ is the eternal Son of God, the Messiah, the Creator, the Judge, who came to earth to dwell among men in Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God through which God does His work.
Man is by nature sinful, making salvation impossible for man to attain on his own.
Sin separates man from God.
Christ died to atone for man's sin, destroying sin's power to separate the faithful from God.
Christ was resurrected and lives today
Salvation is given by God's grace to those who place their faith and trust in Him.
Many other doctrines and teachings are not so definitive of the Christian faith, but are adhered to by different groups. Examples include baptism by immersion, transubstantiation of the Eucharist, canonization of the Saints, penitence, piety, diet, means of worship, etc. Some churches adhere to strict dress codes. Some adhere to distinctive worship styles.
Paul states clearly that we are not to pass judgment on other Christians on matters which are not basic, uncompromisable doctrine. We are to be free to worship God in the way that we feel the Holy Spirit is leading us. Since the Holy Spirit, God the Son, God the Father, and His Word are never in conflict with one another, the scriptures reveal much of what that freedom of worship will look like. As Paul did previously in this letter, he states the imperative, and then follows it with help on how to follow it.
Romans 14:2-3. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. 3Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
America, more than any other nation in the world, tolerates freedom of religious practice. Consequently, we tolerate people worshipping in many different ways so that we will continue to have the freedom to do the same. Many of our main-line Christian denominations have always been at the front of the political battle in support of religious self-determination, and the framers of the Constitution included a influential Christian caucus that placed these freedoms into it. Therefore, our history produced a society and culture with varied religions, faiths, and denominations. The church today has become much like the Roman church, and is demonstrating many of the same problems. Each denominational group has a set of distinctives that define them. Even within denominations, there are congregations and individuals who have variant viewpoints on what types of actions and behaviors are appropriate for normative Christian practice.
Paul provides an example of one such variant opinion: dietary rules. This particular conflict was engendered by zealous Jewish legalism. Jewish tradition and perspective forbid eating meat sacrificed to idols. More progressive Christian thought, supported by the non-Jews stated that the gods represented by idols simply do not exist, so the meat that had been used for pagan worship was simply meat. The most zealous legalists were vegetarians, choosing to avoid all meats so that there is no potential of touching or eating forbidden items. While some choose to eat meat, others do not. Each holds to the rationale of their choice, and each tends to frown on the practice of the other. The abstainers view the eaters as barbaric, and the eaters view the abstainers as unenlightened. In either case, the opinion each group has for the other is negative. In their thoughts and actions they fail to demonstrate God's unconditional love for one another. Instead they judge one another based upon a rule of behavior that they have themselves established.
Paul acknowledges these difference of opinions without the necessity of evaluating the salient points of each position. Instead, Paul illustrates two important points concerning this variance in the behavior of different Christian groups.
First, we are not to despise or judge one another. It is rather obvious that both of these responses fails to demonstrate love without hypocrisy. A Christian who demonstrates uncompromised agape love, a love that is given to others without condition, will never despise anyone for any reason. One cannot despise and love at the same time, as they are quite opposite. To despise another is to think of oneís self as better than another. However, because of our true sin nature, none of us is worthy to serve as a judge over another. When we take on the role of judge, we are literally stealing that position from the only One who deserves that role: God Himself.
Second, God has received both the abstainer and the partaker. God accepts the abstinence of the vegetarian because of the faith in his own heart, a faith that inspires abstinence. For the abstainer, the eating of meat would be an ungodly act when they believe it to be so. Consequently, in their abstinence they are honoring God, and God is pleased. The partaker has a variant viewpoint of the subject. The partaker believes that idols have no power, so meat that has been sacrificed to idols also has no power. To these, abstinence from the eating of that meat is an act that recognizes the authority of the idol. The partaker, by eating the meat, rejects the entire notion of idolatry, and thanks God and praises Him for providing the food. In their eating of meat, the partaker is honoring God, and God is pleased.
Both the abstainer and the partaker are worshipping God in a different way, but both are worshipping God. When God looks into their hearts He sees people who earnestly desire to worship Him. It is not the manner of worship that honors God, as much as it is the attitude of worship. Consequently, the only sin in this picture is that demonstrated by the worshippers when they despise and judge one another for their variant approaches to God.
Romans 14:4. Who art thou that judgest another manís servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
Paul makes yet another point concerning our penchant for judging one another. When it comes to worship, we all stand before God in our worship activity. It is only God who has the authority and ability to look into our hearts to see if our actions are inspired by our love for Him. It is only God who has the authority and ability to judge us. We are each God's servants, and when we cast our attention on another servant, we are focused on one over whom we are not the master and LORD. The other individual stands or falls based upon God's assessment, and His alone. When we take upon ourselves the role of Judge, we are assuming authority that only God deserves. We cannot look into one another's heart. We do not have the power to cause one to stand or fall before God. God does not need us to assist Him in the judgment process.
We apply such judgment when we demand that another follow our own practice when it comes to what we consider godly behavior. Somehow we think that our method is better, when in our own sinfulness and unrighteousness we still fall so short of really worshipping God through true godly living. There is simply no basis upon which we can judge one another on such matters. What does matter is that we love one another without condition, and that we love God above all. When we love one another, we can easily worship God together, though in different ways. When we judge one another, we separate and stratify ourselves. We isolate ourselves from the joy and peace that God promises by standing behind a wall of judgment which blinds us to it.
Romans 14:5-6. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. 6He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
Another example of a divisive subject that separated the Roman church was the day of the week that would be set aside for God. There was no disagreement that there would be a Sabbath day, a day each week when work would be set aside and the day would be given to God in worship. To the Jew, the holy day was Saturday. Since Jesus was raised on a Sunday, Christians began to celebrate Sunday as "resurrection day." We may need to be reminded that the original Christian fellowship was made up entirely of Jews. Their tradition was to continue the Sabbath while adding resurrection day to their schedules. The "work week" essentially changed from Sunday through Friday to Monday through Friday, a tradition that has endured for 2000 years in Judeo-Christian cultures. However, division ensued among those who venerated one day over another. When the church quickly began to accept Gentiles, the influence of the Saturday Sabbath diminished, much to the disagreement of many of the Jewish Christians. Like the disagreement over dietary behavior, the disagreement over the veneration of days separated the people. Paul points out that one's love of the LORD is not dictated by the food they eat, or which day they venerate, if any. One's love for the LORD is personal, from the heart, and not shaped by religious practice. God does not look upon religious practices for obedience. God looks to the heart, finding an individual who simply desires to be obedient to Him because of their love for Him. A sincere heart gives thanks to God, whether it be for their abstinence or their participation. A sincere heart gives thanks to God whether their day of sacrifice is Saturday, Sunday, or no particular day at all.
We miss the entire concept of obedience to and love for God when we get caught up in religious practice. Religious practice is a structure of man that brings us together and provides order and normalcy in a world that would otherwise be chaotic. However, it is not the order of the religious practice that makes one holy. It is love for God that makes one holy.
Romans 14:7-9. For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. 8For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lordís. 9For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
I am reminded of a secular song that was popular in Christian fellowships in the 1960's that stated, "No man is an island, no man stands alone. Each man's joy is joy to me. Each man's grief is my own." Does God desire his church to be fragmented into cliques, each protecting their own territory of disputable beliefs, rejecting other Christians as being of less value then themselves? When we observe the Church in heaven we see no fragmentation.
The world's secular doctrine celebrates each person's individuality to the point that each person is his own. Such an attitude overlooks the accountability we have to one another and to God. Because of our social nature, what I do and say does indeed impact other people. As an agent of the kingdom of God, every Christian is accountable to God for how they impact others. This impact is to be one that is consistent with the good news of the Gospel.
When you are secure in your salvation, is it God's will that you care not for the person next to you who is facing eternal separation from God? With Lordship comes accountability to the LORD. Christians are accountable for their witness. What has happened to this accountability? Christians do not live to themselves, but rather are ministers of the gospel on a mission in a wicked world, commissioned to demonstrate the love of God through their lives, testimony, and witness.
People also do not die to themselves alone. Upon death, all will be separated from this world, and separated to God, accountable only to Him. The scripture states that we are accountable for every idle word. When we come before the LORD we will learn of the ignored opportunities for ministry. We may even see the faces of those destined for torment because of our selfish "clique" mentality.
We neither live or die to ourselves. We, as believers, are called to set aside worldly judgments and become one unified family of God. If one sincerely believes that their own doctrine, practice, and worship honors God, is consistent with one's unbiased understanding of scripture, and demonstrates love without any measure of hypocrisy, that practice is probably quite acceptable to God, even though it may differ from another's doctrine, practice, and worship methodologies. The key is to love God, and love one another, expressing love's tolerance for one another's differences as we together serve as the One body of Christ, not an archipelago of islands.
One distinctive of a Bible-based Christian congregation is their use of the Bible as the sole authority on doctrine and worship. Such denominations do not differ much from one another. Consequently, there are very few distinctives that serve to separate the different Christian denominations. Their primary differences are in their polity (organizational structure) and in their method of worship, (liturgical to open, observed to experienced).
So, how are we to relate to Christians of other denominations? Denominations must relate to one another with the same unconditional love of Christ. We can learn a lot from each other if we accept each other in love and share our ideas with one another, in love, and in truly seeking God.
Romans 14:10-12. But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. 12So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Some point to Matthew 7:15 to defend the judging of one another.
Mat 7:15-20 "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Certainly, there is one Holy Spirit, and one Truth that is empowered in scripture. Scripture does not contradict scripture. An apparent biblical contradiction is due only to a lack of a complete exegesis of the text. One comes away with contradiction between two points only when one or both of those points is not sufficiently understood. Consequently, Matt. 7:15 is not a license to judge one another. This verse simply advises Christians to be wary of those who misrepresent the gospel message.
The Holy Spirit gives Christians a discerning spirit, whereby they can sense false doctrine by the bad fruit demonstrated by its practitioner. However, it does not give us the right to discriminate against the practitioner and love them any less. It is the doctrine we are to reject, not the soul who teaches it! When confronted by false doctrine and sin, we are to love its practitioner even as God does. The Holy Spirit within us seeks that person as much as us. If we follow the Spirit, we will seek the same: reconciliation. If you truly demonstrate God's love to a lost person, and that person gives you no opportunity to share the reason for that love, or rejects your gospel, who is responsible before the judgment seat? You or the other person who rejected the gospel? Each person will give an account of himself to God, the One Judge.
God may be able to say to the rejecter, "I sent my messenger to you, and you rejected me when you rejected him." He might say to you, "I sent you to this lost person, and you rejected him."; "That dirty, poor man needed help and came to your church, and you closed him out."; "My child came to you when in trouble and you crushed his spirit when you ignored him." We will all give an account. Is it safe to say that our worldly propensity to judge one another and separate ourselves from one another is a dangerous doctrine? It is certainly a doctrine and practice that limits Kingdom work on earth, and when God's work is stifled, only satan laughs.
You and I are not responsible to judge one another. That task is reserved for the one Judge who has the authority and ability to know all of the details needed to make true judgment. You and I are simply called to love on another unconditionally, as God unconditionally loves us. When we appropriate this attribute for ourselves, our propensity to judge and condemn one another will fade, and our division will be replaced by unity, a unity that can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish mighty things.