“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore, let us no longer criticize one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in your brother’s way. (I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean. ) For if your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy that one Christ died for by what you eat. Therefore, do not let your good be slandered, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men.” (Romans 14:12-18 HCSB)
I know it’s not politically correct, but I’m proud to be an American. As I write these words, our family is preparing to gather together and celebrate the goodness and blessings of God as we say “Thank You” for an abundance of His blessings and the many joys we’ve received over the past year. While some will spend time trying to correct the “myth” of the first Thanksgiving, we simply celebrate our blessings and God’s goodness now, in this moment. This year, my three children and their spouses, along with my six grandchildren, will gather around our family table while we share a meal, tell stories, play games, talk and laugh with one another.
While it might be important that we know the truth and understand the implications of our national history, it is much more important that we know the truth and understand the implications of our own choices, actions and attitudes in the present. While the past can influence our current choices and actions it most often teaches us how to avoid past mistakes and build for a better future. As the old saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So, not just America but every nation’s history is replete with mistakes that are lessons to be learned. So, I’ll restate my earlier premise, I’m proud to be an American. Have we made our share of mistakes? Have there been exceptions? Of course, we have made our share of mistakes and there are always exceptions. However, we’ve also tried to provide help, support, and provide recovery and disaster relief for many, many other countries throughout our history. Have these efforts had strings attached? Some have, most haven’t. It was just the right thing to do. There really is a reason that so many are seeking entry and protection at our borders. Perhaps we need to hear and learn this history lesson, again:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (A partial quote from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus – on the tablet held in the hand of the Statue of Liberty).
In this week’s focal passage, Paul challenges us to recognize the change that needs to occur in our Christian walk as we learn from our own past mistakes, as we seek to bring others to faith in Christ. We ended last week with the realization that each of us will stand before God and give an accounting of our lives. Our secrets will be revealed, our hidden skeletons will be uncovered, our private sins will be exposed and God will perform a detailed audit of our lives. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Not really! But for those who are in Christ, our condemnation has been remitted (see Rom. 8:1). The Great Judge WON’T say, “guilty as charged!” He WILL say, “redeemed by My Son!”
However, we do need to consider the implications of living out our redemption in relationship with weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to consider the hope offered by the Word of God in Jesus Christ and its promises to those “huddled masses” who yearn to breathe free, eternally. We are initially told, “no longer criticize one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in your brother’s way.” The word “criticize” or to pass judgment upon someone is the same word as “decide” or determine never to place a stumbling block in your brother’s path. Paul uses a play on words and instead of judging your “brother” you should judge your own attitude and/or actions that might be contributing to your brother bring tripped up in his faith walk. Wow, he turns that idea on its head. Doesn’t he? Don’t judge others but judge yourselves, evaluate your own attitudes and actions that might cause them to stumble in their faith walk.
To be honest, this is hard for us to do. When we believe we’re right, we love to point that out to others. In fact, that appears to be the fuel that drives much of our interaction on social media. We use it as a socially acceptable means to drive home our viewpoint and prove our point. Instead of enabling us to “like” each other, Facebook has simply enabled us to bludgeon one another with a culturally approved baseball bat and to offer up memes that feed our passive aggressive tendencies and sarcastic attitudes. What is sold to us as a means of bringing us together has become more of a social wedge that’s driving us further apart.
However, as Christian believers we are called to stop judging others and to start judging our own actions and attitudes regarding others. Instead of criticizing their actions, we are called to critique ourselves and remove road blocks, trip hazards and traps that might cause a brother to stumble in his faith.
Wait! What if I’m right, you’re wrong and I can prove it with scripture?
You can be right… and yet still be wrong. Notice how Paul continues, “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” Paul admits that you can be right in your head and still act wrong in your response to someone else. He states that he “knows” empirically and is “fully convinced” in his spirit that nothing is unclean in itself. Yet, he insists we must not use our freedom in such a way that it harms, hinders or destroys a Christian brother. Let that settle in a bit… we must not let our freedom cause spiritual harm, to cause someone to stumble or to destroy a Christian brother or sister. In other words, their spiritual growth and health is more important than our spiritual freedoms in Christ. Put simply, if eating meat would cause him to stumble then don’t eat meat.
While the freedoms that Paul specifically references are those found in Jesus as Lord, more specifically, freedom from Jewish religious rituals and dietary restrictions, they do extend further and include cultural issues. For example, eating food sacrificed to idols. As such, this principle also applies to the freedoms Americans enjoy as guaranteed through the Constitution and Bill of Rights. If exercising our personal freedom causes a weaker brother to stumble or hinders their walk with Jesus, then we should refrain from exercising that right in their presence. Honestly, this will cause some American Christians to pause and even question the validity and truth of my words because it is so embedded into our culture and our cultural practice of Christianity. For example, some might say:
“These freedoms have been sealed by the blood of our forefathers and continue to be guaranteed by the blood of American soldiers, how can you dare suggest those freedoms should be laid aside?”
I need you to hear me clearly on this issue. If you’ve bowed your knee to Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings and acknowledged His deity as the risen Son of God then your personal rights also fall under His authority. He has the right and authority to tell you to lay them aside, in full obedience to Him. In fact, the basic human right of life is even surrendered to Christ: “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24 HCSB) In essence, Jesus is telling his followers that they must be willing to lay aside their God-given “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” if they want to follow Him.
How does this fit in with Paul’s words in Romans 14? Paul is calling upon the Roman believers to place the spiritual growth and development of others above the exercise of their personal rights. He recognizes that those who are “strong in the faith” are criticizing the beliefs and actions of their weaker brothers. He summarizes: “For if your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according to love.” The stronger believers have an obligation to love others the way they love themselves. An obligation to encourage, assist, teach, deny themselves, and to lay down their lives and their own rights as they “build up” the church and its members. In other words, don’t just say you love others like you love yourself but actually do it. Live it out. Put those words into practice in a very practical way within the church family.
Paul even takes it a step farther and says, “Don’t destroy that ONE Christ died for by what you eat.” The idea here is not destruction and the loss of salvation, for he has already assured us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.” (See Rom. 8:31-39) However, it is possible to utterly destroy the joy, the spiritual growth and productiveness of another’s faith with hurtful words and unkind deeds. I know a young man who has struggled his entire life with the conflict between what Jesus commands His followers to do and what they actually do. He knows what scripture teaches us to do, but he’s not convinced we do that very well. He recently shared with me that he has not completely abandoned his faith, but has harbored serious doubts because of the hurtful actions and judgmental attitudes of other believers. He said, “I’m only clinging to my faith because you’ve shown me that it can be real and is being lived out in your own life.”
I’ve loved this young man even as he struggled with addiction, tattooed and pierced his body, and didn’t fit the stereotype we’ve developed for Christ followers. (Yes, we’ve developed a stereotype for American Christianity. Honestly, we’ve even developed a stereotype for non-American Christianity) Paul’s words can just as easily be stated, “don’t destroy that ONE Christ died for by the stereotypes you’ve built up of what my people should look like, how they should live or what they should or should not eat.” Remember, Paul told us previously that we shouldn’t “criticize another’s household slave for he stands or falls before his own Lord.” We are each accountable to our Lord even though we often use these stereotypes to evaluate, criticize and judge others regarding their faith or lack thereof.
My view of your faith will not determine whether you are a believer or not. The one and only righteous Judge, Jesus Christ, will determine that on that final day. That doesn’t mean you can believe whatever you like, there are certain beliefs that constitute saving faith in Jesus, but it does mean that me and my opinion of your faith and your actions will NOT determine your eternal destiny – only Jesus can do that. However, I am charged with helping to build your faith and to strengthen your walk with Him just as you are charged to do the same with me: strengthen, not destroy; encourage, not criticize; build up, not tear down. If my freedom in Christ hurts your faith then I’m not walking according to love. If the freedom I exercise through my faith is destroying yours, then I need to examine my actions and my attitudes and, most likely, make some changes.
Paul concludes this segment with some practical advice, “Therefore, do not let your good be slandered, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men.” Paul never says that the exercise of our freedom in Christ is bad, but it can be perceived as bad. He says, don’t let your good be slandered or “blasphemed.” To blaspheme something is to take that which is good and holy and to label it as bad or unholy. It is to label as false that which is true. So, don’t let your good (your faith-filled actions) be labeled as bad because of how you respond and react to those who are spiritually immature and weak or even by those who are unbelievers.
There are SO many examples of this in Baptist life, I’m struggling to narrow this one down to just one. Baptists in America have typically embraced a teetotaler approach to alcohol. We’ve even, falsely, labeled this as a biblical approach to alcohol. However, scripture never directly condemns the consumption of alcohol but does condemn its abuse and misuse. The same goes for tobacco use and smoking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, gambling, cussing, and pool/billiards playing and a host of other things or “ings.” Growing up in the Baptist church of the early 1970’s, I’ve faced and been frustrated over many of these and lots of other issues. These were seen as sins and not something a good Baptist boy should ever do, or even think about. What I realized as my faith grew and matured was that most of these things were like the issues Paul addresses in this chapter of Romans, “faith is not a matter of eating or not eating.”
However, the freedom I’ve found in Christ regarding these “Christian cultural taboos” must never be used as a means of destroying another’s faith. It may not be “forbidden” by scripture to take a drink of alcohol, but if my doing so were to impact another’s faith walk then I must abstain. The commandment to “not take the Lord’s name in vain” may not directly address the use of “curse words” (as I was taught throughout my childhood), but to use them might cause a weaker brother to stumble – so I don’t (among a host other reasons). So, my freedoms in Christ have not be given to me to use in whatever manner I choose. I’m completely free but I’m free to obey, free to surrender, free to submit myself to God’s will, to the truth of His Word and to walk His way. I’m free in my spirit but bound by my love for Him and His people, the Church. I’m completely free to drink and eat whatever I desire, but I’m bound by my obedience to His desire to build up His church, to strengthen the weak in faith, to encourage those criticized and to refrain from judging those who are struggling.
So, instead of using our freedoms to boast in our “spiritually advanced state” or to rub the noses of those weak in it we should consider our position and never allow our good to be labeled as evil. Those who think they are the most mature are, far too often, the very ones who act the most immature. Don’t ever forget, “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18 HCSB)
If you’re not a follower of Christ, let me encourage you to also consider Paul’s teaching. To follow Christ was never intended to give you the freedom to satisfy your selfish desires or to live in any way you choose. It is to recognize that Christ, the very one who created you and loves you most, has a better way to live life. To live life in submission to His way, His Word, His will. To give yourself completely to Him (to love God with all that’s within you) and to serve others (to love others in the same way you love yourself). To do so is to discover the true source of living right (righteousness), of peace with God and men, and of possessing an inner joy from His Spirit that makes life worth living. I hope you’ll join us in this journey…