Disputable Matters

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 6 July 2014

Give a welcome to anyone whose faith is not strong, but do not get into arguments about doubtful points. One person may have faith enough to eat any kind of food; another, less strong, will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat freely are not to condemn those who are unwilling to eat freely; nor must the person who does not eat freely pass judgement on the one who does -- because God has welcomed them. And who are you, to sit in judgement over somebody else's servant? Whether someone deserves to be upheld or to fall is for their own master to decide; and they shall be upheld, for the Lord has power to uphold them.


One person thinks that some days are holier than others, and another thinks them all equal. Let each of them be fully convinced in their own mind. The one who makes special observance of a particular day observes it in honour of the Lord. So the one who eats freely, eats in honour of the Lord, making thanksgiving to God; and the one who does not, abstains from eating in honour of the Lord and makes thanksgiving to God.


For none of us lives for ourselves and none of us dies for ourselves; while we are alive, we are living for the Lord, and when we die, we die for the Lord: and so, alive or dead, we belong to the Lord. It was for this purpose that Christ both died and came to life again: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why, then, does one of you make himself judge over a brother, and why does another among you despise a sister? All of us will have to stand in front of the judgement-seat of God.


Romans 14.1-10


This is not going to be a sermon about vegetarianism, or whether we should observe the Sabbath or a new moon festival. In this text, eating or not eating meat, or observing special days, are examples of what Paul calls 'doubtful points', which is translated elsewhere as 'disputable matters.' This is a teaching about how the Christian faith community holds differences of opinion. For an organisation that is meant to experience the unity of the Spirit, the Christian church is amazingly prone to division, and to identifying ourselves with our differences, and what we reject in others, instead of celebrating our common ground in Christ. So I am grateful to the Apostle for writing these words, even though they seem to have been largely ignored over the years.



I suspect that part of the trouble is, we none of us like to think that the thing that concerns us is a 'doubtful point', or a 'disputable matter.' We like to think that our opinion is, well, 'gospel,' and carries eternal consequences. And when we read texts like this, it is hard to relate them immediately to the great conflicts that have beset the church, such as pacifism versus war, the separation of church and state, the nature of the sacraments, and issues around human sexuality.


On a first reading, it may seem as though these divisions that Paul references are small, unimportant trifles, and why on earth would the church community in Rome be bothering themselves about them? Eating or not eating meat, observing holy days – of course these are simply matters of conscience and opinion. Live and let live! But a bit of background shows that for some of Paul's hearers, these would have been matters that went to the heart of their understanding of salvation, and the freedom that came about through Christ's death and resurrection.


The community that Paul addresses in this letter was a mixture of converted Gentiles, and baptised Messianic Jews. The Jewish Christians had grown up with, at a deep formative level, the culture and practices and beliefs of their religion, including the prohibition against eating certain foods, mostly various animals, and the necessity of observing the Sabbath, and certain annual feasts, as an integral part of being faithful to God. While they might have understood at some intellectual level that being in Christ meant that the food laws no longer applied to them, and that observing holy days could not move God to any greater favour than not observing them, it went against the grain to change their practice even though they were now part of the church. As for the Gentile believers, the law did not have its hooks in them in the same way, but it is possible that the uncertainty about whether meat may have been offered to an idol might have caused some of them enough concern that they felt it was important to avoid meat altogether, rather than to unwittingly fall into sin.


The question for this church was to what extent they could enter into and practice the radical freedom that comes from being in Christ – the freedom that Paul expresses when he says elsewhere that 'all things are permissible – though not everything is beneficial or edifying.' This is why Paul refers to the meat eaters as having a strong faith and the non meat eaters as having a weak faith. He's not talking about their commitment to or belief in Jesus the Christ. He's talking about how far they feel free to take the implications of the radical grace and love that flow from their relationship in Christ, into a place of non-judgement of themselves or others, and a life free from the fear of getting it wrong. This is, I think, what Paul implies by the phrase 'and they shall be upheld, for the Lord has the power to uphold them' – that regardless of what we may think disqualifies another person from God's mercy, through his resurrection Jesus the Christ is able to bless and sustain the faith of any person.


So what constitutes a 'disputable matter' or a 'doubtful point'? As I understand this text, it's any further qualification that we put on top of Christ crucified and risen, and present by the Spirit as the only necessary confession, or marker, of the Christian life. It's any belief or practice that we are tempted to add as an essential 'extra' to Christ, or any belief or practice that we are tempted to say disqualifies another person who confesses Christ. It's helpful to compare this passage to the book of Galatians. Paul uses very strong language to oppose the way new gentile believers were being persuaded that they needed to be circumcised in order to be right with God. For Paul, that is not a 'doubtful point' but goes right to the heart of Christian freedom from the law.


I'm not saying that there is nothing more to the Christian life and faith than this basic confession, or that there is nothing that can taint our faith and nullify our confession. I would hope that we have a bit more to say about the practice of Christianity than this basic definition! But what I am suggesting is that we can legitimately disagree with one another about what those things might be and how they might look at any given time. As Paul says a few verses later, 'for it is not eating and drinking that make the kingdom of God, but the saving justice, the peace and the joy brought by the Holy Spirit.' For 'eating and drinking' substitute any topic on which Christians hold different views in good conscience.


Which brings us to Paul's concern about how we conduct ourselves within the faith community to avoid pointless argument. There are three principles that I see emerging from this passage.


  • Firstly, our decision rests with our conscience, our prayer, our discernment in God, not what others say or what other people feel free to do or not do. 'Each person must be convinced in their own mind', is Paul's teaching here. Just because someone else feels they must abstain from something – say, drinking alcohol, or swearing, or living with their partner before marriage, that doesn't mean I have to, if my practice is grounded in my faith in Christ, and my conscience is clear before God. But equally, just because someone else feels free to think or act a certain way, if I am doubtful, or it seems wrong to me, then I should follow my conscience, not the crowd. It's the adult version of getting past 'but everyone else was doing it!' as an excuse for going against our own convictions. A few verses after the end of the bit I read out, Paul says something that many people today would hear as very post-modern and relativistic... 'If someone classifies a food as unclean then for them it is unclean... within yourself, before God, hold on to what you already believe.' If I believe something to be wrong, then it is wrong – for me, but not necessarily for another. Accountability, then, is not something that we apply to others, it is between myself and God. If we are in error, then it is for Christ to bring our hearts to that awareness, and to help us to change. We do not need to point out what we deem to be another's sins. The warning in this passage about standing in front of the judgement seat of God isn't there to say- 'so watch out, scrutinise each other's behaviour and words, and make sure you and others are getting it right.' It is totally the opposite. It is to God, not each other, that we are to give an account. And we should recall that God's welcome is usually much more generous and merciful than ours.


  • Secondly, Paul cautions that there should be no condemnation from those who feel more freedom, towards those who are more scrupulous, nor should there be any judgement from those who are more cautious towards those who seem to ignore the rules. The nuance here is very perceptive, I think. Often those who feel they have 'grown beyond' what they perceive as limited or outmoded ways of thinking or living can look down on, or hold in contempt, those who are more traditional. Whereas those who feel like they have the stricter, or more righteous view, can be judgemental towards those who they consider liberal, or licentious. To both these positions, this text says 'don't go there.' Remember that we are sisters and brothers in Christian community, and while we might disagree, or have different practice, there is to be no impatience or disdain towards those who hold a different view. In particular, recognise each other's faith as authentic, and do not be tempted to suggest that one practice is closer to a true expression of Christianity than another. In all of this, hold open the possibility, as fully as possible, that 'I might not be right.' Which is not to say that I have to switch to the other point of view (it may be that neither of us is right!!), simply that I need to hold my own perspective with humility.


  • Thirdly, whatever we do, the important thing is to orient our own life around our relationship with Christ. Everything else flows out of this primary commitment. If we are going deeper into Christ, then everything we do will emerge from that connection, and be done in love and with an open heart towards the other. When we 'live for the Lord and die for the Lord' there is less and less need to consult the rule book, because our conscience is permeated with the love of Christ, and the right action in any situation becomes evident. Not that any of us reaches this standard of perfection! But imagine if we spent as much time in prayer and reflection as we do on disagreeing with each other! Our discernment would be enriched, and our picture of the other person would be much more likely to be coloured by compassion rather than limited by the scope of our debate. I read this great line the other day: “neither God nor we are reducible to the small dull debates that threaten to define, and...to demean us.” When we step away from the 'small dull debate' for a while, our picture of God and ourselves gets bigger, and then the discussion can take place on a much more profound level.


So does this mean we should never address issues of concern, never teach on right living, never question another person's convictions, or the decisions of the faith community? Of course not. But we need to recognise that there is a great difference between the kind of argument or dispute that Paul talks about here, that has judgement and contempt in it, and the kind of exploratory dialogue that holds space for the possibility that 'I might be wrong', and that respects the other as a beloved child of God, not as a position to be agreed or disagreed with, or a problem to be corrected. This kind of dialogue has no need for ultimatums, or church splits, because all parties accept that, far more important than reaching a conclusion or an agreement, is the unity of the Spirit that comes from recognising the common ground of each other's genuine faith. I am not sure that Christian communities should necessarily aim for consensus on all things. This passage and multiple other parts of the New Testament show us that there have been disagreements and divisions since the earliest days of the church. And Paul does not reprimand the church for having these differences and try to force them all into one point of view. He is clear in his own mind what he thinks, and will say it, but he also offers a way to go forward with the differences still present. The challenge to us is not to come to uniformity, but to harness the momentum of those things that we do share.


I would like to offer one thing that I think is crucial to us, or any other group, being able to have good conversations about these disputable matters. Each one of us needs to be as clear as we can about what is going in inside of us, particularly in our emotions, when we consider whatever the issue is. We need to pay attention to the fact that for most of us, there are several internal voices we carry around – an inner contest between the different experiences and perspectives that make up our own personal history, the people who have influenced us, and the people whose disapproval makes us anxious. We all feel the need to be perceived in a certain way, or not to be judged or patronised. And we all carry assumptions that cause us to label and pre-judge another's position before we even begin to talk and which may prevent us from listening. We are none of us neutral, about anything. And we're all afraid of something.


In the 'Shadow of the Other', Jessica Benjamin writes: 'the self as subject [must] allow all its voices to speak, including the voice of the other within. Owning the other within diminishes the threat of the other without so that the stranger outside is no longer identical with the strange within us - not our shadow, not a shadow over us, but a separate other'. When we can acknowledge the inner tensions that are acting on us, the person we're disagreeing with shrinks a bit, to normal human size, rather than having to wear all our unspoken and unacknowledged agitation.



Most especially, we need to pay attention to when the voice that is doing the most talking inside of us is the voice of fear. For many Christians, the stakes are raised frighteningly high in these kinds of disagreements because there's an assumption that 'getting it wrong' will lead to punishment – for us or for others. This is the fear of our child mind, working hard to avoid the rejection of a wrathful parent God, whether that theology is conscious to us or not. This is why I chose the passage I did for our Lectio Divina this morning: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and those who are afraid are not perfected in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother or sister, that person is a liar; for those who do not love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 1 John 4.18-20


Paul makes the same point in this text, much more obliquely, when he says 'Those who feel free to eat freely are not to condemn those who are unwilling to eat freely; nor must the person who does not eat freely pass judgement on the one who does -- because God has welcomed them.' Perhaps ironically, we can only recognise and celebrate God's welcome of another – someone we disagree with – when we are ourselves convinced that we are held in the loving welcome of God. As Marilynne Robinson observes 'we can't see as God sees until we love.' If we are fearful of punishment, then we are much more inclined to see accountability before God as something terrible for us, and to project that outwards in judgement of others. But we know from Jesus' teaching that God is unfairly, outrageously generous. And we know from this 1 John text, as well as a myriad of others that we love because God first loved us. When we are confident in this love, all fear is able to depart and this is also the basis by which we can welcome and respect others, including those who at first sight seem to hold alien or offensive views. When we are genuinely internally free from all inner voices of judgement, there is no longer any need to judge others. This is at the heart of Jesus' teaching 'don't judge.' Not that there is no discernment for us to make as we go through this life, but that our discernment can be utterly free of anxiety or condemnation. This is this is the landscape of freedom that God has graciously bestowed on us in Christ. It is simply for us to remember just how free, just how beloved, just how welcome we are, and extend that grace to others.