But you,

why do you judge your brother?

Or you again,

why do you regard your brother with contempt?

For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Romans 14:10

In the past few months, we as a church have lived through a variety of diverse challenges and heartbreaks which have stretched us in ways we never could have imagined at the beginning of this new year.

On the one hand, the viral pandemic placed all of us in a precarious position of attempting to continue our bonds of fellowship while quarantining ourselves for the sake of the health of our spiritual family and physical neighbors.

One the other, the recent string of criminal police activities has forced us to reckon with the bitter realities of the present injustices still at work within our own homes and communities. Given the time and place the Lord has put us in, it is inevitable that over the next few months we will have to have a series of very difficult and controversial conversations within our own body and amidst our spheres of influence as to how we are to best understand these issues and how we can move forward in confronting these matters in a Christ-like manner.

With these thoughts in mind, I wanted to do a brief overview of the doctrine of Christian liberty in order to help give us a framework in which we can have these conversations together in a productive and loving manner. Please note, I am not claiming to have all of the answers to these difficult questions. In a lot of ways, I am still learning and growing in how I can best love others during these dark days. But one thing the Bible is very clear on is that even in the midst of sharp controversy Christ’s body is still one. And I hope that in this brief survey of Romans 14 we understand that as we engage with one another (which we should), we remember that we are speaking with brothers and sisters in Christ.

The context of Romans 14 is simple enough to grasp. After Paul has spent the majority of his letter clarifying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Paul makes a shift from the theological to the practical in Romans 12. Following along that vein of thought, Romans 14 answers the specific question – How does the doctrine of justification by faith alone affect the way Christians engage one another in controversial matters? What is the bond of unity which holds us all together, and how do we gauge when we ought to confront one another and when we ought to accept our differences?

I don’t have the time or space to survey the entire chapter. Instead, I am going to pull out a few keys which I think are useful for us in framing this conversation.

First, the aim of our unity is the glory of Christ. Paul is confronting a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile believers, all of whom come into the house of God with different expectations and convictions. Often these different convictions with respect to the observance of Jewish holidays or dietary restrictions tended to lead to incredibly divisive church splits. But for Paul, none of these matters were meant to be the key uniting factor in bringing together the community of God. For Paul, the decisive aim of Christian community is summed up in vv. 7-9 – “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and the living.”

For Paul, the unifying factor of the Christian church is the singular desire to make much of Jesus Christ. This means in his case, while he personally did not mind eating and drinking things which were condemned in traditional Judaism, he did not view those who refrained from partaking as lesser Christians (I would argue the reference to the weak and the strong Christian at the beginning of the chapter is a bit ambiguous). Rather he commended them as equal brothers and sisters in Christ who alongside himself desired to make much of Jesus Christ in all manners of life. In so far as their aims were true to that end, Paul perceives those who hold such diverse perspectives as members of the Body of Christ.

Second, the ground of our Christian unity is not necessarily our actions, but the finished work of Christ on behalf of his people. This can be clearly seen in verse 20 – “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food.” The logic of this passage takes a little bit to unpack. If you think about what Paul has been arguing for the past few chapters – justification by faith alone – you can better understand what Paul means here when he speaks of Christian’s tearing down what God had built up. Namely, if justification is by faith alone, and our acceptance before God is solely based upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ to sinners, then who are we as justified sinners to reject one another on the basis of their imperfections or errors? God is the one who judges, and God is the one who justifies.

More importantly, God is the one who brought this community of justified sinners together to make much of his Son Jesus. And if God brought about this work, who are we then to say that God made a mistake in letting this or that person in because clearly a “good Christian” wouldn’t be so shallow or hold to such inappropriate behaviors or beliefs?

Please hear me very carefully here. This does not mean that there are no beliefs or behaviors which are categorically antithetical to the Christian faith. A number of times throughout his writings, Paul lists various beliefs and practices which mark a member of the community as liable to expulsion. There are absolutes which Christians are demanded to believe and to live by. But that being said, not everything that is set before us on a day-to-day basis belongs in the category of excommunication.

I would argue then that the question we must all ask when we are confronting one of our fellow members on a particularly controversial topic is whether or not we can still call this person a Christian even if he or she happens to disagree with us on this issue. If we cannot, our conversations must be more polemical, for in those instances we are fighting for their very souls. However, if we can still call them Christians, then we need change the nature of our conversation and make it less about changing minds and more on seeking how to push and edify one another to best glorify the Lord together, sometimes even with assumptions or practices we disagree with (Rom. 14:19). At the same time we need to work on reigning in our own personal liberties so that we do not present a stumbling block to others in their own attempts to make much of Christ (14:13).

This doesn’t answer all of the specifics, but hopefully this gives us a goal for which we are all aiming for, and some general categories to differentiate what kind of disagreement we are having while we are all attempting to reach that end. People are fallible, and the Lord is still at work in all of our lives honing and shaping us more and more into the image of Christ. And since God is patient with us, it is important for us to be patient with one another, knowing that we are all sinners who were mercifully saved by the Lord.

~ Pastor Theo