“Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues. One person believes he may eat anything, but one who is weak eats only vegetables. One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat, and one who does not eat must not criticize one who does, because God has accepted him. Who are you to criticize another’s household slave? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand. For the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:1-4 HCSB)
ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Big words, bigger impact. These words have become a common diagnosis in modern American culture for children with social or educational challenges. It seems like half of our children are now being treated for this disorder, whether they have it, or not. This isn’t some new issue. I’m fairly certain that I struggled with this as a child and as an adult. At the very least, the symptoms are strangely familiar.
As I began my career in technology, one of the challenges I often faced was the difficulty to stay focused or, sometimes, to stay too focused on an issue. I would often miss meetings because I had become engrossed in solving an issue. My boss told me, “you have to find a way to do both – fix the issue but keep your appointments.” That’s when I began using a personal digital assistant, or PDA. Today we call them smart phones, tablets and even smart watches. They manage our calendars and, for some, our very lives. They often do more than just remind us of our appointments, they now remind us to buy gifts for birthdays and anniversaries, watch our weight, achieve our exercise goals, and monitor specific health aspects, like our blood glucose (for diabetics) and even our overall health. As we’re often reminded, there’s an APP for that.
The challenges I faced in my personal life, like being unable to stay focused and moving from one project to another without completing the first or staying so focused on the problem that I missed a meeting, became even bigger issues for my career. Things that were frustrating to me in school became debilitating and career impacting, as I would soon discover. What do you do? You find a way to control, manage or cope.
In this week’s focal passage, Paul identifies something similar in the church and, more specifically, in the lives of the Roman Christians. He has spent much of his letter establishing a solid theological basis for these practical lessons in faith (chapters 1-11). He has shown us how to understand what God has been doing in and through creation, man’s fall from grace into sin, and God’s plan to redeem and restore us to grace and divine love (chapters 1-5). Then he shows us how to experience God’s redemptive grace and to begin living in and through the power and presence of God’s Spirit in our lives instead of our human needs and desires (chapters 6-8). Now, we bump up against the issues of living in the community of faith when every person is at a different level of spiritual maturity. Some are weak, some are strong and all are at odds with one another. Ouch.
You might not recognize or realize it, but one of the beautiful things about the church is the sheer “messiness” of it. Yep, faith is messy. Of course, it is. Life is messy and I believe it adds beauty to life and to the church. When we come to faith in Christ the resulting transformation is a progression of learning, trying, discovering, and trusting. We’ve been given the basics, but life in Christ is a bit different for each of us because we’re all a bit different, unique, or peculiar. Yes, even peculiar. We tend to thing of peculiar in the sense of odd or strange. But it has a secondary meaning of being unique, different or special. In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter refers to us as: “…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV) God’s special possession, uniquely His, different and peculiar because we stand out from the rest because we stand with Him. Did you catch that? Believers stand OUT from the rest of the world because we stand WITH Him. By the way, we only stand with Him because of Him – but we’ll come back to that, in a bit.
Since faith is messy and we’re all at different stages of spiritual maturity, development and growth then we must deal with the “mess” with grace, God’s grace. So, Paul tells us to “accept anyone who’s weak in faith.” To accept is to do more than just tolerate one another. The word (Greek: proslambano) literally means to “bring them alongside you – walk with them” or to “take them into your heart and life”. It is not a passive acceptance of someone’s feelings or beliefs, it is the active acceptance of them as a person of great value and worth and to join them on this journey we call life. Yes, that makes this family we call “church” quite messy.
Now, there is a qualification to this “acceptance” that Pauls encourages us to give – accept anyone who’s weak in faith. So, faith must be present for inclusion in the body of Christ, the Church, but the level or strength of faith is irrelevant. In other words, he’s not telling us to simply accept anyone and everyone into the church regardless of their beliefs or actions but because of their faith, weak or strong. Perhaps, a gentle remind is in order – God’s grace and love are not the result of your obedience to God’s commandments or your observance of religious rites and rituals. You don’t earn God’s love and you can’t achieve a level of obedience that results in God granting grace, both are free gifts that flow from the sheer goodness of His character. God is love and gives grace – that’s who He is. But, our salvation is dependent upon our willingness to confess our sin, turn away (repent) from our rebellious and sinful attitude towards God and, through faith, acknowledge Jesus’ deity, death and resurrection and submit to His authority and lordship over our lives (see Rom. 3:23, 5:8, 6:23, 8:14, 10:9-10).
So, we should accept and engage believers in living life together, but not just so we can argue with them about our differences or about doubtful issues. I mentioned above that there are some things that determine whether someone “has” faith – those truths, Biblically affirmed, are the things that define the essentials of the Gospel. Some churches wrap these up in creeds, confessions, or statements of belief. Generally speaking, Baptists have traditionally been reluctant to embrace creeds and confessions because they are basically byproducts of man’s learning and, thus, subject to sinful error. In other words, when we try and interpret, explain or summarize God’s Word then we can corrupt it and introduce mistakes of understanding or our opinions rather than the truth of God. Of course, that can be true whether we are writing it, speaking it, teaching it or living it.
But, Paul says we shouldn’t lovingly accept someone into the church’s fellowship just for the sake of arguing with them about matters that are “doubtful” or for the sake of correcting their errors regarding peripheral matters of belief. These things that are “doubtful” (Greek: dialogismon) are things that we have “dialogue or discussions” about among believers and are not laid out in clear, obvious, concrete terms in scripture. We’ve taken an idea from scripture and we’ve “reasoned” it out and come up with one possible scenario or explanation. For example, there are several ways to interpret and understand scripture regarding the events, timeline and intent of passages regarding the “end times.” While these things might be interesting and fun to dissect, discuss and debate, their interpretation and understanding are not critical to the core beliefs and teachings regarding salvation and faith in Jesus Christ. We can get these things wrong and it doesn’t change our relationship with God or His ability to carry out His sovereign plan of redemption and bringing the “end times” to completion. We might be surprised as to the specific events or the exact timeline, but we won’t be surprised by the outcome – we will still be saved.
Paul uses an example that is likely occurring within the Roman church, dietary laws and practices and disagreements over them, and applies this principle. It is not really surprising, given the significant cultural differences between Jewish and Gentile believers, that such disagreements exist. I can hear their argument now, “If you REALLY loved God, you’d never eat that meat! What? No! If YOU really loved God, then you wouldn’t be so judgmental and you’d feel free to eat anything you wanted!” We have similar disagreements in today’s church, don’t we? They may not center around Jewish dietary laws, but they often center around cultural differences, personal disagreements and misunderstandings. I know there were way too many disagreements regarding masks and mask wearing, specifically at church but also elsewhere, over the past 18 months. We took an issue and made it very, very divisive.
Notice how Paul addresses the meat issue among the Roman Christians, those who are strong “look down” on those who are weak and won’t eat meat and those who are weak “criticize” or judge those who do eat meat. So, the strong consider themselves spiritually superior and look down on their “weak” brothers while the weak consider themselves morally right and judge the actions of their brothers who claim to be “strong.” Sound familiar? Confession time, I caught myself taking a similar approach in the mask issue I cited, above. Maybe you did, too? Paul’s conclusion: God has accepted him. Which? Both! Period. End of story. He has accepted the strong and the weak of faith into loving fellowship, so should we.
Finally, Paul confronts the issue head on: “who are you to criticize another’s household slave? Before his own Lord he stands or falls.” In theological terms, this has been called the “priesthood of the believer.” We all stand or fall based on our own, personal relationship of faith with our Lord. My faith may have been influenced and shaped by my parents and grandparents, but I must stand on my own faith, or lack thereof, before God and God alone. The same goes for you.
Just for a moment, let me share some personal insight. I am that proverbial kid who was grew up in church. I cannot remember a time when my parents were not in church and taking me with them. I grew up hearing, memorizing and learning to live by all of Jesus’ teachings. In fact, I even started attending church nine months before I was born (think about it – <grin>). I recognized my sin and my need for Jesus when I was about eight years old. My father led me to faith in my bedroom and I told my church about that decision the next Sunday and was baptized soon after. At that point, I began to follow Jesus and to grow in my faith in Him. At about the age of 20, I was struggling because a former pastor, who I believe had good intentions, had stated that “unless you know the day, hour and minute that you asked Jesus into your heart, you aren’t saved.” Here’s the problem. I know about when that happened. I know about how old I was, but I didn’t remember the exact date or time. That caused me to develop doubts and fears – a very real crisis of faith, for me.
I knew I had to settle this issue, in my heart. Was I truly saved if I couldn’t identify the date and time? At that moment, I had even begun pastoring my first church and Satan was spiritually attacking me. I was struggling. I only knew one way to settle this, scriptural truth. I believed the Bible was true and Jesus was the very Son of God, God in human flesh. I began to read, to study and to pray. Here’s what I discovered: salvation is by grace through faith, alone. Nothing more, nothing less. My salvation wasn’t based on my years of faithful childhood church attendance. It didn’t matter how many years of perfect attendance I could count, or how many Bible stories I could quote, or scripture verses I had memorized. Salvation is based on faith, my confession of Jesus as Lord and God’s undeserved grace. Nothing more, nothing less. Nowhere did I find that I had to be able to tell God, or anyone else, the date of my conversion. He knew the date, for He knows the number of hairs on my head – and even how many I don’t have anymore, but my lack of knowing that date didn’t nullify my faith in Him. I wasn’t saved because I knew a date, I was saved because I believed in Him and submitted myself to His Lordship. Now, my confidence in my salvation is rock solid because it isn’t based in me, my memory or my obedience. My salvation is based in Jesus, alone.
Before his own Lord each servant stands or falls. My childhood pastor’s words brought doubt and fear into my heart, initially. Satan tried to use them to make me stumble and fall. But I will stand or fall before my Lord, not my accuser. These words may have driven doubt into my heart, but God used them to drive it far, far away. I turned to Him and I found strength, not my own but His. He was able to make me stand.
By the way, my faith is not my own either. What? That sounds odd, even ludicrous. Isn’t faith what we do to receive salvation? No, faith isn’t something you do. Faith is something you have because of what He has DONE! You don’t “work up” your faith in God, you begin to see who God is, what God has done, you begin to experience His love, mercy and grace and it causes faith to form and grow within you. Faith develops because God is faithful, not because you’re obedient. Faith doesn’t flow from obedience, obedience flows from faith. Don’t make the mistake I did and get those backward.
How about you? Before your Lord you will either stand or fall. Which will it be? You can stand, because He is able to make you stand. He makes you stand by grace, through faith in Jesus as Lord. Nothing more, nothing less.