A “red card” is a penalty card used in many sports as a means of reprimanding a player, coach or team official. They are usually used by referees to indicate that a player has committed an offense. I mention that, not because this is a sports lesson, but because there are times when it seemed appropriate to the Apostle Paul to raise a “red card” to some of the people in the church of the first century, because they were acting in ways that needed to be “called out”. It isn’t unloving to call out bad behavior, though it can be done in an unloving way. In fact, the basis of much of parenting is doing just that: letting a child know what behavior will not be accepted as they journey through life. In this lesson, we are going to watch as Paul pulled a “red card” out of his toga for instruction during a service in the growing infant church of the first century. They were doing something wrong – and it is something we need to take another look at as we pass through this letter.
If you will allow me, I want to begin this lesson in an unusual way – with a story that is both NEGATIVE and PERSONAL. I won’t end there, but I am choosing to do this because I believe it will help us understand the passage of Scripture we are about to study together – both the specific features of the text and how emotionally deep the issues involved truly are even in our day…
A couple of years ago I got a phone call from a young woman who was very upset with a leader in the church where I was serving. She reported to me that she was in a public place in town and she saw one of our church leaders at the time ordering a beer with his sandwich at a vendor’s stand. Even worse (in her mind), that leader offered to buy a beer for the guy that he was going to sit at lunch with, but the man declined because he didn’t drink. It turns out, the man the leader was sitting with was a friend of the woman who called, and he was a Christian who grew up being taught that any consumption of beer was a sin – a violation for any Christian. Though he thought it was terrible that anyone who confessed Christ as Savior would drink a beer, much less offer to another brother a beer, he didn’t tell the church leader that he was offended at the purchase and offer, but rather took his offended spirit to the young woman who called me. She was indignant when she brought it to me.
I think she thought she knew how I would respond – and I didn’t live up to her expectations. I know that because she was so deeply offended that she left that church and verbally shared her disappointment with others in the Christian community. In fact, four others left that fellowship – never to return to the best of my knowledge. They left primarily because their expectation was that I would strip the man from any leadership position and that our church would publicly apologize to her friend for his “sin of participation” in alcohol consumption. I honestly tried my best to respond to her kindly, but because I didn’t do what she wanted, she left and took her friends with her.
I wasn’t hurt because she chose to leave the church where I was serving – I try not to let that be a problem to me. Over the years I have come to recognize there are many reasons people may be led to move from wherever I am to another place. God is at work in people’s lives, and I believe my voice is just one among many. I truly know many who do this work well and I admire them, and feel privileged every time you take the time to walk back in and sit down for another hour together. I did hurt when she left, though. I hurt because I enjoyed her company when she was with us. She brought a great testimony for God. I hurt because she didn’t mind defaming a whole room full of brothers and sisters she once called her “spiritual family”.
The Bible makes distinctions about three kinds of behavior, and different passages address each. Sometimes, the passage we read is encouraging an appropriate expression of the faith by a Christian – it is a GOOD behavior. Other times, the passage is explaining why God put limits on a choice and how we should not pass by the fences He placed – that is a BAD behavior. Still others, like the ones we are going to look more closely at in Romans 14, are behaviors that God neither forbids, nor encourages – they are PERSONAL CONVICTION behaviors. The passage we want to examine is very much about things that different Christians view in different ways. These are passages that often confuse people that don’t know God, as well as immature believers, who read nothing more than “you don’t get to judge others” and conclude they understand the Bible.
Let’s be clear: the same Apostle that wrote what we will study today also told a church to remove a man in sexual sin from a congregation of believers in 1 Corinthians 5 – because that was a BAD behavior. Later when he repented, Paul told them to “let him back in” and stop forbidding his participation – because that was GOOD behavior.
Despite what people say, the Bible doesn’t say that real believers make no value judgments about behaviors.
You can’t raise a child without making judgments about who they should, and should not spend time with. That is part of good parenting. At the same time, there are choices that each believer is privileged to make with the Spirit of God that are not another person’s choice to make for them.
Because you love Jesus doesn’t mean you must be a Republican or Democrat – that is your choice, and it is based on how you grew up, and who you believe has a better vision, in general, for the country. Your Christianity isn’t wrapped in whether you like the new healthcare legislation. We don’t run campaigns in the foyer, and we don’t try to speak for or against every piece of new government legislation – though even our staff has personal opinions, I am sure, about many of the news headlines. You can agree or disagree on whether our country should be pressing to make an agreement with Iran this month – or not. Let me say it plainly: You may have many very passionate ideas and beliefs that are truly are rooted to your best understanding of how to apply God’s Word to daily life – but that doesn’t mean that you are right. It also doesn’t mean you have the right to expect to win the argument even in a room full of Christians. In fact, your argument may be wounding other believers… so we need to talk about it.
I know we need to talk about it, because God prompted Paul to write about it in Romans 14 (and 1 Corinthians 8-10), and our study in Romans will be where we place our attention for this lesson. Here is the point…
Key Principle: Believers must be taught not to harm those who are weaker in their Biblical world view with things the Bible allows individuals to decide between them and God.
The idea is summarized in the beginning of the passage…Paul warned the Roman believers: “Include those who are not mature in their faith (ability to see what God says is true), whose Biblical worldview is limited. Include them to help them, not simply to judge their condition (and control by your preferences their choices)”. (14:1).
There are two points we must recall before we can embrace the passage and truly understand it:
First, none of the things we will discuss are explicitly WRONG (as defined in the Bible).
These same principles DO NOT APPLY in cases where the Bible is explicit about what must be done or avoided. Two believers who are engaged in a sexual relationship outside of marriage are violating Scripture and committing sin – and that isn’t what we are talking about. A man who is breaking into your car is stealing. If you find out about it, you needn’t worry that you are being judgmental, you can just call 9-1-1 and let the police worry about that. We ARE allowed to stand against sin that is called such in Scripture – in fact we are commanded to do it. When people want to persuade the public that they should be able to do something the Bible calls sin, we have every right as a American to object, and every duty as a Christian to live inside the text – no matter what the world accepts as their ever-changing moral standard.
Second, believers are all at different points of growth in their journey to follow Jesus, so we must learn to distinguish between what is WRONG and what WE BELIEVE someone shouldn’t do.
As much as we may hesitate to admit it, they aren’t an identical list. When people aren’t doing what we think they should – we have a tendency to mislabel them. Sometimes we can’t tell if the person in front of us is really a rebel or just a confused person who doesn’t know enough about God’s Word to really understand what we are saying. If we treat a searching or immature Christian as a rebel, we can wound them badly, and perhaps push them from a proper walk with God. Their hurt can become Satan’s playground to hinder them from growth – so we need to be careful.
Let’s get into our study of Romans 14, and set it in the letter Paul wrote, as he moved his thoughts from Heaven and God’s work to earth (Romans 1-11) to the believer’s daily experience (Romans 12-16). Certainly both Heaven’s work and earth’s testimony are important. Certainly the first one affected – and even made possible – the second. The fact is, though, believers need to know more than their position – they need to know what being a “believer” means in practical terms. How does an eternal relationship with God affect a Tuesday in July? That is what the second part of Romans is all about.
Romans 12: The Transforming Believer
In Romans 12 set the stage for the section, in three simple facts.
First, we are not our own, and therefore must recognize God has the right to inspect and correct our behaviors (Romans 12:1-2).
Second, we were empowered to serve one another, not simply saved to change our eternity (Romans 12:3-8).
Third, God set the parameters of proper attitudes and actions (12:9-21). He offered a series of them:
1. Authentic love (12:9a).
2. Life choices that stand against evil and for what God calls “good (12:9b).
3. Showing Deference: A “my brother first” deferral that puts away selfishness (12:10-11).
4. Good attitudes: A hopeful voice, a patient spirit and prayerful decision making processes (12:12) and even a kind gentleness (12:16).
5. Inviting: A loving spirit toward people (12:13).
6. Forgiving: Blessing one who has tried to smear our reputation (12:14).
7. Supporting: Coming beside the hurting to be a refuge of tears, or celebrating with party hats one who is rejoicing (12:15).
8. Confidence: A tongue that tries to make peace without compromise (12:17-18) a heart that quickly regains peace when wounded (12:19-20).
9. Outreaching: We should do what it takes to be renewed to the task of constantly peering into the painful darkness – not to curse it – but to rescue those lost in it (12:21).
Romans 13: The Good Citizen
In Romans 13, Paul took a few moments to leave the relationships between believers in the church, and addressed how a follower of Jesus should be a good and obedient citizen if it was at all possible. The important point we acknowledged when we looked at Romans 13 is that we are entirely unable to “pull off” the Christian life in the flesh – but NEED the Holy Spirit to empower our lives and convict us when our choices begin to “wander off the rails”.
He didn’t linger in that thought, but turned back to relationships between believers to continue his points from Romans 12, as if certain behaviors were necessary to address right away – and it appears they truly were. People were hurting each other in the circle of believers, and what was worse – they thought they were right in doing so. Let’s look closer. Paul began by introducing someone:
Romans 14: Meet the Weak Believer – where we all began our journey.
Romans 14:1 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.
The weak in faith are not, in the context, those who don’t know God. They are clearly followers of the Lord Jesus based on how he described them in the remainder of the text. They are apparently those who are still unstable enough in their walk that they will stumble if someone’s behavior drives them off course. They probably don’t know the Word very well (though they may not know they do not), and clearly aren’t strong enough to grasp on their own what God allows and what God doesn’t.
In my experience, they are often compassionate people who accept out of love those who are walking in sin and are dangerous – but they love them and cannot see danger in both their closeness to them, and their inability to answer of the hope that is within them clearly. They may be those who continue to think in un-Biblical ways because God has not yet begun a transforming work in them in some area and they may not understand the critical thinking path that allows a more mature believer to see the issue with the greater clarity and context that comes from years in the Spirit and the Word.
Two Test Cases
Look at the description of the “weak in faith” person, and note the problems they enter the room bearing (consciously or subconsciously). The Apostle offered two distinct issues that plagued their thinking. One of them related to the mundane world of food and its preparation. The second related to the spiritual demands of corporate worship and its timing.
Look at the first case – what appears to be a dietary issue:
Romans 14:2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. 3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.
Here is the key: The case of the food is not simply about “carnivores” and “vegetarians” – it is about people who perceive the dangers of “unholy affiliation” (14:2-4).
Jews who were scattered throughout the provinces in the Roman period had very specific eating requirements based on Leviticus 11 and other passages of the Law. Unless they had access to both a kosher butcher, and a rabbi who was recognized to be able to declare foods kosher under the law (in terms of their origin and preparation) – they had to eat vegetables alone. Some of them came to Jesus and yet were still Jews, so they ate restricted meals, and their faith in Messiah did not mean they could simply buy the local ham or improperly bled beef.
Add to that, the meat that was available in the marketplace was often associated with pagan offerings as described in 1 Corinthian 8-10. Gentile born believers knew well the pagan associations with meat “offered to idols” before it hit the market (often at discount prices). Some believers associated the meat with the idolatry – especially if they had been involved in that kind of cultic life before they came to Jesus. It felt like a deep regression into the power of the occult to have that burger – and they couldn’t in good conscience do it. Other Gentile born followers of Jesus grew up in small villages, and it simply never had that connotation in their mind – so they didn’t care.
With all that as background, here is the problem: some Jews associated meats with improper standards of preparation, while some Gentiles felt a cultic influence was creeping into the life of a believer if they bought meat offered to idols. In short, some people associate certain practices with a part of their life before their walk with God. In their minds the practice is inextricably linked to the evil foundation in their mental association. It can’t be right, because it was a part of the life of darkness to them…they believe all followers of Jesus should see the purity of their thinking and stop a practice based on their logic.
They were likely tempted to lean into two opposite extremes as a result:
The one who eats meat is not to belittle the one who is so concerned they refuse all meat. (14:3a) It is often the temptation of those who have a broader perspective to look down on those who restrict their behavior but seem somewhat legalistic.
Here is the problem with the partaker’s line of thought – they don’t see the depth of passion and strength of heart the Kingdom gains by having someone like an abstainer among them. They can easily lack appreciation for the amount of time and energy the abstainer put into making their walk with God a very pure behavior. It takes discipline and work to walk with God, and they may not be correct at all their conclusions, and may even be overly restrictive – but that doesn’t mean they are trying to be a pain – they are working to sharpen their walk and help us all be the spotless bride that Jesus deserves.
The more liberal mind often has grasped more information on a subject, but that doesn’t justify less respect for a brother. We live in times when the simplest problems are being obscured by complexity. Rather than take all week to read the details of an Iran treaty, why not ask a simple question like: “Is it right to deal with people while they are actively seeking to destroy you and your interests in their speeches and support of terrorism?” All the complexity of what IS and IS NOT included in an agreement gets clarified by the contextual question of whether we should negotiate with people actively and openly engaged in terrorism on an international level. Regardless of how you feel about the agreement, my point is that it is easy to end up befuddled by complexity and lose the simplicity of any right and wrong anywhere. Everything becomes a relative grey because you are so educated – you no longer can call evil what it is. Can we not agree that blowing up children on a bus to make a point make you inherently uncivilized? Can we all agree that supporting such actions should keep you from sitting at the table of civilized nations?
The one who abstains should not judge the one who eats the meat. (14:3b). It is natural that those who believe something strongly enough to discipline themselves to keep from it will tend to see those who participate as “liberal” and “less dedicated” to the truths that they have experienced.
Here is the problem with that abstainer’s thought – they aren’t as consistent as they think they are. The days of the week in our modern English speaking culture were named after the classical planets in Hellenistic astrology, according to a system introduced in Late Antiquity. The Germanic tribes added to the terms, but all were thoroughly laced in a pagan system of celebration. For instance, the term Sunday came from the Old English Sunnandæg meaning “sun’s day” and a Germanic myth of a goddess who gave birth to the other days. We could go on and on, speaking of names of months, holidays and the like. In other words, no one can cut all that pagan influences out of their life and still function in the world. Paul wrote Scripture in a Greek language with words heavily laden and often derived from pagan mythology. He didn’t tell people to learn Hebrew before he would give them the Gospel.
Be careful with what I am saying. I am not arguing that because we have a little paganism in our culture you should dive into the deep end of the pool. I am simply making the point that purists only see the parts of purity that bug THEM, and not the total picture… it is perhaps more complex than they like to realize. Therefore, two things are essential: we must remove from our lives the things God speaks into our heart about, and we must be gentle toward those who do not – if it is not specified in Scripture. We can pray that God will show them something, and we can lovingly discuss their view – but we have no right to even THINK of ourselves as BETTER because we have a particular view on a preference. If the Bible doesn’t say it, it isn’t dogma – and you don’t have the right to be dogmatic about things that aren’t dogma.
A Warning to Both Sides of the Argument: Don’t argue!
Paul offered these words to the “hyper-careful vegetarians” and to the “liberal thinking carnivores” – stop arguing and don’t hurt one another. Why? Listen to the word:
Romans 14:4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
In other words, it isn’t the menu that is a problem – it is the attitudes and treatment to one another that are problems. Both responses are wrong (14:4), because neither is to live comparing their walk to the other, nor are they to attempt to control others who serve God. They are to call on their Master for personal direction and live according to the conscious presence of the Master in their lives.
The Second Case: The case of Christian corporate celebration isn’t only about which days to worship, it is actually about inappropriately forced application of God’s Word (14:5-18):
Take your time with this one, because it can be hard to follow, and it is critical. In Romans 14, Paul wrote:
Romans 14:5 “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.”
Some people have been deeply blessed by practices that God commanded them to keep. They know what God did in their lives through obedience, and they cannot understand their limited application – how a believer could live without that practice that is so meaningful to them…Some of my Jewish believing friends fall into this camp – but mostly it comes from people who weren’t born Jewish, but insist that all followers of Jesus must follow the practices given specifically to the Jewish people. They essentially are forcing what God commanded a specific group onto the whole of those who would follow God.
Let’s say it this way: God commanded that some people were to keep particular days (Jews and Sabbath, Holy Days) but others had no such command, and weren’t a part of the context at the time the Scripture command was given. Some people began, already in the first century, to try and enforce these prescribed days and celebrations on all believers in an effort to make all one (14:5a). Still others tried to make the case that although some believers were not commanded to keep those unique Jewish markers, still they would benefit from keeping them.
Paul outlined principles for three proper behaviors:
Since God is in charge and God created communication, we can safely leave some things to the Holy Spirit (smile) – like giving believers direction in areas not specified by Scripture. Keep reading:
Romans 14:5b “…Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. 7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 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. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Each believer that was not specifically commanded by God’s Spirit to celebrate on a certain day or in a certain way was free to choose, but needed to consciously consider the choice (14:5b). Each of us serves the Lord Jesus – and when His Word hasn’t clearly told us what to do, we have His Holy Spirit within to do that.
Let’s be clear: Legalism kills the work of the Spirit, because it allows someone else to play the role of the Holy Spirit in leading God’s people. It stifles conviction and rests control in the hands of men, but God didn’t put that decision in the hands of men. Legalism is thwarted by people of conviction speaking out against “lowest common denominator” faith.
Why didn’t God tell us everything? First, He offered principles to virtually every area of life I can think of. Second, it occurs to me that these disagreements opened the opportunity for the Lord to develop backbone in the family of faith. By developing thoughtful reasons for behavior, we consciously choose to live for the Lord instead of obediently following the dictates of human institution!
Every believer must remember that Jesus will judge our behaviors and performance:
Romans 14:10 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. 11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
We must ever be mindful that Jesus is the Righteous Judge, and He alone must be pleased by our walk. He is perfectly capable of righting what is wrong. Don’t skip over 14:12, because it is critical to understand. I will not be standing with you at the judgment of your works. Jesus was judged for your sins, but your works are open for inspection NOW and when you stand before Him – and you will do that ALONE. You will need to explain to Jesus why you chose to do things His Spirit told you not to do. Your mom won’t step in an explain your “special case” – this one is all on you.
Finally, Paul made clear that we must do everything possible to avoid causing another brother to stumble into sin because of our behavior. (14:13).
Romans 14:13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
It is possible the best way to avoid any possible offense may be to participate in some behaviors only in private – but that is for the second part of this lesson. In the next lesson, we will talk about the “avoiding all appearances of evil”. For now, it is important that we make sure we understand that we can be WRONG in attitude even when we are RIGHT in practice.
Believers must be taught not to harm those who are weaker in their Biblical world view with things the Bible allows individuals to decide between them and God.
I cannot close this without finishing what I told the woman with the complaint about the church leader, or I know what mail I will receive this week!
I asked the woman to meet with me, and asked her to bring all that she could find on what the Bible said about ordering a beer at a vendor stand. In addition, I asked her to read Matthew 18 and answer this question: If you or your friend were offended at the leader’s behavior, did you take the time to tell him that? Why or why not?
When we met, I asked her if the Bible said that any alcohol consumption was sin. She said, “No! I believe drunkenness is a sin.” I asked her if the leader acted as if he was intoxicated, or consumed anything more that would make you believe he had been intoxicated at that or any other time? She said, “No! But I was offended!” I said, “Do you have the right to dictate his behavior in an area where the Bible does not?” She said, “If I am offended, he shouldn’t do it!” I said, “First, he doesn’t know you are offended, because you didn’t tell him – you told me. Second, the Bible did not give you the right to dictate the work of the Spirit in an area where you agree the Bible does not specifically call out the proper choice.”
Then, I stopped. I could tell she was hurt, and I didn’t want that. I tried to share about this passage and the one in 1 Corinthians 8-10. She agreed in principle, but was just sure that because she felt so strongly about it, it must have been a “God thing”. I told her the same Spirit at work in her was at work in that leader. I asked if she prayed for him. She said, “No! I want him to step down!” I replied: “That’s fine. My question is, does Jesus want him to step down? You’ll only know if you take the time to talk to Jesus about that, and then sit and talk with that leader directly.” She left, took others with her, and never returned. She missed the lesson.
You see, I know that leader. I know he would never touch another beer in public again if he thought it would genuinely cause someone to stumble. She didn’t stumble. She tried to dictate legalism, and when she couldn’t make the rules – she left to spread her sense of righteous indignation elsewhere.
Despite what our culture says, you have no divine right to walk through life without being offended at another person’s choices.
Let me end with this: You will never fix broken things by making up your own rules. Jesus told us how to act with one another, and He is the Master.