I heard about a family of Vietnamese refugees who had moved in next door to a Christian family. It was an eye-opening experience as they tried to understand one another. As a welcome to their neighborhood, the mom of the Christian family gave them a plate of cookies. That began a series of gift exchanges of various food items. Neither family were not sure what some of the meals were. The most elaborate was a roast duck the Vietnamese family brought over one time, but the Christian family did not get to try it. The mom didn’t want to eat a duck that still had its head attached. They gave it to the neighbors on the other side of us, who said it was quite good. The dad and son of the Christian family went next door once for a meal celebrating the grandfathers’ birthday. They learned that day that the Vietnamese family did not use much sugar, if any at all, even in their deserts. That made them wonder what they had thought of all the cakes, cookies, and other sweets we had given to them. Perhaps about the same as their mom thought of a duck with its head on.
Cultural differences such as these might cause some polite gagging as you attempt to eat what another culture considers a delicacy, but other cultural difference can cause great conflicts. There are not only differences in foods, language, and dress, but there are also personal practices and customs we do not understand and may think odd or even offensive. Societies often deal with these conflicts by isolating from each other, but that is not a Biblical option in the church, though there are many churches that do, segregating themselves along cultural or ethnic lines.
The Gospel is to be taken into all the world, and as different people respond, they are added to the church. Paul is clear in Galatians 3:28 that there is neither Jew nor Greek in the church. In Ephesians 3 Paul tells us that these ethnic barriers have been broken down. All people are one people in Jesus Christ. But this increases the opportunity for conflict. There are many matters that are not directly addressed in the Scriptures. How are Christians to deal with one another when they find their personal, often cultural, standards are in conflict with one another, and there is not a Bible passage that directly addresses the reason for the conflict.
This is an issue that strikes at the heart
Of the very nature of the church.
It can be very personal and very subtle in its effect on us.
Paul deals with this issue in Romans 14, for the church in Rome was made up of a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul needed to give them specific instruction on how they were to apply the principle of being living and holy sacrifices to God into their relationships with one another when there arose cultural differences in acceptable standards of conduct.
Cultural conflict was not a new issue to Paul. In Acts 15 we find that some men from Judea went to the churches in the Antioch area teaching, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas stood against this teaching, so eventually the church there determined to send them “to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning the issue.” When they arrived in Jerusalem they found a certain group of Pharisees who had believed in Jesus but who were saying that, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
At issue was both the nature of salvation and the manner in which the Gentiles were to live. Were the Gentiles required to become Jewish in custom in order to be saved or to live the Christian life? The answer from the council was “no.” As Peter related in verses 7-11 and James demonstrated from the Old Testament in verse 15-18, the Gentiles, like the Jews, were saved by God’s grace and not through keeping the Mosaic law. What about what might be called “table fellowship” or the social contact between Jewish and Gentile Christians? The Gentiles did not need to follow the Mosaic standards of conduct except in four specific areas to preclude offense arising from them. Those holding onto Jewish social customs were not to trouble the Gentile believers (verse 19). The word “trouble” means “to crowd in on, annoy.”” Those who wanted to hear the Mosaic code could do so, for it had been proclaimed in the synagogues from ancient generations in every city (verse 21). The Judaizers and Pharisees had lost their case, but the Gentiles were called to be considerate of those holding to the customs of the Mosaic law by burdening themselves to constrain their freedom in four essential practices. The word “essential,” means, “necessary, on
There have been those that have tried to use Acts 15 as a basis for saying that the church is free to set up any standard of conduct it wants. There are three major problems with trying to make this an application of this passage.
1) The historical setting of this chapter does not allow such a broad application. The historical setting is between Gentile believers and Jewish believers that had been brought up for generations that certain practices contained in the Mosaic Law were abhorrent to God. These Jews would have an extremely difficult time trying to overcome that and believe they now had freedom in these areas of social contact. From their view, eating meat polluted by idols would have brought them into the worship of such idols and therefore in conflict with the Exodus 20:3-6 prohibition against idolatry as well as the injunctions against touching dead things, which they considered such meat, and becoming unclean because of it. They would not eat blood because it was against the injunction of Leviticus 17:10-11 that God would set His face against the person who eats blood and would cut him off from His people. They would not eat something strangled because of the blood. Leviticus 17:13; Genesis 9:4; Deuteronomy 12, etc. all required the animal to be slaughtered and the blood drained from the animal. “Fornication” – whether taken in the narrow sense of sexual sins or the broader sense of conduct in relationships, was clearly forbidden in the Mosaic law as well (Leviticus 18, etc.).
Acts 15 occurs in an historical setting. The constraints placed on the Gentile believers were straight from the Mosaic code and given as a means to promote social harmony between them and the Jews. We will find here in Romans 14 that this was so they would not be a stumbling block to the Jews in enticing them to partake of something against their conscience. The principle here cannot be broadened to mean that churches can set any code of conduct.
2) Acts is an historical book of transition. The working out of the doctrine on how Christians with differing personal standards are to relate to one another is found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. We do not develop doctrine for the church based on things that happened in Acts. We go to the Epistles for that.
3) The Church is not an institution of man. Man-made institutions can set any standard of conduct they want. They can require uniforms or that you wear some funny little hat. They are free to restrict what you do and how you behave. They can require you to pay dues and attend so many meetings a year. Man-made institutions are free to set up any code of rules they desire, but the church is not a man-made institution and therefore cannot be defined, structured, or operated according to man’s thoughts and desires. The church is an spiritual organism created by God for His glory as the body of Christ and therefore must be defined, structured, and allowed to live, grow, and function only according to His instructions. The Bible alone sets out for the church what we must believe and how we must behave.
When a church moves past the Bible to set out its own standards, it is no longer a church in the true sense, but rather a religious club. Let me read for you an excerpt from such a group that supposes itself to be church. Under “Rules & Discipline” is says: “Members shall not indulge in the world’s methods of pleasure seeking, amusements and entertainment, patronizing or taking in part in fairs, parades, circuses, moving picture shows, theaters, drama, public bathing resorts, organized contesting ball teams, dancing, card parties, races, various forms of gambling, scavenger hunts, mystery suppers, hayrides and such like. Inasmuch as our automobiles, as well as all our
possessions, are gifts from God, they should be in keeping with Biblical modesty and separation, and the use of them should always glorify God. The more expensive cars, cars with contrasting colors, sports cars as well as sports features on regular cars, and all striped tires, shall be avoided. The appearance and use of all our vehicles shall be consistent with these principles and regulations. Because of the effectiveness of the radio to propagate evil and increase end-time deception, thereby destroying true spirituality in the home and church, its use is not permitted. Because of the evils of television, those who are responsible for the sale or use of the same forfeit their membership. Video cassette recorder (VCR) entertainment systems shall not be used. We likewise sense the dangers of the news media such as daily papers and magazines in the home. Psalm 101:3; Psalm 1:2.”
This same church also states the following: “We believe that acappella singing is the form that most accurately represents New Testament principles. Because of the highly emotional appeal of stringed instruments, and their prominent place in modern sensual music, they are not permitted for actual use or in our recorded selections. Electronic keyboard instruments which can automatically simulate the rhythm and tempo of secular music are also objectionable, and are not permitted. We also sense the possible conditioning effect of the traditional keyboard instruments. Acappela singing and recorded selections that reflect the emphasis of modern ‘gospel song’ performers with their entertaining appeal should be eliminated.”
Extreme? Yes, but once the line is crossed and man’s standards replace God’s, the error is already present and all you are left with is measuring the degree of error. Jesus gave a very serious warning in Matthew 17:9 and Mark 7:7 saying, “But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” What then does God’s Word say about how Christians are to treat one another when there are differing standards of conduct. How do we keep cultures from colliding in the church?
The Bible helps us answer that question in Romans 14. How are Christians who have such varied backgrounds and therefore varied standards of personal conduct supposed to behave toward one another in those areas Scripture does not expressly forbid or commend? Use of such things such as television, radio, computers, musical instruments, buying insurance, taking out a home loan, dancing, women wearing a pants suit to church, men having their hair over their ears, men having facial hair, women having short hair, cooking with wine, drinking wine in moderation, fishing on Sunday, mowing the lawn on Sunday, smoking, playing cards, putting your children in public school, playing sports, mixed swimming, etc. The list can go on and on. Some of those might seem humorous to you, but I can guarantee you to that there are some people who will hold these differing issues as serious matters.
How do we deal with one another? The short answer is with “love.” Let’s see how that love is to be expressed in Romans 14:1-3, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him.” The word “accept,” means to “receive.” The connotation is of personal and willing reception of the other person. Paul begins his discussion of what it means to accept one another by using the example of dietary restrictions, a common area of life that could cause conflict between Jewish & Gentiles Christians.
“Weak in the faith” does not mean weak in spiritual trust of salvation, but weak in understanding the full truth of the gospel message and the freedom it allows. It is “the faith.” A Jewish believer at this time would have grown up under the Mosaic Law with its many dietary restrictions. Some of these were already pointed out in the discussion of Acts 15. It would be difficult for Jews to quickly abandon those restrictions and feel comfortable eating things previously banned. Remember that even Peter struggled with this. Acts 10:9-16 records that Peter had a vision of an object like a great sheet being lowered from its four corners coming down out of the sky. It was filled with all sorts of different animals and a voice called for him to “arise, Peter, kill and eat!” Peter’s response was, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” The voice then called out again saying, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This vision occurred three times in preparation for Peter to understand that the gospel message was also for the Gentiles. God was teaching him that he was to no longer consider the Gentiles unholy or unclean. Immediately after this, God used Peter to take the gospel to the Gentiles. My point here is that Peter’s initial negative reaction to the idea of eating food pronounced unclean in the Mosaic Law would have been common among all the Jewish believers of that time. Paul’s comments in Galatians 2:11 tell us that Peter still struggled with the issue of diet many years later.
Those who were “strong” in faith, in the sense they had come to the understanding that “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it received with gratitude” (1 Timothy 4:4) were not to pass judgement on those who had not matured to that point yet. “Not for passing judgement” means “to not regard with contempt.” The sense here is receiving someone “weak” in faith, and then ridiculing him for his thoughts on the subject. If he is weak, then he needs to be taught, and such teaching is to be done with love and sensitivity to build him up in Christ (Ephesians 4). Passing judgement and ridiculing him does not help. The “strong” are not to look at the”weak” as someone to be either despised or pitied. The “strong” are not to be self-righteous and consider themselves to be superior to the “weak.” The “weak” may not have freedom of conscience in an area yet, but they are not second class believers.
At same time, the “weak” are not to “judge,” the strong for practicing their freedom. “Judge” “condemn,” as in “guilty of a crime.” The tendency, as we saw in Acts 15, would be for the “weak” to demand that the “strong” restrict their freedoms and live by their standards, which they considered to be more holy. Those who ate only vegetables thought themselves to be better than those who ate all things (verse 2). Refraining from certain foods may be a healthy diet, but it is not a more “holy” diet. Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 that those who demanded abstention from foods were paying attention to the doctrine of demons. If God does not forbid something, then neither can we based on our own preferences. If God allows something, then so must we. The “weak” are not judge the “strong” as being less holy or even less concerned about holiness than themselves.
Paul gives four reasons in verses 3-12 why this judging and condemning should not be done, and that both the “strong” and the “weak” are to accept each other. God accepts both. Each is God’s servant and God sustains both. Each is to live for the Lord. God judges both.
REASON 1 For Acceptance: God Has Accepted Both.
Paul says in the end of verse 3 that God accepts both those that eat, and those that do not eat. He accepts those who practice their freedom and those who do not. If God accepts the person, then there is no godly basis on which we can reject or judge the person. The only basis left then is our own selfishness and self-righteousness which elevate our personal preferences into a demanded standard of holiness.
REASON 2 For Acceptance: Both Are Servants Of The Lord, And God Sustains Both
Verse 4 says, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Each is the Lord’s servant and the Lord sustains both. We are not the ones to make a condemning judgement about whether a person’s personal practice in these gray areas is right or failing before the Lord. That is between them and the Lord, and the Lord will sustain them as they individually seek after Him.
Those who restrict themselves have a tendency to think that those who do not follow such restrictions are too selfish and practicing what they consider to be worldly things. They believe that such “worldy” practices would hinder, if not preclude, them from serving the Lord. At the same time, those who practice their liberty tend to think that those who do not share in that freedom are legalistic and self-righteous. They believe
such legalistic people lose out on the joy of being a Christian and also restrict themselves from usefulness to Christ because their legalism keeps them from being gracious and merciful.
The truth is that God uses all kinds of people with all kinds of different failings. He uses the libertarian as well as the legalist. That does not mean that God approves of their current state or that He will leave them in that condition. As the master of all His people, God will use His servants as He sees fit even as He continues to change and conform them to the image of Christ.
None of this precludes you from asking with love why a person does or does not do a certain thing, nor should it stop you from lovingly sharing your own thoughts on a subject and why you do or do not do certain things. However, if God does not condemn a practice, then neither can you. That fellow Christian is also a servant of the Lord, even though you do not share the same strengths and weaknesses, and the Lord is using him in a different way than He is you.
REASON 3 For Acceptance: Each Is To Live For God.
Verses 5-9 state, “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. 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. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Jesus is sovereign over each believer, and each believer is to
live for Him. The inner motivation of the believer is not easily seen, yet that is what is important in his practice before the Lord. Men judge the outward appearance according to their own personal standards and thus sin themselves in their condemnation of others. Such was the condemnation against Jesus by the Pharisees. Jesus did not do the outward things they required as evidence of true godliness, yet they themselves did those things from the wrong heart and were thus ungodly people.
In matters not specifically commanded or forbidden in Scripture, each person must follow the dictates of their own conscience. For them to do otherwise would be to go against their belief of what is right before God. The conscience is to be trained through the word of God (Romans 12:2), not through the imposition of cultural or personal standards.
Paul uses several examples to illustrate this principle that it is the motivation of the heart that is important. Those coming out of a Jewish heritage would have been taught to honor the Sabbath in certain ways. They considered the time from Friday evening at Sunset until Sunset on Saturday evening to be a special day that was to be set apart for the worship of the Lord. Other Christians, who came from different backgrounds, believed that every day was the same and all of them were for the worship of the Lord. Early in Church history, another practice began in which Christians would gather together to worship on Sundays, the first day of the week, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). There is no New Testament command that any one particular day is to be observed for the Lord. The seventh day Adventists are wrong on this in demanding that Saturday is the Sabbath and must be kept by Christians, but so are Christians who demand that Sunday is the only proper day. There is nothing wrong with those who worship the Lord on Friday nights, as do Messianic Christians, nor is there anything wrong with those who worship the Lord on Saturday nights, which is occurring in many churches that have space problems. It really is a matter of the conscience of the individual being fully convinced in his own mind of whether he will observe a particular day for the Lord or every day.
Paul makes the same case in verse 6 regarding a person’s diet. Whether the person chooses to eat something or not, the real issue is their thankfulness to God (1 Timothy 4:1-5). As Paul later said in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day– things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” We are to be concerned about the reality, not the shadow. As Paul points out in verse 7, we neither live nor die for ourselves. We are to live and die for the Lord for we belong to Him. He is our master who redeemed us from our sin by His own precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus’ death and resurrection has made Him our lord whether we are alive and serving Him on this earth, or we have died to this life and are now alive to serve Him in heaven. Our proper response for our salvation is to be living and holy sacrifices acceptable to God. We are to accept one another because every true Christian belongs to the Lord.
REASON 4 For Acceptance: God Alone Is Judge.
Verses 10-12 say, “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God.” Every Christian should accept every other Christian because the Lord alone will judge. We are not to play God in determining what is right and wrong for other people in these so called “gray” areas that the Bible does not specifically address. Each one of us will give an account of ourselves before God, and frankly, that is enough for any of us to be concerned about.
The real issue here is not our outward behavior. It is the inward motivation that drives that behavior. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is as sinful before God as not doing the right thing at all. Why do you do what you do? Why do you refrain from the things you do not do? As those who are to be living and holy sacrifices acceptable to God, the Christian is to be motivated in everything by their love for God and desire to serve Him. What motivates you? We would all be less judgmental of each other if each of us became less concerned with what others thought of us and more concerned with what God thinks of us, because only His judgement counts in the end.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”