When Lists Collide!
Scripture: Romans 14:1–15:13
I was walking to school one day when I was in seminary, carrying my briefcase filled with theology textbooks when an older man stopped me on the street corner and thrust a printed brochure or flyer into my hand. I paused, looked down, and saw that it was a Gospel tract. So I stopped, introduced myself, and told the man that I was also a Christian and studying to be a pastor. I commended him for his zeal and his evangelistic effort and we had several moments of good fellowship.
Then his eyes kind of narrowed as he looked at me, and he said, “If you’re a Christian, how come you look like that?” Now, I suppose I should pause here and give a brief description of myself. This was the 1970’s, the era of hippies, long hair, beards, bell-bottom trousers and paisley shirts. By the standards of the day, I was actually dressed rather conservatively. But my hair (which I had back then) did cover my ears, and curl over my collar. I didn’t wear a full beard, but I did have beautiful, long bushy sideburns that swept up and joined my mustache, making me look somewhat like a general from the American Civil War era. My new friend on the street corner continued to zero in. “Long hair and long whiskers are a sign of rebellion. Real Christians shouldn’t look like that. They should be clean cut, well groomed and neat looking. You can’t serve the Lord looking like that.” And so our brief moments of Christian fellowship came to a rather abrupt end.
That is an amusing, yet rather sad and far too common story of what can happen when lists collide; when Christians disagree about what constitutes Christian behavior or appearance or life-style.
Let me set our context once again. This is the second of two messages taken from Romans 14 and 15. Paul is talking about what I have been calling our lists; our “to do” lists and our “not to do” lists as Christians. I will emphasize again what I said last week; that there are actually two lists. There is a list of things about which God has spoken very clearly and given clear commands or directives. “Thou shalt,” and “Thou shalt not…” In these matters there should be no debate. God has spoken and we must obey. But there are hosts of other issues about which we have no specific word from the Lord, or where there are differences of opinion and interpretation. Within that grey area of ambiguity, different Christians have different ideas of what is right and what is wrong, and of what constitutes Christian behavior and a Christian life-style.
In Romans 14:1, Paul talks about “quarreling over opinions.” The NIV translates this “disputable matters.” This is the arena of discussion in these two chapters.
In last week’s message, we talked about “making our lists.” We need to have convictions and live by our convictions if we desire to live with a clear conscience before God. If you weren’t here last week, I would encourage you to go online to the church website and read or listen to that message.
But what happens when our lists collide; when we have differences of opinion with other believers?
If you have ever watched a TV show or a movie of a crime or undercover operation in which timing is essential, there often comes a time when one of the characters will say, “Let’s synchronize our watches.” Christians often spend a great deal of time and energy trying to “synchronize our lists.” In that effort, I have both bad news and good news. The bad news is we will never succeed. That is because, as we found out last week, there is no divinely mandated, “one size fits all” list. Because of our different backgrounds and experiences, and the different meanings and symbolism of different activities and articles, there are some things that can actually be right for one person, but wrong for another. Our lists can vary dramatically from one person to another, from one church to another and from region to region.
I remember Stuart Briscoe sharing an amusing story that illustrates this point. Christians in a church denomination in Europe had been receiving disturbing reports about the worldliness of their churches in America. So they decided to send a delegation to investigate and see if these reports were true. When the delegation returned, they made their report. “Yes,” they said. “The stories are true. Christians in America have become very worldly and loose in their standards. Many of the women dress inappropriately, even to church. Some even wear slacks and pant suits to church and they wear lots of jewelry. The men drive flashy and extravagant cars. And they engage in many forms of worldly entertainment on the Sabbath.” As they shared their report, the list of failings became longer and longer and they became so distraught and saddened by what they were saying that they began to weep. They shed great tears, and the tears ran down their faces and down their cigars and dripped into their beer.
We will never succeed at synchronizing our lists, because there is no divinely sanctioned master list for all followers of Christ. And that can be confusing. It can be particularly confusing for our children at times. I remember when we first moved to Abu Dhabi. We had been living and working within a relatively conservative Christian subculture on the West Coast of the US. We hadn’t been here very long, when a family who was in the church at the time invited us to join them for dinner at a nice restaurant. As the waiter came around to take our order, we ordered Coke and Diet Coke. They ordered wine to go with their meal. As we got in our car to go home after the evening was over, our younger son, who was about 10 at the time, leaned over from the back seat and said, “I thought they were Christians!”
So that’s the bad news. There is no master list, and that can be confusing. The good news, though, is that we don’t have to synchronize our lists to enjoy fellowship and harmony in the family of God if we will follow the principles and priorities laid out in this passage.
If we can’t synchronize our lists, how do we get along with people who have lists that are different from ours? In answer to that question, I believe we can summarize Paul’s teaching in this text in three points.
1. TAKE THE PERSPECTIVE OF A FELLOW SERVANT: STOP JUDGING.
In Romans 14:1-3, we read:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
When we get into the business of comparing ours lists with others, we find that there are two groups of people. There are people with longer lists than ours. And then there are people with shorter lists than ours. The natural human tendency is to label these people. Those people with longer lists than ours – well, they are legalists. Those with shorter lists than ours are guilty of loose living; in fact we might even question whether they are “real” Christians at all. Verse 3 warns against this tendency, with two different words, “despise” and “pass judgment”. We tend to “despise” or look down on those with an over scrupulous conscience (at least by the standards of our list) and to “pass judgment” or condemn those whose conscience allows them to do things we cannot. Either way, when we enter into judgment, fellowship is broken.
In verse 4, Paul tells us why this needs to end, by reminding us to recognize our position of fellow servants. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Our fellow Christians aren’t our servants. They do not answer to us. God has not given us the job of sitting in judgment over them. They serve the Lord. He is their master, just as he is our master. He will do the evaluating and the judging. This does not mean that others always do the right thing. It does mean that we are not the judge of whether they are right or wrong. That is not our job. That is God’s prerogative, not ours.
Paul goes on to expand on this point in verses 10-13a:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer,
Stop Judging! Why? Because we are not the judges. God is the judge. We will each give an account of ourselves to God. I would point out that this reality that we shall all one day give an account gives us two reasons for not judging our fellow servants. First of all, such judging is unnecessary. God has the task of judging well in hand. If a fellow servant is violating his own list and even God’s own standard of right and wrong, he will answer to God for that, not to us. And God is the perfect, righteous, holy judge. But we must also be careful not to judge because we remember that we, too, are servants who will give an account to God. And one thing we may have to answer for is our own critical spirit and judgmental attitude toward others. Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Remember the perspective of the fellow servant and stop judging!
At this point, it would be easy to draw a wrong conclusion, and swing to an un-Biblical extreme. I might conclude that I am a law unto myself and that I am free to form my own convictions before God, make my list and live by my list without any thought for the effects of my actions on others around me. But we must balance the first point of this sermon with the second point.
2. REMEMBER THE PRIORITY OF LOVE: START LOVING!
We must recognize that we live in a community, and that within this community our actions do have an effect on those around us. Let’s follow Paul’s thought as we read, beginning in verse 13:
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 20 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. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.
There are two Christian values at play in these chapters and in this discussion on lists. They are the value of Christian liberty and the value of Christ-like love. Christian liberty might be defined as the freedom to form our own opinions and convictions on matters on which the Bible has not clearly spoken and then to live by those convictions. We are “free from the law” and at liberty to walk according to the directions of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. That is one value we’ve been discussing. But there is another value that Paul brings into the discussion. That is the value of Christ-like love. And here is the point that Paul is making in this paragraph. In the hierarchy of Christian values, love trumps liberty. Christ-like love should triumph over the exercise of our liberty if and when these two values are in conflict.
While this is a very important point, I do need to clear one thing up before we proceed. Verse 15 states that “if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” Who is the offended brother and how far must I go to appease him?
Let’s go back to my friend on the street corner. Was he offended or “grieved” by my long hair and sideburns? Should I have rushed to a barber for a shave and a hair cut to avoid offending him? Let’s follow Paul’s logic carefully. He is choosing his words very carefully. Verse 13 speaks of putting a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. If we follow Paul’s reasoning, it is not the brother with strong convictions or strong opinions who is in view here. It is the weak brother; the brother with doubts, the brother who is not sure of what is right or wrong. How might I cause him to stumble? Let’s take Paul’s example of eating meat. I may be convinced that it is OK to eat meat, but my weaker brother has doubts. He sees me eating, and concludes that he is also free to eat. But when he eats, he eats doubtfully and violates his own conscience. He has been led into sin by my example.
Was my friend on the street corner going to be tempted to grow long side-burns and hair because he saw how good I looked? No! He had no doubts. He had strong opinions. So the matter of offending him or grieving him, in the sense of leading him astray, simply did not arise.
I believe this is an important distinction to make. There are some Christians with strong opinions who believe that their list is synonymous with God’s list. Such Christians seem to make a career out of “being offended” by other Christians. If we try to bend our lives and conform to their lists, the whole community of believers becomes hostage to the believer with the longest list. We truly are enslaved to a new legalism. The legalism of “what will people think?”
This is not what Paul is saying. He is speaking of the weaker brother who might be led into sin by violating his more sensitive conscience. In such cases, the principle is clear. Love takes precedence over liberty. We need to be willing to limit our liberty so that we will not lead our brother astray. In the hierarchy of Christian values, Christ-like love trumps Christian liberty. As Paul summarizes in Romans 15:1-4,
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
If we will maintain the perspective of a fellow servant and stop judging each other and if we are willing to limit our liberty for the higher priority of love, then we will arrive at the final point I want to make in this sermon.
3. EXPERIENCE THE POWER OF UNITY: STAND TOGETHER!
Romans 15:5-7 says,
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Living in harmony. The NIV translates this as “a spirit of unity.” There is an important principle of Christian unity here. We don’t have to agree about everything to be unified or to experience harmony. Did you know that? We don’t even have to share the same lists to experience unity. In spite of our differences, we can welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God. We don’t have to sing in unison. But we do have to sing in harmony, as our voices blend into one magnificent voice to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This was an amazing aspect of what God was doing in the first century church. He was bringing Jews and Gentiles together into one Body. In fact, many of the issues Paul has addressed in these chapters were based on differences between Jews and Gentiles. Paul highlights this now with a series of Old Testament quotes:
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
10 And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”
12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”
These are all Old Testament passages which prophesied that God would one day fling open the doors of his kingdom to the Gentiles and that Gentiles with Jews would together glorify God for his mercy. I love that phrase: Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people. Jews and Gentiles together! That unity was now being expressed in the New Testament church. But for such unity to be experienced and demonstrated, they had to figure out what to do about their different lists.
For us the distinctions may not be between Jews and Gentiles. But we do come from many different backgrounds, and among us there is indeed a wide diversity of lists. Such differences of opinion could cause divisions among us. But they don’t need to, if we are prepared to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and practice the truths of this passage: Stop Judging. Start Loving. Stand Together.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
1. In this sermon, Pastor Cam talks about what happens “when lists collide”; when Christians disagree about what constitutes right and wrong behavior and standards for Christians. Share together some of those issues about which Christians disagree from your experience and background in the church. How were these issues typically handled? What was the result?
2. Last week, Pastor Cam made the point that “there is no divinely mandated list”: do you agree or disagree and why?
3. In the first point, we are commanded to “stop judging.” What verses in the text make this point? How does taking the perspective of a fellow servant help us obey this command? How does remembering that we shall all one day give account to God motivate us to stop judging one another?
4. How would you define Christian liberty? What does Pastor Cam mean when he says “Christ-like love trumps Christian liberty in the hierarchy of values”? Can you give some examples of this principle in action?
5. This sermon makes a distinction between acting in love toward a weaker brother and placating a strongly opinionated believer with a longer list. Do you agree? Why or why not? Why is this an important distinction?
6. There is a difference between singing in unison and singing in harmony. What is it? In the early church, the primary differences in lists occurred between Jews and Gentiles. Where do the differences lie in your experience? How can we maintain harmony in spite of our differences? What is the result when we do?