What do you do when a good number of people in your church are blessed by something they participate in together in worship with others – but there are some among those others who are not just offended by it, but convinced that it is contrary to scripture and something they cannot share in?
Does the first group have to quit doing what they have been doing?
Does the second group have to leave while they are doing it?
Can the first group continue doing what blesses them and what they are convinced is permissible, but privately, without the folks in the second group?
Must the second group part company with the first if they do? Has their fellowship been rejected as well as their conviction?
And, by the way, I’m not talking about some trivial conviction here, but something that is a long-standing, time-honored and quite literal interpretation of scripture.
And I’m not talking about anyone in either group of people who care nothing for scripture nor each other – quite the opposite.
Nor am I describing a situation in which one person or group is actively seeking to have his or her own way by some kind of scriptural blackmail or power play.
I’m talking about an honest disagreement; a conflicting view of scripture.
What if they talk it out, exhaustively, and still cannot agree?
What if giving in is not an option for either party, because convictions are deep and perhaps even well-founded?
I wish I could give you a glib answer. I wish I could tell you I know an elegant solution. I wish I could tell you that I was making it up. I wish I could tell you that it never happened and never will. But it has, and it does, and it happens in churches and fellowships of all sorts and sizes.
Some think that, in a situation like this, one party must be right and the other must be wrong. (Generally, the folks who are right are the ones who agree with us when we learn the details of the conflict.) That is simply not always the case.
Romans 14 is an example of this, I believe.
Was it right or not to eat meat when you could not be sure whether it had been sacrificed to an idol?
That was one of two questions at issue.
And Paul could have come down authoritatively on either side of that question.
According to Mark’s gospel (7:19), Jesus declared all foods clean.
According to Luke (Acts 15:29), the council at Jerusalem had forbidden eating food sacrificed to idols.
So in Romans 14, Paul does his best to advise the followers of Christ there to work this out within and among themselves.
They should accept each other, not judge each other, not allow what they considered good to be spoken of as evil, and make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
And, after sharing his conviction (v. 14), he recommends a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about one’s convictions in verse 22.
(This surely can’t be Paul’s favorite thing to do, especially long-distance with Christians he hasn’t yet met. He would probably much rather be out preaching the gospel to people who have never before heard it.)
While there are great and deep principles embedded in this chapter, I’m not at all sure that every conceivable conflict can be superimposed on it, conclusions accurately drawn and good results guaranteed by doing so. In fact, we have no idea how the conflict among Rome’s Christians turned out at this point in century one.
Most of our contemporary conflicts have nothing to do with eating meat. The application of the principles can be difficult. Paul says nothing whatsoever about whether God really wants the faith of the weak to remain weak forever. Nor does he really get into the question of whether one day is more sacred than another.
Still, several important principles – I believe – can be drawn from the situation.
- There are disputable matters. Not everything is intrinsically right or wrong.
- You should not judge each other and should rather be willing to sacrifice your own rights if exercising them would cause a sibling in Christ to stumble and fall. Sometimes we win by losing it all – just as Christ did.
- In such matters, everything that does not come of faith is sin – we are each still responsible for what we do.
I also believe that it might be a good idea when such matters arise …
- To pray, passionately, powerfully, transparently, and with holy hands lifted sans anger or disputing.
- To call in an arbitrator with wisdom approaching Paul’s who has no vested interest in the outcome, if the situation grows beyond the abilities of the parties involved.
- To love each other deeply, from the heart – because love obscures a lot of sins that can happen when conflicts arise.
To all the things I wished above, I add one more:
I wish it were easy.