I grew up in the segregated South. Watching the news today brings back many memories. There are real differences in what is happening today and what happened in the 1960’s in the South. I was part of the 3rd generation following the Civil War. I had never heard the word “Racism” but immediately understood the concept. I don’t recall any feelings of superiority or rejection of people of color. I worked alongside black men but had very little interaction with black women. The first place I preached at regularly was a migrant labor camp. Everyone in that camp was black. There were very few men there on Sunday afternoon so my congregation was predominately women and children. A well dressed black man came one Sunday to see what we were doing. The camp was located alongside railroad tracks. When this gentleman arrived he told me he lived on the other side of the tracks. A prominent building over there was a church so I asked him why his church did not take on the ministry I was doing. His very thoughtful answer was, “These people are migrants and the people in my church (he was a deacon) own their own homes.” Prejudice and bigotry comes in many shapes. Immediately I understood him. Often bigotry is denied while being very obvious to those who will open their eyes.
Prejudice existed in the first century church. And exists today in the world wide church. Paul was careful in his approach to the subject. Let’s look at a part of what he had to say.
Romans 14:1-12, As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”
12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
The saying that comes to my mind as I look at this passage of Scripture is one I heard repeatedly in my growing up years. “It’s okay to disagree so long as you disagree agreeably!”
King David wrote a Psalm about the subject — Psalm 133
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
Jesus prayed for unity not only for his disciples, but for us as well:
John 17:20-23, I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
A little while before, Jesus had said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock,” (John 10:16). So we know that he was expecting a lot of cross-cultural outreach.
Every culture has its own peculiarities. Both Peter and Paul referred to the church as “a peculiar people”. Today’s church is certainly peculiar.
Looking back to Romans 14 let’s think about the peculiarities Paul had to deal with.
In verse one Paul refers to a person who is weak in faith. The example he uses has to do with eating kosher and observing special days like the Sabbath. In verse two he speaks of a person who believes he could eat anything while the weak person only ate vegetables.
The church in Rome would have been made up of Jews whose ancestors one or two generations before had moved there. Probably taking advantage of the Roman culture that included the ability to live in relative peace.
There would have been severe tension between the kosher Jews and the non-kosher Gentiles. It seems that most of the meat found in the markets of the Roman Empire would have been part of pagan sacrifices. The priest of the pagan temples would have sold the excess meat at a cut rate price. With that in mind, in order to protect themselves from eating meat offered to a pagan idol, they would just simply not eat meat. The result would have been two groups of people in the church. There would have been the carnivores and the vegetarians. This resulted in a law-observing group of Jewish Christians meeting alongside Gentile believers who had never observed kosher rules. The meat eaters were probably the largest group in the church and considered themselves strong in the faith. They would have considered the Jews weak in the faith. Both of these groups could cite scriptures to support their position. Both groups would’ve agreed about everything related to salvation. Eating meat and observing special days have nothing to do with salvation! Churches never split over major issues. Side issues worm their way into churches and take away their unity.
Leslie Flynn writes in his book “Great Church Fights”: In 1976. Today we would use other examples.
“Wide disagreements exist today in our churches over certain practices. A Christian from the South may be repelled by a swimming party including7 both men and women, then offend his Northern brother by lighting up a cigarette. At an international conclave for missionaries, a woman from the Orient could not wear sandals with a clear conscience. A Christian from western Canada thought it worldly for a Christian acquaintance to wear a wedding ring, and a woman from Europe thought it almost immoral for a wife not to wear a ring that signaled her status. A man from Denmark was pained to even watch British Bible school students play football, while the British students shrank from his pipe smoking.”
Churches are often ripped apart by minor disagreements. Almost never about a real issue. Chuck Swindall wrote:
Believe as I believe, No more, no less;
That I am right, And no one else, confess;
Feel as I feel, Think only as I think;
Eat what I eat, And drink but what I drink;
Look as I look, Do always as I do;
Then, and only then, Will I fellowship with you.
This should never be the attitude of a Christian. We should never despise a fellow Christian because of their social views.
R. Kent Hughes in his commentary on Romans tells the following story:
“I experienced this in my own life on one occasion when I walked into a dining room for a meal and sat with a whole tableful of Russian brothers and sisters from the Soviet Union. We communicated as well as possible despite the language barrier, and when the meal was over a translator joined us. One of the brothers at the far end of the table asked me what I thought of playing cards. I responded that the Bible did not have anything to say about that, and he replied that some missionaries had been playing Pit the night before. I started to answer, but this brother launched into a ten-minute dialogue, and I could not get a word in edgewise. As I sat there, I felt judged and responded in my own sinful mind that he must be a “mental midget.” I looked down on him, contrary to Paul’s admonition.
It is very easy to fall into Satan’s trap of judgmentalism! We need to remember the words of our Lord Jesus found in John chapter 13 verses 34 and 35: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I will quote from Judi Culbertson and Patti Bard, Games Christians Play (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).
“I can think of at least eleven issues on which Christians are divided today. (1976) Moreover, none of these items are listed as taboo or sinful in Scripture (although the Scriptures give guidelines in relation to each item). These issues are:
(1) Theater. Some Christians think they should never patronize a commercial theater. Others think they can, but that they should be selective, just as they are with the literature they read.
(2) Cosmetics. This is not the issue it used to be, but it is controversial in certain parts of the world.
(3) Alcohol. The drinking of alcohol is a major issue among American Christians today. Ironically, while there is growing medical evidence of its harmful physical and social effects, more Christians are exercising their freedom to partake. Hence rising tension.
(4) Tobacco. Traditionally, the Mason and Dixon Line has been the dividing line for the use and non-use of tobacco among many evangelical Christians.
(5) Card playing. Because of its association with gambling, Christians are ambivalent about the use of traditional cards. The controversy can also include similar games, as was mentioned above.
(6) Dancing. For some Christians this is a litmus test, especially among youth.
(7) Fashion.Trendiness is viewed by some Christians as worldliness. Withering judgments are sometimes made both ways on the basis of clothing and hair style.
(8) The Bible translation used. In some Christian circles your translation can be a quick ticket for acceptance or rejection.
(9) Sports. I know of young Christians who consider competitive sports sinful and ego-exalting.
(10) Music. Today a heated controversy goes on regarding appropriate Christian music.
(11) Material wealth. This tension is manifested in such forms as: “Stop me if I’m wrong, George, but haven’t you—uh, been spending a lot of money on a car?” “Nope.” “No? You don’t think the money could be better used, say, in the leprosy fund?”
Eric Lidell, at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, refused to run in the heats for his favored 100 meters because they were held on a Sunday. Instead he competed in the 400 meters held on a weekday, a race that he won. He returned to China in 1925 to serve as a missionary teacher. Aside from two furloughs in Scotland, he remained in China until his death in a Japanese civilian internment camp in 1945.
When he was challenged to run on the Sabbath he replied. “Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ. I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure. You will know as much of God, and only as much of God, as you are willing to put into practice.”
The first-century conflict over special days probably focused on the Sabbath. Christian Jews probably felt a need to keep the Sabbath and some of the other holy days they had inherited from their past life. The Gentiles did not have the same conscience. They would’ve said every day is equally devoted to serving God. Paul’s advice was simple, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
The most important truth to bring out of this passage is: we must accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ! He is Lord! He is Lord! He is Lord! Whatever we do, whatever we teach, should never cause us to look down on another Christian. We will each give an account of ourselves before the judgment seat! In the meantime we have no right to judge another.
All scriptures quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.