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The New Testament is wonderfully reassuring and realistic. It doesn’t paint a romanticized, digitally altered image of what church life is like. There are battles, conflicts, and disagreements, and those are not always over the right things. It tells us of two women who have had a falling-out in the church in Philippi. It doesn’t tell us what they argued over or who was in the right or wrong. Paul simply says, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2).
The Christian church is not a cult in which we all have to look the same, dress the same, think the same. There are essential doctrines over which there can be no arguing, but there are many areas of life in which Christians will legitimately disagree. There will be different struggles for all of us, different conclusions reached on some issues. The Apostle Paul speaks to the church in Rome and says to the believers there that within the church there are weak believers and strong believers, and they must not quarrel over disputable “opinions” (Rom. 14:1). He then gives us a remarkable chapter on how we are to handle disagreements in church life that should not divide the church.
The issues in Romans 14 are over food offered to idols; some were eating it, some were not, and both sides were passing judgment on the other. There were some who kept feast days and others who didn’t. Both groups were acting out of the right motives, and there was legitimate disagreement. They had thought through the issues and come to different conclusions. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was how they were passing judgment on one another (v. 4) or, even more strongly, despising one another (v. 3).
Paul addresses this issue head-on and speaks to us of how we need to act toward one another when we legitimately disagree, when conflicts arise between stronger and weaker Christians. Paul reminds the church first in verse 1 to “welcome” each other. That is striking. Welcome the person who is different from you and who has opinions that are different from yours. In verse 3, Paul instructs them and us, “Don’t despise the one who abstains.” This is a strong imperative, and it’s followed up with “don’t pass judgment.” It is a deliberate action of not allowing hostility on these issues to enter the church. Then in verse 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” But, with beautiful balance, the Apostle then teaches us in verse 13 to “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
The Apostle Paul speaks into this uneasy environment and brings the gospel to bear. He reminds the Romans about their God and His character. “God has welcomed him” (v. 3), both the one who abstains and the one who eats; the one who keeps the feast days and the one who doesn’t. If the Lord has welcomed them both, then surely they can welcome each other. He addresses both groups and speaks across the divide, telling them that they need to realize that each group is acting in the way that they think honors the Lord (v. 6). We are to think the best of those who disagree with us over disputable matters, not impugn their motives. Even when we think they are wrong, we can honor and love them. Then Paul reminds the Romans that God is the Judge: “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (v. 12). We are not to judge each other because God is the Judge.
In many areas of church life, tragically, people have fallen out and have even left congregations over “opinions.” Unity has been broken because people have trampled over each other. We know that a church can easily be divided, the Holy Spirit grieved, and witness to an outside world ruined. If we’re honest, a lot of the division that we see in church life is not to do with doctrine and issues regarding salvation but to do with people’s preferences.
Paul tells the Ephesians, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4:1–2). Church life isn’t always easy. As we seek to live godly lives in Christ Jesus, there will be—and there should be—disagreement over disputable matters. There will be legitimate Christian freedoms over which we don’t come to the same opinions. As we seek to resolve those, we must pray for those with whom we don’t agree by saying to God, “Help me to think well of my brother or sister.” The devil loves to divide God’s church, and we must guard against him, giving him no foothold in church life.
A church that can put the teaching of Romans 14 into practice will powerfully display the wonder of the gospel, which unites people in Jesus Christ and is bound together in love for one another. It is this kind of church that the world needs and is looking for, without realizing it.