The infant church in the New Testament had its share of struggles. “Disputable matters” erupted in the new congregations creating friction and division.
In Corinth there was confusion over food (among many other things). Shopping for a cut of steak took on new meaning there. It was quite likely that the steak purchased in the butcher shop or ordered in the restaurant had originally been connected (literally) to an animal that was ritualistically slaughtered in one of Corinth’s many pagan temples. Some Corinthian Christians could not stomach this thought and refused to eat this “tainted” meat. Others had no problems and enjoyed their meals. Controversy arose and people got hurt in the fallout. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Apostle Paul dealt with it in his first letter to them (chapter eight).
In Rome scandals arose over food and holidays. Some in this church were vegetarians. Others were not. Some enjoyed celebrating special “holy days.” Others thought every day was the same. All of this may have been part of the general Jew/Gentile divide that defined this church, but the consequences of these differences were hurting people. After laying out his theological foundation in the first part of his letter, Paul practically addressed this situation in chapters fourteen and fifteen.
Any of this sound familiar? Not the specifics (can’t recall when the last time I questioned where the steak I was eating originated), but the general situations? Churches still struggle over disputable matters. We are after all, just folks. We may be being perfected by the grace of God, but we are not quite there yet. So what to do when good folks disagree?
Well, let’s listen to Paul’s divine advice:
- “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (1 Corinthians 8:8)
- “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (8:9)
- “Therefore if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again.” (8:13)
- “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Romans 14:1)
- “For none of us lives to himself alone…” (14:7)
- “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down upon your brother?” (14:10)
- “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.” (14:19)
- “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” (14:20)
- “So, whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (14:22)
- “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good to build him up.” (Romans 15:1-2)
Now these are just selected passages in these two contexts. Go read the entire texts. Get a feel for yourself what is happening in these churches. Read the above sentences in their original context. When I do here is what I discover:
I see that some in Corinth were acting condescendingly toward others. They were insensitively flaunting their “knowledge” and harming other Christians by eating idol meats. I can just see what was happening. “Hey check this out! This prime rib is incredible. I got a terrific deal at Dionysus Meat and Deli! Want a bite?”
I see that in Rome, Christians were judging each other’s motives and actions while refusing to be a people of peace and encouragement. You kind of get the impression that fingers were pointing and tongues were wagging in this church.
Looking more closely at the text here are some further points:
- Paul first directs his instructions to the stronger Christians. The stronger ones are those who have a broader understanding of the situation, that is, they know that all the fuss over food and holidays is, in itself, not really that big of a deal. The meat is not tainted; whatever diet you choose is fine and keeping a special day holy is entirely a matter of conscience—as long as these choices are made sincerely, based on personal faith, and honor God. (Those who are weaker do not have this understanding) So Paul speaks to the “strong” first.
- Since they know this, they—the strong—bear more of the responsibility in maintaining peace among the issues.
- So he appeals to them—in an astonishingly sacrificial way—to give up their rights to practice these freedoms if their practice does, in fact, injure the faith of the weaker Christians. He instructs them not to even speak about the issues.
It is this last point that merits further discussion. It is a difficult teaching and has all kinds of bearing on what is happening in our churches today and I think it is a key to us maintaining congregational health. Instead of me just plowing my way through my brothers and sisters on some issue because I can, Paul is calling me to think more of them than my own preferences. I am to subdue the exercise of my freedoms for the sake of others—if it comes down to that. For someone who values my way pretty highly, that is hard to swallow.
But if I can do it—the glory it will bring God is amazingly productive and healing to a fractured church and delivers a powerful cross-reflective message of love and tender compassion to world absent of such.
Can we be this kind of person in our churches today?
It says not just that, “I am second.” It says, “I am last.”
And we all know what Jesus said about those who are last.