Welcoming Each Other
Paul has been writing at some length about the Christian faith and what it means to be a Christian. He developed this over 11 chapters in which he was taken up with doctrine before shifting his emphasis in the remaining 5 chapters to describe how the Christian was to live his life now that he had become a follower of Jesus Christ.
Paul has shown us that the Christian is fundamentally like everyone else – he is a sinner. But having realised this sober fact he has gone on to exercise personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Sinners are unable to earn their salvation but they can know their sins forgiven for Jesus' sake. God offers such a full and free salvation to all those who will put their confidence in Jesus. The Christian is the person who takes God at his Word at this point and receives what he doesn't deserve.
The word Christian is only actually used three times in the Bible and it literally means a follower of Christ. People today mean many different things when they use the word "Christian" and we must be careful that our understanding fits properly with what the Bible says.
This is so important for us this morning because in the passage we're going to consider Paul writes about how different Christians within a church setting are to relate to each other. We must take care to hear just what Paul really has to say. It is all too easy to make some wrong assumptions right at the outset and then to misunderstand and misapply what Paul has to say.
Disputes – over what?
Paul is about to address the way in which Christians are to relate to each other when they find themselves disagreeing with each other.
It is important for us understand the nature of the disagreement he envisages and what he does not envisage. Paul has just been quoting from the 10 Commandments where God had spoken with great clarity – this was not what he had in mind when he wrote in v.1 of "opinions", "doubtful things" or "disputable matters". To what then was he referring? He was referring to matters for which there is no clear, unequivocal word from the Lord on the matter. On these matters, writes Paul, we are not to get involve in quarrels or disputes – that is we are not to make of these lesser matters a touchstone of orthodoxy.
Now of course he is NOT saying that Christians are to be uninterested in truth – he has after all spent a long time carefully explaining fundamental truth that is essential if a person is to be a Christian at all – that is non-
If others are altering the terms of the gospel message then we really should be prepared to "dispute" with them.
The matters about Paul which is advising the Christians in Rome are not then fundamental gospel matters – they are matters of secondary importance. We can say that they are of secondary importance not because they are unimportant but because God has not seen fit to give us a definitive word on the subject. The issues that Paul is referring to are issues that must be dealt with by the wise and careful application of general truths that God has made clear – and weighing things up different people may arrive at different conclusions as to how they are to conduct themselves.
What these Christians have in common with each other
Although the section deals with areas over which Christians disagree we can all too easily over-
The problem with this is that it is divisive. Christians are meant to be separated from the unbelieving world – light can have no fellowship with darkness after all – but not to be split up into camps within their own church. This has always been a temptation to the church. Back in NT times Paul had to write to the Corinthian church to stop them forming themselves into factions. In the subsequent centuries in church history other criteria were brought in – clergy/laity (the ordinary vs. the professional); the spirit-
If we look carefully at what Paul writes we'll see that he asserts a great deal concerning what these Christians have in common and that he actually restricts their differences to a specific sphere.
The "weak" brother to whom Paul refers is a brother nonetheless. And note that his weakness is not generalised – there is no indication that he is characterised by weakness in every area of his life. He is not accused of moral weakness nor is he necessarily guilty of cowardice in standing up for the Lord Jesus in his discipleship. The only area in which Paul speaks of weakness is in the area of his faith. And by this Paul has in mind not a lack of trust in the Saviour but rather with confusion as to how the faith should be applied in everyday life settings. This brother who is described as being weak in faith will, as Paul's examples demonstrate, not be able to enjoy the Christian liberty Christ has secured for him as freely as will the stronger brother.
With this in mind we will not be quick to write off the weaker brother. For this weaker brother is nevertheless a very blessed and committed person.
You see I want you to realise that there really is only one type of Christian and one type of Christian life to be led. I don't want any of you to imagine that you can chose to be a second class Christian and somehow freewheel to heaven leaving the hard work of Christian discipleship to others. All of us who are Christians are recipients of the same grace and the expectations are the same for all of us!
As Paul describes the contrasting ways in which the weak and the strong live out their lives I want you to see how very similar they are with regards to their motivations and their desires. They differ as to their lifestyle choices as determined by their understanding of the Word but their spiritual experience is the same.
Both are welcomed by God – the very reason that Christ died and rose again
Both belong to the same Lord and Master
Both will be upheld and made to stand by their Lord
Both do what they do to honour the Lord
Both give thanks to God
Both have lives focused on him – they live and die to the Lord
Both will stand on the same side of the judgment bar of God
Both will have to give an account of themselves there
What a privilege it is to be a Christian! How careful we should be not to overlook all of this and focus our attention on areas of disagreement over "disputable matters"!
So how are we to relate?
Do you remember how Paul introduced this very practical section of his letter back at the beginning of ch.12? He did so by calling for Christians to present their bodies as a living sacrifice to the Lord. Now here in ch.14 he is still showing us what it will look like in the hurly burly of everyday church life.
We will come across people who do things differently to us and we are not to separate ourselves into little clubs or cliques of those who are just like us nor are we to go straight into battle with them but we are to extend a warm and loving hand to them.
The first thing to note is that the one who is weak in faith is not to be excluded or held at arms' length! Paul says that he must be welcomed. This is a lovely warm and strong word. Society at large calls for toleration and acceptance but the Christian is called to do much more than merely tolerate his fellow Christian:
1a) to take as one’s companion 1b) to take or receive into one’s home, with the collateral idea of kindness 1c) to receive into friendship i.e. grant one access to one’s heart
And just why should such a person be welcomed in this way? Because God has already done so!
I don't know whether you like to think of yourself as being numbered amongst the weak or amongst the strong. Whichever end of the spectrum you find yourself you will be tempted though the temptations will not be necessarily the same.
If you are similar to the weaker brother here you will have a series of rules and standards to which you will seek to conform. The weaker your understanding of the true liberty Christ has gained for us the more you will surround yourself with rules. In Paul's example the way the weak brother chose to protect himself from the evils of idol worship was to distance himself as far as possible from it – this meant avoiding all meat (because you could never be quite sure that the meat in the marketplace had not previously been offered to an idol in a temple somewhere). The Scriptures don't contain an explicit command to eat only vegetables but the weaker brother chooses this route to be on the safe side.
How are you to relate to such a one? With acceptance and with a warm welcome without all the time trying to make him change! His interpretation may not be the best but it is understandable – in reality the idols have no truth in them and any meat can be eaten as having been graciously given by God. But he acts according to his conscience and I mustn't undermine that.
But I may well be tempted to look down on him in a patronising way for his erroneous reasoning. Paul writes:
v.3 "Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains,"
How can I do that when he is from conscience doing what he sincerely believes is the best way for him to honour God? Dare I despise a man for such and attitude? No, I cannot.
This will be the particular temptation of the strong, the one who has a clearer understanding of how truth should be applied. And make no mistake there is a clearer way. Paul numbered himself amongst the strong (15:1) and he knew that he was free both to eat meat and not to eat meat (14:14). His conscience informed by the Word of God had given him this freedom but it was a freedom that came with responsibility and he choose not to use his freedom in a way which would harm his brother. After all how could he deliberately hurt the one God had welcomed and who was now trying to live to the honour of his Lord? To despise such a one would be no demonstration of love and as Paul had earlier taught "love is the fulfilment of the law". The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking! (14:17).
If the stronger brother faces the temptation to despise his weaker brother the weaker-
"let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats,"
If the strong is tempted to look down on the weak for his overly scrupulous conscience the weak will be tempted to be critical of what he sees as a lack of serious commitment to living the Christian life as he thinks it ought to be lived.
In the past there have been so many rules and restrictions that serious-
Let us be careful that on matters where the Scriptures are silent we do not impose our own set of rules and regulations that effectively set the bar of Christian discipleship higher than our Lord does! And let us recognise that there is a very real and precious thing which is called Christian liberty!
If you read through these verses carefully you notice that Paul constructs a series of carefully reasoned arguments. Again and again he employs that little word "for" as he gives his explanation as to why the kind of behaviour he calls for is right and proper for the Christian to adopt.
We have mentioned them before but let us close by revisiting them briefly:
God welcomes – who are we to refuse to do so?
Christ has died and risen in order to be Lord – theirs and ours! He will enable us to stand!
We are family – the other person we're talking about is not just anybody, he's my brother!
God is judge – he will judge both me and the other. My brother and I are in the same position so what right do I have to try to set myself up in judgment over him now?
Praise be to God for such a gospel.